Tragic realism makes for a riveting read

bookLet me begin by saying that this is a remarkable novel, and I suspect that it will be around for a long time as critics debate its literary significance. In fact, there are passionate debates in some of the current major literary magazines about such themes as Friedrich Nietzsche’s “the eternal return” and/or Yeats’ apocalyptic vision. This review will avoid such heavy freight.


Although the author, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hails from Colombia, these two authors have very little in common. Whereas Marquez is credited with creating “magical realism,” Vasquez rejects the eloquence and lyricism of works like One Hundred Years of Solitude as unrepresentative of his country. Instead, Vasquez strives for a chilling realism. However, the plot is appealing and contains the requisite ingredients: young love, tragic loss and passionate idealism.

At the center of this novel is Antonio, a young lawyer and a professor of jurisprudence in Bogota who is drifting through life teaching university classes in which his students debate legal issues in literature. For example, is Hamlet’s insanity (real or feigned) a justifiable defense in Polonius’ murder? Does Antigone have a legal right to bury her brother? 

However, Antonio’s life abruptly changes when he befriends an older man named Laverde in a local pool hall. Antonio learns that Laverde has been in prison for the past 19 years. In addition, the older man is planning to find his wife, Elaine and his daughter Maya, in the hope of rejoining them.

In the meanwhile, Antonio has married and now has a daughter. However, he continues to meet Laverde at the pool hall and learns some startling facts about the older man. Laverde is a former pilot who had been involved in a major marijuana operation, a fact that had resulted in his capture and imprisonment. Then, before he can be reunited to his wife and daughter, Laverde’s wife is killed in a plane crash. Knowing that his friend is devastated by his wife’s death, Antonio approaches him on the street just as two assassins strike. Laverde is killed, and Antonio is severely wounded.

Antonio’s narrow escape has a disastrous effect on his marriage and Aura, his wife, becomes despondent as she watches her husband become increasingly unstable. Suffering from physical and mental injuries, Antonio is on the verge of abandoning both his employment and his family. Then, Antonio is contacted by a woman named Maya who claims to be Laverde’s daughter. After a series of telephone conversations, Antonio decides to visit Maya in the hope of unraveling the mystery of Laverde’s death.

At this point, The Sound of Things Falling reveals a disturbing theme. Antonio learns that Laverde’s grandfather had been a famous pilot who had received acclaim in the war with Peru. In addition, Laverde’s father had been disfigured when a plane crashed into the grandstands during an aerial show. Suddenly, it seems that history is repeating itself as characters are maimed and killed by crashing planes.

In addition, Antonio learns that Laverde had managed to acquire the “black box” from his wife’s fatal crash. Before his death, the grieving husband had played the recording over and over in the hope so find some logic in her death. Now, Antonio acquires a copy of the same tape and listens to it repeatedly. Not surprisingly, when he visits Laverde’s daughter, he learns that she also has a copy of the tape. Ironically, there is nothing on the tape except the painful knowledge that they are listening to Laverde’s wife die again and again.

A large portion of The Sound of Things Falling is devoted Laverde’s wife’s career in the Peace Corps. It is a marvelous passage that is filled with Elaine’s youthful spirit, for she managed to embody all that was worthwhile about this misguided humanitarian program. As she works tirelessly to bring sanitation, health care and education to Colombia’s poor, she is blissfully unaware that the Peace Corps was instrumental in promoting the marijuana and drug cartels. In fact, Peace Corps workers taught Colombia’s farmers the basic information that they needed to plant and cultivate marijuana.

Yet at the same time, Elaine and her fellows volunteers resemble our own youth culture of the 70’s as they protest the Vietnam War, sing Simon and Garfunkel songs and cheer Robert Redford and Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It is disquieting to realize that Colombia’s disturbing history, filled with countless assassinations, violence and revolution, are simply cycles within cycles, and the tragic events in the lives of Laverde, Antonio and Elaine are the events that destroyed the country of Colombia, only written smaller, a microcosm of a national tragedy.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Riverhead Books, 2013. 270 pages

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