Review: Monkey Boy- Francisco Goldman-336pp. Grove Press. £14.99.

“As centuries of dictators have known, an illiterate crowd is the easiest to rule; since the craft of reading cannot be untaught once it has been acquired, the second-best recourse is to limit its scope.”

— Alberto Manguel

Reading has a history. But how can we recover it?’

Robert Darnton

“For the desire to read, like all the other desires which distract our unhappy souls, is capable of analysis. It may be for good books, for bad books, or for in different books. But it is always despotic in its demands, and when it appears, at whatever hour of day or night, we must rise and slink off at its heels, only allowing ourselves to ask, as we desert the responsibilities and privileges of active life, one very important question — Why? Why, that is, this sudden passion for Pepys or Rimbaud? Why turn the house upside down to discover Macaulay’s Life and Letters? Why will nothing do except Beckford’s Thoughts on Hunting? Why demand first Disraeli’s novels and then Dr Bentley’s biography?

Virginia Woolf on Sir Thomas Browne

But who shall be the master? The writer or the reader?

 —Denis Diderot, Jacques le fataliste et son maître, 1796

“The Bishop Gerardi case, it showed Guatemalans that what they had thought was impossible and which usually is impossible could be done, that you could get justice for a crime like that in a country where – of complete impunity, where state crimes always go unpunished. And the courage of that prosecutor and the young people who investigated that day is like nothing I have ever seen or witnessed in my life. It is – it was the great honour of my life to be close to them and to work with them for so many years”.

Francisco Goldman

In our country, the truth has been twisted and silenced. Discovering the truth is painful, but it is, without doubt, a healthy and liberating action.

Msgr. Juan Gerardi, Never Again, xxiv.

In his book The History of Reading, the writer Alberto Manguel makes the following pertinent and insightful comment “We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function”.

I am sure Francisco Goldman would agree with that sentiment because his latest book is written in the spirit of that comment. Monkey Boy is not an orthodox autobiography. The author employers an alter ego, Francisco Goldberg, much like the writer Philip Roth and many others do to examine certain aspects of his or her life with great effect. This type of autobiographical novel should not be seen as a “dying genre” but is, in reality, a form of writing that seeks to make sense not only the life of a writer but their place in the world, and through his or her book, we can begin to understand our place in the world. A great man once said, “Art is the Cognition of Life.[1]

Goldman is fond of Marcel Proust, saying, “Proust wrote in his novel that a man, during the second half of his life, might become the reverse of who he was in the first.” The reader should take this on board when reading this book, and it is their first clue on how to approach this excellent book.

The real narrator of “Monkey Boy” is course, Francisco Goldman. Goldman mixes fiction and fact to great effect in this novel autobiography. He is a seriously gifted and thoughtful writer, and like all high-level works of literature, his book works on many different levels. Monkey Boy is an open dialogue with its readers. The book poses the question, “who shall be the master? The writer or the reader?

Goldman believes there should be a dialectical relationship between author and reader, and the reader for him is not just a passive bystander. Goldman does his utmost to de-mystify the writing process saying, “Sometimes people want to mystify where novels come from, but often novels come from the most obvious source, simply what the writer is most persistently thinking about”.

Goldman thinks about many things, and it is gratifying that in this age of instant gratification and the rise of inane videos produced by the TikTok generation, someone spends so much time trying to raise people’s intellectual level.

Childhood

By any stretch of the imagination, Goldman had a really bad childhood. He was the son of a Jewish father and a Guatemalan mother, and his early life was spent in the predominantly working-class area of Boston. The novel depicts his own experiences, including being physically assaulted by his dad and being physically and verbally abused at school.

