‘Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,’ said Auden about Ostnia. I’ve spent the last week reading three books that invite tears – and speculation about that curious organ, the eye of the traveller. The traveller may come from antique lands or from modern ones: the essential is that he comes from, which distinguishes him from the pilgrim, who journeys towards, defined by his objective, as the traveller is defined by his origin. Or often undefined. There has been a tradition of English travellers who assume a certain air of mystery, a lack of candour about origins and motives: ‘I’ll ask the questions,’ said the traveller, knocking at the moonlit door. Usually, it was an ambiguity of sexual, social or national identity that drove the traveller: out of the social context, he or she could pass, pass for detached sightseers, concealing their natures and motives (all those cool detached retinas floating around the Med with secret agendas, usually looking for boys). The type has largely gone now. Technology progressed, the eye became a camera, or came out (as artificial eyes will), grew pinpoint pupils, or turned the other way or shut in sleep. The traveller of the Eighties explores the ever-interesting territory of himself, every man his own Patagonia.

My personal Patagonia is Guatemala. Perhaps I should enlarge on that. I’m not a traveller. I cross the North Atlantic rather frequently: but it’s hard to explain – without getting a well-merited poke in the eye from those who don’t have the frightful obligation of going to California in the winter, to New England for Thanksgiving – just how unstimulatingly contiguous English and US cities have become. Add a few graffiti, and the Heathrow Tube could prolong itself into the JFK Express, with only a bit of jet-lag to remind you of the ocean-hop in the middle: a yawn between Acton Town and Far Rockaway. And jet-lag’s an unreliable indicator: in a certain state of mind, now probably permanent, it’s hard to distinguish jet-lag from just living. (Nor will you learn anything useful, I have to tell you, from Hubertus Strughold’s Your Body Clock – ‘a book every intercontinental jet traveller must read’. You will learn in it how to minimise clock-shock on the way to Mars but not on the way to Mass. Though the book is dedicated to his wife, the only lunar periodicity that Dr Strughold can think of concerns female mosquitoes.

A jetlaggard is not a traveller: but when I do travel, it lasts. I spent a month on the tourist-track around India twenty years ago – and not a day since but I breathe that dust, taste the boiled buffalo milk, re-live the embarrassing conversations. I speak with the same usurped authority of North Africa (a week in Marrakesh in 1969), of Haiti (four days in ’67), of the Gulf (an hour’s stop-over on Qatar air-field), of Albania (no, but I’ve read some books and I’m well up in the strange death of Mehmet Shehu). Especially, I have become a Central America buff quite vicariously. I’ve been close (Yucatan, a much more safely exotic destination and it’s always there: Guatemala, heart of darkness just over the horizon, with the tallest temples, and the most unassimilated Indians and jungliest fauna and flora – the place where Mayan was not a tourist attraction but a curse. Somehow I managed never to get there, scared of getting eaten, raped, lost, mugged, imprisoned as a British or Gringo or Soviet agent; or, much more probably, falling down the steep temple steps at Tikal; or, still more probably, disgracing myself by acrophobic funk at the foot of what I had come to see, and being obliged to invent some unconvincing pretext, sudden overmastering tiredness, stomach cramps, drunkenness, poetic inspiration. This complicated cowardice has guarded me: Guatemala does seem among the worst places God and their occupants have made.

So I turned with some curiosity to see what Jonathan Maslow made of Guatemala.1 Jonathan Maslow is a pilgrim, not a traveller. He is not concerned either with hiding or displaying his character: that of a generous-minded, slightly callow Yankee ornithologist, a mild obsessive with a strong sense of timing and no instinct of self-protection whatever; he goes where the bird song calls him and reports his experiences with what seems like false naivety but may be the expression of genuine innocence. His previous book was a collection of random if passionate notes on owl sightings in various damply uncomfortable locations around New York City: it became something very different when Leonard Baskin chose to illustrate it. Baskin’s birds are ancient icons, drooping out of the trees under the weight of symbol and association, like political generals under the weight of their medals. Maslow must have begun to look at birds differently after that. But it was political reporting, which he does in a very ornithological manner, that took him to Central America. Here he acquired and nourished the ambition to hobnob with the last specimens of Pharomacrus mocinno, the Resplendent Quetzal, once a source of feathers and fable to the whole Mayan world, now driven into the diminishing havens of the damp mountain tops, just the sort of place Maslow likes too. Off he goes braving rain and bullets (or perhaps no more than rifle butts), Jonathan Livingston Quetzal himself.

General Rios Montt was Maslow’s unwilling host: among the less admirable in Guatemala’s appalling sequence of blood-suckers and blood-letters. Montt was an evangelical Christian of an obscure sect: his preferred method of evangelisation was terror. He committed the logical solecism all frightened dictators fall into: if all insurgents are Indians, then all Indians must be insurgents. The General uses the radio to announce the approach of Christ’s Kingdom: machine-gun nests are established in convenient locations to ensure its approach is unimpeded. ‘Some country we picked to go bird watching in,’ Maslow remarks.

The tyranny is not just a distraction incidental to bird-watching. The quetzal, Maslow convinces us, is a special victim of oppressors. The quetzal is the bird of freedom; it is a nahual, a totemic spirit (the word will be familiar to those who have accompanied Carlos Castaneda on his armchair pilgrimage after specious enlightenment); it is specifically non-European, non-Christian, non-responsive to the needs of intensive farming. Much of Maslow’s time is spent facing nothing more deadly than bureaucracy, discomfort and disgust. His patience is its own reward. Quetzals are few, but en route he sees plenty of zopilotes – vultures – doing the things vultures do to the unfortunate cadaver of Guatemala. Some painful ironies, some facile contrasts present themselves. He writes it all down with an unembarrassed directness, rather crudely: and out of it, unexpectedly, comes an extraordinarily telling travel book. Those random glimpses while his mind was – allegedly – on something else construct a memorable and horrifying map. Guatemala is glimpsed by the roadside, like a long bad traffic accident, a funeral procession seen in the driving-mirror when you yourself are on the way to a wedding.

