The murder, in 1998, of Bishop Juan Gerardi was Guatemala's crime of the century. One Sunday night, the 75-year-old human-rights advocate was beaten to death with a chunk of concrete in the parish-house garage of the church of San Sebastián, in Guatemala City. It was two days after Gerardi and human-rights workers had released Guatemala: Never Again, a 1,400-page report documenting the ethnic genocide of the country's long-running civil war and laying the blame overwhelmingly on the military, which had ruled Guatemala for decades. The murder took place two blocks from the National Palace, home of the president.
Just months later, acclaimed novelist Francisco Goldman (The Long Night of the White Chickens) flew from New York to Guatemala to investigate the killing. Goldman was born in the U.S., in 1954, and raised partly in Guatemala; he'd been baptized at San Sebastián. He dug into the case for seven years, writing about it for The New Yorker. In 2007, to rave reviews, he published The Art of Political Murder, a stunningly thorough look at Gerardi's murder and its aftermath.
Though Goldman's account is largely a distressingly familiar litany of lost evidence and shady doings, it's also a taut, gripping mystery, with heroes of its own. And it ends on a note of qualified hope: With the convictions of two participants in Gerardi's murder, both army officers, writes Goldman, the case "had opened a path into [the] darkness" of the secret world of the Guatemalan military.
Goldman makes his first Pittsburgh appearance on Thu., Sept. 11, reading at an installment of the American Shorts Reading Series titled "An Incident of Human Rights." Also appearing is Goldman's friend Horacio Castellanos Moya, the El Salvador-born novelist in residence at Cities of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Moya reads from Senselessness, his first book to be published in English (see "Uncommon Senselessness," in the Aug. 14 CP). Senselessness cuts its own, darkly comic path with a fictional take on Never Again, which, too, leads to the death of a bishop. (The Sept. 11 program also includes the short British film "Deadline," about an Iraqi exile in London, and live music by guitarist John Marcinizyn.)
CP recently interviewed Goldman, who was in Mexico, via e-mail. Asked about the long history of the United States supporting repressive Guatemalan regimes, Goldman wrote: "The U.S. played a positive role in the Gerardi case too. While its past role is perhaps unambiguously awful, the recent role of the U.S. in Guatemala is fairly schizophrenic, like it is in so many places."
Goldman also addressed reports that his book had influenced this year's Guatemalan presidential election: Leading candidate Gen. Otto Peréz Molina, whom a source of Goldman's reported seeing in the vicinity of Gerardi's residence the night of the murder, skipped the final two debates and lost. "It wasn't at all ever my intention for the book to find that kind of role," writes Goldman, "but if it helped even a tiny bit in preventing a thug and criminal and alleged murderer from becoming president of Guatemala, that's cool, I'm happy about that."
An Incident of Human Rights, with Francisco Goldman and Horacio Castellanos Moya. 7:30 p.m. Thu., Sept. 11 New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square, North Side. $10. 412-622-8866 or www.pittsburghlectures.org.