The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez – Review by Helen O’Leary
In his acceptance speech for the 2014 IMPAC literary award Juan Gabriel Vasquez spoke of his motivation in writing this novel.
“I wrote it to remember in fiction what I had forgotten in real life. I wrote with the arrogant feeling that it would allow other Colombians to remember the same forgotten feelings, the feeling of fear, the feeling of unpredictable violence, the feeling of a country falling apart, really falling apart.”
Growing up in Columbia, Vasquez knew only a country overshadowed by the chaos of drug wars, assassinations and kidnappings. It was only by leaving his native country and residing in Spain for a decade he felt in a position to write about it. Vasquez explores and illuminates the darker parts of Columbia’s past by telling the story of several characters, who’s lives were irrevocably changed during those tumultuous times. The book is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean.
A young university law professor called Antonio is the narrator. It is a layered story that blends and re-tells the memories of various characters. A casual acquaintance at a billiards club with an older man called Ricardo is the beginning of Antonio’s story. Antonia is unlucky to be in Ricardo’s company when he is shot at on the street. Ricardo is killed and Antonia badly injured. Traumatised by this event, and seeking to better understand Ricardo’s mysterious past takes Antonia on a trip to the Magdelena Valley. Located in the Columbian Andes this beautiful and remote valley is home to Maya, only daughter of Ricardo. Maya and Antonia are drawn to one another. Perhaps because both of them have a mutual desire to better understand Maya’s father, a man who has defined who they have become.
At this point the story drifts back several decades to Bogata in the 1960’s where Ricardo met his American wife Elena. Working as a pilot and attracted by the easy money Ricardo begins flying planes for a drugs cartel. Ultimately Ricardo’s involvement in the drugs trade ends badly and his family is torn apart.
In this novel memory is a strong theme. The structure of the book is based on memories. The characters repeatedly reflect on events that changed their lives, only through memories can the repercussions of these moments be appreciated. Vasquez writes about Columbia in an unsentimental way. It doesn’t shy away from the darkness yet the beauty of the country still filters through. His plain, almost mater-of-fact prose has a truthful simplicity. It’s a very different style to some of the fantastical magical work of fellow Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I very much enjoyed this book and it’s easy see why it so impressed the IMPAC judges.