Colombia. The drug trade. Multiple plane crashes, drive-by shootings, Peace Corps hippies who peddle drugs, and an actual hippo on the loose. Despite all of that, there's actually not much plot to this novel. This is more of a metaphysical detective story where cause and effect can be difficult to pin down — a book where the events that matter most occur inside the characters.
The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, takes place in and around Colombia's capital, Bogota, in the years that buffer the bloom of the drug business and the rise of kingpins like Pablo Escobar.
We begin in the 1990s. Bogota is cosmopolitan but cold, weary from so much corruption and crime. People don't trust one another, particularly strangers. Everyone's got a secret, including some whoppers, and the book at first seems to function like a potboiler — only one that's set to simmer, which is too bad.
When we first meet our narrator, Antonio, he's a junior law professor. He kills time in a pool hall where he meets a mysterious stranger, Ricardo Laverde. The more Antonio learns about Ricardo's past, the more he's intrigued. Turns out Ricardo is a pilot, just out of a prison. Why he was jailed, though, he won't say.
Then, tragedy strikes. Antonio and Ricardo are attacked by some guys on motorcycles for no obvious reason. Ricardo is killed. Antonio recovers his health, but not his confidence. Fear takes hold. The only way to get better, or so it seems, is to pause his life — his job, his family — and figure out why he and Ricardo were shot.
From there, our pseudo-gumshoe's quest goes in two directions: backward into Ricardo's history, and forward into its consequences. Our focus is drawn to offbeat particulars — not the kilos a trafficker moved, but how many elephants he kept in his zoo. Or how a single assassination can make headlines, but it's those headlines that terrorize a nation. In Vasquez's hands, history is never dead, never doomed to repeat itself — if anything, it's constantly repeating itself and won't shut up.
Vasquez writes, "people of my generation do these things: we ask each other what our lives were like at the moment of those events — almost all of which occurred in the 1980s — which defined or diverted them before we knew what was happening to us."
The Sound of Things Falling is that unique detective story where we're more interested in the narrator's inner life than the mystery surrounding him. Vasquez has taken the psychological novel and made it political. Turned mystery fiction into contemporary history.
I'm usually pretty good at anticipating a book's ending, but not this time. Because there's no fancy trick to how Vasquez wraps up his story. Only a testament to the endurance of flawed, confused, ordinary human souls.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the travel memoir Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down, which has just come out in paperback.
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.