Tuesday, July 07, 2015

'The sound of things falling'- novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Colombian writer

'The sound of things falling' (El ruido de las cosas al caer- in Spanish) gives insights into the origin of drug production and trafficking in Colombia. The American Peace corps volunteer Elaine Fritts comes to Colombia to work for the poor as part of the idealistic "Alliance for Progress" project started by John F Kennedy. She falls in love with Ricardo Lavarde, a pilot trainee and the son of the owner of the house in which she stays in Bogota. Another peace corps volunteer Mike Barbieri gets into drug business. He encourages the farmers to grow coca which would give them more profit than the conventional agricultural crops. He advises them how to increase the yield through use of chemicals and fertilizers. He recruits Ricardo to become a pilot of a small plane to carry drugs from Colombia to Jamaica and Bahamas. Ricardo comes back from each trip with bags full of dollars. Eventually, he is caught and sent to jail for twenty years. Elaine hides this story from her only daughter Maya and tells that her father had died in a plane crash. Ricardo comes out of the jail and calls his wife to meet her. The plane in which she travels to Colombia from US crashes and she dies. Ricardo is also killed soon by the drug mafia. Maya has come to know about more about her father through his billiards acquaintance Antonio Yammara from Bogota. Antonio was also shot while walking with Ricardo but he survives. Antonio and Maya visit the ranch of the late drug baron Pablo Escobar in Medellin while sharing the story of Maya's father and mother. 
This story confirms the truth that drug trafficking started in Colombia in response to the demand-driven business from US.  According to an official US report, the value of the illegal drug retail market in US in 2010 was 110 billion dollars with a consumer base of 22 million. As long as the consumers in US as well as the Europe continue their addiction and willing to pay top dollars, there will never be an end to drug supply. It is a no-brainer, as the Americans would say. But the US government and the media have twisted the truth and made it as a problem of supplies from Colombia. The DEA gets into Colombia and forces the government to destroy coca plantations with aerial spraying of deadly chemicals which spoil the health of people and agricultural crops. Finally the US has now realized the failure of the 'war on drugs'. They could learn from the example of Uruguay which has passed laws legalizing production, distribution and consumption of marijuana.
This is the first ever book of Juan Gabriel Vasquez I have read. I enjoyed the book thoroughly and loved his ingenious way of story telling. I liked his vivid descriptions of life in the 'muddy Magdalena river', the cool Bogota and the hot and humid valleys surrounding the capital. He has given subtle and profound comments and interpretations of the history and politics of Colombia. He has given a Colombian perspective of the drug wars imposed by external consumers and enforcers. He has analyzed the psychological and social impact of violence which has come to afflict Colombia since the beginning of the second half of the last century. He says that ' fear' has overtaken the emotional space of the Colombians many of whom have lost their relatives and friends due to the violence. Bombings, murders and kidnappings had made every Colombian afraid of going out to shopping malls or public places. Fortunately, the violence has now come down significantly and the citizens are able to reclaim their streets and getting out of the fear complex.
After enjoying this book, I read two more of his books: " The Informers" and " The secret history of Costaguna". The first is a story about the arrival and settlement of German Jews and Nazis after the first world war. Some of them get detained and deported due to the pressure from US which sends a 'blacklist' to the Colombian government. Some Colombians including the father of the protagonist in the novel become informers to the government, motivated by jealousy or coveting German properties.
'The secret history of Costaguna' is more absorbing with poignant narratives of the death and destruction caused in the process of building of the Panama canal. The civil war between the Colombian conservatives and liberals add to the death toll. Taking advantage of this situation, the Americans take over the northern territory of Colombia and create a separate country Panama to build the canal. 

Juan Gabriel Vasquez is inventive like Borges and elaborative like Garcia Marquez. But Vasquez is critical of the magical realism approach and says, ' in my novel there is a disproportionate reality'. While reading ' the secret history of Costaguna' I had an intense feeling as I had felt while reading the ' War of the end of the world' by Mario Vargas Llosa. I could not read at one go. I had to pause and reflect many times. 
Juan Gabriel Vasquez has now become a delightful addition to my list of favorite Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Isabel Allende and Carlos Fuentes. Vasquez, in my opinion, is Nobel Prize material.

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