July 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

"thousands of wounds make only one newspaper article"

Something about witness, something about Central America, something about conspiracy was more or less what I was thinking this month reading The Art ofPolitical Murder when I came upon this article in Poetry by Carolyn Forché about the "voice of witness." In an eclectic and complex argument about poetry as testimony she cites this fragment of a poem, "Shadow," by Apollinaire: 

Memories composing now a single memory
As a hundred furs make only one coat
As these thousands of wounds make only one newspaper article. 

It sounded like an apt description of Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop, only that instead of a newspaper article made from "thousands of wounds," millions of wounds made this five-hundred-page book that exemplifies flawless investigative journalism. Goldman effortlessly merges background information with character, gets the real scoop, and somehow never loses the reader in a quagmire of similar names and job titles.   

Although the book came out four years ago, I was reminded of its relevance in an article in the New York Times when around the same time Spain announced their intention to prosecute the killing of Spanish Jesuits by the Guatemalan military in the 1980s. (That and I was working on a profile of a priest who was facing death threats not unlike those that Bishop Gerardi receives in the book, before, as the title suggests, he is murdered.) 

Along the lines of Honor Thy Father or In Cold Blood, The Art of Political Murder is a work of nonfiction that can be read as a novel, even a mystery novel. After reading it I thought its strengths might be considered novelesque -- occasionally lyrical, plot-driven, etc. However, it does something I don't think a novel could have done in its stead: instigate immediate political change. 

Goldman's story begins in Guatemala City, only blocks away from the presidential palace and the military guard based there, next to a church where Bishop Gerardi resides. Gerardi had guided the UN's Historical Clarification Commission through the human rights crimes committed by that country's military, which he would publish in four volumes under the title Guatemala: Never Again! Then on April 26, 1998, clergyman Bishop Mario found him bludgeoned to death. In the adjacent park filled with the neighborhood's homeless, there are few reliable witnesses. Even if they do know something, fear of reprisal from the extremely corrupt and capable military guard that hides behind a number of "official" names, is too strong. 

"The Guatemalan Army eventually became the most brutal, corrupt, and criminal military institution in the Western Hemisphere," Goldman explains. After support, covert and public, to this small country's military for half a century, who could now stop this highly trained, well equipped, and, as a result, highly influential sector of society? With Guatemala now finally below the number-one slot as the world's worst violator of human rights, it appeared, at least, that the military had risked it all, in the face of the U.N. and the U.S. embassy, to kill a moderate, dedicated, beloved bishop, for making public their most heinous crimes. 

Reporting for the New Yorker, Goldman goes to Guatemala to cover the investigation and trial, the result of which will surely answer whether Guatemala has truly moved toward a peace process after a civil war, or if the military establishment -- more or less aligned with the wealthy -- would continue to run the country. Goldman winds up spending seven years immersed in an almost ceaseless bifurcating path of clues, and layers and layers of lies, which although often ridiculous are backed by enough power that they are deemed credible.   

I will not spoil the murder mystery, which sociopolitical history aside, is engrossing; suffice it to say that Goldman is a fantastic detective, who, along with the so-called "Untouchables" and other prosecutors, is able to deliver. Without falling prey to hagiography, Goldman celebrates the bravery of the many who risked their own lives to see justice served. With a few exceptions, it seems that most of Goldman's subjects decide at some point which side they are on. Bad guys do the Machiavelli. Good guys do the Jesus Christ. As Goldman explains, "Real change had to come from Guatemalans themselves, from those who were willing to fight for it, risking everything." 

Sure I had been forewarned that this was a great read by some twenty prefatory blurbs, but I was not prepared to include this book among my favorites. The Art of Political Murder goes far beyond book of the year. It's a sancocho of political intrigue and U.S. intervention, with players like the United Fruit Company and the Catholic Church, essentially, cliché or not, factions we've come to associate with Latin America. You might even say that this book ends a series that begins with Miguel Angel Asturias's Banana Republic trilogy -- Strong Wind, The Green Pope, and The Eyes of the Interred -- and One Hundred Years of Solitude; Goldman writes about the aftermath of fifty years of heavy-handed U.S intervention in the "banana republics." Although a few yet-to-be-translated books I've read recently have dealt with these issues - Rodrigo Rey Rosa's El material humano comes to mind -- none of these nears closure the way The Art of Political Murder does.    

Goldman was a special kind of witness: his testimony, his explanation of the events, his detective work, this book, directly changed the outcome of the Guatemalan presidential election in 2007. It should also be noted that Mauricio Funes, who just won elections this year, has expressed interest in repealing amnesty laws that protected the country's military officials from criminal prosecution. 

By the end of the book, the character I most wanted to uncover was Goldman himself. He's discreet, and like many journalists, an invisible hero -- until the very end of the book, when the author tells us about his wife Aura Estrada's death in a surfing accident. This is the subject of Goldman's most recent book, Say Her Name, which I look forward to reviewing here. Sometimes one wound can hurt worse than one thousand.   

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? by Francisco Goldman
Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802143853
416 pages