Judges’ Citation – 2014 Winner

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean

The Sound of Things Falling is a consummate literary thriller that resonates long after the final page. Through a masterly command of layered time periods, spiralling mysteries and a noir palette, it reveals how intimate lives are overshadowed by history; how the past preys on the present; and how the fate of individuals as well as countries is moulded by distant, or covert, events.

The main setting in a drizzly and overcast Andean capital, Bogotá, evokes a darkly atmospheric Colombian landscape far from the sultry Caribbean coast made familiar through the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez. The narrator, Antonio Yammara, is a law lecturer tipped into a parallel underworld through a drive-by motorbike shooting that injures him and kills his billiard-hall acquaintance, the shadowy pilot Ricardo Laverde – who is just out after serving almost 20 years in jail. Through the lecturer’s compulsive investigation of the pilot’s criminal past, the novel deftly sketches the history of the drug trade in one South American country. Through vivid secondary characters, such as a sinister Chicago drop-out and US Peace Corps volunteer, it traces the tutelary, and often forgotten, role played in the incipient trade by a generation of North American adventurers in the 1960s and 70s – some of them Vietnam veterans.

Yet it is in the novel’s most intimate relationships that the human costs of this illegal trade are felt. The  portrait of Yammara’s foundering marriage to the young Aura is painfully frank, rendered in language that is deliberately muted as he succumbs to post-traumatic stress. The desolate bond he forms with the pilot’s disturbed and reclusive daughter Maya, which is built on shared trauma, evokes an entire generation psychologically scarred by the terrorist bombings and targeted killings of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the drug cartels declared open war on the government.

Through superb use of metaphor, the novel evokes a world of precarious flight and desperate, last-ditch ambition, in which everything is falling; nothing is secure. Airliners drop out of the sky, marriages crash and burn, daredevil pilots make lethal miscalculations, and family men make flawed choices. Almost anything can be corrupted by the glittering promise of unimaginable wealth, and fate or fluke is the name we give to events beyond our control that lay waste to our soaring dreams. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s tragic vision is marvellously served by Anne McLean’s supple and idiomatic translation.