In her review of Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, Silvana Paternostro compares reading the book to entering “a surreal and very dark labyrinth.” Goldman’s labyrinth reveals the perverse mechanisms by which impunity and corruption have managed to thrive over time in Guatemala: They are not unlike the fictions of Borges and García Márquez in their dazzling intricacy. As in other Central and South American contexts, to get away with the atrocities they have committed, Guatemalan power elites have exploited the commonplace of truth being stranger than fiction. The stories they have concocted have been found believable precisely because they seem unreal. Goldman’s whodunit concerns Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was murdered in 1998, only two days after he had released a human rights report accusing the military of crimes against humanity. In parsing the ways in which the assassination was framed to appear as anything but a political murder, Goldman walks the fine line separating journalism from fiction.
Silvana Paternostro’s My Colombian War, on the other hand, exposes a different side of the Latin American puzzle: Colombia’s upper class and their contradictions, often overshadowed by the hard data on the fallout of the Colombian drug-trade and endless years of armed conflict. Paternostro demonstrates that the euphemisms and apparent compassion of the upper class toward the have-nots also resemble fiction. They are but expressions of people’s complicity with an oppressive regime that, ironically, appears to be invisible.
—MÓNICA DE LA TORRE
Silvana Paternostro Have you ever done a major interview for research purposes and realized it never taped?
Francisco Goldman Yes, once. I shouldn’t even admit this, because it could have gotten me in so much trouble. But I have a good memory, so I remembered what he said. When I had to do the Times magazine piece on Daniel Ortega, my interview with Ortega didn’t tape. He was accused of raping his daughter. I went with one condition to myself: if I was going to do an anti-Daniel Ortega article, I wanted all the criticism to come from ex-Sandinistas. It would only be interesting to hear what people who had once believed in him and worked with him had to say. I had the best interview of my life with Sergio Ramirez. He even cried.
SP Because he felt so hurt and betrayed?
FG It was incredibly moving. I knew not to make the session a formal interview, so we spoke as friends over lunch—about how the war had affected his son, his visceral and mortal disdain for Ortega, and his remorse over having been his subordinate. You say it in your book, when you realize it’s time to not bring out a tape recorder. You do so much reporting in My Colombian War. You obviously didn’t have notebooks and yet it’s so intimate. Do you consider your book a work of reporting or more of a memoir?
SP Well, it’s a mix of memoir and reportage. You know, I use a memory device. I move a set of rings from one hand to the other when I want to remember something important. But I’ve also come up with a term I call nonfiction magical realism, which I started using as a joke, but the more I think about it, it actually aptly describes how I tell my story and my relationship with Colombia, and also the history of Colombia itself.
FG It’s interesting. Interviewing is in some ways the art of memory. You’re obviously making an allusion to García Márquez, and from the first sentence you overtly evoke him. Throughout the book you tell stories that sound like they’re right out of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think people need to be reminded that this and all of García Márquez’s works are still a true mirror of many aspects of Latin American, and not just Colombian, reality.
SP Yes, my book’s opening words are the same as One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later. . . .” When I started going back to understand where I came from, I realized that I had no clear idea of my childhood home. It turns out that One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place in that giraffe’s neck of Colombia’s geography where I was brought up. I went back home to understand the history of the country’s conflict and realized I had lived in the environs of García Márquez’s fictional Macondo. Also there’s this binary view, the liberales and the conservadores. Listening to my relatives and reading about the conservadores, I realized that the character of Aureliano Buendía, and the liberals in general, were the other side of my family’s coin. If you put the fictional Buendías and my mother’s family side-by-side you get the full picture of that region of Colombia.
FG Musically, it’s almost like hearing the world of García Márquez set to a different song. Riohacha, la Guajira… it’s all the same places and names that you associate with the world of fiction, but set to a completely different orchestration in your book. So you’re in a place that’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
SP I was nodding to García Márquez’s work, so I’m happy you picked up on it.
FG He’s so controversial now, and it gets so boring. Since his books are enchanting and popular and fun to read, critics think that they must also be dishonest in some way. You can read him on many different levels. There’s so much happening below the surface. I was 13 and when my mother read it, she said, “This is the saddest book in the world.” It reminded her so completely of those lonely, isolated, south coast, cattle-, banana-, tropical towns that my family’s from too. To her, the book was completely melancholy. She understood even its rhetorical devices—which seem to a Westerner as pure fantasy—how these were ways that people communicate.
SP Isn’t it interesting—foreigners see an idyllic or quaint place—what attracts them is another reality.
