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The New World war

Review: NEWS OF A KIDNAPPING by Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Cape pounds 16.99
When Gabriel Garca Mrquez won the Nobel Prize in l982, his acceptance speech was largely a plea for understanding. Latin Americans, he explained, suffered from a two-fold alienation: the basic one of having to endure a daily reality deformed by brutality, compounded by the way their existence is regarded with incomprehension by the settled societies of the Old World. "Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask very little of the imagination, as our greatest problem has been the inadequacy of a convention or a means by which to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."

Since then, the prodigious expansion of cocaine-trafficking to the United States and the retaliation of administrations since Reagan have rendered "reality" even more unbridled. Colombia, Mrquez's native country, has been driven by terrorists to the brink of what theoreticians know as the "Third World War", when state and rule of law collapse in the face of hostile autonomous powers. These have partly been old-fashioned revolutionary organisations like M-19, who assassinated four presidential candidates in the 1990 election campaign and, in 1985, took over the Supreme Court in Bogot and demanded that President Betancur be put on trial. When the army stormed the building, nine magistrates of the Supreme Court, its president and 85 other civilians were killed in 10 hours of fighting. But, since Colombia signed an extradition treaty with the United States, the hostile autonomous powers have overwhelmingly been the "narco-terrorists" of the drugs cartels.

Under the slogan "We prefer a grave in Colombia to a cell in the United States", Pablo Escobar and his associates - "The Extraditables" - waged a campaign of bombings, assassinations and abductions throughout the 1980s to force the Colombian government to accept their surrender and protect them and their families in specially fortified prisons. Successive justice ministers were attacked, President Luis Carlos Galn was machine-gunned in 1989 and in 1990, 10 prominent journalists were kidnapped for six months. The experiences of these hostages is the subject of Mrquez's latest book. The effect of the work as a whole is, once again, that of a fierce battle to make a "convention" - in this case journalism - capable of rendering Latin American lives believable.

As he says in his preface, Mrquez found this book an "autumnal task, the saddest and most difficult of my life". It took three years to write what is "only one episode in the biblical holocaust that has been consuming Colombia". There is no room to explore the wider issues - the ascension of the Medelln cartel, for instance, from its early days when respectable Colombians attended lavish parties at Escobar's hacienda. Human-rights abuses are so widespread amongst the operations of the Elite Corps, the specialist anti-drugs Colombian police, and, in general, power is so confused between the executive, the military and the police that it is hard for an author to maintain any secure moral footing. And the novelist's instinct to characterise all the people this story affects occasionally restricts their individuality to the folkloric epithet.

But, of course, the literary conflicts of this book reflect the real conflicts in Colombia. The hostages, and even many of the politicians, are always being dehumanised anyway, pawns in a larger game. The civil war is as much a war of information as of armed combat. All sides release a flood of statements and communiques to give them leverage in negotiations; news is not only something that happens to you but also proof of how little you know, how vulnerable you are. When Maruja Pachn, Luis Carlos Galn's sister-in-law, and her assistant Beatriz Villamizar are kidnapped, they are taken to the tiny room where Marina Montoya, the sister of a former government minister, has been held for two months. Most people believed Marina Montoya was dead. Her brother was in no position to give the Extraditables anything and so, the argument went, she must have been killed in revenge. Maruja Pachon and Beatriz Villamizar are, first, the only ones to know Marina Montoya is still alive and then, when a guard announces "We came to take Granny to another house," the only ones not to know that she is dead.

The whole book is haunted by images. A butterfly staying on a courtyard gate all night is a premonition of death. Guards wake up Maruja Pachn by jabbing a submachine gun at her head and then ask her to introduce them to her daughters after she's released. Above all, the image of Marina Montoya "with her hood on backward stumbling blindly toward an imaginary house". Mrquez unforgettably describes the nature of terror and courage in contemporary Colombia.