News of a Kidnapping
In late February of this year, just as Colombia was preparing to celebrate his seventieth birthday on March 6, Gabriel García Márquez announced from his house in Cartagena that he would not be present for the occasion. Colombia, he said, “had become an uncomfortable country, uncertain and troubling for a writer,” and he was exiling himself to Mexico, where he has lived intermittently for much of his writing life.
The reaction of most Colombians was more sorrowful than angry, although a few irritated columns appeared in the press. Even so, the country went ahead with its celebrations, and the newspapers of March 6 not only took notice of the event on their front pages, but reviewed the long and fruitful writing career of their Nobel laureate and carried reminiscences of his early unheralded days by some of his oldest friends. Caracol, the radio channel to which many Colombians are addicted, ran a whole morning of remembrances, but on this occasion there was no word at all from the writer himself. Unlike the majority of Colombians, he had the choice of living elsewhere.
Colombians, however, are used to García Márquez’s metiendose, putting his oar in, sticking his neck out. He began his writing career as a reporter, and he speaks freely to the press on public matters. He has, for example, resolutely called on Colombia’s current president, Ernesto Samper, to step down. His newest book, moreover, takes on directly some of the complexities of Colombia’s present crisis. Published in Spanish last year, and now appearing in an intelligent English version by Edith Grossman, News of a Kidnapping is an exhaustive piece of reporting that tells the many-sided story of the kidnappings of prominent Colombians in 1990 by the agents of Pablo Escobar, then the most powerful of the drug traffickers, and of the tangle of negotiations that were set in motion, over the course of months, to free them.
I doubt that there is any country in the world that claims a single writer as its leading citizen to the degree that Colombia does with García Márquez. He is universally referred to as “Gabo,” and the nickname implies an intimacy that is felt rather than assumed, as though he were a family member who had gone out into the world and done well. Never out of the news, he is spoken of as “nuestro Nobel.” While they revere his writing, Colombians also exercise a familial right to criticize his pronouncements, his small-boy fascination with power, his dubious friendships with the powerful, and his fondness for playing literary statesman. (Julio Cortázar once warned against treating the politics of writers, Latin American writers in particular, as anything other than extensions of their fictions.)
It was the appearance of his most celebrated novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in 1967, that brought him to international attention. In that novel he universalized his own origins in the small town of Aracataca into the history of Macondo and the Buendía family, an imagined …