By Laura Restrepo Crown. 242 pp. $22

Reviewed by Marie Arana

A few years ago, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez published News of a Kidnapping, his spare account of a Medellin cartel abduction, he was asked why he had written it. Why, the question was honed more finely, had the novelist broken a long chain of magisterial fiction to write an essentially journalistic work? Garcia Marquez's response was immediate, unequivocal. Because a novel would have proved inadequate to the task, he said. There was no plot so phantasmagoric, characters so evil, themes so monumentally tragic as the ones his countrymen faced on their streets every day. There was hardly a novelist alive, we were left to conclude, who could capture the whacked-out realities of narcolombia.

That was before Laura Restrepo took up the challenge. Having written several novels, among them a minor one published in English last year, Angel of Galilea, Restrepo is no novice. She is no Garcia Marquez, either. With Leopard in the Sun, however, Restrepo steps into the realm of, let us say, a Mario Puzo: a writer who captures a hitherto hidden way of life, not only for those who know something about it, but for readers in other places, reading in other tongues. A writer who illumines a world.

The underworld Restrepo describes is raw, heartless, carnal, eerily real. She admits that not everything in it is invention. "This is . . . based on real-life events," she writes in an acknowledgment, listing 27 interviews. "Individuals contributed key information." It is beyond comprehension how any part of her novel could be factual, for hers seems a story born of a fevered imagination. But, as Garcia Marquez pointed out, much about the drug inferno boggles the mind. Somewhere between apocalypse, slapstick and romance -- between "Goodfellas," "Blazing Saddles" and "West Side Story" (note the visual comparisons) -- Restrepo narrates a tale that only a Colombian could tell.

It begins with two cousins, the burly Nando Barragan and the skinny Adriano Monsalve, fast friends in a large family that, like any extended Latin American clan, can be fiercely insular. "Except for the fact that the Monsalve children were green and the Barragans were yellow, there was no difference between them," our narrator explains. "They called their fathers and uncles Papa, their mothers and aunts, Mama; any older man was called Abuelo, and the adults, without distinguishing between grandchildren, children, nieces, or nephews, raised them all together, by the dozen, in heaps, on sheer will, dry figs, and leaves." They are poor campesinos, living in packed-mud huts, shuffling through the dust of a miserable cordillera backwater.

By age 14, the two begin work as contrabandistas, smuggling American cigarettes into the country, initiating their brothers into their schemes. As years pass, they organize themselves into a gang, learn to twirl pistols, bribe officials, bounce jeeps through the countryside, carry fat rolls of money, guzzle scotch, bark obscenities across the barrios, make love to whores, slap their wives, scoff at the world. But fate brings the two to a bus stop in a remote little town, to an incident that will send the entire Barragan-Monsalve family reeling in frenzy. Waiting for a bus at a shabby cafe, Adriano charms his way into the satin folds of a barmaid's dress, and Nando, furious with jealousy, shoots him dead.

What wedges in between the two branches of the family then is a hatred as pure as that between Montague and Capulet, Shark and Jet, Corleone and Cosa Nostra: a rage so relentless and complete that Barragan after Barragan, Monsalve after Monsalve, is dispatched in a carnival of killing. Fueling the passions is a full complement of wretchedness -- greed, vulgarity, prurience, arrogance -- as the two sides grow ever more powerful, ever more entrenched in crime and cocaine.

But the drug-soaked abattoir is only a backdrop for Restrepo's novel. Although men, commerce and violence furnish the action, the book is about fate, women and love. Restrepo's villagers gossip about the women, "All closed up in that big house, dressed in black and not interested in knowing anything about the rest of the world. We made jokes about them in the barrio. We said they were a harem, or a coven of witches, or a flock of evil birds. It would never have occurred to any of us to fall in love with them. And of course, they never looked at any of us. The old women were all dried up from so much suffering and giving birth, and the younger ones had been turned into stone by their family war. They had no time to be females, or mothers. They were frigid and sterile. Or at least we thought so."

In fact, the Barragan and Monsalve women are anything but wooden. There is the strange sister, La Muda, who hates men with such a fury that she has fitted herself with a sharp-toothed chastity belt and resolved never to speak again. She moves through the Barragan citadel with only the sound of her steel undergarment clanking, heading a platoon of slave girls who maintain a semblance of domestic order in the wanton barbarity. But for all her crone's dress and Spartan way, La Muda is young and lovely; and in her care, one of the wounded brothers falls insanely (and incestuously) in love.

There is Alina Monsalve, the family thug's svelte wife, who has sworn that if he makes her pregnant she will leave him -- so terrified is she of losing a child to the maw of the family anger. When she does become pregnant and leaves, he is so heartsick that the war of cousins is fired with new ferocity. Sicarios are brought in. "Hired killers. The word makes the brothers bristle, like a stream of cold water running down their spines. Killing the Barragans themselves, that's what [the Monsalves] are supposed to do, that's the tradition they've upheld. No one outside the family is allowed to participate." In such ways do the women escalate the war, even though they are bitterly weary of it.

Nando Barragan, a Cro-Magnon to the core, cannot forget the woman he cannot have: Milena is half-goddess, half-alleycat, and, in refusing Nando, has become the one thing he cannot buy or browbeat or break. Her coldness becomes at once his curse and inspiration; she is what drives his insatiable greed.

If this sounds like an overheated telenovela, so be it. Restrepo's book is excessive, filled with a febrile looniness, entirely susceptible to the occasional cliche -- "There she is, lying prone on the bed with her face buried in the down comforter, divinely tragic, like Romy Schneider in Sissi" -- but the shoddiness fits the story, is an excess appropriate to the work at hand. Leopard in the Sun is a wild little book, unrestrained, at times maddeningly puerile, not very different from the people it treats. But like its people, it only appears to be unruly and chaotic. It hits its target between the eyes.

Marie Arana is deputy editor of Book World. She can be reached at aranam@washpost.com.