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News & Features » April 2016 » Read an excerpt from The Mastermind by David Unger

Read an excerpt from The Mastermind by David Unger

Today we’re pleased to feature an excerpt from The Mastermind — the latest novel by David Unger — as well as a short statement from the author on writing the book.

Mastermind_currentDavid Unger: On Writing The Mastermind
Land of Eternal Spring

I decided to write The Mastermind for two reasons: 1) After publishing four novels treating different aspects of Guatemala’s history, I wanted to write a book that dealt with Guatemala’s contemporary reality; and 2) I was intrigued by the internationally reported 2009 Rosenberg case in which a lawyer makes a recording accusing Guatemala’s president of engineering his murder (see David Grann’s New Yorker story about it), though I was extremely dissatisfied by the popular notion that this event proved that “life is stranger than fiction.”

To a large extent, Guatemala is a clear example of a failed state. Murder, corruption, femicide, rape, and gang warfare are so rampant that many citizens have lost hope; this in a country with spectacular volcanoes, colonial cities, and first-rate Mayan ruins visited and enjoyed by nearly two million tourists a year. How can these two realities coexist? Is there such a thing as distinct parallel universes?

The Mastermind is both the love story of Guillermo Rosensweig and Maryam Khalil and an exploration of corruption and impunity in Guatemala. My intention was not to write a captivating thriller, but to reveal the inner mechanism of the corruption that can and does exist in Guatemala and in which there are various, morphing puppet-masters. I wanted readers to identify with the protagonists, but at the same time offer them varied readings and interpretations of what appeared to be happening. But most of all, I wanted to write a good, solid story incorporating unexpected twists, leaving readers more informed about themselves and the social and cultural complexity of a country not that different in many ways from the United States.


Prologue: Life in the Fog
by David Unger
from The Mastermind


When Guillermo Rosensweig wakes up his left cheek is pressed against the kitchen floor. A sliver of saliva curls out of his mouth, forming a sticky pool. He is butt-naked and his arms hug his shoes as if they are a lifesaver.

Blinking several times, he tries to recall why he’s on the floor. His mind registers nothing. With great effort, he raises his head—which weighs exactly thirteen pounds—and looks around for clues.

He draws a blank and drops his head back down to the floor. The sunlight drills into his eyes through a hole in the window. Judging by the ache in his body, he has probably passed out again. At least this time he managed to take off his shoes.

The phone rings.

“Jefe,” the voice says, with undisguised certainty.

“Say what?”

“Do you need some intervention?”

Oh, code-talking time. It’s his driver and bodyguard Braulio Perdomo: his shadow, his do-anything-you-want-me-to-do; actually, more like his common law wife at this point. Intervention is the code word if he’s been kidnapped, his car sequestered, someone is holding a gun to his head, or if his tires need air, or his stomach antacid.

“No, no, I’m fine. A little tired is all.”

“Swallow two raw eggs, with lemon and chile. It will lift the cruda.”

There’s a long silence, long enough to walk to the garita, chew the rag with the guard at the entrance to his gated community, and stroll back home. Before Guillermo can round up a reply, the chauffeur adds, laughing, “On Sunday morning such things are permitted. The raw eggs might even give you an erection.”

Guillermo obediently looks down at his mostly hidden pecker, sound asleep in its bed of hair, and then curses Braulio’s arrogance. Why had he accepted Miguel Paredes’s offer of Braulio’s protection? In a mere three week’s time, Braulio has managed to gain control of his employer.

But better to focus on the first clue: it’s Sunday morning. “Did I ask you to call me today?”

“It’s about tomorrow. You wanted me at nine, but I can’t get there before ten. My wife, she has a doctor’s appointment, and the children, you know, one of us has to take them to school, what with the violence—”

“There’s no school bus?”

“I guess you’ve forgotten that two were commandeered last week, held for ransom. Can’t chance it, jefe.”

“Please don’t call me jefe.”

“Whatever you say, Guillermo, but that doesn’t change things.”

What the fuck. “Ten is fine. But on the dot. With the car washed.”

