Better Not Go Saying Too Much: Eduardo Halfon on Literature, Paranoia, and Leaving Guatemala

Just after I published my first novel in Guatemala, in 2003, I had a beer with the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, who was living there at the time. We met at an old bar called El Establo. As soon as he saw me walk in, he raised his bottle of beer, congratulated me, smiled a crazyman’s smile, and then warned me to leave the country as soon as possible.

* * *

My entrance into the literary world had been both unexpected and unplanned. I was thirty-two years old and had never before published anything, anywhere. Not only did I know very little about the Guatemalan literary scene, I knew even less about Guatemala in general. I had left the country in 1981 — on the day of my tenth birthday — with my parents and brother and sister, had grown up in Florida and then studied engineering in North Carolina. At school, I was always the math kid. Never read books. Never even liked them. I finally returned to Guatemala in 1993, after spending more than twelve years in the United States, to a country I barely knew anymore, and with a minimal grasp of Spanish. I started working as an engineer in my father’s construction company and slowly began finding my way back into the country, and into my mother tongue — but always marred by an extreme sense of frustration or displacement, a sense of not belonging. Today I understand that this existential angst is more or less normal at that age, right after college, but back then I felt like a man without a country, without a language, without a profession (I was, quite literally, in my father’s), without a sense of who I was or what I was supposed to do. This lasted for the next five years, and only got worse. Until I finally decided to seek help. But my definition of help, being a rational and methodical engineer, was to look for answers not in psychology or even religion, but in philosophy. I went to one of the local universities, Universidad Rafael Landívar, and asked if I could enroll in a couple of philosophy courses, thinking that maybe there I’d find some kind of answer. But in Guatemala, as in much of Latin America, it’s a joint degree: Letras y Filosofía, Literature and Philosophy. If you want to study one, you have to study the other. And so I did. Within weeks I was smitten with literature. Within a year I had quit my job as an engineer and was living off of my savings and reading fiction full time, a book every one or two days, like some sort of literature junkie.

I wanted to write a story before I could write one good sentence.

A year later I started working at the university — as an assistant, then as a professor of literature — while at the same time I shyly, and secretly, started to write my first stories. All very bad, of course, very poorly written. I wanted to write a story before I could write one good sentence. I didn’t yet understand that typing isn’t writing; that writing is much closer to music, to breathing, to walking on water. But I was hungry to learn, and I was lucky to find the right teachers, particularly two: Ernesto Loukota and Osvaldo Salazar, both philosophers and colleagues of mine at the university. Ernesto Loukota taught me the craft of language. He would ask me to write a line about something — a tree, a dog, a chair — and the following day we’d get together at the university and go over that line, its grammar and punctuation. He’d then assign me a line about something else for the next day. And so on. Only one line, every single day. Like our own daily zen ritual. It was at least a month before he allowed me to write two lines. Osvaldo Salazar taught to me be my own reader. Every so often, I’d give him something I’d written and we’d study it together, take it apart, edit not its language, but its structure, its development and themes and overall content. If Ernesto Loukota taught me the craft of language, Osvaldo Salazar taught me how to be my own most demanding reader.

I was spending my days teaching, and reading books like some kind of addict, and learning to write as if my life depended on it (maybe my life did depend on it?), and before I knew what was happening I published my first novel. Just like that. Almost by accident. I stumbled onto books, and then fell into writing. But something was finally starting to make sense, about myself, about my country. And now I was being warned by a crazy Salvadoran writer that I should leave.

* * *

Guat collage

For the past century, Guatemalan writers have been writing, and dying, in exile. Miguel Ángel Asturias, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967, wrote his books about Guatemala while living in exile, in South America and Europe. He died in Paris, and is buried at Père Lachaise. The great short-story writer Augusto Monterroso, after being detained by the military forces of dictator Jorge Ubico, was forced to leave the country in 1944. He fled first to Chile, then to Mexico, where he lived the rest of his life, and where he wrote most of his stories, and where he’s now buried. Luis Cardoza y Aragón, arguably Guatemala’s most important poet of the last century, suffered a similar fate — he was also forced into exile in Mexico in the 1930s, where he wrote his poetry and where he, too, died. Guatemala’s greatest playwright, Carlos Solórzano, fled the country in 1939 — first to Germany, then to Mexico — and never returned. The writer Mario Payeras, a guerrilla commander in the 1970s, also wrote while exiled in Mexico, where he suddenly and mysteriously died (his remains were buried in a cemetery in the southwest of the country, but have since vanished). One of the most important Guatemalan novels of the last few decades, El Tiempo Principia en Xibalbá (Time Commences in Xibalbá), was written by the indigenous writer Luis de Lión, who in 1984 was kidnapped by military forces, tortured during twenty days, and then disappeared. His murder wasn’t confirmed until fifteen years later, in 1999, when his name and number appeared in the now infamous “Military Diary”, a haunting military document that secretly listed the fate of all the Guatemalans disappeared by the military forces between August of 1983 and March of 1985. Luis de Lión, born José Luís de León Díaz, is number 135. His novel was published posthumously, that most extreme of exiles.

* * *

Guatemalan writers, and Guatemalans in general, have lived for almost a century now in a climate of fear. If anyone dared to speak out, they either disappeared into exile, or disappeared literally. This fear is still prevalent, woven deep into the subconscious of the Guatemalan people, who over time have been taught to be silent. To not speak out. To not say or write words that might kill you.

Certain things in Guatemala are simply not spoken or written about.

