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Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw
Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press
296 pp.


Mark Bowden opens Killing Pablo, his superb account of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, with the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the educated, dark-skinned politician who seemed to offer peaceful change in Colombia. It's a subtle, intelligent place to start the story of the world's most famous cocaine trafficker. In the years' long violence that followed Gaitán's death, 200,000 people were killed, and Escobar, who was born two years into La Violencia, grew up in an era of legendary outlaws that would shape many of the elements of his own run as "the world's greatest outlaw." While his violent acts were antithetical to Gaitán's calls for peace, Escobar built a following among the poor, who viewed his exploits as gestures against an oppressive state and his marked generosity to them as stealing from the North American rich and giving to the Colombian poor. And, most pointedly, Escobar himself provoked years of violence, albeit at his own hands.

As Bowden points out, the oddest quality of Escobar's success--and the key to his downfall--may be that he straddled both the licit and illicit sides of Colombian life. He was, after all, at least briefly a politician as well as the leading drug lord in a country that supplied more than half the cocaine in the United States. (In 1986, while cocaine was Colombia's largest industry, Escobar was elected to serve as a substitute in the Colombian Congress.) Had he been content to run his empire invisibly, he might have survived much longer. But his need for public recognition would ultimately prove to be his downfall, since it drew him out onto an international stage just as the Reagan administration was beginning to target narco kingpins in its war on drugs.

It was, to say the least, a strange, dual world: while Fortune magazine was listing him among the world's richest men (with an estate worth five billion dollars, by some estimates), Escobar was being denounced publicly as a drug trafficker by the Colombian justice minister (who was, perhaps inevitably, soon assassinated). Once the two sides imploded, the violence recalled La Violencia in its pervasiveness. Between 1988 and 1990, the drug traffickers killed 15,000 people, and, as Bowden notes, "In the first two months of 1991 there was an average of twenty murders a day in Colombia, and in Medellín a total of 457 police had been killed since Colonel Martinez had started his hunt" for Escobar.

As the Colombian government began to play hardball, Escobar struck back with vicious attacks, including assassinating a presidential candidate who was compared favorably to Gaitán and--most damagingly--blowing up an Avianca commercial airliner in an attempt to kill the candidate's successor. "These two atrocities," Bowden writes,


would prove to be fatal mistakes. They made Pablo enemies who were far more powerful than any he had faced before. Downing a commercial airliner was an attack on global civilization. It meant Pablo now posed a direct threat to American citizens, which meant...that some in the Bush administration believed he could be legally targeted for assassination. Killing Galán [the presidential candidate] had made Pablo public enemy number one in Colombia. The Avianca bombing made him public enemy number one in the world.


In time, Escobar and his fellow kingpins fled to Panama, but Escobar didn't want to be an exiled outlaw. He was a populist, as far as he was concerned (albeit one without heartfelt convictions), and he belonged with his people. "Better a tomb in Colombia," he said, "that a prison cell in the United States."

For the moment, the talk of tombs was hyperbole. Indeed, when Escobar's lawyers finally negotiated a deal by which he would surrender in exchange for reduced charges, he actually built his own prison (complete with secret, buried arsenals) and set the terms by which he would be guarded--thereby saving himself from U.S. extradition.

Escobar seemed so untouchable that, when the Colombian government attempted to move him to less amenable trappings, he simply walked away--through an entire brigade of four hundred men who had surrounded the prison. And that was his final, fatal mistake: the Bush administration approved moving a team of Delta Force operators into Colombia to act as 'trainers' for an operation to track Escobar down and kill him. The U.S. had helped track him before his imprisonment, but that was nothing compared to the stepped-up U.S. involvement with Delta Force.

In Black Hawk Down, Bowden did brilliant work developing sources within the Delta Force operators who got caught in a fifteen-hour Mogadishu fire fight and turning it into a breathless narrative. He's done superb work again here with Escobar's story. It lacks the unity of time, place and action that the Mogadishu story offered, but it's nonetheless about as close to a perfect thriller as serious, well-documented journalism can get.

--Doug Childers

Editor's Note: Click here to read Mark Bowden's September 2001 interview with WAG.
Click here to read his May 2000 interview with WAG.
Click here to read a review of Black Hawk Down.

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My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk About Their First Film
Edited by Stephen Lowenstein
458 pp.


Stephen Lowenstein's My First Movie has a great, easily grasped central concept: take a group of twenty wildly divergent film directors and ask them a common question.

What was it like making your first film?

It's a giant cluster question, of course, because it has so many related questions packed into it.

How did you come to film as a profession? What do you think of your first film now? How have you changed as a director since then?

