The Mastermind

The Mastermind

by David Unger

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Overview

Set in Guatemala and based on a true story, “this intriguing literary thriller will appeal to lovers of international crime fiction” (Booklist).
 
Guillermo Rosensweig is a member of the Guatemalan elite, runs a successful law practice, has a wife and kids—and a string of gorgeous lovers. Then one day he crosses paths with Maryam, a Lebanese beauty with whom he falls desperately in love . . . to the point that when he loses her, he sees no other option than to orchestrate his own death.
 
The Mastermind is based on the bizarre real-life story of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a Guatemalan attorney who, in 2009, planned his own assassination after leaving behind a video accusing Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom of his murder. This is a fascinating depiction of modern-day Guatemala and the corrupt, criminal, and threatening reality that permeates its society.
 
“Engaging . . . Raw and unforgettable.” —Publishers Weekly
 
“This is a compelling story that can easily be read in a single sitting. And, as in any good mystery, when things go wrong, the novel becomes that much more interesting. Even for readers with no interest in Guatemala per se, this is one worth reading for the sheer joy of the writing itself.” —Reviewing the Evidence
 
“A riveting account of one man’s high-stakes journey to self-reckoning.” —Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617754555
Publisher: Akashic Books (Ignition)
Publication date: 03/14/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 274
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Guatemalan novelist David Unger was awarded his country's Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature in 2014, despite writing exclusively in English. He is the author of the novels The Price of Escape and Life in the Damn Tropics. His short stories and essays have appeared in Words Without Borders, Guernica, KGBBarLit, and Playboy Mexico. He has translated fourteen books from Spanish into English. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

LAMPS FOR SALE

1977

Every afternoon when classes end at the Colegio Americano in Vista Hermosa, Guillermo hitches a ride downtown with his chauffeur-driven friends. The driver drops them off at the Portal del Comercio amid the crush of polluting public buses, and they make their way between the stands of cheap clothes and toys lining the arcade to the Klee Pharmacy and El Cairo, where the promenade starts. They stroll the length of Sixth Avenue to the San Francisco Church looking into shop windows and cafés, hoping to catch sight of one of their female classmates drinking a Coke or having ice cream at one of the sidewalk cafés. If, after a block or two, no one has been sighted, they settle down at a window table of some dive to drink beer and talk, gossip. To see and be seen.

The truly rich girls park themselves at Café Paris, Restaurante Peñalba, or L'Bonbonniere near the Pan American Hotel, and drink large Cokes through straws. They are the shapely and more stylish versions of their mothers, many of whom now wear Reeboks and sweatpants when they go downtown. The boys — dressed in their Farah pants, Gant shirts, and wingtip shoes — are younger versions of their businessmen fathers, without the mustaches.

The boys in Guillermo's group like going to the Fu Lu Sho because it's dark and the food is cheap. The restaurant is angular, with little round tables and booths with red upholstery. The boys act like big shots for about an hour, but the girls never come in because they aren't interested in boys pretending their parents don't have money. Then around five they scramble off to meet a mother or father or aunt or uncle, who gives them a ride home to Los Arcos or Vista Hermosa or Simeón Cañas. This is the daily pattern now, awaiting graduation.

Guillermo lingers behind because he will hitch a ride with his father, who leaves his lamp store, La Candelaria, at precisely six. For that one hour from five to six, he sits alone and watches the secretaries and stenographers who work in one of the Edificio Engel businesses come down for a Fanta when they're cut loose at five. He fantasizes about hooking up with one of them, one who might want to join him for a beer and egg rolls. He ogles the ridge of their breasts popping out of their patterned Dacron dresses. Acrylic sweaters are tied around their shoulders to fend off the night air — he loves their dark, shapely legs, their cheap high heel shoes, the red lips with too much gloss. If they would only look at him! But these older girls don't even know high school boys exist.

Fridays are different. Guillermo and his friends hurry downtown to see the four o'clock feature at the Lux — the latest Paul Newman or Robert Redford film — or they go over to the Capitol Mall to play video games under the haze of cigarette smoke.

* * *

In March he meets Perla Cortés at La Juguetería, a toy store. He's there buying a new soccer ball. She's getting a plastic dump truck for her baby brother. She's a "neighborhood girl" (the term used for someone whose parents aren't rich) in the tenth grade at the Inglés Americano, a second- tier high school. They talk, go have a mixta and a Coke at Frankfurts, and immediately she becomes his first steady girlfriend. They begin meeting on Fridays and going to the movies, since her mother works as a nurse until six at the Cedar of Lebanon Hospital on Eighth Avenue and 2nd Street. He takes her to the movies at the Cine Caitol and buys luneta seats, always near the back, where he can put his arm around her.