The first consequence of this, of course, is overall silence. Certain things in Guatemala are simply not spoken or written about. The indigenous genocide in the 1980s. The extreme racism. The overwhelming number of women being murdered. The impossibility of land reform and redistribution of wealth. The close ties between the government and the drug cartels. Although these are all subjects that almost define the country itself, they are only discussed and commented in whispers, or from the outside. But a second and perhaps more dangerous consequence of a culture of silence is a type of self-censorship: when speaking or writing, one mustn’t say anything that puts oneself or one’s family in peril. The censoring becomes automatic, unconscious. Because the danger is very real. Although the days of dictators are now gone, the military is still powerful, and political and military murders are all too common.

How can a journalist be a journalist, then, if his or her life is at the mercy of the articles he or she writes? How can a novelist or a poet say anything truthful about their own people, about the social inequality, about the intolerable levels of racism and poverty, if their very life hangs on the words of those novels or poems? They can’t. The journalist can’t be a journalist. The novelist can’t allow him or herself to be truthful. And the poet simply ceases to be a poet. Unless, as recent history shows, and as I was told by a Salvadoran writer, they leave.

* * *

I started being followed. Or so I thought. It was a few months after my novel came out. At first I dismissed it as a coincidence, the black sedan always parked too close to my house, constantly appearing in my rearview mirror. But after a few days, coincidence gave way to paranoia, and I started doing all the things Guatemalans do in their normal, everyday psychotic state: frequently altering my route to work, avoiding dead-end streets and dark alleys, never driving alone at night (I have a friend who even bought a mannequin, and would sit it next to her in the passenger’s seat and pretend they were having a conversation as she drove). I also remember that one morning, during that time, while I was teaching at the university, a couple of guys just stood outside the classroom, and stared in at me through the window. They looked like thugs or maybe bodyguards. I went on teaching, trying my best to ignore them in the window, and after a few minutes they left. When I finished, I made sure to walk out with my students, in a group.

Days later, I was approached.

It was at a bookstore called Sophos. I was browsing some books on the table when an elderly man came over and introduced himself. He was dressed in a coat and tie. He said he had read my novel, and talked for a few minutes about his impressions. He then shook my hand again and, still holding on to it, said it had been a pleasure to meet me, that I should take care, be careful. I asked him careful about what. He just smiled politely and went on his way. I considered it strange, but didn’t give it much thought. Maybe he was just being nice? Maybe I misinterpreted his greeting (usted cuídese, you take care)? Anyway, I had almost forgotten about it until several weeks later, when I received a phone call.

The voice on the phone said that I didn’t know him, but that he was calling as a friend, to warn me about my enemies. What enemies? I had no enemies.

It was late at night. The voice on the phone said that I didn’t know him, but that he was calling as a friend, to warn me about my enemies. What enemies? I had no enemies. I’ve never had any enemies. He ignored me and chatted on and I couldn’t understand what he was referring to. Was it something I’d written in my novel? Something I’d said in one of the recent interviews? Some critical comment about the country, or its politics, or about Guatemalans in general? I suddenly got so nervous on the phone that I almost stopped paying attention. I barely heard what followed. And I’ve now forgotten most of what the man said. But I distinctly remember three things. One, thinking that his voice sounded familiar, as if I’d heard it somewhere before. Two, the sudden mention of my parents and siblings. And three, the last words he said to me: Mejor no andar hablando demasiado. Better not go saying too much. And then he hung up.

The next day I changed my cellphone number. I even changed my provider. But I started sleeping less. I lost weight. I now left my house only when absolutely necessary. I even cancelled two radio interviews I had scheduled, giving them some excuse about my work or my health. I had no idea what was going on, what I’d done or said or written about, but something was definitely going on. Or was it? And then, late one afternoon, someone showed up at my house.

Still today, for safety reasons, I can’t give too many details. But I knew him from before. So when I opened the front door and saw him standing there, I didn’t think anything of it. I did think it was weird, though, him showing up at my house. I knew him, but only casually. I hadn’t seen him in years. And he’d never before been to my place. He smiled and shook my hand and even said he was sorry to bother me at home. But he walked in without being asked, and immediately, as he sat down on one of the sofas, took out a big black gun and placed it loudly on the living room table. I was speechless. I sat down on the other sofa, across from him. And there the gun lay in all its metallic blackness, between us. He was wearing cowboy boots and a thick vest lined with pockets, like the ones used by photographers. He made some small talk, asked if I’d seen this friend or that, and then remained silent for a few seconds, which to me seemed liked minutes, before he started to talk about Hitler. I was lost. My head was reeling. I remember feeling the sweat rolling down my back. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the gun, although I was trying my best to be discreet and not stare at it. And he just kept talking about Hitler — to me, a Jew. He said that Hitler was one of his heroes. He said that Hitler was one of the greatest of men. He said that he admired how Hitler always knew exactly how to dispose of his enemies. He said that we should all learn from Hitler. He then asked me if I understood and I managed to stutter that I did and he grabbed his gun from the table, got up, and walked silently out of my house.

About the Author

Eduardo Halfon writes only in Spanish (except when he’s asked by Electric Literature to write a piece in English). He has published twelve books of fiction, of which The Polish Boxer and Monastery have been translated into English (Bellevue Literary Press). Although he’s been living in Nebraska for the last five years, where he rehabilitates diabetic cats, this fall he’ll be writer-in-residence at Baruch College, New York.

You can find all the essays from The Writing Life Around the World at Electric Literature.

Writing Life Around the World

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