RITES: A Guatemalan Boyhood by Victor Perera

RITES: A Guatemalan Boyhood

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Through the prism of childhood, Perera limns impressionistic sketches of his family and friends as well as his fumbling attempts to understand his world as a Sephardic Jew in a Catholic country. His father, who owned a successful department store, occasionally beat him for childish infractions. Enigmatically, the final and near crippling beating (for calling his mother a whore) ""grew through the years to become one of the enduring bonds between us."" His mother's presence is fitful and amorphous, as is that of his beautiful younger sister, Becky--who showed few signs of the schizophrenia that later was to devastate her. His macho uncle and dashing aunt, who come from New York, are more vivid. The boy hero-worships the uncle; but finally decides it is his less flamboyant father to whom he owes allegiance. He has also learned that the uncle has been milking considerable money from the store's profits. As a Jew, Perera endures the inevitable schoolyard torments--usually instigated by Adrian, the class bully. Perera's mestizo friend, Edgar, whose tiny, two-bedroom home shelters three generations and 10 people, opens a yawning and bewildering gulf in values when Edgar casually mentions that his mother had allowed her first two children to die because they were girls--who ""don't really matter."" His bright and opportunistic friend, Coco, persuades him to march in support of the revolution that has overthrown the dictator, Frederico Ponce. Coco kills himself some years after Guatemalan democracy was destroyed by a CIA-sponsored military coup. Perera's right-wing cousin, Henry, may too have been a casualty of the civil war that is devastating Guatemala. He dies in a freak boating accident, possibly engineered by leftists. Perera, who moved with his parents to the US at age 12, returns several times to Guatemala as an adult, and observes the havoc wreaked by the political and social collapse. In 1981, he hosts a party for his surviving classmates at which his one-time tormentor, Adrian, rails drunkenly at the others, somehow epitomizing all that has gone wrong. A former New Yorker editor, Perera uses language with considerable elegance and evocativeness. He, however, lacks the near-total recall and vivid imagery of a Ved Mehta; and these vignettes come across as enigmatic, somewhat hazy watercolors: they stir our interest, but, in the long run, we don't know quite what to make of them.

Pub Date: June 4th, 1986
ISBN: 156279065X
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich