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Dead Hippo Stirs Memory of Peace Corps Dope Scheme: Books

Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Juan Gabriel Vasquez, author of "The Sound of Things Falling." Photographer: Hermance Triay/Riverhead via Bloomberg

The killing of a black hippo serves as the madeleine stirring up memories in Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s quietly eloquent “The Sound of Things Falling.”

As in his previous novels, Vasquez explores the overlaps of personal and national history. “The Informers,” for instance, traced the aftershocks of one man’s betrayal during Colombia’s blacklisting of Germans in the 1940s.

The new novel looks at the ripple effects of the country’s illicit-drug trade. The hippo, an escapee from the former private zoo of drug czar Pablo Escobar, appears in news stories in 2009. It reminds Bogota lawyer Antonio Yammara of being shot accidentally in 1996 when an unknown gunman killed the man he was standing next to, an acquaintance he had only recently met.

This is a former drug pilot named Ricardo Laverde who started flying marijuana in the early 1970s before landing in prison for 19 years. His death and Antonio’s injury affected the lawyer’s marriage as he brooded over his bad luck and then sought to know more about Ricardo.

He connected with the pilot’s daughter, gaining access to a family history that begins with a young woman from the U.S., Elaine Fritts, who arrived in Bogota to work for the Peace Corps in 1969. She stayed with the Laverde family and fell in love with Ricardo.

Perverted Ideal

Their marriage brought him into contact with Peace Corps workers who perverted John F. Kennedy’s ideal of volunteerism by teaching the local farmers marijuana husbandry: “where to plant so the mountains protect the plants, what fertilizer to use, how to tell the male plants from the females.” Later other volunteers “taught the campesinos to process the coca paste.”

Ricardo was one of the pilots who flew the pot harvests to the U.S. Soon he and Elaine had a new home with a swimming pool.

But Uncle Sam giveth and Uncle Sam taketh away. Richard Nixon proclaimed a War on Drugs in 1971, Ricardo was busted and Elaine for years concealed her husband’s true life from their daughter, Maya.

Meanwhile, Escobar’s empire was growing, and the violence that accompanies the drug business scarred a generation of Colombians. They shared milestones like the 1984 assassination of a justice minister, leading to the Colombian equivalent of a question familiar to Kennedy-era Americans: “Where were you when they killed Lara Bonilla?”

Black Box

Running through the book are references to and passages from an audiotape copy of the black-box chatter between two pilots on a commercial flight carrying Elaine to a Christmas 1995 reunion with Ricardo.

The dialogue, bluntly alluded to in the novel’s title, makes a chilling transition from the mundane to the mortal. As do the novel’s interlocking narratives, each character moving from unexceptional lives to those unavoidable scars.

I found the Conradian opening device, which creates a 10-year distance from the main events, a bit contrived (and it leaves an untidy hole at the book’s end). Still, Vasquez is a resourceful storyteller. Scenes and dialogue shine with well-chosen details. His theme echoes compellingly through family parallels, ill-fated flights and even a recurring hippo motif. He shrugs off the long shadow of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a gritty realism that has its own persuasive magic.

“The Sound of Things Falling” is published by Riverhead (270 pages, $26.95). To order this book in North America, click here.

(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Katya Kazakina on art and Mark Beech on music.

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