“The Mastermind”: An Act of Translation

by  text by David Unger  /  May 19, 2015  / 1 Comment

The streets of Antigua, Guatemala. Photo via Flickr user: Stefano Ravalli.

The Rodrigo Rosenberg case broke into public view over five years ago with an eighteen-minute video recording that was distributed to the Guatemalan press at Rosenberg’s funeral two days after his April 10, 2009, death. The video—in which Rosenberg predicted his own murder—was uploaded immediately to YouTube where it went viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of hits from all over the globe in a matter of hours. The recording revealed a nervous Rosenberg lambasting a corrupt and immoral Guatemalan government, adding, “If you are hearing or watching this recording it is because I was murdered by President Alvaro Colom.”

Colom did not help his case by deciding to dodge the press. Hours after the video broke, he sent two aides to speak to an assembly of reporters simply to deny Rosenberg’s accusations. When he finally gave a live interview on CNN thirty-six hours later, Colom wore a blue suit—curiously, the same color and cut as the suit worn by Rosenberg in his taped accusation—and blinked and stumbled over his words on camera, feebly claiming that the recording was part of a plot to “destabilize [his] government.” Colom was so unconvincing that calls for his resignation followed and there was a palpable fear that the military would overthrow a freely elected Guatemalan president for the nth time in fifty-five years. Within the week, Colom’s denials became more forceful, and he decided to allow Carlos Castresana, a former Spanish prosecutor and judge, to lead a UN international team of investigators to determine where the truth might lie.

Castresana’s investigation took more than seven months. In mid January of 2010 he gave a nationally televised address in which he exonerated the President and revealed how Rosenberg, consumed by grief over the accidental killing of his girlfriend Marjorie Musa, had plotted his own suicide by hiring hit men to murder him. As more details of Rodrigo’s death surfaced, most prominently in an article written by David Grann entitled “A Murder Foretold” that appeared in the April 4, 2011 New Yorker, the common assertion of readers was “that reality is stranger than fiction.” A few weeks after Grann’s essay was published, Chris Terrio, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for the film Argo, purchased the film rights to Grann’s article. In August of 2013, it was widely reported that Matt Damon had optioned Terrio’s screenplay and would be making his directorial debut with a film to be titled The Foreigner.

Supposedly, the film is under way, a coproduction of the Film Rites and Indian Paintbrush production companies, but a year later, no new news has surfaced. Still one might imagine a conspiratorial thriller on the drawing boards, with all the quick cuts, pyrotechnics, and foreshadowing, perhaps manipulative, music that filmgoers today have come to expect from blockbuster movies. Guatemala could be Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, or Indonesia, simply a landscape from which to develop an action film, even if by such respectable Hollywood talents as Terrio and Damon. Certainly the title already hints at disinformation or a fictional departure: there is nothing “foreign” about Rosenberg or any of the other characters in the story.


As a Guatemalan-born writer, it still surprises me that my homeland never makes the front page unless it is to report a massacre or something equally terrible. My childhood was affected by the country’s endemic violence—I lived through curfews, blackouts, machine-gun fire, and a war of nerves until the CIA achieved its goal and successfully overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. We lived above our restaurant, La Casita, just blocks from the National Palace, and though my parents had catered presidential dinners (and been paid handsomely in cash, my father proudly noted), they were not sympathetic to Arbenz, having fallen victim to the hysteria that claimed he was a rabid Communist and a murderer. More than once, my mother told me after the coup: “Davico, we saw the pictures of what he did as president: buckets filled with gouged eyes in the Prensa Libre.” I accepted her assessment until the day I posited as a teenager that perhaps they were cow eyes; my mother turned furious as she screamed at me, “You know nothing!”

As we now do know, though Arbenz bought arms from Czechoslovakia (after the US refused to provide them) and instituted a modest agrarian reform program (the government compensated the United Fruit Company for the fallow land it seized), he was no Communist. He was a democratic liberal who simply wanted to improve the lot of Guatemala’s Maya majority living in abject poverty and ended up facing successive, and increasingly aggressive, attacks until he was overthrown.


From the moment I saw Rosenberg’s confession on YouTube, I knew another chapter in Guatemala’s “never know what actually happened” history had begun. No one can understand what is going on in Guatemala: there’s a feeling that a handful of puppeteers, offstage or in some Army Central Command Post, are pulling the strings, and the spectacle being lived by millions of Guatemalans has been scripted by a crew of assassins or Madison Avenue types. If you have economic status you cheer the military and turn a blind eye to their crimes. If you’re disenfranchised, you don’t ever trust the press, and certainly not a military which has been implicated in the deaths of over 200,000 of your countrymen during the armed conflict that started in 1960 and lasted for thirty-six years.


