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Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
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Who Killed the Bishop?

A-The Art of Political MurderOn April 26, 1998, 75-year-old Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was celebrating the publication of his massive, name-naming report detailing the kidnappings, murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed by the right-wing Guatemalan military over the past 30 years. By the end of the night, Bishop Gerardi had been bludgeoned to death in his Guatemala City parish garage. Francisco Goldman's exploration of the murky details of the crime and the nine-year-long legal investigation uncovers the civilian fears and military corruption still lingering in Guatemala. The tale of Bishop Gerardi's death and the massive cover-up that followed reveals reformers toiling in the face of great personal danger to bring justice to a country that has long lived without it.
Grove. 396 pages. $25. ISBN: 0802118283

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[L]ike Goldman's earlier novels, this book engraves itself in a reader's memory not only for the story it tells-riveting, horrific and oddly inspiring-but also for its nuanced portrayal of a society where violence, fear and moral corrosion have long outlived the conflict that once sustained them. ... Perhaps because he is a novelist, or perhaps because this was a crime conceived and carried out under the guise of multiple fictions, Goldman is able to make of this true story an extraordinarily compelling read." Brodwyn Fischer

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Goldman's book is both a horrifying expose and a triumphant tale of justice belatedly served in a country where the concept had lost all meaning, of institutional evil unmasked in a place where it had long operated behind a thousand disguises, of plodding police work and personal courage overcoming a culture of impunity and fear. ... The Art of Political Murder is a passionate cry of outrage that should be read and passed on by anyone who believes, as Goldman proves here, that truth is always more improbable than fiction." Pamela Constable

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"This story could slip easily into lurid, true-crime voyeurism, but Francisco Goldman, who was baptized in Gerardi's church as an infant, recounts the murder as coolly as a coroner. ... Whether you know how the case ended or not, you'll find this is a grimly satisfying, finely honed detective story." Roger Atwood

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Goldman's] decision to use the rumors, the contradictions and the disinformation campaigns so abundantly and vividly, and to blend them sometimes indistinguishably into the story, add to the reader's difficulty. Yet there is a reason. ... His book portrays the hysterical confusion, the dark fog . . . that power-corrupt, ruthless and enduring-can impose on a society, choking its instincts, blinding its sight and rendering truth not only hard to find but hard to distinguish even if it is found." Richard Eder

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Goldman, the son of a Guatemalan mother and American father, is particularly suited to track the machinations of this case, even at personal risk. We can feel the chill as he interviews an important witness who, in the course of their conversation, casually discusses the easiest ways to strangle a person." Jack Broom

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Goldman doesn't make use of his wonderful descriptive talents, as he does in his fiction, and most of the principals drift in and out of sight without leaving a trace. ... He has no trouble convincing us that Gerardi's murder was artful. Unfortunately, he is incapable of illuminating the source of that art." Ilan Stavans

Critical Summary

Three-time novelist Francisco Goldman's commitment to telling this true-crime tale shines on every page of The Art of Political Murder. Goldman spent years researching the case, often braving dangerous places and people in order to interview key witnesses. Many of the people he spoke with for the book ended up dead, in exile, or "disappeared." With the exception of the Los Angeles Times, critics uniformly praised Goldman's insightful exploration of Guatemalan political corruption and media manipulation. As the Chicago Tribune puts it, "The heart of the story, Goldman brilliantly recognizes, is not only the murder but also the crude, insidiously effective ways the killers obfuscated its political motives, spinning stories as farcically compelling as any Latin soap opera."

Further Reading

I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1983): Menchu, who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, details her poor upbringing as a Quiche, a member of a Mayan people in Guatemala, and her people's brutal fight to keep their land from the government's rapacious grab. "They've killed the people dearest to me," she says. "Therefore, my commitment to our struggle knows no boundaries nor limits."