(Published in the Business Standard, June 16, 2014)
It is only once in a while that animal tragedies impinge on human consciousness: the pathos of their suffering has to be extreme in order to jump the queue of human misery.
Some weeks ago, a Copenhagen zoo culled Marius, a giraffe with the soft nose and friendly air of a plush toy, to worldwide anger and indignation. Marius was fed to other zoo animals. The only reason for executing the giraffe was that he had undesirable genes; the zoo refused to listen to pleas from others who offered Marius a home.
That demonstration of dominion – man’s absolute authority, even unto life and death, over the animals in his keeping – came in the same week that a friend sent me Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling. His story of human tragedies – disappearances, assasinations, the evocative sense of a country where violence sweeps like malarial fevers through people’s everyday lives – starts with the death of an animal.
A hippopotamus escapes from Pablo Escobar’s zoo and spends his freedom recklessly, taking what he wants from the Colombian countryside. When he is finally shot, his death comes as tragedy: he had escaped with his mate and their baby, and it is the debate over what should be done with the lost hippos that brings back the narrator’s memory of more human losses.
The Sound of Things Falling is richly moving despite the atmosphere of menace and despair that surrounds its characters, and it came as no surprise when it won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award recently.
Mr Vasquez has a voice entirely his own, not in debt to any previous Colombian writer, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “In the darkness of the bedroom I thought of that, although thinking in the darkness is not advisable: things seem bigger or more serious in the darkness, illnesses more destructive, the presence of evil closer, indifference more intense, solitude more profound.”
The Sound of Things Falling solved a problem that the Indian writer, in and out of English, grapples with: how to write without ignoring the electric thrum of violence in India, but without turning fiction into an autopsy report.
In an essay, “The shiver of the real”, Amitava Kumar sets out a manifesto for Indian writing. He writes: “I hereby call for a literature that engages with ‘the real’: not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past.”
Later, Mr Kumar writes – bringing to mind the way Mr Vasquez chronicles the noisy, chattering, relentless debate around the future of his fictional lost hippos – of the “news careening about on social media”, almost all of it bloodspattered, grim or grimy. “A writer’s task today, more than ever before, has become one of making sense of violence,” Mr Kumar writes, before gently pointing out that a writer’s task is also to see that what is around him or her is real and worth examining.
You don’t read novels as prescriptions, and I read The Sound of Things Falling for the most basic of reasons: because I liked Mr Vasquez’s storytelling, and I liked the sound of his sentences. But some weeks after events in India had swept Colombia from my mind, Mr Vasquez’s words kept coming back to me. He deals squarely with the missing parts of his country’s history, casually telling all the stories that many in Colombia today insist are unimportant or not useful; he remembers everything that has disappeared.
Julio Cortazar – another writer who, like Mr Vasquez, saw his own country more clearly when he was some distance away and did not have to breathe the air of violence and intrigue – divided the reception to his work into two segments. One kind of reader loved literature and books, and shared his need to struggle. The other kind did not like Cortazar’s writing. “The bourgeois readers in Latin America who are indifferent to politics, or those who align themselves with the right wing, well, they don’t worry about the problems that worry me – the problems of exploitation, of oppression, and so on. Those people regret that my stories often take a political turn,” Cortazar said.
He could have been speaking of Indian readers in this time. The demand made of writers here is that either they become reporters of the violence around them, recording each massacre like history’s clerks, or they produce pleasing books that allow people to stay in their comfort zones.
Some weeks after I finished The Sound of Things Falling, I looked for interviews by Mr Vasquez. In one, he speaks of following “the unofficial Latin American tradition, which said that you had to leave your country in order to be a writer”. The atmosphere in Colombia – violence, fear, corruption – kicked him out, but then he returned to Bogota, where he lives now. When I think of the generation of Indians in their twenties, many of whom hope to be writers, I think of his words: “I’ve always believed,” he says to The Huffington Post, “that one of the things that literature can do is open your eyes when most people want to close them.”