FG You almost have to understand where it fits too in the history of Latin American aesthetics. We were talking about this very thing the other day with Gonzalo, Gabo’s son. He said, “You know, they shouldn’t be mad at my father for turning a tropical reality into this, for using beauty to get at deeper things. Because the books are self-consciously beautiful in a way that says a lot.” Contemporary works are self-consciously not beautiful. García Márquez is bringing into full flower in the Latin American novel a tradition that goes back to the modernist poet Rubén Darío. Gonzalo said, “They should blame Darío if they’re unhappy about that.”
SP When reading The Art of Political Murder, I was scared for days, although there are moments of beauty, like when you describe the mold-covered beard of Bishop Gerardi.
FG One of the American forensics experts said white mold covered the bishop’s face in such a way that it looked like a kabuki actor’s makeup. And that his beard was covered in moss and was full of insects. I have a photograph of that somewhere—it is beautiful. But we thought the photograph was too gross to put it in the book.
SP I liked seeing the photos of the characters. And, in keeping with the issue of beautiful writing to describe Latin America’s ills, I noticed the beauty of La China.
FG La China is gorgeous and the illegitimate daughter of a bishop. She’s a gangster, a kidnapper and a bank robber; and they tried to pin the crime on her. Living with that book for nine years was difficult; the violence was not make-believe. More than ten people associated with the case were killed. I lived not just with a bit of danger I suppose, but also with a dark violent feeling that invaded my life. I’m glad the book scares people because the danger was relentless for the people who were working on the case and living with it. But it’s also incredible how they made it bearable for themselves, through humor—
SP I so much admire the ability people have to live in societies where such atrocities and ensuing miscarriages of justice happen and yet they integrate all these realities into their daily lives. It’s one of the things that has always struck me when returning to Colombia.
FG But as your book shows so well, these sorts of situations reveal that there are a number of separate realities. The war in Colombia takes place in certain places and not everywhere. You capture the schism in which people are able to construct their lives as though it’s not happening. There are people who live as if these terrible things were not happening, they keep up this pretense of daily life that seems to be unaffected by it.
And then there are remarkable people like The Untouchables who are heroic, who get on the other side of that wall of denial and face the truth of what’s going on, and try to fight against it for whatever their reasons might be. It would be so easy not to make the choice that they made. They could’ve done so many different things with their lives. Claudia Méndez, the young reporter, could’ve been writing about fashion for her newspaper—what is it that compelled her to spend eight years obsessively living with this danger, with this mystery, and this commitment to seeing the case through? People always think of something corny like, they did it because they loved justice. In some cases that’s true, but what was fascinating to me was how little these people made those kinds of speeches.
SP It’s that there is a new wave of people coming in. They’re baffled by the paradox of those feudal relationships that allowed for Gerardi to be assassinated and for the lack of a resolution of his murder. They see this as an obsolete way for a country to go on. The question is, how do these new ways of thinking start permeating the culture?
FG How does the culture change? By God, who knows. . . . The process is underway all over Latin America, in different ways in every country. Your book really tries to enter into the nuances of that feudal relationship; it is essentially a portrait of wealth and what’s it like to be inside a wealthy family in a conflicted country. In some ways it’s like a 19th-century novel of manners set in Colombia. You show how these feudal relationships, as you call them, are inherited from one generation to another. It’s remarkable in that way—I don’t think I’ve ever felt so inside what that culture of privilege and banality and separation from the rest of the culture is like.
SP I prefer not to use the word wealth, such a relative concept, especially in Latin America. I think it’s a portrait of a family of landowners in a conflicted country. I chose to show it because I think it’s a piece of the puzzle.
FG Every part of a society is part of the puzzle in its different way. The equation of power is really important too. We know that a lot of the people who would have had to accept what you and your book constantly refer to as lives of servility are coming up to the United States now. One in every ten is sending money and information back, and returning as visitors. Even when deported back, they come back with new values. One of the things they’re bringing back is a rejection of that servility. You really see the impact in Guatemala now, especially in the villages, of a new attitude that comes back with people who have been up in United States: “There’s no reason that we shouldn’t have education. We do not have to be on our hands and knees before the patrón. That’s not how they treat you up there. They treat you like shit up there, but they treat you like shit in a different way…”
In the same way too with upper-class people—those attitudes that you described in your Grandmother’s house, those are being eroded too by globalization, as you point out too. The way you describe the difference between your Grandfather’s 19th-century approach to farming and your uncle’s, who is trying to move into a more agrarian corporate culture, which still has lots of problems. . . . You’re reflecting a change.
