by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
A book club choice.
It took me a long time to get ‘into’ this book. The first half is mainly concerned with the story of Antonio Yammara, who gets injured in crossfire when a slight acquaintance of his, Ricardo Laverne, is shot dead in the street. Antonio’s slow recovery from his physical injuries, and his growing obsession with Ricardo’s story, are the main substance of the first half of the book. The second half is Ricardo’s story, which Antonio learns mainly through an encounter with Ricardo’s daughter Maya.
I found Antonio’s character unappealing; he has a fairly casual attitude to his relationships, including that with the woman who is expecting his child at the time of the shooting, and with Ricardo himself. He obsesses about Ricardo’s story, at the expense of his life with his own partner and child.
Ricardo and Elaine come across convincingly. The work and structure of the Peace Corps and its activities are described in some detail. The author gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, that involvement of Peace Corps members in the drugs trade was rife. I find it a big jump to believe that Ricardo’s daughter Maya should have such detailed inside knowledge of her parents’ lives, feelings and even sexual encounters. This is a narrative device, I know – but it didn’t ring true. This aside, Ricardo’s story is gripping and interesting. There is an absence of judgment from the author on any of the characters, but somehow also a lack of compassion.
The structure of the book was unconvincing. Ricardo’s story is mainly told in the second half. The narrative talks about how significant the drugs “wars” were in the 1980s and how they affected everyone’s life – but this is only illustrated in the case of Ricardo and Elaine. The reader has to take it on trust that others’ lives were affected in equally dramatic ways. Maybe a Colombian reader would empathise readily with this. For me, it was not such an easy jump.
The language used is very rich, and the author paints vivid pictures of the settings, particularly the various houses in Bogotá and the surrounding countryside. This was the aspect of the book that moves me most, and will probably stay with me.
This book left me wanting to know more about the drug wars in Colombia and the effect that they had on the population, and especially young people in the 1980s. I don’t feel qualified to say whether Ricardo and Elaine were in any way typical. They certainly don’t seem to be special, as people or as types. As an introduction to the topic and as an introduction to this author, the book works. As a story with compelling characters and a gripping plot, it didn’t work for me.