An odd coincidence leads Antonio Yammara, a law professor and narrator of this novel from Latin American author Vásquez (The Informers, 2009, etc.), deep into the mystery of personality, both his own and especially that of Ricardo Laverde, a casual acquaintance of Yammara before he was gunned down on the streets of Bogotá.
The catalyst for memory here is perhaps unique in the history of the novel, for Yammara begins by recounting an anecdote involving a hippopotamus that had escaped from a zoo established in Colombia’s Magdalena Valley by the drug baron Pablo Escobar. After the hippo is shot, Yammara is taken back 13 years to his acquaintance with Laverde, a pilot involved in drug running. Yammara is a youngish professor of law in Bogotá, and, generally bored, he spends his nights bedding his students and playing billiards. Engaged in the latter activity, Yammara meets Laverde without knowing his background—for example, that Laverde had just been released from a 19-year prison stint for drug activity. A short time later, Yammara is with Laverde when the drug runner is murdered, and Yammara is also hit by a bullet. He is both angered and intrigued by Laverde’s murder and wants to find out the mystery behind his life. His curiosity leads him circuitously to Laverde’s relationship with Elena, his American wife, whose death in a plane accident Laverde was grieving over at the time of his murder. Yammara meets Maya Fritts, Laverde’s daughter by Elena, who fills in some of the gaps in Yammara’s knowledge, and the intimacy that arises from Yammara’s growing knowledge of Laverde’s family leads him and Maya to briefly become lovers.
Toward the end of the novel, Yammara comments that Maya wrinkles her brow “like someone who’s on the verge of understanding something,” and this ambiguous borderland where things don’t quite come into coherent focus is where most of the characters remain.