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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 34
Author: Isabel Rodríguez Vergara, Ed.
Title: Colombia: Literatura y Cultura del Siglo XX


There has never been a document
of culture which was not at one and
the same time a document of barbarism

—Walter Benjamin

As the epigraph I have chosen for this essay says, News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez is a cultural text that tells of decades of barbarism.1  It is primarily a historical text that documents and sets, in context, a period of horror, an era of monstrous violence, experienced in Colombia during the last two decades of the twentieth century, a time when vast segments of the population have been victims of drug trafficking and, worse yet, narcoterrorism.  Whether it is called a chronicle, a journalistic document, fictionalized journalism, or simply a historical novel, News is above all else a historical montage, a new form of historiography. Defining and writing history has proved to be an extremely difficult task, and the relations of structuralism and post-structuralism (schools that have analyzed the process) to history are very complex. Structuralists claim that historical discourse (based on language) is a narrative incapable of offering “facts” or of guaranteeing “the truth”—an analysis that opens the way for rhetorical studies of history such as those of Hayden White, who erases the boundary between history and fiction.2

News of a Kidnapping once again establishes the friction between journalism and fiction, a constant in García Márquez. This friction was extensively discussed and debated when Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a novel begun as a piece of journalism, was first published.3  Nevertheless, in the later work a tendency toward historical elaboration can be noted, principally because of the subject the author has chosen. In the imprecise title, the word News points toward journalism, the “announcement, communication, or information of an event,” and at the same time toward the vagueness implicit in a “notion” of something indefinite, which in this case is history. García Márquez challenges the hedonist death of history announced by the post-structuralists and proposes in News its presentation as the notice of an event, as a newspaper article.

News resembles and differs from García Márquez’s previous novels in its handling of historical discourse. I am thinking here mainly of The Autumn of the Patriarch (1968), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Of Love and Other Demons (1994), Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), and The General in His Labyrinth (1989). The relationship to Chronicle is the most notable; the greatest difference from the other novels lies in temporal proximity, since the events of those novels take place at least thirty years before the date of their publication, and most of them rewrite historical documents as fiction. The discourse of News has to do with the immediacy of oral accounts, interviews, journalistic fragments, and radio and television news reports concerning a cultural crisis that affects a large segment of the population and remains pertinent today.

This historical novel consists of eleven numbered chapters of nearly equal length, an introduction titled “Gratitudes,” and an “Epilogue.”  Its discourse has the authority of a moral example that strives to exterminate the evil of violence while discussing fragments of the history of Colombia during the last two decades, on the pretext of relating and fictionalizing the “collective kidnapping of ten very well known people, which was executed by the same organization with one and the same end” (7).

The text functions polyphonically, assuming the voices of the kidnap victims, their families, the government, and the drug traffickers, in an uninterrupted narrative that seeks to overcome the simultaneity of what is being said, what is being argued, and what is being described in each of the eleven chapters, at one single moment. The literary, the philosophical, the political, and the historical are mutually corrupted and fused in “form” and “content.”

In a device similar to those in The General in His Labyrinth and Twelve Pilgrim Stories, whose texts are preceded by significant Prologues (Twelve) and Gratitudes (The General) News of a Kidnapping opens with a short section of “Gratitudes.”  This section of little more than one page, placed at the beginning even though we know it is written at the end, implies at the same time the writing and the book: the writing of the text, dead upon being finished, which explains the creative process, and the book, which is at the same time the creation, montage, or “carpentry” (as the author calls it) that García Márquez recognizes as a collective process, not individual authorship (“it forced us to start over again... two people suffered along with me during the carpentry of this book...to all the protagonists and collaborators goes my eternal gratitude,” 7, 8, my emphasis).

