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The City and the Writer: In Guatemala City with David Unger

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Guatemala City as you feel/see it?

The mood depends upon the social class that you occupy. For the upper-middle and the upper classes, life in Guatemala City can be euphoric: wonderful climate, inexpensive restaurants, the ability to hire the impoverished to cook, clean, and drive you around. The next vacation—abroad or to scenic Rio Dulce or Lake Atitlan—is just around the corner. For the class that serves the privileged, taking a bus, walking home, not being assaulted by narco gangs or just plain hoodlums is the day-to-day challenge. The overall mood is one of tension and insecurity, with the faint odor of something smoldering that shouldn’t be burning.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Guatemala City is the Heartbreak Hotel. 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. I thought my heart would burst.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Guatemala City is full of indigenous people who are struggling to survive: selling cloth, chewing gum, tamales, and cigarettes by the pack or the count, whatever. Citizens are in constant commerce with them, but rarely do they see their faces, imagine what their family lives are like: these are people with desires, hopes and dreams, no matter how many times they have been crushed. They are completely invisible except to the extent that they can offer someone a service. I find their absence to others to be astonishing.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Miguel Ángel Asturias, Monteforte Toledo, Rigoberta Menchú, Luis Cardoza y Aragon, the guerrilla poet Otto René Castillo. These writers are the sources for understanding Guatemala. There are other great writers who either write in English or have been amply translated—Francisco Goldman, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Augusto Monterroso—and are considered great writers who have contributed amply to the Latin American canon. I would cite other writers such as Denise Phe-Funchal, Carol Zardetto, Javier Mosquera, Victor Munoz who have not been translated but are wonderful writers that I enjoy reading, sadly, only in Spanish. I should also mention the prolific Eduardo Halfon. But Raúl Figueroa, the publisher of F y G Editores, and José Luis Perdomo, a great critic and all around gadfly, are the two people that contribute most to the intellectual life of Guatemala.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I love going downtown and sitting on a park bench in our Central Park (now called the Constitution Plaza) facing the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace (now the National Palace of Culture) or the stores of the Portal, a kind of arcade reminiscent of those in Bologna. I enjoy strolling up Sixth Avenue, now a pedestrian walkway, and visiting the old Pan American Hotel where I stayed a few times with my dad on trips back or going to the Fu Lu Sho Restaurant where my uncles would drink beer or Cuba Libres and rendezvous with women. When I see the façades of the Lux and Capitol movie houses and the old billiard halls I used to haunt with my brothers I am overcome with memories. Guatemalans invented a word “sextear” in the late sixties which meant walking up and down Sixth Avenue, checking out the opposite sex and looking into windows. My brothers and I were great at “sexteando.”

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I would say it is the Portalito, a 1940s bar on the Pasaje Rubio behind the Portal. It has great steel and leather stools, like in a fifties ice cream parlor, and lots of dark wood. Che Guevara used to drink there, as did Nobelist Miguel Angel Asturias. With my Guatemalan friends we go to the Europa Bar, also downtown: it’s a real dive despite its pretentious name—but the drinks are cheap, the chicken and fries adequate and no one bothers you. But the current gathering place is Sophos in Zone 10: it may be the most beautiful bookstore in all Latin America, with a wonderful restaurant and coffee bar to boot. There are thousands of titles, Guatemalan and foreign, architecture and poetry, the whole gamut.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Guatemala City is considered by many to be among the ugliest capital cities in Latin America. Hidden cities? I would say the Cementerio General (General Cemetery), with its pockmarked yellow walls. My grandmother is buried there, so are my cousin Abie and half a dozen other family members, all in the small Jewish sector. My mom, who is 95, has given us her sons the order that we must bury her there as well. I’m not much for cemeteries, but the history of Guatemala can be written by studying the official graveyards and the dozens of pits where tens of thousands of victims of our Armed Conflict (how we refer to the Civil War that took place from 1961-1996 when the Peace Accords were signed) were buried anonymously en masse.

Where does passion live here?

For passion visit El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua. Guatemala is much too proper. If you’re talking about passion to murder, then you’ve come to the right place!

What is the title of one of your works about Guatemala City and what inspired it exactly?

My first novel Life in the Damn Tropics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) takes place in Guatemala City in 1982-83 during the darkest days of the Armed Conflict. Many Guatemalans who have read the translation into Spanish have told me it is the best account written yet about the Conflict, as seen from the point of view of an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Guatemala City trying to navigate between the revolutionaries and the military. It is a funny, coarse, political novel about that era. I think it is a good window into the Guatemalan reality, which is constantly shifting and disappearing.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Guatemala City does an outside exist?”

Absolutely. Aside from the brilliant Señor Presidente by Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias, the best novels about Guatemala have been written by Guatemalans who have left the country and are looking in. I am thinking of Francisco Goldman’s The Long Night of White Chickens and Arturo Arias’s After the Bombs. The problem with Guatemala City is that it forms a huge unscalable wall around you: one defined by family obligations, fears, the price of doing business every day. Most Guatemalan writers have been unable to escape or look over the wall to write effectively about that world. Javier Mosquera has done it with his new novel Figuraciones; and there will be other voices, especially women writers, who in time will write books about the Guatemala City that does exist in the shadows away from the travel brochures and the hundreds of thousands of tourists.


Guatemalan-born David Unger is the author of numerous books: the children’s book La Casita (Mexico: CIDCLI, 2012); the novels Para Mi, Eres Divina (In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful, Mexico: Random House Mondadori, 2011), The Price of Escape (New York: Akashic Books, 2011), Ni chicha, ni limonada (Guatemala: F y G Editores, 2009) and Life in the Damn Tropics (Wisconsin University Press, 2004), which was translated into Spanish and Chinese. His short stories and essays have appeared in Make Magazine, Guernica Magazine, Letras Libres and Playboy Mexico, among others. He has translated the work of numerous authors namely Rigoberta Menchu, Elena Garro, Silvia Molina, Teresa Cardenas and Nicanor Parra. 

Published Jan 30, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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