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The Sound of Things Falling

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Overview

* National Bestseller and winner of the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Hailed by Edmund White as "a brilliant new novel" on the cover of the New York Times Book Review

• Lauded by Jonathan Franzen, E. L. Doctorow and many others
 
From a global literary star comes a prize-winning tour de force – an intimate ...

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Overview

* National Bestseller and winner of the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Hailed by Edmund White as "a brilliant new novel" on the cover of the New York Times Book Review

• Lauded by Jonathan Franzen, E. L. Doctorow and many others
 
From a global literary star comes a prize-winning tour de force – an intimate portrayal of the drug wars in Colombia.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been hailed not only as one of South America’s greatest literary stars, but also as one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation. In this gorgeously wrought, award-winning novel, Vásquez confronts the history of his home country, Colombia.
 
In the city of Bogotá, Antonio Yammara reads an article about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo once owned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The article transports Antonio back to when the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets and in the skies above. Back then, Antonio witnessed a friend’s murder, an event that haunts him still. As he investigates, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past. His journey leads him all the way back to the 1960s and a world on the brink of change: a time before narco-trafficking trapped a whole generation in a living nightmare.
 
Vásquez is “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature,” according to Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, and The Sound of Things Falling is his most personal, most contemporary novel to date, a masterpiece that takes his writing—and his literary star—even higher.

Winner of the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 10/01/2014
Drug cartels in the 1990s form the backdrop of this 2011 Alfaguara Prize winner about a law professor who probes the truth behind the drive-by murder of a retired drug-trafficking pilot, the plane crash that killed the pilot's estranged wife, and the familial recollections of their apiarist daughter.
The New York Times Book Review - Edmund White
Juan Gabriel Vásquez's brilliant new novel rejects the vivid colors and mythical transformations of [García Márquez's] Caribbean masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in favor of the cold, bitter poetry of Bogotá and the hushed intensity of young married love…A gripping novel, absorbing right to the end…The Sound of Things Falling…[is] also a deep meditation on fate and death. Even in translation, the superb quality of Vásquez's prose is evident, captured in Anne McLean's idiomatic English version. All the novel's characters are well imagined, original and rounded. Bogotá and the Colombian countryside are beautifully if grimly described.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the quality in writing that Italo Calvino praises above all is "lightness." The closest he comes to defining it is the tautological phrase "quick light touch," but he offers many examples from myths about winged creatures, from high-flown poetry, and from Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which Calvino says is really about the unbearable weight of a constrained existence, the very weight he wanted to subtract from his work. Perhaps the best example is Invisible Cities, where Calvino imagines metropolises built of words rather than wood, abstractions instead of concrete.

Despite its title, Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Sound of Things Falling is about lightness — flying high in the sky, getting high on drugs, being uplifted by first love — and has the feathery touch of an assured storyteller, one who knows readers need not be assaulted with the weight of the world for a novel to steal into memory. With the right tone and touch, even an old story can be intriguing — and the North/South attraction at the center of the book is familiar, like a church a character describes: "The place seemed familiar to her that day, not with the simple familiarity of someone who'd been there before but in a more profound or private way, as if she'd read a description of it in a novel." In 1969, Peace Corps volunteer Elaine Fritts goes to Bogotà, falls for a pilot named Ricardo Laverde, marries, has a child, and begins to live more comfortably than most Colombians on the money her husband makes flying marijuana to the Bahamas. This begins the story that a young law professor, Antonio Yammara, puts together in 1999, three decades after the events and three years after Ricardo is shot and killed while walking with Antonio, who is seriously wounded.

As in a Paul Auster novel, accident generates activity. The shooting moves Antonio to learn about the reclusive Ricardo, even though he is not a friend, just an acquaintance met playing billiards. Vásquez makes Antonio's curiosity utterly believable and, yes, familiar even as it verges on an obsession that leaves behind Antonio's wife and toddler. Vásquez manages this by beginning with Antonio's relaxed, almost casual first-person narration, limpid and graceful but not particularly literary.

Following his increasingly committed research, Antonio reconstructs the early life of Elaine and Ricardo. His account is so low-key, so neutral and "natural," it feels like family recollection. Now that the author has the reader as interested as Antonio in what happened to the Laverdes — why Ricardo went to prison for nineteen years, why Elaine returned to the U.S., why their daughter, Maya, is a beekeeper on an isolated farm in the Colombian lowlands, why Ricardo was murdered — the author can add some weight, and does.

