Carving Up Hippos In 'The Sound Of Things Falling'

A new book by Juan Gabriel Vasquez is set in 1960s Bogota, when Colombians lived with drug-related violence daily. Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks with Vasquez about his book.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Juan Gabriel Vasquez's new novel opens with the death of something that is improbably huge and beautiful. Let's let him tell us:

JUAN GABRIEL VASQUEZ: (Reading) The first hippopotamus, a male the color of black pearls weighing a ton and a half, was shot dead in the middle of 2009. He'd escaped two year before from Pablo Escobar's old zoo in the Magdalena Valley. And during that time of freedom had destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fishermen and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch. The marksmen who finally caught up with him shot him once in the head and again in the heart with .357 caliber bullets, since hippopotamus skin is thick. They posed with the dead body, the great dark wrinkled mass, a recently fallen meteorite. And there, in front of the first cameras and onlookers, beneath a saber tree that protected them from the harsh sun, explained that the weight of the animal would prevent them from transporting him whole, and they immediately began carving him up.

SIMON: That hippo becomes what a madeleine cookie was to Marcel Proust: a crumb by which to recall the past, in this case, the Colombia of the generation where the country was ruled by an ongoing war between the Medellin drug cartel of Pablo Escobar and a militarized government. Mr. Vasquez's new novel is "The Sound of Things Falling." Juan Gabriel Vasquez joins us from Bogota, Colombia. Thanks so much for being with us.

VASQUEZ: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Where was Pablo Escobar's zoo?

VASQUEZ: It was built inside a ridiculously big property in the Magdalena Valley. The name of Escobar's property was Hacienda Napoles. This was a huge touristic destination for people in Colombia, where you can see animals that you couldn't have seen in any other way: pink dolphins from the Amazonian River or the hippos or a certain rhinoceros. It had all this mythic quality, only built with drug money. And this is the place in which he not only had the zoo but he also had his landing strips for planes who were smuggling drugs into the United States. And he had his headquarters there, the places where he used to decide what politician to kill, what place to bomb. It's a center of gravity for those years in our memory, the place where the worse things were going on and at the same time the place that was visited by a whole generation of Colombian innocent children.

SIMON: Your narrator is an aging law professor, Antonio Yammara, and he meets a guy in a pool hall named Ricardo. What makes Antonio says, as he does of Ricardo, this man used to be another man?

VASQUEZ: Well, I used to spend a lot of my time at this cultural center in downtown Bogota, where you can sit down and listen to poetry. And one of those days I was listening to my own recording of poetry when I saw that a man was crying in a very violent way that made a strong impact on me. And he became this sort of private, intimate mystery to me. And I guess it protected the whole situation onto my character, Antonio Yammara, who sees this other character, Ricardo Laverde. And he just feels that there is something in his past which is worth knowing. I think that's a situation every novelist knows, right, this sort of obscene curiosity for other people's lives.

SIMON: Antonio's life begins to intersect Ricardo's in all ways, really, especially with Ricardo's daughter, Maya, who thought her father had died decades before.

VASQUEZ: Well, one of the situations that I grew up living in Colombia in the '80s was young or youngish men trying to become rich very quickly; flying to the United States, hiding drugs in their suitcases or their baggage. These were the people that we called mulas.

SIMON: Mules.

VASQUEZ: Exactly. And many of them, obviously, didn't come back. They were caught at the border, they were sent to jail. And there's a whole generation of people who had to make up whole stories for their children to justify the absence of a parent. It was sadly fascinating but I thought that should go into the novel.

SIMON: Can we, living today in North America, understand what life was like in Colombia under the Escobar reign of terror?

VASQUEZ: Well, those years were very long years, I must say, more than a decade of bombings and shootings in the streets. I don't think that is a familiar situation to Americans right now. However, every country in this present time, in the Western world has their own history of fear, of unpredictable violence, even if it doesn't last for a decade. We all know what terrorism is, after 9/11, after the 2004 bombings in Madrid. We all know what that kind of fear feels like.

SIMON: I gather, in fact, while you were writing this novel you were living in Spain following the bombings in Madrid. So, that did influence you?

VASQUEZ: Yes, yes, absolutely. I had begun remembering what I saw in people's faces in Colombia in the '80s by looking at people's faces in the subway, in buses when they saw a stray bag that somebody had left inadvertently beneath the seats. And people's faces changed. I saw that. I saw how they were afraid. And I began realizing differently what that meant for people because, well, I was an adult and a novelist. And all those images from my adolescence and my childhood in Bogota just came back to me very, very strongly.

SIMON: You have a line in this novel that stopped me cold. I'll quote, "Adulthood brings with it a pernicious illusion of control."

VASQUEZ: Yes. We all grow up with this fiction that we control our lives. What I found was one of the most difficult psychological consequences of living under this kind of unpredictable violence was this feeling that you didn't control your own life, the idea that we left home in the morning and we might not be coming back. So, this is something that worries my narrator during the whole book.

SIMON: Is it possible to live your life as if that's not going on? I mean, a lot of people try and tell themselves that's what they do.

VASQUEZ: Yes. That was one of my big questions. Is that's possible? Or do we just make up strategies to pretend that we're leading normal lives? We were all carrying coins in our pockets to be able to call from a payphone if there was a bombing and say I'm OK. We were spending more and more time indoors. So, we changed our way of living social lives. And we also changed the way we were sons and daughters because we knew that something could happen to your loved ones. So, no, no, there were not normal times. But it's astonishing, this capability humans have to pretend. It's very useful, by the way, but I don't know if it's entirely what we should do.

SIMON: Juan Gabriel Vasquez. His new novel is "The Sounds of Things Falling." It's translated by Anne McLean. Thanks so much for being with us.

VASQUEZ: Thank you very much, Mr. Simon. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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