Excerpted from THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING by Juan Gabriel Vásquez by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2013 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
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 freedomhad 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 fallenmeteorite; and there, in front of the first cameras and onlookers, beneath a ceiba tree that protected them from the harshsun, 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 Bogotá, two hundred fifty or so kilometers south, when I saw the imagefor 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 learnedthat 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—whosewhereabouts were now unknown, and the search for whom immediately took on a flavor of media tragedy, the persecutionof innocent creatures by a heartless system. And on one of those days, while following the hunt in the papers, I foundmyself remembering a man who’d been out of my thoughts for a long while, in spite of the fact that there had been a timewhen 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 dirtytricks 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 columnsthat 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 butfollowing it with a mixture of fascination and repugnance, I was thinking more and more intensely about RicardoLaverde, about the days when we’d known each other, about the brevity of our acquaintance and the longevity of itsconsequences. While in the press and on the TV screens the authorities listed the diseases that could be spread by anartiodactyl—and they used that word:
, new to me—and in the rich neighborhoods of Bogotá people woreT
Save the Hippos
, in my apartment, on long drizzly nights, or walking down the street toward the citycenter, I began to think stubbornly about the day Ricardo Laverde died, and even to force myself to remember the precisedetails. I was surprised by how little effort it took me to summon up the words I had spoken or heard, things I’d seen, painI’d suffered and now overcome; I was also surprised by the alacrity and dedication we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering, which after all brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning, like those bags of sand athletes tie around their calves for training. Bit by bit I began to notice, not without some astonishment, that thedeath of that hippopotamus put an end to an episode of my life that had begun quite a while ago, more or less likesomeone coming back home to close a door carelessly left open.And that’s how this story got under way. I don’t know what good it does us to remember, what benefits or possible penalties it brings, or how what we’ve lived through can change when we remember it, but remembering Ricardo Laverdewell has become an urgent matter for me. I read somewhere that a man should tell the story of his life at the age of forty,and this deadline is fast approaching: as I write these lines, only a few short weeks remain before this ominous birthdayarrives.
The story of his life.
No, I won’t tell my life story, just a few days of it that happened a long time ago, andI’ll do so fully aware that this story, as they warn in fairy tales, has happened before and will happen again.That I’m the one who’s ended up telling it is almost beside the point.The day of hi s death, at the beginning of 1996, Ricardo Laverde had spent the morning walking the narrow sidewalks of La Candelaria, in the center of Bogotá, between old houses with clay roof tiles and unread marble plaques with summariesof historic events, and around one in the afternoon he showed up at the billiards club on 14th Street, ready to play a coupleof games with some of the regulars. He didn’t seem nervous or disturbed when he started to play: he played with the samecue and at the same table where he always did, the one closest to the back wall, under the television with the sound turneddown. He played three games, though I don’t remember how many he won and how many he lost, because that afternoonI didn’t play with him, but at the next table. I do remember, however, the moment Laverde settled his bets, said good-