For more than a decade in the 1980s and ’90s, the Medellín drug cartel and its notorious leader, Pablo Escobar, held an entire nation hostage. Drug-related violence and terrorism were the order of the day in Colombia, with Bogotá as dangerous, in its different way, as Belfast or Beirut. This, naturally, had a profound effect on its citizens — including the young writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who left his home city in 1996 to forge a career as a novelist in Paris, and later in Belgium and Spain.
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Vásquez, who moved back to Bogotá last year, recalls the years of Escobar's traumatic reign in "The Sound of Things Falling," published in Spanish in 2011 and appearing in the United States for this first time this week in a new translation by Anne McLean. (His earlier novels include 2004's "The Informers" and 2007's "The Secret History of Costaguana.") "The Sound of Things Falling" centers on the young Bogotá lawyer Antonio Yammara and his quest to learn more about his dead friend Ricardo Laverde, an ex-convict who had once been a pilot in the drug trade. In the process, Antonio is forced to confront the impact of the violence in his own life.
Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Vásquez, 40, as he traveled in Paris with his family. Here's an edited version of our interview.
Q: You lived in Europe for many years and now have returned to Colombia. Why did you leave your home country, and why did you move back?
A: I left with one idea in my head: to become a novelist. I was quite consciously and rather pedantically following an unofficial Latin American tradition which said that you have to leave your country to become a writer. Every Latin American writer who has had any influence on my work, with the exception of Borges, wrote from abroad: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar. Plus, Paris was the city where Hemingway wrote some of his best stories and where Joyce wrote the biggest part of "Ulysses," one of my fetish novels. So when I left for Paris in 1996, I had literary reasons, and for a very long time I enjoyed saying that the Colombian situation had nothing to do with my decision, that I was not an exile, that I hadn't been expelled by violence. But over the years I have understood that my decision to leave was strongly affected by the last 12 or 13 years of my life in Bogotá. That was the decade in which Pablo Escobar and the Cartel de Medellín declared war on the Colombian government and used terrorism to achieve their ends, bombing shopping malls on Mother's Day, or commercial airlines, or government buildings. From age 11, all I knew was violence: strategies to deal with violence and fear, strategies to go on living despite of the constant threat of terrorism, and, as I was growing up, strategies to deal with the fact that my country was corrupted from head to toe by the drug trade and its consequences. In the end, all that kicked me out.
Q: My sense from reading the book is that the drug-related violence in Colombia was both so omnipresent as to be sort of numbing — it became simply the way of life — and jarring at times. Were you, your family or friends ever affected directly?
A: Terrorism in those years, beginning in the mid-'80s and only ending with Pablo Escobar's killing in 1993, was a part of the landscape. My generation enjoys remembering the way we related to it. We get together and begin remembering details — how windows all over the city were covered with tape, so that an explosion wouldn't shatter them. Flying glass hurt many people in the first days. Or how we were able to distinguish the sound of a bombing from just about every other kind of strong noise. Or how we adolescents went around with a coin in our pockets, a coin that we never spent because it was only used in case of emergency — after a bombing or a shooting, to call home from the nearest pay phone and say you're OK. Life moved indoors. The streets were risky because you could find yourself in the middle of a shooting; Escobar killed nearly 1,000 policemen in his last years, and many people standing next to them. Shopping malls were risky because they were good targets. Clubs were risky because the mafiosos loved to shut them down in the middle of the night and not let anyone out until daylight. That was the best-case scenario; they could also take a liking to your girlfriend and kill you both if you resisted. Was I affected directly? I don't know what "directly" means. By the time I was 23, I had seen three people being shot. My father's car went around with a little dent on the hood, because somebody had fired a shot at him. An uncle of mine was killed by the FARC (leftist rebel) guerrillas in an attempt to kidnap him. The father of a school friend was killed in the bombing of an airplane in 1989. A college friend got a stray bullet and almost died. I had him in mind when I wrote about Antonio Yammara.
Q: The book is about how the violence affected marriages and families. I assume you made a conscious decision to concentrate on the psychological and social effect of the violence, rather than the violence itself?