In an apocalyptic tone, García Márquez thanks the protagonists and collaborators for having participated in “this brutal drama”; he dedicates the work to all Colombians “innocent and guilty”; he calls the last two decades of Colombian history “an episode of biblical holocaust.” The term holocaust calls attention to destruction pointing to an end, caused mainly by bombs and assassinations similar to those found in the Bible, a subject for re-creation in most of the works of this Colombian writer but curiously absent in this novel. He acknowledges that he has written it “so that this book never happens to us again”—in other words, to be preserved and never forgotten, signs that have to do with psychoanalysis and deconstruction. The apocalyptic notion directly concerns the task of creating history; professing history has to do with the adoption of an apocalyptic tone and with states of emergency, as Jacques Derrida puts it.4 The text of News is not a body of homogeneous writing; on the contrary, it divides and multiplies itself. García Márquez offers us a presentation of the apocalyptic moment as a multiplicity of voices inside each voice that lose themselves in each other to the point that we do not know who is speaking or who is writing. The text of the novel announces the end, the apocalypse, pointed out already by the same language that constantly recognizes the end. “Professing history has to do with clarity and lucidity, with the apocalyptic desire for the deconstruction of apocalyptic discourse itself.”5

The discourse of this novel relates a state of emergency (the power of drug trafficking in Colombia), a state that can be apocalyptic, but also at the same time a deconstruction of the apocalypse (an attempt at a logical and chronological analysis of the events that led to the crisis). It dramatizes the emergency (the kidnappings), the state of which involves not only a dangerous or conflictive situation that appears suddenly and requires urgent attention, but also the necessity of “bringing to light” or “exhibiting” (not to say “denouncing”) this state of emergency. History includes or is made up of states of emergency, but there can be no history or state of emergency without something that surprises and deconstructs all emergency, the emergency of each “I” and the emergency of each event.6  The notion of history in this novel deals less with the past than with an opening toward the future (“so that this book never happens to us again”): a future that can only be anticipated in the form of absolute danger.7  The past in this novel is shown as historically unintelligible (“Colombia had not been conscious of its importance in the world traffic of drugs while the narcos were bursting into the elite politics of the country by the back door, first with their growing power of corruption and bribery, and later with their own aspirations”, 29).

The discourse of News manifests itself as a chapter of history that closes without predicting an end, that pleads against a repetition of this horror, that is told from many perspectives, a technique that comes close to suggesting the anonymity of the “author” and that opens up to a temporality without promises, but rather with a hope for a better future. The analysis García Márquez constructs of drug trafficking as a historical surprise follows Foucault’s proposal in The Archaeology of Knowledge to analyze history in terms of “discontinuity that no teleology would reduce in advance; to map it in a dispersion that no pre-established horizon would embrace; to allow it to be deployed in an anonymity on which no transcendental constitution would impose the form of the subject; to open it up to a temporality that would not promise the return of any dawn.”8

The idea of narrating the kidnapping began as a shared act: it did not come this time from the author himself, as it has in most of his other works, but was proposed to him in 1993 by Maruja Pachón and her husband, Alberto Villamizar. Later, Pachón, Villamizar, and the author realized the simultaneity of the ten kidnappings: “This late verification forced us to start over again,” (7, my emphasis), which led them to rewrite the text as a collective work, changing the original draft to include the other kidnap victims as a transposition, translation, and transformation of the original, inseparable from its invention. He leaves the couple’s narrative as the “central axis” and the “guiding light,” transformed by poetic language. 9

What is apparently the central topic of the book has to do with the kidnapping of Maruja Pachón and her six-month captivity; however, it becomes a matter for fictionalizing, for creating literature. But behind the historical-literary episodes, García Márquez juxtaposes the cruder historical narrative, as we shall see. In the discourse of News García Márquez narrates a “we” made up primarily of a community of middle-class people, and with their representation we return  to literature. Outside of the “we,” and described with some “differences,” appears the group of “they,” consisting of representatives of the government, drug traffickers, and hit-men, who are described more for their ”political" activities than for their novelistic characteristics, which generates a reading of a critical episode in the history of Colombia during the last two decades.

News of a Kidnapping is fictionalized history; its discourse has to do with very contemporary events whose protagonists not only are alive but keep their own names. The historical and fictional episode narrated here serves as a macabre, offering shaped over a period of three years to be given to a country that is collapsing—not, however, to be read primarily by Colombians, who know and live the horrors referred to, but rather by “the other,” the person outside the country who should read, interpret, and ideally understand the political situation from the exterior. In other words, this is a history from within written to be read outside.

