Review by Usha Raman
Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman
Okay, this book sat on my bedside table for over a month, waiting to be finished. I finally speed-read it. Not what I would usually do, but this is not the kind of book you can read over several days and retain your sanity.
I usually really enjoy Márquez (well, mostly) and I picked this up intrigued, because it appeared to be more in the nature of long form journalism rather than narrative non-fiction. (You may ask: Is there a difference? And I would answer: the first is obviously journalistic while the second borrows much more from storytelling techniques including careful characterization and plot.)
So I said, “I usually enjoy”, and perhaps that was a spoiler of sorts. The book starts off dramatically, with the kidnapping of two women of prominence in Colombia, presumably by members of a drug cartel, and the detail is compelling enough to draw you in. The first fifteen or so pages went quickly, and I began to get a sense of the complex relationships between the government, the druglords, the media, and the Colombian elite.
Then the book begins to unravel, as Márquez moves on to describe a series of earlier kidnappings, all related, and we are introduced to more and more actors, each with his or her own backstory and networks. For a reader with no familiarity with the intricacies of Colombian drug politics, it is incredibly confusing. Too many names, too many similar but separate incidents, a lot of back-and-forth in terms of timelines, and soon, you find yourself lost in a maze of mini-stories that don’t cohere.
I gave up around two-thirds of the way into the story, finding it difficult to keep its many threads in order.