‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Review – IFFP 2013, Number 5)

After recapping the books already finished, it’s now time to get into the rest of the IFFP longlist.  The first stop on the journey takes us to Colombia – where a chance encounter proves to be life-changing for a young academic…

***** 
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (translated by Anne McLean – from Bloomsbury)
What’s it all about?
The novel begins in 2009, with law professor Antonio Yammara looking back at an event which, while innocuous at the time, turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life.  A chance meeting with Ricardo Laverde in a billiard hall eventually leads to an attack by a gunman on a motorbike, in the course of which Laverde is killed and Yammara is badly injured.

Once Antonio has recovered physically from the attack, he feels compelled to find out more about Laverde (and hopefully discover who killed him, and why).  One lead is information he obtains about the death of Laverde’s estranged wife, Elaine; however, it isn’t until he receives an unexpected phone call from Laverde’s daughter that things slowly start to fall into place…

The Sound of Things Falling is an oblique look at the effects of the Colombian drug wars of the 1980s, not on those who were on the front line of the battle, but on the average citizen who lived their life against a background of fear.  Antonio suffers from trauma after the shooting, but his issues are much more deep-seated.  Having spent his formative years enveloped by the turmoil on the streets of Bogotá, he is unable to simply let things go – and his wife (who spent much of her youth outside Colombia) is unable to understand his pain.

His quixotic journey to confront the past is an attempt to move forward by banishing his demons, and the opportunity provided by Laverde’s daughter, Maya, is irresistible.  Maya is able to fill in some of the pieces in the puzzle posed by Laverde’s murder, but her appeal is just as much due to what she shares with Antonio.  She too grew up during the drug wars and has a special aversion to the capital:

“But that was seven years ago,” I said.  “You haven’t been back to Bogotá in all those years?”
“Well, yes.  To see the lawyers.  To look for that woman, Consuelo Sandoval.  But I’ve never stayed overnight in Bogotá, or even until sundown.  I can’t stand it, I can’t endure more than a few hours there.”
p.110 (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Like Antonio, Maya is scarred by the events of her youth.  It is almost inevitable that the two traumatised souls will feel a connection…

The novel is also largely concerned with stories.  The structure is one of those Russian-doll affairs, with Antonio talking to the reader from 2009 before rapidly going back to 1995 to describe his first meeting with Laverde.  Of course, we have to take Antonio’s descriptions at face value – which may not be such a good idea:

“Now that so many years have passed, now that I remember with the benefit of an understanding I didn’t have then, I think of that conversation and it seems implausible that its importance didn’t hit me in the face (And I tell myself at the same time that we’re terrible judges of the present moment, maybe because the present doesn’t actually exist: all is memory, this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory, this word is a memory that you, reader, just read.)”  p.15

When we move deeper into the novel and enter the core of Elaine’s story, cobbled together from letters, diaries and Maya’s stories, the reader needs to tread even more carefully.  Stories, and memories, are not always reliable.

There is a lot to like about The Sound of Things Falling.  McLean’s translation reads wonderfully, keeping the hint of a Hispanic narrator while creating an excellent English text (if that is at all possible!), and the book zips along at times, the darker parts nicely counterbalanced with lighter moments (such as Elaine’s letter in which she complains about a tedious book in difficult Spanish where all the characters have the same names…).  All in all, it’s a quick, enjoyable read with the hint of something more…

…and I haven’t even mentioned the hippopotamus 😉

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Despite the positive comments above, I’d have to say no.  While I liked it, I don’t think it was really anything special, and one of the main issues I had was with the middle section.  Elaine’s story seemed to drag, a dutiful narrative which slowed the book right down.  By the time we returned to the central question of who had killed Ricardo and why, I’d forgotten that this was the focus of the novel…

Will it make the shortlist?
Possibly.  It’s definitely not a bad book, and as one of the few works from outside Europe, it provides a point of difference in a fairly homogeneous selection.  I also suspect other readers will be a lot more forgiving than me 🙂

*****
That’s all for today 🙂  Next time, we’re off to Norway – BYO cleaning products (I’ll explain later…).

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16 thoughts on “‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Review – IFFP 2013, Number 5)

  1. I really liked this one and found it quite compelling, I must admit – the way in which he was trying to make sense of the past and find his place in the world. I know what you mean about Elaine's backstory though.
    I had to laugh when I read Elaine's comments about One Hundred Years of Solitude. I haven't read it, but a friend of mine used the exact same description on trying it a few years ago!
    I like the structure you're using for these IFFP reviews with your views on whether the books deserve to make the shortlist and predictions for the final cut.

