The enigmatic drifter


Ronald Flores traces the literary peregrinations of fellow Guatemalan novelist Rodrigo Rey Rosa, arguably his country’s most well known and translated contemporary writer

THE GUATEMALAN writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa (1958-) published his first story, “The Path Doubles Back” in New York 25 years ago which, although written in Spanish, came out in English, having been translated by Paul Bowles in Tangiers, Morocco. Since then, Rey Rosa (pictured above) has published 13 books to become Guatemala’s most translated and famous novelist.

In Guatemala’s literary tradition, Rey Rosa is closer to the narrative efficiency of Augusto Monterroso than the baroque excesses of Miguel Angel Asturias. Rey Rosa’s political position has also been eccentric when compared with the dominant tendency of Guatemala’s writers, whose social commitment often drove them to martyrdom.

Rey Rosa’s early style (his syntactic logic) revealed the influence of his mentor Paul Bowles and his careful reading of Jorge Luis Borges. These two determining influences drove Rey Rosa away from the vernacular of the middle class which had fascinated the writers of the compromised generation and towards a cultivated literary language.

Rey Rosa is the most prolific writer of his generation in Guatemala and one of the most important contemporary writers in Latin America. Yet although the Ministry of Culture granted him the National Literature Prize in 2004, his work has received more critical attention abroad than in his native land. Like no other Guatemalan, his work receives constant attention in international publications such as Spain’s Babelia, Mexico’s Letras Libres or France’s Magazine Littéraire.

Rey Rosa comes from a wealthy family involved in the industrial sector. He was educated in the elite Jesuit Liceo Javier in Guatemala City, and then went on to study film in New York and writing with Paul Bowles in Morocco. Since then, he has drifted, back and forth, from Guatemala to New York, from Spain to Morocco, from Paris to India. This article traces his enigmatic path to offer a panoramic of his work from The Beggar’s Knife (1986) to Caballeriza / The Stable (2006).

Strange Tales: The Beginning (1982-1992)

The Beggar’s Knife was originally subtitled “24 strange tales” in the English translation by Paul Bowles, published by City Lights Books in 1985. This collection of short stories was originally written in Spanish and was published a year later in their original language in a Guatemala that was returning to democracy.

In its Spanish version, The Beggar’s Knife was composed of 25 intense and enigmatic short stories. It included “The Path Doubles Back” which, at seven pages, was the longest. Rarely in Guatemala’s literary history (probably since Asturias’ Legends of Guatemala) has a writer’s debut entailed such a promise. Rey Rosa’s first book was evidence of a mature and new style of writing.

The fantastic tendency and the precise and macabre style in The Beggar’s Knife immediately distanced Rey Rosa from the rest of Guatemalan writers, who persevered with a literal realism to address the armed conflict and social disparities. Rey Rosa’s tales seemed eager to capture “the possible activity of the unconscious”, in the author’s own words, uncanny events that occurred on the boundary between dreams and reality. However, given Guatemala’s sociopolitical reality at the time, the tales were plagued by acts of vengeance, threats of parricide, nightmares and violent deaths. The narratives, “like the tricks of a magician”, were a mixture of the magical and the perverse.

Dust on her Tongue, Rey Rosa’s second book, was published in London in 1989 (a year later in Guatemala). It was a collection of short stories, also translated by Paul Bowles. “People of the Head”, the longest, was 14 pages long. Most of these stories – “Dust on her Tongue”, “Still Water”, “Coralia”, “The Pagan” – were nine pages long. Again, the tales were a mixture of vengeance, magic spells and transmutations. Dust on her Tongue consolidated the sober and enigmatic writing style, filled with allegorical violence, that began in The Beggar’s Knife. To read these stories was like, in Rey Rosa’s words, “to catch a feeling – like a blow to the head – of unreality”.

The Pelcary Project, published in Guatemala and London in 1991, could be either a long short story or a novella. Translated by Bowles, the plot of The Pelcary Project is based on a questioning of the process of writing. It addresses the Guatemalan war metaphorically. Rey Rosa’s artistic narrative expressed the cultural and political unconscious that was repressed during the country’s civil war. The novella was divided in three parts: “The Foreword” and “The Epilogue” were written in the third person, while “The Pelcary Project”, the middle section and the most effective, was written in the first person, as a diary. This part revealed how writing, as individual resistance, could challenge the repressive mechanism of the State.

