A Passage To Guatemala


Readers of literary fiction in America have coveted Latin American writers for years. Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño are even household names here. But when was the last time you heard about a great Guatemalan author? And more specifically, one who is Jewish?

Enter David Unger, author of the dark and riveting new novel, “The Price of Escape,” which follows a Jewish refugee who flees Nazi Germany and ends up in Guatemala. The story was inspired by the strange journey Unger’s own father.

“It’s very similar to the novel,” Unger said of his father’s story, as he sat on a bench on the Upper West Side. “He had an uncle [in Germany] who bought him a ticket when Hitler came to power and said, ‘Get out.’”

Much like David’s father Luis Unger, the novel’s protagonist doesn’t have much of a choice. In the novel, Samuel Berkow is 37 when his uncle essentially orders him to leave for Guatemala; the uncle’s son there will look after him. “Don’t you think I have a say in this?” Berkow says to his uncle. “I’m a grown man.”

Yet Berkow’s life in Germany until then has been a series of hapless failures. Serving in the German army during the First World War never made him the man he thought it would, and for the past 20-odd years he’s been floundering. “I don’t know,” Berkow’s uncle tells him, “maybe those six months in the sanatorium after the war took the life out of you.”

“The Price of Escape” is not only, or maybe not even, a Holocaust novel, however. Unger said it is fundamentally about a man learning to take responsibility for his life; it’s about a man growing up. Still, it charts the psychic toll of immigration, particularly for cultured European Jews who found themselves transplanted to exotic foreign lands.

“I wanted to focus on a character who tried to avoid demons in his life, then comes to the New World” where he thinks he can easily escape his past, Unger said. “But actually he has no idea what it’s like. He thinks he’s going to be whisked off [the ship he arrives on] and meet all these important people who say, ‘Look, a European has arrived!’ But that’s not what it’s like at all.”

Unger said his father’s story was only the inspiration for the novel — “I’ve used it as a springboard to tell a story that really has nothing to do with my father.” But the larger trajectory of Berkow’s life still resembles his father’s. When Luis Unger was 35, he fled Germany. It was 1933, the year Hitler came to power, and Luis’s uncle immediately bought him a steamship ticket to Guatemala, demanding he leave.

Luis’ uncle had a son there whohad arrived a few years earlier. But once Luis arrived, he met the woman who would become his wife and David’s mother, Fortuna Yahri, a Sephardic Jew whose father immigrated to Guatemala in 1920. Together, Luis and Fortuna ran a restaurant, La Casita, and eventually Yarhi gave birth to David in 1950.

Four years later, things changed drastically. In 1954 the American government was publicly claiming that Guatemala’s president, Jacobo Arbenz, was a Communist puppet. After months of threatening to invade, CIA-trained rebels toppled Arbenz. They established a pro-American government, though it didn’t last long, and the country descended into civil war.

Just a toddler, Unger remembers American jets dropping leaflets declaring Arbenz a Communist. “My parents got really freaked out about what was going on,” Unger said, and that same year, they moved the entire family to South Florida.

As in the novel, business interests played a central role in America’s involvement. The United Fruit Company owned large tracts of land in Guatemala, and key U.S. officials like Allen Dulles, the CIA director, were large shareholders. When Arbenz began distributing fallow swaths of the countryside to peasants, U.S. officials reportedly feared he was both inching towards Communism, and stealing potential corporate land.

“The Price of Escape” revolves around a critical United Fruit Company hub, the portside town of Puerto Barrios, where the company distributed its produce. And key characters offer a glimpse into history; an arrogant and bigoted American fruit company employee named Alfred Lewis, for instance, becomes Berkow’s lifeline.

“Alfred Lewis is a grotesque figure,” Unger said. “He’s a racist and a murderer, about as unsavory a character as you can imagine. But he befriends Samuel, and he gets him.” The author notes that both their whiteness and sense of cultural superiority enable their tenuous bond.

Unger remembered the feel of Puerto Barrios from a visit there 30-odd years ago. But it was his long-time experience with the island, and his knowledge of its history, that really informed the book’s subtler portrayals — the class distinctions, the worker exploitation, racism and even anti-Semitism.

Unger spent many of his teenage summers in Guatemala, and he still returns often. “I always go back to Guatemala,” he said, “and still have about 75 relatives living there and in El Salvador and Costa Rica now.”

Though Unger has lived in the United States for most of his life, he has an established readership in Guatemala. Yet in America he’s still not known — or at least not for his fiction. “I’ve known David through the New York literary circle for sometime,” said Johnny Temple, director of Akashic Books, a respected indie publisher in Brooklyn that published Unger’s novel. “His work as a translator is really impressive.”

Indeed, Unger is better known for his poetry translations. Much of his professional life has been dedicated to introducing prominent Latin American poets, like Nicanor Parra and Silvia Molina, to American readers. He has translated 16 poetry books into English and has been teaching translation at City College since the mid-’90s.

But Temple took a chance on Unger’s fiction. He said he was drawn to “The Price of Escape” — Unger’s second novel to appear in English, though he’s published three others in Spanish — because of the way it captured the acute sense of dislocation brought on by immigration. “It tackles head on what immigrants face, but especially what happened to Jews escaping World War II,” Temple said.

He added that his own father, a Jewish Londoner, left for the United States shortly after the city was bombed, and Unger’s book captured something of what it must have been like to abruptly change cultures: “It wasn’t this wonderful experience — ‘Welcome to the New World! The streets are paved with gold!’ Not at all. And that’s what ‘The Price of Escape’ is about.”

Unger, now 60, says that he did not consider himself a novelist until the last decade. But he speculates that the foreignness of his subjects — Jews, Guatemala — may in part be responsible for his slim American following.

“I don’t know if the Jewishness has anything to do with it,” he said, explaining that most readers probably do not expect Jewish protagonists in their Latin American fiction. “Maybe it’d be better if [I wrote about characters] who weren’t Jewish.”

But then he’d be gutting his fiction of one of its central features, said Paul Pines, a fellow novelist and translator of Latin American literature. Pines said of Unger’s fiction: “He describes beautifully the dislocation that is part of the Jewish experience and certainly in Latin America.” That both Unger and his characters are Latin American Jews, he added, “is the underlying principle that allows him to understand other cultures, to see them more clearly.”

Unger says that creating Jewish characters meshes with other things that intrigue him too: “I’ve always been interested in characters that are marginal, that are not particularly sympathetic but are interesting in their own way,” he said. When asked if Berkow in particular needed to be Jewish to convey those qualities, he answered, “That fact that he’s Jewish is seminal.”