Homicides by the hundreds of thousands, millions of people and animals displaced or destroyed, massive economic and environmental devastation – these are among the effects of Colombia’s devastating drug wars.
But what about the fear? Is there any way to measure a fear so overwhelming that it becomes a part of national culture?
That seems to be the question troubling Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez in The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez’s latest novel, translated into English by Anne McLean.
The violence that Colombians experienced, Vásquez stresses, is not “the violence of cheap stabbings and stray bullets, the settling of accounts between low-grade dealers” but rather “the kind that transcends the small resentments and small revenges of little people, the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army, the Front.”
This is a violence that brings terror, an emotion so intense and corrosive that it warps the lives of all the characters in this story-within-a-story. The novel’s narrator, Antonio Yammara, a young law professor, witnessed the death of Ricardo Laverde, an older man – an ex-pilot and one-time drug trafficker – with whom he sometimes played billiards.
They were not particularly close. But through his murder (during which Antonio was severely injured), Ricardo becomes an obstacle to Antonio’s future. Antonio must explore the reasons behind Ricardo’s death.
Aura, Antonio’s wife, is a generous and patient woman but, having lived outside of Colombia during the worst of the terror, she can’t really understand Antonio’s quest.
Now, even at the risk of destroying his own family, Antonio must travel back in time to the 1960s and ‘70s, to understand Ricardo and the minor role he played in the beginnings of Colombia’s drug trade.
Characters caught up as collateral damage include the wives and daughters of both Antonio and Ricardo and even the exotic zoo animals collected by real-life drug lord Pablo Escobar. The innocent and the guilty alike, it seems, must pay a terrible price – all to feed an American appetite for drugs.
And yet it is an idealistic American impulse that begins the story that Yammara traces. Elaine Fritts – the woman that Ricardo will marry – steps off a plane in Bogotá in 1969, as a Peace Corps volunteer, “ready to carry out various clichés; to have an enriching experience, leave her mark, do her share, no matter how small.”
Elaine – and her Peace Corps compatriots – do leave their mark on their host country, but not in the ways that they intended. Antonio is able to dive deep into the story of Elaine and Ricardo when he meets their daughter, Maya, now an adult and perhaps even more damaged than he by the recent history of their country.
In interviews, Vásquez has acknowledged a debt to Colombian literary master Gabriel García Márquez. But don’t look for the whimsy and color of magic realism in “The Sound of Things Falling.”
Vásquez’s narrative is taut and somber and depicts a world forever in the shadows. The Bogotá he shows us is a “city of sly, shrewd people”. When Elaine first writes home to her grandparents in the United States to share her initial impressions (“Nobody warned me Bogotá was going to be like this”), there are already hints of disaster ahead. The first line of the letter leans on the paragraph that follows “like a suicidal person on a cornice.”
As Antonio learns more about Elaine and Ricardo – how they fell in love, brought Maya into the world, and simultaneously were sucked into the drug trade – he feels that the story is also his. He experiences the “discomfort of knowing that this story in which my name did not appear spoke of me in each and every one of its lines.”
But learning the story does not necessarily provide Antonio with the relief he seeks. “In the end,” he tells the reader, “all my feelings were reduced to a tremendous solitude, a solitude without visible cause and therefore without remedy. The solitude of a child.”
It leaves Antonio – and Colombia – with a paradox. There can be no understanding without looking back. But at the same time, the act of remembering brings a paralysis that shuts out the future.
It may be, however, that understanding is the beginning of forgetting – or at least letting go – for both Antonio and his country.
And it is the plea for understanding that gives this novel its resonance. The story of individual lives destroyed by the drug trade may provoke sorrow. But the depiction of an entire nation frozen by fear compels a deeper kind of compassion.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.