EVERY four years the World Cup becomes the global lingua franca. It’s hard to meet anyone from a participating country without asking for an assessment of how they think their team will do. So it was when the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez was in Dublin to collect the Impac Prize for his novel, The Sound of Things Falling.
As we drank the thankfully up-to-scratch coffee (Colombians have high standards in such things), our talk turned inevitably to football. But, this being Colombia, it did not take long for us to go from this year’s tournament to the fallout from the 1994 World Cup, and the murder of Andres Escobar, the defender who scored an own goal in a much-fancied Colombia’s ill-fated campaign.
Escobar’s death is one of international football’s darkest moments and it’s tempting for the outsider to think of it simply as another instance in which the spectacular violence of Colombian life at that time manifested itself.
But, says Vasquez, this was different. “It wasn’t just another example, no. It was a wake-up call. We thought we could not sink lower than this. I remember it very well. I was in the US, I had just been to a couple of matches. We all thought Colombia was going to have a great tournament, so I brought tickets for the round of 16 and the round of eight. I ended up seeing Spain v Italy and Spain v Switzerland, then I got a call at 6.30 in the morning.
“And during those years, if you got a call at 6.30 in the morning it didn’t mean anything good. It was my mother saying Andres Escobar had been shot.”
Vasquez, a considered, articulate speaker, appears moved thinking back on the killing. “It really, it made us sad. We had lived with extreme violence for about a decade, but this had something special that touched us.”
The Sound of Things Falling takes the reader back to the Colombia of that era, telling the story of a law lecturer named Antonio who frequents a billiard hall in Bogota. There, he gets to know Laverde, an ex-pilot recently released from prison. When he is shot in the street and killed, Antonio, wounded in the same attack, is contacted by Laverde’s daughter. He begins to delve into Laverde’s past, which he finds is intertwined with the origins of a drug trade that almost destroyed his country.
Several writers had tackled similar material before Vasquez, but he says that it slowly dawned on him as he was writing The Sound of Things Falling that it was saying something new.
“When I was well into the novel I realised that this had never been written about before. We had all grown uip surrounded by these images of the public, visible side of the drug wars. At some point, I realised that nobody had created a space to think about the moral, emotional consequences of all that and I thought that space might be a novel. There was a family of literary novels dealing with this, but none of them had explored that aspect of growing up during this time, which is the idea of living with fear, living in a society in which unpredictable violence changes the way in which you relate to other people.”
Stylistically, Vasquez writes with an exactness and realism that is remarkably restrained given his material. He is dealing with the era of Pablo Escobar, who, as an individual affected a massive country on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. “I think the whole story of Pablo Escobar’s personal war against the Colombian state is on a scale that is not easy to understand if you didn’t live through it and experience first hand the sheer amount of power this guy had,” Vasquez says. “He really, by himself, threw a whole country off balance for a decade.”
Though The Sound of Things Falling references plane bombings and brazen assassinations, Vasquez’s careful tone eschews any romanticism. “He was this larger than life character,” he says, “and it is very easy to romanticise him. But that’s one of the worst mistakes a certain kind of literature has made. I don’t find it romantic at all – he’s just a large-scale psychopath with all the money in the world at his disposal. But the consequences of his actions from a novelist’s point of view are something really worth exploring.”
Vasquez’s is an approach far removed from the magic-realist caricature that tends to be applied to Latin American writers. “The general idea is that that kind of influence is territorial. I mean, that, since I’m Colombian and Garcia Marquez was Colombian, then his influence has to fall on me. What I usually try to explain is that influence is voluntary. Marquez didn’t grow up with the unavoidable influence of the last generation of Colombian novelists; he chose who to imitate — first Faulkner, then Hemingway, he found his own voice in that process.
“For me it was the same thing: my experience, my obsessions found a better model in other Latin American novelists, short story writers such as Borges, or English-language novelists such as Philip Roth. Even a couple of books by John Banville were great influences.”
Vasquez says life in Colombia has improved in recent years, but he is irked by tourism campaigns and government boosterism that tries to portray the country as “a shiny happy place”. That’s far from the truth, he says, and anyone following the country’s elections will know it remains a country that is almost too complex and fascinating for its own good. “Right now, we are trying to end a 50-year-old conflict between the Marxist guerrillas and the state, and if you throw in drugs, and the right-wing paramilitaries, you get one of the most complicated and violent situations in Latin America.
“This is what we are trying to deal with. I for one don’t see an easy way out of all that. It’s very complicated, but, as always happens in literature, situations of conflict generate novels. Novels are always the way we try to explain what goes on. So there is great literature being written in Colombia right now. In Latin America, it has almost always been a side effect of violence, great literature.”