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May 27, 2017

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Guatemala novelist reaches out to ROC readers at book expo

TAIPEI -- Though separated by different languages and cultures, not to mention the vast Pacific Ocean, Taiwanese readers can get a glimpse into Guatemalan life through the works of David Unger.

At least that is what the distinguished Guatemalan-born, New York-based writer hopes, he said this month in Taipei.

One of the Central American country's major living writers, Unger joined numerous authors from all over the world at the annual Taipei International Book Exhibition, which concluded Feb. 10.

Ever since his 2004 debut with "Life in the Damn Tropics," Unger has used his novels to portray Guatemalan society and culture — and the struggles of people living in a country that the writer says is still plagued by violence and corruption.

In an interview with CNA last week, the writer said he hopes his novels can provoke his Guatemalan readers to reflect on the problems facing their country and readers in other countries to gain insights into Guatemala.

"I want to write books that force Guatemalans to look inside their own souls," said Unger, whose novels boldly cast a critical eye on the country's government, military and culture of bribery.

Unger believes that the use of humor is important in showing the "absurdity" of Guatemala in the 1980s, the midst of a decades-long civil war that left hundreds of thousands, many of them indigenous Mayans, dead or missing.

The time period is the backdrop for "Life in the Damn Tropics," which tells the story of a Jewish Guatemalan family dealing with a struggling business amidst a culture of corruption. The tragic story is told with comical overtones throughout.

"Through humor I think it sort of softens the pain," Unger said.

As for readers in Taiwan, Unger says he hopes his stories will be entertaining while also letting them learn about Guatemala's people and culture.

Although his family emigrated from Guatemala to the United States in 1955 when he was still a child, the 63-year-old said Guatemala remains the focus of his social and political interest and the drive behind his works.

"I think the obsession is related to the fact that some of the happiest moments of my childhood were lived in Guatemala," he said.

Unger only writes in and translates into English, but his books have a large following in Spanish-speaking countries. He attributes the popularity to what he calls an objective distance from the events of his home.

"Living in New York I think I have that privilege of being able to look at my country from a different perspective," he said.

Two of his other works, "The Price of Escape" and "In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful," are also about individuals confronting hardships, a favorite subject of the author.

His newly finished novel "The Mastermind," set in Guatemala in 2009, is about the mysterious death of a lawyer and the release of a video linking his death to the country's president.

Unger, the U.S. representative to the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico, praised Taiwan's participation in the Mexican fair last year, but suggested that Taiwan should bring its talented young writers to Mexico to meet the demands of a growing population of young readers.

Taiwan participated in the Guadalajara International Book Fair, second in size only to Germany's Frankfurt Book Fair, for the first time last year, with the hope of expanding its presence in the Spanish-language book market.

As for his advice to aspiring writers, Unger said it is important for writers to read extensively because it helps them learn how writers in different countries negotiate the same problems.

Writers need to be observant of their environment and have an interest in language, he advised.

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