"The Sound of Things Falling" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Riverhead Books, $27.95
"The Sound of Things Falling," the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez's third novel, begins with a lost hippopotamus. A refugee from Pablo Escobar's defunct zoo -- left derelict after the drug lord was killed in Medellin in 1993 -- the disoriented hippo, "the color of black pearls," is eventually killed.
Like Proust's madeleine, a news story about the hippo reminds Antonio Yammara of friend Ricardo Laverde. Laverde's story, Antonio says, is one "in which my name did not appear [but] spoke of me in each and every one of its lines." We backtrack to find that Antonio is a law professor who lives in Bogóta, where "you close your eyes for too long and you might very well open them to find yourself surrounded by another world."
Antonio's partner and former student, Aura, becomes pregnant unexpectedly. Not long after, walking down the street with his mysterious friend Ricardo Laverde, Antonio is shot -- collateral damage from a hit against his friend -- and begins a long recovery.
Debilitated with PTSD, Antonio grows obsessed with Laverde's background and begins to ignore Aura and his young daughter. In crime-plagued Colombia, Laverde's killing "was one of many, and it was almost arrogant or pretentious to believe that we were due the luxury of an answer." Yet Antonio pursues one anyway.
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This is a profoundly beautiful -- if cynical -- novel. Vásquez's debut, "The Informers," previously caught this reviewer's attention, as it was premised on a bad book review: The book being written by the protagonist, and the hatchet job by his father, which exposed unseen gaps between them, and drew on the aftermath of World War II in Latin America.
"The Sound of Things Falling" has the same kind of relationship to history: "Our societies are obsessed with the past," one Colombian tells an American. "But you gringos aren't interested in the past at all, you look forward, you're only interested in the future."
By the time we realize the significance of the hippopotamus -- when Antonio, in search of answers about Laverde, encounters a wayward hippo -- "The Sound of Things Falling" has covered an impressive stretch of memory and territory. The book possesses clear shades of Spanish writer Javier Marías' distinct style, and the shadow of Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez is explicitly referenced when one character, the gringo Peace Corps volunteer, keeps having difficulty getting into "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
Before long, Vásquez may end up there with Marquez and Marías in the pantheon of living Spanish-language writers. "The Sound of Things Falling" is not a perfect book -- the ending whimpers instead of roars -- but it is a satisfying and haunting read.