“I washed it before leaving on Friday. Remember, jefe?”

Guillermo can actually see Braulio smirk. “So we’re set.”

“We are all set. Enjoy your Sunday,” Braulio chimes.

Yes, enjoy Sunday. Too scared to drive your own car to the supermarket, even though the BMW has bulletproof glass and sensors on the chassis; too suspicious of the gardener, the guards, the maid, your own up-till-now trustworthy chauffeur. Enjoy your Sunday. Things have degenerated fast.

In Guatemala, your own shit betrays you.

Guillermo pushes himself up and walks over to the sink. He opens the tap and slurps water like a guppy. Unpurified, it might sicken him, he knows, but something’s bound to kill him anyway. It’s only after the third mouthful that he realizes the water smells of dog puke and spits it out. No need to help the executioner.

He manages to stagger across the living room to his bedroom and fall facedown on the bed. If he could get one brain cylinder to fire up, he might force the cloud to lift in his mind and bring a brief moment of clarity. At least there’s hope for that.

He could call Maryam. She would know what to do. Then he remembers that she is dead, and is the reason he has lost the will to live.

His head pounds. He needs jugs of purified water and a handful of ibuprofen, but he’s nailed to his bed. Where are his clothes?

In the shower he could whistle “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and do what? Beat his shrunken meat, as Braulio often suggests? Go bicycling? Maybe jog to work?

What work? What day?

The cloud’s lifting and his dim brain begins to strategize.

He should stop these alcoholic binges. But for whom? For himself? Not for his wife and kids who left him for Mexico. Actually, his ex-wife and kids because Rosa Esther became his ex eighteen months ago, when he wouldn’t break off his relationship with that mierdita arabe—that “little Arab shit,” as Rosa Esther referred to Maryam. This was ancient history, back in the days when dinosaurs walked the earth and he was bewitchingly in love—with Maryam, that is, the one true love of his life.

Is this the way to refer to what happened? To his loss? Someone should pay. Someone will. Maybe he is ready to do what Miguel Paredes has asked him to do, and set the whole world aflame. What’s the point of living?

Guillermo closes his eyes, relaxes his body. Inhale three deep breaths, exhale through the mouth because your nose is clogged. Pranayama yoga. Dispel all thoughts and concentrate on the soft point of light issuing from the blue cloud of emptiness. If he does this for ten minutes every day he will unlock the door to the sanctum of tranquility where he can begin to reorganize his life.

Breathe in, breathe out, in and out. The road to nirvana. It’s that simple.

After only fifteen seconds, he opens his eyes, his mind wandering, his breath distorted. He turns on his back. The fan circulates above him, the lines on the ceiling becoming constellations he recognizes but cannot name.

He maneuvers across the mattress, swings his legs down, and sits at the edge of the bed. The German shepherd next door begins yodeling from the terrace. Bandits must be scaling the building walls or a zompopo circling and confusing the Aryan dog’s head. Arrrrrroooo. Arrrrroooo. If Guillermo had a gun, he’d blow tracers into the crevice between its lidded eyes. So long, Rin Tin Tin. Hasta la vista, baby.

Without the strength to sit, he falls back down on the bed. The breathing has helped. His mind’s perfectly clear now. He clasps his hands behind his head and lets a bemused smile form on his lips. His eyes close and he begins to recall the sweetness of life, when he fell in love with Rosa Esther because of the softness of her skin, and her devotion to the grandmother who raised her. Then there were Sunday lunches at Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua, weekend trips to Lake Atitlán. This was during the golden era of their matrimony, when Rosa Esther still believed she had married a good man—one foregoing dalliances, committed to her, to the Union Church, and of course to their children, Ilán and Andrea.

His eyes well up as he acknowledges his deceptions. He had become an expert in betrayal. All he’d needed to do was call home and say he was working late with an important client on a case so hush-hush he couldn’t whisper a word about it over the phone. Rosa Esther, who embodied trust, would believe him, releasing him to meet with Rebecca, Sofia, then Araceli, and finally Maryam, at the Best Western Stofella for a few hours of boozing and pounding the mattress and floor.

