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Dope Opera

Aug 05, 2013

July is a quiet season for literary publishing. For some reason, cultural or economic or ecological, large, important novels by famous, award-winning authors do not thrive in the heat; they are cool-weather beasts. This year your Pynchons and Atwoods, your Coetzees and Lahiris, are waiting until September to emerge from their magnificent chrysalises. But alert book shoppers can sometimes find interesting, more delicate, less ballyhooed books in July. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was a July book. Rules of Civility was a July book. And so is The Sound of Things Falling, by a Colombian writer named Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

Forgive yourself if you haven't heard of Vásquez. He's been getting good reviews for a decade, but The Sound of Things Falling is his first novel to get a major launch in the U.S. The narrator is Antonio Yammara, a clever but rather callow law professor in Bogotá whose life accidentally gets entangled with that of a man he meets by chance at a pool hall. Ricardo is older, a pilot by trade, just out of prison after 20 years, but his freedom doesn't last long. While out walking with Antonio, he's shot to death by an assassin on a motorcycle. Antonio gets shot too, but he survives.

This could easily be the setup for a Hitchcockian thriller, but Vásquez has subtler, less obvious intentions; he's playing a deeper, longer game. The story drifts and tacks like a sailboat beating upwind: we learn about Antonio's fragile marriage and his struggles with fatherhood and with the trauma of the attack. When he starts asking questions about the past of the near stranger who died next to him, they lead him to the final cockpit recording from a crashing airliner that killed Ricardo's wife Elaine, an American who came to Colombia with the Peace Corps. Antonio also meets their daughter Maya, who tells him, eventually, that her father made a living flying marijuana and cocaine to the U.S. Only then--180-something pages in--do we feel as if we've come to the seed around which the book crystallizes: the drug trade that's so central to Colombia's recent history.

But once you see that, you realize it's been there from the first page. The novel's opening tableau--and this is typical of the kind of visual poetry Vásquez casually assembles from the broken world around him--is of the death of a hippopotamus, "a male the color of black pearls," shot after it escaped from a vanity zoo built by the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Vásquez has said elsewhere that one of his goals in the book is to show "how the drug trade affects somebody not involved in it, somebody who--like me--has never seen a gram of coke in his life."

He's often compared to Roberto Bolaño, another Latin American writer in full flight from magical realism. Vásquez lacks Bolaño's total immunity from cliché. (When your protagonist meets a woman with "the palest green eyes I'd ever seen," who lives alone and keeps bees for a living, you know the fix is in.) But like Bolaño, he's a master stylist and a virtuoso of patient pacing and intricate structure, and he uses the novel for much the same purpose 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.

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