Two years ago the brilliant young Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez (born 1973) declared that he was planning a novel that would "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". The Sound of Things Falling - which delivered what Vásquez promised - duly won Spain's Alfaguara prize last year. You may have seen the author recently interviewed by John Kelly on The Works. The author, who currently lives in Barcelona, spoke a well-practiced English, which always helps.
Now translated into English by Anne McLean, this near 300-page thriller is a taut, sophisticated exploration of Colombian society in dark days. The novel begins with the fatal shooting of a hippo, which escapes from the private zoo owned by Pablo Escobar, the infamous real-life drug lord who had been shot dead in the city of Medellín some 16 years previoulsy.
For the narrator, Antonio Yammara, a Bogotá law lecturer in his late 30s, the hippo’s demise is his unlikely reminder of the 1990s, when the country was exhausted after years of internecine strife between the drug cartels and the state.
He remembers Ricardo Laverde, an ex-pilot acquaintance from the billiard halls they both frequented. Laverde had spent almost 20 years in jail, but was killed in a drive-by motorbike shooting, in which Yammara himself was also injured.
Yammara seeks to discover the true circumstances of the life and death of Laverde, which takes him into decidedly murky terrain, conjured with consummate narrative skill by Vásquez, whose previous novels - notably The Informers - have won him many fans, including Colm Toíbín and John Banville who have both heartily endorsed the writer.
In terms of heroes from English literature, Joseph Conrad is uppermost. As he recently told The Guardian, the South American novelist has been particularly struck by "Conrad's obsessive idea that novels go into dark places and come back with the news. It's not necessarily geographical, but shedding light on dark places of the soul." In The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez attains pretty much the same objective with striking narrative mastery.