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The Country of Toó by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Rodrigo Rey Rosa left his native Guatemala in 1979, when he was only twenty-one. But his roots in the region remain firm. He writes almost exclusively in Spanish, despite having studied in New York and having been mentored in Morocco by none other than Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky). After Bowles’s death, in 1999, Rey Rosa became his literary executor.

Over the years Rey Rosa has garnered a number of Spanish-language awards for his work. Among these was Guatemala’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature in 2004, whose cash prize he refused, instead using it to create the B’atz’ Literature Prize for the best work of literature written in an Indigenous language.

While his early work has been praised for his literary technique, since 2009 his novels have recently become more political, highlighting in particular the government corruption in Central America resulting from the influence of foreign mining firms and drug cartels, whose activities have often led to acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayan people.

The Country of Toó is one such work, while also bringing in other themes characteristic of Rey Rosa’s writing, namely the legends and traditions of indigenous peoples. Here, Cobra, a young man who has escaped being killed in El Salvador by fleeing to an unnamed neighbouring country (presumably Guatemala), has become a driver and dogsbody for Don Emilio, a shady local businessman. Cobra is to drive Don Emilio’s housekeeper to the district of Toó, where she is from, for a visit with family.

The district of Toó is heavily indigenous, with numerous languages and styles of dress intermingling to create a vivid tapestry of native culture. It is also threatened with development by foreign mining companies, who have, in effect, bribed politicians in the country’s capital to secure permits to mine in Toó.

Over time, Cobra becomes friendly with an environmental organiser who is politically opposed to Cobra’s employer. The plot moves into thriller territory as the disputes heat up and Cobra is called upon to do his boss’s dirty work including murdering his friend.

What sets The Country of Toó apart from generic thrillers is a combination of literary style, unfamiliar locale, and political relevance. Author Rey Rosa is undeniably writing as an advocate for the respect of native culture and interests in Central America. And while there are similarities to the issues First Nation Canadians face, Central America is very different in many ways, in particular that Indigenous peoples are such a large portion of the population. Guatemala, for example, has a total population of around 17.6 million, over a third of whom are Indigenous, with some sections of the country having a majority of Indigenous people living in them.

The other striking achievement of The Country of Toó is its authenticity. Rey Rosa’s prose contains lyrical strains of local themes that only someone familiar with them could portray with any accuracy. The Country of Toó is the product of an insider—and it shows. The narration possesses rhythms that are at once unexpected and exciting, creating a genuinely new experience for thriller lovers.

The Country of Toó was translated by Canadian novelist Stephen Henighan and is published by Biblioasis.


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