I don't usually discuss a novelist's methods so early in a review, but The Sound of Things Falling is a triumph of technique, of a lightness that sneaks its stories into the reader's consciousness, where, like Antonio's investigation, their meaning expands as the reader connects characters across two time periods, takes account of the sociopolitical background Vásquez blends in, and attends to a pattern of images that explicates both personality and culture while giving the novel a crafty, under-the-radar literary resonance.

As Antonio uses a few documents and several days of conversation with Maya to narrate Ricardo's life, we realize the men are partial doubles. A rising young intellectual, Antonio is brought down by the bullet lodged in his hip. He depends on painkillers, neglects his classes, and alienates himself from wife and daughter, though he loves both. Confined to his apartment after his wounding, Antonio finds himself identifying with Ricardo, who had spent time in prison. Antonio even casts Ricardo's arrest on his first flight with cocaine in the most favorable light possible — sees it almost as an accident, including a random shot by Ricardo that hit a policeman and dictated the lengthy prison term. Ricardo lost his freedom by shooting; Antonio feels he lost his future by being shot. Parallels like these emerge softly, for Vásquez is not playing an Austerian or Nabokovian show-off game of doubles but suggesting how sympathy can reach across generations and classes.

In The Sound of Things Falling, Colombia is a place where accidents happen. The novel opens in a billiards hall, where balls move under control but also randomly. Ricardo's father has his face scarred when a plane in an air show crashes into the viewing grandstand. Elaine dies in a plane crash when coming to a reunion with Ricardo after his release from prison. Things fall, people fall from grace, and marriages fall apart. But occasional accidents, no matter how horrible, don't cause the punishing climate of fear that plagues Vásquez's Colombian characters. They feel "contaminated" by the intentional and unremitting violence of guerrilla warfare and drug cartels, which Vásquez first mentions lightly in passing. As Antonio probes into Ricardo's life, references to the cartels add up, eventually to a commentary on the United States, its appetite for illicit drugs and then its declared war on drugs, fought largely on Colombian soil and in its air space.

A veteran Peace Corps volunteer enlists Ricardo in the smuggling operation, and Vásquez has characters say that volunteers in the 1960s showed Colombians how to improve marijuana harvests and manufacture cocaine. Even the well-meaning and do- gooding Elaine enjoys the profits from drugs. Toward the end of the novel, when Vásquez makes these North/South causalities explicit, The Sound of Things Falling loses some of its beguiling intimacy and comes to seem written not for Colombians, who would be familiar with the narco-terror events Antonio records, but for foreigners upon whom the author wishes to transfer some of the weight of being Colombian.

Vásquez's characters want to be weightless. Love or drugs can supply the illusion. Antonio imagines a pregnant Elaine going to a swimming pool "just for the pleasure of tricking gravity for a few hours, of feeling, afloat in the cool water, that her body was back to being the light thing it had always been before." Ricardo feels most fully human when he's in the air, but planes offer only an illusion of transcendence. The plane that crashes with Elaine aboard is an American flight whose pilots are confused by the Colombian landscape, perhaps a symbol of Americans fighting the war on drugs. For Vásquez, though, the airplane primarily symbolizes the narco-state. Coming of age in the late 1980s, when drug lord Pablo Escobar had his own airstrip and aircraft, both Maya and Ricardo are of "the generation that was born with planes, with the flights full of bags and the bags of marijuana, the generation that was born with the War on Drugs and later experienced the consequences." In the novel's present, Escobar is dead, his estate has fallen into disrepair, and violence has abated, but Antonio and Maya cannot rid themselves of the long-ingrained fear that an innocent bystander, like Antonio, could still be laid low by the crossfire of flying bullets.

The last pages of The Sound of Things Falling become more explicitly literary as Vásquez inserts several passages by the Colombian poet Aurelio Arturo, who also supplies an epigraph. But it's an early reference to a Hawthorne story, "Wakefield," that best points to Vásquez's accomplishment. One of Hawthorne's few urban and realistic stories, "Wakefield" is about a man who, for no pressing reason, leaves his family and lives nearby, watching his family but never returning to them. Hawthorne presents the story as a sketch, as a brief "non-fiction," so it has none of his usual literary embroidery to get in the way of belief. Wakefield haunts his former home, and "Wakefield" haunts the reader with its odd combination, the lightness of its telling and the melancholy of its protagonist.

If, however, a nineteenth-century short story is too remote to furnish a useful analogy, think of Vásquez's novel as a Colombian Great Gatsby — the marriage of a naïf and a criminal observed by a slightly detached narrator whose style does not call attention to itself and yet documents the waste created by illicit wealth and symbolized by a machine, in Fitzgerald's time the automobile.