The text of this historical work will include the rewriting of the first draft of the account of a kidnapping of two people and the painful interviews with the other possible protagonists (including the families of the two dead hostages) by García Márquez himself. This work is done at a time when the author is approaching seventy, and he defines it as the, “saddest and most difficult autumnal duty of my life” (7). García Márquez recognizes the distance between writing and “reality” and his inability to transcribe the horror when he writes that, “the paper, it is nothing more than a sad reflection of the horror that they suffered in real life” (7). He will approach the impossible writing of the horror as a journalist, novelist, moralist, and psychoanalyst, leaving only poetic signs to record a historic defeat.

News of a Kidnapping, which is not news and does not deal only with a kidnapping, relates the adversities suffered by ten journalists in Colombia, during their abduction ordered by the drug trafficker, Pablo Escobar. It narrates and invents the relationships of the kidnap victims with their guards. It reveals their states of mind, their thoughts, their diet, and their innermost desires in a language and structure, fit only for a consummate writer. Yet the focus of attention seems to go beyond a mere narration of the events to the sphere of intellectual analysis and, in so doing, leaves a personal testimony about the figure of the drug trafficker, the role of the government of President Gaviria, and the political and historical consequences of narcoterrorism. This analysis is based on a profound, serious investigation with the vision of a journalist, who is an active participant in Latin American political processes and who listens to and examines his characters with the compassion of a psychoanalyst.

The details of the kidnapping, the families’ reaction and how they found out, the announcements in the media (broadcasts and newspapers), and the repercussions against the government are recounted under a cloud of mystery. The contacts with the drug traffickers during the months of captivity of the ten journalists (most of them from the Colombian upper middle class with links to national politics) are minutely reported. Among the kidnap victims who occupy chapters of the book like characters in a novel are a whole gamut of members of the ruling class.

The discourse of News of a Kidnapping highlights the reaction, the role, and the significance of the professional actions of then-President César Gaviria; of General Miguel Maza Márquez, Director of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS); of Rafael Pardo, official mediator for the government and later Minister of Defense; and of Mauricio Vargas, press counselor, among others. The reactions and efforts of the Turbay Ayala family, especially Diana’s mother, Lydia Quintero, are related in great detail.

In this novel, as in García Márquez’s previous works, both sides of the coin are shown at the same time: the sufferings of the kidnapped and of the kidnappers (the Extraditables), who complain about the arbitrariness and violence of the police against their families and hit-men; the supposed heroism of Alberto Villamizar, along with his great fondness for drinking and women; the sense of authority of the government, but also its weaknesses, and especially its pathetic habit of improvising. The narrator analyzes and defends the official attempts to resolve the situation as measures improvised at a time of crisis, especially under the new circumstances presented by the problem of drug trafficking. He emphasizes, as a principal motive for this war, the drug traffickers’ terror at the possibility of being extradited to the United States “where they could be judged for crimes committed there, and be subjected to extraordinary sentences.”  The purpose of this book is therefore to analyze from various angles the history of Colombia during the past two decades in which drug trafficking has created situations of repression and tolerance at the same time, taking as a starting point the kidnapping of ten Colombian professionals.

The novel evokes crucial aspects of García Márquez: the relationship between the writer and his creation and that between a political and public man and contemporary “reality.”  In the first case, García Márquez continues his classic line of writing: impeccable structure, exquisite language, exhaustive investigation. In the second case, he assumes the role of public man and restless intellectual that Latin American society has assigned him, which obliges him to participate in and express opinions on current topics concerning both the internal and the external politics of Colombia. The Latin American intellectual, as Jorge Castañeda has pointed out, must be an instantaneous “expert” on all kinds of political happenings, a role he continues to fulfill today. 10

García Márquez has participated in negotiations with kidnappers and agents of various governments to help liberate kidnap victims and political prisoners, he has criticized the measures taken by the United States in Cuba, and he has debated the situation facing Colombia because of the terrible phenomenon of drug trafficking, among many other positions.

Structured cinematographically into eleven numbered chapters, a short section of “Gratitudes,” and an “Epilogue,” this novel is related technically to Chronicle of a Death Foretold in its investigative appearance and in the desire to unite the chapters (ten characters) in simultaneous moments of a labyrinthine narration, similar and different, like mirror images: obverse and reverse at the same time. The anonymous voice is that of the narrator, witness to and participant in the history surrounding the central events: the news is a recurrent term throughout the text, appearing more than ten times. The fact that it has eleven chapters evokes metaphorically the presence of the ten captive journalists (with more emphasis on some than on others) and an eleventh protagonist, Pablo Escobar, who is the center of the discourse in several chapters.

