The Sound Of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

(Bloomsbury $35)

People who read a lot of novels develop certain discriminations. With practice we get better at recognising irony, allusion, the unreliable narrator, and sometimes his cunning cousin, the narrator who is a cruel jerk withholding something vital.

Which is what we have here, in Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez's third prize-winning novel, a bleak and sad intertwining of two love and marriage stories, covering two decades of turbulent social history.


Our narrator, Antonio Yammara, is a young lecturer in law, so a member of the privileged elite in a stratified society with a lot of poor people, some desperately poor. He is a realist who knows that even the fortunate privileged can get involved in arbitrary violence, usually fuelled by drug gangs or guerrillas, not that the two can always be distinguished. Then he gets the bad luck out of the blue that he has half expected in a philosophical way.

We never do find out why Antonio can't tell his long-suffering wife anything at all about his accidental shooting, why he doesn't tell her when or why he goes AWOL, even when he is reduced to an invalid and she to nurse, in effect.

But what we do get, as we go to a big time-shift, is a commentary on 1960s US Peace Corps/hippie do-gooding idealism corrupting itself, or perhaps inevitably reverting to Yankee imperialist type.

I am fortunate in having a good friend who has spent enough time in Colombia to love that rather huge country, and who has explored enough to experience its great diversity.

If you can't go somewhere, you can still get a sense of it by persistently cross-examining someone who has. This is relevant because Colombia is, you could say, a character in this story. Or several.

And the vast abandoned estate of the late Pablo Escobar, with its zoo complete with hippos, rhinos, giraffes, elephants, everything, is a recurrent motif of prodigious waste, irrelevance, folly which is almost heroic, but really, ultimately, just folly. Escobar was the ubermensch of the cocaine explosion that has lasted from the 70s to the present day.

The trade, you could say the economy, that he came to symbolise has had a huge effect on the recent history of many parts of South and Central America, not just Colombia. His zoo is the equivalent of Shelley's Ozymandias in this story, except now it is "look on my works, you greedy, and consider".