David Unger, a Jewish Guatemalan-American author, has written a number of works of fiction set in Guatemala. He caught my attention in an interview from Words without Borders that I wanted to highlight. I hope to read his debut novel Life in the Damn Tropics (2004) soon. The book is set in the early 80s in Guatemala City and narrated by an upper-middle-class Jewish Guatemalan trying to navigate through the complexities of the civil war and deal with the military. His most recent novel, The Price of Escape, is about a Jewish man who flees Nazi Germany for Guatemala, and is forced to deal with this strange unfamiliar land.
When asked about the mood of Guatemala City, Unger, who moved to the US when he was 5 but has since returned regularly, describes two cities: The upper class world of cheap servants, wonderful climate and easy vacations abroad and those that serve the upper class. Their world is one of insecurity, crime and struggle. He describes a moment that for me sums up the upper class attitude towards the indigenous people in the country:
¨One enduring image occurred when I was eighteen and in the car with my aunt. We passed a Guatemalan Indian man carrying maybe twenty or thirty brooms on his back and my aunt began to bargain with him, ostensibly to buy a broom. The negotiation took ten minutes and at the conclusion, my aunt decided not to buy because the man wouldn’t lower his final price by 25 cents. I asked my aunt why she didn’t just pay the extra quarter. She answered that she really didn’t need a broom quite yet and that in any case the man, though he didn’t make the sale, was happy because “Indians love to bargain” (the Spanish word is regatear, a word that implies haggling) even more than selling. My aunt went on to tell me that though doctors encourage the Maya to wear shoes to protect them against worms and infections, they prefer to walk around barefoot, even on the cold concrete and asphalt because that’s how they have always lived. These comments illustrate the pervasive ignorance and cruelty of the ruling classes.¨
Unger sees himself as someone who can write about Guatemala because he left the country, and I agree with him that it gives you a different perspective. As he says, he can peer over that wall of obligations that surround you in your normal life. He also taught me a new word sextear and it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Sixth Avenue in downtown Guatemala City, (Sexta Avenida in Spanish) is the commercial heart of the city. Today it is a pedestrian street, but it has always been the place for Guatemalans to visit downtown. Well sexteando just means (or at least meant in the 60s) hanging out on Sixth Avenue, window shopping, flirting with girls, going to the cinema.