Rodrigo Rey Rosa was born in Guatemala in 1958. After finishing his studies in his country, he lived in New York, and later in Tangier, Morocco. Rey Rosa has translated several books by Paul Bowles into Spanish, as well as the works of writers such as Norman Lewis, Paul Léauteaud, and François Augiéras. He is the author of several novels and short story collections, including The Beggar’s Knife, The Pelicari Project, The Good Cripple, Severina, and most recently, The Deaf.
McSWEENEY’S: We asked you for a story set in Guatemala. How much did you think about that, as you were working on this? Do you think a story like this can tell us something about a particular place, or a particular country?
RODRIGO REY ROSA: I’ve considered Guatemala an essentially criminal state for some time now. So, from the outset, the idea of writing a crime story set there was appealing to me. The challenge was deciding what type of crime to write about. There is so much crime here in Guatemala, and also so much variety.
McSWEENEY’S: Is there a Guatemalan author, or a particular Guatemalan book, or even a movie or a TV show, that you think takes on the crime genre particularly well?
RODRIGO REY ROSA: There’s a book about the case of a child killer named Miculax, which was published in the ‘80s. It’s curiously effective, despite the fact that the author is not very skillful, and his intentions are more documentary than literary. And then there are the books of Marco Antonio Flores, but his plots center on political struggles and guerrilla stories—so they are not completely crime stories, per se.
McSWEENEY’S: Your protagonist is a “hedonist,” and a poet, who ends up very far from home—how did you decide on that character?
RODRIGO REY ROSA: When I received notice that McSweeney’s wanted to commission a story from me, I was in the middle of working on a film project that had to do with (and still has to do with) this detention center supposedly dedicated to the rehabilitation of young people—and also politicians and judges—with psychological problems. One of the survivors of this program, which was called ASPREJO, told me a story about a young Honduran man who was detained there for a little less than a year, and who later escaped and killed his father and sister. The details of the young man and his escape in my story are fictitious, but the circumstances of his detention in the middle of the jungle, the fact that he escaped, and the tragic ending of his story are all true.
McSWEENEY’S: We know you’re working on another project about David Burden’s cult-like program, ASPREJO, which is featured in your story. Can you talk about what interests you about the ASPREJO program, and about David Burden, the man who founded it?
RODRIGO REY ROSA: The case of Dr. David Burden has, I think, a general interest. (There was a report about him in the San Francisco Examiner in 1986, if I’m not mistaken.) It interested me in particular because, casually, before hearing about Burden, I had written a story—in Tangier, where I lived during most of the ‘80s—that resembled Burden’s story in many ways. In Guatemala, no one had published anything about ASPREJO: we had this experimental rehabilitation center in the middle of the jungle, operated with the consent of our political and military authorities, and no one had written about it. A place where psychological experiments with illegally detained civilians were conducted—they would tie these people to trees, completely naked. When I read a report from a Guatemalan doctor that had worked for Burden at the beginning of the ‘80s, I realized how closely his case resembled the story I’d written in Tangier. It felt like I had channeled something.