In Vásquez's novel, the story is about those who are bystanders in the violent drug trade being affected by it. The story opens with a young professor, Antonio Yammara, who after work would go to a local pool hall in a seedier part of Bogota and play billiards. There he struck up an acquaintance with a mysterious older man, Ricardo Laverde, who recently was released from prison after serving a twenty-year sentence. One day as they were leaving the pool hall, a man on a motorcycle drives past and shoots at them, killing Laverde and seriously wounding Yammara. As he recuperates, he finds himself more and more obsessed with learning just who Laverde was and how he became entangled in something that led to his death. Yammara's passion for solving this mystery causes him to become estranged from his wife, who did not grow up in 1980s Bogota as Yammara did and therefore did not directly experience the violence that he witnessed. As he delves into Laverde's life, he ends up meeting his daughter and they begin a relationship that is in part predicated on shared traumas.
This synopsis of the novel's premise does not in any fashion reveal the depths of Vásquez's writing. As Yammara explores Laverde's past, we come to see a panoramic view of Colombia across most of the 20th century, with connections to future socio-political problems made through the choices made by some, both Colombians and American businessmen, politicians, and military personnel alike. As the novel unfolds, the seemingly simple story of a man obsessed by the death of a mysterious playing partner develops surprising depths.
Vásquez's prose is lush and yet direct in Spanish (I haven't read the English translation, so I cannot comment on the quality of the translation). Opening with the story of a black rhino that used to stay in Pablo Escobar's private zoo before escaping two years prior to the 1996 setting, the narrative quickly turns to Yammara's life. Although not readily apparent at the time, that rhino's life and death has parallels with not just Yammara's life, but also with the lives of other Bogota residents who have had their youth affected by the cartels and the drug war. As Yammara investigates Laverde's life, certain connections are made to previous events in a fashion that widens the scope of this novel, making it as much an exploration of the collective psyche of urban Colombian youth as a murder-mystery novel. Yet this expansion of scope does not mean that Vásquez fails to tell a gripping noir-style mystery. On the contrary, his fusion of noir and social commentary works wonderfully here.
There are very few flaws in the narrative. The characterizations are well-done and the prose is excellent. If I had to point to a weakness, it might be that the flashbacks at times are too interesting and that in a few places they do detract somewhat from the power of the present narrative. However, this is minor nitpicking, as on the whole, El ruido de las cosas al caer was very deserving of its 2011 Premio Alfaguara selection and it is not surprising to see that the 2012 English translation, The Sound of Things Falling, is a finalist for the 2014 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize. Highly recommended.