July 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Kidnapped!: The Memoir

Between 1998 and 2002 over 15,000 people were kidnapped in Colombia. Politicians, farmers, police -- essentially anyone that hadn't sided with an armed group -- could be kidnapped anywhere, at any time. Today kidnapping incidents have decreased to a fraction of once they once were. In the wake of that epoch, the Colombian book market has discovered a new species of bestseller: the memoir of the kidnapped.

Memoirs of the abducted are nothing new. Captivity narratives and slave narratives been on bookshelves almost as long as memoirs have. Europeans and Americans, drawn to the genre by morbid curiosity, made them some of the most popular nonfiction books of their time, such as it is today in Colombia. Annually at least two or three kidnapping-memoirs, written by the relatively anonymous, the somewhat known, and the extremely famous, are released. The most famous of kidnapped victims to date is Ingrid Betancourt and her memoir, Even Silence Has an End, has provoked more controversy than any other of its predecessors.

Ingrid Betancourt was a liberal politician of French descent. In 2002 she was kidnapped by the leftist guerrillas Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, when her political campaign brought her near an extremely rural purlieu, north of the Amazon forest. Although the area was known as a "red zone," she was supposed to travel via military helicopter. Plans changed after a tiff with the incumbent candidate Andres Pastrana, and her chopper was diverted. Feeling snubbed, she refused to change her plans, even when her own security team was too frightened by the idea to accompany her. 

Betancourt had some reason to feel safe with the guerrillas: she had worked as a peace negotiator, speaking firsthand with the group's top command. But when a Red Cross jeep in front of her caravan was stopped by the FARC, just feet in front of them, there was little they could do but follow their orders. For the following six years, Betancourt was held in captivity, along with her candidate for vice president, Clara Rojas. 

Rojas and Betancourt spent practically all of their captivity together. Naturally, they had many disagreements. In Betancourt's account, Rojas, author of a memoir, Captive: 2,147 Days of Terror in the Colombian Jungle, loses it in the jungle. After Betancourt begs the FARC to give them a radio with a boosted signal, Rojas destroys it in a tantrum. She tells the guerrillas she wants to be a mother while she can still bear children. Eventually, their problems become so bad they need to be separated. Betancourt implies that while she vehemently opposed any feelings of normality, Rojas eventually adapts to life in the jungle, most notably developing a relationship with one of the guerrillas, which leads to her pregnancy.

The book's most intriguing characters, however, are the commanding guerrillas. As villains, they freely oscillate between absurd kindness and aloof ruthlessness, if not total apathy. Her nicest superior, Mocho Cesar, send her grapes and cheese when she asks for it, has her shackles removed even after she tried escaping, and promises to watch out for her. Two weeks later he dies in combat. When Joaquin Gomez, who Betancourt had met as a negotiator, passes through her camp, he invites her on a "peripatetic." Noting her surprise at his vocabulary, he reminds her he studied at one of the largest universities in Moscow (when it was part of the Soviet Union). Her other captors are teenagers, mostly from extreme rural poverty. Although they tend to be kinder than their elders, they are impulsive; they kill a guacamayo parrot for the sake of it, and adopt a monkey as the camp's pet. 

As one might expect from someone incarcerated for so long, killing time becomes Betancourt's modus operandi. She reads whatever she can get ahold of: the Bible, the dictionary, eventually -- after waiting years -- an illustrated Larousse. (Betancourt was lucky; Fernando Araujo also kidnapped, and author of a memoir El Trapecista, was only given a chemistry textbook.) Betancourt learns that workouts are a distraction and can aid her escape. However, the days of her independence end when she's marched to the FARC's camp of "canjeables" (bargaining chips; high profile figures traded in exchanged for captured guerrillas). Presided over by the fearsome Shadow, the conditions at the camp are markedly worse: the food is poor, the spaces are small, the guards are hostile. Betancourt, in some ways, gets it the worst; her cellmates often resent the special privileges they think she receives for her fame. Soon, she stops eating, becomes ill, and nearly gives up on life. In one chapter she recounts how she recites poems her father read to her, like Pablo Neruda's "For Everybody," from which the book's title derives. 

As the U.S.-backed Colombian military forays more frequently into remote rebel strongholds, the FARC moves the ailing Betancourt from one spot to the next. She likewise manages to flee a few times, but can never get far enough before being found. Her will to escape, although poorly described, or maybe just hard to understand, is evident. Throughout her six years, she never stops planning to break loose, until a rescue mission in the form of solders disguised as the Red Cross saves her. She was nearly fifty.

So why is this so complicated? For one, Betancourt insinuates that her kidnapping was aggravated by the apathy of the right, the same political wing that has been reelected three times since she was held captive. Secondly, upon being liberated, she got a divorce. For Colombia, a conservative country, this was heresy. In her memoir she makes her reasons implicitly clear: unlike her mother, even her fellow captives upon release, her husband does not call into a radio show that families use to speak to their kidnapped loved ones. Finally, she seems to have romantic feelings for Marc, one of the three American military contractors being held hostage with her. When she's separated from the others, she writes letters to the FARC requesting she be reunited with him. When they meet after being freed together, Marc tells her she knows where to find him. 

Being famous is not easy, less so when being held hostage. Betancourt's international fame, thanks in part to French President Sarkozy's making her an issue in his presidential campaign, made her release much less likely. The Colombian government began using Betancourt as a symbol of the FARC's inhumane treatment of captives. One photo of her emaciated, hands chained, looking forlorn appeared on the nightly news for years. This was perhaps ironic because she had been a part of that administration's opposition.

By the time of her rescue, Betancourt had become such a celebrity, a memoir was certainly to come. Unlike other recent memoirs of the kidnapped, the prose of which -- like the ex-policeman John Pinchao's memoir Mi Fuga Hacia La Libertad -- reek of ghostwriting, Betancourt's is her confession, her condemnation, her redemption. However, in some ways, the book's downfall is her writing: cliched, plain, and ordinary -- despite her story's great potential. I felt held captive myself to the some five-hundred-odd pages of flat prosody. 

In the words of memoir's father Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Betancourt vowed to "speak the truth." Still, Every Silence might have been a more powerful testament had she excoriated some of her words. One is reminded of Elie Wiesel's gesture in editing his Holocaust memoir Night down from the thousand-page manuscript to just over one hundred pages. By trimming words, Wiesel exuded any potential sentimentalism. This book, in describing an experience that would have killed nearly anyone, if not brought about emotional collapse, hardly communicates what we really want to know: What was it like?