256 Pages; Print, $15.95
The elite are the ones who float comfortably on the surface of their country’s economic ocean, and in Guatemala, things are no different. The Mastermind tells the story of one such life, bringing into sharp focus the dilemma of being at once privileged, attractive, despicable, rudderless, and desperate.
Guillermo Rosensweig does not come from wealth, but he attains it. Coming of age in the 1980s, he decides he is not going to follow in the footsteps of his father, a German émigré who owns a lamp business. His goal is to be upper class in Guatemala City, study abroad, become a high-paid lawyer, live in a wealthy community, drive fancy cars, and have a wife and family, and many mistresses. He will achieve it.
Then he will lose everything. Loved ones will be assassinated. He will go into hiding. In revenge, he will plot his own murder. He will make a videotape for release after his death that lays the blame for it at the feet of Álvaro Colom Caballeros, president of Guatemala.
Does this story strain your imagination too much? It’s time to introduce Rodrigo Rosenberg (1960-2009), a Guatemalan lawyer whose life resembles Rosensweig’s life in many details, including a “facilitated” death that appeared to be staged, complete with a post-mortem accusatory video, “I Will Be Murdered.”
David Unger’s achievement is to bring this impossibly complex story into literature and to make it believable. The Mastermind teems with the pulse of daily life in the tropics: the sights and sounds, the smells and tastes. He takes millionaires, whores, provocateurs, hit men, bankers with deep pockets, and political agendas, and weaves them into a dazzling tapestry. What befalls those driven by hubris—the writing on the wall, a fall from the heights to the depths—are part of the pattern, the biblical tales of warning, the consequences that cannot be avoided.
We are accustomed to getting our diet of corruption, suicides, and political unrest via journalism. But reporting only has to hold the reader’s attention for two or three newspaper columns. Not so a novel. The writer has to persuade us to go the full length with him and in the company of someone we might not even wish to meet.
To make the reader care about Rosensweig, a man with questionable morals and inexcusable behavior, is no easy task. As a typical coddled youth, then an idealistic foreign student at Columbia University in New York, he is not unlikeable, but after Rosensweig marries and enters the legal profession, his life begins to lose its core. And he barely notices the tarnishing of his image.
His liaisons—his sexual appetite is incurable—turns him into an adept liar. He even falls in love with one of his women, who is the married daughter of his client, a board member of a prominent bank. His client discovers banking irregularities that point to money laundering. The bank has links to the president. His client reports his findings to his fellow board members. “Nothing is done directly in Guatemala. It is all subterfuge, behind smoke screens, curtains, clouds, blankets.” Suddenly, the lights go out on the Feydeau farce that has propelled Rosensweig’s life until now, and in its place appears a dark zone of corruption and criminality.
Enter Miguel Paredes. Intelligence expert. Arranger. Expediter. “In my line of business the question is never how or why something is done, but what it shows and how you can use it.” Rosensweig’s path to his Golgotha guatemalteca, his suicide revenge for the murder of his lover, moves at the speed of a man fleeing a tsunami. Rosensweig’s legal work made him a skilled arranger, but he can’t hold a candle to Paredes.
Or can he? The surprises awaiting the reader at the end of this novel will overturn everything one has thought about Rosensweig. He has been murdered. But the mastermind is still breathing. Who is he?
Unger is the poet of his complicated homeland and has produced a body of...