THE North American public envisions Guatemala as a land of striking physical beauty and of perpetual political strife, besieged by countless dictatorships and terrorized by human-rights violations.
Guatemalan writers also share in their collective literary imagination a vision of a troubled land - a nation divided between rich and poor, Indians and Mestizos, military and civilians. And the political turmoil within Guatemala has become a pervasive theme in Guatemalan literature. Miguel Angel Asturias led the way with his classic "El Senor Presidente," and a series of Guatemalan novels that depict the violence of authoritarian regimes in the country has followed.
Francisco Goldman, a talented writer of Guatemalan-American origin, shares with Asturias and other native writers a deep love for Guatemala, their land of turbulent political history. In his brilliantly crafted first novel, "The Long Night of White Chickens," Goldman captures with great skill and poetic beauty the history of Guatemala, the corruption caused by its military rule, and the terror resulting from the human-rights abuses committed there.
The novel takes place in the 1980s, during one of the country's most brutal dictatorships. The narrator, Roger Graetz, grew up in Boston with his Guatemalan mother and North American Jewish father. His mother employed a young Guatemalan orphan, Flor de Mayo Puac, as their household maid. During Roger's childhood, Flor de Mayo was a sister and a friend to him. She was later to become an obsession.
After growing up in the Graetz's household and finishing her studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Flor de Mayo returns to Guatemala City to run an orphanage. Years later, she is mysteriously murdered, and Roger goes to Guatemala to search for her assassin as well as for his own complex identity.
The reader experiences a journey into Roger's life, his childhood growing up in Boston as a Guatemalan, and the indifference of his mother, Mirabel, to the social injustices of her native land.
Mirabel and his grandmother Abuelita represent the Guatemalan elite or oligarchy: "... Abuelita's patriotism was as ebullient as her feeling for God and absolutely inseparable from it. There was a Guatemala that God approved of and all the other possibilities which He didn't. And the Guatemala He approved of had everything to do with Order: orderly progress that was possible through Order;..."
During Roger's search for Flor, the reader meets a variety of characters, such as the dignified journalist Moya, who also attempts to uncover the mystery of her death, and the sympathetic and yet distant North American consul, who advises against a Guatemalan funeral for Flor.
In the novel, Flor's death becomes a metaphor for the senseless political violence and corruption that wracks Guatemala. The truth of her death is never uncovered, yet the reader is haunted by the constant presence of her disappearance and assassination. Though dead, she is powerfully alive for Roger because, through her tragedy, he goes not only to his beloved Guatemala, but to himself.
Goldman is an eloquent narrator, and his novel has the ability to captivate the reader with its powerful descriptive voice. Yet, the thriller element with an almost detective subplot diminishes the overall quality of the narration and makes it at times too repetitive. Though sections of the book are longer than the plot actually warrants, "The Long Night of White Chickens" is a story worth reading - a tale that sensitively depicts the very best of human dignity and love.