Tonight I went along to the first of two literary events that we have been invited to by the Guatemalan embassy: the launch in translation of Oswaldo Salazar's From the Darkness at Canning House , home of the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Council. (A very worthy organisation with a smart residence at No2 Belgrave Square.)
Salazar (pictured here at the left with his translator Gavin O'Toole) has created a fictional treatment of the story of Mauricia Hernández, a woman sentenced to death for the murder of her husband in late thirties Guatemala − back in the days when a single killing could still create a public scandal. The author cites the work of Michel Foucault as particularly influential in helping him structure this tale of a woman whose case was played out within the nation's rigid "structures of authority".
The man whose power intersected all these circles in 1939 was Jorge Ubico, a political leader with a reported fondness for executing convicted criminals in the very place they had committed their crimes. (During the Q&A session someone asked if the death penalty was used frequently today in Guatemala. Not really, Salazar replied, but someone in the room piped up that this was one reason why the 'anonymous' death sentence has become so popular out there.)
I bought a copy of the novel and had it signed, using the opportunity to tip the author off about The Menace of Guatemala. I also had a chat with the wife of a well known demi-Spanish academic (formerly of Oxford and now resident at Tufts in Boston) whose own book on the history of the Americas I had signed at Daunt Books back in 2003.
I dropped into the conversation my somewhat controversial notion that I would like to read (or indeed write) a book about Guatemala that isn't essentially an exercise in issue-tainment. Something with universal themes that could transcend the country's familiar niche as the seat of entrenched structures of authority and the dispiriting cruelties that they engender.
I have in mind something elegaic − the sort of story one can imagine whilst listening to Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. It wouldn't necessarily have to exist in a state of hopeless denial about the social realities of contemporary Guatemala. The 'darkness' would still be there, but over in the corner of the room, as in a David Lynch movie.
Italy is a messed-up sort of country, but Americans that go there end up wanting to become Italians. Americans that go to Guatemala generally don't end up wanting to become Chapines. This discrepancy alone is an open invitation to artistic exploration.