“And the walls of my dream burning, toppling
Like a city collapsing in scream”
Aurelio Arturo, Dream City
Before I moved to Colombia I looked up online a number of lesser known than Gabo Colombian novelists and saw a number of positive reviews for Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s book The Sounds of Things Falling. After reading it and getting taken in by the compelling storytelling, tone and language often only found in those writers whose medium is the romantic languages.
The novel begins with background the narrator, Antonio, who is a young, successful professor of law at the University of Bogota that is dating a former student, Aura, that he soon learns has become pregnant with their future daughter, Leticia. Antonio is shot on the street, not with intention but because he is a bystander of the successful assassination attempt of Richard Laverde. His recovery is not speedy and once the psychological fetters that makes him somewhat agoraphobic starts to wear off, he sets out determine as to what he can learn about the man that he played pool with for years, watched die in front of him and yet knew very little about.
Antonio recalls the few exchanges that he and Richard made and places them within a broad context of those that grew up in Bogota in the 1980s. As later in the novel conversations show, this generation grew up during the period in which Pablo Escobar was fighting the Colombian state apparatus that sought to either imprison him in Colombia or have him be extradited to the United States. At first the psychological difference between those born in 1970 and those born several years later is shown in the manner in which Antonio and Aura respond to the shooting that nearly kills Antonio – she being younger and thinking that it was such a “rare” act that he need not worry while he is now consumed by fear. Later, it’s shown in the discussion between Richard Laverne’s daughter, Maya, and Antonio and how it is that they are able to recall with perfect detail where they were on hearing certain people were assassinated or various places were bombed. However it is not the just the dead of years ago that weighs on the mind of the living. A tape, which we come to learn is the black box recording of a flight that recently crashed and caused the death of Richard’s wife, becomes like a fetish prodding those that listen to it to come to reconciliation with the violence and death of the past. Antonio doesn’t hear this tape, however, until nearly two years after the event. It’s effect on him is significant.
Shortly after Antonio hears this, the person who let him listen to it passes along his contact information to Richard Laverde’s daughter, Maya. She requests his presence to talk about her father, and he decides to go visit her in order to learn more about the “friend” of his that he really knew nothing about. Here the novel shifts perspectives and the story of Elaine Fritts and Richard Laverde is presented. Elaine was a Peace Corps volunteer who came into Colombia and fell in love with one of the men that she encountered during her classes in Bogota prior to assignment in the less developed regions.
While throughout the book there’s social criticism about attitudes, values and beliefs – such as Antonio’s resentment of the “vacuous courtesies always exchanged by Borodino’s, with no expectation of a sincere or considered response.” In this section, however, they take on a paternalistic form. As a result of the leadership role that Elaine is granted, she comes to feel that many of the ways that the rural community within which she operates is, in many ways, still suffering from what she calls a “colonial mentality.” Such behaviors that she mentions specifically include a deference to someone like herself (That is, a White Person, an Invader) to initiate and direct health, sanitation and economic cooperative projects; the role of bribes in making sure that government agents follow through on the assistance that they promise; the omnipresent role of alcohol in important discussions amongst all male community leaders, etc.
Laverde, who doesn’t come from campesino stock, is not like this and incrementally ratchets his aviation career from sundry medical and development supplies needed and people to marijuana to cocaine. Elaine Fritt’s lifestyle soon sees the results of his work and, at first, is not worried about where it comes from due to the new conveniences each stage of illegal drug transportation provides her and her new daughter. From horse, to truck, to large farm with a number of staff to support her, she’s shown simultaneously trusting totally her husband to recognizing, after an encounter with one of the American’s that helped him get involved in the business, that he won’t be returning as something terrible has happened.
The segue explaining how it is that Maya learned of the truth of her father’s still being alive, her mother’s plan to re-unite with him and leads to a conversation on the appeal that the cocaine traffickers had throughout wide swathes of society. A conversation on Hacienda Napoles, in fact, leads the two of them to go visit it in the jeep purchased by Richard 29 years ago from money made from transporting drugs to the United States. The two of them share a nostalgia destroying experience there, much of the once “amazing” statues and décor have fallen into disrepair and no longer appear as large, and at the former estate that Maya grew up on before her mother ran to the city with her.
With the problems previously described as existing between Antonio and Aura, I was not too surprised by the sexual relations that occur between Antonio and Maya on their return from the trip and like that it engenders a perpetuation of the traumatic dynamic that Maya previously went through – mother’s departure and the loss of father due. I thought it was a very clever way to not only wrap up the story but to evoke the causes of the social thought maladies that are mentioned throughout the text.
On a final reader’s note, I too want to thank Beatrice Monti della Corte and Suzanne Larenty for their assistance and patronage in helping this work to be written. I greatly enjoyed reading this and it is in no small part thanks to you that I’m able to do so.