The Path of the Jaguar: A Novel

  • By Stephen Henighan
  • Thistledown Press
  • 184 pp.

A Mayan woman adapts to the changing times in this well-researched novel set in post-civil-war Guatemala.

A few years ago, I read a short story called “My Soul Will Be in Paris,” by Stephen Henighan. The story’s protagonist is Castillo, a “Ladino” poet from Chimaltenango, Guatemala, who moves to Paris during the Roaring Twenties. Castillo is small and dark-skinned, and lingers on the outer edges of the Latin American and French artistic elite.

The introspective atmosphere of the story, evoked by Castillo’s overwhelming feelings of inferiority on one hand, and his hopeful lunge for transcendence on the other, held my attention, to say the least. But it was the surprise ending, a subtle, and, in retrospect, obvious revelation — the final turn of the wheel — that made this story so memorable and unsettling, laying bare my own complicity in Castillo’s faulty assumptions and cultural naiveté.

Henighan’s latest work, the novel The Path of the Jaguar, takes on the familiar territory of refracted cultural identity. The book’s heroine is Amparo Ajuix de Hernández, a Cakchiquel (Maya) woman who lives in a mountain village above Antigua, Guatemala. Like Castillo, Amparo must cultivate her identity among various cultures and traditions in order to survive, despite the fact that she, unlike Castillo, finds meaning and wonder in her indigenous heritage.

Amparo’s husband, Eusebio, is Ladino: a person of indigenous (or mixed) ancestry who has assimilated into Hispanic culture. Historically, this tradeoff brings economic advantage, elevating Ladinos in the social order. But because Amparo’s family is relatively financially secure at the outset of the book, and because Amparo has more ambition than her husband, the couple lives matrilocal, in her community.

For now, Amparo’s conflict is clear: While keeping her husband’s insecurity at bay, she must balance the competing needs to protect her culture, raise a family, and succeed in work outside of the home.   

The tensions between Amparo and Eusebio are explored and telegraphed through other conflicts in the village, with community members divided along religious lines (Catholic, Protestant, and Maya cosmology); along generational ones (the younger women want to revive the Cakchiquel language, the elders are less eager); and along other messy and disparate ideological rifts, such as the place of women and the hazy, ever-contested boundaries around ethnic belonging.

Henighan is no stranger to the collapsible nature of identity. He was born in Germany to non-German parents whose ethnicities split in three directions. His family lived in several countries before immigrating to Canada when he was a child. From Henighan’s Twitter feed, there are examples of fluency in all (or most) of the romance languages; elsewhere, he writes essay passages in German and Quiché. With The Path of the Jaguar, Henighan also demonstrates a foundation in Cakchiquel.

Fans of Henighan’s writing might hope these elements place The Path of the Jaguar beyond reproach from the far literary left — with its well-meaning, ahistorical prohibition over the use of culture — and simultaneously far away from classifications on the far literary right, with its petulant style that carries more than a whiff of insensitivity.

One gets the sense of Henighan’s own dislocation as the gateway to his empathetic, and thoroughly researched, cross-cultural literature. And while Amparo’s struggle is most certainly particular to her history, in the face of lost traditions (what Henighan has termed “the Afterlife of Culture”), Amparo’s experience lends itself to the universal reality of identity under pressure.

Amparo’s mentor, Don Julio (yet another Ladino and the owner of a bookstore where she once worked), has some advice: “This tension’s always going to be there. To make your culture advance you must give up part of it. If you live your life as the mother of many children, you’ll maintain your customs in a state of weakness. And in the future that’s not going to work. Your children will go to the maquilas or to the north and your culture will be lost. It’s only by compromising with the modern world that you’ll spare part of that richness.”

Amparo’s journey covers the first eight years after Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996), and by the end of the story, much has changed in Antigua and the surrounding communities. The foreigners who once came to Guatemala as aid workers, those who bought goods and paid to learn Mayan languages, give way to volunteer tourism, a devastating sap on local jobs.

“She had done all that a woman could do: she had educated herself beyond anyone’s expectations; she had worked for Don Julio, she had become a teacher; she had founded a savings cooperative; she had run her weaving stall. She had tried every means available to improve her life and those of her neighbors. She had ransacked the resources of Antigua, where money and opportunities were more plentiful than elsewhere in the country, and still she was sliding backwards.”

What is the way forward, for Amparo? Is she — like the jaguar on her handmade bag, like Castillo, like Henighan, like so many of us — receding further from her origins? There’s a moving passage dedicated to the idea of a “woman acting on her fantasies,” but we’re reminded, particularly by Amparo’s bold, final act that “any path we choose involves loneliness.”

Dorothy Reno is a senior editor and contributor at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published by Prairie Fire, FREEFALL, and Red Tuque Books. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia, and tweets at @plotwrite.  

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