Pharmaceutical Realism

Reading between the lines.
July 16 1997 3:30 AM

Pharmaceutical Realism

Gabriel García Márquez's News of a Kidnapping.

News of a Kidnapping
By Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Edith Grossman
Alfred A. Knopf; 291 pages; $25

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Slate ran an item about Gabriel García Márquez's News of a Kidnapping a couple of weeks ago, reporting a general puzzlement among reviewers. Some reviewers were said to have regretted the unmagicness of the book's realism and the sobriety of its prose style. Someone else was said to have deplored a lack of moral firmness in García Márquez's portrait of Pablo Escobar, the Medellin drug lord. But those reactions, as summarized in Slate, don't do justice to the book.

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News of a Kidnapping is a genuinely masterful work in its field--though the field is journalism, not fiction, which may surprise readers, but shouldn't. García Márquez began his career as a newspaper reporter, not as a novelist, and he has written journalism from time to time ever since. Kidnapping is an old theme of his. Years ago he composed a screenplay described as a "cinematographic narrative," about a real-life mass kidnapping of members of the Nicaraguan elite by the leftist Sandinista guerrillas in 1974, during the time of the Somoza dictatorship. The screenplay was never filmed, so far as I know, but came out in book form under the title Viva Sandino or, in a later edition, El Asalto. There you could already see the elements that make up News of a Kidnapping: a social background of violence and injustice; the United States hovering in the distance; a hostage situation. But the screenplay about Nicaragua presented these elements as a simple Marxist fable--the contemptible elite kidnap victims, the loathsome U.S. imperialists, the heroic revolutionary kidnappers.

Nothing so simple appears in News of a Kidnapping. The author says very little about the United States, apart from noting that, at the beginning of the 1990s, when the book takes place, the U.S. wanted to extradite Colombian drug lords to American prisons. The 10 kidnap victims--seized on Pablo Escobar's orders, for the purpose of pressuring the government of Colombia not to extradite anyone--are presented as wholly admirable. As for Escobar himself, García Márquez offers a portrait that is authentically scary.

"The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil," García Márquez tells us, in one of his only direct commentaries on his own cast of characters. He shows us the consequences of this particular inability, too--the murdered presidential candidates, the massacres in the Colombian streets, the hundreds of murdered policemen. But we do also see the social reality behind Escobar and his drug empire, which makes for a complicating factor. We meet the young hit men who guarded the kidnap victims, and odors of fatalism, superstition, and barbarism waft upward from the page, in an unmistakable indication that we are in the presence of the grimmest poverty.

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E scobar claimed to have been conducting a war on behalf of the Colombian slums, avenging the brutality of the police with still more brutality of his own, and we can see that, in a perverse way, he did feel something of a righteous indignation. He managed even to demand that the Colombian press publish a human-rights report by Americas Watch, which was a wonderfully bizarre demand for a crime chief to make. And with details like that, García Márquez's narrative of the kidnapping, the sequestering of the victims in their different safe houses, the efforts by the husband of one of the victims to get the president of Colombia sympathetically involved, the drawn-out negotiations, the months of incarceration, a killing, then another, the intervention of a half-mad television priest, the release of the survivors and, at last, the surrender of Escobar himself--this tale, like a tropical downpour, conjures up a brilliant leafy-green Latin Americanness. At least it does in the original Spanish-language text. In English the leafy green comes out a bit less leafy, due to the traumas of translation.

Translations are always faulty, and the present one, by Edith Grossman, is doubtless better than most. Still, there are passages that, while perfectly clear in the Spanish-language original, re-emerge in translation as pointlessly obscure. The kidnap victim whom we get to know best is a prize-winning journalist named Maruja Pachón, about whom García Márquez says, in the English translation, "In the bloom of her early thirties, she had married in the Catholic Church at the age of nineteen, and had given her husband five children." But in García Márquez had merely written, much more simply: "She was in the flower of her thirties, she had been married by the Catholic Church at nineteen, and she had given her husband five children." And of mangled passages like that--now translated with too much freedom, now too literally--is to cover García Márquez's text with a thin, almost invisible varnish of strangeness, which is exactly what the author never meant to have happen.

For if there is a deep theme in News of a Kidnapping, it is the same as in some of his other writings: the theme of a narrow, remote provincial life, quaint and familiar (as it feels in the Spanish original), in which the quaintness has somehow blossomed into something horrific. That is exactly how we are meant to see Escobar--as a bit of Colombian local color, except intensified a thousandfold, to the point of monstrosity. A primitive among provincials. A man whose defective moral sense included a grotesquely exaggerated loyalty to a limited number of people in his own family and in the slums. A man with a fortune of 3 billion dollars, who still could not figure out how to live outside his own country, away from the people trying to hunt him down. A cornered beast, terrorized and terrorizing.

García Márquez tells us at the start of the book that writing News of a Kidnapping was "the saddest and most difficult" task of his life. But apart from that and a playful wave at us at the end ("How incredible," says Maruja in the last line. "Somebody should write a book!"), nothing in the narrative draws attention to the author or to his way of telling the story. This, too, must disappoint readers looking for the pleasures of an intricately constructed novel. News of a Kidnapping is about real events, however, and not about imagination--not even about a journalist's imagination. By the last chapter I understood García Márquez's Colombia a lot better. I understood something about the drug wars. But never mind what I understood--my hair was standing on end. It was because, without ever breaking the rules of hard-fact journalism, García Márquez had given me an experience of fear of death.

Paul Berman is a regular contributor to Slate.

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