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A trail goes cold

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.

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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.

There are flashes of humor in the book: Goldman notes that activist Helen Mack Chang -- whose younger sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang, was assassinated in 1990 -- is universally thought to resemble Peppermint Patty in “Peanuts.” And (as in his novels) there are insightful comments on the use of Spanish: He meditates, for example, on the Guatemalan custom of nicknaming drug traffickers, gang members and sports heroes (El Monstruo, El Árabe, El Loquito) according to their distinctive characteristics. (No doubt his title, “The Art of Political Murder,” is a deliberate echo of Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay on detective fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder,” which states that “a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities . . . is not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in.”)

Some of Goldman’s assertions are roiling Guatemala’s establishment, such as the implication that former army Col. Otto Pérez Molina, who is currently waging a strong campaign for the presidency against engineer and businessman Alvaro Colom, had a role in Gerardi’s murder. Equally explosive are suggestions that involvement in the murder reached as high as the president’s office. However, those interested in the art of journalism per se -- and it is an art, of course -- will be disappointed. The book gets off to a mesmerizing start with its description of the murder, but by the second section, devoted to the investigation, it has begun to drag and it slows mercilessly as the trial and its aftermath are sorted out. Also, Goldman defines his characters solely by their actions, an approach perhaps typically American but wrongheaded in describing a hierarchical society like Guatemala, where race and class are so important.

Yet the main problem with “The Art of Political Murder” is one of focus. Goldman is not the first to publish a book about the Gerardi affair, and some of his arguments seem designed to refute others’ hypotheses about what really happened that night. European journalists Bertrand de la Grange and Maite Rico’s “Who Killed the Bishop? Autopsy of a Political Crime” (2003) held that the convictions were a smoke screen and that the actual perpetrators were still at large. Mario Vargas Llosa, in his column for the Spanish daily El País, supported their argument, which appears to have infuriated Goldman. In his book (which, as it happens, borrows De la Grange and Rico’s title as its subtitle), he attacks the Peruvian novelist for having misunderstood the case and paints De la Grange and Rico as mediocre reporters. His entire thesis -- that a series of brave district attorneys managed to stand up to the powers that be -- seems to be shaped as a refutation of their opinion. In the process, he loses sight of his original mission: to give us a picture of a nation struggling to become a true democracy but governed by a ceaseless undercurrent of chaos.

At its core, the book feels strangely empty. Goldman doesn’t make use of his wonderful descriptive talents, as he does in his fiction, and most of the principals drift in and out of sight without leaving a trace. They are parts of a clockwork he’s committed to dismantling in front of our eyes, much like the boy who learns how things work by taking them apart: The effort is educational but the result is inoperable. Goldman buys into the American journalistic habit of describing an event by overwhelming the reader with facts. Facts are, indeed, essential, but not at the expense of drawing the larger picture. He shies away from explicating the idiosyncrasies of the Guatemalan character -- an analysis that would have made the book at once more compelling and less ephemeral. He has no trouble convincing us that Gerardi’s murder was artful. Unfortunately, he is incapable of illuminating the source of that art.


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