Nobody in Guatemala would ever say there’s been no government presence in relation to the problems they have had, or in understanding where the violence has come from. I don’t think anybody in Chile or Argentina would say that either. Their U.S. backed armies were everywhere. You keep hitting that refrain, that there are these power vacuums in Colombia.
SP La ausencia de estado, the absence of state. This phrase is used by all the actors in the conflict: the paramilitaries, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—this is their own raison d’etre and a justification for their violence. It is used by everyone from teachers to big landowners. What I did with My Colombian War was try to show that so-called absence of state and how it connects to the center of power because that soundbite is what allows everything to continue working the way it does. Feudalism continues existing because of this. The state didn’t provide for schools, so the landowners provided for them. The same with hospitals. It’s not how education or health care should be provided. But the ausencia de estado has become a reason to ensure that these obsolete ways continue. How do you create a state? That is the question to ask. And shifts are being introduced, as you show in the case of Guatemala, owing to the tenacity of the lawyers and the journalists.
FG I don’t think they necessarily represent new ways, though. These people have always been there. But they used to be killed. Bishop Gerardi was murdered, and you see that the whole murder was essentially an orchestrated act of theater. In that case you have corrupt judges, corrupt prosecutors, corrupt media—and, at the heart of it, a very corrupt government, and an even more corrupt clandestine military establishment—the clandestine powers within the military power—who are all conspiring to hold onto power. Power is a criminal enterprise, so you can commit a murder and get away with it. You can do a very theatrical murder that’s going to accomplish many things besides just get rid of your opponent.
SP Same in Colombia. You have the so-called magnicidios, the assasinations of very important people, and then after trials and investigations it turns out that the real culprit is las fuerzas oscuras, the dark forces. Colombia is filled with euphemisms like this one. When I was researching my book, kidnappings were called “miracle fishings.” Very magic realism…
FG Eventually as the Gerardi case unfolds, you get two generations clashing. You get these young judges, young prosecutors, and a lot of people from the Church who are willing to fight, but they’re fighting for something that’s been promised, in Guatemala anyway, for at least 60 years: working Western institutions, a court system that works, a judicial system that works.
SP Exactly. I think that’s the crux of Latin America today. How do you reconcile both? One of the things that I was interested in doing was showing the ways of the privileged, calling them wealthy can be misleading since it is more about the mentality of feudalism than actual wealth. There is feudalism without real wealth. My interest in showing how people of older generations think lies in the fact that I still meet people of our same generation who suscribe to those old values. (We do have people like the Untouchables too, but I decided to focus on those who refuse to change and are significantly more numerous.)
FG Sure. Those universal Latin-American fresas (yuppies of sorts).
SP And my question is, how can it be so difficult to understand how important it is to change? Wouldn’t you want to live in a country where hatred and fear and violence don’t exist? In Colombia, I’ve met the children of people my own age. They’ve had to deal with such horrors and yet still cannot see the need to change.
FG Your portrayal of that world is so embarrassing.
SP It is, and that’s exactly my point—
FG And that’s what I admired about the book: the honesty of your portrayal of what it’s like to grow up in that world that anyone who took a peek at would find nauseating. The way you all had a pet servant when you were little children, and you and all of your friends only identified with pop songs from Miami. I don’t think I’ve ever been taken inside that world so honestly as in your book. Everybody I know, anyway, automatically looks down on that world without understanding it.
SP That is why I wrote the book. I also realized after I started it that it is important to keep an eye on all pieces of the puzzle. So once there I decided to listen to that world for the first time. My reactions were not so important anymore. I realized I too was at fault. I don’t know what will continue to happen in Colombia if we don’t look at each other honestly, and see everything we haven’t wanted to look at.
I remember once coming across the cover of one of the country’s most important weeklies. It had a big daisy, the colors of the Colombian flag and a headline that read “Los Colombianos son los más felices del mundo,” “Colombians are the happiest people in the world.” Colombia was the country with the highest kidnapping rate in the world then. Those are the things that make me want to embarrass everyone and say, “Look at what happens here!”
