The Sound of Things Falling, By Juan Gabriel Vásquez, trans. Anne McLean

The Conrad of Colombia returns with a novel of memory, mystery - and Escobar's hippo.

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The Independent Culture

The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia has a thesis in which he claims that every successful story contains another story. The first story narrates the action of the plot, while the second story is more or less hidden from view, or in parentheses. The art of the story-teller, according to Piglia, lies in knowing how to encode the secret story within the interstices of the first.

In Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer", this duality is expressed as tension between the self and its other, and the theme is one to which the Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been drawn in all three of his novels. In fact his second, The Secret History of Costaguana, is – in the parenthetic sense of Piglia's definition – about Conrad himself.

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There is more than a little of Conrad also about the "inner weather" of Vásquez's writing, not least in the elusive and at times strenuous unravelling of plot. In his new book the structure of telling is doubly replicated, both the main and the subsidiary story recounting (among other things) the relationship of a father and his daughter, while the threads holding together the relationship begin to unravel.

The novel begins with an account of the shooting of a hippopotamus, a one-and-a-half ton male "the colour of black pearl". The hippo has escaped from the private zoo of drugs baron Pablo Escobar, in the Magdalena Valley south of Bogotá, after the zoo, along with all of Escobar's vast and ill-gotten estate, falls into ruin.

The narrator, Antonio Yammara, visited Escobar's zoo as a 12-year-old, against the orders of his parents, and the memory is still vivid. And it is memory – its tenuousness and its faulty reconstruction – that lies at the heart of this novel. "The saddest thing that can happen to a person," we are told, "is to find out their memories are lies." Familiar tropes emerge: deception, the inescapability of the past, stories that mirror one another, and fatherhood. In Borges's famous dictum, mirrors and copulation are abominations, since they both replicate the numbers of man.

Back in the 1990s, Antonio is a young lawyer who befriends a lonely man with a secret. Ricardo Laverde has just been released after 20 years in jail. He says he makes (or made) his living as a pilot, so it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that, given Colombia's history, he might on occasion have made aerial deliveries for the wrong sort of people.

We also learn that US Peace Corps workers developed the cocaine-refining technology that helped turn Colombia into the nexus of the narco-industry. Ricardo was married to a young Peace Corps volunteer, whom he expects shortly to welcome back to Colombia after two decades' separation. With some evocative, painterly strokes Vásquez leads the reader through Ricardo's past, before returning, with a searing sense of loneliness and regret, to Antonio's present.

Anne McLean has translated all three of Vásquez's novels into English. There were a couple of lines I questioned: her reference to hands being "tainted" by the sun rings strangely in English, for instance. But these are small matters: for the most part, the work reads beautifully.

Vásquez's persistence in exploring the darker corners of his country's history, in probing his characters' intractable duality, and in questioning the frailties of memory, is compounded by his skill in evoking those instances when things changes for ever: such as when the telephone rings, and "all you have to do is pick up the receiver and a new fact comes through it into the house, something we've neither sought nor requested and that sweeps us along like an avalanche."

Richard Gwyn's memoir 'The Vagabond's Breakfast' won a 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award