How does tragedy unite a nation? How can terror mark a generation? These questions are at the core of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel “The Sound of Things Falling.”
Over the summer, the Colombian author released the English-language version of his critically-acclaimed 2011 novel in the United States. Taking hold of one of his home country’s darkest chapters, Vásquez uses his book to explore how his generation has been marked by drug lord Pablo Escobar’s widespread narcoterrorism of the 1980s and 90s.
The novelist recently sat down with The Huffington Post to talk about his book and discuss how he believes an entire generation was unwillingly shaped by violence.
HuffPost: What inspired you to delve into this dark chapter in Colombia's history? How did your book come about?
JGV: This one was born out of a mix of images. The first was a memory from my years studying law school in downtown Bogotá, I would spend a lot of time in the Casa de Poesía Silva where you can put a headset on and listen to poetry. There I saw something that really struck me at the time, I was stunned to see a guy in his 50s put on a headset and suddenly start to sob uncontrollably. I asked myself “what was he listening to? What would prompt a man to cry like that in public? Who was he? And that is where one of the book’s characters, Ricardo Laverde, was born.
[Laverde] is the pilot that is released from prison at the beginning of the novel and whose story later mixes with that of the book’s narrator Antonio Yammara. His story came from a photograph I saw in Semana magazine in 2009 that pictured a hippopotamus that had escaped from Pablo Escobar’s zoo and had been chased down by the military and snipers. That image of the hippopotamus surrounded by soldiers reminded me for the first time in so many years what it was like to grow up in Bogotá during those years of bombs and terrorism. Then I realized that Ricardo Laverde’s story could be the story of anyone in my generation who is a type of victim of the terrorism of the 80s and 90s. That’s where the novel started.
HP: And how does this experience translate onto the Colombian people as a whole? Does this sort of trauma from living during these violent years unite Colombians? Does it divide them?
JGV: Well, I asked myself that question too. I left Colombia in ‘96, Pablo Escobar was killed in December 1993 and with his death that decade of terrorism and living in fear came to a close. I personally experienced two or three bombs just at the beginning of 1993. Those were very difficult months in Bogotá. So, since I left in ‘96, when I started the novel all of that seemed so long ago and I seriously began to ask if people had actually not lived in as much fear as I remembered, if the danger had not been that great. Because quickly I began to realize that the novel touched upon something that I hadn’t seen in Colombian literature, which was to tell the intimate, private, emotional side of what it was like to live in Bogotá during that time when you had no direct connection with the narco trafficking or violence. So the novel began to take shape around those questions, did this experience unite us as a generation? Do we have common traits that come from having grown up in that particular time period? Writing the book was an attempt at answer and exploring those questions.
JGV: I didn’t come to a conclusion [laughs] but I did discover that everyone has some latent thing there, a difficult relationship with the city because of it, a difficult relationship with our memory because of it, that we’ve all had a brush with severe violence, that we’ve all known someone who was wounded by a bomb or a shootout. Those were years that everyone was marked in some way. That, I did confirm.
Did you leave Colombia because of the violence?
JGV: I’ve always said no because in reality I left Colombia because I had become convinced that it was what I had to do to become the type of writer that I had in mind. Now, after writing the novel, I’ve realized that if [the violence] wasn’t the reason I left it certainly made the decision much easier. The violence and narcoterrorism in Colombia began when I was eight years old, so my adolescence and the beginning of my adult life were marked by violence and that certainly convinced me that I had no reason to stay.
How have people in Colombia reacted to the book?
JGV: Well there are two types of reactions. There are some people who believe that talking about these things is bad propaganda for the country, that in Colombia there are beautiful landscapes and not just narcotrafficking and bombs. And those reactions seem to me to be poorly justified and too simplistic. I’ve always believed that one of the things that literature can do is open your eyes when most people want to close them. The novel is a genre that raises its hand and says “things are not as right as you think, this is happening and so is this.” So in that sense, at least for me, a novel always feeds off of the dark side, the negative side, the side of our experiences that is difficult.
And the other reaction comes out of the need to know what really happened in those years in a way that isn’t the sensational manner in which some television series or newspapers portray it. I think that if 30 years after these events there are series like the one of Pablo Escobar coming out, journalism books coming out, novels keeping coming out -- it’s because we haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. We haven’t understood what happened in those days and my book wants to help.
Inspite of all of these things, you returned to live in Bogotá. Do you feel that perhaps Colombia has changed after all?
JGV: I believe that drug trafficking, at the root of it, continues to exist as the ridiculously lucrative business and means to finance all of the violence in Colombia. Drug trafficking is one of the main sources of funding for the paramilitary guerrillas but is also a major cause of the forced displacement because the sad reality is that many displaced Colombians are victims of disputes over the territories where the drugs are grown and transported. So as long as drugs continue and profit margins continue to grow, it will continue to generate violence and breed corruption. It will continue to finance all of the country's illegal armies and continue to tear into the fabric of Colombian society, from deep within.
I move around very differently in Bogotá now compared to how I did in 1993 because that violence is no longer there, which is magnificent. The fall of the Medellín cartel and the death of Pablo Escobar brought to an end a decade marked by narco terrorism, which is clearly not there anymore… but let’s not pretend for a second that things are ok because drug trafficking continues to undermine the fabric of Colombian society and continues to do a lot of damage.