Grabbed by the collar

El hombre de Montserrat by Dante Liano is a stylish bludgeon that forces the reader through a Guatemala crisscrossed by death squads


El Hombre de Montserrat
Dante Liano
2005, Editorial Piedra Santa (Guatemala)
183 pages

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

EL HOMBRE DE MONTSERRAT is a book about violence that recreates the tragic resignation of the 1980s in a Guatemala crisscrossed by death squads and unhinged by the atrocious madness of the Kaibiles in the countryside where the main conflict was taking place.

In Dante Liano’s short but memorable book, constructed in the form of a detective novel, everything is seen in all its bitter realism from outside and recounted, reported even, without apparent value judgement.

Written at the end of the 1980s, when Guatemala was still living the impact of the events depicted, El hombre de Montserrat was first published in Mexico in 1994, but generated little interest or critical attention. Republished in 2005 by Editorial Piedra Santa, it has now reached a wider Guatemalan and international audience, and has been hailed by several critics such as Luis Aceituno as a key work for understanding contemporary narrative in the country.

Thumping directness

An agile and brutally simple form of story-telling that at times reflects the economy and thumping directness associated with such great non-Hispanic contemporaries as Elmore Leonard, Liano’s style of writing grabs you by the collar and stares you in the face. You cannot look away.

His protagonists are ordinary, apparently well-grounded people without deep social consciences caught up but also shaping the conflict, concerned with getting along in day-to-day terms in a society slowly drowning like a stunned beast in its own blood.

The unlikely anti-hero is the obscure, tired army bureaucrat Lieutenant Carlos García who works in a military intelligence office staffed by US, Argentine and Chilean military advisers and whose job it is to help locate safe houses occupied by guerrillas.

On his way to work one day in his reliable black Ford Galaxy, he stumbles upon a corpse at the side of the road whose face seems unnervingly familiar. The incident is depressingly normal, yet Liano inverts the very routine aspect of this death in this period and turns it into something unusual by injecting a personal history into the case. García tries to discover the identity of the victim from the daily lists of the dead compiled by the police, but officially no-one knows anything. His own subsequent investigation, and the resulting connection with his apparently naïve brother-in-law, takes the unsuspecting officer deeper into the state’s dark repressive infrastructure, death squad activities and, eventually, machinery of genocide.

Like the rest of Guatemalan society, García is torn between family loyalty and institutional duty. The plot is at once a subtle trip into contemporary history, and in particular the state of terror imposed during the 1980s, as it is a form of denunciation that takes as its honest point of departure the complicity of a rather ordinary and mediocre man. In this maze of totalitarian amorality, even the life of a man so enmeshed in the state’s apparatus as García can be turned upside down by a chance event that casts a shadow of suspicion.

Liano’s minimalist style allows the author to flash images in front of the reader for the reader to then make up his or her own mind about what is right and wrong, a form of snapshot morality laid out in a crude fashion that belongs so comfortably to our telegenic era. Indeed, in one memorable chapter the television cameras of a big multinational media chain turn up at the unforgiving bombardment of a guerrilla safe house to be treated to a melodramatic festival of death without any apparent sense of proportion. All is spectacle.

Death in Guatemala in this period was both individual and collective leaving the characters, as a result, numb: their environment no longer allows them the luxury of individual tenderness or tact. This is a world in which García’s wife – one kept awake by the sound of machine-gun fire that punctuates the night – now sleeps with ease, succumbing only to physical fatigue. García only finds tenderness unexpectedly, out in the field of combat.

A child of that generation of the late 1940s that experienced the rollercoaster of Latin America’s revolutionary alternative and its speeding journey into the tunnels of disenchantment and terror, Liano’s career as a writer matured abroad in exile from the violence unleashed by the infamous regime of Fernando Romeo Lucas García. He found himself in a welcoming Italy, where he devoted himself to the study of Guatemalan literature at the University of Bologna. This exile has without doubt equipped him as a writer with the power of detachment, able to lay out the tarot cards of what life has in store for all of us with a chilling dispassion.

Eugene Carey is a journalist