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Mask of the Gods

RETURN OF THE MAYA: Guatemala--A Tale of Survival;\o7 By Thomas Hoepker; (Henry Holt: 160 pp., $40)\f7

THE MAYA: Life, Myth, and Art;\o7 By Timothy Laughton; (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: 144 pp., $27.50)\f7

March 14, 1999|HECTOR TOBAR | Hector Tobar is author of the novel, "The Tattooed Soldier" and a national correspondent for The Times

From the moment the diplomat and archeologist Edward H. Thompson hacked his way through the jungles of Yucatan in 1904 to discover the abandoned temples of Chichen Itza, the mysterious, exotic aura of the Maya has fascinated the American public.

First they were known as the builders of a vanished empire, a dozen cities where pyramids rose from the rain forest. Thompson himself discovered the central elements of ancient Mayan architecture and art in his expedition: the granite arenas where a deadly, ritualistic ball game was played, the temples built around orderly plazas and the stone pillars carved with mysterious symbols. Thompson's findings and others--popularized in etchings published in National Geographic and elsewhere--made the Maya early 20th-century media celebrities.

Decades later, in the 1980s, the Maya entered the consciousness of the American public for entirely different reasons. Like the Jews, the Armenians and the Tutsis, they were the victims of a government-sponsored genocide. The anti-Communist generals who ran Guatemala--most notably a born-again Christian named Rios Montt--saw the Maya as Cold War dupes of the Cubans and Russians. Impoverished Mayan refugees filled dozens of refugee camps in neighboring countries, their images adorning dozens of posters appealing for "Solidarity with the People of Guatemala."

This bifurcation in the popular understanding of the Maya--ancient greatness, modern pathos--has been reproduced in the recent release of books by photographer Thomas Hoepker and librarian Timothy Laughton. Both of these works are emblematic of the majority of North American literature on the Maya: They offer only an incomplete, and in some ways, misleading, account of the Mayan saga.

Hoepker's "Return of the Maya: Guatemala--A Tale of Survival" has the glossy feel of a coffee-table book, although its often gruesome images are decidedly not the kind of work you would want to display next to a bowl of walnuts.

The book opens harmlessly. There are images of the dark women in rainbow-colored huipiles whose stoic nobility has come to adorn a thousand postcards in Guatemala itself. "El indigena" occupies a central role in the iconography of the government-sponsored tourist trade, and many of the photographs in "Return of the Maya" have the same quality: a sort of non-threatening exoticism.

Then, abruptly, Hoepker introduces "Dark Secrets," a series of photographs documenting the legacy of Guatemala's long civil war, which began soon after an American-sponsored coup installed a series of military-domintated governments in 1954. Clothed skeletons emerge from muddy pits, victims of army massacres whose graves are being exhumed by human-rights workers.

Perhaps the most memorable of these stark images is one of a woman standing over the rotting skeletons of her family, votive candles burning inches from an exposed skull that has just been excavated by a forensic pathologist. But even this tragic photograph has an oddly distant feel. Indeed, Hoepker's images only rarely radiate the full involvement with their subjects and poignancy that distinguishes the work of other photojournalists who've covered this same ground, most notably Jean-Marie Simon and her excellent, disturbing 1988 book, "Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny."

There are exceptions, however. A series of photographs depicting life in a camp of guerrilla fighters manages to convey, all at once, a sense of menace and gentleness: We see a young rebel in olive drab letting out a relaxed yawn as he leans against a rack of rifles; in another a woman carries a baby on her back and a rifle in her hands.

For the most part, however, the Maya depicted in Hoepker's "Return of the Maya" remain a passive people, worthy of our attention mostly because of their strange and colorful folk rituals. "Getting drunk at the fiesta is half the fun for the men," reads one caption, betraying more than a little condescension. "Like most indigenous people, the Maya have little tolerance for alcohol."

"The Maya: Life, Myth, and Art," by Timothy Laughton, a librarian and lecturer at the University of Essex in England, is a survey of the cultural artifacts left behind by the ancient Maya. It, too, is a coffee-table-style book, with plenty of beautiful photographs, drawings and diagrams. Much of the writing is in short nuggets that accompany more than 100 photographs and specially commissioned drawings. Despite such brevity, the work is far from superficial, with strong passages on intricacies of the Mayan calendar and the stone glyphs that remained undeciphered until fairly recently, more than a century after linguists cracked the Rosetta Stone.

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