For years I’ve wanted to write a novel that focused on Guatemala’s contemporary reality—all my previous fiction dealt with events and characters in the far past—and the events of 2009 offered me the opportunity to set a novel in the near present. My recently completed novel, The Mastermind, uses the Rosenberg case as a springboard to explore the mind and heart of Guatemalan characters not from a historical point of view, but by having them react to events and incidents as they occur in nonformulaic ways. What most interests me is to take a character that may seem unlikeable and consider ways he/she might develop and change in unexpected ways. I feel akin to the woodcarver Geppetto, who created Pinocchio but discovered, upon completing his task, that he had no control over him. The Guillermo Rosensweig that I created from the ashes of Rodrigo Rosenberg is the son of a lamp salesman and a typical middle-class Guatemalan housewife, angry at his lack of wealth and social mobility. He marries Rosa Esther, who bears him two children, but after he has dozens of affairs, his marriage falls apart. He is a passionate, self-centered man, a misogynist, who feels that because he considered both his parents failures, he can do and say what he wants now that he has money. He is proud of his own cleverness, and feels justified, almost entitled, to live the kind of life that he does. Then he meets Maryam Khalil, a Guatemalan of Lebanese extraction, the daughter of his client Ibrahim Khalil. She becomes the agent for his growth and change.


In preparing to write this novel, I confess that I did no research; in fact, I did everything I could to avoid reading about Rodrigo Rosenberg’s life—his actual family history, his motives, his passions. I didn’t want “reality” to contaminate my characters; in this way, I could avoid having to shoehorn them into the accepted version of the facts. Several friends, among them my publisher Raul Figueroa of F y G Editores and Guatemalan filmmaker Luis Argueta, mentioned that I might want to take a look at Roberto Oliva’s 2013 book Caso Rosenberg, una conspiración en Guatemala donde la realidad supera la ficcion (The Rosenberg Case, A Conspiracy in Guatemala Where Fact Trumps Fiction). I am certain that Oliva’s book is riveting and probably uncovers a good deal of new facts, but the titillating title alone frightened me off. In my novel, I wanted to explore issues of privilege and impunity, which is rampant in Guatemala. After all, Guatemala is a country where the sitting president, Otto Pérez Molina, was the director of military intelligence in the 1980s under Rios Montt, the ex-president who was found guilty in April 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity —the first former president in the world to be found guilty of this crime—and sentenced to eighty years in prison, even if that conviction was later overturned. It is shocking to me (and to thousands of Guatemalans) that people who clearly have blood on their hands can move about freely. But that’s the reality, a reality that is maddening, contradictory, but which informs day-to-day life in Guatemala.

I wanted to confront the complexity of the Guatemalan reality, of how a country of unimaginable beauty can become a failed state where lawlessness rules: a country where a young man cannot study without inciting one of the many neighborhood gangs to kill him in cold blood because he refuses to join them; where girls, no older than fourteen, are frequently raped on public buses and no one protests; and where 5,000 people are killed each year and 99% of these crimes go unsolved. This is the same country that is visited by over two million vacationers annually and whose tourist sites—Tikal, Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango—are of World Heritage caliber. How can these two realities exist in the same country?

The Mastermind will be controversial, particularly in Guatemala, because it audaciously plays with the facts and posits different outcomes. It is a novel that is historically inaccurate, aggressively so, and yet I believe it says more about my birth country than the Rosenberg case. It is a different experience when real characters are altered to conform to the truth of fiction and not to the truth of the reality. Without giving anything away, even the death of Marjorie Musa/Maryam Khalil and the suicide of Rosenberg/Rosensweig are changed and falsified in order to get closer to the heart of things, at least as I see them. Most importantly, The Mastermind reveals the social and cultural complexity of present-day Guatemala, without sacrificing character development, plot, and a good deal of intrigue.

The other night, at a presentation of his newly published The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle in Brooklyn, my fellow Guatemalan Francisco Goldman said that he wouldn’t touch the Rosenberg story because Rodrigo was so sordid—there were rumors that he inadvertently murdered his girlfriend when he killed her father, who opposed their relationship, and gossip about his sexual depravity—he was too perverse, too sick, too disgusting to portray. Francisco is correct: Rodrigo Rosenberg was perverse. In his passion to defraud his countrymen and divert the truth, even at the moment of facing his own death when a true accounting might have been possible, Rosenberg acted prototypically Guatemalan: evasive, deceptive, duplicitous, and self-righteous.

And this may explain why I created Guillermo Rosensweig, a man who realizes at the last minute that he won’t become another sacrificial lamb, complicit in the further destruction of Guatemala. The depiction of invented characters in real settings penetrates the layers of posturing and banal actions of ordinary human beings in a country where impunity rules and the truth, if it exists, is forever evanescing. It’s my hope that The Mastermind will not only entertain readers, but also contribute to the recovery of sanity in contemporary Guatemalan society.

This article was originally published in Words Without Borders‘ October 2014 Issue: New Writing From Guatemala. It is republished with permission from Words Without Borders.

One Comment on "“The Mastermind”: An Act of Translation"

  1. David Unger August 4, 2015 at 4:26 pm ·

    I wanted to thank Sampsonia Way for reproducing this essay which originally appeared in Words Without Borders. My novel El manipulador (Mexico: Editorial Planeta, 2015) is out now and the English original will be published by Akashic Books in April 2016. Un abrazo. David

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