For almost a decade, Francisco Goldman lived with the obsession of answering the question posed in his latest book’s subtitle: who killed the Bishop? He did so by living inside Guatemala’s dark web of organized military killings, in a country constructed to obstruct justice and to protect the masterminds behind political murders from punishment. It was impossible to run into Goldman and not hear about the new twist in the investigation, always an absurd and scary one. While the premise of the book is that of a thriller—a murder was committed and a writer sets out to find the perpetrator—the facts that Goldman is a novelist, that it takes place in post-Cold War Guatemala, and that it is a work of nonfiction makes for a thriller that crashes through barriers of genre.
Seventy-five-year-old Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered two days after he presented a document accusing Guatemala’s army of committing crimes against humanity. More than 200,000 people died or went missing in the ’80s. The civil war was typical of the era: a military, trained by the United States, hunted down Communist guerrillas and their sympathizers. (To those too young to remember, Central America was the Middle East of today.) The crumbling of the Berlin Wall brought a truce between the two sides. It also brought about, thanks to the international human rights movement, the document that reveals who killed the bishop. The four-volume human rights report “Guatemala: Never Again” named names and exposed the atrocities. In his opening pages Goldman quotes from it: “The two-year-olds were all pressed together into a tight ball, and they were set on fire all pressed together, into a ball, all the children were burned.” He knows these are images we will never forget.
Neither does he spare a single detail from the night of the murder: the number of cigarettes that the homeless punks who slept outside the priest’s parish house smoked; the TV movie that they were watching at Don Mike’s bodega; the brutal way in which the bishop was bludgeoned, with a slab of concrete smashed repeatedly on his face. Goldman lets us know that he is taking us to a place where horrible things can and do happen.
Reading the book is to enter a surreal, and very dark labyrinth, a 300-page ride of relentless fear. Goldman didn’t have to make up the cast of characters. A defense team went to great lengths to prove that the bishop was killed in a crime of passion. It accused the bishop’s housemate, another priest, of being gay and of having sex with a female gang member, the illegitimate daughter of another priest. Then they blamed the priest’s dog for the bishop’s murder, flying in an expert on dog bites from Madrid.
The reader understands that for all his finesse, Goldman is not writing a murder mystery to give us the final pleasure of solving the crime at the book’s end. He wrote this book as an angry denunciation, an eye opener to let the world know that the bishop’s killers are free, regardless of the tenacious work of reconciliation and truth committees. Goldman’s message is loud and clear: in Guatemala the “intellectual authors” of atrocities go unpunished. The work of decent, hard-working, committed men and women who spend their free days and their tight salaries to follow every lead can earn any one of them a death sentence, a life lived in fear, or in exile.
The Art of Political Murder contains the crux of Guatemala, and of Latin America, today: how to merge a feudal and violent past where impunity reigns with the new generation fighting for a Guatemala in which the rule of law works. His book is at once awe-inspiring and disheartening: he has perfected the art of nonfiction by explaining how Guatemala has perfected the art of political murder. What happened to Father Gerardi in Guatemala happens elsewhere too. Goldman’s book is a testament to both the undeniable existence of political murder and the hope that writing about it will stop it from occurring.
The Art of Political Murder comes out from Grove Press in September.