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All that he cares about

Francisco Goldman copes with loss while girding for battle over his report on a murder in Guatemala.

September 23, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — HE'S fearless now, Francisco Goldman says. He's "putting on war paint" and preparing for battle with ax-grinding critics, hostile pundits and those he calls the "deeply murderous clowns" who wield power in Guatemala, his ancestral homeland.

There's no holding back, Goldman believes. After death took the love of his life last summer, after the cosmos came crashing down on his head one seemingly innocuous July day at the beach, why should he be afraid of anything anymore?

"I don't give a. . . . I lost everything that mattered," he says. "I dare them: Come after me."

By "them," the 53-year-old Guatemalan American novelist means the military-political establishment that has held sway over Guatemala for decades and, specifically, the part of Guatemalan society that is led by former army Gen. Otto Pérez Molina in this fall's presidential election in that beleaguered Central American nation.

That confederacy of powerful interests is the target of Goldman's just-published first book of nonfiction, "The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?" A harrowing and at times bizarrely funny tale that reads as colorfully as one of his novels, Goldman's book relates in exhaustive detail the story of the April 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, one of Guatemala's leading human rights advocates, and the legal machinations that followed his death by bludgeoning in the garage of his home, the San Sebastián Parish House in Guatemala City, not far from the National Palace.

Three army officers and a priest ultimately were convicted of the crime, which set off global repercussions in political and human rights circles. Goldman regards the convictions as "a miracle" that resulted from "a perfect storm of politcally decent and courageous people coming together." Yet the book raises questions about whether more powerful political actors, including Pérez Molina, may have actually orchestrated the murder. Pérez Molina has denied all such allegations, asserting that he was out of the country at the time, and has denounced Goldman's book.

But Goldman's "bring it on" defiance seems aimed not only at the Guatemalan power elite but at an indifferent universe, a malignant fate, which this summer snatched away his 30-year-old Mexican wife, the writer Aura Estrada, in a freak accident while they were bodysurfing on the Oaxacan coast. One minute Estrada was laughing and catching waves, her husband says. The next she had snapped her neck and Goldman was administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and desperately searching for some means to get her to a Mexico City hospital, hours away on the other side of the Sierre Madres.

Strangely, just the previous year, at the very same beach, when a friend was caught up in the current and being swept out to sea, Estrada had scampered across rocks, dived into the water and single-handedly saved his life. "She was like Superwoman," Goldman recalls. "She used to make fun of how much a better swimmer she was than me; it was like a big joke among us."

The Massachusetts-raised son of a Jewish American father and a Guatemalan mother, Goldman knows his way around the hemisphere's literary and linguistic highways and byroads. His three novels, "The Long Night of White Chickens," "The Ordinary Seaman" and "The Divine Husband," have been acclaimed for their moral ardor, polyglot Anglo-Latino sensibility and rich historical imagination. ("A sort of anti-imperialist, post-colonial, democratic, culturally multifarious novel of the sea," was Rick Moody's take on "The Ordinary Seaman" for the Los Angeles Times Book Review.)

But talking about his late wife, Goldman struggles to find the words to convey the depth of the trauma.

"This is the kind of blow that can make you hate life. Like how could the person that gives you all your happiness and is the heart of your life, and the person you adore with all your heart, is just taken from you like that, the year you're gonna have a baby. It's too much."

Over lunch at a neighborhood seafood restaurant off the Plaza Madrid, Goldman vents. He chastises himself for not having somehow prevented Estrada's death. "There's a million what-ifs in this, and the what-ifs will drive you crazy." He weeps.

But he laughs too, in loud guffaws shot through with pain, at the brutal absurdities of Mesoamerican politics. He eats and drinks like a man who knows that a good meal can be balm for the soul as well as the stomach. ("This is the best soft-shell crab," he announces as the waiter sets down another plate.)

"He has an immense capacity for laughter," as did his wife, says the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, a close friend who used to accompany the bachelor-era Goldman on epic bouts of New York pub-crawling. "If you met them for a drink they'd always be so cheerful and up."

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