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The Iguana Speaks My Name is award-winning fiction based on the title novella by master storyteller Roberto Moulun that examines the epic themes of war and peace, love and loss. It includes ten of Moulun's folklore tales from villages in his native Guatemala.
Set during civil war in Guatemala in the late twentieth century, the book uses magical realism and fictional villagers to portray struggles in coping with life as war encircles and eventually ensnares them. The thirty-year conflict resulted in the death or disappearance of more than 200,000 indigenous people, and the atrocities spawned genocide trials in the early twenty-first century for military and political leaders in Guatemala including the country's former dictator.
The combined volume won a 2013 Benjamin Franklin Silver Award for best first book of fiction awarded by the Independent Book Publishers of America. His writing draws on the magical realism genre of Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Márquez, and Isabel Allende, and Kirkus Reviews named the book one of the top 25 indie fiction titles of 2012.
In a lengthy video interview on YouTube discussing his writing, Moulun tells of returning to Guatemala after retiring from a medical career in the USA, seeing the civil war up close, being warned by both guerillas and government forces to leave, and fleeing his homeland forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roberto Moulun (1924-2013) was a treasure of the small village of Ajijic, Mexico, on the shores of Lake Chapala. He lived and wrote there in the shadow of the many writers who once resided and also wrote there, including D.H. Lawrence, Tennessee Williams and Norman Mailer.
But his writing, unlike theirs, sings a Spanish song of place, people and slice-of-life events occurring on the plazas of Guatemala, Mexico, or in imagined places of his creative and sensitive mind. These are characters we come to know and to love as Moulun did, each one bearing facets of beauty, grace and often mysterious behavior.
Whether they be doctors, spies, whores or charming gypsies, their beauty and their lives enthrall us. Moulun captured life as it is in this book, and although each story is a gem all are connected in the delightful word necklace he has conjured up for us.
His pen moved slowly when he wrote, he told us, and the reader is the beneficiary of his cautious and creative magic. These are short stories that live and linger long after the read. They are composed by the master who fathered them word by word, sentence to paragraph...all to make us laugh or weep or love. Above all, to love.
Born to a Spanish mother and French father in Guatemala, Moulun received his undergraduate B.A. and B.S. degrees from Instituto Modelo, Guatemala City, and his medical degree from the National University of Mexico, Mexico City.
His residency and post-graduate studies were are Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and at the Menninger Foundation, School of Psychiatry, Topeka, Kansas. After completing his residency in 1962 he moved to Hawaii and was Chief of Services and Psychiatric Supervisor at Hawaii State Hospital, Kaneohe, Hawaii. During his professional career in Hawaii, Dr. Moulun was a man of many accomplishments: successful psychiatrist, university faculty member, champion blue-water sailor, member of the diplomatic corps from his native Guatemala, and a volunteer mental health specialist for the America Red Cross disaster team.
After closing his practice in 1988 he lived briefly in Guatemala and Spain before returning to Hawaii in 1991, where he became a volunteer for the American Red Cross mental health disaster team, reaching the rank of specialist, and served in ten disasters in the USA and foreign countries. In 1999 he retired and moved to Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. He died in September 2013 in Ajijic.
****More Rave Reviews****
Here's the February 2013 review from author James Tipton in the Guadalajara Reporter in Guadalajara, Mexico:
Like life itself, this fine novella, “The Iguana Speaks My Name,” is largely without plot, but because of that both place (the village of Panimache in Guatemala) and persons (the villagers) come to life without the restrictions of plot, without reader concern for “what will happen next.” Plot in so many stories by so many other authors pushes us relentlessly toward conclusion, much like going on a long journey and seeing only the well marked path, not noticing – as we do in Roberto Moulun’s stories – the woman in the cove, standing under falling water that “kissed her red nipples alive,” whose long black hair, as she twirled, “covered her like a silk fan.”
The second half of Ajijic resident Roberto Moulun’s remarkable book is a collection of short stories, “Ten Backyard Stories from Panimache,” stories which generally revolve around a situation that does indeed organize itself into a simple and appropriate plot, all told with the same power and grace of “The Iguana Speaks My Name.”
