Book Quote:

“Samuel knew that he was living through dangerous times – this was not the moment to simply sniffle and weep. He had left Hamburg just in the knick of time – Kristallnacht had happened just nine months earlier – the “party” in Europe […] had already begun. ”

Book Review:

Review by Friederick Knabe  (SEP 29, 2011)

Samuel Berkow, at thirty-eight, stands at the crossroads: In 1938, life in Germany is fast becoming dangerous for Jews. At the urging of his concerned uncle, he agrees to leave Hamburg and emigrate to Guatemala, where his cousin is expected to help him settle. In The Price of Escape, David Unger explores his hero’s self-conscious and stumbling efforts to put his German existence out of his mind as he prepares for a new one that carries promise but is also full of uncertainty.

The narrative quickly moves on to Samuel’s travel on the ship en route to the port town of Puerto Barrios and then focuses on his first three days on land. Guatemalan-American Unger, recognized as one of Guatemala’s prominent writers today, convincingly portrays his hero’s sense of utter confusion and helplessness as he enters, totally unprepared, a foreign world that bears no resemblance to his own. He contrasts Samuel’s former lifestyle, his self-confidence, based mostly on physical appearance and family wealth, with the poverty-ridden, appalling and at times dangerous conditions in Puerto Barrios. Thus, Unger not only builds an affecting portrait of one refugee’s complete dislocation in an unfamiliar environment and his awareness that he must cope somehow, he paints at the same time a colourful, vivid picture of a community in decline, abandoned by a corrupt political system that allows private company interests to control people’s lives and basis for existence.

As the novel unfolds, Samuel encounters a wide range of odd characters, starting with American Alfred Lewis, the dubious captain of the “tramp steamer” that brings Samuel into port. He turns out to be one of the manipulating representatives of the sinister United Fruit Company, the big corporation that has made of Puerto Barrios a “company town” but recently downgraded it to a mere reloading point for banana shipments. While Lewis warns Samuel not to linger in town and to get on the train to Guatemala City as soon as possible, he does everything to add to Samuel’s bewilderment and delay. Every time Samuel is set to make a move to leave, something or somebody interferes: the dwarf, Mr. Price, who offers himself as a guide to the one and only “International Hotel,” his bare room there, or George, the hotel clerk/manager who appears to be one of the more helpful people. Others are added to the colourful mix: a defrocked priest, the station master, an old prostitute, or various odd assemblies of people in the streets or cafes/bars… None of these may in fact behave in any way threatening, however, in his mind, Samuel cannot extricate himself from their influence so that he can get to the train station in time.

Unger creates an atmosphere of suspicion, of hidden and open threats that intermingle in Samuel’s mind with images from his past life, thereby escalating not only his uneasiness but also resulting in his own increasingly strange behaviour towards the people he meets. Personal memories from his past life, especially his short-lived disastrous marriage, still haunt him, more so than any of the recent dangerous political changes in Germany. People come at him with either sugary, even creepy, friendliness or with sarcastic comments and aggressive, even violent, behaviour, one can turn into the other without warning. Samuel appears to be caught in a vicious circle. With only basic Spanish, his communication is fraught with misunderstandings. Who is there to talk to openly and, above all, whose advice can he trust?

Unger illustrates Samuel’s increasing disorientation with scenarios and encounters that recall in some ways Kafkaesque hopeless labyrinthine struggles. Yet, here, the protagonist is responsible for much of the precarious situations he finds himself in: His fashion-conscious clothing make him a laughing stock among the locals; his inability to extricate himself safely and in time from several brewing conflicts puts him into physical danger. His reluctance to eat the local food and even drink the water results in stages of temporary mental confusion, even delirium, that make him act totally irrationally. Afterwards, he has no memory of what he said or did or why, for example, he ends up in the muddy water near the harbour, totally wet and soiled, crawling on all fours, searching for his passport…

Will Samuel manage to escape or will he be completely taken over by the locality? What is “the price” of escape – both from Germany and from Puerto Barrios? The novel’s conclusion answers these questions aptly, coincidences not withstanding. Over the course of the three-day story, Unger creates a continuous narrative tension that keeps us as readers engaged. We never quite know, what accident or confrontation awaits the protagonist next. Despite his sympathetic and expansive characterization of Samuel Berkow, I found him less than a likeable protagonist, at times arbitrarily overdrawn and his behaviour somewhat exaggerated. Readers who anticipate – given various publicity materials – that considerable attention in the novel is given to the historical situation in Germany in the nineteen thirties, will be disappointed. Unger’s primary concern is Guatemala.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Akashic Books; 1 edition (April 19, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on David Unger
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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September 29, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Latin American/Caribbean, South America, World Lit

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