El salvador de buques / The Boat Saviour, published only in Spanish, is a tale of conspiracy that mixes science fiction and the civil war. The military career of Admiral Ordoñez is put at risk by a new law that establishes that “no military officer can be consider psychologically sound until proven so” (CA/SB, p. 53). Doctors Ponce and Fernández conspire against Admiral Ordoñez and fake the mysterious appearances of “a pamphlet activist of the abstract world” (CA/SB, p. 81). Doctor Fernández, the antagonist, has a personal relationship, maybe more, with Teo Carrera (a patient both beautiful and crazy) and Amalia, the wife of Ordoñez. Ordoñez discovers and deactivates the conspiracy, and regains the possibility of promotion. The Boat Savior is a very interesting allegory about the final days of the civil war which has been overlooked by the critics.

Sweet Violence and Complicated Retaliations (1994-96)

Lo que soñó Sebastián / Sebastián’s Dream, published in Barcelona in 1994, was Rey Rosa’s first novella with a tone of social realism which addressed corruption and ecological disaster. Sebastián, the protagonist, moves into a cabin, deep in the river territory of the Petén jungle. Besides being an intellectual retreat, La Ensenada, his property is a sanctuary of wildlife. However, the violence of the jungle dwellers undermine Sebastián’s purpose; particularly, the murder of Juventino Rios by the local hunter Roberto Cajal. Sebastián also plans to rescue the archeological site of Punta Caracol and to denounce state’s repressive agents, who murder Constantino Paz. Sebastián’s Dream is a solid novella that explores the “sweet innocence and brutal cruelty” which gives “its collective personality” to the Petén jungle.

The Good Cripple, published in Madrid in 1996, was translated into English by Esther Allen and published in New York in 2004. It is Rey Rosa’s only book not translated by Paul Bowles into English so far. The Good Cripple offers an excellent portrait of Guatemala’s social violence during the 1990s. Juan Luis Luna is kidnapped by his former high school friends, who chop off his left foot and plan to murder him, even if Luna’s family pays the ransom. Luna survives and flees Guatemala trying to forget the event. In Morocco, he runs into one of his kidnappers and begins to plot revenge. Written in a tone of social realism, the novella seems like a detective story. It takes place in Guatemala, Morocco and Quetzaltenango.

Que me maten si… /They’ll Dare to Murder Me If… was published in Guatemala in 1996 and has not been translated into English. It is the longest and most complex novella of Rey Rosa so far, and the only one that confronts directly the political moment in which it was written. With multiple allusions to war and its context, it was the first novel written about the uncertainty of the postwar period. It was actually published the same month that the Peace Agreements were signed. The narrator addresses one of the problems facing those in power: “More than the cruel activities of war, life was only a series of empty and meaningless ceremonies… perhaps that type of social order was an illusion but it was enough to function as a reference in the lives of men” (QMS, p. 21).

Regardless of its evident tone of social commitment (“now I know that I must accept much of the responsibility of what happened here… Especially what happened to the indigenous”), the narration reflects on the writing process as The Pelcary Project did. Pedro Morán, a retired military officer, suspected of murders and drug trafficking, is the antagonist of Emilia, an anthropology student who serves as the translator of an English writer, possibly a spy. They’ll Dare to Murder Me If… is set in Guatemala City, Quiche, Izabal, London and Paris, and it’s about “a complicated revenge” (QMS, p. 140).

Foreign Tales: New York, Morocco, India (1998-2001)

It seems that after his immersion in the reality of the country, Rodrigo Rey Rosa decided to put some distance between himself and Guatemala. Ningún lugar sagrado / No Sacred Place, published in 1998 and not yet translated into English, is a collection of nine short stories set in New York. “Chef”, “Poco Loco”, “Business for the Millennium”, the eccentric “Video”, “Coincidences” and “The Girl I Never Had” describe aspects of daily life in New York. However, “To A Certain Degree” and “No Sacred Place” use New York as counterpoint to Guatemala.

The short story “Ningún lugar sagrado” is relevant in many ways. It is a monologue that registers in a precise and eloquent manner the delirium of having to live through Guatemala’s situation as a trauma (“too depressing, too sombre”) which not even distance can heal. Apart from the self-references, the allusions to the murder of Bishop Gerardi and a certain parody of psychoanalysis, “No Sacred Place” has an effective dose of paranoia which turns into a remarkable short story about the “political unconscious” of Guatemala.