A: Well, I became aware that the violence itself has been well documented through the last 20 years. Images are readily available on the Internet: the parts of that plane that exploded in mid-air, the photographs of wrecked buildings. Even the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, a presidential candidate, is available on YouTube. What would be the use of telling all that all over again? I'm quite obsessed with this idea that the only obligation a novel has is not to be redundant. Fiction should take us to places that only fiction can reach. And these places are almost always moral or emotional, and in any case private and intimate. My novel is not a history of Colombia, or a political treatise about the drug trade. It's a novel about fathers and daughters and husbands and wives, and how fear and violence shape their lives.
Q: What is life like in Bogotá today? My sense is that it's much safer now.
A: It is not only much safer; it is a different place. It was a city at war where people lived in constant fear. Now it is your average eight-million-people Latin American capital. It's dangerous in places. It's hostile, chaotic and difficult to live in. But it is not under threat. Or rather, its biggest threat right now comes from a mixture of incompetent and corrupt politicians and negligent citizens.
Q: Were you in Colombia at the time of the death of Pablo Escobar?
A: Yes, I was in Colombia, and I remember the day distinctly. It was December, which in Bogotá is a sunny season. Around noon, I learned that Escobar had been hunted down and killed on a rooftop in Medellín. I was 21 and had never known life without terrorism. Yes, I felt liberated, but it was a strange feeling. Escobar is linked to the murder of over 10,000 people, so it was a kind of liberation for many people in Colombia. You could see satisfaction in people's faces, even happiness. On the other hand, he was and is adored by many people who were dependent on him or enjoyed his wealth. He collected poor people — he gave them houses, electricity, water, and became for them everything the government wasn't.
Q: The novel begins with the story of a real hippo that escaped from a zoo owned by Escobar and was later killed. How did the image of the hippo function for you? And did you ever visit the zoo, as Antonio did as a child?
A: I visited the zoo, like the narrator, when I was 12. Like him, I didn't tell my parents; they wouldn't have let me. But I almost forgot completely about it until I began writing the novel 25 years later. When I began writing, I wanted to tell the story of this pilot who had worked for the newly born drug trade at the beginning of the '70s. He was made of research, of things I knew without knowing how, and of novelistic intuition. I lived with Ricardo Laverde for about a year, but I couldn't help thinking that his story was somebody else's story, that I wasn't able to make it my own. Then one day I opened Semana magazine and I saw the photograph of the dead hippo, and the effect was amazing. All of a sudden I was remembering my visit to the zoo, and beginning there, the years of narco-terrorist violence. Everything came back to me, down to Escobar's death. That's how I understood who should tell the story. It wasn't a novel about a pilot or about the drug trade, but about the private lives of people like me or my friends or my family, people who almost by chance live in the same country where all the other stuff is happening: the drug wars, the bombings, the fear.
Q: In a recent interview with Jonathan Franzen, you discussed your relationship with the tradition of magic realism. Do I infer correctly that you felt the reality of Colombia was quite sufficient for the purposes of your fiction — no "magic" needed?
A: Magical realism was born from a certain temperament, Caribbean and provincial, even if García Márquez's genius has turned it into a metaphor of a whole continent. Yes, it was a great lens through which to look at Latin American reality, but it became overused quite soon, and has since then produced hundreds of derivative novels full of artificial surprises. That lens is not good anymore to look at anything. It doesn't let us see things we couldn't see before. On the contrary, it gives us a sense of familiarity, of soothing exoticism: "Only in Latin America!" For me, Latin America is not magical, but tragical. Both "The Sound of Things Falling" and "The Informers" try to make that tragical side come out.
Q: I may be grasping at straws here, but the structure of the book reminds me of "Citizen Kane." Did you have that in mind as an influence or model?
A: You're not grasping at straws. "Citizen Kane" is one of my favorite films, partly because it was one of the first examples I knew of how to treat human life as a mystery. My favorite novelists are people who seem to be fascinated by other human beings, by their hidden areas, and they take that into their novels. Perhaps that's why a certain tradition of realist fiction is much more important for me than magical realism. Novels such as Dostoyevsky's "Demons," Conrad's "Lord Jim," Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," down to (W.G.) Sebald's "Austerlitz" and Philip Roth's "[The] American Trilogy" have informed my writing much more than "One Hundred Years of Solitude." What do they have in common? They are built around an investigation of sorts into somebody else's life. They are built around the basic human impulse of curiosity — knowing what the other is like, what secrets he has, what is he hiding. This is not a literary strategy. It's a way of being in the world.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Sound of Things Falling"
By Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Riverhead, 270 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun