Sunday, February 9, 2014

One Of Marquez's Heirs

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

To the world, Gabriel Garcia Marquez still remains Latin America’s best-known writer, One Hundred Years of Solitude his best-known work, and magic realism his best-known style. Since that novel appeared, however, a new generation of authors has sprung up, one that has forsaken fabulist narratives but is as uncompromising in the search to tell stories that capture their region’s history.

One of the best examples is that of fellow-Colombian Juan Gabriel Vasquez. In an earlier novel, he mischievously has the narrator tell us: “This is not one of those books where the dead speak or where beautiful women ascend to the sky, or priests rise above the ground after drinking a steaming potion”. Clearly, despite the author’s stated admiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude -- one of the books that he says made him want to become an author – a new approach was necessary.

Vasquez’s recent The Sound of Things Falling, translated by Anne McLean and the third of his books to be available in English, is a perfect illustration of his concerns and technique. “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find that their life has been moulded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from their own decisions,” thinks the narrator of The Sound of Things Falling, and the novelist sets out to unpack this statement in the context of his country’s recent history.

The narrator, a law professor in Bogota, tells of his encounters with one Ricardo Laverde at a billiards parlour, and of how these chance meetings lead to an event that will transform him. We learn bits and pieces of his own life – romance, marriage, fatherhood – and this deftly segues into the heart of the book, a reconstruction of the life of Ricardo himself, revealed as an aspiring, morally compromised pilot taking advantage of his country’s dubious opportunities; and of his wife Elena, an impressionable Peace Corps worker from the United States sucked into the vortex of current events. All of them fall prey to “the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army.”

A presence that pervades the novel – as it does Colombia’s recent past – is that of Pablo Escobar and the continuing havoc that his actions have wrought. To drive home the point, The Sound of Things Falling opens with an escaped hippo from Escobar’s private zoo in Hacienda Napoles, a place that the narrator and Maya, Laverde’s daughter, re-visit near the end. At one point, the latter wryly says: “We have an abnormal relationship to Bogota. Being there through the 80s will do that to you.”  Later, the narrator himself observes: “One day I’d like to find out how many of them were born as Maya and I were at the beginning of the 1970s, how many like Maya or me had a calm or protected or at least unperturbed childhood, how many traversed their teenage years and fearfully became adults while the city around them sank into fear and the sound of gunshots and bombs without anyone having declared any war, or at least not a conventional war, if such a thing exists.”

Vasquez also grounds his narrative in other historical events that have scarred his country: the 1938 aircraft accident during a ceremony to mark the founding of Bogota is one such, cross-matched by another air disaster, that of the American Airlines flight in 1995. Other temporal markers are provided by, among others, conversations about Nixon, Ho Chi Minh and the Sea of Tranquility.

In a Washington Post interview, Vasquez has said, “I realized that the fact that I didn’t understand my country was the best reason to write about it — that fiction, for me, is a way of asking questions. I think of it as the Joseph Conrad approach: You write because there’s a dark corner, and you believe that fiction is a way to shed some light.” This is exactly what he– thrillingly, arrestingly – has done in his new novel.

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