01 March 2008

Díaz's problem with Vargas Llosa

No hay nada más injusto que lo justo.
Nothing is more unjust than what is just.
--Lope de Vega

Last September, Callie took down a few book recommendations that Junot Díaz gave at a local reading. He mentioned Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? and made a rather startling statement:
"Goldman is a genius. After reading his work, I threw all my Mario Vargas Llosa books out the window. That guy is a criminal."
Having read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I know that Díaz isn't crazy about Vargas Llosa's depiction of the Trujillo regime in La Fiesta del Chivo (believing that even this is too tame) and considers Julia Álvarez's En el tiempo de las Mariposas to be the better book. But why "criminal"?

It took me two days to read Goldman's heartbreaking, incisive account of Father Gerardi's murder, the Guatemalan government's involvement, and the subsequent trials. Aside from being such a riveting story, I deeply appreciated Goldman's ability to clearly yet meticulously follow this Byzantine example of the nature of politics in Latin America. He does a compelling job of conveying the fantastic nature of what happens without giving in to exoticism or hyperbole. I also very much identified with his personal connection to his work and the complexity of what it means to belong to two very different countries.

Towards the end of the book, Goldman himself explains his view of Vargas Llosa's essay, which supports ¿Quién mató al obispo?: Autopsia de un crimen político by Maite Rico and Bertrand de la Grange--a defense of two of the accused military men and a completely different take on who the culprits could be:
It is reasonable to assume that when Mario Vargas Llosa wrote his essay on the Gerardi case and on the book Who Killed the Bishop? for El País, he was convinced of the truth of what he was writing. It may have been overly eager, unguarded ideological sympathy or prejudice; or the vanity of a Great Man of Letters, seduced, after many decades of adulation, into a sense of his own infallibility; or a case of what Borges had in mind when he wrote that no man, outside his own specialty, is not gullible; or some combination of these that led the distinguished novelist to accept at face value an extraordinarily controversial book's most far-fetched assertions as facts not requiring independent verification, and then to join his voice to the book's smears and accusations.
I read this as a cautionary tale of the ideological danger of being outside of Latin America for too long. European myopia is infamous around here--so much confusion and wrong interpretation of what actually goes on boiled down to a simplistic left and right dichotomy. And even that isn't fully understood.

As someone unfamiliar with the case before reading Goldman's book, it is very tempting to take "sides"--but I have not read the Rico-De la Grange book or any other information about the case. I can see where the arguments and counter-arguments fit, and the possible weak spots of Goldman's account (although it is incredibly well researched and seems to blow their theories apart). Some think Goldman didn't address the whole story. Ilan Stavans' review for the LA Times takes a more measured approach in analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of Goldman's account.

The Guatemala Solidarity Network's blog briefly explains the situation (and I find myself agreeing with their conclusion):
One of the aspects of this publication is the involvement of outsiders in writing about the internal workings of the Guatemalan criminal justice system in one of the most high profile cases that pitted many power blocks against one another: the Catholic church, the military, organised crime, and the political establishments past (Government of Alvaro Arzu) and of the moment at the time (Alfonso Portillo).

Francisco Goldman as US writer of Guatemalan origin steps into the debate following Maite Rico (Spanish) and Bertrand de la Grange (French) book "Quien mato al obispo?". In it, they point to the complicity of parts of the Catholic church, the human rights community and organised crime in the murder of Juan Gerardi. They maintain that the military men Byron Lima Estrada and Byron Lima Oliva (sentenced to 30 years prison) are innocent of the murder.

Rico and De la Grange's account was supported by many outsiders, including famously Mario Vargas Llosa in El Pais. When Goldman suggests in his book that Rico and De la Grange received money from Arzu to write their book, they responded angrily and in sarcastic tone in El Periodico. According to Inforpress Centroamericana is wasn't the only time Rico and De la Grange had been accused of receiving Government money for a book. Suspicions were raised that the Mexican Government had participated in the publication of their book (Marcos: La Genial Impostura) critical of subcommandante Marcos. It's a very tangled web to be sure. Whatever the truth, anyone following this tragic episode in any depth, beginning with the events of 26th April 1998, gets the nagging sense that the whole story and all its ins and outs, will ultimately remain elusive. At the very least, Goldman's work has reignited a hope that the contrary will one day be true.
Opinions can be dangerous things. Well-respected individuals can't be too careful about which ideas they support and the implications of lending credibility to an issue without researching it thoroughly. We could all stand to be more careful.