The novella La orilla africana / The African Shore was published in 1999 and has not been translated to English. It is the least Guatemalan of Rey Rosa’s novellas and, arguably, his best. In many senses, the narrative in The African Shore follows the orientalist view (in the Said manner) in the Guatemalan tradition (started by Enrique Gómez Carrillo), and is shaped by the Arab and Muslim presence. Set in Tangiers (“from which one could see, in the distance, the Djebel Musa, the pale Hercules column rendered on the African shore”), the main character is a Colombian, Angel Tejedor, and an owl. However, the precise, minimalist and telegraphic style of Rey Rosa is the true protagonist of this novel, based on the simple fable of a man who lingers in Tangiers and the wounded owl he seeks to heal.

El tren a Travancore: Cartas Indias / Train to Travancore: Indian Letters is an epistolary novel, self-referred, about a commissioned trip to India. The tone is picaresque and the plot closer to parody than irony. The story is less to do with India and more with the process of a writer who tries to re-establish communication with his parents, godson, girlfriend, editor and a strange character simply called XX.

The Return to Guatemala (2001-07)

The novella Noche de Piedras / Night of Stones, published in Guatemala in 2001, offers a cynical view of Guatemala City (“the most beautiful country, the ugliest people”). Night of Stones takes place in a single day, The Day of the Army. A coffee grower and businessman Armando Fuentes runs over a European child, adopted anomalously by a Guatemalan couple. The event allows Rey Rosa to uncover a web of corruption that involves lawyers, reporters, police, private investigators, friends and family. As in the short story “No Sacred Place”, the protagonist and narrator is Joaquín Casasola, who warns the reader “here nothing is what it seems”, and who lives the country as a trauma.

The short story collection Otro zoo / Other Zoo was published in Guatemala in 2006. Some stories are set in Guatemala City and others in rural areas. Regardless of a few fantastic elements, the stories have a tone of social realism and linear plots. The style and the intrigue resemble the stories in Dust on Her Tongue.

The novella Caballeriza / The Stable was published in Barcelona and Guatemala in 2006. Like the Guatemalan novels of the early twentieth century, this is set in a finca on the south coast and, once again, deals with a complicated revenge. The Stable develops the Rey Rosa’s trademark elements: a precise syntactical structure, a simple plot that unfolds slowly, and a certain “orientalist” gaze.

Ronald Flores is a Guatemalan novelist. He is the author of Final Silence (Aflame, 2008) and has published five other novels, essays and short stories.

1. El cuchillo del mendigo. Guatemala: Publicaciones Vista, 1986. 76 pp.
The Path Doubles Back. Trans. Paul Bowles. New York: Red Ozier Press, 1982. 20 pp.
The Beggar’s Knife: Twenty four Strange Tales. Trans. Paul Bowles. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1985. 95 pp.
2. El agua quieta. Guatemala: Publicaciones Vista, 1990. 104 pp.
Dust on her Tongue. Trans. Paul Bowles. London: Owen, 1989. 75 pp.
Dust on her Tongue. Trans. Paul Bowles. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1992. 91 pp.
El cuchillo del mendigo/ Agua quieta. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1992. 158 pp.
3. Cárcel de árboles. Guatemala: Fundación Guatemalteca para las Letras, 1991. 74 pp.
The Pelcari Project. Trans. Paul Bowles. London, Owen, 1991. 72 pp.
4. El salvador de buques. Guatemala: Publicaciones Vista, 1993. 94 pp.
Cárcel de árboles/ El salvador de buques. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1992. 141 pp.
5. Lo que soñó Sebastián. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1994. 173 pp.
6. El cojo bueno. Madrid: Santillana, 1996. 124 pp.
El cojo bueno. San Salvador: DPI, 2005. 96 pp.
The Good Cripple. Trans. Esther Allen. New York: New Directions, 2004. 116 pp.
7. Que me maten si… Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1997. 127 pp.
Que me maten si… Guatemala: Del Pensativo, 1996. 150 pp.
8. Ningún lugar sagrado. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1998. 125 pp.
Ningún lugar sagrado. Guatemala: Piedra Santa, 2006. 168 pp.
9. La orilla africana. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1999. 159 pp.
10. El tren a Travancore (Cartas Indias). Barcelona: Mondadori, 2001. 137 pp.
11. Piedras encantadas. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2001. 128 pp.
Noche de piedras. Guatemala: Del Pensativo, 2002. 118 pp.
12. Otro zoo. Guatemala: Del Pensativo, 2005. 137 pp.
Otro zoo. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2007. 143 pp.
13. Caballeriza. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2006. 144 pp.
Caballeriza. Guatemala: Del Pensativo, 2006. 102 pp.