Colombia PCVs Damaged by Juan Gabriel Vasquez novel, The Sound of Things

Dennis Grubb

Dennis Grubb

Dennis Grubb (Colombia 1961-62) keeper of “all things RPCV Colombia” sent me this email from Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1961-62) concerning Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel, The Sound of Things.

In his email to Dennis, Jeremiah wrote:

I’m sure you are aware of this book, The Sound of Things Falling, by South America’s newest literary star, Juan Gabriel Vasquez.  A central narrative theme is that PC ag volunteers in the Cauca Valley, under the supervision of a Regional Coordinator, were the originators of Colombia’ drug trade with the U. S.sound-of-things-falling

His narrative which was limited to a few volunteers has now been conflated by Amazon.com reviewers, via an insatiable social media mechanism, to be applied to Peace Corps as an institution.

Some examples:

1. NPR Book Reviewer, “it is about Peace Corps hippies doing drugs”;

2. “I had no idea Peace Corps was so integral in the growth of Colombia’s drug industry”;

3. “Maybe it started with Peace Corps when young, white eager beavers invaded what used to be called the Third World;

a. they may have hooked-up with more than just the hearts and minds of the natives who they helped to read and write … and engaged in other projects to make them love capitalism more than the commies;

b. maybe they discovered marijuana and then coca leaf which would reward campesinos far more than growing maize and they could turn a buck or two for themselves, too;”

4. “We learned how Peace Corps members helped the Colombians to develop marijuana and then cocaine in both quantity and quality”;

5. The couple (the PC vol) and a local marry and become increasingly involved in the burgeoning drug trade;

6. “It adds another dimension [about] the Peace Corps’s involvement in encouraging the campesinos to grow marijuana, and then process coca leaf,and the illicit trafficking to the U. S.

7. “It is about the idealism of the Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s;

8. “It is Elaine’s story (the PC volunteer) that is the heart and soul of this novel;

9.  “It is about the drug trade in Colombia with a lot of historical references (re Peace Corps);

10. “It is a good insight to a Lost Generation in Colombia”.

Jeremiah also included his review of the book that appeared on the Amazon website.

Here’s his review:

A Novelist Encounters the Perils of Mixing Fiction with Fact

Jeremiah Norris

Jeremiah Norris

Juan Gabriel Vasquez is a gifted novelist, blessed with a license to inextricably combine fact with fiction. While novelists seldom have fact-checkers, Alfaguara, a Spanish-language publishing house with headquarters in Madrid, has a moral-if not fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the central narrative of a novel which charges that Peace Corps volunteers initiated the drug trade in Colombia has elementary components of verifiable fact. A protagonist in The Sound of Things Falling is Mike, a Regional Coordinator of Peace Corps, supervising volunteers working in agriculture projects. Juan Gabriel’s depicts them as teaching peasant farmers how to cultivate marijuana. But those earnings produced only pocket change. Under Mike’s inspired leadership, volunteers then instruct farmers how to process coca leaf into paste and transport it by airplane to the United States, earning on a single flight “thirty million dollars”, thus launching the drug industry in Colombia. Ricardo, a local Colombian, is married to a volunteer. He serves as Mike’s pilot on drug runs into the U. S.

Subsequently, Ricardo is caught by the DEA and imprisoned. Mike then shows up dead, shot in the back of the neck, his naked body thrown face down on the riverbank. One can read into this that the drug cartel ratted on his pilot and took care of Mike to ensure the take-over and dominance of an expanding market.

A cursory search on Goggle by the publisher would have revealed the fact that no Peace Corps staff member was ever murdered in Colombia. Due to worsening security issues, Peace Corps left Colombia in 1981. For the remainder of that decade and into the 1990s, Colombia descended into a narco-state, an era infamously marked when unidentified forces launched a daylight assault on the Supreme Court in Bogota, murdering several sitting Justices on the bench.

While it is fact that there were volunteers working in agricultural projects in rural Colombia, it is a mythical transformation of their presence to believe that the indigenous people they worked with were in a suspended state of animation, breathlessly awaiting since pre-Inca times the arrival of complete foreigners to awaken them to a new knowledge of how to convert coca leaf from its centuries old use in religious ceremony to a secular application in lands so distant from their own as to lie beyond their imagination.

