Books: The exterminating angel

Richard Gott recounts a drug lord's final, fatal hit; News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Edith Grossman, Cape, pounds 16.99

Gabriel Garcia Marquez started life as a brilliant journalist, as a reporter on a provincial paper. Fiction came later, but in everything he writes there is a wonderful reporterly strength. Much of his work has less to do with magical realism than with a newspaperman's belief that fact can be more bizarre than fiction.

News of a Kidnapping is just that: a non-fiction account of the sequestration in 1990 of half a dozen influential members of the ruling elite of Colombia, his troubled homeland. The hostages are seized by people working for Pablo Escobar, the Medellin drugs billionaire with the power and influence of several multinational tycoons. The action takes place at a crucial historical moment when a new government is seeking to negotiate an end to a civil war between the drug lords and the army. This may be fact, but for British readers there is an inevitable echo of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene.

Among those kidnapped are the daughter of a former president who runs a television programme, the wife of a senior minister in the previous government, and the editor of a leading newspaper. In British terms, it would be as though the IRA had seized Carol Thatcher, Elspeth Howe and Max Hastings, and held them in safe houses in various parts of the country for several months. Two of the other kidnapped women are closely related to a recently assassinated presidential candidate for whom, fortunately, there is no ready English parallel.

The book details how they are kidnapped, the dire conditions in which they are held, and what they think and feel. This is familiar ground, not just in Colombia, and it is done with admirable tact and restraint. More original material comes with the story of the influential friends and relations who frenetically pull every string they can think of.

The release of the hostages must be secured, yet no one wants the army's special SAS-trained units to go rushing in and cause a bloodbath. The hostages, after all, belong to the topmost pinnacle of the country's political elite. The President is involved, and so too are a trio of ex-presidents, a bevy of lawyers, a handful of ambassadors, the inevitable priest, and the owners of the papers and TV stations.

These various personal dramas take place against the wider disaster of the country's political breakdown. The hostages are largely drawn from the ancien regime, which bears a heavy responsibility for its failure to make meaningful reforms. This old elite is being challenged by the "new money" associated with the drug barons, whose influence spreads to all sectors of society.

Hovering over the book, shadowy and mysterious, is the figure of Pablo Escobar. A cross between Svengali and Robin Hood, he too has politicians and lawyers at his disposal. He champions the poor and, at the height of his splendour, people put up altars with his picture and lit candles to him in the slums of Medellin. "The only thing wrong with him", Marquez notes caustically, is "his total inability to distinguish between good and evil."

After years on the margins of polite society, Escobar needs to make peace and enjoy his ill-gotten gains. He wants this not just for himself but for the huge section of the Colombian population now involved in the culture of the cocaine business. The left-wing MIG guerrillas have been welcomed back into traditional politics, even into the government. Why should the drug barons not receive a similar amnesty?

The President has a difficult decision to make. He has promised the Americans that he will extradite any captured drug baron for trial in the US. So to help him make up his mind in favour of an amnesty, Escobar kidnaps all these famous people. Secret meetings take place, unofficial contacts are made, the phones hum. There are minor betrayals, major idiocies, and innumerable instances of bad faith.

Escobar eventually agrees to surrender himself and the hostages, provided that he is not extradited and is allowed to stay in an ultra-luxurious custom-built prison, from which be can continue his "business" operations. This extraordinary denouement, if in a novel, would hardly be credible. In real life the story proceeds in murderous fashion. Half a dozen hostages are let out, but the Lady Howe figure is killed, and Carol Thatcher is shot in the course of a bungled rescue attempt. Max Hastings, after a death's-door letter pleading that his great newspaper empire should not be split up, is the last to be released.

This is not the best book that Garcia Marquez has ever written, but it is a splendidly readable account of a particularly bleak period in the history of Colombia. The epilogue provides one last twist to the tale. Escobar escapes from prison, but he does not escape a rough kind of justice. As the police close in on his hiding place, he is heard to observe on the telephone that "something's funny going on here". They are his last words.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot