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 microcosm that contained in essence not just the history of Colombia and the entire Latin American continent but a range of human eccentricities that allowed people of wildly differing cultures to identify deeply with their written counterparts. The fame of that novel spread across frontiers and languages, and García Márquez was precipitated from scratching a living as a journalist and scriptwriter to a literary fame that included the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. Unlike some other venerable winners of that prize, however, he continued to produce at regular intervals books that were greatly admired.
García Márquez was still a student in Cartagena when he began his career as a journalist. (His pieces have now been reprinted in Spanish in three volumes.) He was haunted, however, by the ghost of a book that he knew he had inside him. He had been raised for the first eight years of his life in Aracataca by his grandparents, two legendary presences who filled him with stories. Later, when he returned there with his mother, he found the place of his childhood shrunken and buried, and he resolved to recover it by writing about it.
It took him many years and four books that proved to be false starts to retrieve those magical beginnings. They came together in One Hundred Years of Solitude, written in Mexico City in an eighteen-month-long burst of sustained creativity. When it was first published, it became not just an immediate best-seller throughout Latin America, but an instant classic, the handbook of an entire continent which had so far lacked such a touchstone. What underlined its importance for Latin Americans, however, was the universal acclaim it received in the rest of the world, an affirmation of their existence from the outside that they constantly feel they lack.
García Márquez’s spreading reputation was a matter of pride to Colombians, all the more so since it had come about by writing, and especially by writing that emerged from origins that they could recognize as their own. They could find in One Hundred Years of Solitude their own stories. The books that followed were no less remarkable. The Autumn of the Patriarch, the most brilliantly inventive of his novels, was a fictional concentration of the waning days of a fading dictator, and the loneliness of absolute power; and Love in the Time of Cholera, his wonderfully detailed novel of perennial love, set in Cartagena and compressing its history into everyday happenings, received attention almost as avid as that of his earlier masterpiece.
He also published, in 1990, The General in His Labyrinth, a poignant retelling of the last journey of Simon Bolívar the Liberator, his power reduced to what he carried with him, and followed that book with Of Love and Other Demons, a return to the imaginative exuberance of his early work. Colombia has been the setting in most of his work; yet his genius has been to domesticate his universe, to compress into the setting of a household or a village the history of Latin America itself. García Márquez has always insisted that the magical flights that take place in the Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude came not from his imagination but from the running stories told him by his grandparents during his childhood, at an age when he could make no distinction between fact and legend, or between rumor and reality. In a long interview with Miguel Fernandez-Braso, published in Barcelona, he described the origins of his style:
I had to live twenty years and write four books of apprenticeship to discover that the solution lay at the very root of the problem: I had to tell the story, simply, as my grandparents told it, in an imperturbable tone, with a serenity in the face of evidence which did not change even though the world was falling in on them, and without doubting at any moment what I was telling, even the most frivolous or the most truculent, as though these old people had realized that in literature there is nothing more convincing than conviction itself.
It is in that phrase, “in an imperturbable tone,” that the clue to García Márquez’s style lies. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, he developed the manner that has never left him, and, whatever he is writing, he does so in the form of sentences that move to their conclusion in a way that seems like the passing of time itself, sentences that, whatever the detail of observation they scoop up, have about them in Spanish a relentless rhythm. It would be easy to pick them out from any cluster of written Spanish—whatever their substance, they bear that stamp of inevitability that García Márquez has made his own. It is a language that has about it the oracular quality that he remembers from the stories his grandparents passed down to him, and that his own unmistakable voice has transformed.
Questioned once about Borges, García Márquez said that Borges was the writer he was least drawn to but had most read. Although his matter could not be further from that of Borges, his manner is in every sense Borgesian, for he is truly, in Borges’s sense, a maker of fictions, a ficcionero. Borges always maintained that any linguistic construct was a fiction, and that since language is by its nature distinct from reality, fictions cannot ever aspire to truth. At most, they are useful orderings of reality, for the time being. Besides that, the verbal realities contrived by fictions are free of the restraints of external reality, a freedom García Márquez has relished to the full. Unlike Borges, he is not attracted to the ironies inherent in language, but rather to its abundance.
