Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez's latest novel, News of a Kidnapping, is a non-fiction account of the 1990 kidnapping of journalists by the notorious and powerful Medellin drug cartel
Consider the place de- scribed in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's harrowing new book. It's a country in thrall to drug dealers and terrorists, a country where four presidential candidates have been brutally killed.
One of its cities is known as the most dangerous in the world: there are some 20 murders a day in its streets, and a massacre every four days. Within months nearly 500 police officers have been killled, thanks to a bounty offered by narcotics kingpin.
While that drug lord has a reputation as a ruthless killer who's blown up cars, shopping centers and a jetliner, he is regarded by some as a kind of Robin Hood, renowned for his charitable work among the poor.
Politicians, businessmen, journalists and ordinary freeloaders, Garcia Marquez observes all made the pilgrimage to the estate where the drug lord "Kept a Zoo with giraffes and hippos brought over from Africa, and where the entrance displayed, as if it were a national monument, the small plane used to export the first shipment of cocaine".
Though such descriptions sound as if they belong in one of Garcia Marquez's fantastical novels, they actually come from News of a Kidnapping, his new non-fiction book. The volume chronicles the 1990 kidnapping of nine journalists by Medellin's powerful cocaine cartel and the events that eventually led to the surrender of the cartel's leader, the notorious Pablo Escobar.
News of a Kidnapping not only provides a fascinating anatomy of "one episode in the biblical holocaust that has been consuming Colombia for more tha 20 years", but also offers the readers new insights into the surreal history of Garcia Marquez's native country.
Indeed, the reader is reminded by this book that the magical realism employed by Garcia Marquez and other Latin American novelists is in part a narrative strategy for grappling with a social reality so hallucinatory, so irrational that it defies ordinary naturalistic description.
Although readers in the United States might wish that the author had provided a succinct overview of recent Colombian history near the beginning of this book, one gradually picks up an understanding through osmosis, even as one is plunged into the frightening series of events that began in the summer of 1990, a mere three weeks after President Cesar Gaviria took office.
Fearful of being sent to the United States to stand trial , Escobar and his followers, the so-called "Extraditables", had begun to pressure the Colombian government into meeting their demands.
"The traffickers - terrified by the long, worldwide reach of the United States - realised that the safest place for them was Colombia", writes Garcia Marquez, "and they went underground, fugitives inside their own country . The great irony was that their only alternative was to place themselves under the protection of the state to save their own skins. And so they attempted - by persuasion and by force - to obtain that protection by engaging in indiscriminate, merciless terrorism and, at the same time, by offering to surrender to the authorities and bring home and invest their capital in Colombia, on the sole condition that they not be extradited."
In an attempt to pressure the government and press, the Extraditables began kidnapping journalists, including Diana Turbay, publisher of the news magazine Hoy Por Hoy and daughter of former President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala; Francisco Santos, news editor of Colombia's best-selling newspaper, EL Tiempo: and Maruja Pachon, a former televison producer and wife of the politician Alberto Villamizar. Garcia Marquez, of course, was once a journalist himself, and in this volume he draws upon interviews with the former hostages and their families to create a compelling narrative of their abduction and captivity.
He shows us the bonds some of the hostages developed with their guards: hapless young men, fearful for their own lives. And he also shows us the incongruities of the hostages' captivity; they were housed in rented rooms, in the middle of busy city neighbourhoods, only yards from freedom and ordinary life. At the same time, Garcia Marquez traces the strenuous efforts of family members to win the hostages' release. As he tells it, Villamizar's role was by far the most dramatic: in addition to working tirelessly for his wife's release, he also played a crucial role in negotiations leading to Escobar's surrender in 1991 in return for lenient punishment. While the language in News of a Kidnapping is repertorial, even flat, a far cry indeed from the luxuriant prose of the author's novels, the narrative possesses the drama and emotional resonance of Marquez's most powerful fiction. The fact that the story he tells really happened only makes it that much more disturbing - and sad.
Marquez sees one culprit behind Colombia's terrible troubles: "Easy money, a narcotic more harmful than the ill-named 'heroic drugs',was injected in the national culture", he writes."The idea prospered: The law is the greatest obstacle to happiness; it is a waste of time learning to read and write: you can live a better, more secure life as a criminal than as a law-abiding citizen - in short, this was the social breakdown typical of all undeclared wars."
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