Thursday, 14 March 2013

'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...).