The questions' common thrust makes for fascinating comparison among Lowenstein's impressively broad selection of interview subjects, from Stephen Frears (whose Great Britain-produced Gumshoe appeared in 1971) and Bernard Tavernier (whose French-produced The Watchmaker of St.-Paul appeared in 1974) to Kevin Smith (whose Clerks appeared in 1994) and Steve Buscemi (whose Trees Lounge appeared in 1996).

Not surprisingly, the quality and style of the individual directors' voices is equally broad, from the patiently erudite, well-reasoned Ken Loach to the decidedly less studied voice of Kevin Smith, who (to older readers, at least) seems to use the word 'like' more than 'the' and 'and' combined (as in, "And I'm like, 'I didn't make my movies in LA'"). Loach's transcript reads as if he wrote it; Smith sounds like...well, like a Jersey guy talking over a few beers in his neighborhood bar.

Many of Lowenstein's directors predate the independent film era considerably, but some of the more interesting interviews (particularly when it comes to issues of financing and pitching a film) come from directors who began working just before the independent film movement boomed. And it's remarkable to see how consistently this group refers to Jim Jarmusch as their model, both visually (little camera movement) and financially (raising money through novel channels, like German TV). The older directors, by comparison, refer to the pantheon of greats as their inspiration--Fellini, Bergman, Chaplin, John Ford, etc. I'll leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusion about which camp has the stronger foundation for a lengthy, fruitful career.

Lowenstein (who is himself a filmmaker) is a calculatedly casual interviewer. Rather than pushing his interview subjects, he asks questions that draw an intelligent, straightforward narrative out of the subject's previous answers, and the result is a highly readable collection that serves, at least indirectly and in part, as an oral history of the independent film movement. Indeed, although Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg called the idea for the book 'neat' (in the process of turning down Lowenstein's interview request because of a busy schedule), it's decidedly an independent filmmaker's book. Even Oliver Stone, no stranger to big Hollywood budgets and grandiose glitz, shows himself up as the everlasting maverick by refusing to discuss his first film (Seizure, which appeared in 1974) or even his second, equally cheesy film (The Hand, which appeared in 1981) and instead talking about his third film, Salvador (1986), which is certainly more independent in spirit and shows him in a better light. (Fight the power, Ollie!)

Rest assured: there are no Hollywood lackeys here. Consider Loach's answer to the question, "What lessons can you draw from the experience that you think would be useful for film-makers making their first films now?"


To have the luxury of making a film that is so personal and idiosyncratic and that you're free to expand and contract as you go along means that there's no tension between you and the material. You're not enslaved by somebody else's idea or an idea that you don't really believe in or something you're merely doing in order to advance your career. It really is organic and it really comes from your bowels and your soul and it appeals to your sense of humour, it's all of those things.


Not exactly Hollywood's standard operating procedure, eh? No wonder Stone wanted to talk about Salvador.

--Charlie Onion

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Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations
Bruno Monsaingeon
translated by
Stewart Spencer
Princeton University Press
432 pp.


Bruno Monsaingeon's Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations is not, he acknowledges, a biography of the great, reclusive pianist--although that is precisely what Richter wanted when he first approached Monsaingeon through an emissary. It was a simple request: "Maestro wants Bruno to do his biography." But Monsaingeon is a documentary filmmaker (as well as a violinist), and, as he confesses in the introduction, "I do not have it in me to be a biographer--someone who examines events from day to day, questioning witnesses and giving them their chance to speak."

What Monsaingeon really wanted to do, of course, was make a film about Richter. But Richter despised cameras, and the chances of persuading him to sit in front of one long enough to record footage for a full-length documentary seemed slim. So Monsaingeon agreed to work on the biography, hoping that somehow he would convince Richter to change his mind about the film concept. In time, their conversations drew them toward both projects. Monsaingeon got his documentary (Richter the Enigma), and Richter got his biography--of sorts. The first half of Sviatoslav Richter is autobiographical material drawn from their conversations, although Monsaingeon has transformed them into monologues that have a clear chronological progression.

The chapters often have an intriguing sense of aural emptiness to them, especially in the early ones dealing with Richter's childhood. They aren't long enough or detailed enough to feel like fully fleshed, printed text, and there is a lonely quality to their one-sidedness that makes them read like an interview in which the interviewer refuses to speak and the subject, driven perhaps by solipsism or merely fascination with himself, obliges by talking at length. I recall having the same feeling years ago, while reading Ingmar Bergman's autobiography. (Bergman was born in 1918, three years after Richter, and there is clearly a common quality to their early histories that heightens the similarities.) A dream Richter recounts is jarringly Bergmanesque:


There's a ring at the door. I go to answer it. 'Who is it?'

And from the other side of the door comes a terrifying voice: 'Don't open up, I'm a burglar!'

And I would wake up, bathed in sweat.