FG Well yes, but that’s also the way people survive. You see this in Guatemala, in the very worst times, like in the early ‘80s. In the middle of the war you would still have, down the main avenues of the city, Christmas parades for children with Disney puppets. And everybody constantly wondering, “Why don’t people ever look at the nice things about Guatemala? Look how wonderful our country is, how wonderful life is despite everything!” If you go to any part of the world that’s torn apart by violence, it’s just the way that people cope, by pretending that ordinary life continues amidst these horrors. People adapt. In fact, what makes it so fascinating to be in those places sometimes is that ordinary life does adapt around them until finally something gets triggered in that society and people say, “Enough.” Mexico has a lot of the same problems that these other countries have. There were two thousand narco deaths last year. It’s not nearly at the level of violence of Colombia or Guatemala—we do come from the two most violent countries in Latin America at the moment. . . . And yet I find Mexico City to be the most pleasant city on earth. Maybe there’s something horrifying about that, but I don’t think so.
SP That’s interesting. But what about that feeling of fear you do have in Guatemala. You describe it, for example, when you write about taking the taxi ride—
FG Things have gotten so out of control in Guatemala that you don’t have to be working on the Gerardi case to feel frightened. I was talking to one of the wire service reporters there. She was saying, “I was having people over for dinner, and I realized I forgot to buy garlic for the pasta. There’s this tienda just a block away. If it’s nighttime I won’t get it.” Even in the midst of that, you have people telling you what a wonderful place Guatemala is. Part of it is that people aren’t getting a lot of information about themselves; Guatemala has a very underdeveloped media. There’s a lot of self-censorship. You address that aspect of Colombia a lot in your book. So part of it is an inability to see the forest for the trees—you almost have to step back, like you do in your book. You’re from there, but you’re not from there.
A lot of us, as you speak honestly about in your book, used to think that all could be smashed up and changed overnight through a violent revolution. We don’t think that anymore. What’s fascinating about the Gerardi case is that these were people who are as brave and valiant as any sueño you might have ever had about revolutionary struggle, but they were fighting for something very bourgeois: a functioning court system.
FG Latin America has just moved through this blood bath over the last forty years in which there are no innocent parties. Don’t you think? Colombia seems a little recalcitrant, but no one takes the Colombian guerillas seriously anymore as true revolutionaries do they?
SP The case of the Colombian revolutionary movement is unprecedented in Latin America—I can’t say for the entire world. Members of the FARC are perhaps the least liked revolutionaries in history. Both internationally and locally they’ve never had the attraction of other movements. As you were saying, things like a court system will make these countries move towards a less violent reality…
FG The narco—that’s really the battle. The battle against organized crime. Because that’s the problem in Colombia; Colombia is the source, it’s the mothership of at least that side of the problem. It’s incredible to me that so much of the violence in our countries, from yours to mine to Mexico, comes down to this stupid white powder people are putting up in their nose in the United States and Europe and other places.
SP When you hear about Colombia’s situation from the inside, drugs are never really part of the day-to-day. About three days ago there was a story in the Colombian papers about an esmeraldero — a trafficker of emeralds of Pablo Escobar’s caliber — who got killed in Guatemala. He had moved there with his three different families and 24 different children, or something like that. The picture showed the three wives crying at the crime scene. I knew that Guatemala was a transshipment point for drugs, but it’s more than that. It’s this highway for organized crime that just runs from—
FG Guatemala’s basically become FedEx between the Colombian and Mexican cartels. The DEA says 70 per cent of the cocaine that reaches the US gets shipped through Guatemala. They’re hopping it from Colombia to Mexico. These are the people who have their hands on the levers of power, right now. How do you dislodge them? It’s going to be incredibly difficult…because they’re so ruthless.
I love the way the Latin American novel has changed to reflect those violent urban realities. I love Jorge Franco’s Rosario Tijeras. In Central America, there are writers like Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Horacio Castellanos Moya. Their books themselves express so much of what we’re talking about—the way the violence coexists with the everyday, the quotidian with the romantic, and often in the most disconcerting ways.
SP They are the writers living with it.
FG In The Art of Political Murder I made a writerly decision that I was not going to take the position of the active observer-interpreter. I’ve done that before in my journalism. But I rejected it in this case, because once you start with that in Guatemala, you end up in a labyrinth of arguments about how responsible were the Guerrillas for the violence that occurred in the ‘80s, whether it really was a genocide, what’s in the peace accords…all these kinds of tangential questions that people who cover Guatemala and write about Guatemala can argue about forever. I decided I would stay away from all that, and just make this case and the unfolding of what is essentially, after all, a detective story—who killed the bishop?—metaphorically speak for everything. Whoever reads this can make up their own mind about a lot of aspects of Guatemala, I hope. And I tried to keep myself out of it, as much as I could…
SP Which makes it very different from mine. (laughter)
FG But I just loved a lot of the writing in your book. I love the details. You have the quirkiest… that was what really gave the book its charm, because as appalled as we might be by the Latin American upper class, for example, its silly little ways can seem adorable. But you have to stop and step back; in its own way it strikes horror in a different way. It’s almost like the culture of Japanese cute.
