June 6, 2011

More Terrible Than Death:
Drugs, Violence, and America's War in Colombia

This will be my first book recommendation on this blog, though I intend to do more in the future. The book is: More Terrible Than Death: Drugs, Violence, and America's War in Colombia by Robin Kirk.

This is the best best book I have read about Colombia yet. Discounting almanacs, textbooks and country specific encyclopedias, this is the third history book I have read on Colombia and it is by far the best. Robin Kirk is a human rights activist with long experience working in Colombia. She currently teaches at Duke University. You can read more about her as wella s find links to her website here:

and here

Don't be thrown off by the title, it isn't what you think. Kirk's focus only shifts to the US's role in the decades old Colombia conflict in the latter chapters of her book and the thing that is more terrible than death... it isn't what you may imagine at first. She opens the book by saying telling the reader that she has collected thousands of stories from victims of the violence in Colombia. She has produced thousands upon thousands of pages of official reports containing facts, figures and statistics. She tries to do neither here. She begins with a personal story of a Colombian friend and how his life became inextricably and brutally entangled in the conflict. She then pulls back and gives the reader an understand of the mechanics, the culture, the ritual of that circumstance. Then pulls back some more to explain how that culture came to be. Then again brings it to the personal level by telling the personal stories of the main characters in this decades old drama. As they evolve, as the conflict evolves, the stories build and overlap, touch and become one. She herself enters into the complex narrative midway through the book and some of the stories shift to the third person as we see her direct experience with paramilitary leaders, military officers, priests and victims of the conflict.

Her writing is crisp. It is full of imagery and she weaves the metaphors of Colombia into her book as if it were a myth. The specter of Communism is the basilisco (a fabeled dragon that was able to regenrate itself). The generations old blood fueds are "serpientes", coiling around each new son or daughter. The reader is held, spellbound, by her storytelling and lost in the personal dimension of the narrative. Names, dates and places are all here, but only to enrich the story of Colombia and lend context and greater understanding. In contrast with some of the other books (the most recent of them, Evolución del Conflicto Armado en Colombia e Iberoamérica) I have read, Kirk's writing never slows the reader down with facts or dates or figures because everything fits into a personal story and it is the people who matter, not the dates or the numerous acronyms.

Her depth of the knowledge is evident, her perspective tries earnestly to be neutral (to the extent that is possible) and her compassion for the victims of the conflict is powerful. Near the end of the book, as several of the narrative threads pulled tightly together, I was moved almost to tears, something I cannot recall being true for any other book in my memory. I read most of the book while riding buses through Bogotá or eating lunch in its many cafés and I couldn't help but to think of people I had met here who could just as well have been one of the characters. Or the man I pass on my way to jiu-jitsu practice who has no hands. Or the posters I saw in the South of the city pleading for the return of a loved one. Yet if you aren't here, this book will bring you here. It will transport you into this nation, bumping down a jungle road toward a meeting with Carlos Castaño or sipping coffee in the heat of a summer day next to the police chief as you know that the man hired to kill you waits outside. You will hear the salsa and vallenato of the taxis and discos through these pages, a soulful backdrop to a macabre tragedy.

The edition that I read was published in 2002, early in Álvaro Uribe's presidency, so she could not include the developments of the past nine years. Enormous changes have taken place since 2002, including major reductions in violence and kidnapping throughout Colombia, reduction in the export of cocaine (Perú has recently passed Colombia in tons exported) and the assassination of several of the major guerrilla and paramilitary leaders that play important roles in the book and in Colombia's recent history.

This is what history books should be. History is not facts and figures, names and dates fixed to places. History is the stories of the people who have lived it. That is what this book is. It is part myth, part reporting, and part storytelling. It is personal. It is powerful. It somehow captures, in my opinion, something essential about the Colombia of the second half of the 20th century. Here we have a nation infected by violence, a beautiful and resilient people suffering in a cycle of tragedy, and the refusal of the brave to surrender to this cycle.