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.
Earlier on HuffPost:
Born in Havana in 1853, Martí is Cuba’s national hero. As an intellectual and a poet he <a href="http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/historyofthecaribbean/p/josemarti.htm">fervently opposed Spanish rule on the island, consistently writing against the crown. </a>At the age of 16, he was convicted of treason and sedition for supporting the rebels during the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) in Cuba. Afterwards, Martí was exiled twice -- living in Spain and later in the United States -- where he continued to dream of a free Cuba. Abroad, he attempted to muster support for the independence cause among Cuban exiles. In 1884 Martí and a relatively small group of Cuban exiles made their way to Cuba to start a revolution, an initiative that led to his death during one of the first confrontations with Spanish authorities on the island. Cuba did not attain independence from Spain until the Spanish-American War of 1898, nevertheless, Martí is upheld today as the nation’s most revered hero. Picture of the Monument to Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero, at Revolution Square in Havana, taken on February 8, 2008. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín
“El Libertador” (The Liberator), as General Simón Bolívar is commonly known, was born in Caracas, New Granada, to a wealthy family. Though educated in Spain, Bolívar firmly believed in the South American independence movement. <a href="http://www.biography.com/people/simon-bolivar-241196">He is credited with successfully liberating modern day Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Bolivia (named after the General), through his military campaigns.</a> After achieving independence, Bolívar intended to unite a still ideologically divided continent but was later accused of wanting to replace the Spanish crown with a military dictatorship of his own. On Dec. 17, 1830 the regional hero died of tuberculosis in Santa Marta, Colombia. During the wars of Independence in South America, <a href="http://www.biography.com/people/jos%C3%A9-de-san-mart%C3%ADn-37154">José de San Martín was an Argentine general that helped liberate Argentina, Chile, and Peru.</a> He is famously known for venturing across the Andes from Argentina to Chile to fight and free the countries from Spain. San Martín is still revered today in much of the Southern Cone as a national hero. On July 26, 1822 the two generals met in Guayaquil (then an independent state), but what they discussed there is still unknown. Bolívar took power over the newly freed nations and <a href="http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/521474/Jose-de-San-Martin/6398/Campaign-across-the-Andes">San Martín, avoiding further political involvement, spent the rest of his days as an exile in Europe with his daughter. </a> He died in Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1850. Image: Depicted is the first and only time the two leaders met in Guayaquil; Los Padres de la Independencia (The Fathers of Independence).
Ernesto "Che" Guevara
Born on June 14, 1928, Guevara is perhaps one of the most controversial figures of recent Latin American history. Born in Rosario, Argentina, the young asthmatic boy became an amateur athlete and <a href="http://www.biography.com/people/che-guevara-9322774">studied medicine in Buenos Aires.</a> After graduating, Guevara and his best friend Alberto Granado set off on a journey across South America which Che studiously documented in his personal diary, and which was immortalized in <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318462/">Walter Salle’s “The Motorcycle Diaries.” (2004)</a> The people he met and the conditions he observed on this journey were the catalyst to the Marxist beliefs that led him to join Fidel Castro in the overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba. After Castro took power, Guevara tried to export his revolutionary ideas, <a href="http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1515647-che-guevara">leading a guerrilla movement in Bolivia that would result in his assassination on Oct. 9, 1967.</a> Though many revere him as a cultural hero -- a revolutionary fighting for social equality and a Latin America free from imperialistic influences -- <a href="http://www.biography.com/people/che-guevara-9322774">others remember the ruthless man that executed between 156 and 550 prisoners in Cuba without trial.</a>
Born on Aug. 13, 1926, Castro was raised in an affluent family amid the poverty of the Cuban people. He studied law at the University of Havana where he became involved in anti-imperialist and socialist movements. After several unsuccessful attempts at overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship -- along with his younger brother Raúl, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara<a href="http://www.biography.com/people/fidel-castro-9241487?page=2">, Castro led the guerrilla's overthrow of the dictator in 1959</a>. Once in power, Castro embraced Marxism, establishing Cuba's Communist government that continues to stand today under Raúl’s rule. In this March 22, 1959, file photo, Fidel Castro, then Cuba's Prime Minister, salutes the crowd at a labor rally supporting him in Havana. (AP Photo/File)
Born on Aug. 8, 1879, Zapata was a sharecropper and a horse trainer in Mexico under Porfirio Díaz’s regime. Zapata was also a community leader at the time and was the first to join Francisco I. Madero in attempting to overthrow Díaz. <a href="http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/thehistoryofmexico/p/planofayala.htm">He campaigned for agrarian reform, denouncing the feudal-like system in place at the time</a>. Once in power, Madera turned his back on Zapata, who then wrote his <a href="http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/thehistoryofmexico/p/planofayala.htm">Plan of Ayala</a> to denounce Madera. The Plan is a manifesto of what the Zapatismo movement's ideals -- land reform and freedom. <a href="http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/316-emiliano-zapata-1879-1919">Leading his followers, Zapata fought with the cry “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty).</a> By the time of his assassination in 1919, the lands confiscated under Díaz had yet to be fully restored. The Zapatista movement lives on today. In January 1994 the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) re-launched the initiative for land and agrarian reform in Mexico. <em><strong>CORRECTION: a previous version of this slide incorrectly stated Emiliano Zapata's birth year as 1979. Zapata was born in 1879. </strong></em> Photo: Two children carry banners of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata during a march of peasants against the economic model of Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City, on January 30, 2009. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)
José Doroteo Arango Arámbula was born on June 5, 1878. The Mexican revolutionary is best known as Francisco Villa or Pancho Villa and <a href="http://www.biography.com/people/pancho-villa-9518733">became a fugitive after he shot a man who was harassing his sister.</a> While living as an outlaw, Villa joined Francisco Madero’s uprising against the Porfirio Díaz regime. He became a colonel and defended Madero’s government until he too was removed from power by an uprising. Later he joined forces with revolutionary Emiliano Zapata against Victoriano Huerta’s government. Villa was assassinated on June 20, 1923.
