History and Identity in The Sound of Things Falling

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Examiner.com. Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel, The Sound of Things Falling, follows his narrator, Antonio, as his life unfolds amid the modern history of Colombia. Antonio is a law professor in Bogota who enjoys playing pool at a local pool hall. By chance, he meets Ricardo Laverde, and his life is swept up in the historical rush of Colombia as it is realized in Laverde and his family.

When Antonio meets Laverde, he is an older, broken man. Laverde speaks little of his life, though he does reveal that he used to be a pilot, that he is married to an American, and that he had been in prison. Slowly, Laverde reveals more about his life and Antonio becomes more and more intrigued by his mysterious past. One day, Laverde comes to the pool hall with a cassette tape and asks Antonio if he knows where he can find a tape player to listen to it. Antonio takes him to a library where Laverde listens on headphones with tears streaming down his cheek.

Antonio comes to learn that the tape is from the black box of a plane that crashed outside of Bogota. The tape and the reasons for Laverde’s tears drive much of the narrative of the book. Without spoiling some of the surprises, Antonio’s life becomes more and more consumed by the life that Laverde lived.

At the same time, Antonio and other characters recall the history of Colombia through the darkest days of the drug wars. They talk about how Pablo Escobar and his powerful drug cartel not only controlled the country but affected everyone’s life. As connections between Laverde and his family and the history become more clear, Vasquez shows how his narrator is as much a pawn in the history of Colombia as anyone.

In the end, Antonio is left in a precarious position without any clear identity of his own. He finds that he cannot escape the grip of Laverde’s life–or of his country’s history.

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