As the credits are rolling on their first date he accidentally brushes her firm breasts while standing up. She actually purrs, pulls him down, and snuggles closer. He feels an erection forming and puts a hand on her left leg. She happily takes his hand and brings it to her panties so he can feel how wet she is. She opens her legs, slips his hand under the band toward her pubis. She directs his forefinger inside of her and begins squirming and grinding, letting out little whimpers. At some point she pulls his penis out of his pants and strokes him till he comes mostly on the cinema floor.

Three of their dates end like this.

But on the occasion that Guillermo's pants become the target of his sperm, he decides he can't continue seeing Perla. Their sex feels mechanical, and he has difficulty accepting the fact that she's the one initiating the foreplay. He thinks the man should be in control.

He arrives at his father's store late, with his shirttail out.

This is the last time they are together.

* * *

"I want you to start working with me, Guillermito." Nothing would make Günter Rosensweig happier than to have his son become the financial controller of La Candelaria. His daughter fell in love with a woman and is living in San Francisco. "My only son, working alongside his father."

"Dad, I don't want to talk about it now." They are at home. It is a Sunday, a week after Easter. If a resurrection took place the week before, thousands of years ago, Guillermo is unaware of it. Lunch has just ended. His mother is in the kitchen barking instructions at the new maid. He has to escape upstairs, get away, do anything but discuss his future employment with his father. "I have to study for my finals."

Günter smiles proudly. He imagines his mathematical son overseeing sales, handling the ledgers, while he continues to attend personally to the customers. "You would be a big help to me. You know I like Carlos, but I don't want him inheriting my business."

"Pop!" the boy yells desperately. His father has a round, freckled face. His stringy red hair is combed back. His brow is always knitted and his eyes are constantly looking at the world with genuine expectation: the prospect of being liked, of concluding a sale; wanting the world to conform to his desires. There is expectant hunger in his eyes.

"I won't live forever." He had a heart attack two years earlier which almost did him in. Guillermo knows that it would kill his father outright if he had to leave his business to Carlos, his most loyal employee. He knows he is being baited, and usually concedes that he will eventually take over the store. For once, however, Guillermo says nothing.

"You never want to talk about it," Günter presses.

"Not now," Guillermo says, standing up. He is grateful that he has inherited his mother's dark Romanian features. If he looked like his father he would end up playing chess every day with a group of bespectacled friends and eating salty pickles. They have nothing in common.

"You don't want to talk about it now, so when? Give me a date. What about next week after your classes end —"

"That's way too soon," the boy says, not turning around. "We can talk about it in the fall. I've already made graduation plans with my friends for the summer."

"What? You want to go to parties and sleep late?" The father shifts in his chair, stands up. "I want you working with me," he bellows, rooster-like.

This is his father's fantasy — to have his son at his side, if only for a few months. It's a scenario enhanced by Guillermo's failure to apply to college in the fall. In truth, Günter has no illusions that his son will take over the business permanently. Though he has scrimped and saved for years, Günter knows that when he retires, he will sell the store rather than leave it to Carlos. He realizes that it's impossible to get his son to do anything other than hang out with his friends.

"Go study," he says crossly, knowing that he and his wife have made a mistake raising their son as they have, pampering him. But Guillermo is already halfway up the steps to the aerie where he lives, where he eats potato chips and daydreams, away from everyone else, hearing nothing.

* * *

When Guillermo finishes high school, graduating in the middle of his class, his father starts in on him again. He expects all the after-school and weekend activities to come to an end and work in the store to begin.

"Pop! Have you forgotten about my graduation trips?"

"What?"

"The trips, the parties! Next week I'm going waterskiing in Likín. Then Rosario has invited us to a weekend barbecue at her family home in San Lucas. And Guillermo —"

"You're Guillermo!"

"My friend Guillermo Contreras," the boy says, exasperated with his father who never hears a word he says and doesn't know the name of a single friend, "has invited the class to go on his yacht and swim and dive in the Río Dulce. And Mario and Nora have planned a spelunking excursion —"

"Spelunking? Speak Spanish!"

"Cave exploration. The caverns outside of Quetzaltenango."

