Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the author of numerous novels, including The Shape of the Ruins (2018), which was shortlisted for the 2019 International Man Booker Prize; Reputations (2013), a New York Times Best Book of the Year; and The Sound of Things Falling (2011), a National Bestseller and winner of the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Vásquez’s novels have been published in twenty-five languages worldwide. After sixteen years in France, Belgium, and Spain, he now lives in Bogotá.
From The Sound of Things Falling
The first hippopotamus, a male the color of black pearls, weighing a ton and a half, was shot dead in the middle of 2009. He’d escaped two years before from Pablo Escobar’s old zoo in the Magdalena Valley, and during that time of freedom had destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fishermen, and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch.
The marksmen who finally caught up with him shot him once in the head and again in the heart (with .375-caliber bullets, since hippopotamus skin is thick); they posed with the dead body, the great dark, wrinkled mass, a recently fallen meteorite; and there, in front of the first cameras and onlookers, beneath a ceiba tree that protected them from the harsh sun, explained that the weight of the animal would prevent them from transporting him whole, and they immediately began carving him up. I was in my apartment in Bogota, two hundred fifty or so kilometers south, when I saw the image for the first time, printed across half a page of a national news magazine. That’s how I learned that the entrails had been buried where the animal had fallen, and the head and legs had ended up in a biology laboratory in my city. I also learned that the hippopotamus had not escaped alone: at the time of his flight he’d been accompanied by his mate and their baby — or what, in the sentimental version of the less scrupulous newspapers, were his mate and their baby — whose whereabouts were now unknown, and the search for whom immediately took on a flavor of media tragedy, the persecution of innocent creatures by a heartless system. And on one of those days, while following the hunt in the papers, I found myself remembering a man who’d been out of my thoughts for a long while, in spite of the fact that there had been a time when nothing interested me as much as the mystery of his life.
During the weeks that followed, the memory of Ricardo Laverde went from being a minor coincidence, one of those dirty tricks our minds play on us, to becoming a faithful and devoted, ever-present ghost, standing by my bed while I slept, watching from afar in the daylight hours. On the morning radio programs and the evening news, in the opinion columns that everybody read and on the blogs that nobody read, everyone was asking if it was necessary to kill the lost hippos, if they couldn’t round them up, anesthetize them, and send them back to Africa; in my apartment, far from the debate but following it with a mixture of fascination and repugnance, I was thinking more and more intensely about Ricardo Laverde, about the days when we’d known each other, about the brevity of our acquaintance and the longevity of its consequences.
- “Vásquez on Man Booker Nomination: ‘Memory in literature is a moral act.'” Interview with Charlotte Harrison. The City Paper. 25 June 2019.
- The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez Review-A History of Conspiracy. Review by M. John Harrison. The Guardian. 16 May 2018.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez Reading I December 5, 2019