The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (trans. Anne McLean). Riverhead. $27.95, 288pp.
Some writers are less coy than others about revealing the meaning and intent of their work.
“Novels make us aware of the relationship between the individual and history, of how that strange marriage works” Juan Gabriel Vásquez told Silvia Paternostro in an interview in BOMB magazine. This is a pithy summary of what makes Vásquez’s novels tick: a mystique that has less to do with writerly artifice than with exploiting historical idiosyncrasies for their stranger-than-fiction intrigue. This requires a readerly writer, a student of history on par with Borges and Gore Vidal. Vásquez resembles the latter far more than the former: like Vidal, he reinvigorates the historical novel, recognizing its potential in an age that, as Frederic Jameson believes, has “forgotten how to think historically.”
Now heralded as the one of the finest Spanish-language writers of his generation, Vásquez has positioned himself to succeed Gabriel García Márquez as Colombia’s preeminent literary export. Like García Márquez, who wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in Mexico, Vásquez left his country to begin his literary life, first by studying literature at the Sorbonne. France may seem like a peculiar place for a Colombian to specialize in Latin American literature, but recall that all of the towering writers of the Boom spent formative years in Paris. Though the Boom novelists sought to distinguish themselves from their regionalist and costumbrista literary forebears, they followed a time-honored tradition among the élite and lettered classes in Latin America: a spell abroad, preferably in Paris.
For all the similarities between his project and the Boom, Vásquez has long disavowed any notion of literary parricide, claiming that One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the books that made him want to be a writer in the first place. This is one reason it is difficult to categorize Vásquez alongside his contemporaries. Though he admits to sharing the motives of writers like Mexican “Crack” novelists Jorge Volpi and Ignacio Padilla—figures whose mission was to get beyond the hackneyed expectation that Latin American fiction contain heavy doses of exoticism and so-called magic realism—Vásquez does not seem moved by the Crack imperative to write about places beyond Latin America. Instead, he studies his country through restored traditions of the historical novel, a genre thrown under the bus of postmodernist trends from North America to Latin America. Gone are the narrative jazz meanderings of Cortázar’s Rayuela and the neobaroque allegory of Márquez’s Macondo: Vásquez’s work instead recalls turn-of-the-century English realism. Conrad is the figure that looms large: the Colombian names him, along with Naipaul, as one of the two writers that taught him to “see history in terms of individuals.” This, once again, is a concise summary of how his narratives function.
Vásquez wrote a biography of Conrad, and his novel The Secret History of Costaguana (2007) references the imaginary young South American republic depicted in Conrad’s Nostromo, a fracturing country that Conrad modeled on 19th-century Colombia. It is narrated by José Altamirano, whose father Manuel is a yellow journalist largely responsible for the disastrous and ultimately aborted French attempt to build the first canal over the Panama isthmus, which at the time belonged to Colombia. Similarly, Vásquez’s previous effort, The Informers (2004), reconstructs the neglected history of persecution suffered by German immigrants to Colombia during World War II. Both of these novels deploy the author’s journalistic flair for detailed research to explore forgotten episodes of Colombian history.
Whereas these books probed the lesser-known dramas of in Colombia’s past, The Sound of Things Falling takes interest in a notorious and relatively recent period in the country’s history: the mayhem of the cartel years of the 1980s and 1990s, a period most Bogotanos would be happy to forget. In those decades, the country was in the grip of Pablo Escobar, whose power was matched by his flamboyant extravagance: the novel opens with the assassination, in 2009, of a hippopotamus, “a male the color of black pearls” that had escaped from the drug kingpin’s defunct private zoo, itself an otherworldly attraction frequented by teenagers playing hooky from school.
Along with his resuscitation of the historical novel, Vásquez recuperates an attention to craft that has not always been in evidence amid the excesses of postmodernism. Though a conservative stylist, he is an innate storyteller, and his mellifluous prose is swift and delicious to devour. The hippo passage, both elegant and violent in its precision, is exemplary Vásquez, and is rendered expertly by his translator Anne McLean:
The marksmen who finally caught up with him shot him once in the head and again in the heart (with .375-calibur bullets, since hippopotamus skin is thick); they posed with the dead body, the great dark, wrinkled mass, a recently fallen meteorite; and there, in front of the first cameras and onlookers, beneath a ceiba tree that protected them from the harsh sun, explained that the weight of the animal would prevent them from transporting him whole, and they immediately began carving him up.
The hippo is killed and dismembered just before his mate and their calf: heavy symbolism for a novel that narrates the fate of two similar human triads. The technique is classic Vásquez: the controversial slaying of Escobar’s fugitive hippos, lifted straight from the newspapers, becomes the catalyst that jolts narrator Antonio Yammara’s memory back to 1996, when his country was still reeling from cartel-related violence. It was then, in the days of his pool-hall haunts and womanizing, long before he became the sexually frustrated legal academic that narrates in 2009, that Yammara met and befriended the mysterious ex-con Ricardo Laverde. The frame-narrative is one of many techniques that Vásquez borrows from the 19th-century realist novel, and a strategy that seems particularly dear to him (his previous novels also employ variations on the same convention.)
The title The Sound of Things Falling refers to a plane crash reminiscent of Avianca Flight 203, which Escobar sabotaged in 1989 with the hope of killing a presidential candidate who turned out not to be on board. Likewise, the titular sound of Vásquez’s novel refers specifically to the recording captured on another doomed plane’s black box, one that Yammara listens to obsessively after he discovers Laverde crying over the recording moments before he’s gunned down in the street at the novel’s outset.
It is the glancing, fortuitous relationship between them, and how that relationship speaks to Colombia’s broader history of violence, that interests Vásquez. The black box is the only clue that Yammara has to Laverde’s personal history, which he is determined to unravel, whatever the cost to his personal and professional relationships. Laverde becomes, for both Yammara and Vásquez, the fulcrum-character whose life explains the ways in which individuals and historical phenomena mutually shape one another. These fulcrum-characters emerge in all of Vásquez’s novels: although he is obsessed with the far-reaching contingencies of history, he is even more interested in portraying it through his characters’ manias, affects, and personal tragedies. Like the best realist novelists, he portrays the life of an historical era, its shocks and turmoil, through detailed portraiture of individuals.
Georg Lukács, glossing Hegel, names the “conscious bearers of historical progress”—those individuals who knowingly alter the trajectory of history—“world historical individuals.” Pablo Escobar is a handy example. In contrast, Vásquez’s novels show how we all might be minor characters in history. In Costaguana, Manuel Altamirano’s seemingly insignificant existence writing for a tiny newspaper on the fringe of the postcolonial periphery does not stop him from exerting world-historical influence: his falsified reporting is accountable for the disaster of the first canal, and for many of the personal tragedies that attend it in the novel. This recursivity of effect between history and the individual reappears in Things Falling, wherein the true protagonist—Laverde—learns that something as simple and universal as falling in love can lead to pivotal embroilment in the trans-Caribbean drug traffic, and on to loss and misery.
Costaguana remains the better book, but Things Falling stakes out new ambition for Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Vásquez has taken up the mantle of the voice of a generation, struggling to depict the lived reality of late capitalism, a reality that has become so globally interconnected and volatile across such huge distances and long arcs of time that anyone might become the accidental bearer of Hegel’s Spirit of history—or its victim. His novelistic poetics lie precisely with never knowing which of these outcomes awaits his characters. Or, for that matter, awaits each of his readers.
Adam Morris is a writer and translator living in San Francisco and a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American literature at Stanford University. His work has appeared in The Millions, Public Books, Salon, The Coffin Factory’s O-bits, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
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