Guillermo is convinced that his father knows nothing that doesn't involve either hanging or repairing a lamp. He has never been to Tikal or Quiriguá. He thinks that Cobán and Copán are the same place. When Guillermo mentions working as a volunteer digger with the University of Pennsylvania in September at one of the Mayan archeological sites near Uaxactun, Tikal, or Piedras Negras, his father draws a blank.

"This is what I want to do. All my friends are going to college in August, and I plan to live in a tent in Petén and work with a team."

"In the jungle? With a shovel in your hands?"

"Yes, we might discover a new pyramid."

"And what about La Candelaria?"

"This fall, Pop, this fall."

His father shakes his head. He knows that as soon as September arrives, his son will come up with another excuse. He can't understand why Guillermo will do anything to avoid working in his lamp store.

* * *

By mid-August the trips are over and Guillermo's high school friends are preparing to set off to college. He won't miss all of them, just his best friend Juancho.

And contrary to Günter's prediction, Guillermo has finally run out of excuses for not working at La Candelaria. Since he studied accounting and business math in high school, it makes sense for him to work alongside Carlos, the bookkeeper, in the glass-partitioned office perched above the sales floor.

Carlos has big droopy ears, mole-like eyes, and breath soured by too many Chesterfield regulars. To escape the smoke clouds, Guillermo constantly skips down the spiral staircase to have cup after cup of coffee at El Cafetal.

"I am so proud that you are here — with me. I could not expect this of your sister."

There's nothing Guillermo likes about his father's store. It's a long tunnel with hundreds of lamps, some lit and some not, hanging on hooks from the ceiling rafters. There's no order to the store, and certainly no style. It's just a tapestry of hanging lights, with a tiny bamboo forest of pole lamps squeezed together at the back near the bathroom. A counter for storing smaller table lamps runs along one length of the store. Anibal, the security guard, walks around like King Neptune with his trident. Actually, it's a pole with a hook to bring down whatever lamp the customer might want to see up close.

"Selling lamps is an art," his father says. "It is an art defined by practicality since a lamp has both an aesthetic and a utilitarian function. You will learn about how the shades determine the amount of light filtering into the room. Clients need to know how the switches work and whether they accept bulbs of varying intensities and colors, or just one type of bulb."

"I know all this, Pop. You've been telling me the same thing since I was five."

His father ignores him; he needs to continue making his speech. "Do they want cheap rubber or cords wrapped in silk? Lamps dangle, sit flat, snake out of corners, hug walls like sconces or torches. They flood, they focus. They suffuse from the top, the bottom, or the sides."

Guillermo nods his head, but it only encourages his father.

"The shades can be conical, round like pumpkins, bouncy like lanterns. They can be translucent or almost transparent. The customer has to decide."

To his father, the purchase of a chandelier for a living room or a lamp for a bedroom, a dining room, or a den is a major decision, like the buying of a sofa, end tables, a desk, a refrigerator, or even a car. Customer need has to be met so there will never be a question of returning the lamp within seven days for a full refund, which of course spells disaster, since the lamp cannot be sold as new.

His father refuses to initiate a no-return policy. He is the epitome of the ethical small businessman and he works for the purpose of servicing his customers honestly and efficiently and making them feel satisfied.

Though this is an admirable quality, Guillermo doesn't want to spend his own life as a lamp salesman. It is too demeaning.

* * *

Günter Rosensweig arrived in Guatemala penniless in the early fifties from Germany. He had a drop or two of Jewish blood — not much — though its lack of traceability despite his last name had allowed his own father to maintain a bookkeeping business in Frankfurt during the war, while many of his Jewish associates were hauled off to concentration camps. It helped that there was a renowned Count Rosensweig living in a sprawling castle in Ardsberg who famously declared to the press that "the best Jew is the dead Jew." This Count Rosensweig adage was quoted broadly among other Germans.

It saved his father and mother.

Günter had avoided army service because he was asthmatic and had a heart murmur. The postwar years in Germany were difficult and unruly, and he had no reason to stay and help his countrymen rebuild. His parents were both dead, he had no siblings, and he was driven by the desire to emigrate to a new continent, away from the chaos of Europe.

Pictures reveal that Günter had been taller once, and passably handsome. This is the man Guillermo's mother Lillian, a dark-haired beauty from Cobán, must have met. Her own Romanian father had been a cardamom grower and her mother a Rabinal Maya. Lillian was a few inches taller than her husband, and had an attractive face with chestnut eyes that, while not clever, were certainly seductive. How they ever got together was always a mystery to Guillermo, who felt that someone had erroneously mixed together pieces of two different puzzles, say a weasel with a jaguarondi. Guillermo resembled his mother. People said that he had been spontaneously generated from Lillian, without any of his father's genetic traits. His sister Michelle had the round face and stringy reddish hair of their father. She would never be attractive, everyone said so, but with his dark brooding eyes, Guillermo would break hearts.

