Toward the end of My Colombian War Silvana Paternostro hits on the perfect Spanish word to express her sense of dislocation. She is desubicada, which she translates as "difficult and kind of ridiculous, and always out of place." It shows, even to her family. "The stork dropped her in the wrong country," her father says.
For a journalist it sometimes helps to be a little ridiculous and out of place. Alienation imparts a sense of urgency to Paternostro's intimate, emotion-saturated portrait of the homeland with which she cannot come to terms, a sentimental journey undertaken after decades living in the US and working as a journalist in New York. Her confusion, and her often astounding ignorance of her own country, ends up being an asset, as she reconnects with her family and tries to sort out how Colombia developed into an international Wal-Mart for cocaine and marijuana, and a world leader in several major crime categories, including murder and kidnapping.
The story, for her, is personal. In a country riven by a decades-long struggle between conservative landowners and leftist guerrillas, her family counts as one of the more prominent kidnapping targets. The maternal surname Montblanc on her Colombian identity card immediately links her with El Carmen, a vast agricultural estate created by her grandfather in the mountains near her hometown, Barranquilla, a port on the Caribbean coast. Nearly 40 Montblancs have been abducted and held for ransom.
Paternostro, who left Colombia as a teenager to attend school in the US, tuned out Colombia for most of her adult life. She wrote about Nicaragua and Cuba, or about Latin American sexual politics in her book In the Land of God and Man. A map of Colombia she sees at a press briefing in the late 1990s catches her by surprise. "I had no idea half of it was jungle," she writes. The rising tide of violence in her homeland, and her own conflicted sense of identity, draws her back. "I wanted to feel what it was like to be Colombian," she writes.
Those feelings turn out to be complicated. Staying with her grandmother in Barranquilla, Paternostro rediscovers her childhood, an enchanted time when she had her own servant-playmate, drivers at her beck and call, and a legion of relatives who protected and cosseted her. The flavors and the colors are vivid, like the block of candied grapefruit that her deeply religious grandmother keeps hidden in a closet. It's easy to see why a high-spirited, ambitious girl might want to escape from an environment as sticky and cloying as the hidden grapefruit.
Through her grandparents and assorted relatives still living in Barranquilla, Paternostro feels her way through Colombian politics, which can seem like a domestic drama. The same quarrels, repeated over and over, drive her to distraction. The Colombian mind-set infuriates her.
"Colombians don't vote for human beings, they vote for saviors," she writes in disgust after her countrymen abandon the once-popular President Andres Pastrana, who tried to woo the rebels with gentle diplomacy, and stampede to the hard-line Alvaro Uribe.
In a narrow journalistic sense, Paternostro fumbles her mission. She leaves for Colombia intent on making contact with guerrillas, on seeing close-up the unending war among the Marxists, the army and the private paramilitary forces subsidized by the landowners. Mostly, though, she just hangs around and waits for things to happen. A visit to El Carmen turns out to be so fraught with peril, because of rebel roadblocks, that it takes months to arrange and then can be made only by private airplane. She stays for four hours.