Tuesday 6 February 2018

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Antonio Yammara is not a nice man. I hardly liked him enough to read the book again, but I managed to, reading at a slow pace. I got involved in Colombian reality. It was an exciting and at times amusing experience, also an education.

The translation mostly reads well, as if it were written in the original language, except that now and then - not often - there are sentences that are bad, sentences which read as if a word is missing or which made me stumble. As if Ann McClean had delegated the work to a novice. Until now I had always been impressed.

I may not have explored this book in as much depth as it merits. My first reading was quick, to get what I think of as the first level of meaning out of the way.  I knew nothing of Colombia except for the drug cartel based in Medellin and South American culture as portrayed by Herge in one of his Tintin books. (Nothing of the South American literature I have read seems to contradict what I learnt there.) As a gringa who has never visited South America, let alone Colombia, I was sure I was bound to miss the subtext unless I made an effort. And even when making an effort, I believe I missed meaning.

The book's main themes:

Beyond the wonderful opening sentence with the hippopotamus, the early pages announce what this book is about: "The alacrity and dedication which we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering which after all brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning," contradicted by the following sentence "...the death of that hippopotamus put an end to an episode of my life that had begun quite a while ago, more or less like someone coming home to close a door carelessly left open." In the long conversation between Maya and Antonio, they agree that it is possible to live without thinking.  I suppose that the book reveals what happens when someone begins to think.

On p. 15, about the relationship between experience and memory - between parentheses: "...we're terrible judges of the present moment, maybe because the present doesn't actually exist: all is memory, this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory, this word is a memory that you, reader, just read."

At the beginning of section 6, I liked the following sentence: "Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control.[...] we associate adulthood with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what happens to us next." And a page later: "It's always somewhat dreadful [sic] [...] when it's another person who reveals to us the slight or complete lack of control that we have over our own experience."


In the first three of the five parts Antonio is a man only concerned with himself. He is the One, this is reflected in the titles: One single long shadow, Never One of my dead, The gaze of absent ones. Aura is attracted to him - why is a mystery: "Professor Yammara introduces her to the law." He sees the caricature of himself at a time when he has been rendered impotent. And from then on there develops a search for meaning. Why would someone want to kill Laverde?

Recurring events and objects

I liked how some features of the story were repeated - in my view for emphasis - though when I spoke of this to other readers they looked at me as if I were mad. You be the judge:

Two scarred men, scarred through no fault of their own, three if you include Elaine's father who returned with one leg missing only to disappear from her life.

Two fathers disappearing, Elaine's father and Ricardo, though Elaine's father never came back - family break-down.
Two beloved little girls, two mother - the goodness of women.
Twice (only) the colour brown in the same location.
Twice the huge penis.
Two sets of grandparents who are ignored - family break-down.
Two instances of shots fired without aiming, one with terrible consequences, one with none
Twice seeing a little girls' expression on the face of an adult woman.
Two green doors - Laverde means the Green One
Listening to the recording twice.
Three air crashes if not more: the sound of things falling.
Two Christs in the church where Elaine and Ricardo  get married.
Two haciendas, two gates.
'I understand perfectly,' once Ricardo to Elaine, once Antonio to Maya. Men lying?

The choice of names: the name Elaine refers to the woman who loved Lancelot  and bore Galahad. And it is in fact related to Elena despite the fact that this is denied by Maya. Elena means sun beam.
Aura: may mean breeze, but also light, ie it is similar to Elena's name.
Both are mothers, viewed as a source of warmth and light. 

Leticia: the 1930s war between Peru and Colombia centered on a town named Leticia which is the Southern most town of Columbia. It was originally founded by the Peruvians under the name San Antonio - the same name as our hero - and was later awarded to Colombia in a secret deal between the two countries. Peru tried to annex the city and surrounds in 1932, Colombia sent in the army and the conflict was finally resolved with the help of the League of Nations. This is the war in which Ricardo's pilot grandfather fought.

I wondered why Maya had been chosen to be a bee-keeper and discovered that there is a famous children's book about Maya the bee, an independent and adventurous bee, loved by the bee colony she belongs to despite her rebellious nature.

Antonio claims to deny Lutecia's and Aura's existence to contain the contamination of pain and fear. Is this the truth or something he is telling himself? He has begun his relationship with Maya on the basis of a lie, so it has no future though he could easily stay with her: "I understand you completely."Returning to Bogota, he confronts loneliness but it is different from before, he seems at peace now.

Here is a question: why does Maya call him a user? He says that all the story he read was about him. How can that be?

One discovery amused me: Elena visits the church where her 'small almost clandestine wedding' will take place. It is the church of San Francisco of Assisi, which fits with the theme of Ricardo's love of animals. She likes the church because she thinks of silence and noise, of light and darkness, both pairs as she is about to become part of a pair. She looks at the illuminated altar and then discovers the two Christs, one on all fours the other in a cage.

This is what amused me: the photo I found online revealed that the illuminated altar is huge and completely plastered with gold. This is the altar that the tourists come to see. It does not impact upon Elena: what impresses her is the little Christ in a box behind the metal bars: The saviour of agony, or maybe the agonising saviour would be a better translation. This Christ is miraculous because his hair is supposedly continuously growing. She puts in a coin and the Christ is briefly illuminated. And then  "Elaine knew she would be happy all her life." And we discover that her happiness will be brief, just like the flash she saw, that Ricardo is the darkness to her light, the noise to her silence.

In this portrayal of the limits of personal power, The Sound of Things Falling (2011, 2013) reminded me of Timothy Mo's outstanding novel The Redundancy of Courage (1991) and  the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's classic Things fall apart (1958). This 2013 translation won the prestigious 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

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