NOTE: The Open Society Institute hosted a forum with Francisco Goldman, in which he discussed his book and how he became serious about writing it. It's a fascinating listen...

I wonder when this book will be translated into Spanish?


Anonymous said...

The Wrong Cast of Characters

The essential question here is: what is this book doing in the non-fiction section? This may be some of Goldman's best fiction yet. Unfortunately, he would like us to believe it is fact. And he almost pulls it off because he is a good storyteller. And that's what this is: good storytelling. Not fact. Good fiction simplifies reality while maintaining sufficient versimlitude to entrance the reader into the dream of the story. One way to do this is to maintain a single narrative point-of-view. Another is by heaping on the reality details. Mr. Goldman does both. His single-minded point-of-view is that of the Archdiocese's Human Rights Office(ODHA). In fact, he admits in his notes at the end of the book that his "indispensable source of information" was an "unpublished manuscript of a richly detailed account of the case" by one of ODHA's own lawyers, Mario Domingo. But what he never analyzes is how and why the directors of ODHA were coopted by ministerial posts in the outrageously corrupt Portillo government, and how that changed the direction of the investigation of the murder towards a political victory and then revenge, based on anonymous rumors and coached witnesses by one group of army intel officers and their political stooges against a previous political administration and its army officers that had drummed many of the former out of power. Goldman keeps referring to "The Military" as if it were a monolithic block. There we have that fictional simplification again. The names of the corrupt military officers, who had turned Cold War immunity into an immensely profitable criminal organization and were reinstated by the Portillo/Rios-Montt govt, are available in the WOLA study, Hidden Powers in Post-Conflict Guatemala. Is it possible that Goldman hasn't read it? ODHA's and Goldman's one and only real star witness, Ruben Chanax, was a street indigent, whose blood was found at the murder scene and who had identified the now convicted and long retired military officer, Col. Lima, as "tall, thin, and blackhaired", when in fact he is short, portly, and whitehaired. Also no mention of the fact that Lima was a bitter enemy of Gen. Rios Montt for his role in removing the fanatical, evangelical dictator from power in 1983. Once the Portillo/Rios Montt alliance won the elections and took power, the story kept changing to fit the new political winds. But Goldman never deviates from the compromised ODHA script ( or Domingo's unpublished manuscript). Up until that point this isn't an investigation but an ODHA dictation. Until Goldman publishes on the eve of the recent Guatemalan elections and we learn that he has included a new Chanax accusation against presidential candidate, retired Gen. Perez Molina. According to Goldman, Chanax claims that Perez Molina was sucking up beers with Col. Lima on that fateful night in a joint a hundred yards from the murder scene. Not even ODHA could have invented that improbable plot. General Perez Molina had once faced down Col. Lima's coup plot against the first democratically elected President, Vinicio Cerezo. Perez Molina was the Army's Signator of The Peace Accords and long considered an essential element of the reform wing of the Guatemalan Army. At the time of the murder, Perez Molina was the Guatemalan delgate to The Inter-American Defense Board in Washingon, D.C. US immigration corroborates this, but Goldman doesn't accept it. His argument is based on a UN investigator who told him once that Perez Molina had dined with UN Minugua Director, Jean Arnault, in Guatemala just a few nights after the murder. However, close associates of Arnault have categorically denied that any such dinner ever took place. But,damn, it sure got the book some publicity.

If you can read Spanish, I strongly suggest you read instead the other version of the truth in Maite Rico's and Bertrand De La Grange's Quien Mato al Obispo, which concludes that the actual murder was carried out by gang members, including the illegitamate daughter of the Archdiocese's Chancellor, perhaps with the prior connivance of the "Hidden Powers" but certainly with their protection and "plot" manipulation after they returned to power. The "Hidden Powers" in Guatemala are giving the Goldman book five stars. They love it when they make you get the cast of characters all wrong. That just helps keep them hidden a little longer.

Paul Goepfert
Former correspondent of The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun

amcorrea said...

Thank you for the comment, although I had already read your Amazon review.

I will also point out the comments that were made in response to this review for the benefit of those reading this post, as it contains more information. Mario Domingo himself responds to these remarks.