In “The Iguana Speaks My Name,” Quince, our narrator, is worldly, educated, thoughtful, reluctantly sophisticated, yet by choice he returns to Panimache, the village of his youth. There, his house “had a grace and beauty … no matter how badly the weather treated it, no matter how neglected it had been through the years.” As you pass through his red gate and into the street, you step “… onto the hard cobblestones of Calle Quatro de Febrero, which was the official name of our street. It was not a good name for the street. It had been given in mournful memory of the victims of the earthquake, which devastated the town on that date. But no one ever called it that. The street was known as Calle de Farolito, because of the house of the little red light – the only cathouse in the village located on the corner of the street, proclaiming that life, no matter how sinful, beats death by a long margin.”
It is a time of civil war in Guatemala, but the people of Panimache “went about their business smiling in bliss, like the Fool of the Tarot about to step into the abyss.” The soldiers themselves acknowledge that “The victims are always the same – the Indians and the poor.”
As we begin our little stay in Panimache, we meet characters like La China, the whore who “looked like Olympia in the painting by Manet; Alizarin, the artist who waits for a letter that never arrives and who supports himself by baking bread using old recipes from his home in France; the postmaster, Don Cosme, “who smelled of anisette and his young assistant”; we also meet Margarita, “lovely in her ripe womanhood,” and Quince’s childhood friend Uno – whose father Don Emilio called his fourteen children by numbers and who playfully adopted the narrator as his 15th child and dubbed him Quince. We even come across two green parrots, taught by evangelists to yell from their cages, “Jesus loves you; Jesus loves you.”
The town of Panimache also is a character, whose streets were “gnarled like the hands of old women; the town itself was old without having known the dissipation of youth. It transpired the self-righteous morals of someone who had never had a chance to sin.”
I love the rich, profound, evocative, sophisticated, and often unpredictable prose found in lots of South American literature, in writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Nevertheless, the very nature of this type of prose makes its adherents vulnerable to the temptations of excess. In the prose of García Márquez, for example, I sometimes feel he grabs his image by its scaly tail and then hangs on so long that he is pulled too far into a dense jungle, while the story itself remains waiting for him until late into the night. Not so with the images of Roberto Moulun, who remains faithful to the brief courtship between his story and a metaphor. While Quince is listening to Alizarin lament the lack of a letter from his beloved in Germany, he himself begins to daydream: “Soon my memories ran off, as watercolors do if one is not careful, and I had only feelings left without the forms that would make it possible to share them to others.”
In Moulun’s stories, even simple similes are fresh, often masterful: “his house, a comic construction of adobe, whitewashed like the face of a mime”; “A handful of light bugs misfired like wet matches”; “The villages followed one another, like pretty sisters on their way to school.”
In Part II, “Ten Backyard Stories from Panimache,” we meet again some of the characters we had become accustomed to in “The Iguana Speaks My Name”: people like Quince the Narrator, and Uno, his best friend, a jungle guide and nature photographer for National Geographic — actually they had “grown up together, better than brothers”. Most of the characters are new, though. And, in Part II, we often leave Panimache to visit towns with names like Solola, Jaripito, Mazatenango, again the towns themselves becoming characters: “Mazatenango has known better times. One can tell, because all of its streets are cobbled, and now the stones roll loose like bad teeth. The town is indifferent to its past and holds no hope for its future. It asks only to be left alone, to be left behind in the heat and dust, a tired town, empty of dreams. But one cannot leave her. One loves the pueblo as one loves an old wife.”
In these stories, as in “The Iguana Speaks My Name,” there is sensuality lurking in the dark shadows, even a dangerous sensuality, where a belle dame sans merci may with her beauty bewitch you out of your very soul and even to your death, as in “Siguanawa, The Spirit Temptress,” which begins, “The night was sultry, feminine and tender, like a mulatto woman from Camaguey.” On the other hand, we find a delightful sensuality in stories like “The Novena to San Martin,” where a situation worthy of Boccaccio allows us to eavesdrop upon a jealous and lovesick suitor who is nursed back to health and sanity by his landladies, two lovely and identical twins.