García Márquez is above all a fabulist, a teller of stories. It is his natural form, whatever his subject matter: the rhythms of his sentences are part of a larger rhythm, the unwinding of a story. In the village world of his grandparents, the only available resource for dealing with the unknown was the human imagination, which invented its own explanations and so contrived its own equilibrium. His novels are rooted in a rich domesticity, yet it is the domestic details in the lives of his characters that generate their reflections on existence, as in this passage from Love in the Time of Cholera:
He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate. She heard him on their wedding night, while she lay prostrate with seasickness in the stateroom on the ship that was carrying them to France, and the sound of his stallion’s stream seemed so potent, so replete with authority, that it increased her terror of the devastation to come. That memory often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each time he used it. Dr. Urbino tried to convince her, with arguments readily understandable, to anyone who wished to understand them, that the mishap was not repeated every day through carelessness on his part, as she insisted, but because of organic reasons: as a young man his stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and scattered, and had at last turned into a fantastic fountain, impossible to control despite his many efforts to direct it. He would say: “The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men.” He contributed to domestic peace with a quotidian act that was more humiliating than humble: he wiped the rim of the bowl with toilet paper each time he used it. She knew, but never said anything as long as the ammoniac fumes were not too strong in the bathroom, and then she proclaimed, as if she had uncovered a crime: “This stinks like a rabbit hutch.” On the eve of old age this physical difficulty inspired Dr. Urbino with the ultimate solution: he urinated sitting down, as she did, which kept the bowl clean and him in a state of grace.
Journalism, reportage in particular, has remained for García Márquez an essential part of his writing life. He has written intermittently a column in the Spanish newspaper El País, and he produced a previous book of reportage in 1987, Clandestine in Chile, an account of the return to Chile of Miguel Littín, the Chilean director, to make a secret documentary while Pinochet was still in power. For News of a Kidnapping he listened exhaustively to the surviving hostages, and to as many as possible of the parties involved in the negotiations over their freedom, before undertaking a narrative reconstruction of the entire web of events, cutting from the situation of the three sets of hostages, held in different houses, to the strenuous efforts of family members to open negotiations, and to the various choices facing the president and the government. In attempting to make the story intelligible in all its complexity, he abjures the transforming imagination that marks his novels; and also, as a reporter, he abjures judgment.
Nine of the ten kidnappings happened between September and December of 1990, when the hostages were separately seized and held by agents of Pablo Escobar. The abductions occurred at a particularly tense stage in the confrontation between the drug traffickers and the Colombian government. The outgoing government of President Virgilio Barco had reacted with some force against the drug cartels, and something close to a state of war existed. During the presidential campaign of 1990, Luis Carlos Galán was the candidate of the New Liberalism Party, which promised firm action against the drug cartels, and, in particular, promised that those captured would be extradited from Colombia to the United States. He was assassinated while making a campaign speech. His campaign manager, Cesar Gaviria, won the presidency, and, with extradition one of his declared aims, the leaders of the cartels brought to bear all their considerable force to prevent its coming to pass. “We prefer a grave in Colombia to a cell in the United States,” they declared. The kidnappings were designed specifically to cause Gaviria’s government to retract its insistence on extradition.
The hostages in García Márquez’s narrative were clearly selected because of their connections to people of power. The two women on whom the narrative mainly hinges—Maruja Pachón and Beatriz de Guerrero—both had close ties to Gaviria’s government. Maruja Pachón was the sister-in-law of the assassinated candidate, Luis Carlos Galán, and her husband, Alberto Villamizar, a well-known former politician and an avowed foe of the cartels, had personal access to President Gaviria. Beatriz de Guerrero, besides, was Villamizar’s sister, and with both women held as pawns, the forces of Pablo Escobar were in a formidable position to negotiate over their lives.
When they were taken to the room of their confinement, they discovered there an older woman they both knew well, Marina Montoya, who had been kidnapped three months before because of her family connections to the anti-cartel forces in the previous government, and who was to be cruelly and pointlessly killed by her captors soon after.
[That Marina became all the more depressed with the arrival of the women] was understandable. After almost two months in the antechamber of death, the arrival of the other two hostages must have been an intolerable dislocation for her in a world she had made hers, and hers alone. Her relationship to the guards, which had become very close, changed on account of them, and in less than two weeks she was suffering again from the same terrible pain and intense solitude she had managed to overcome.
