Four years ago I shared five recommendations for books about Guatemala. At the time, a Guatemalan friend challenged me to consider why all of the authors were gringos. It was and is a valid question. Part of the answer, certainly, is that I really only read books in English, as do most of those who follow my reviews. The availability of books by Guatemalan authors available in English is, unfortunately, limited.
But some do exist. So now, on the occasion of a return visit to the country of my birth, I think it’s time to highlight a few of them. A warning: none of these are particularly suited for light bedtime reading.
Most notably, there’s the memoir (of sorts) by the Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Despite the controversy that has surrounded the book for the past 20 years, Menchu’s story still sheds light on recent Guatemalan history and the cultural dynamics of Guatemala’s indigenous and ladino populations.
For other first-hand accounts of the war, there’s Victor Montejo’s Testimony, which is short but brutal and graphically violent and not for the faint of heart. And there is Escaping the Fire, co-authored by Tomás Guzaro, a Mayan evangelical pastor whose story provides an important counterbalance to notions that there was only one bad side in the war.
The nod for investigative reporting goes to Francisco Goldman, whose book The Art of Political Murder zeroes in on the killing of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who led a church-based human rights investigation that led to a damning report issued just two days before his death in 1998.
Regarding fiction, the Pulitzer-winning reporter Héctor Tobar (whose book on the Chilean miners, by the way, is excellent) has a novel called The Tattooed Soldier, set in Los Angeles in 1992, featuring Guatemalans who have fled the country for varied and complicated reasons.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Miguel Ángel Asturias, one of the most famous Guatemalans of all time, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967. His novel The President was written intermittently in Paris in the 1920s-30s and, as the Nobel bio puts it, the book “slashed at the social evil and malignant corruption to which an insensitive dictator dooms his people.” Predictably, its contents landed Asturias in hot water with Guatemala’s then-strongman Jorge Ubico and was not published until 1946. By all accounts, it is a daunting, intense book and I have yet to read it, but I’ve brought it with me on this trip. So we’ll see.