The Mastermind – A Gripping & Vivid Portrayal of Life in Guatemala, Based on a Stranger-than-Fiction True Story

The Mastermind
 by David Unger
First published on April 5th 2016
Akashic Books
Source: I bought it

“By all appearances, Guillermo Rosensweig is the epitome of success. He is a member of the Guatemalan elite, runs a successful law practice, has a wife and kids and a string of gorgeous lovers. Then one day he crosses paths with Maryam, a Lebanese beauty with whom he falls desperately in love . . . to the point that when he loses her, he sees no other option than to orchestrate his own death. The Mastermind is based on the bizarre real-life story of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a Guatemalan attorney who, in 2009, planned his own assassination after leaving behind a video accusing Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom of his murder. (In April 2011, the New Yorker published an article by David Grann about Rosenberg which has been optioned by Matt Damon for his directorial debut.) This is a fascinating depiction of modern-day Guatemala and the corrupt, criminal, and threatening reality that permeates its society.” Source: Akashic Books.



“Regrettably, if you are currently watching or listening to this message, it’s because I was murdered by President Alvaro Colom…” (Youtube: The Unspeakable Murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg)

Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano (b. 1960), a Guatemalan lawyer, was murdered on May 10, 2009. On May 12, a video Marzano had recorded before his death was posted to youtube. In it, he claimed that President de Colom was responsible for the death of two of his clients, political opponents of de Colom as well as for Marzano’s own murder, and went on to list numerous allegations of corruption, money laundering, and other illegal activities allegedly engaged in by the administration. By May 13, the FBI had arrived on the scene to assist in the investigation as Guatemala was swept by protests, political upheavals, and arrests (including of a blogger who urged depositors to withdraw all assets from Banrural). Six months later, on January 10, 2010, the UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala concluded that Marzano had commissioned his own death and been involved in an elaborate plot to bring down the Guatemalan president.

That is the true story. The Mastermind is a reimagined account of this stranger-than-fiction tale, spun as a love-story and vivid account of the corruption permeating Guatemalan politics.

Attorney Guillermo Rosensweig leads the picture-perfect life: wife, two kids, lucrative profession, nice home. He also sleeps around—a lot. And, of course, one day he falls madly in love (well, more like lust) with a client’s daughter. This client, incidentally, has been part of a commission set up to investigate the Guatemalan president for money laundering and other criminal activities. The story’s political and historical outlines roughly follow the ‘true story’ for much of the novel (with twists, which I will not spoil).



Guatemala 2013

The Mastermind was for me an incredibly fascinating read, especially as my first novel by a Guatemalan author. I visited Guatemala in 2013 and was so struck by its creative, vibrant, verdant, colorful vibe (to this day, I have not visited a place as welcoming as Guatemala, and I do mean: the place itself, not just the people, who were also extremely friendly).

As described by Unger, Guatemala is the ‘cultural’ center of Central America, but there are so many layers I, in my touristy, American naivete, was not aware of. I have read enough to know that we (the US) have wrecked significant chaos in Latin America by propping up puppet dictators amongst other imperial acts, especially during the Cold War (in our ever-feverish quest to squelch communist sympathies), and also enough to know I don’t really know enough to speak of this in an educated way, or even, apparently, to understand the undercurrents of the repercussions as they manifest today (during my visit).

While much of the story revolves around the tortured love-making of Rosensweig and his client’s daughter, what struck me most about The Mastermind was the portrayal of modern Guatemala, of a life lived in a place beset with corruption at all levels of political, economic, and social structures. