The Country of Toó
Immersing yourself in the works of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa is never less than rewarding. Rey Rosa’s work translated into English has ranged in tone from the psychologically harrowing aftermath of a kidnapping (1996’s The Good Cripple) to 2011’s Severina, a story about one man’s obsession with an alluring book thief.
The Country of Toó is the latest of his books to be translated into English, this time by Stephen Henighan. It’s about a lot of things, including political corruption and reform; a young man’s surreal recovery from a traumatic injury; and the moral crisis faced by a man known only as the Cobra, who has begun to feel the strain of years of working as a hired gun. Tonally, the work shifts from realistic to dreamlike and back again; the result is a complex reckoning with histories both personal and national.
As a long admirer of Rey Rosa’s work, I caught up with him over a series of emails to learn more about this book—and the evolution of his writing as a whole.
Tobias Carroll (Rail): The earlier books of yours I've read in translation have shared a more surreal tone, while The Country of Toó (as well as Human Matter and even Chaos) seems more rooted in the contemporary moment. Has the relationship of your work to the contemporary world changed since you began writing fiction?
Rodrigo Rey Rosa: Indeed! I started writing fiction in 1979. Not only has the relationship of my work to the world changed; also the relationship between myself and my work has changed. And I think that the relationship between myself and myself has changed, too, if that makes any sense. I believe that in the long run the exercise of writing fiction or poetry—I’d say that fiction is a kind of poetry—changes the way we look at ourselves, and also at our work, and at the world.
Rail: You said your relationship with your work has changed over time. Are there any specific ways that you can point to?
Rey Rosa: I think that when I was starting to write I was more concerned with expressing myself—states of mind, fears, dreams—and therefore lent less attention to the world outside and its portrayal. This is no longer the case; it is quite the opposite now.
Rail: The Country of Toó has been described as your longest novel. Did that involve changing any of your working methods? Did you have a sense that it would be longer than your other books when you began work on it?
Rey Rosa: I had the sense that this text would be a novel, but I did not even start considering how long it might become. In the middle of writing—a month or so after I had started—I realized that I needed to learn more about the way Mayan communities are organized. I was not sure if a non-Mayan could become a member of one of these communities, for example. And I learned that this was possible, with a few prerequisites, the most important of these being to complete a term of communal work.
Rail: Beginning this novel by focusing on Jacobo's life struck me as a bold choice relative to the way that the book develops. What prompted you to choose that rather than beginning with the Cobra directly?
Rey Rosa: The actual writing began with the Cobra, as you point out. When I finished writing the story, I thought that through the child Jacobo it was possible to establish a wider and maybe more impartial or clear point of view as an introduction to the world I was portraying.
Rail: After Jacobo's accident, the narration refers to his world as "one of his own invention." Do you see that as a kind of direction to the reader to view the rest of the book as existing in a kind of heightened reality?
Rey Rosa: I think any work of fiction is an invitation to enter a kind of heightened reality, so I’d say yes.
Rail: Speaking more broadly, do you see The Country of Toó as a work of realism, or closer in tone to a fable—or something else entirely?
Rey Rosa: Could I answer “all of the above”? But mostly I look at this one as an experiment, as I look at my other books.
Rail: In what ways do you see this novel as an experiment? And does the nature of that experimentation differ substantially from the kinds of literary experimentation you've done in the past?
Rey Rosa: Before this book I had never written speculating about the near future in a realistic manner. The mix of real events in the contemporary world and a projection of a possible state of affairs a few years ahead was the main element in this experiment. Another one was the immersion of a “Ladino” character into an actual Mayan community as a way of escape, instead of migrating abroad. I had done this in a short story from the nineties, but in that case the Ladino did not seek to become an active member of the Mayan town where he sought refuge but remained an outsider. The choice of having this person become assimilated into a Mayan community made it necessary for me to learn a whole deal more about how a Mayan community functions. And learning this was the most valuable aspect for me, looking in retrospect.
Rail: Are there any challenges for you in terms of alluding to recent historical events for readers who may or may not be aware of it, depending on their location in the world or the attention they've paid to the region?
Rey Rosa: I think most writers from “marginal” countries like mine face the same crucial challenge. I am afraid some of my books have been—should I say burdened?—by the need to explain things about the background and the interior of my country to readers from other parts of the world, or merely from the capital, because people from the capital, the only real city in Guatemala, live in a separate reality to that of the Mayan or Xinca or Garífuna people in the countryside. A country like Guatemala, a country so small and at the same time so fractured and complex as Guatemala (where people speak twenty-two different languages besides Spanish) requires explanation also for most of the people who inhabit it, myself included. We hardly understand each other unless we make an effort to do so. A white or Ladino person from the capital is as foreign to a Mayan native of, say, Totonicapán, as a person from Utah might be.
Rail: You've worked with a number of English translators over the years. What was the process like of working with Stephen Henighan on this book? Did it differ significantly from your earlier work with translators?
Rey Rosa: I consider myself very lucky to have worked with Stephen, especially because he knows Guatemala well and he understands the complexities of that part of the world in the contemporary context better than other translators I have worked with.
Rail: How did animals factor into this book as a source of imagery? The Cobra's name is one example, but actual scorpions also show up a few times...
Rey Rosa: Animals appear in many of my stories. I enjoy looking at them and trying to see the world through their point of view. But maybe—I like to think now—factoring animals in, as you put it, is a tendency we have in Mesoamerica as part of our “Nahualistic” inheritance? You know, we all have an animal spirit who protects us and shares our fate.
Rail: Do you see The Country of Toó as having a religious element? Resurrection seems to be another motif that comes up repeatedly in the novel.
Rey Rosa: I’m glad you ask this question because the answer is yes. But when we hear the word “religious” we tend to think of the great, organized religions. I am not sure one can say the Mayan systems of belief constitute an “organized religion” in the sense in which we speak of the Catholic religion, for example. Maybe it would be more appropriate to speak of Mayan spirituality. “Nahualism,” as several types of Mesoamerican systems of belief are called, could be translated as “spiritualism.” The word nahual means something like “spirit” (chulel in some Mayan languages)—a force common to all existing things. And this is something I needed to touch upon while writing this novel. There is hardly any area of life in Mayan culture that does not entail a spiritual aspect. And yes, an underlying theme in this story is that of resurrection. Not only in the personal sense—as is the case of Polo, whom at some point we give up as dead—but also as the idea that a communal resurrection is an actual possibility. If one can speak of the “birth of a nation,” why not think of the re-birth of a nation?
Rail: One last question about the process of translation: have you found that different readers get different things from your books depending on the language in which they're reading them?
Rey Rosa: I think this must be true of any work in translation. Years ago I was invited to Japan for a series of talks with writers, students, and translators specializing in Spanish. I was very pleased to hear one of the translators say that he found that the kind of sentences I wrote were easy to put into Japanese because I seemed to look at the world, at nature in particular, in a way similar to that of the Japanese, and this was not true of other writers working in Spanish. I am not sure what he meant exactly, but I did like the idea. Shinto—the Japanese religion which involves worship of ancestors and nature spirits—and Nahualism have several ideas in common. There is an apparent link between “oriental” cultures and Mesoamerican ones. A prehistoric link, surely, but it seems to hold still.