Johnnie Walker made him invincible. Two, sometimes three fucks an hour, the hotel manager often banging on the door because the neighboring guests complained of the commotion . . . fucking against the walls, down on the floor, on the bathroom sink, or in the tub when most guests were getting dressed for dinner in the Zona Viva.

With Maryam it had started the same way. She was the daughter of his client Ibrahim Khalil. Unlike Rosa Esther, she had a fierce and magnetic practical intelligence. And her beauty: her dark hair sparkling like ebony filigree, green eyes, and a mouth that turned down whenever she doubted what Guillermo was proclaiming—which was often. Maryam became the love of his life, and he willingly foreswore seeing other women to be exclusively with her. But how can you be with “the love of your life,” when you’re married, when she’s the married daughter of your best client, and when your social standing depends on being a good husband, father, and community model?

Here’s where his lawyerly thinking comes in handy. He has argued in civil case after civil case that while the law cannot be circumvented, circumstances, more than strict adherence to legal strictures, determines culpability or fiduciary responsibility. Similarly, the marriage contract is valid by decree, yet he can have girlfriends as long as he fulfills his marital, filial, and community responsibilities to the letter of the law. And why not? His affairs never hurt anyone. Moreover, Rosa Esther had begun denying him his conjugal rights.

And he swore fidelity to Maryam.

Guillermo opens his eyes and smiles at his cleverness. Guatemala is a country where allegiance to law, family, and religion matter equally, so church and state often agree. Every political leader speaks about maintaining the “social fabric.” Forty-four years of armed conflict can be neutralized by a document that insists on constitutional statutes which have never been even remotely upheld. The Peace Accords marked a return to social stability. Stability for whom? Soldiers ceding power to return to the barracks? Fractured Indian families with thousands of dead relatives reclaiming arable land near villages that no longer exist? Guerrillas laying down arms to attend trade schools where they can learn to fix cars or splice electrical wires? Drugged orphans foregoing their knives and guns to volunteer to feed paraplegics in medical centers throughout the country?

He turns his head to his night stand. The clock says eleven something. He should begin the day. He thinks: My life is wretched: I have nothing to live for. Even Braulio mocks me. Before Maryam was murdered with her father, she was going to leave her husband Samir to live with me. We were going to do a thousand things together—walk on beaches, climb volcanoes, stay in bed all day drinking and making love. All destroyed by a ball of fire. Since then I have lost clients like pearls unstrung from a necklace. My mother, and especially my father, would be ashamed of me. Rosa Esther is happy in Mexico City, far away from me, and my children no longer care if I live or die. Why should they?

Sweat like condensation on the walls of a cave breaks out on Guillermo’s face. As soon as he stands up, he feels dizzy and decides to crawl to the bathroom. His heart thumps wildly in his chest. When he reaches the toilet, his mouth opens and a stream of alcohol and all the bits of his cruel, undigested life pour into the white ceramic bowl.

It’s approaching noon on no particular Sunday. When is he going to stop abusing himself until he passes out?

From somewhere outside the building he hears a group of kids singing “Humpty Dumpty” in English. It makes him want to cry.

He vomits again, trembling, assured that this is the time for all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put his life together again.

It might be too late. The knot in his stomach is unrelenting. His whole body is trembling as he feels a wrench tightening in his gut. He vomits one more time and then howls.

He won’t fight it any more. He will do exactly what Miguel Paredes wants him to do, even if that means he won’t be around to watch the world explode.

Let the fun begin.


Muestra de libro UNACH 2013


Guatemalan novelist DAVID UNGER was awarded his country’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature in 2014, despite writing exclusively in English. He is the author of the novels The Price of Escape and Life in the Damn Tropics. His short stories and essays have appeared in Words Without Borders,Guernica, KGBBarLit, and Playboy Mexico. He has translated fourteen books from Spanish into English. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Mastermind is his latest novel.

Posted: Apr 12, 2016

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