Posted by: biblioglobal | January 29, 2015

Colombia: The Sound of Things Falling (Book-From-Every-Country #66)

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. First published in 2011.

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.


  1. I’m happy you enjoyed this book. There is so much to be discovered in Latin American literature that’s decisively not magical realism. Roberto Bolaño, for example. I’m reading a novel called “His Own Man” by Edgard Telles Ribeiro (Brazilian) right now, and immensely enjoying it. So don’t give up 😉

    • To be honest, Roberto Bolaño also intimidates me! But you’re right, not all Latin American lit is magical realism and I shouldn’t lump it all together. But at the same time, I feel like I ought to get outside of my comfort zone and give some of the magical realism another try as well.

  2. This sounds good to me – and might be just the thing for my own Latin American crusade this year…

    • I didn’t know you were planning to do some Latin American reading this year! But I certainly think this book would be a good choice!

  3. I’ve enjoyed all his books this is the most contemporary and I felt most personal book of the three I’ve read .No need be scared of Bolano I’ve read most of his canon and to be truthful he isn’t as scary as you think

    • I’m certainly up for reading more Vasquez. The Informers looks very interesting. I feel like I would need to read Nostromo first in order to read The Secret History of Costaguana though. Thanks for the encouragement on Bolano!

      • I read nostromo and secret history together and it worked well

  4. I read this book a couple of years ago and loved the mysterious feel to the story. It seemed quite heartfelt too, as though the author had put something of his own experience into the novel. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • I agree about the story seeming heartfelt. Either it has something of his own experience or he is just that amazing of a writer! I read that he went to law school in Bogata though, so I think there probably is some reflection of his own experience.

  5. This sounds like a good find, and an interesting anecdote about the hippos! Loved the review and good luck finding more South American lit, I just read Kamchatka by the Argentinian Marcelo Figueras which I recommend if you haven’t already read it. Fiction, but inspired by his own childhood experience.

    • I hope it’s an interesting anecdote- otherwise I’ve been boring a lot of people! I really enjoyed your review of Kamchatka actually and it sounded like a very interesting book. I’m slowly working my way through some Jorge Luis Borges stories as my ‘official’ Argentinian reading, but I can always make a return trip.

  6. Sounds fascinating! And I’m glad you tuned out those words as they gave you such a great opportunity to read about things you wouldn’t have otherwise.

    • It was definitely a good lesson in being willing to try something different!

  7. I am thrilled to hear about this book, because I haven’t been reading much from South America either. This one sounds very good too. I haven’t heard of the hippo problem – that is so crazy! Glad that the sterilization program started finally.

    • I really enjoyed it! Since writing this post, I came across another crazy story about hippos in the Americas. Apparently in the early 1900s there was a plan hatched to try to release hippos into Louisiana to be used a source of meat!

  8. […] this set of ten books I’ve traveled to: Estonia, Senegal, South Korea, Ghana, Ukraine, Colombia, Togo, Ecuador, Spain, and Equatorial Guinea. (Click on the country to see my […]

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