This novel first came to my notice at last year’s Ayewrite! Festival when Kamila Shamsie extolled its virtues. It then went on to win the IMPAC. As I’m about to start reading the TBR books longlisted for this year’s prize, I thought it would best to read last year’s winner first.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It was a pleasant surprise, I hasten to add. I think I was expecting the horrors of a political dictatorship. No idea why (something to do with Vásquez’s previous novel, The Informers, perhaps?) In many ways though, it is about dictatorship, albeit the dictatorship of post traumatic stress disorder.
The narrator, Antonio, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He barely survives an assassination in which his companion, the target, is killed. As the two men were in the early stages of a tentative friendship, not much is known about why someone would want Ricardo Laverde dead. Except that he had just been released from a 19 year imprisonment. There is also the mystery surrounding the recording that reduced Ricardo to tears shortly before his death.
Antonio is deeply traumatised and, following a lengthy convalescence, becomes obsessed with discovering the whys and wherefores. This search, while understandable, is full of personal risk. His partner is beginning to weary of his post-incident preoccupations and Ricardo Laverde’s past can be nothing but murky.
So it proves to be, and, within the context of Colombian 20th century history, this inevitably involves the drugs trade. Vásquez takes us back to the time when it all began; when it appeared harmless. The contemporary narrative post dates the era of notorious drug baron, Pablo Escobar – his ranch is already lying in ruins – but the ongoing and murderous effects of his legacy are all too clear.
Two families are ruined by it. It is the human interest in these stories that form the heart of the novel, and make it beat. That and the tour of Columbia, from the streets of Bogota through the mountains to La Dorada in the hot and sticky Magdalena Valley. Vásquez never takes us into the seedy drug dens or the world of the addict. He has no need. There is drama aplenty. For Columbia also has a legacy of fatal air accidents and Ricardo Laverde’s life is irrevocably coloured by the fallout from two of these. The sounds on the tape mentioned earlier are of his future falling apart. As Antonio’s quest progresses, patterns in his life begin to mirror those in Ricardo’s – to the point that he, too, is left in possession of the sounds of his own life falling into the abyss.