By Rafia Zakaria
In his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vásquez introduces the reader to a war terrifying for the invisibility of its boundaries and the imperceptibility of its deepest scars. Bogotá in the mid-1990s, where Vásquez begins, is a city racked by the drug wars and their attendant manic mix of bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings. This seamy and diseased underworld encroaches on the lives of all Bogotanos. Even those who fancy themselves out of the reach of such conflicts are inducted into its details by television reports that rattle off the particulars of gruesome deaths with numbing regularity.
Theirs is one Bogotá, the city of those who witness the violence but who imagine their emotional lives untouched by its corrosion. When the son of a past President is killed, Vazquez’s protagonist, Antonio Yammara, notes that “nobody asks why he had been killed, or by whom, because such questions no longer had any meaning in my city, or they were asked in a mechanical fashion.” It is this premise—the connections of personal lives to the violence that lies outside or underneath their day-to-day reality—that Vásquez is interested in exploring.
If the relationships and observations of the book’s first half reveal how ordinary life can continue amid a bloody and rapacious war, the second half forces us to question the foundation upon which the myths of normality are constructed.
Yammara, a somewhat cynical law professor, is a witness to the war and caught in the chaos of a society consumed by the illegal drug trade. He inhabits the Bogotá that still believes, if a bit doubtfully, in the rituals of normal lives proceeding with some predictability even against the tableau of unending violence. Yammara falls in love with a student and dutifully and hopefully proposes to her when she becomes pregnant. Later, at the billiards club where he is fond of spending his evenings, he encounters Ricardo Laverde, a man swathed in the mystery that will catalyze Yammara’s descent into the other Bogotá. The route is unexpected, not one taken because of the beckoning call of addiction or the tempting riches of dealing, but out of simple curiosity, the unthinking acceptance of an invitation, and a sudden shooting that leaves Laverde dead and Yammara fighting for his life.
The physical challenges of his recovery are easier than the psychological, and for a while Yammara inhabits a limbo between the two Bogotás, unable to forget about the shooting but also unable to lose himself in the domesticity of his familial life. “I did not set foot on 14th Street again,” he says after the incident, recognizing at the same time that “I lost one part of the city, or rather one part of the city was stolen from me.” He tries for a while “to live without thinking” but the regularity of work and the domestic coziness of his young family cannot keep him away from the other Bogotá, which holds the answer to why he was attacked and Laverde killed.
Like so many other anguished heroes before him, Yammara must descend into this other Bogotá, Laverde’s Bogotá, before he can gain some form of absolution. Vásquez takes us to this other city with a narrative both gritty and poetic; if the relationships and observations of the book’s first half reveal how ordinary life can continue amid a bloody and rapacious war, the second half forces us to question the foundation upon which the myths of normality are constructed. In his quest for Laverde, one of the first people Yammara questions is a waitress who works at a café just across the street from where the shooting happened. She does not remember it at all. The Bogotá of forgetting has no room for remembering the deaths of strangers.
It is the unseen wounds—the fears of unseen catastrophes constantly lingering close by, the difficulties, as Vásquez writes, of “believing in the fiction that life still matters”—that are the hardest to heal.
It is never possible to estimate the extent of damage or the costs of any conflict without seeing what existed before. In Yammara’s quest to find Laverde’s story, and hence his own peace, Vásquez presents readers with pictures of what once was. Through the old letters of Laverde’s American wife to her family in the States, we see the Bogotá of the ’70s, when Laverde’s family was just barely holding on to the shreds of a life that had been much better—“the red carpet had once been a fine one “ and the staircase was “like a memorandum and witness to what the family had been but no longer was.” The Bogotá of then, unmarred by so much violence was a city in a country “still just starting, barely discovering its place in the world.”
The images are resonant and heartbreaking, revealing the morally complex landscape of a city at once nostalgic for a drug-free past and yet only barely able to imagine it. Similarly complicated is Vásquez’s treatment of the relationship between the United States and Colombia, represented by Laverde’s marriage to the American Elaine Fitts, a Peace Corps volunteer. In dissecting the willful lies and cherished rationalizations that exist between the two, both country and couple, Vásquez presents the reader with the question of whether marriages tainted by betrayals can ever return to what they were.
The literature of war must always reckon with the possibilities of returning to what existed before the destruction. It is the unseen wounds—the fears of unseen catastrophes constantly lingering close by, the difficulties, as Vásquez writes, of “believing in the fiction that life still matters”—that are the hardest to heal. In revealing just these inflictions of the drug wars in Colombia, Vásquez enables the possibility of reconstruction of a different sort—not of buildings or arsenals or security forces, but of the lives of people who must confront the losses war has imposed on them before they can build again.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper. She is a writer and PhD candidate in political philosophy. Her work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent, The Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, Le Monde Diplomatique, and National Public Radio. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, forthcoming from Beacon Press May 2014.