Review by John Klassen 

Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Vasquez (1973-) was born in Bogota. He studied law there in university, then
moved to France where he obtained a PhD in Latin American Literature at the
Sorbonne. He lived in Belgium for a year, then Barcelona until 2012. He now
lives in Bogota. He also works as a translator and journalist. His novel, The
Sound of Things Falling won the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary
Award; it also won the Premio Gregor von Rezzori award for foreign fiction
translated into Italian.

The Sound of Things Falling
Antonio Yammara is a young lawyer living in Bogota, teaching law at
university. He falls in love with one of his students, Aura, who gets pregnant,
but they are happy together and decide to marry. This is December, 1995 and
the main news item was the crash of American Airlines Flight 965 into a
mountain in Colombia, killing 151 of the 155 passengers and all eight crew
members. It turns out that the wife of an acquaintance of Antonio, Ricardo
Laverde, was killed in the crash while returning to Bogota after twenty years
of separation because Laverde had been in prison for drug trafficking. Shortly
after the crash, Laverde is gunned down in the street and Antonio, who was
not a target, is also hit and seriously wounded. The conjunction of these three
events—the death of Elena (Laverde’s wife), Laverde’s murder, and the
wounding of Antonio become pivotal events, the effects of which ripple
outwards to reshape the lives of Antonio, Aura, their daughter Leticia, and
Maya, Laverde’s daughter whom Antonio discovers later and who has her
own story to tell and her own demons to wrestle with.

In Greek mythology, the Moirai were the goddesses of fate who personified
the inescapable destiny of humans: Klotho, The Spinner who spun the thread
of life; Lakhesis, The Apportioner of Lots who measured life; and Atropos,
“She who cannot be turned” who cuts the thread of life. But fate is neither
fixed nor inevitable: it can be diverted by Zeus, and even mortals are given
degrees of freedom to influence their fates. This is very much the structure of
the novel. Zeus does not appear, but Klotho weaves unique patterns in the
lives of the protagonists based on their own histories and relationships and
decisions, patterns that become more and more fixed as time and
circumstances prevail; Lakhesis measures the lengths in often surprising,
shocking, and arbitrary ways; Atropos is not to be denied, however much one
might try.

The main actions of the plot occur in the 1990s and earlier in the drug wars in
the 1970s, particularly with the ascent of Pablo Escobar, but there is a multigenerational
effect as we learn about the ancestors of the main protagonists
who take us back to two real historical events: a brief war between Colombia
and Peru in 1932-1933, and a terrible air accident in 1930 that killed dozens
of spectators at a National Day celebration in Colombia. It is interesting to
note that after considering and discarding a list of names for their daughter,
Antonio and Aura settle on Leticia, which Aura thinks might have been the
name of “one of my great-grandmothers or somebody’. I’m not sure what it
means, if anything, but Vasquez would surely know that Leticia is the name
of a town that was a central focus in the 1932-1933 war, and that the conflict
is sometimes referred to as the Leticia Incident or the Leticia War. In the
novel, Antonio agrees that this is a good name with, “its long vowels, its
consonants that mixed vulnerability and strength.” This happens early in the
novel, before Klotho begins the intricate weave of the lives presented, but
“mixed vulnerability and strength” is a pretty good description of many of the

The novel is told in the first person by Antonio and it moves back and forth in
time. The plot is realistically complicated and pulls the reader along to find
out how things are resolved. The drug wars and their effects on lives and life
in Colombia play more than a role—they form backdrops for much of what
happens to individuals (such as Ricardo) seduced by easy money until
Atropos cuts the threads with neither premonition nor warning.

This novel is a meditation on identity, life, fate, death, and memory in all its
forms: forgotten, remembered, reconstructed, reshaped, reused—memory that
constructs the present and therefore the future vs memory as a lie that shatters
the present and questions the future. What kinds of things can have the sound
of falling? In Vasquez’s world pretty much anything is vulnerable, starting
with society in general, but on the individual level: love, family, friendships,
structure, future, security—all the things dependent on decisions that
structure and, for most, determine the courses of individual lives. When
things fall, there is no black box, as on a plane, to reconstruct last moments,
to provide rationales or reasons or motivations that ‘explain’; there is only the
fact of the ‘fall’ in the moment and the effects that ripple through other lives
and even other generations. The antidotes to ‘falls’ seem to be old-fashioned
fidelity, honesty, and empathy which can be effective but are often in shortsupply.

Tags: John Klassen