The Sound of Things Falling is the third novel by Vásquez to appear in English, all translated by Anne McLean. The Informers (2009) and The Secret History of Costaguana (2011) are more conventionally weighted with Colombian history and literary forebears. Like Antonio, the narrator of The Informers feels obliged to discover a "dead man...to interpret him, to find out who he had really been," but the context is further removed from the present — World War II, when immigrants from Axis countries who were living in Colombia were blacklisted — and the novel, which includes endnotes, at times imitates an archive. The Secret History of Costaguana takes a further step back in time to the nineteenth century, incorporates numerous facts about Colombian political history and the Panama Canal, imagines a Colombian character giving Joseph Conrad material for Nostromo, and engages in other postmodern tricksomeness. These novels resemble the information-heavy and ingenuity-rich works of my favorite contemporary American novelists — Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, Vollmann, Powers, Wallace — and yet it's Vásquez's more personal, light-handed storytelling in The Sound of Things Falling that I find most compelling. The novel is an unanticipated but welcome reminder that in a vacuum a hammer and a feather fall at the same rate. While the hammer book may pound home its message, the feather work may be more beautiful in its seemingly light flight.

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated periodicals. He can be reached at thomas.leclair@uc.edu.

Reviewer: Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594632747
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 62,132
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s books include the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner and national bestseller, The Sound of Things Falling, as well as the award-winning The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana. Vásquez’s novels have been published in seventeen languages worldwide. After sixteen years in France, Belgium, and Spain, he now lives in Bogotá.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 11 )
Rating Distribution

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(3)

4 Star

(4)

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(4)

2 Star

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 16, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Who Was Ricardo Laverde?

    Antonio Yammara, a law professor meets Ricardo Laverde, who he plays pool with. The time is 1996 and the place is Bogota, Colombia. Yammara knows very little about Laverde except that he may have spent a number of years in prison and that his wife will be arriving soon from the States. Laverde takes Yamarra to a type of library where he can listen to a cassette tape that he recently received. While listening to the tape Laverde gets distraught and leaves the place with Yammara. Outside they are greeted by a hail of bullets. Laverde is killed and Yammara badly wounded.

    Recovering as well as he can from his wounds, Yammara is haunted by who Laverde was, what he heard on the tape and why was he shot at. A few years after the shooting he goes to the apartments where Laverde lived for some answers. He meets with Laverde's landlady who happens to have the very tape that Laverde was listening to. The tape gives a clear picture as to what had upset Laverde. Yammara is still extemely curious to learn more. A short time later he receives a call from Laverde's daughter, who wants to talk to him about Laverde's last hours. Yammara agrees to meet with her at a ranch outside of Bogota, leaving his young wife and daughter at home.

    The daughter starts telling Yammara all that she knows about her father beginning with a story about Laverde's Granfather and father. She then presents Yammara with letter written between Laverde and his wife Elaine Fritts (she is referred to by Colombians as Elena). Yammar starts to unravel the mystery and get to the answers he sought.

    The book has a little bit of background at the beginning into the Pablo Escobar story and how he built an exotic zoo, caused a plane to crash that he suspected had one of his enemies aboard and killed several other promininent people. The majority of the book takes place prior to the Escobar years and instead focuses on the life of Laverde and Elaine. It has several interesting parts but it tended to drag in a lot of places for me, which made it hard for me to give it more than three stars.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2013

    The 2 Five Star reviews are from Nook/Texters - nothing to do wi

    The 2 Five Star reviews are from Nook/Texters - nothing to do with the book.

    3 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 16, 2013

    Recommended Highly

    This is another book that I devoured and then immediately re-read. It is beautifully written. I could almost smell the air in Bogota and Las Acacias. It is also stark regarding the changes from the 1970s to the turn of the century that created the image we now have of Colombia and the drug culture that stained that era. Orbiting around the brief but dramatic encounters of the speaker with ex-convict Ricardo Laverde, the era comes alive in the background.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 6, 2013

    Colorful, but predictable

    This was an interesting read. The intertwining plot was innovative, but teally didn't reach far enough to be " one of the best"

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 6, 2013

    Excellent book

    I read this book on the recommendation of NPR. We can count on NPR to give solid book recommendations and this one also came through. The setting, the characters, the narrative -- all excellent. I especially like the way the story gradually unfolds and comes together.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2013

    Jordan to Charli

    The ikr was to katrina!! Not to Kristi!!! Im not that mean. Katrina said it seems like fun(our game) and then she got locked out.

    1 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 1, 2013

    AWESOME!

    Great reading

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2013

    Charli

    Ok...

    0 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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