The first hippopotamus, a male the colour 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 calibre 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, they explained that the weight of the animal would prevent them from transporting him whole and immediately began carving him up. I was in my apartment in Bogotá, two hundred and fifty or so kilometres south, when I saw the image for the first time, printed across half a page of a national newsmagazine. 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 flavour 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 programmes 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, anaesthetize 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. While in the press and on the TV screens the authorities listed the diseases that could be spread by an artiodactyl—and they used that word: artiodactyl, new to me—and in the rich neighbourhoods of Bogotá people wore T-shirts saying Save the Hippos, in my apartment, on long drizzly nights, or walking down the street towards the city centre, I began to think stubbornly about the day Ricardo Laverde died and even to force myself to remember the precise details. I was surprised by how little effort it took me to summon up the words I had spoken or heard, things I’d seen, pain I’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 the death of that hippopotamus put an end to an episode of my life that had begun quite a while ago, more or less like someone coming home to close a door carelessly left open.
And that’s how this story got underway. 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 Laverde well 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 birthday arrives. 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, and I’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 his death, at the beginning of 1996, Ricardo Laverde had spent the morning walking the narrow streets of La Candelaria, in the centre of Bogotá, between old houses with clay roof tiles and unread marble plaques with summaries of historic events, and around one in the afternoon he showed up at the billiards club on 14th Street, ready to play a couple of games with some of the regulars. He didn’t seem nervous or disturbed when he started to play: he played with the same cue and at the same table he always did, the one closest to the back wall, under the television with the sound turned down. He played three games, though I don’t remember how many he won and how many he lost, because that afternoon I didn’t play with him, but at the next table. I do remember, however, the moment Laverde settled his bets, said goodbye to the other players and headed for the corner door. He was passing between the first tables, which are usually empty because the strip lighting casts strange shadows on the ivory balls in that part of the hall, when he stumbled as if he’d tripped over something. He turned around and came back over to where we were; waited patiently while I finished a series of six or seven cannons that I’d started, and even applauded a three-cushioned one briefly; and then, as he watched me mark my score on the board, he came over and asked me if I might not know where he could borrow a tape machine to listen to a cassette he’d just received. I’ve often wondered since what would have happened if Ricardo Laverde had asked one of the other billiards players rather than me. But it’s a meaningless question, like so much of what we wonder about the past. Laverde had good reasons to choose to ask me. Nothing can change that fact, just as nothing can change what happened afterwards.
I had met him at the end of the previous year, a couple of weeks before Christmas. I was about to turn twenty-six, I’d graduated from law school two years earlier and, although I knew very little about the real world, the theoretical world of legal studies held no secrets for me. After graduating with honours—a thesis on madness as grounds for exemption from legal responsibility in Hamlet: I still wonder today how I got them to accept it, let alone award it a distinction—I had turned into the youngest lecturer ever to teach in the faculty, or that’s what my elders had told me when proposing the idea, and I was convinced that being a professor of Introduction to Law, teaching the basics of the career to generations of frightened children just out of high school, was the only possible horizon in my life. There, standing in front of a wooden lectern, facing rows and rows of baby-faced and disoriented boys and impressionable, wide-eyed girls, I received my first lessons on the nature of power. I was barely eight years older than these inexperienced students, but between us opened the double abyss of authority and knowledge, things that I had and they, recently arrived in the world, entirely lacked. They admired me, feared me a little, and I realized that one could get used to this fear and admiration, that they were like a drug. I told my students about the potholers who were trapped in a cave and after several days began to eat each other to survive: can the Law defend them or not? I told them about old Shylock, about the pound of flesh he wanted, about the astute Portia, who managed to prevent him from taking it with a pettifogging technicality: I enjoyed watching them gesticulate and shout and lose themselves in ridiculous arguments in their attempts to find, in the thicket of the anecdote, the ideas of Law and Justice. After these academic discussions I’d go to the billiards clubs on Fourteenth Street, low-ceilinged places filled with smoke where my other life went on, a life without doctrines or jurisprudence. There, between small bets and coffee with brandy, my day would draw to a close, sometimes in the company of a colleague or two, sometimes with female students who after a few drinks might end up in my bed. I lived nearby, in a tenth-floor apartment where the air was always chilly, where the view of the spiky city of bricks and cement was always good, where my bed was always open to discussions of Cesare Beccaria’s concept of crimes and punishments, or a difficult chapter of Bodenheimer, or even a simple upgrade of a mark by the quickest route. Life, in those days that now seem to have belonged to somebody else, was full of possibilities. The possibilities, as I would later discover, also belonged to somebody else: they were gradually, imperceptibly extinguished, like a tide going out, until they left me with what I am today.
