Guatemalan Journey (1996) by Stephen Connely Benz, based on his experiences in the country as a Fulbright Scholar from 1988 to 1990, provides a relentless accurate view of Guatemala. Divided in two almost equal halves, “Guatemala City” and “Roads and Texts”, part narrative, part essay, this intense travel journal by Benz is able to capture the complete ironic predicament of a country that lives in a permanent effort to evade its reality.
As an outsider wandering through the beauty, the mystery and the misery of Guatemala, Benz provides an independent view, at times sarcastic, angry or even sad, but always precise and honest. His writing is not a simplistic, one-dimensional rant but a complex, well thought-out reflection, usually offering a historical perspective on conflictive or divisive issues. At looking at (or better yet, examining) Guatemala, Benz is also looking at his own country, and the paradoxical relationship between the two.
Even if I doubt that some of the situations happened exactly as described, such as the conversation about Menchu or over Election Night at the American Club, they were certainly possible, since we’ve all heard about or lived through similar situations. Some of his findings are hard to face but facing reality has never been easy.
However, after reading Benz’s observations, I can also say that facing Guatemala’s reality also has never been funnier. He has a special gift to capture the irony in every situation; bear in mind, that sometimes, as Jacinto Benavente coined, irony is smiling instead of crying when confronting grief.
Without the patronizing romanticism other foreign writers inject in their prose, this book offers insight into Guatemala’s history and day-to-day life at the end of the Twentieth century.
I would love to quote entire pages of this book, but the following paragraph, from “Arrival”, the opening chapter, will have to do:
“Over the years I had followed the desultory news and wondered at the horror that had befallen that picturesque country –one of the loveliest on earth according to even the most jaded travelers. Throughout the 1980s, dramatic events in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and then Panama stole the headlines coming out of Central America. One heard less and less about Guatemala, as though it had been cast down on the deepest circle in the Inferno of nations, a benighted land of unspeakable horror, whose very name was now synonymous with tyranny, repression, death squads, and massacres (p.12).”
Benz, Stephen Connely. Guatemalan Journey. USA: University of Texas Press, 1996. 212 p.