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A trail goes cold

The Art of Political Murder Who Killed the Bishop?, Francisco Goldman, Grove Press: 396 pp., $25

September 09, 2007|Ilan Stavans | Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His new book, "Love and Language," will be published in October.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN is an exemplary novelist. In his three novels -- "The Long Night of White Chickens" (1992), "The Ordinary Seaman" (1997) and "The Divine Husband" (2004) -- he demonstrates a talent for description, a sharp command of style and a penchant for exploring the humanity of his characters. In his hands, war, romance and immigration come alive in unexpected ways. But his plots feel overdrawn; he is capable of hammering on a single, almost abstract theme at the expense of other important aspects of the story.

Goldman has now taken a hiatus from fiction. The detour isn't surprising, given that he started as a journalist, traveling in the '80s to Guatemala, the birthplace of his mother, to report on its civil war. (Goldman was born in Boston, to a Jewish father.) His latest book, a return to his reportorial calling, is an excruciatingly detailed, sometimes frustrating exploration of the "Gerardi affair," which shook Guatemala almost 10 years ago.

Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was vicar-general of Guatemala City and founding director of the archdiocese's Office of Human Rights. A couple of days before his murder on an April night in 1998, a 1,400-page report, titled "Guatemala: Never Again," was issued by the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, a commission over which he presided. The report was the result of a thorough investigation of the violence that marked the previous three decades of civil war, in which an estimated 200,000 civilians were killed. Though Gerardi and his team had been limited by the government in the interviews they conducted with witnesses, victims and others involved in the bloodshed, the report identified a quarter of the war's civilian deaths and estimated the number of refugees. Nonetheless, the authors' intent was not to denounce but to seek reconciliation: The war had formally ended in 1996; it was time for Guatemala to move forward.

This was not to be. Gerardi was bludgeoned in the garage of his residence, the San Sebastián Parish House, in a prominent neighborhood of the capital, just a few blocks away from the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace and the offices of the Presidential Military Staff and the Presidential Guard. His assassination thus took place at the heart of Guatemala's power circles. Goldman, like dozens of intellectuals, was stunned by it: The proponent of reconciliation had himself been martyred. The initial attempts at solving the case left him puzzled. He then successfully pitched to the New Yorker the idea of writing a piece about the affair, and this was his cue to begin sorting out the puzzle.

In the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez's "News of a Kidnapping," Goldman's "The Art of Political Murder" is not so much an analysis as a firsthand account made of interwoven conversations, statements and innuendo, organized achronologically. The quest, too, is similar: to understand how justice is dispensed in Latin America. The more time Goldman invested in understanding the various witnesses and potential culprits, the more he realized the case was a labyrinth. Every clue opened up a set of fresh possibilities, which in turn led to dead ends. But Goldman's effort is less engaging, and more obfuscating, than García Márquez's 1996 account of the Colombian drug cartels and the culture of hostage-taking. He stuffs up 350-plus pages with minutiae about various soap opera-like characters -- a taxi driver, an illegitimate daughter, a taco vendor, a German shepherd called Baloo -- who figure in his investigation. He methodically includes a timetable of events, a map of the neighborhood where the killing took place, a floor plan of the San Sebastián Parish House, black-and-white photographs and a list of "dramatis personae."

Goldman has an intimate acquaintance with death; his trip to Guatemala in the '80s afforded him a close-up of the atrocities, and in his inquiry into Gerardi's assassination he meets with several witnesses who are later eliminated, doubtless to prevent their testimony from being heard. He describes the exhumation of Gerardi's body, the complicated maneuvers intended to force the prosecutors into exile, and the eventual arrests of a handful of people accused of collaborating in the crime: three army officers (Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva and Sgt. Maj. Obdulio Villanueva); an allegedly homosexual priest, Father Mario Orantes Nájera; and the Parish House cook, Margarita López. In 2001, the three officers were sentenced to 30 years in prison and Orantes to 20 years; the cook was set free. Goldman also recounts the intercession by the Supreme Court in 2003 in support of the prosecution and the meeting of the Constitutional Court three years later to hear final defense motions.

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