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NONFICTION : RITES: A GUATEMALAN BOYHOOD by Victor Perera (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; $15.95).

August 03, 1986|Allen Boyer

"Rabbi Michaan warned Father that he had neglected my religious education," Victor Perera writes, remembering his bar mitzvah. "This was hardly my fault. Our lingual tender at home was a secular hash of native slang and Ladino Spanish: 'Manga tu okra, ishto; scapa ya tus desmodres. ' (Eat your okra, animal; enough of your foolishness.)" "Rites" is Perera's memoir of growing up Jewish in Guatemala--and thanks to cross-cultural problems like these, it reads like a collaboration of Philip Roth and Carlos Fuentes.

Perera, formerly with "The New Yorker," teaches creative writing at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In "Rites," he sketches his father, a descendant of Sephardic rabbis, who ran a textile shop; his mother, who consulted Indian curanderas about her asthma; the family's mestizo maids; and the young women, from London and Texas, who tried to keep order at the English-American school. There are recollections (often predictable) of pranks played with chile peppers, bullying and adolescent sexual adventures.

Two themes run through these episodes. One is the influence of American popular culture; Perera grew up watching Flash Gordon and John Wayne. The other is Guatemala's political violence. Since he left, Perera finds, his childhood friends have taken sides, and party rivalry has degenerated into random assassinations. On a 1981 visit, while he was jogging, two grinning soldiers warned him not to trip over the bodies. This theme, a sadder refrain, gives "Rites" a seriousness its boyhood memories lack.

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