The Sound of Things Falling

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 (a thorough review can be found here.) 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.