Guatemala: Fascinating People in a Troubled Land

My one wish when I started looking for a book from Guatemala was that the book would have nothing to do with magical realism. I was lucky enough to find the wonderful Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood by Victor Perera, which is a memoir about growing up as a Jewish boy in the violent country of Guatemala in the 1940s.

Perera makes me want to experience what it was like in Guatemala back in the 40s. The first sentence was definitely not the reason: “I was not quite six when I was circumcised for the second time, because the first job, performed by a Gentile Doctor, was pronounced unclean by our new rabbi”. Honest and direct, I admire that.

Perera’s parents were born in Jerusalem. They moved to America in their twenties. The marriage was arranged, and as a matter of fact they were third cousins. Perera’s father never gave his son a satisfying explanation why they ended up in Guatemala.

Perera made a lot of quirky friends as a young boy, but it was hard for him growing up Jewish, and he was bullied at school. Many people made an impact on his young life, and he draws a colourful picture of them in his short biography. His uncle Mair was one of the people who made an everlasting impact. When Perera’s parents went to New York for a year, the children stayed with their uncle and aunt. Perera’s family moved to the U.S. for good in 1948, and by that time Perera’s father and uncle had many unsolved issues.

Life was not easy for Perera and the family; uncle and aunt lost their son, a friend committed suicide, Perera’s sister suffered from severe depression, and then there was of course the revolution. “On the rare occasions when I stepped into the street, I sniffed the anarchy in the air… Family vendettas turned into public shootouts and were blown up by the rumor mills into provincial “revolutions”.

I like the way the book is written. During a lifetime we all meet many different people, but most of us don’t write books honoring these people. Many of the people in the book lived peculiar lives, and definitely different from my own. Perera found friends in people who were leading lives he wasn’t even aware of, until he got to see a glimpse of their lives. I have to say that he knew so many interesting humans that I wish most of them would have a whole book written about them. At least we have Rites, and I think you should read it.

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