Born on November 19, 1919, Lebrón moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1940 searching for a better life. What she found was poverty, prejudice and the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/01/AR2010080103400_2.html">unhappy life of a seamstress</a>. Soon after she began corresponding with Puerto Rican nationalist and intellectual Pedro Albizu Campos -- who was imprisoned for plotting against U.S. President Truman in 1950. Hero or Terrorist? In 1954, Lebrón <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2008889,00.html">led a Puerto Rican nationalist group into the U.S. Capitol building</a>, shooting and injuring five Congressmen in an attempt to gain Puerto Rico’s Independence. Once taken into custody, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/01/AR2010080103400_2.html">police found a note in her purse. </a>Expecting to die that day, Lebrón wrote: "My life I give for the freedom of my country. The United States of America are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country." For the attack Lebrón was sentenced to 56 years of prison, but was released on the 25th year of her sentence. She continued fighting for her ideals until her death on August 1, 2010. Photo: Capitol police hold Lolita Lebrón and two others in custody on March 1, 1954, after they opened fire from the House gallery.
Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos
Born on September 12, 1891, <a href="http://www.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/resources/campos.cfm">Campos is known as the leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement.</a> The Spanish American War of 1898 had interrupted Puerto Rico's recently instituted autonomy from the Spanish crown, becoming a territory of the United States. Governed by officials named in Washington and with little voice in local affairs, nationalists like Albizu Campos fought to make their country an independent nation. His efforts towards independence frequently placed him behind bars both in Puerto Rico and United States. He is best <a href="http://www.historynet.com/president-harry-s-truman-survived-assassination-attempt-at-the-blair-house.htm">known for a failed assassination attempt against President Harry S. Truman.</a> He died on April 21, 1965.
Under his pseudonym and always appearing behind a black mask, Subcomandante Marcos conceals his identity as he continues Emiliano Zapata’s agrarian reform fight in Mexico. In January 1994, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/06/international/americas/06mexico.html?_r=2&sq=zapatistas%20marcos&st=cse&scp=4&pagewanted=all&">the mysterious figure and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) revitalized Zapata’s movement in Chiapas</a>, a poor state in southern Mexico. Railing against President Vicente Fox’s neoliberal policies, the Zapatistas brought national and international attention to the indigenous communities living in the area. Known for his prophetic speeches, good humor, and pipe,<a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1214676.stm"> Marcos has become for many a new kind of “Che” -- a leader of the people against repressive powers.</a> Some believe he is in fact Rafael Sebastián Guillén, a 43-year-old native of Tamaulipas who taught philosophy at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City before moving to Chiapas to work with Indigenous communities. Marcos insists on wearing the mask until the conflict is resolved.
Born on March 31, 1927 in Arizona, Chávez is recognized as one of the leaders of the <a href="http://www.albany.edu/jmmh/vol3/chicano/chicano.html">Mexican American Civil Rights Movement</a> in the United States (also known as the Chicano Movement), which took off in the 1960s. Using non-violent forms of protest -- marches, hunger strikes, boycotts -- Chávez <a href="http://www.biography.com/people/cesar-chavez-9245781">fought to improve working conditions for farm workers.</a> These efforts led the Mexican-American civil rights leader to help found the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. The labor leader's many hunger strikes are thought to have contributed to an early death in 1993. On Oct. 8, 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/08/obama-cesar-chavez-child-labor_n_1949157.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular">President Barack Obama honored Chávez with a National Monument in California.</a> In this March 8, 1989 file photo, César Chávez gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alan Greth, File)