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
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The Independent Culture
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.