Richter was intensely private, and while these 'autobiographical' chapters chart his musical development, they unfortunately leave more personal issues untouched. And the chapters as they stand aren't without flaws. There are a few repetitions that could've been snipped out, and the "On Prokofiev" chapter is a bit choppy. (It was actually Richter's only published essay; Monsaingeon simply reprints it here as a part of the text.) But overall it's a highly readable, often compelling work.

While the first half of the book is accessible to the general reader, the second half of the book may find a happier home with a more rarified audience. Here, Monsaingeon offers excerpts from the notebooks Richter kept about the music he listened to between 1970 and 1995. Despite his protestation in the first half--"Music is written to be played and listened to and has always seemed to me to be able to manage without words--commentaries on it are utterly pointless--and I've never really been good with words"--Richter is a particularly articulate commentator. His notes here, brief as they are on individual pieces, are well worth the serious listener's close attention.

It would certainly be nice to have a full-bodied Richter biography, but this will entertain and inform most readers in the meantime.

--Charlie Onion

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Yeats Is Dead!
by 15 Irish Writers
Edited by Joseph O'Connor
Alfred A. Knopf
259 pp.


Roddy Doyle jump-starts Yeats is Dead!, a novel written by fifteen Irish writers, with a masterly opening: two small-time Dublin hoods (who are also, coincidentally, cops) stand over a fresh corpse. One of the men--the shooter--is secretly gay as well as a little slow brain-wise, and the general confusion he feels about the world prevents him from fully comprehending what has just happened. The other man, who fancies himself an entrepreneur, is thinking fast and trying to figure out how badly this botched 'roughing up' will affect his relationship with their boss, Mrs. Bloom. (Yes, Mrs. Bloom, as in Ulysses. And she lives with Mrs. Blixen--as in Out of Africa. This is, as you might expect, a book loaded with literary allusions.) With his slow-witted companion pleading innocence, it isn't easy to work out the permutations:


"It was an accident."

"You really think I'm gonna go back and tell her that, do you?"

"He clutched his chest."

"I'll clutch your bollocks with a pliers if you ever mention his chest or his heart again. Say after me: I shot him."

"But I didn't mean to."

"Say it."

"I shot him."

"Good. Fine. Now we're getting somewhere. You shot him. He had something she wanted. We were to worry him. A few slaps, a little glimpse at the gun there. A straightforward enough job of work. But you went and shot the poor chap. Didn't you?"

"It went off."

"Yes," said Roberts. "I noticed."

"It was the gloves."


"They're new."

"They're nice."

"They're a bit..."


"Yeah," said Nestor.

"I know the way," said Roberts.

He toed the dead man's foot.

"It was the gloves did it, mister," he told the body. Then he looked at Nestor again.


As the playwright Conor McPherson picks up the story in the next chapter, we discover that the fresh corpse was once the father of Gary Reynolds, a terribly shy, overweight man who makes an unhappy living providing urinal cakes for men's rooms in pubs. He hasn't seen his father in years, and he is shocked when the police drive him to his father's mobile home (and the scene of his murder). He had, it seems, been an inscrutable crackpot, obsessed with burial mounds, among other things. The police have already collected


lots of notebooks, full of endless scribbles and scientific jottings, all almost illegible. The books had been sent off to the heads of physics and maths departments at different universities to see just what discipline they explored, if any. Tommy was, after all, an educated man. But so far they'd had no results.


The plot takes its promised literary twist in Gina Moxley's chapter. Mr. Reynolds has left his son a cryptic manuscript in a sealed envelope, and only after Gary has thrown it away (thinking it useless) does he discover that it's the first half of a priceless, unknown novel by James Joyce. (The title is Yeats is Dead!, though, being Joyce's last, most cryptic work, it's written as Y8S=+!.) From here, the plot's various elements--part slapstick literary mystery, part police procedural comedy of errors--begin to pick up speed. Where, for example, is the second half of the novel? Can Gary find his half in the city dump? How far up does the police corruption go? And, most importantly, who can make sense of the Joyce manuscript's seeming gibberish?

Joseph O'Connor, who edited the novel as well as contributing a chapter, did fine work bringing together a diverse group of writers--from solid Irish novelists and playwrights like Roddy Doyle and Conor McPherson to the journalist Gene Kerrigan and the sportswriter Tom Humphries. The writing is often quite good. I don't think anyone tops Doyle's opening rhythms or his concision, but the slapstick contributions offered by Humphries, O'Connor and Charlie O'Neill are hilarious.

The novel inevitably has a shaggy-dog quality, of course. One feels each writer tossing an eccentric character into the mix and stacking up shocking improbabilities gleefully, knowing full-well that they won't be responsible for dealing with them in the next chapter. The collaborative form may inherently keep the novel from significant thematic accomplishments, but it's a rollicking good read, and it makes for a great summer divertissement.

Editor's note: All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to Amnesty International.

--Charlie Onion

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