Book Review – News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is undoubtedly best known for his beautiful “magic realism” prose. In novels like Love in the Time of Cholera or The General in his Labyrinth, Marquez masterfully joins fiction and fancy so that it becomes beautifully impossible to tell what’s based in reality and what is not. Even his personal memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, has this flavour of the supernatural or the surreal as fanciful details from One Hundred Years of Solitude turn out to be based on Marquez’ own childhood.

News of a Kidnapping is distinctly different from any other Marquez work I’ve read. Not just because it’s based on fact – Living to Tell the Tale is also based on fact. News of a Kidnapping is, to use Marquez’ own title, a news story.

It’s not hard to imagine why Marquez might have wanted to tell this factual account of drug cartels and kidnapping in Colombia, the country of his birth. When many people think of Colombia, drug cartels and kidnappings are the first things that come to mind. Marquez doesn’t set out to dispel any myths but simply to tell the reader what occurred and, perhaps, cast a new light on Colombia at the end of the 20th century.

News of a Kidnapping focuses on the kidnapping in the early 90s of several prominent men and women – many of them journalists – in Columbia by a drug cartel, the hands and feet of a shadowy figure called Pablo Escobar.

Due to a North American “war on drugs”, Pablo Escobar and a group of criminals known as “the Extraditables” are doing whatever they think it takes to avoid extradition to the United States. By kidnapping these men and women, they hope to force the hand of the Colombian government and negotiate a safe – and hopefully luxurious – arrest and imprisonment within Colombia.

The story takes us between the various hostages – some alone, some imprisoned with others, some unaware that anyone else has been kidnapped, some already thought to be dead – and their families who work tirelessly (sometimes with the government, sometimes not) to obtain their freedom. This isn’t a Hollywood movie. There are no easy answers and Marquez doesn’t offer an opinion on how things should go or should have been handled. The narrative maintains an air of impartiality. A news report. Each person’s motives are understandable. It’s easy to feel sympathy for the spouses and parents of the kidnapped victims and, yet, it’s also understood how important it is to not give in to all of Escobar’s demands. This is real life and the answers aren’t always easy.

I’ll be honest – I learnt a lot by reading News of a Kidnapping and I saw Colombia in a way I haven’t before. That said, it wasn’t my favourite Marquez work. It lacked, well, magic. Perhaps it was simply that I didn’t really know what I was getting into. The book is well-written and informative. If you want to learn more about Colombia in the early 1990s, this would be a great read. If you love The Autumn of the Patriarch and want to read more by that author, well, this might not be for you.

Being fairly ignorant about Colombia in general, I can’t speak to the complete accuracy of News of a Kidnapping. I did wonder at certain points in the narrative if a more positive perspective was being shown than reality. Particularly, instances of extreme police brutality are alluded to but never really dealt with in the book. That seemed to me like it must have been a bigger issue in reality. Overall, the Colombian government comes across as pretty good – wise and largely effective, if plagued by violence and assassinations. That’s not been my general impression of Colombia so I’m not sure if News of a Kidnapping is telling the truth or if Marquez didn’t want to delve into the real political problems of his country.

(The book I read was translated from the original Spanish by Edith Grossman and published in 1997 by Knopf.)

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