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December Book Review

News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Reviewed by John Tarleton

Gabriel García Márquez began his Nobel Prize winning career as a reporter for El Espectador in the 1950s. And now he returns to his journalistic roots in this fast-moving thriller about a series of 10 politically-motivated kidnappings that rocked Colombia in 1990.

Welcome to Colombia

Welcome to García Márquez's native land where criminals blow up hundreds of innocents with car bombs and remember to return the diamond rings of one of their kidnap victims, where guards alternate between pointing guns at their captives' heads and baking them birthday cakes, and where army generals, drug kingpins, teenage hoodlums and the families of hostages all fervently pray to the same Blessed Virgin.

In this stranger-than-life story, the author reveals the passion and the chaos of Colombia, which by 1990 was being consumed by a three-sided civil war between the government, guerrillas and drug traffickers. Stripped of fictional techniques, "News of a Kidnapping" takes on a harder, less dreamy edge. The phantasmagorical world of García Márquez's novels appears more as a continuation than a departure from reality.

The book begins with a moment-by-moment account of the kidnapping of Maruja Pachón and her sister-in-law Beatriz Villamizar de Guerrero ( Like all but one of the other hostages, they are journalists). And, the story ends with the negotiated surrender of the elusive Pablo Escobar and his closest lieutenants. García Márquez conducted detailed interviews with the survivors and family members. And, what emerges is an intimate portrait of the despair and the powerlssness of being a kidnap victim as well as the occasional moments of soaring courage where the human spirit transcends even the most evil of circumstances.

"As García Márquez Draws Us Further into the World of the Hostages..."

And as García Márquez draws us further into the world of the hostages, we begin to re-evaluate our own freedom and what life would be like without it. Likewise, he brings us to ask ourselves how we would cope with a situation in which we might die a senseless death at any moment and also whether we could find meaning in a life where the absolute lack of a certain future mocks one's every action.

Simultaneously, the author leads into the personal lives of the hostages' families. And he allows us to share the heart-wrenching feeling of what it means to wait for a loved one who may never come home.

Yet, Garcia Marquez deflates the soap opera sentimentality that his story could have drifted off into if it were in less skillful hands. Nowhere is he better at this than in his description of the reunion of Beatriz and her husband:

"He walked out of the bedroom with admirable self-control. Beatriz and he—married for 25 years—exchanged an unhurried embrace, not shedding a tear, as if she were back from a short trip. Both had thought so much about this moment that when the time came to live it, their reunion was like a scene in a play, rehearsed a thousand times, capable of moving everyone but the actors."

Personal Tragedy Becomes National Tragedy

The ghostly pallor of the hostages' captivity is magnified by the fact that their only tenuous connections to the outside world are the radio and above all television, which they watch religiously for months in search of secret messages from their colleagues. And, it was through the power of the mass media to emphasize a certain story (recall the Iranian Hostage Crisis that obsessed the U.S. in 1979-80) that the sufferings of the refined, upper class hostages and their family members were elevated from the realm of personal tragedy to national tragedy.

Throughout "News of a Kidnapping", García Márquez tends to share the selective morality of the upper class, in which the lives of the Rich and the Well-Connected are assumed to be worth infinitely more than those of the peasants, political activists and young slum dwellers who are routinely offed by the police and paramilitary forces in Colombia just on the suspicion that they might be sympathetic to either the guerrillas or the drug traffickers.

Pablo Escobar

Throughout the book, García Márquez keeps a shroud of mystery over Pablo Escobar, legendary leader of the Medellin Drug Cartel and mastermind of the kidnappings.

Escobar, who began his career in crime by stealing tombstones, had by then accumulated an estimated fortune of $3 billion. But, he could no longer sleep in the same place twice or know a day of peace. He and other members of "Los Extridables" (The Extriditables) feared only one thing: being deported to the United States.

We first meet Escobar through his car bombs, then his savvy press releases, then his lawyer, then during a telephone call, then in a glimpse of a mansion he kept stocked with giraffes and hippopatamuses and finally in person when an 82 year-old celebrity priest and the husband of Maruja Pachón persuade him and his followers to voluntarily surrender and move into a prison of their own liking. García Márquez writes,

"When the helicopter landed on the grass, some fifteen bodyguards moved away from the group and walked uneasily to the helicopter in a circle around a man who was in no way inconspicuous. He had hair down to his shoulders, a very thick, rough-looking black beard that reached to his chest, and skin burned and weathered by a desert sun. He was thick-set, wore tennis shoes and a light-blue cotton jacket, had an easy walk and a chilling calm. Villamizar knew who he was at first sight only because he was different from all the other men he had ever seen in his life."

"News of a Kidnapping" has some of the qualities of a great García Márquez novel. And, it will definately be of interest to anyone who wishes to learn more about Latin American culture or who is a fan of the author's sparkling prose.

John Tarleton

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