The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vazquez; Riverhead, 270 pages ($27.95). A conversation between American novelist Jonathan Franzen and the Colombian author of this remarkable new book was included in the publicity for Vazquez’s third novel. Franzen, quite understandably, points out to the 43-year-old novelist from Bogota how “different” his works are “from the Latin American ‘boom’ novels of a generation ago. I’m thinking both of their cosmopolitanism” and their situation in modern urban Bogota. “To me,” Franzen says, “it feels as if there’s been a kind of awakening in Latin American fiction, a clearing of the magical mists and I’m wondering to what extent you see your work as a reaction to” them.
It’s a good question despite how woefully misleading it is. (Few writers were ever more “cosmopolitan” than Argentina’s Julio Cortazar, a non-Nobel “boom” stalwart, if ever there was one. Nor could Borges properly be accused of floating “magical mists” between covers. But you know what he means about Vazquez’s Colombian forebear, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his world-conquering “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”)
Vazquez’s answer is that Marquez is one of the writers who made him want to be a writer and Mario Vargas Llosa gave him his “idea of how a writer works (relentless discipline and stubbornness, total commitment to the trade) … But I love the idea of a novel confronting or rebelling against its own tradition, the books that have made it possible … What I mean is that writing is a contact sport: you pick fights with the books you love …the great Latin American writers of the ‘boom’ years – even those working outside magic realism – were too busy reinventing the public history and politics of a continent to concentrate on the private individual, his conscience, morality and emotions.”
So Vazquez begins with the Colombia he’s been given – a place with a terrifying drug trade and a real story about a hippo “the color of black pearls” that escaped from the zoo of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. A law professor investigates the murder of a friend, a pilot for the drug trade, during an attack on them both. It will surprise no one that Vazquez, in the generation of Roberto Bolano, has translated Victor Hugo and E.M. Forster.
– Jeff Simon