Bloomsbury, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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.

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.

Get money off this book online at the Independent Bookshop

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor