Any time it has seemed the least bit relevant recently, I’ve been telling people about the invasive hippos of Colombia. The notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, had a zoo at his estate where children used to go on school trips. After Escobar was killed, the zoo fell into disrepair (zoos in disrepair seem to be a theme for me recently) and the hippos apparently escaped and started living in the wild. They are reproducing and spreading.
Authorities killed one hippo a few years ago that had been damaging crops, but there was so much backlash and controversy over it, that they basically gave up on doing anything about the hippos. They thought about a campaign to sterilize the hippos, but declared that it was too expensive. I was frustrated and worried because the problem was only going to get bigger and harder to solve if they let the hippos spread. While on some level the idea of invasive hippos is kind of amusing, a South America full of hippos would not be a good thing!
So when I read that The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez began with a discussion of the invasive hippos, I knew I had to choose it as my Colombian book. I deliberately managed to tune out the words in reviews that might make the book seem less appealing to me- noir, drugs, murder, mystery. If it hadn’t been for the hippos (which honestly play a relatively minor role), I probably would have chosen another book.
And if I had, I would have missed out.
The narrator, Antonio Yammara, is a law professor (though his classes seem to be about literature as much as they are about law) in Bogata. The story revolves around his brief, but momentous, acquaintance with a man he meets in a billiards hall and Antonio’s subsequent efforts to figure out his history.
These days, when I see Colombia in the news, it’s frequently about the amazing turnaround the country has made. Crime and violence have dropped dramatically and the economy is improving. The bad years still have an effect on the people who lived through them though. The Sound of Things Falling evokes life in cold and overcast Bogata in the 1990s after the worst violence there had subsided, but everyone is recovering from the years of fear and disrupted life. The book also describes the more innocent and, in retrospect, naive early years of the drug trade before it exploded into violence. The worst years of violence fall in between the narratives, but they color everything that came before and after.
Antonio isn’t always the most likable guy, but I could certainly relate to his fascination with the way chance events shape the course of our lives and to his desire to figure out what led to them. The one thing that bugged me a little bit was that the book didn’t always stick to that framework of finding things out and piecing together what one can from the available information. Instead at some point it switches to another character’s perspective and written with a level of information about what that character was thinking that I don’t think Antonio would ever have had.
I loved the writing though and the translator, Anne McLean, obviously did an excellent job. I was worried for the first chapter or so whether the book would give its female characters short shrift, but that turned out not to be the case at all, with several well developed female characters. There were several descriptions of scenes that really struck me, particularly one about beekeeping for some reason. I’d recommend the book to anyone who doesn’t have a fear of flying! (I’m quite confident about flying myself, but I’m still glad that I didn’t read this one on an airplane, as I had the two previous books for Ghana and Ukraine.)
I’m excited to have finally tackled a South American novel. And even more excited to have found one that I really enjoyed. Those of you who have read this blog for a while know that I’ve been avoiding South America, constantly promising to read more South American books and not doing so.
I don’t know whether enjoying this book makes me feel any more confident about South American literature in general though because really what I’ve been avoiding is magical realism. Apparently Vasquez sees himself as rebelling against the tradition of magical realism. The Sound of Things Falling certainly takes place in entirely plain ordinary reality. I suppose eventually I will need to revisit Colombia’s most famous author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and see if I like him any more now than when I read Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s hard to encourage myself to read books I don’t think I’ll like though, when there are so many books out there I do think I’ll like!
As for the real Colombian hippos, happily I have learned that a sterilization program has at last been started. It is being paid for by money seized from drug traffickers.