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Memories of the Years of Chaos: An Essay by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Author of "The Sound of Things Falling"


For my generation, I’ve noticed, the 1980s don’t have a lot of respect for chronology: our decade began in 1984, when Pablo Escobar assassinated the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, and ended in December 1993, with the symmetrical death of Pablo Escobar. Certain images of that decade have become part of our mythology. One of them shows Lara’s car with its windows destroyed, its back seat smeared with blood and the cover, caught by the cameras almost by chance, of the book the minister was reading at the moment of the crime like a symbol in a bad novel: Dictionary of Colombian History. In another one, Pablo Escobar’s dead body lies on a rooftop surrounded by his triumphant pursuers, his features obliterated by the blood, his pale belly exposed in the morning air. Between those two events are other images. I’ve seen them and I keep seeing them and I saw them every day of 2010, while I was writing The Sound of Things Falling: I saw a presidential candidate greeting voters and then climbing onto a stage and then falling under a hail of bullets; I saw the remains of a passenger plane scattered among trees after exploding in mid-air. In my fallible memory, these images take up several years of that terrible decade; only later, when I started writing the novel, did I realize that they’d all happened in just six short months, and that gave me an idea of the morbid intensity we lived with back then.

There is a police recording of Escobar’s voice that is almost a manifesto. “We have to create chaos so they call us to make peace,” he says. “If we devote ourselves to going after the politicians, to burning their houses down and having a real fucking civil war, then they’ll have to call us to the table for peace talks and our problems will be solved.” The landscape of our memories is made from that chaos. I have compared it to other landscapes, to other memories, and I’ve found several common elements. The ability, for instance, to recognize the sound of a bomb and distinguish it from any other explosion; the crosses of masking tape on windows (and the resignation with which they tried to avoid, in the case of a nearby bomb, the shattering of the glass); the ease with which we spent the night in a stranger’s house if we were caught out by a curfew; the unmistakable atmosphere of the city the day after an attack, that sort of rare slowing down that took over normal routines, the silence that resembled no other silence: the whole city turned into a room where a sick man lay dying.

The Sound of Things Falling was, at least partially, about that silence.

Even if the title seems to suggest otherwise. --Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Boty_rg_cover_thumb This piece comes from our free Best Books of 2013: Reader's Guide, which you can download now for your Kindle. It features interviews, essays, excerpts, and other fun extras about the year’s top 20 titles: Donna Tartt talks about her eating habits while writing The Goldfinch; David Finkel discusses the emotional impact following the 2-16 infantry battalion in Thank You for Your Service; and much more.

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