Published February 15, 1990
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“Guatemala is not a country for those who want the world to be neatly divisible into good and evil,” says Anthony Daniels after an exhaustive eight-month exploration of the country in 1987. “Perhaps such countries do not exist.”
That the second sentence seems to signal a tentative change of mind is a mark both of the author’s genuinely open-minded curiosity and of Guatemala’s seemingly unique power to confuse. Rather than the anti-establishment screed most Guatemala analysts seem to offer, the well-traveled Daniels leaves the country feeling he understands less about it than when he arrived: “In Guatemala, the lives and beliefs of half the population remain opaque and mysterious to the other half, let alone to complete outsiders.”
Over and over, he interviews Guatemalans he expects to dislike (protestant missionaries, communist ‘solidarity workers,’ politically ambitious revolutionary priests, army generals, ex-presidents) but finds them affable and usually sincere. “People were forever refusing to play the roles I had assigned to them,” he says. He spends weeks trying to navigate the contradictory reputations (plural) of Don Luis Arenas, a finca owner murdered by one of the myriad bands of communist revolutionaries, and finally realizes the man was “neither saint nor monster, but a man with the usual contradictory traits of humanity.”
The primary difference between the Guatemalan Army and the revolutionary bands, other than the obvious ideological ones, seems to be that the army carries out grand massacres of shocking, animalistic cruelty, while the revolutionaries mostly conduct their murders in a smaller-scale manner—attacking groups of recalcitrant Indians in the mountains, or administering a bullet to the head of one of their own members simply for questioning their likelihood of success. The army’s atrocities undoubtedly seem worse, but this seems merely the result of their present hold on power.
Adding to the confusion is the press’s one-sided presentation of the conflict, wherein the guerillas are, of course, heroes and the army the only obvious villain. International aid groups, for example, pedaled the story of a shocking massacre in the village of Paraxtut, which reached as high on the journalistic ladder as The New York Times but was in fact completely fabricated. Yet such massacres did indeed happen in other times and places. So why fabricate this one?
The book contains the usual adventurous tales we find in all of Daniels’ travel journals. He buys a truck and drives throughout Central America, giving lifts along the way to soldiers, local hitchhikers, Canadian communist students, and an unemployed Mexican doctor whose hidden communist literature puts Daniels in great danger while crossing the Honduran-Salvadoran border. He takes white-knuckle rides in tin-can airplanes into the Guatemalan mountains and investigates the army school that turns young Guatemalan men into mass killers. He also displays his willingness to not just view but participate in life at the bottom, visiting the mud-hut home of a poor peasant family, and spending a night on the bare floor of a remote border outpost, washing up in the river the next morning.
But the book’s most interesting sections concern the various Western (mostly American and Canadian) expatriates and ‘solidarity workers.’ Daniels’ characterizations of them are perceptive, witty, and often generous, though he concludes with a criticism of their absolute certainty in this of all countries:
It seemed to me that many visitors (I am not talking about simple tourists) deceived themselves as to their own motives and emotions. They used Guatemala as a kind of psychotherapy, but not to achieve self-knowledge; rather, the country was for them a Disneyland of horror, where the attraction was not delight but moral outrage. Problems at home—with marriages, with crime on the streets, with the meaninglessness that material comfort brings—were insoluble, but here in Guatemala, at least, it was possible to be on the side of the angels. … In Guatemala, one learns to mistrust lovers of humanity.
In this place where easy answers are hardest to come by, Daniels’ conclusions are really resignations, and he writes eloquently of the need to appreciate and find meaning in the world as it exists, in all its complexity, rather than letting the perfect be the enemy of the marginally acceptable. Admiring the beauty of a tree whose hollow trunk two nurses censoriously tell him is often used to hide the discarded bodies of murdered revolutionaries, Daniels writes, “If love of beauty is to be postponed until all is right with the world, surely we shall create only hell on earth.”