The Sound of Things Falling explores the ways in which stories shape lives. It begins in Vasquez’s native Colombia in the volatile, drug-fueled 1990s, when a brief friendship results in violence that profoundly alters the protagonist’s life.
You’ve said that your works were about the “past as personal baggage we carry... and the tension between memory and voluntary forgetting.” But in this novel, it is someone else’s past that devours your hero’s present.
Well, I’ve always been interested in that particular area of human experience: the place where private lives meet public events, or rather crash into them. That thing we call history—how does it work upon us when it is not yet history, when it is still going on? Also, how does it change with time? What is this mysterious thing, the past? How is it possible that it changes, instead of remaining the same forever, constantly forcing us to reevaluate our own lives? All these questions guide my way through [writing] novels, and certainly through The Sound of Things Falling. Of course, they are molded by my own past and that of my country, because that’s where I find surprising events. I think I write about my country because it’s the one place I thought I understood, only to realize that it is full of dark corners and silenced truths.
You are a trilingual translator, but someone else translates your books. Does it seem strange to read your own work in translation? Do you edit it for nuance?
It doesn’t seem strange, no. On the contrary, what I find fascinating about Anne McLean’s wonderful translations is how familiar they seem to me. My books are all very different from each other (each one being a small rebellion against the previous one), so Anne has to come up with different voices every time, which must be infuriating. But we do work a lot together, sometimes rewriting sentences for euphony, sometimes eliminating whole paragraphs that, for some reason, don’t come across well in English. It’s a privilege, but also a curse; the temptation to rewrite it all is terribly bothersome.
Are you consistently aware of the Latin-American fiction tradition when writing?
Well, ours is a young novelistic tradition, so until very recently we were still discovering how Latin-American subjects sounded on the page. What did we want to do with fiction? What kind of language did we have at our disposal? In the middle of that search, we were mesmerized by the invention of magical realism—this particular lens through which to look at our world. But that lens was overused; it became cloudy quite suddenly. Fortunately, other great writers, from Borges to Vargas Llosa, had come up with different methods to explore the Latin-American soul. I would like to belong to their tradition.