These Guatemalan villagers we come to care for live close to the bone. There is desolation, sadness, sudden loss, unrequited love, huge longing, and not much hope. Nevertheless life here is still more authentic than in more sophisticated towns and cities; and life, to quote again a passage I used near the beginning of this review, still “beats death by a long margin.”
Here's an excerpt from the review by author Robert Bruce Drynan in the September 2012 issue of El Ojo del Lago, the largest circulation English-language magazine in Mexico:
Roberto Moulun’s The Iguana Speaks My Name weaves a tapestry as brilliantly colorful as the tejidos hawked in the streets and shops of Chichicastenango, Antigua and Guatemala City.
Moulun’s tapestry is of whole cloth, laced with a wide ranging dramatis personae, rich with deeply human characters; some mundane, a few passionate, often drolly humorous, and frequently tragic. He introduces the reader to such colorful characters as La China, the wistful whore; the French painter Alizarin pining for his German enamorata; El Lobo the local military commander who totes a pistol, butt-forward “like Wild Bill Hickok”; the sajorin, a Mayan witch doctor that exorcizes an ailing infant; the tragic lovers, Lotario and Coco; and Juan Domingo, a one-armed gardener who assists the protagonist in the rescue of an abused iguana.
This Guatemalan indigenous world oscillates from the harsh realities of life in the humble village to the imaginary or perhaps allegorical flights of inherited Mayan legends. In one deliciously erotic incident his protagonist is almost seduced by La Ciguanagua, a siren who entices young men to their death.
Roberto’s imagery is evocative; a mad woman’s laughter that began “at first lightly like a brook, and then like overflowing water.” His description of a village plaza in which “children and dogs ran freely, as if they . . . had sprouted from the soil,” evokes visions of a Sunday morning in the Ajijic town square. His love of the majesty of the Guatemalan highlands is lyrical, “. . . the incandescence of the rising sun on the three volcanoes, which stood like oriental magi worshipping the birth of a god.”
His chapters in Iguana could stand alone as single anecdotes, each describing an aspect of the human condition; insightful displays of individual foibles and conflicting virtues. His Part Two: Ten Backyard Stories from Panimache, is indeed a collection of stand-alone anecdotes, but they cleverly tie together as a whole with Part One.
BOOK REVIEW from Kirkus Reviews (starred review for remarkable merit):
"Lush landscapes, enchanted happenings, tangled roots and violence suffuse this beguiling collection of stories set in the highlands of Guatemala. Quince, the narrator of these interlocking stories, is a writer living in the village of Panimache, near three volcanoes and a deep blue lake. He serves as a keen observer of the vibrant, tense surroundings in a land that “bled from a war no one wanted to notice.” Panimache is a town divided by conflict, caste and consciousness. It’s teetering between bourgeois aspirations and Mayan peasant culture, seemingly placid but on edge from the fighting between government soldiers and guerillas, and simmering with repressed bad memories. The title novella introduces a diverse, intriguing set of characters—shopkeepers and restaurateurs; Quince’s friend Uno, a nature photographer and reputed shaman; El Capitan Lobo, the urbane army commander who feels apologetic about the brutal counterinsurgency he’s waging (“[s]ometimes we massacre the Indians, other times it’s the guerillas”); and La China, a whore longing to be a muse. These and other figures recur in 10 more yarns that are often shot through with exquisite threads of magical realism: A youth is beguiled to his doom by a gorgeous vampire; a con man makes his living with a fortunetelling sparrow; a man’s frantic search for buried treasure yields an astounding payoff; an orphaned, ostracized Mayan girl hides herself in the shapes of birds and animals. Moulun’s clear prose balances sensual sounds, colors and foods against a deadpan humor and a detached, meditative mood. His writing has a fablelike quality, featuring strong narratives linked to mythic themes, but it’s also full of social nuance and subtle psychological shadings. Moulun transforms Guatemala’s troubled, complex reality into a rich, compelling aesthetic vision.
Imaginative storytelling with real literary depth."