Márquez’s description of the situation of these three women, quartered in a small room in the constant presence of at least four armed guards, unable to move without permission, is the strongest part of his narrative. With his eye for detail, he makes vivid the excruciating conditions of captivity—the constant rise and fall of hope, the shifting attitude of the young guards from sympathy to hostility, the brief and brutal exchanges with the occasional representative of the cartel:
Two days later, one of the bosses, his well-dressed bulk packed into six feet, two inches, kicked the door open and stormed into the room. His impeccable tropical wool suit, Italian loafers, and yellow silk tie were at variance with his churlish behavior. He cursed the guards with two or three obscenities, and raged at the most timid one, whom the others called Spots. “They tell me you’re very nervous,” he said. “Well let me warn you that around here nervous people get killed.”
The other hostages taken during the same period were no less crucial to Pablo Escobar. On August 30, Diana Turbay, daughter of a former president of Colombia and a woman well-known both as a television producer and editor of a news magazine, had been lured into the country on a false trail and abducted, along with four members of her television team and an accompanying German journalist. The other key hostage, taken in Bogota, turned out to be Francisco Santos, the editor-in-chief of El Tiempo, Bogota’s leading daily newspaper, and an obvious target for abduction—indeed, this was not the first time that the cartels had attempted to kidnap him. The series of abductions had put Escobar in a strong bargaining position. Almost contemptuously, he freed four members of Diana Turbay’s news team, after some three months’ confinement. Diana Turbay herself was shot in the confusion of a police raid on the house she was held in, her unintended and cruel death a matter of accusation and counteraccusation by the forces of order and disorder. As Escobar had calculated, the connections of the remaining abductees were sufficient to set in motion a flurry of negotiation at the highest level. Nothing could be settled, however, without the direct intervention of Escobar himself, and he remained tantalizingly elusive.
The figure who occupies the central position in the unwinding of events is that of Dr. Alberto Villamizar. All the ambiguities of the situation seem to be concentrated in him. His wife, Maruja, was in many ways the trump card held by the abductors. He himself had ready access to the President and was apprised of shifting government attitudes to the hostage situation; but at the same time, he had faced similar situations in the past, and knew well that the cartels, and Pablo Escobar in particular, could never be counted on either to make promises or to bargain away the obvious advantages they gained by the blunt fact of holding the hostages—not to mention the power of life and death they hold over all Colombians by virtue of their bottomless drug profits and their vast mercenary organizations.
While Villamizar had in the past been resolutely in favor of extradition for the captured drug traffickers, he now realized that it was only in the matter of extradition that the government held a playable card; and he also realized that in dealing with the cartels, formal negotiation was unlikely to lead to any swift conclusion, that he must in fact find a way to treat with Escobar himself, the most elusive and powerful man in the country.
This in the end he achieved through the intervention of the unlikely figure of Father Rafael García Herreros, an eighty-two-year-old Eudist priest who has been a well-known face on Colombian television since the late Fifties, and who proved to be a presence more acceptable to Escobar than any representative of the Colombian government. It was he who, granted access to Escobar, was able to set in motion the negotiations through which, in exchange for government guarantees of non-extradition, Escobar surrendered voluntarily to confinement in a for-mer drug rehabilitation center redesigned as a prison to his own specifications. At Escobar’s request, Dr. Alberto Villamizar countersigned his document of voluntary surrender. Maruja Pachón de Villamizar was released from her captivity 193 days after she was taken on the streets of Bogota.
To give an intelligible account of the kidnappings and the negotiations, García Márquez has made use of all of his storyteller’s ingenuity. Out of the mass of recounted detail he has skillfully put together an intensely dramatic narrative on shifting levels, describing the stalemate and inertia of confinement, the hurried, grave meetings with high officials, the sometimes feverish speculations of waiting, the ingenious attempts to send messages to the hostages by way of television, the ruthless and elusive workings of the drug organization. News of a Kidnapping carries the stamp of his style—blunt, gnomic conversations, foreshadowings and backward looks—and it has the relentless, driving rhythm that unfailingly marks his prose. Where the Colombian situation is concerned, he includes, in paragraphs like wry asides, enough background information to explain the point of the kidnappings and the high stakes involved for the drug traffickers:
Easy money, a narcotic more harmful than the ill-named “heroic drugs,” was injected into the national culture. 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.