Jonathan Maslow is not a lord of language: words obey him with reluctance, have to be kicked into place like reluctant peons, and sometimes they rebel. His style is a disconcerting blend of cliché, malapropism and vigour. Sometimes – but where was his editor? – he misuses words, saying ‘gargantuan’ when he means ‘gigantic’, ‘flak’ when he means ‘flack’, ‘schmoozing’ when he means ‘snoozing’; an official with whom he argues ‘chews this over with a condescending nod of touché’. Something seems to have gone awry, too, in the manufacture of this book. The story is awkward and ends abruptly, the cartography is sloppy, and above all there are no illustrations of the birds of whose beauties we are so often told. This is especially odd because he was teamed with a photographer for three-quarters of the book’s duration. Somewhere towards the end he stays on in a particularly damp and promising patch of forest while the photographer goes off somewhere else in quest of quetzal portraits. Maslow is at pains to stress that there was no quarrel between them: but there are no pictures, apart from a handsome dust-jacket design.

Maslow found town-dwellers so alienated they didn’t know their own addresses. The vultures look for the victims of state murder squads, but will settle for dogs at a pinch; the quetzal, the bird of freedom, is quitting the country because its environment is being sold, chopped down, flushed out, burnt by Indians, cleared by anti-terrorists, ripped off by rippers-off. The vultures are winning hands down. A professor of chemical engineering, one Mario Dary Rivera, is the book’s absent hero. He had the foresight to start a nature reserve; a few quetzals hang on there, but the man was gunned down in the streets; perhaps he offended a developer or a road-builder. Or perhaps in this dreadful country merely to imagine better things is to be dangerously subversive. In a murderous time, the conservationist is a threat to social ease.

If Maslow is the pilgrim, his grail a flash of green feather, Shiva Naipaul, who died in 1985, aged forty, was the quintessential traveller, defining himself anew each trip. Unfinished Journey is necessarily and sadly what it calls itself.2 Himself an Indian without any Indianness, an island boy with Continental manners, an expatriate by birth, he was alert to bogus self-identification. Australia sharpened his already lethal wit, as he observed the guilt-driven celebration by authoritarian whites of a bogus native culture; he deplored the Aborigines becoming part of pan-Africa; he refused to be convinced that ‘Third World’ meant anything; he drew a memorably discouraging portrait of Sri Lanka.

Grim though Sri Lanka may be, it doesn’t seem to match the horrors of Guatemala, the land of earthquake and massacre. Victor Maslow went there looking for birds, Victor Perera had the misfortune to be born there.3 There seems to be little to be said for either option. Perera displays the art of being Jewish under conditions of extreme difficulty. He is a bad-luck bird, a zopilote. His book raises acutely – as what does not, these days? – questions of facticity, truth-telling, veridicity. Autobiographies plainly do not need to be true: was one of the causes of Perera’s sister’s retreat into schizophrenia that she casually bit into a tamale (at the age of nine) and found a baby’s finger in it? Perera seizes me by my Jewish gaberdine and sets out to make my flesh creep: he wants you, in his offhand way, to believe him. And I, protestingly, want not to care whether it is so or not.

His story – like most Jewish writing in this century – is a bill of indictment against God. In view of the Accused’s previous convictions, it is necessary to pile up the outrage in order to hold the attention of the court. Does it seem improper that in the century of the Holocaust a survivor should complain about his fate? Maybe, but wait until you hear what happened to me, says Perera. Get this. He is circumcised twice; beaten half to death by his father for calling his mother putana; deprived of his nanny at an unsuitably early moment when she is stabbed to death by a jealous lover; subjected to taunts of ‘Christ-killer’ and sexual harassment by malignant or merely curious schoolfellows; falsely accused of writing obscene messages about Miss Chavez on the nursery-class blackboard; made to stand rigidly to attention whilst holding near his eye a green chili from which oozes a sap capable of blinding him; obliged to listen, while staying overnight at the house of his first school chum, to the noisy copulation of the chum’s black father, and, more embarrassing, to the chum’s father’s Ernesto Hemingway-style commentary (‘Woman, of course tonight. I say tonight yes. The little Jew is here and we will tonight’),

Things didn’t get better. Revolutions took place around him. Friends were killed, or became killers and the partisans of killers. The Perera family left for New York, too late to save their sanity. Each of the traumas is described almost deadpan, but there is always a phrase, a punch-line, that twists the knife:

Father took out on me a lifelong rage that evening. I still bear the scars from that strapping. But if he had not administered it I would have thought that much less of him as a father, and that much less of him as a man. That beating grew, with the years, to be one of the enduring bonds between us.

A novel posture, the macho schmendrick. The question of the sister remains, though it is one we would have preferred to ignore. She may not have been seriously affected by his urinating on her sleeping form when they were small: she may have been more directly affected by his habit of pretending that he was two brothers, a benign one and a wicked one – he would certainly have us think so. The last section of the book concerns Coco, who had to flee after the overthrow of the Arbenz Government (Guatemala’s brief leftist regime: that was when the USA invented the Contra) and who went mad and shot himself; and his cousin Henry, who became a rightist and died, perhaps murdered; the brutality of the survivors was hardly an unexpected response. Those to whom evil is done do evil in return, said middle Auden, and wished to unsay it later, preferring to concentrate on the saints. And those who do evil to one another will go on doing it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences