On the dark side

From the Darkness, the debut novel of Oswaldo Salazar, now in English, is a masterful account of a true crime that shook Guatemala in 1939


From the Darkness
Oswaldo Salazar, translated by Gavin O’Toole
2007, Aflame Books
191 pages

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

A NEW LATIN AMERICAN master of narrative is emerging in the unlikely form of a bespectacled philosophy teacher, Oswaldo Salazar.

The unassuming Guatemalan author’s first novel, From the Darkness (Por el lado oscuro), is a masterpiece of narration that carves out a highly original furrow both for the Central American region and Latin America more broadly.

A novel species of literature that fuses a true crime account of the notorious “Gourd Poisoning” case that divided Guatemalan society in 1939 with a philosophical exploration of reality, From the Darkness is also notable for being a sensitive investigation of the reasons a woman may resort to murder.

The book recounts the criminal case that follows the fatal poisoning of Bartolo García, a brutish peasant in the small town of Amatitlán just outside Guatemala City, by his own family.

At the centre of Salazar’s straightforward yet beautifully woven tale stands Mauricia Hernández, the murdered man’s wife, whose own troubled experiences of men lie beneath her feisty, temperamental and even arrogant attitude towards male authority.

Suffice to say that it soon becomes clear Mauricia is the author of a crime that shocked a country then living in apparent tranquillity under the tough dictator Jorge Ubico while the European war raged.

Metaphysical instincts

In keeping with his metaphysical instincts, Salazar’s philosophical mission is to reveal then undermine an apparent reality, using police and judicial officials to examine then expose to scrutiny the different layers of reality that can exist simultaneously in any given situation. This is a rare exploration of Central America’s criminal history and, as a result, is refreshingly distant from the more stereotypical focus of literary interest in the region upon drug-trafficking, guerrilla war, indigenous relations, erotica etc. Salazar has set out and achieved what few before him have managed to do, recreating with great authenticity a series of events that have captured the imagination of the reading public in a region inured to that stereotypical focus and, as a result, paying little attention to its own, profoundly rich archive of human interest stories and the popular mythology that these have given rise to. This helps to explain the positive reception of this novel both in Guatemala and the US, with the book winning the Premio Centroamericano de Novela Mario Monteforte Toledo 2003 and also being among the most popular Hispanic titles for that year at the New York Public Library.

Salazar’s characters – and in particlar the bad-tempered Mauricia – literally reach out of the page to slap you into understanding their misery or frailties as you become a captive of the author’s narrative skills.

The book is particularly perspicacious when it comes to examining the motives of a simple woman who transgresses all the norms of a formal and old-fashioned, male-dominated and, indeed, highly macho society.

Mauricia spits in the face of her male oppressors, wrapped up as they are in their petty rivalries and vainglorious ambitions, and this novel will be of great interest to women interested in gender relations in Latin America.

Recounting how, when asked in her judicial interrogation about her relationship with a lover, Salazar writes:

“Mauricia felt the question like a rape, like a violent penetration of her private life. No-one even breathed during the long seconds that transpired while, slowly, Mauricia lifted her eyes and looked, one by one, at the expectant faces of all those men who were waiting, who feared her response as if they were hearing their own wives confessing their infidelities. She then regained her strength, her inner security, because she knew that although they were able to judge her, lock her up, even execute her, they feared, dreaded her, because she had transgressed all the boundaries, all the limits within which the peaceful lives of respectable people took place.”

As ever in Latin America, politics gatecrashes the trial of Mauricia and her accomplices in the form of Ubico’s zealous approach to setting examples and establishing for all to see his credentials, his huevos one might say, as a harbinger of discipline, order and hence progress.

To that extent, From the Darkness is a tragic tale that explores the unforgiving nature of justice towards a simple woman – and simple rural people in general – and the high price they pay for responding to their instincts or for their ignorance.

But its very publication and the interest that it has generated offers great hope by revealing a restored fascination in the universal dimensions of human nature and emotion that enabled such distinguished predecessors of Salazar as Asturias and Monteforte Toledo himself to take their own place in the literary pantheon.

Our advice is for all those interested in new Latin American literature to keep their eyes on Salazar, as it is almost certain in his case that the best is yet to come.

Eugene Carey is a journalist