Translated from Spanish, Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling has a mesmerizing lilting language with a powerful voice. Set in his native Columbia, South America, Vásquez uses the initiation of the well-meaning Peace Corps devotees in the sixties, the well-known drug wars of the 1980s when drug lord Pablo Escobar was in power, and the crash of American Airlines flight 965 into the Columbian mountainside in 1995, to trace the evolution of a generation.
Antonio Yammara, a young lawyer from Bogotá is accidentally injured when his new friend, Ricardo Laverde, is murdered in a fly by shooting. Yammara’s life is changed not only from his injuries but also from the past he uncovers as he investigates the life of Laverde, who has just emerged from years in prison for his crimes as a former mule for the drug cartel. Days before he is shot, Laverde’s American wife, Elena, dies in the fatal plane crash from Miami on her way to reunite with him for his first Christmas as a free man. The pieces of their lives come together when Yammara finds Laverde’s daughter, Maya, who has preserved her parents’ background in their old letters.
As Yammara and Maya, reminisce about their own childhoods at Laverde’s old country house, they realize how the presence of the drug cartels affected their lives in Columbia. Maya’s parents’ lives emerge from Elena’s naive days as one of the first American Peace Corps volunteers in South America and Ricardo’s dreams of becoming a pilot like his grandfather to their isolated lives with the wealth of drug money. Vásquez marks the passage of time with clever references to United States presidents as he moves through history.
While Yammara is trying to reconcile his ongoing depression from being in the wrong place with the wrong man, his wife and baby daughter are back in Bogotá, worrying and wondering about him. The book’s ending marks either a new beginning or a devastating reality; you can decide. Vásquez’s wording, even in translation, have a haunting effect. One passage from the middle of the story that I have noted to keep:
“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has. When it arrives we receive it without too much surprise, for no one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions…”
If I were fluent in Spanish, I would find the original and reread the book in Vásquez’s original words, but having Anne McLean’s beautiful translation was both satisfying and enlightening.