The “central axis and guiding light of the narration,” as García Márquez puts it in “Gratitudes,” is actually driven by Maruja and Alberto Villamizar. The labyrinth of the narrative flows and organizes itself into thematic modules that interconnect at various points in the book: most of the chapters open with comments on the situation of the kidnap victims, especially Maruja and Beatriz. Thus chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 open with narratives dealing with Maruja, Beatriz, and Villamizar. The circumstances of the kidnappings, the reactions of the victims, and their physical conditions during their captivity are followed by an analysis of the history of the last two decades of the country. Chapter 6, almost in the middle of the text, is devoted to two painful deaths described in detail: those of Marina Montoya and Diana Turbay. Chapters 4, 8, and 10 summarize respectively the measures taken by the government of President Gaviria and the drug traffickers, the history of narcoterrorism and corruption since 1989, the impact of the negotiations of the priest García Herreros, and the activities of Pablo Escobar and his war against Maza Márquez, chief of DAS.

The Epilogue gives the reader the other “News,” this time in capital letters: the theatrical surrender of Pablo Escobar, which briefly created the illusion of a return to peace that was destroyed by his subsequent escape, which, in turn, was followed by his re-capture, brought about by tracing a telephone call he made to his son on December 2, 1993. The Epilogue discusses the legal changes that made his surrender possible, especially the legislation against extradition. It then returns to the past to tell us of the liberation of the three “minor” hostages, Juan Vitta, Hero Buss, and Azucena, and to cheer us with the joy of Villamizar and Maruja reunited happily in their everyday life.11

So ends this fragment of Colombian culture that records a barbaric episode through a discourse that accepts the impossibility of describing the horror, since the signs for it do not exist. News ends with the wounded signature of Gabriel García Márquez in Cartagena de Indias in May of 1996, dedicating the book to “all Colombians—innocent and guilty—with the hope that this book never happens to us again.”



1.Translation by Edith Grossman of Noticia de un Secuestro (Bogotá: Norma, 1996); (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) from which all quotations in this essay are taken.

2. For a discussion of the posture of contemporary schools and critics vis-à-vis history, see Derek Attridge, et al., Eds. Post-structuralism and the Question of History (London: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

3. For a discussion of the journalistic aspect of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, see my book El mundo satírico de García Márquez (Madrid: Pliegos, 1991) 77-117.

4. See Nicholas Royle, After Derrida (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).  I follow Royle’s analysis of the apocalypse in Derrida, “Of an Apocalyptic Tone,” which is one of the most delirious works of the author.  This is found principally in Chapter 2, “Writing History:  From New Historicism to Deconstruction,”  13-38.  García Márquez’s text echoes a motif of Foucault and of Beckett, who says that “as soon as one no longer knows who speaks or who writes, the text becomes apocalyptic,” cited by Royle, 29.

5. Royle, op.cit., 30.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 33.

8. Cited in ibid., 25.

9. Among those kidnapped were Maruja Pachón de Villamizar, director of Focine, wife of the politician Alberto Villamizar and sister of Gloria Pachón, the widow of Luis Carlos Galán (Galán was the founder of New Liberalism in 1979, assassinated by drug traffickers for his stance against them); Maruja’s assistant and sister-in-law, Beatriz Villamizar de Guerrero, a physical therapist and wife of Pedro Guerrero, a physician; Marina Montoya, sister of Germán Montoya, Secretary General of the Presidency during the term of Virgilio Barco and Colombian Ambassador to Canada; and Diana Turbay, director of the television news program Criptón, daughter of ex-President Julio César Turbay.  Four members of Diana’s television team were kidnapped with her:  Azucena Liévano, editor of the program, the reporter Juan Vitta, and the cameramen Richard Becerra and Orlando Acevedo.  Also kidnapped were Hero Buss, a German journalist living in Colombia, and Francisco Santos, editorial chief of El Tiempo, one of the most important newspapers in the country, and son of Hernando, one of its owners.

10. Jorge Castañeda, Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

11. Juan Vitta has just published his own version of the kidnapping: ¡Secuestrados! La historia por dentro (Santafé de Bogotá: Santillana, 1996).