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All that he cares about

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.”

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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.”

Married two years ago in the postcard-perfect Mexican colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Goldman and Estrada met in a Brooklyn bar where she was reciting from memory “The Collar,” a lyrical rant against worldly tribulations by the 17th century Welsh poet-priest George Herbert. Estrada, an aspiring novelist who was studying at Columbia University and Hunter College in New York, and Goldman, an established pro, quickly became lovers and partners in a writing life they split between homes in Brooklyn and the Mexican capital.

“They mutually influenced each other,” says poet Mónica de la Torre, a close friend, in an e-mail. “Aura learned a lot from both Frank’s writing . . . as well as his experience as a writer of journalism and fiction. Frank, to me, seems to have cherished to look at things anew through Aura’s younger and fresher outlook.”

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Goldman and others believe that the pan-Latin American literary world lost a rising star when his wife died. Estrada was just starting to publish essays and criticism in publications such as the Boston Review. She also wrote fiction, including some short stories based on growing up in Mexico City’s precarious housing projects. (A selection of her work can be read at the Hunter College memorial website, www.hunter.cuny.edu/ creativewriting/memoriam/index.html.)

“I used to say, ‘Aura, I have, like, three years left of being Francisco Goldman, because after four years I become Mr. Aura Estrada, and that’s fine with me,’ ” Goldman says.

Author Junot Diaz, a friend who had published some of Estrada’s work, describes her as “that rarest of all young people, equally at home with the critical and the creative. She had neither the Latin American intellectual’s Euro-obsessed arrogance . . . nor the U.S. artist’s anti-intellectualism, which is so predictable and infantile.” Diaz says he thought she would eventually “do much to breach the enormous gap that separates Latin American writers from Latino writers.”

Cover-ups and mudslinging

Goldman says he used to worry about Estrada getting trapped on the subway during a terrorist attack or being caught up in the political blowback he’s expecting from his new book.

Originally conceived as a long New Yorker piece, “The Art of Political Murder” weaves together a wide variety of material, including court transcripts, declassified documents and original reporting to produce a multilayered narrative reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s examination of Colombia’s shadowy, narcotics-abetted epidemic of hostage-taking, “News of a Kidnapping.”

Goldman also draws indelible portraits of a cross-section of Guatemalan society: a taxi driver, a cook, a priest, a forensic anthropologist, even a German shepherd named Baloo who at one low point in the official murder investigation was fingered as a possible accomplice. Among the few heroes to have emerged from the mountain of cover-ups and mudslinging, in Goldman’s view, were a group of young men from the church’s human rights office who, jokingly calling themselves the Untouchables, launched their own investigation. But the book took a toll, both on him and to a more extreme degree on some of the investigators who came under attack in Guatemala. “There were just so many times when the violence of that case would invade your life,” he says. “Sometimes it would be hard at home, because I’d just get so angry. And that’s when like Aura would chill me out.”

North American reviewers have been divided on the book’s merits. Publishers Weekly described it as a “meticulously researched book” that’s “an impressive organizational achievement, as well as a vital moral accounting.” But Ilan Stavans, reviewing for The Times, found it to be “excruciatingly detailed” and “sometimes frustrating.”

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And to Goldman’s great consternation, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist and onetime conservative presidential candidate, in a column in the Spanish newspaper El País came out in favor of the theory that those found guilty of the bishop’s murder were just scapegoats for the actual killers.

“You’ve got to laugh. It’s so absurd. And they’re such clowns,” Goldman says, speaking of those he believes are behind Guatemala’s decades-long violence, which human rights investigators believe includes the genocidal slaughter of some 200,000 Mayan Indians. “That they got somebody as respectable as Mario Vargas Llosa under their spell is what makes it extra tragic.”

Now, Goldman says, he is motivated through his writing to dig into more of Guatemala’s scandals and mass tragedies. He’s looking forward to his upcoming book tour, which will include L.A. engagements -- Oct. 23 at the Skirball Cultural Center and Oct. 24 at Cal State Northridge -- as a welcome distraction from his sorrows.

Literary comrades, like his best friend and fellow New Yorker writer, Jon Lee Anderson, have rallied around him. Joan Didion sent him a copy of her bestselling memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the sudden death of her writer husband, John Gregory Dunne.

One particular bit of advice in Didion’s book caught Goldman’s attention: Read lots of poetry. He says he’s been carrying around volumes of César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza, Czeslaw Milosz and Luis Cernuda.

Friends are relieved that Goldman is soldiering on but concerned, as De la Torre puts it, that he “might be putting himself in a position of danger, and that he might be doing it on purpose.”

“You have to be a warrior, and a warrior is not a target,” she told him. Goldman liked that, she said, and now repeats it to himself.

Goldman, meanwhile, is preparing to write what may be his most emotionally challenging book of all, about Estrada.

“I realized yesterday -- five weeks after Aura died, six weeks almost -- loss, violence, death, absurdity, romance, all those stories that are just human rights stories are all stories about broken hearts, are all stories about people who loved somebody so much.”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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