OVER the last 40 years, contemporary fiction in Colombia has been haunted by the luminescent dreamscape of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s work.
But Juan Gabriel Vásquez, born just a few years before One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared, educated at the Sorbonne and now a resident of his native Bogotá after some 16 years living in Europe, has given us his masterful third novel, The Sound of Things Falling, a dark, lyrical fiction that confirms his own status as a major writer in the post-Márquez era.
In Vásquez’s fiction, as in reality, the streetscape, buildings and narrow, odoriferous downtown alleyways of Bogotá in the early 21st century live in the shadows of its recent drug wars, which continue to distort its history and riddle the memories of its citizens and their fractured families.
Yammara, a bohemian young lawyer and the first-person narrator, becomes an unwilling avatar of his culture’s psyche through his relationship with Ricardo Laverde, his mysterious older companion on many a rum-soaked afternoon playing billiards.
When Laverde is murdered in that stereotypical Bogotan still life — gunned down by a shooter on the back of a passing motorbike — Yammara is also seriously wounded; thus begins his own tortuous journey into the past to retrieve the secrets of Laverde’s life.
Yammara only dimly apprehends his abandonment of his wife and young daughter in Bogotá as he drives into the interior to meet Laverde’s daughter Maya, herself grieving the recent death of her American mother, killed in a plane crash on her return to Colombia after more than 20 years.
Elena Fritts had been a Peace Corps volunteer in the institution’s heyday in South America, met Laverde and stayed. Now her daughter and Yammara share their memories of Laverde, who, it gradually emerges, became an ace pilot of one of the small planes that flew Pablo Escobar’s and other kingpins’ drugs stateside for tremendous profits until he was captured and imprisoned for 20 years. It’s that gap in Maya’s life — her mother had told the little girl her father had died — that Yammara and Maya must fill in.
Suggestively, Vásquez’s understated twinning of Yammara’s and Laverde’s lives recalls the twinned psyches of Joseph Conrad’s classic story The Secret Sharer. Likewise, through Yammara’s and Maya’s joint reconstruction of the past, Vásquez conjures the whole culture’s sad decrepitude, epitomized by the adults’ return to one of their childhoods’ forbidden marvels: Pablo Escobar’s decaying private zoo, replete with exotic animals, some of them now surviving in the wild.
Translating a novel like The Sound of Things Falling presents an all but impossible challenge, to which Toronto’s Anne McLean has risen magisterially. McLean beautifully renders the lyrical bursts of Yammara’s nostalgic swoons, and more generally, rhythmically transposes the long and strange arcs of South American time to a North American imagination.
Renowned Mexican novelist and diplomat Carlos Fuentes understood and explained these contrasts to us very well decades ago in one of the CBC Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto. Now McLean in her turn inhabits and exhibits the very fabric of Colombian thought, and makes this improbably plausible neighbouring fictional world — the southern sister sphere circling insistently — consistent with our own northern one.
Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner grew up in Brazil and is vice-president, research and international at the University of Winnipeg.