Read: June 2014
Author: Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 288 (hardcover)
Selected By: Lady Esbe
Lady Esbe’s Score:
“In the city of Bogotá, Antonio Yammara reads an article about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo owned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The article transports Antonio back to when the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets and in the skies above.
“Back then, Antonio witnessed a friend’s murder, an event that haunts him still. As he investigates, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past. His journey leads him all the way back to the 1960s and a world on the brink of change: a time before narco-trafficking trapped a whole generation in a living nightmare.” – from the Goodreads synopsis.
Lady Esbe’s Review
The novel opens in post- drug cartel Bogotá then takes you back in time via Antonio’s experience as a young man who has been flailing about and falls into the position of being a law school professor. He meets Ricardo LaVerde, with whom he becomes friendly with and subsequently affected by being shot while aiding Ricardo in his endeavor to listen to an audio tape of the American Airlines flight recorder. During his jaunt down memory lane, we get a glimpse into his life and then the lives of Ricardo, his wife Elaine and subsequently their daughter, Maya. The novel takes you primarily through Ricardo and Elaine’s life during the middle portion of the book to help you understand the time and environment in which these people were living in. Having a dear friend from the area, it was nice to get a feel for or a different perspective of life in Colombia during the time.
I read the English translation, which was very well written and know someone who read the Spanish version and we each enjoyed the version that we read. It’s extremely descriptive as well as philosophical at points. Now, while I like the explanation of the time and situations. I found myself despising most of the characters. I found Antonio to be a lost little boy who was still floundering about after the shooting. This is understandable, as he did not have a good grasp as to who was as a person. You add this handicap to the trauma of being shot, you now have a strange mix of PTSD and lack of self-awareness or awareness of those who are around you to continue to weigh the character down. I could empathize with his situation; however, I found my self yelling, “grow up already” as I read the book. Before Antonio meets Ricardo, he’s a bit of a male slut and happens to get his former student, Aura pregnant. The relationship does not expand much beyond them having a child together, but his lack of a spine and her manipulations are too much for me and I then begin to blame Antonio for being so childish.
I believe I am most attracted to Ricardo because of his family’s past and why he felt he needed to get involved in drug smuggling. Ricardo’s grandfather was a pilot in the Colombian Air Force during the time of the Peruvian War. Ricardo’s grandfather was prestigious and commanded respect no matter where he went. In fact, this respect caused him to take his son, Ricardo’s father, Julio to an air show that had a disastrous plane crash and prompted Julio to never be involved with planes again. Ricardo grew up in the shadow of his grandfather being this fantastic pilot who earned notoriety, respect and probably, was well compensated. Whereas, Julio decided to go the way of accounting, not earning enough and causing the family to have to take in Peace Corp volunteers as tenants. Ricardo’s natural ability to fly and his need for adventure, affluence and prestige pushes him into smuggling. However, the smuggling did also afford him the ability to take care of his new family in Elaine and Maya. His smuggling years seem to last around seven years until he is captured and imprisoned in the US. Upon his release, he returns to his native Bogotá and resumes a shell of his former life. His actions and what drives him are somewhat a mystery that are partially unfolded through the course of the novel.
I found myself not particularly caring for Elaine/Elena. She initially comes off as a spoiled, yet idealistic American who comes to Colombia to save these poor indigenous people. While staying with Ricardo’s family, she and he begin an affair that later leads to marriage. She is devoted to her job in the Peace Corp, yet her attentions from Ricardo take precedent over her duties. I feel that Ricardo was truthful about his job even if she was acting as dense as she could about the situation. I was saddened by her turn in the story. Despite not particularly caring for her, I felt that she and Ricardo were devoted to each other and I wanted to see them reunited after his incarceration.
Maya, daughter to Ricardo & Elaine, is seeking answers to her father’s past and is pouring over letters, recording and anything she can get her hands on to fill in the blanks. She had my sympathy because the way her mother handled her father’s incarceration was so, foolish and childish, Maya had no other alternative than to throw herself into what appears to be futile investigations into the recent past of her father. I understood Maya’s drive, yet there were points where I wanted to throttle her. It may have been a cultural difference, but she was so melodramatic at points I just wanted her to shut up and sit in a corner. But unfortunately, because of her circumstances I could understand her actions or reactions to the things going on around her.
As for the mother of Antonio’s child, Aura. I hated her. It was clear to me that she had motive to get pregnant and did so posthaste in order to cement her connection with Bogotá. I think Antonio was a convenient pawn and that she was more selfish than anything. Her machinations and manipulations were typical of females who rely solely on their sexuality, ability to procreate and ensnare a promising young man ultimately backfired on her. Despite this, she still whined and manipulated until the very end (even when we don’t know what happens once Antonio returns to Bogotá).
The landscape of the book is amazing. I could clearly see the situations in which each person was living, whether it was self-imposed ignorance or the over-protective nature of others that causes them to be unaware and helpless. While the society was dangerous, there appeared to be this happily oblivious mindset that baffled me. I would have loved further explanations surrounding Ricardo’s capture and later events in his life. I would have loved to find out if Antonio was truly rid of the idiot Aura, however, such was not my lot in this book. Again, it is so well written and beautifully translated. There are some lulling points, but overall it was a good read.
Lady Esbe read the Riverhead Hardcover version of this book.