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  2. Jacqui – There's a lot to like, but the slow middle section (and the stereotypical, unnecessary Latin-American extra-marital dalliance…) means this didn't quite do it for me.

    I used this structure last year, and I find it works quite well. Of course, my comments about what the judges might think fall squarely into the realm of wild guesses 😉

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  3. I think I'm just about ready to try another of Vásquez's novels, Tony, but I had a similar reaction as you to The Informers (the first novel I read by him) a couple of years ago: liked it but wasn't blown away by it. Fernando Vallejo's 1994 Our Lady of the Assassins is by far the best novel from Colombia I've read to date, but it's so extreme in its treatment of the drug violence topic that I'm not sure I'd recommend it to casual readers lightly. Gabriel García Márquez's 1996 nonfiction News of a Kidnapping, which I read recently but didn't review, also is a good one on the same general subject.

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  4. Richard – Better than 'A Hundred Years of Solitude'? Must be good 😉

    I've had some issues with the few Latin-American novels I've read because of the tendencies towards sex, violence and general machismo. Last year, I read Santiago Gamboa's 'Necropolis', and it was the same old story…

    Thanks for the tip on 'News of a Kidnapping' 🙂

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  5. I didn't really like Vásquez's The Informers, so to be honest I'm not really looking forward to reading another of his books. If you're underwhelmed (which I consider the “I liked it, but…” sentiment to represent…), I think I'll steer clear.

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  6. Biblibio – If you didn't like his other book, then you're probably better off staying away 🙂 For me, the biggest issue was that the middle section was a bit of a hold-up. I enjoyed the start and the end, but… 😉

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  7. As I've seen you mention this issue before, Tony, I should note that I'm not sure I understand your reservations about Latin American novelists' treatment of sex and violence as opposed to other regions' novels. Could you expand on this at all? Although many individual authors like Roberto Bolaño (sex and violence) and Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa (machismo, rape) do seem to deal with these themes in many of their works, sometimes in disquieting ways, I don't see this as a regional trend any more than I do elsewhere. Borges, for example, has next to no sex at all in his work, though admittedly he didn't really write novels. Do you really believe Lat Am lit is all that different in this regard?

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  8. Richard – It's an impression gathered from a very small sample size (which does not include Borges), but the books I've read do seem to be above average (or should it be below average…) in this regard. It may be a self-perpetuating myth in that what gets translated is what publishers think we expect from the region (just as a lot of J-Lit is very heavy on tea ceremonies and hours spent gazing at mountains…).

    I expect that for a Spanish speaker, well-read in Latin-American literature, the picture is very different – this is just my very limited subjective outsiders' view. Having said that, I'm not the only one. I have seen this opinion expressed by several other bloggers…

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  9. Tom – Don't get me wrong. If I had published this review away from the IFFP process, it would probably have come across more positively. This series of reviews is going to be slightly more critical than my usual posts as I'm trying to sift out the excellent from the good (not the good from the dross!).

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  10. Thanks for the added info, Tony. Given that I'm not sure what books you're comparing these to, it's still hard for me to identify with somewhat; however, I was mostly just curious what made you react in such a way to have you mention your impression a few times. Cheers!

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  11. No worries 🙂 It is easy to get a slightly skewed view from a small, fairly recent selection. Latin-American books I've read include several by GGM, Gamboa's 'Necropolis', Gamerro's 'The Islands', Havilio's 'Open Door', and Villalobos' 'Down the Rabbit Hole'. Others which are less overt in this are Neuman's 'Traveller of the Century' and Abad's 'Recipes for Sad Women'. As you can see, this is nowhere near enough – and (with the exception of GGM) I haven't even started on most of the big names…

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