SP Right. That was my writerly decision because I think that by picking on those things I may strike a chord, or make it unforgettable hopefully. When I decided I wanted to write about Colombia, I could have been just the reporter, and told stories of the heroes and the villains in a reportorial way. But I thought that I could use this upbringing that I had, to show the ills of a society still running on feudalism.
FG In a certain sense it all starts with the children. You have that incredible scene where in your neighborhood you celebrate an American-style Halloween, and no one else in Colombia does American-style Halloween. I know that neighborhood, I’ve been in it, and I’m sure it’s spread everywhere now, but back then, you’re going street to street, inside your few little streets, in your American outfits, and then you come home, and you have to set aside candy for the poor kids. And you take all the Milky Ways and Mars bars for yourself, and the horrible little Colombian candies you leave for the poor. And then the next day, the poor, for All Souls Day, come around and ask for handouts, and you think they’re going to sing you a fairytale about how this is the house where the beautiful young princesses live…
SP “Esta casa es de rosas, donde viven las hermosas.”
FG “This house is made of roses, where the beautiful girls live.” And you go to the door, and you think you’re being so generous. And you’re being so paternalistic, even though you’re just a girl…
FG And you give them your little candies, and they insult you, and they turn on you. It’s such a great moment. You’re so humiliated.
SP “Esta casa es de espinas, donde viven las mezquinas.”
FG “This house is made of thorns, where the stingy people live.” It’s such a great moment, and it’s all there—from greed, racism, superficiality, class war… these little kids out on the front steps… all told like this little cute story. The book is full of details like that. And the grandmother—the grandmother is so insane. But I loved her. She was my favorite character. Going around and doing masses for everybody. It so reminded me of my own family.
Your book is hilarious, because supposedly you’re going to go to the war zone, but you’re trying to get your uncle to take you to the farm which is in the war zone but you’re going to be there four hours, and to get to these four hours, which comes two-thirds into the book, it’s basically a “journey around my room” narrative. And you’re in your room, reporting on Colombia through the Internet, and talking to members of your family, and you’re slowly losing it…
SP But Frank, I was losing it. It’s that split personality I see in myself but it’s also where I see the country going. These two forces that don’t understand each other, much like my grandmother and myself: I was taught how to be American at the strange American School but I had servants and separated the candy for the poor kids. This is the conflict: celebrating American holidays in households with a staff of servants.
FG I probably would also have gone to the American school if I had grown in Guatemala. I was so innocent and oblivious. I went down to Guatemala in 1979 thinking that I could go live in the little cottage we had, with this little lake outside the city. And my uncle was like, “Are you crazy? That’s like, smack in the middle of a war zone nowadays.” I was like, “What war?” I was such an idiot. And I went and wrote my little stories, love stories, set in New York City. And all of a sudden, Guatemala was in bloody, horrific chaos. I’ll never forget the split. I ended up deciding I wanted to stay down there and become a freelance journalist. That’s when I got hooked back into that reality in a big way.
SP I did the opposite. You went to Guatemala to find the house and the lake where you could write. I came to New York to find the writers and the people who I could talk to about wanting to write.
FG I fell in love with Gerardi’s story because it was a story. And I loved the propulsion of the story. I found myself living inside this world of danger, and mystery, and obsession, and really living it. And I never thought of it as telling anybody anything. And I ended up doing what I didn’t think I wanted to do, which is, in a sense, having a political impact, and that’s not what drew me into this story.
SP I see it as very political…
FG I’m very moved that people thank me for it, and say “Keep fighting for justice,” and those kinds of platitudes that I hate. And yet I see that, despite myself in a way, I manage to do that by being loyal to the people the book was about. And what I loved about those people was that they were fighting for justice. And yet, they were so modest in the claims they made for themselves. They would always be, “No, we’re just working on this case.” And it’s “the case.” And we’re going to figure out who killed Gerardi and we’re going to take them to trial. And that’s what I loved—that focus. And it lasted for years. Guatemala is such an incredible well of stories. I don’t want to write about them journalistically anymore. And yet, the way a journalist goes about investigating things, and finding his way into stories still is something that I feel I’m going to be practicing always, and is going to be hand in hand with my approach to whatever else I do.
SP García Márquez refers to journalism not as a profession but as a gland, you know?
FG It’s a gland, yeah. As you say in your book, or he says, if you want to write fiction you have to be a journalist.