The title of the book stems from these disturbing experiences. As Goldman explains, “I chose it as the title because part of the source of the book was that I wanted to go back and look at some very difficult years, my childhood and adolescence. You know, a couple of years ago, I had a fellowship at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, which brought me back up to Massachusetts for the first time in years. And I got together with some of my old high school friends, people who played on that sophomore football team that you read about in the book. And one of them laughed and said to me, oh, yeah, I remember now. Everybody used to say you look like a monkey. And it sort of came back to me there, you know, that how much of my childhood and youth had been sort of shaped by these kinds of nicknames, which, you know, we can interpret in so many different ways in the course of the book”.[2]

I suppose you could say that Goldman is lucky in one sense in that being such an outstanding writer, he has been able to understand his terrible childhood and, through writing about it, come to terms with it. Many people, including myself, are not that lucky. Not that I had a terrible childhood far from it, but I was on the receiving end of a bully at secondary school, much like most people are. The bully made children’s lives hell until he picked on the wrong guy who battered him. His bullying days were abruptly ended. The most perverse aspect of this story is that he tried to befriend me on Friends Reunited a long while back. I was tempted to meet him and give him another beating or hire someone bigger than me to do it, but I turned him down. I am, after all, a civilised human being.

This book is an easy read primarily because Goldman is such a good writer. But it would be a mistake to believe that this is an easy book to understand. While an uninformed reader would still get a lot out of the book, you need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the history and political situation in Latin America, particularly Guatemala, which is an important part of Goldman’s life.

Guatemala is a rich and beautiful country, but it is a hell hole for most of its people. It is one of the world’s unequal countries, with most of its people being socially and politically disenfranchised. As Angelina Godoy points out in her book,[3] “Guatemala has the seventh-highest degree of income inequality in the world, and the highest in Latin America … Some 83 per cent of the population – and 90 per cent of the indigenous population – lives in poverty. And although most Guatemalans are poor, regardless of their ethnicity, the socioeconomic exclusion of the country’s indigenous – mostly Mayan – majority by the ladino minority has led to an especially notable disconnect between the few fairer-skinned elites who control the bulk of the county’s resources and the mostly indigenous masses who toil in its fields and factories. Yet just as peasants often cultivate subsistence plots on the sides of volcanoes, the country’s social and economic structure is pitched atop these unstable relations of mass exclusion. Like the land that occasionally rumbles beneath Guatemala’s feet, the nation they have constructed atop this precarious social scaffolding has been prone to periodic eruptions of brutal violence”.

The Art of Political Murder

Goldman’s book, The Art of Political Murder, is a masterpiece of journalistic investigation and writing. Its writing and publication came close to getting him killed, and Goldman received several death threats. For much less, the Guatemalan death squads have killed many journalists and political figures.

“The Art Of Political Murder” is about the assassination of Juan Gerardi, a bishop and human rights activist. Goldman explains why he was killed “Because the army and the guerrillas in the peace accords – the army were the victors. The guerrillas were, you know, a very defeated force that was pulled into the peace accords and wanted to survive. They decided that there would be no accounting for the war’s crimes, a war in which 200,000 civilians have been killed, that there be complete amnesty. And Bishop Gerardi already knew that that was not the way forward, that a country cannot have peace with that kind of incredible crimes against humanity going unaddressed and unforgiven.[4]

This search for justice for the oppressed animates Goldman’s book. As he writes, ” There are many reasons I wanted to go back and write about this time in my life. One is I was thinking about, you know, the kinds of hierarchies I place on myself, right? Without a doubt, the – such a formative experience, the most formative period of my life, was the time I spent in my 20s covering the wars of Central America Guatemala, writing my first novel. But, you know, being so close to that, you know, was, in fact, a genocide, a terrible, terrible war. The way that that takes centrality in your life, every time you sit down to write, you think, well, you know, really, that is the key experience. I owe that yet again to go back there and find more meaning from that.[5]

The Art of Political Murder is now a documentary film showing on HBO. It has been produced by Academy Award winners George Clooney and Grant Heslov. I have included a discussion with the author and the director shown on Youtube. Goldman fully collaborated with this excellent documentary and said, “it is kind of amazing that a prosecutor had the guts and gumption to pursue the evidence. And they convicted three members of the military for the killing, and probably those who ordered it still were never brought to justice”.

According to Goldman, the exact figure of how many people were killed during this investigation is unknown. But at least ten potential witnesses were killed. The younger brother of the chief prosecution lawyer was found tortured and murdered in 2006. According to Goldman, “They had torn a leg off while he was still alive”.What worries you is that they can go after people close to you. My wife loved Guatemala, but I had to tell her: ‘You will never set foot there again”.

