From the Publisher
Praise for The Sound of Things Falling
"[A] Brilliant new novel...gripping...absorbing right to the end. The Sound of Things Falling may be a page turner, but it's also a deep meditation on fate and death." —Edmund White, The New York Times Book Review
"Deeply affecting and closely observed." —Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times
"Like Bolaño, [Vasquez] is a master stylist and a virtuoso of patient pacing and intricate structure, and he uses the novel for much the same purpose that Bolaño did: to map the deep, cascading damage done to our world by greed and violence and to concede that even love can’t repair it." —Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
"Juan Gabriel Vasquez is a considerable writer. The Sound of Things Falling is an artful, ruminative mystery... And the reader comes away haunted by its strong playing out of an irreversible fate." —E. L. Doctorow
"Compelling…genuine and magnificently written." —Library Journal, STARRED
“Literary magic of one of Latin America’s most talented novelists…a masterpiece.” —Booklist, STARRED
“An exploration in the ways in which stories profoundly impact our lives.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED
“Languid existential noir, one that may put you in mind of Paul Auster.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times
"If you only read one book this month..." —Esquire
"Razor-sharp" —O, the Oprah Magazine
“An undoubted talent… Introspective and personal.” —The Wall Street Journal
"It's noir raised to the level of art. It's a page-turner but it's also a profound meditation on fate and mortality." —2013 Premior Gregor von Rezzori Prize announcement
“Vásquez creates characters whose memories resonate powerfully across an ingeniously interlocking structure…Vásquez creates a compelling literary work—one where an engaging narrative envelops poignant memories of a fraught historical period.” —The New Republic
“The Sound of Things Falling is a masterful chronicle of how the violence between the cartels and government forces spilled out to affect and corrode ordinary lives. It is also Vásquez's finest work to date…. His stark realism — the flip side of the magical variation of his compatriot Gabriel Garcia Marquez — together with his lyrical treatment of memory produces both an electrifying and a sobering read.” —Malcolm Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle
“Haunting…Vasquez brilliantly and sensitively illuminates the intimate effects and whispers of life under siege, and the moral ambiguities that inform survival.” – Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Moving… The novel presents the human toll exacted by the country’s years of violence.” – New York Observer
“Quietly elegant… Vásquez is a resourceful storyteller. Scenes and dialogue shine with well-chosen details. His theme echoes compellingly through family parallels, ill-fated flights and even a recurring hippo motif. He shrugs off the long shadow of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a gritty realism that has its own persuasive magic.” — Bloomberg News
Praise for Juan Gabriel Vasquez
"From the opening paragraph of The Informers, I felt myself under the spell of a masterful writer. Juan Gabriel Vásquez has many gifts—intelligence, wit, energy, a deep vein of feeling—but he uses them so naturally that soon enough one forgets one's amazement at his talents, and then the strange, beautiful sorcery of his tale takes hold.” —Nicole Krauss
“Juan Gabriel Vásquez is one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature. His first novel, The Informers, a very powerful story about the shadowy years immediately following World War II, is testimony to the richness of his imagination as well as the subtlety and elegance of his prose.” —Mario Vargas Llosa
“What Vásquez offers us, with great narrative skill, is that grey area of human actions and awareness where our capacity to make mistakes, betray, and conceal creates a chain reaction which condemns us to a world without satisfaction. Friends and enemies, wives and lovers, parents and children mix and mingle angrily, silently, blindly, while the novelist uses irony and ellipsis to unmask his characters’ “self-protective strategies” and goes with them – not discovering them, simply accompanying them – as they come to understand that an unsatisfactory life can also be the life they inherit.” —Carlos Fuentes
“For anyone who has read the entire works of Gabriel García Márquez and is in search of a new Colombian novelist, then Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Informers is a thrilling new discovery.” —Colm Tóibín
“A fine and frightening study of how the past preys upon the present, and an absorbing revelation of a little-known wing of the theatre of the Nazi war.” —John Banville
Praise for The Informers
"[A] remarkable novel. It deals with big universal themes... It is the best work of literary fiction to come my way since 2005…and into the bargain it is immensely entertaining, with twists and turns of plot that yield great satisfaction." —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“One hallmark of a gifted novelist is the ability to see the potential for compelling fiction in an incident, anecdote or scrap of history, no matter how dry or seemingly obscure, that others have overlooked. By that standard and several others, the career of Juan Gabriel Vásquez…is off to a notable start.…[A] straight-ahead, old-fashioned narrative… Two years ago Mr. Vásquez was included on a list of the most ‘important’ Latin American writers under 40, nominated by more than 2,000 authors, literary agents, librarians, editors and critics. The Informers alone justifies their choice, given its challenging subject and psychological depth, but clearly there are bigger and even more intriguing things on the way.” — Larry Rohter, The New York Times
“Chilling…The past is a shadow-bound, elusive creature in [The Informers]… When pursued it may flee, or, if cornered, it may unleash terrible truths.” —Los Angeles Times
“To read The Informers is to enjoy the shock of new talent… [Vásquez’s] novel is subtle, surprising and deeply pleasurable, with razors secreted among its pages.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Compelling…The book combines a reflection on the delicate bonds of family, a journey through one of the few untold stories of World War II and even a look at the sometimes parasitic nature of the media… What sets The Informers, apart from other historical novels is Vasquez's questioning of his own role as muckraker and writer.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Dramatic and surprising…” —Harper’s Magazine
“Unlike anything written by his Latin American contemporaries. If there is any prevailing influence in this chilling work, it is in the late German writer, W.G. Sebald…The Informers deserves to be read…[O]ne of this year’s outstanding books.” —The Financial Times
“Masterful…Vásquez has much in common with Roberto Bolaño…. But unlike Bolaño’s stolid, serviceable prose, Vásquez’s style is musical, occasionally even lush, and its poeticism remains unmuddled in McLean’s translation.” —Bookforum
Praise for The Secret History of Costaguana
“An intricately detailed, audacious reframing of Nostromo, the classic 1904 Joseph Conrad tale of power, corruption, intrigue and revolution in a South American country he called Costaguana. The Secret History of Costaguana is a potent mixture of history, fiction and literary gamesmanship. Vásquez's themes are of the moment: powerful countries (the U.S. foremost among them) dabbling in Latin American politics, bribing politicians and journalists, trolling for profits; European writers appropriating history for their own tales. His particular triumph with this novel is to remind us, as Balzac put it, that novels can be ‘the private histories of nations.’”—Los Angeles Times
“[An] exceptional new novel…When Mr. Vásquez, like Conrad, focuses on the individuals trapped in these national tragicomedies, he displays a keen emotional and moral awareness. The Secret History of Costaguana is a cunning tribute to a classic, but it also stands on its own merits as a dense and involving story about men who are either manipulating history or finding themselves at the barrel-end of it.” —Wall Street Journal
[A] post-modern literary revenge story.” —The New York Times
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviewer: Tom LeClair