Günter was twenty-three when he began working in Abraham Sachs's lamp store on Seventh Avenue and soon became his associate. Two years later, after Günter had married Lillian, Abraham died of a cerebral hemorrhage when a fifty-pound lamp landed on his head. With no heirs, Günter inherited the lamp store. A true godsend.

* * *

But godsends don't necessarily extend to the second generation. When Guillermo's application to take part in a dig is rejected, he has no choice but to stay on with his father, even if he considers the lamp store a penitentiary.

As soon as he starts working there, Guillermo begins making up all kinds of excuses not to drive in with his father at eight thirty in the morning. I couldn't fall asleep last night, my head aches. He takes the bus on his own downtown and arrives around ten, just in time to go out to El Cafetal for coffee and donuts.

Güter does not scold his son. Moreover, he is oblivious to his suffering. After six weeks of working, or rather not working, Guillermo confesses his misery.

"The store is killing me, Pop. Working with Carlos is giving me lung cancer."

Günter Rosensweig is not completely humorless. "At least you don't have to buy cigarettes to smoke them."

"Very funny."

"What would you like to do instead, son? What about coming downstairs and helping me with sales?"

Guillermo frowns. If working with Carlos is life imprisonment without parole, then working with his father and his overweight, poorly dressed, forty-five-year-old employees in black scuffed shoes is a death sentence. They all wear paisley aprons and rely on Anibal to lower lamps for the customers with his trident from the garish helter-skelter night sky. And he would have to hear his father's sales pitches, which have always embarrassed him. He would also have to wear a blue apron every day. What if one of his friends' parents — or worse, one of his former schoolmates — were to see him dressed like this?

La Candelaria is the only lighting store left in downtown Guatemala City. Zone 1 is becoming increasingly dangerous, less trafficked, and more derelict as the months go by. Maybe the 1976 earthquake, when hundreds of the old colonial buildings simply collapsed, had been the first nail in its coffin. By 1979, when Guillermo is eighteen, La Candelaria's business has already begun to suffer from stores in the malls outside of the city center that not only offer lamps and small electronics, but also feature nearby cafés, restaurants, and boutiques in a more attractive setting with plenty of parking. Guillermo tells his father that he should open another store in Zone 9 or 14, but he swats away the idea: "People will always come downtown to shop."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Mastermind"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Salar Abdoh.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: LIFE IN THE FOG,
LAMPS FOR SALE,
FROM THE LOUVRE TO GROWING ARTICHOKES,
FEEDING ELEPHANTS,
LOVE & MARRIAGE: A HORSE & CARRIAGE,
SEVEN SEASONS IN NEW YORK,
ALL UNHAPPY FAMILIES ARE UNHAPPY EACH IN THEIR OWN WAY,
IT WASN'T THE HUMMUS THAT HE LIKED,
MERDE ALORS,
GREAT EXPECTATIONS,
THE NAKED MAJA, OR LA PETITE MORT,
REDUCED LIBIDO,
AN ARABIC BALLAD: HABIBA, SHARMOOTA,
THE HARLOT,
YOU CAN'T KIDNAP A CAR,
LET'S BRING THE MOUNTAIN TO MOHAMMED,
A PILE OF ASHES,
TYING UP LOOSE ENDS,
THE DOG CHASES ITS OWN TAIL,
PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM!,
JIMMY CRACKED CORN, AND I DON'T CARE,
THE VAPORIZING FOLDER,
THE MASTERMIND, MAYBE,
IT'S NOT OVER TILL IT'S OVER, OR THE FAT LADY ...,
CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD,
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!,
A BICYCLE BUILT FOR TWO, MAYBE THREE,
A BUS TRIP TO EL SALVADOR ("THE SAVIOR"),
PUPUSAS AND YUCCA FRITA,
SWITCHING HORSES MIDSTREAM,
FREEDOM'S JUST ANOTHER WORD,
LA LIBERTAD,
PAYING THE PIPER,
DREAM A LITTLE DREAM,
About David Unger,
Bonus Materials,
Excerpt from Price of Escape,
A Note from the Author,
Copyright & Credits,
About Akashic Books,

Customer Reviews