Occasionally, however, a paragraph so recalls the imperturbable tone of the novels, the concentration of cumulative detail, that it reminds us that what we are reading is a fiction, by an avowed maker of fictions. Here he writes on Pablo Escobar:
The truth in February seemed to be that Escobar had no faith in decrees even when he said he did. Distrust was a vital state for him, and he often said he was still alive because of it. He delegated nothing essential. He was his own military commander, his own head of security, intelligence, and counterintelligence, an unpredictable strategist, and an unparalleled purveyor of disinformation. In extreme circumstances he changed his eight-man team of personal bodyguards every day. He was familiar with the latest technology in communications, wiretapping, and tracking devices. He had employees who spent the day engaging in lunatic conversations on his telephones so that the people monitoring his lines would become entangled in mangrove forests of non sequiturs and not be able to distinguish them from the real messages. When the police gave out two phone numbers for receiving information regarding his whereabouts, he hired whole schools of children to anticipate any callers and keep the lines busy twenty-four hours a day. His cunning in never leaving any clues was boundless. He consulted with no one, and provided strategies for his attorneys, whose only work was to outwit the judicial system.
Mostly, however, News of a Kidnapping stays impassively close to its story. It suspends judgment, and it makes no attempt to explain the plight of Colombia, although it reveals the disruptions of ordinary life caused by the constant violence. The sequence of events—the kidnappings, their dragged-out consequences, and their eventual resolution—had a beginning, a development, a crowded cast of characters, and an ending, the shape of a story. The crisis in Colombia, however, is a continuum.
In an interview he gave to El Universal in March 1996, García Márquez said, “We’re in the midst of a civil war; the country is divided in two.” Since the Fifties, a sizeable guerrilla movement has existed in Colombia, and despite various government attempts to make peace, it remains intransigent in its sporadic war on the government, arming itself by kidnapping for ransom, and seriously disrupting civil order in several outlying provinces. More recently, paramilitary groups have sprung up to oppose the guerrillas in the countryside, and the intermittent fighting between the two lawless forces has driven hordes of Colombians from their land.
The drug cartels continue to function under Escobar’ssuccessors, using their money to buy whomever and whatever they need, ruthless in dealing with opposition of any kind. The present government of Ernesto Samper has been so tainted by evidence of its having received money from the drug cartels that it has become essentially a caretaker operation until the elections of 1998. The government has neither the power nor the resources to break the drug cartels or to defeat the guerrillas; nor can it halt the killings that regularly accompany the counter-terror of the police, the army, and the paramilitary groups. The situation has brought on for Colombians a pervasive sense of powerlessness, a paralysis sometimes approaching despair, further aggravated by the decertification of Colombia’s equal trading status last March by the present US administration, an act that Colombians saw as the deepest hypocrisy, given that the drug traffickers have flourished mainly through the huge demand for narcotics in the United States.
With these complexities in mind, I found the impassiveness of News from a Kidnapping somewhat eerie, as though the quality of the writing detached it from its reality, as though it were at times an exercise or a lesson in a craft, a turning-into-words. It is not, after all, García Márquez’s story. The particular quality of his writing is to humanize, to endear, and in this book he casts the aura of his prose equally over hostages and terrorists alike—all are made humanly comprehensible. The narrative itself throws its blanket of humanity, even of humor, over the sheepish young guards, the valiant women, the occasional dithering bureaucrats, the distraught family members, while the desperation of Colombia’s present situation remains some- how in the background, like an overhanging black cloud.
Writing about Medellín, García Márquez has this to say:
Perhaps the most Colombian aspect of the situation was the astonishing capacity of the people of Medellín to accustom themselves to everything, good and bad, with a resiliency that may be the cruelest form courage can take. Most did not seem aware that they were living in a city that had always been the most beautiful, the liveliest, the most hospitable in the country, and in recent years had become one of the most dangerous in the world. Until this time, urban terrorism had been a rare element in the centuries-old culture of Colombian violence. The same historical guerrilla groups who now practiced it had once condemned it, and with reason, as an illegitimate form of revolutionary struggle. People had learned to live with the fear of what had happened, but not with uncertainty about what might happen: an explosion that would blow up one’s children at school, or disintegrate the plane in midair, or pulverize vegetables at the market.
It is just that resiliency that marks the characters that crowd Gárcia Márquez’s fictions, and that shows up in his retelling of the kidnappings; and it is just that resiliency, too, that has kept Colombians fiercely alive in a violent, uncertain present, in a situation that seems forever beyond their control.
October 9, 1997