At the time, my city was beginning to emerge from the most violent years of its recent history. I’m not talking about the violence of cheap stabbings and stray bullets, the settling of accounts between low-grade dealers, but the kind that transcends the small resentments and small revenges of little people, the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army, the Front. We Bogotanos had become accustomed to it, partially because its images arrived with extraordinary regularity in our news reports and papers; that day, the images of the most recent attack had begun to appear, in the form of a breaking news bulletin, on the television screen. First we saw the reporter presenting the news from outside the door of the Country Clinic, then we saw the image of the bullet-riddled Mercedes—through the shot-out window we saw the back seat, broken glass, smears of dried blood—and finally, when all movement had ceased at all the tables and everyone had quietened down and someone had shouted to turn up the sound, we saw, above the dates of birth and the still-fresh one of his death, the face of the victim in black and white. It was the conservative politician Álvaro Gómez, son of one of the most controversial presidents of the century and himself a candidate for the presidency more than once. Nobody asked why he’d been killed, or who by, because such questions no longer had any meaning in my city, or they were asked in a mechanical fashion, as the only way to react to the latest shock. I didn’t think so at the time, but those crimes (“magnicides,” they called them in the press: I learned the meaning of that little word very early) had provided the backbone of my life or punctuated it like the unexpected visits of a distant relative. I was fourteen years old that afternoon in 1984 when Pablo Escobar killed or ordered the killing of his most illustrious pursuer, the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla (two hit men on a motorcycle, a curve on 127th Street). I was sixteen when Escobar killed or ordered the killing of Guillermo Cano, publisher of El Espectador (a few steps away from the newspaper’s offices, the assassin put eight bullets in his chest). I was nineteen and already an adult, although I hadn’t voted yet, on the day of the death of Luis Carlos Galán, a presidential candidate, whose assassination was different or is different in our imaginations because it was seen on TV: the crowd cheering Galán, then the machine-gunfire, then the body collapsing on the wooden platform, falling soundlessly or its sound hidden by the uproar or by the first screams. And shortly afterwards there was the Avianca plane, a Boeing 727-21 that Escobar had blown up in mid-air—somewhere between Bogotá and Cali—to kill a politician who wasn’t even on board.
So all the billiards players lamented the crime with a resignation that was by then a sort of national idiosyncrasy, the legacy of our times, and then we went back to our respective games. All, I mean, except for one whose attention remained riveted to the screen, where the images had moved on to the next news item and were now showing a scene of neglect: a bullring full of weeds as high as the flagpoles (or as high as the place where flags once flew), a roof over several vintage cars that were rusting away, a gigantic tyrannosaurus whose body was falling apart, revealing a complicated metal structure, sad and naked like an old mannequin. It was the Hacienda Nápoles, Pablo Escobar’s mythical territory, which had once been the headquarters of his empire, now left to its fate since the capo’s death in 1993. The news item was about this neglect: the properties confiscated from the drug traffickers, the millions of dollars wasted by the authorities who didn’t know how to make use of these properties, of all the many things that could have been done and hadn’t been done with those fairy-tale assets. And that was when one of the players at the table nearest the television, who up to that moment had not drawn attention to himself in any way, spoke as if talking to himself, but he did so out loud and spontaneously, like someone who, long used to solitude, had forgotten the very possibility of being heard.
