The narrator, Antonio (Tony) Yammara, catches up with an acquaintance, Riccardo LaVerde, on the street in Bogota just minutes before the latter is gunned down by unknown assailants. Standing next to him, Tony survives but suffers grievous injuries, the most serious and lasting being a case of debilitating and unremitting post traumatic stress. The year is 1996.
Tony becomes more and more obsessed with LaVerde, who up to then has appeared as a broken down shell of a man, rumored to have spent twenty years in prison, a man he encounters regularly at the local billiards hall. All he knows about the man’s life is that LaVerde’s American wife was coming to reunite with him in Bogota when the plane she was on inexplicably crashed in the mountains.
Tony tracks down LaVerde’s landlady, then his grown daughter, and together they piece together the tragic trajectories of LaVerde’s life and perhaps his own.
Before the accident, Tony is a college professor of law, unapologetic about sleeping with his students, always somewhat distant and detached, seemingly missing a piece of himself. He has difficulty connecting with his wife because she missed out living through the terrible and traumatic 80’s in Bogota, the era of Pablo Escobar, the terrorism and assassinations.
He and the others of his era are marked forever – “the sound of things falling” seemingly referring to planes falling out of the sky, bodies hitting the pavement after being shot, the sense of impotence in a world gone crazy, and his actual psychological and physical impotence.
“My contaminated life was mine alone: my family was still safe: safe from the plague of my country, from its afflicted recent history: safe from what had hunted me down along with so many of my generation (and others too, yes, but most of all mine, the generation that was born with planes, with the flights full of bags and the bags of marijuana, the generation that was born with the War on Drugs and later experienced the consequences).”
Feeling his life bound up in LaVerde’s story, Tony works with LaVerde’s daughter to separate her father and mother from a web of lies, going through letters and diaries and the cockpit tape of the crash. The mother, Elaine, is portrayed as the archetypal idealistic American do-gooder, willfully ignorant of politics, wanting only to help the campesinos. Sent to Columbia by the Peace Corps, she winds up by chance in the LaVerde house in Bogota – they are a once-illustrious family fallen on hard times, and Riccardo is their young son, an aspiring pilot like his grandfather, arrogant, brash, heroic in outlook.
Elaine and Riccardo LaVerde quickly fall in love and marry and move to a rustic area in La Dorada, Magdalena Valley, where LaVerde finds work as a pilot. They meet up with Mike, another American Peace Corps member, who symbolizes those who come to the country to help and inadvertently wreak havoc on the economy. He teaches the native farmers how to turn a profit by raising marijuana instead of other crops.
LaVerde with Mike’s help, becomes embroiled in smuggling marijuana and cocaine to the States, is intercepted, imprisoned, and spends his youth locked away. His wife turns a blind eye to his business activities until it is too late. She manages to raise their daughter to adulthood, but finally, defeated, decamps to the U.S. until her fateful flight back.
The story, the rise and fall of one love-struck couple, is a gripping one, but the emotional remoteness of the main characters, Tony and LaVerde, and our ignorance or indifference regarding their shared Columbian history makes it difficult for readers to connect. Halfway through the book, the going is s-l-o-w. The story starts to pick up as we delve into the early lives of the characters and get to know them as they were in the 80’s.
The future looks rather glum: LaVerde’s daughter has walled herself into the family compound where she raises bees; Tony’s wife and daughter have decamped as they view his withdrawal from any meaningful interactions with them as incurable; and Tony, himself, feels condemned by the past and imprisoned by his memories. He has learned the world is a dangerous place with random acts of violence and cannot ignore that the sky is actually falling.
Juan Gabriel Marquez is a prize-winning Columbian novelist and this is his third novel.