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NEWS OF A KIDNAPPING.\o7 By Gabriel Garcia Marquez\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman\f7 .\o7 Alfred A. Knopf: 281 pp., $25\f7

June 01, 1997|MICHAEL MASSING | Michael Massing, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, is completing a book about the drug problem in the United States

Over the last 20 years, Latin America has been hit by scourges of many kinds, from leftist insurgencies and right-wing death squads to currency collapses and cholera epidemics. None, however, has been quite as insidious or corrosive as drug trafficking. El narcotrafio has filled morgues, bloated economies, spread addiction, turned schoolchildren into assassins and made judges into martyrs. So macabre and malevolent have been its effects that only a writer of unsurpassed descriptive powers could hope to do justice to them. And at long last, Latin America's most acclaimed writer has accepted the challenge. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose "One Hundred Years of Solitude" probably ranks as the most evocative account of life in Latin America ever written, has, in "News of a Kidnapping," attempted to capture the essence of narcotics trafficking and the calamitous impact it has had on his native Colombia.

In writing "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Garcia Marquez, seeking to convey the surreal quality of life in rural Colombia, felt called upon to create a whole new genre of fiction, known as magical realism. The real-life happenings in the drug world, however, far outstrip anything even his vibrant imagination could concoct, and so he has chosen nonfiction as his medium. As Garcia Marquez grimly observes at the start of "News of a Kidnapping," Colombia has been consumed by a "biblical holocaust" over the last 20 years. The book concentrates on a particularly grim period in late 1990, when the Colombian security forces (with substantial help from the United States) were mounting a nationwide manhunt for Pablo Escobar, the famously ruthless and elusive head of the Medellin cartel. Feeling cornered, Escobar was contemplating surrender and, in an effort to gain more favorable terms from the government, had engineered the abduction of 10 people, most of whom were journalists. For months, Colombia was transfixed as Escobar and the government sought to intimidate and outsmart one another with the lives of the hostages at stake throughout. The task of describing all this, Garcia Marquez notes, was "the saddest and most difficult of my life."

Making that task particularly complicated was the highly ambiguous status Escobar had in Colombia. A man of both calculating brilliance and superhuman cruelty, this capo di tutti i capi was a subject of ghoulish fascination for his fellow countrymen. On a trip to Colombia in the late 1980s, I was struck by how Escobar, who had carried out so many car bombings, massacres and abductions, was broadly admired for his acts of charity. Traveling around Medellin, I was proudly shown the houses he had built for the poor, the public soccer field he had had constructed, the shiny trappings of wealth his unsavory business had brought to the city. In writing about Escobar, then, Garcia Marquez faced the same challenge Francis Ford Coppola did in making "The Godfather": providing a rounded portrait of a Mafia don without romanticizing or glorifying him.

Before becoming a novelist, Garcia Marquez worked as a journalist, and in "News of a Kidnapping" he affects the spare, functional style of a newspaper reporter. Readers accustomed to the playful imagery of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or the lush descriptions of "Love in the Time of Cholera" may be surprised at the stripped-down prose in this work. The writing is often flaccid and uninspired. One woman is said to have "an astonishing capacity for analysis"; another has "a strong character and mature intelligence."

In another case, Garcia Marquez writes: "The stories the guards told each other about their rapes of strangers, their erotic perversions, their sadistic pleasures, rarefied the atmosphere further." The potential power of the sentence is sabotaged by its flaccid ending. Cliches abound. "Power--like love--is a double-edged sword," Garcia Marquez observes at one point. One character is "pursued by his own demons"; another has "her heart in her mouth." A third stands "pale as death." "News of a Kidnapping" even has occasional grammatical lapses, raising the possibility that the translator might be partially at fault. I was particularly surprised to find references to people smoking crack, a product generally associated with America's inner cities; more likely, they were smoking basuco, a processed form of cocaine that is a common street drug in Colombia.

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