Sometimes literary inspiration can be elusive; sometimes it runs you over in the street. So it was with Roberto Moulun when, walking home from a restaurant in the Guatemalan village of Panimache, he was hit by a bicycle and then helped to his feet by a captivating woman who happened to work in the local bordello. She became La China, a prostitute who longs to be a muse—just one of the many beguiling characters in Moulun’s stellar collection of stories, The Iguana Speaks My Name.
Moulun’s fictionalized Panimache teems with prostitutes and priests, frustrated shopkeepers, dreamers and con men. It aspires to Spanish gentility and Catholic propriety, but its roots are in the folkways of Indian peasants. In the background, simmering like the semidormant volcanoes that loom on the horizon, is a brutal guerilla war. Panimache’s realities can be harsh but magical: Living there are shamans, spirits, seductive vampires and an ostracized Mayan girl who takes the shape of birds and animals. This lushly imaginative landscape garnered a rave review from Kirkus: “[Moulun’s] writing has a fablelike quality, featuring strong narratives linked to mythic themes, but it’s also full of social nuance and subtle psychological shadings.”
A classic late bloomer, Moulun discovered Panimache and his calling as a writer only when he retired to his native Guatemala after a career as a psychiatrist, much of it spent in Hawaii. The long wait proved to be a fertile incubation. His fiction is steeped in the atmospherics and lore of the Guatemalan countryside where he spent summers as a boy. His years in psychiatric practice exposed him, he recalls, “to a kaleidoscope of personalities and sufferings and ideologies” that made their way into his stories. He learned English, which he chooses to write in because it’s “a language of reflection, of compassion, where you can say what you feel in the fewest words.” He read John Steinbeck and Edgar Allen Poe, whose influence can be felt in Moulun’s combination of earthy naturalism with phantasmagoria.
These days, Moulun lives in the Mexican village of Ajijic on the shore Lake Chapala, another rustic spot where roosters crow loudly enough to register prominently on a phone call. The setting provided another spur to his creativity in the form of an expatriate writers’ community. After his stories won local literary prizes, they were spotted by Mikel Miller, an editor at Egret Books, who brought them out in the Iguana collection. The book has received glowing reviews online and in Mexican newspapers: The Unmasked Persona blog credited it with “the style and verve of performance poetry,” while El Ojo del Lago praised its “brilliantly colorful” fictive world and “deep-seated compassion for human vulnerability.” In addition to several successful readings, Miller says sales have been brisk.
Being featured in Kirkus’ Best Indie Books of 2012 and winning a Ben Franklin Award for Best First Book from the Independent Book Publishers Association hasn’t hurt. As he sets about spinning more Panimache stories, Moulun says the attention has been encouraging—and also a bit intimidating. “When you start writing a second book, you think, I hope I don’t spoil the first one.”