“Well, let’s see what they do with the animals, he said. “Poor things are starving to death and nobody cares.”
Someone asked him what animals he was talking about. The man just said: “It’s not their fault, anyway.”
Those were the first words I heard Ricardo Laverde say. He didn’t say anything else: he didn’t clarify which animals he was talking about, or say how he knew they were starving to death. But no one asked again, because we were all old enough to remember the Hacienda Nápoles in its better days. The zoo was a legendary place, a millionaire drug baron’s eccentricity, that promised visitors a spectacle that didn’t belong to these latitudes. I’d gone when I was twelve, during the Christmas holidays; I had gone there, of course, behind my parents’ backs: the very idea of their son setting foot on the property of a recognized Mafioso would have been scandalous to them, let alone the thought of him enjoying himself there. But I couldn’t resist going to see what everyone was talking about. I accepted the invitation from the parents of a friend; one weekend we got up very early to make the six-hour drive from Bogotá to Puerto Triunfo; and once inside the ranch, after passing under the big stone gate (with the name of the property in thick blue letters), we spent the afternoon among Bengal tigers and Amazonian macaws, pygmy horses and butterflies the size of a hand and even a pair of Indian rhinoceroses who, according to a boy with a Medellín accent and camouflage flak jacket, had just recently arrived. And then there were the hippos, of course, none of which had escaped yet in those glory days. So I knew very well what animals the man was talking about; I didn’t know, however, that those few words would spring to mind almost fourteen years later. But all this I’ve thought since, obviously: that day, at the billiards club, Ricardo Laverde was just one more of so many in my country who’d followed the rise and fall of one of the most notorious Colombians of all times with astonishment, and I didn’t pay him too much attention.
What I do remember about that day is that he didn’t strike me as intimidating: he was so lean that he seemed taller than he actually was, and you had to see him standing beside a cue to realize he was barely five-foot-seven; his thin, mousy hair and dried-out skin and long, dirty nails gave an image of illness or laziness, like land gone to waste. He’d just turned forty-eight, but he looked much older. Speaking seemed to be an effort for him, as if he couldn’t get enough air; his hand was so unsteady that the blue tip of his cue always trembled in front of the ball, and it was almost miraculous that he didn’t scratch more often. Everything about him seemed tired. One afternoon, after Laverde had gone, one of the guys he’d been playing with (a man around the same age but who moved better, who breathed better, who is undoubtedly still alive today and perhaps even reading this memoir) told me the reason without my having asked. “It’s prison,” he told me, revealing as he spoke the brief sparkle of a gold tooth. “Jail tires a person out.”
“He was in prison?”
“Just got out. He was in there for something like twenty years, so they say.”
“And what’d he do?”
“Oh, that I don’t know,” that man said. “But he must have done something, no? Nobody gets that many years for nothing.”
I believed him, of course, because nothing allowed me to think there was an alternative truth, because there was no reason at that moment to question the first innocent and ingenuous version that someone gave me of Ricardo Laverde’s life. I thought how I’d never known an ex-convict before—the expression ex-convict, anyone would notice, is the best proof of that—and my interest in getting to know Laverde grew, or my curiosity grew. A heavy sentence always impresses a young man like I was back then. I calculated that I was barely walking when Laverde went to prison, and no one can be invulnerable to the idea of having grown up and gone to school and discovered sex and maybe death (that of a pet and then a grandfather, for example), and having had lovers and suffered painful breakups and come to know the power of deciding, the satisfaction or regret resulting from decisions, the power to hurt and the satisfaction or guilt in doing so, and all while a man lives the life without discoveries or apprenticeships that invariably results from a sentence of such length. A life unlived, a life that runs through one’s fingers, a life one suffers through while knowing it belongs to someone else: to those who don’t have to suffer.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the author of The Sound of Things Falling and The Shape of the Ruins, among other novels, and of the forthcoming short-story collection Songs for the Flames. He has translated works by Joseph Conrad and Victor Hugo into Spanish. His work is published in thirty languages worldwide.