During the period 1961-81, some 4,300 Peace Corps Volunteers served in Colombia. There is no record of any of them ever being charged with drug processing or trafficking. All the good that they accomplished over these two decades can be undone through literary inadvertence. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Gabriel “is one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature”. While his narrative was limited to a small group of volunteers in ag projects, the powers of social media have now conflated that scope and erroneously applied it to Peace Corps as an institution. One Amazon reviewer recently wrote: “I had no idea Peace Corps was so integral in the growth of Colombia’s drug industry”.

Juan Gabriel is forceful in public comments that his work “is a reaction against magical realism”. If so, we will have to await another novel for that concept to manifest itself.

Jeremiah Norris

Jeremiah Norris is currently the Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Science in Public Policy in Washington, D. C., and is actively involved on global economic development and health issues, with reference to developing transitioning countries. After being a PCV in Colombia he became Director of  cooperative development in country, then returned to the U.S. and  worked in HQ as a Special Assistant in its Public Affairs Office, and as Acting Director for its Office of Private and International Organizations.

Since then he was a Senior Consultant with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Programme of Action on Cancer Therapy in Vienna, Austria; the Senior Director for International Operations with the WebMD Foundation; Senior Consultant to Harvard Medical School’s international programs; and for Project HOPE, as Director for International Affairs. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he joined USAID and the Department of State as their Director, Office of Human Resources, Bureau for Europe and managed the U. S. Government’s response for direct social investments in health, population and pension reform in the former states of the USSR and Central & Eastern Europe.

Publishers Weekly gave the novel a starred review and never mentioned the Peace Corps plot in their review, which follows:

Starred Review. That story is to blame, declares a character in Colombian author Vasquez’s latest novel (after The Secret History of Costaguana). Indeed, this book is an exploration of the ways in which stories profoundly impact lives. Around 1996, when murder and bloody mayhem fueled by the drug trade were commonplace in Bogotá, the young law professor Antonio Yammara befriends enigmatic stranger Ricardo Laverde. One night, assassins on motorbikes open fire on the two, killing Laverde and seriously wounding Yammara. Conflicted and at a loss to understand the damage Laverde has wrought, Yammara looks into his life story. Yammara suffers from crippling psychic and physical wounds as a result of the shooting, and his investigation takes him to Laverde’s shabby Bogotá apartment, where he receives a gruesome clue from the grieving landlady. Yammara eventually finds Laverde’s daughter Maya, a beekeeper who lives in the Colombian countryside. She shows Yammara photos and letters she’s collected about the father she never knew. Together they lose themselves in stories of Laverde’s childhood; of Maya’s American mother, Elaine Fritts; and of Elaine and Laverde’s love affair. Vasquez allows the story to become Elaine’s, and as the puzzle of Laverde is pieced together, Yammara comes to realize just how thoroughly the stories of these other people are part of his own.

RPCVs and former staff from Colombia — or even the Peace Corps Office in Washington — might follow Jeremiah Norris’ lead and write a review, or comment on the pages of Amazon’s website and protest the damaging of the agency. As someone who writes fiction I don’t blame any novelist for his or her inventions, but an innocent reader, who isn’t knowledgeable about the Peace Corps, should at least be told what is fact and what is fiction by those who know the truth.

8 Comments

  • The whole concept that Peace Corps Volunteers taught Colombians how to produce narcotics is ridiculous. Sort of like saying Russians taught Eskimos how to eat blubber.

    Why give accolades to a writer who causes so much grief with fiction posing as fact?

  • Following my PCV days in Colombia (1961-63) I lived in rural Cauca for 7 of 10 years (1966 -1975). I did research, ran an anthropology field school and had frequent contact with Colombians in villages and cities.

    During this period young Americans often worked as “mules” transporting cocaine from Colombia to the USA. In contrast, no one I talked with – American or Colombian – ever stated or suggested that Volunteers had anything to do with the production and/or marketing of marijuana or cocaine. Nor do I recall a radio commentator or journalist ever making such an assertion. My view on the Vasquez story is: a novel is a novel and PCVs, like any category of person, are fair game for fiction. I also applaud Grubb and Norris for helping to set the facts straight.

