I had never heard of Juan Gabriel Vasquez before reading in the Guardian Review that his book ‘The Sound of things falling’ had won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A few months later I came across the book itself in the Broomhill Sheffield Oxfam Shop and bought it. It languished on my shelf until last week when the title’s blue capitals striding across the white cover called out to me while flying around packing for a trip and I picked it up and stuffed it into my handbag. Fitted perfectly, slimmish volume belying the depth of its content, who needs a Kindle? And it turned out to be a thriller, the attempt of the main protagonist, Antonio Yamarra, to find out who killed Ricardo Laverde in the context of a Columbia recovering from years of violence and corruption. The reader is drawn in from the start, when Yamarra’ s memory of Ricardo Laverde is aroused by the story of a black hippopotamus, escaped from Pablo Escobar’s zoo, being caught and shot. Prefaced by a warning on the dangerous nature of the exercise of memory, Yamarra tells the story of how he, a successful young law lecturer, first meets Laverde in a billiard hall in Bogotá in 1996. Intrigued by this character, he begins to get to know him a little, until Laverde is shot dead on a street corner. Yamarra then starts to unravel his past and through his own investigations and letters and documents from Laverde’s past emerges a picture of 1930s Bogotá and then the 1970s and the beginnings of the drug trade which came to consume the country. The novel is told from the point of view of Yamarra and through him we see how the lives of a whole generation were marked by the random violence and terror prevalent in Columbia in the 70s and 80s. That fear reemerges after the shooting of Laverde and the long misery and permanent anxiety of sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder is convincingly told. Another narrative standpoint is introduced through the letters of Elaine Fritts, volunteering with the Peace Corps in 1970s Columbia- we see her good natured but naive engagement with the needy campesinos and as readers share her only hazy grasp of what Ricardo and others are involved in. Finally, there are clever and compelling parallels between the emotional lives of Yamarra and Laverde which resonate through the book and beyond: are their relationships and the outcome of those relationships determined by the prevailing conditions in Columbia, by the events in the narrative or simply by the different emotional makeup and loyalties of men and women? This is an absorbing, moving and at times shattering account which manages to combine the experiences of individuals with those of a nation; don’t wait for it to appear in your local Oxfam shop, read it now!
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