Sunday, September 29, 2013

Excavating layers of narrative in search of the elusive truth (Books - The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez)

Themes of truth-telling and father-child relationships were the subject of Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Informers, which I wrote about here and here.   They are echoed in The Sound of Things Falling (Riverhead Book, 2013), but not in a way that feels either repetitive or formulaic. The narrative voice in this latest novel, translated by Anne McLean, is also that of a literate and cerebral man, Antonio Yammara.  These qualities slow the pace of reading down in a way that initially made me impatient, but allowed reflection as Vasquez's narrator reflects, and ultimately encouraged my becomming enveloped in multiple layers of text.
And that's how this story got under way.  I don't know what good it does us to remember, what benefits or possible penalties it brings, or how what we've lived through can change when we remember it, but remembering Ricardo Laverde well has become an urgent matter for me.  I read somewhere that a man should tell the story of his life at the age of forty, and this deadline is fast approaching: as I write these lines, only a few shot weeks remain before this ominous birthday arrives.  The story of his life.  No, I won't tell my life story, just a few days of it that happened a long time ago, and I'll do so fully aware that this story, as they warn in fairy tales, has happened before and will happen again.
The story here is national as well as personal.  Born in Columbia in the 1970s, it should not be surprising that Vasquez looks to stories to uncover the truth - so embroiled was his country in corruption and drug trade.  Antonio, who uses literature to teach law, begins his story by telling us about telling stories. This self-awareness as artifice is not only revealing of the self-consciousness of the narrator, but is an effective technique for eliciting our belief.  When you reveal the back wall of the theatre, you no longer need to rely on stage tricks or fend off disbelief - all you are asking of your audience is to believe they're in a theatre, which is the truth.  Whatever world you create from there, you create together.

As in good drama, our protagonist is driven to fulfill an objective.  Antonio is relentless in his search for the story of Ricardo Laverde which he uncovers, at least in part, in a trove of letters.  Tape recordings also become a means of conveying the narrative of absent characters - yet another layer of text.  Vasquez creates two highly effective choral scenes, "playing" these taped voices from the past for us during a dialogue conducted during the novel's present day timeframe - creating something evoking multi-voiced baroque music.

Vasquez is minutely observant of idiosyncratic details that lend his characters both beauty and verisimilitude, as in Antonio's girlfriend's poetic sense of smell.
Beneath the electric brightness of the screen I saw Aura smile, and I'm very afraid I won't forget that smile as long as I live.  Then I saw her put a finger on her belly to smear it with the blue gel the nurse had used.  And then I saw her put her finger to her nose, to smell it and classify it according to the rules of her world, and seeing that was absurdly satisfying, like finding a coin in the street.
I think what I love about Vasquez's prose the most is the way he reveals the urgency of his characters' needs to truly know another.  How he opens up characters' privately savored moments, while showing us, simultaneously, the price of maintaining this privacy.  It is a testament to truth telling through narrative. 

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