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New novel imagines lives of those who endured Colombian drug wars

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 6:29 p.m.

Long before Mexico descended into its “drug war,” the phrase itself was invented in another country. In the 1980s, the underground industry that processed coca into cocaine and shipped it northward to U.S. consumers transformed Colombian society. It created powerful drug barons who became public villains and icons, and it saw a country and its public institutions nearly consumed by a culture of violence.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez's deeply affecting and closely observed new novel takes up the psychic aftermath of that era, as residents of Colombia's capital, Bogota, struggle to make sense of the disorder and dysfunction that's enveloped their daily lives.

“Nobody warned me Bogota was going to be like this,” says one of the characters, an American woman who arrives in the heady days of the late 1960s, before the worst of the craziness truly begins.

“The Sound of Things Falling” is the Colombian writer's second novel, and it begins with the classic detached and dreamlike tone of Latin American short-story masters Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. Our narrator is Antonio Yammara, a law professor who haunts the billiard clubs in central Bogota. He tells us his life is about to be changed forever by an encounter with one of the lonely regulars there.

Ricardo Laverde is a short, mousy man. He goes to the billiard club because it offers both anonymity and a brief sense of companionship. As Yammara and Laverde strike up a conversation, a television over the billiard table eerily broadcasts a news report that foreshadows their shared future: A conservative politician has been shot and killed.

“So all the billiard players lamented the crime with a resignation that was by then a sort of national idiosyncrasy, the legacy of our times, and then we went back to our respective games,” Yammara says.

The violence that's been ravaging Colombia is not just savagery of “cheap stabbings and stray bullets, the settling of accounts between low-grade dealers,” Vasquez writes, but rather violence committed by actors whose names are “written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army, the Front.” Like other Bogota residents, Yammara is at once accustomed to the killings and unsettled by them.

Men and women of Yammara's generation can barely remember a time when the nation's public life wasn't shaped by violence. They've seen assorted criminals, soldiers and rebels bomb and level office buildings, bring down commercial airlines and assassinate a presidential candidate on live television. As the two men meet, the worst of the killings are over, leaving Colombians with the sense that life is about to begin anew, Vasquez writes. But thanks to his brief friendship with the doomed Laverde (we are told early on in the novel that Laverde will be killed), the bright law professor is pulled deep into the maelstrom.

Yammara is a young and handsome member of the Latin American intelligentsia, and his life has been defined by the pleasures available to such men, including the occasional affair with his students. But when he witnesses the killing of Laverde — and becomes a victim of gunplay himself — he is transported into a world of dread and emotional turmoil, a journey that Vasquez describes with appropriately Kafkaesque overtones.

“The world seemed to me like a closed place, or my life a walled-in life ... ” Yammara says.

Yammara discovers he has an especially acute case of the illness from which Colombia is suffering collectively: post-traumatic stress. Knowing that it's a generalized condition doesn't help him much. He becomes a father not long after he's shot, and, while raising a baby girl and mourning a friend, he becomes a kind of living metaphor of the cycles of life and death. And Vasquez's portrait of his distress, and his sudden disconnectedness from his loved ones, is both convincing and original.

“Fear was the main ailment of Bogotanos of my generation,” a psychologist tells Yammara. “My situation, he told me, was not at all unusual: It would eventually pass, as it had passed for all the others who had visited his office.”

A quest to find out more about Laverde and why he was killed takes Yammara deeper into his country's past. One of the first things we learn about the mysterious Laverde is that he was a pilot. His story takes unexpected twists involving two airplane crashes.

In the end, “The Sound of Things Falling” embraces larger, more ethereal themes. Vasquez isn't just writing about Colombia's violent present; he's also tapping into the ways in which uncertainty and the unexpected — and the country's relationship to the United States — have helped shape the Colombian national character.

Laverde once flew planes for the drug trade. As Yammara unwinds his story, we learn how the Laverde family was linked to an American smuggler and the “bad craziness” of the Hunter S. Thompson era of U.S. history, when cocaine first became “cool.”

The American appetite for cocaine changed Colombia forever, a point Vasquez makes subtly in this novel. In the end, his characters feel as if they're falling through history itself, a tragic past and present in which two countries have been linked by their ambitions and desires — and by the invisible air corridors that run between them.

Hector Tobar is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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