Goldman believes the Guatemalan elite is drenched in the blood of hundreds of thousands of people, along with its partner in crime, Yankee imperialism. Goldman is one of the few internationally recognised writers who has written about this genocide. The indigenous population has received hundreds of years of colonial and imperialist exploitation and death. Even today, 80 per cent live under the official poverty line. The plunder of Guatemala as a platform for cheap labour and natural resources by transnational corporations continues today. The country has been turned into a militarised concentration camp to benefit Guatemalan and American capitalism.

While the book is predominantly about Goldman coming to terms with the political choices, the book delves into a lot of his personal life. Many important women play a crucial role in his personal and political development. His mother, of course, plays a central role and numerous girlfriends, most of whom seem to be beautiful and a lot younger than Goldman. He seems to have an uncanny knack for attracting beautiful young women into his life. Goldman’s personal life is not without tragedy. Losing his wife Aura Estrada, who died in a bodysurfing accident in Mexico in 2007, was a devastating loss written about in the brutally honest book Say Her Name[6]. The book reminded me of Isabel Allende’s book about her daughter Paula.[7]

I fully recommend this book and hope it gets the wide audience it deserves. Let us hope Hollywood does a good job when it buys the rights. The book undoubtedly gives us a deep insight into this extremely rare and gifted writer. Perhaps more importantly, it gives you a political and historical understanding of the country that is a big part of who Goldman is.

Notes

Guatemala as a National Crime Scene: Femicide and Impunity in Contemporary U.S. Detective Novels Susana S. Martínez DePaul University, Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought, Vol. 3, Iss. 1 [2008], smartine@depaul.ed

“The Divine Husband and the Creation of a Transamericana Subject.” Latino Studies. Vol. 11, no. 2 (Summer): 190 – 207.

“Jewish characters, subalternity, and the rewriting of the foundational narrative in Francisco Goldman’s The Divine Husband,” presented at “Returning to Babel:Jewish Latin American Experiences and Representations,” University of Nebraska – Lincoln; April 19.

“Discovering Her: Gender and Truth in Francisco Goldman’s The Long Night ofWhite Chickens,” presented at the Latin American Studies Associate Annual Congress; May 24; Chicago, IL

Understanding Francisco Goldman (Understanding Contemporary American Literature) by Ariana E. Vigil (Author) Ariana E. Vigil is an associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of War Echoes: Gender and Militarisation in U.S. Latina/o Cultural Production. avigil@email.unc.edu

About the Author

Francisco Goldman is the author of Say Her Name (2011), winner of the Prix Femina Etranger, and of The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle 2014, was awarded the Premio Azul in Canada. His first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, was awarded the American Academy’s Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. His novels have been finalists for several prizes, including The Pen/Faulkner and the International IMPAC Dublin literary award. The Art of Political Murder won The Index on Censorship T.R. Fyvel Book Award and The WOLA/Duke Human Rights Book Award. In December 2020, the documentary film of that book will be shown on HBO. He has received a Cullman Center Fellowship, a Guggenheim, a Berlin Prize, and was a 2018-19 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He was awarded a 2018 PEN Mexico Award for Literary Excellence. He co-directs the Premio Aura Estrada and teaches one semester at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Believer, and numerous other publications. Monkey Boy, his latest novel, is out now from Grove Atlantic. Francisco lives with his wife Jove and their daughter Azalea in Mexico City.[8]


[1] https://mehring.com/product/art-as-the-cognition-of-life/

[2] https://www.kunr.org/2021-05-11/novelist-francisco-goldman-revisits-his-difficult-childhood-in-monkey-boy

[3] Popular Injustice: Violence, Community, and Law in Latin America Paperback – 15 May 2006 by Angelina Godoy

[4] https://www.kunr.org/2021-05-11/novelist-francisco-goldman-revisits-his-difficult-childhood-in-monkey-boy

[5]  https://www.kunr.org/2021-05-11/novelist-francisco-goldman-revisits-his-difficult-childhood-in-monkey-boy

[6] Say Her Name Hardcover – 1 Aug. 2011-by Francisco Goldman  (Author)

[7] The Aura Estrada Prize is awarded biannually with the intention of honouring aspiring female writers like Aura who are under 35, write in Spanish, and live in either Mexico or the United States.

[8] https://lithub.com/author/francisco-goldman.

For Michelle

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