Most people can describe thunder better than lightning. Lightning is a flash, fast, a blink. Thunder rumbles afterwards, often confirming what has come just before. This pattern is how Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s third novel, The Sound of Things Falling, operates. It is a story about how trauma flashes, like lightning, but then crashes and reverberates throughout one’s life more slowly, like thunder. At the start of the novel, the protagonist, Antonio Yammara, explains that he is writing this story—in which trauma figures early, its repercussions lasting throughout the book—so that the reader will know it. He knows that, like a fable, this story will happen over and over again.
The book begins with Yammara’s recounting the assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán by Pablo Escobar’s men. Yammara describes how Galán’s body fell, noting, as he watches a video of the murder, “the body collapsing on the wooden platform, falling soundlessly or its sound hidden by the uproar or by the first screams.” It is not how the body moves but how it and the people around it sound—or don’t sound—that really resonates with Yammara. By writing about his country’s trauma this way, Yammara teaches his readers how to read the traumatic events that he himself will later deal with.
Yammara further encourages the reader to pay attention to the sounds of his scenes when he and his friend Ricardo Laverde end up at Casa de Poesía, the museum within the home of the late Colombian poet José Asunción Silva. There, Yammara listens to a cassette of Silva’s poetry, while Laverde listens to a cassette he brought in. Yammara can’t hear what Laverde is listening to, but when he sees Laverde storm out of the museum, he knows it has greatly affected him. When Yammara chases after Laverde, someone on a motorcycle approaches the two men and shoots at them. Yammara gets hit but lives. Laverde gets hit and dies. Later, it is the sound that Yammara remembers. He hears the “explosions” of the gun. He remembers that he and Laverde were “two bodies falling without a sound.” Sound is what sticks with Yammara and is what later brings him back to his trauma.
When Yammara is in the hospital, his friends and family arrive and ask many questions of him, but Yammara just wants “to sample silence.” The noise is triggering him, forcing him to relive the traumatic experience over and over again—any sound reminds him of the absence of sound as he and Laverde fell. “Months after what happened to Laverde,” he says, “a backfiring exhaust pipe, a slamming door, or even a heavy book falling in a certain way onto a certain surface would be enough to set me off on an attack of anxiety and paranoia.”
As the novel progresses, Yammara learns that Elena Fritts, the love of Laverde’s life, had, before Laverde’s murder, been killed in an airplane crash. Laverde had been listening to the cassette from the plane’s black box the night that he and Yammara were at Silva’s museum. Yammara acquires the tape and listens to it. When writing about the crash, as when he wrote about Galán’s assassination, there is little Yammara can describe as seeing or directly experiencing—he was not present during Elena’s death, but he has the black box cassette, just like how he had the video of Galán’s assassination, so he can hear what the falling sounds like. He writes:
There is a sound that I cannot or have never been able to identify: a sound that’s not human or is more than human, the sound of lives being extinguished but also the sound of material things breaking. It’s the sound of things falling from on high, an interrupted and somehow also eternal sound, a sound that didn’t ever end, that kept ringing in my head from that very afternoon and still shows no sign of wanting to leave it, that is forever suspended in my memory, hanging in it like a towel on a hook.
The casual conversation the pilots have haunts Yammara. That casual conversation, that is easy to decipher and understand, is the sound of the end of Fritts’ life. In many ways, it is the end of Laverde’s life, too. Near the end of the book, Yammara writes:
…the sound that was the mother of all sounds, the sound of lives disappearing as they pitch over the edge into the abyss, the sound made by Flight 965 and all it contained as they fall into the Andes and that in some absurd way was also the sound of Laverde’s life, tied irremediably to that of Elena Fritts. And my life? Did my own life not begin to throw itself to the ground at this very instant, was that sound not the sound of my own downfall, which began there without my knowledge?
Yammara writes, “I knew I would have preferred not to have listened to it, and I knew at the same moment that in my memory I would go on hearing it forever.” When Yammara later walks in on Laverde’s daughter, Maya, listening to the tape, the reader hears the whole thing over again, the dialogue this time included with Yammara’s thoughts sprinkled in. Even though we’ve already heard the sounds of the plane crashing, the experience, this time, is different—this time, we are watching Yammara relive his trauma.
At the very end of the novel, Yammara writes “I’d fallen out of the sky, too, but there was no possible testimony of my fall, there was no black box that anybody could consult, nor was there any black box of Ricardo Laverde’s fall, human lives don’t have these technological luxuries to fall back on.” But this book, that Yammara writes, that Vásquez writes, is a record of this falling. The black book a black box. Yammara writes the book in order to have a record of the sound of his and his people’s falling. Vásquez writes the book for the same reason. It is a record of the storm so many have gone through—not just the lightning that struck, but the thunder that rumbles, that they all can still hear and feel.