Haunted by the Coca Leaf in ‘The Sound of Things Falling’

A new novel about Colombia under the reign of cocaine brings Susan Straight back to the late ’80s and early ’90s when crack ruled the California streets. She salutes Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, certain parts of life in my Southern California community were dominated by crack cocaine. It wasn’t just that we mourned those who wandered the streets with vacant eyes and hair tangled like sea coral, or mourned ourselves for having to bring our bicycles and toys, even our trash cans and hoses, inside because crack addicts would steal them to sell; it wasn’t just that I mourned myself when picking up my infant daughter from my mother-in-law’s house and ducking a stray bullet fired near the crack house on the corner; we mourned our dead, too—the women killed while prostituting themselves (they were called “strawberries” for some reason), the cousins and nephews shot while dealing on the corner, the random robberies that led to murder.

One night, driving home, I passed an alley and saw someone light a crack pipe, the tiny red ember flaring bright. I became obsessed with the tiny white chunks of coca that changed hands all around me. In earlier decades, cocaine had been part of Coca-Cola, had in powder form fueled the iconic disco era, had been an upper-class drug in many ways. I used to lie awake at night and picture the leaf itself—the coca leaf, the paste, the powder, then the cutting and cooking and disassembling of the chemical components with baking soda and baby powder and whatever else could stretch that essence of green leaf. I wondered about the place where it grew.

The new novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Sound of Things Falling, is a stunning and evocative examination of those decades in Colombia, where the leaf grows and the small-plane transports harvest and extractions to the rest of the world. The business of cocaine could be rendered in didactic or expository fashion, but Vasquez has managed a remarkable feat—his melancholy, poetic vision of a young Bogotá lawyer, a doomed pilot, the pilot’s American-born wife, and their daughter, a lonely beekeeper in the countryside, takes on the vast transformation of Colombia through the focus on one man. Vasquez’s fiction takes the cartels and violence—and how this business not only changed Bogotá and most of Colombia but much of the Western world which awaited Escobar’s product—and makes us turn pages as rapidly as possible to find out what happens to characters like Ricardo Laverde, the pilot who mourns the hippos abandoned at Pablo Escobar’s massive hacienda after the drug lord’s death.

Antonio Yammara is a young lawyer teaching university courses in Bogota, his native city, in 1996, when he meets Laverde at a bar, overhearing the older man, who’d just been released from a long prison sentence, lament the hippos. They begin to play pool at night, and Yammara maintains a strange fascination mixed with disdain for the ruined Laverde. Yammara has been sleeping in desultory fashion with a student, Aura, who then turns up pregnant and moves in with him. But even after their daughter, Leticia, is born, though he seems in love with the idea of woman and baby, with family, he maintains a distance from Aura, who was raised in other countries during the worst of the drug violence—“Aura left Bogota when she was still very young and her adolescence was a sort of itinerant circus and, at the same time, a permanently inconclusive symphony. Aura’s family returned to Bogota at the beginning of 1994, weeks after Pablo Escobar was killed…and Aura would always be ignorant of what we who lived through it had seen and heard.”

What Antonio Yammara had seen and heard was death, all the time. “I’m not talking about the violence of cheap stabbings and stray bullets, the settling of accounts between low-grade dealers, but the kind that transcends the small resentments and small revenges of little people, the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army, the Front … those crimes (‘magnicides,’ they called them in the press: I learned the meaning of that little word very early) had provided the backbone of my life or punctuated it like the unexpected visits of a distant relative.” The skill with which Vasquez describes the many murders is testament to his control: three murders which reverberate until the very end of the novel, that of Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan while campaigning, and then the Avianca plane, “a Boeing 727-21 that Escobar had blown up in midair—somewhere in the air between Bogotá and Cali—to kill a politician who wasn’t even on board.”

Yammara reconnects with Laverde months after his daughter is born, when his life seems to have settled into a complacency, and then, Laverde asks for help—he wants to listen to a mysterious cassette recording. Yammara, a lover of poetry, takes him to the Casa de Poesía, a former residence of Jose Asunción Silva, where one room was for listening to legendary recordings of poets reading their work. There, while both men listen to words through headphones, “and when the Nocturne began to play, when a voice I couldn’t identify ... read that first line that every Colombian has pronounced aloud at least once, I noticed that Ricardo Laverde was crying.”

On the sidewalk, just after Laverde has told Yammara that the cassette was about the death of his wife, Elaine Fritts, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Florida, “I saw the motorbike dropping down onto the road like a bucking horse … I saw the faceless heads looking at us and the pistol pointed toward us as naturally as a metal prosthesis, and saw two shots …”

Vasquez has created a perfect narrator for this novel in Yammara’s mix of poetry and pain and remembrance, his stubborn insistence after partial recovery from the bullet that went through his guts on finding out what Ricardo Laverde had heard on that tape, on how Laverde’s life had changed when he became a pilot so skilled he could take a small plane with a load worth millions into the Bahamas or Florida, how he fell in love with Elaine Fritts and they had Maya. Yammara finds Maya in the lowlands outside Bogotá, and realizes that she is his soulmate—but not in love, in sadness for the decades lost to spectacular deaths of politicians and anonymous deaths of people like her parents.

They discover that as teens they both visited Escobar’s overgrown palatial hacienda and zoo on the same day, and on their third day together, while Aura is leaving Yammara and taking his daughter with her, while his life is falling apart, he and Maya journey across their beloved Colombia, and they see one of the hippos. “It wandered away through the tall grass, with its legs hidden by the weeds in such a way that it seemed not to make any progress, but just to get smaller.” And that is the talent of Vasquez’s prose—his imagery dovetails so perfectly with the large moments in Yammara’s life that the reader is drawn along late into the night, realizing that Yammara’s chance and family love has disappeared in much the same fashion.

How can he love, when his formative years were about the randomness of death, the constant fear of it, on every sidewalk, every doorway, every plane? The pilot Laverde flying over the Colombian landscape, the narratives of Elaine Fritts about her time in the Peace Corps and American complicity in the nascent drug trade all are compelling—and all are connected to death that comes from the unfurling of that green leaf in the highlands.

Bonilla’s death, to Yammara, means “the method of the hitman on the back of the motorbike, where a teenager approaches the car in which the victim is traveling and empties a mini Uzi into it without even slowing down, began with his murder.” This novel reminds us how powerful that image has become, in the thousands of times repeated since then. Reading this, I remembered the first few times young men were shot for expensive sneakers or a leather jacket or a gold chain—when suddenly the lives of young black men became inextricably entwined with the drug business because of the huge influx of money and guns—in New York City and Los Angeles and Detroit, just as in Bogotá.

Back then, in the time Vasquez writes, I was driving through neighborhoods at night where ghosts wandered before they were dead—“sprung,” we called them, our friends and relatives who’d gotten addicted, or “on the pipe.” The radio played songs lamenting cocaine—White Lines, Batter-Ram (the device with which police in California bashed in front doors of crack houses, and sometimes grandmothers’ homes misidentified as such) and Crack Killed Applejack. Last month, a cousin by marriage (in his 40s) began serving 10 years for distribution of crack—no shortage of customers, even now. Yammara begins his narrative in 2009, when he’s nearing 40—and yet at the end of the book, we see the birth of his immense loneliness. (Elaine Fritts hates Garcia’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, in an ironic turn, and when I closed the book, I thought for days about Yammara’s own brand of isolation.) This fine novel will take readers on the journey of the beginning—and show them how these Colombian lives are resonant and unforgettable in the hands of a writer skilled at the poetry of melancholy remembrance.