Temples and Playgrounds
Previewing the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Nov. 3-4
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?by Francisco Goldman
Grove/Atlantic, 396 pp., $25
When Bishop Juan Gerardi was found with a smashed skull in a puddle of his own blood following his publication of a report on the Guatemalan government and military's terror campaign against its own people, the casualness of the crime and its half-assed cover-up full of oddball red herrings came as the only real surprise. The murder weapon was a chunk of cement used as a bludgeon, and one of the killers sauntered away from the scene shirtless in an attempt to suggest the bishop met his end through misadventure with rough trade. To further confuse things, police took another priest and a cook into custody, while a top medical examiner was coerced into naming yet another conspirator: an elderly German shepherd named Baloo.
"The murder, which at first seemed like a clear-cut political crime ... had become a baroque story of perhaps perverse human passions" writes novelist Francisco Goldman (The Long Night of White Chickens) of his decision to pursue a nonfiction investigation of the story. "As a writer, I couldn't resist." As writer, detective, and guide, Goldman makes it irresistible to readers as well, ably juggling an unruly cast of characters against a complex political backdrop to find the art in the crime's artlessness and its place in a shameful history of sanctioned thuggery, of murders and "disappearances" committed with impunity.
With humanity and a highly vulnerable curiosity, he probes Guatemala's disgrace and the international order that enables it, while tracking the efforts of those on the ground, risking everything to investigate the case, not just for the sake of a single murdered Bishop but to build a working system of law enforcement, case by case. The story is complex and surprising and certainly not pretty, making for both a highly alarming snapshot of an alleged democracy without an independent judiciary and a hopeful portrait of those engaged in a process to save it from itself.
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1pm