  • It’s a fucking novel!!! No excuses necessary.

    Remarks I’ve had a my booksigning which called for the above response:

    “Why did you kill the dog?” (AN AMERICAN KILLING)
    “I feel bad for that guy who set the Hartford Circus Fire. I think you kind of exploited him.” (MASTERS OF ILLUSION)
    “Had you told your parents that you went to Paris to have an illegitimate baby?” (THE BOOK OF PHOEBE)
    And finally:
    “Does the Peace Corps know that volunteers in Cameroon were screwing missionary priests and the Vice Presidents’ son?”(LAMENT FOR A SILVER-EYED WOMAN)

  • Friends of Colombia Board members are aware of this erroneous portrayal of Peace Corps in Colombia. When a similar accusation was made in a documentary film by National Geographic a few years ago, we wrote the producers with evidence that drug agriculture and production was never promoted nor taught by Peace Corps in Colombia. National Geographic removed that accusation in the film.

    The unfortunate situation with the book is that it’s a novel and hence its author has legal rights to pursue his ‘artistic license’ as he wishes. However, many of us who know the facts believe his false allegations are not only erroneous but irresponsible and unethical.
    Pat Wand
    RPCV Colomba 1963-1965

  • Unfortunately, these fictions have legs. A couple of years ago at the retirement party of Norberto Valdez, a friend and outspoken activist for Latino causes, I struck up a conversation with a woman from Bolivia. I mentioned that a Peace Corps story from Boliva had been published in our series Peace Corps at 50. “Oh,” she said. “The Peace Corps did terrible things in Bolivia. Peace Corps doctors sterilized indigenous women without their knowledge.” Wha? So I did a little research, and here is what I found. (this quote from http://www.avillageofchildren.com/?p=578)
    “In 1969, a popular film, Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor) convinced many Bolivians that Peace Corps volunteers were sterilizing indigenous women. The film’s director, Jorge Sanjinés, denied intending to present fiction as fact, but the damage had been done. Relations between Bolivia and the United States started deteriorating and in 1971 the Peace Corps was expelled from Bolivia.”
    The woman I had talked to had carried around this fiction for 40 years or so. Nothing I said convinced her that the story was not entirely true. So Vasquez’s novel may be a fucking novel. But it could really fuck things up for years to come.

  • I would like to add a comment to Ronald W. Schwarz’ recollections of Colombia that may add yet another minor element to the story. In 1963, women in Colombia VIII and XI were the first women to be assigned to rural sites. I was fortunate to be a member of Col XI and was assigned south of Cali, in Cauca to a health clinic.

    As part of our program, we distributed Care powdered milk to women after they had delivered. The milk, we emphasized, was not for babies but was for nutritional support for the mothers.
    What we did not know was that the many in the population were lactose intolerant and would get sick from drinking the milk. So they sold it. As far as I was concerned, its was theirs to do with what helped their family the most.

    The powdered milk was packaged in cellophane bags and then packed into cardboard boxes, labeled a gift from the American people and not for sale. The bags were taken out of the boxes and sold only in the bags in the market. Cellophane had been unknown in our village. Bags of this white “powder” began appearing in our market.

    Years later when I saw a documentary on cocaine production in Colombia, I saw stacks of bags of “white powder”. They looked just like the bags of powdered milk from so long ago.

    So, I wonder if we had inadvertently contributed to the development of the myth.

  • I totally agree with Mary-Ann. Also, it’s a brilliant book, the best of last years crop, in my opinion. We should all be so lucky to write such a great narrative. Marnie

  • “The Sound of Things Falling” is brilliant and has a special significance for those of us who served in Colombia during the aftermath of La Violencia and the beginning of the Drug Cartel-Marxist terror insurgency. Vasquez is certainly worthy of the Impac Prize he was awarded yesterday.

    However, in his novel, the structure rests on historical fact. In so far as Peace Corps is presented as part of that historical structure, it is critical for those of us who served to respond that Peace Corps’ alleged involvement in the drug trade is fictional.

    It is our fight.

    Joanne Colombia 63-65

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