monday's books

Snowblind by Robert Sabbag (Rebel Inc) The Fruit Palace by Charles Nicholl (Vintage)
Mala fama is a Spanish expression - literally "bad fame" but more accurately rendered as "infamy" - sadly applied all too often to Colombia, fated to be best known for those two stimulants coffee and cocaine. These two reissued books, with their comparable tales of smuggling and skulduggery, throw light on how the narcodollar came to dominate an already unstable country.

Snowblind, originally published in 1976, is the true story of one Zachary Swan III, a middle-aged New York packaging executive and all-round roue, who found himself drawn into the world of drug wholesaling, partly to pay for his own habit, partly to his inability to resist a challenge to the authorities. Starting with grass runs from Mexico of remarkable intricacy, setting up false trails and watertight alibis along the way, he progressed to kilos of cocaine, usually packed with the help of a genius carpenter and distributed with the help of shady acquaintances.

His fall came when he and three friends went skinny-dipping while still high near his Long Island home, and the local law took it on themselves to raid his home, illegally as it transpired. They still missed three kilos - sealed in a statue of the Virgin and a painted rolling pin on the mantelpiece - that would later be sold to pay Swan's legal fees. This account of a dilettante dealer is fascinating, not least due to Swan's endless ingenuity and despite Sabbag's relentless hipster style and his inaccurate speculation about coke's pharmacological effects.

But Swan's story pales next to Charles Nicholl's classic ode to Colombia, mysteriously out of print for several years. The Fruit Palace itself is a cafe in the town of Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, a benighted place energised by its undisputed position as the centre of the drug trade, or, as a former president of Colombia put it, "a victim of its privileged geographic position".

Nicholl was there in 1973, roughly contemporaneous with Swan's adventures, becoming entangled in a chaotic attempt by a gringo to score. A decade later, by which time cocaine was no longer the playground of small-time entrepreneurs but an alternative economy as big as the nation's legitimate commerce, a London editor sent him back to find "the who, the how and the why" of the cocaine racket. Though Nicholl plays up his bumbling Englishman- abroad persona, he is remarkably savvy. His knowledge of the country in all its extremes and its propensity to senseless violence make this one of the great adventure stories of the last 20 years.

Nicholl's odyssey takes him from mountains to jungle to the earthquake that flattened the historic town of Popayan, and eventually, after attempting to set up a fake deal in Santa Marta, he becomes co-opted as a bagman for some serious dealers. The matchless quality of his prose makes The Fruit Palace unmatched as a guide to that schizophrenic county. While Swan's story takes place largely in air-conditioned hotels and apartments, Nicholl's overloaded senses convey the sultry heat of la costa and the knife-edge tension of Bogota perfectly in a brilliant work that explains perfectly why generations of conquistadors still search for their own El Dorado, now the name of the capital's international airport.