The Art of Political Murder

This year, many U.S. readers became familiar with a new voice from Latin America–Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose novel Senselessness was published by New Directions in an excellent translation. (And has since been nominated for the Best Translated Book of 2008.) The novel is narrated by an obsessive, paranoid writer whose improbable job it is to edit a 1,400-page report documenting atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. (About 1/4 of the report is simply a listing of the names of innocents murdered.)

Like many, upon first encountering Senselessness I took this report as the product of Moya’s twisted imagination, but it is in fact quite real. The report, entitled Guatemala: Never Again, was published in 1998 and there’s even a shortened trade version of it available for purchase.

Two days after the report was published, Guatemalan Archbishop Juan Gerardi, who was the force behind the production and publication of the report, was assassinated in Guatemala City. From the get-go the murder was highly suspicious, and Francisco Goldman’s journalistic book The Art of Political Murder lays out the years-long effort to prove that the Guatemalan Army was in fact behind the murder and punish those involved.

Goldman is best known as the author of three previous novels set in Central America. (I’d say that he’s the U.S.’s best fictional chronicler of that region.) Although he has published his journalism widely, this is his first book-length non-fiction work. He’s done a good job here, as The Art of Political Murder is deftly plotted, well-characterized, and meticulously researched.

Part of what leads to the psychological breakdown of Senselessness’s narrator is the uncanny quality of the testimony of Guatemala’s native peoples, which he reads while proofing the report. Most of the testifiers are native speakers of a Mayan language, and their Spanish is spotty. But rather than diminish the intensity of their speech, the narrator finds that this gives their testimony a poetic quality that makes it all the more powerful.

The Art of Political Murder includes a few passages from the report, and I was surprised to find that it corresponds very closely to the language reproduced in Senselessness.

For those who enjoyed Senselessness, or simply for those interested in finding out about the fallout from one of the most disastrous U.S.-sponsored wars in Latin America, The Art of Political Murder is highly recommended.

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