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Through the Eyes of Rey Rosa: Considered one of the best Central American writers and master of enigmatic and precise prose, Rodrigo Rey Rosa captivates readers with his acute vision of everyday life and violence, while skillfully portraying the real ity of his native Guatemala.

A woman steals books in front of the adoring eyes of the shop owner. A scorpion falls from the roof of a house and is subjected to human cruelty. A writer in Madras pens deceptive letters that offer a blurry image of the city and the possibility of travel. A father cares for a daughter who has four months left to live in the phantasmal city of New York. A boy kills a canary to test the existence of God.

These are some of the stories that have come from the imagination of Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa who, with a surgeon's precision, writes with equal mastery about violence in Guatemala, small everyday disasters, and the endangered jungle.

Born in 1958, Rey Rosa dropped out of medical school in order to travel and write. In fact, he says that travelling helped him to begin to take writing seriously at the age of eighteen. He studied film-making in New York for a time and then went to Morocco to attend a literary workshop with famous North American writer Paul Bowles who later became his mentor and translator.

The experience of travel has been fundamental in his life and his writings. He has spent periods of time in Morocco, Spain, and New York and has also gotten away from it all to write in the midst of nature in Guatemala. Rey Rosa says: "For me, travelling represents both happiness and rebellion; it's a defense of the goal of not belonging. For me, trying 'not to belong' is an adventure--a very happy adventure." In his novel, Train to Travancore--part of a project in which Random House Mondadori sent seven Latin American writers to seven cities of the world to write--Rey Rosa seems to laugh at the experience of travel. Or perhaps he develops it with a new eye that disarms the romantic epistolary novels of old-time travelers in order to bring the reader face to face with the unvarnished realities of lies and money.

In addition to being a writer, Rey Rosa has also directed films. In 2004, he presented an adaptation of his novel What Sebastian Dreamt at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie, which goes by the same name, is a story about a young man who has inherited land in the jungle and quickly finds himself embroiled in a world of senseless violence, trade in counterfeit Maya artifacts, and the mysteries of nature. His movie gives surprisingly detailed attention to nature and wildlife, with lengthy nature scenes that serve as a counterpoint to the main character's story. This detailed attention to nature is uncommon in writers of his generation.

Chilean writer Roberto Bolano says that reading Rey Rosa helps you to learn to write and that his writings are also "an invitation to the pure pleasure of letting yourself be pulled into sinister and fantastic stories."

In Rey Rosa's most recent novel, Severina, a bookstore owner falls hopelessly in love with a woman who is stealing books from his shop. With a beautiful economy of words (the story is only 104 pages long) Rey Rosa exposes the fears and anxieties of a man immersed in an ordinary, unsurprising life who finds a new way of understanding the world through the thievery and wanderings of the mysterious Severina.

From his experience in the Arab world, Rey Rosa says he came to admire the simple narrative of the Arab oral tradition. His interest in developing precise, unpretentious writing is also something he learned from his protege Paul Bowles. In the same vein, Rey Rosa does not have high regard for magic realism, writing it off as a style that "puts me to sleep." He sees story-telling as a basic need--both for himself as an author and for society in general--because for better or worse, we are always telling each other stories. But while his style may be simple, that doesn't mean it takes less work. "A piece that is easy to read is achieved through a lot of difficult writing," he says.

Rey Rosa recognizes that he has also been profoundly influenced by the work of Jorge Luis Borges who he pays homage to, in a sense, with the bookstore romance of his latest novel. But Borges' influence is also evident in the important role that dreams play in most of his works.

Rey Rosa has received many awards including the prestigious Miguel Angel Asturias National Award in 2005. And he was part of creating the Batz Award for Indigenous Literature to promote indigenous voices in the region. He has also been an outstanding translator, both of Bowles and of other writers like Norman Lewis and Paul Leauteaud.


Literary critics have emphasized Rey Rosa's simple unadorned prose. Far from the baroque narrative that characterizes other Latin American works, his writing is fresh voice on the scene. Academia, for its part, has appreciated his particular descriptions of violence, which comes across not only as political violence, but also moral and spiritual violence. In fact, violence permeates most of Rey Rosa's work. It is manifested in the sordid genetic experiments of Carcel de arboles (Jail of Trees) and is only slightly disguised in the cruelty of children in stories like The Rain and Other Children and The Proof.

His portrait of Guatemala is sharp, from echoes of the violence that the jungle itself is experiencing (always described with sumptuous beauty and quickly on its way to disappearance) to politically motivated kidnappings and the dangerous possibilities of revenge. His novels are a walk through oppressive environments that often leave characters incapable of taking their destiny into their own hands. Rey Rosa says: "Institutional violence is a projection of general human violence. I believe we are a violent species, and I fear that if we look at it closely we will see that the history of humanity is more a history of its wars than of its artistic achievements."

But Guatemala is not the only setting for his fiction. Rey Rosa's cosmopolitan pen often leaves Latin America for the fascinating backdrops of New York, the mysteries of India, and the possibilities of Africa, always with an eye open to the repercussions of lurking, senseless violence.

Rey Rosa definitely does not see through rose-colored glasses, but that hasn't kept him from becoming one of the most outstanding and admired voices of Central American literature. Neither does it keep us from the true and necessary pleasure of seeking out each of his latest works.

Chilean writer Maria Jose Navia is currently working on her doctorate in Literature and Cultural Studies at Georgetown University. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Navia, Maria Jose
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:May 1, 2012
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