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News & Features » February 2014 » David Unger Talk Guatemala City at Words Without Borders

David Unger Talk Guatemala City at Words Without Borders

David Unger, author of multiple books including The Price of Escape, recently spoke with Nathalie Handal at Words Without Borders about his experience of Guatemala City. From the interview:David Unger

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 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.

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.

To read the entire interview, please visit the Words Without Borders website.


DAVID UNGER was born in Guatemala City in 1950 and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Price of Escape (Akashic Books, 2011), Para mi, eres divina (Random House Mondadori, Mexico, 2011), Ni chicha, ni limonada (F & G Editores, Guatemala, 2009; Recorded Books, 2010), and Life in the Damn Tropics (Wisconsin University Press; Plaza y Janes, Mexico, 2004; Locus Press, Taiwan, 2007). He has translated sixteen books into English, including works by Nicanor Parra, Silvia Molina, Elena Garro, Barbara Jacobs, Mario Benedetti, and Rigoberta Menchu. He is considered one of Guatemala’s major living writers even though he writes exclusively in English.

Posted: Feb 18, 2014

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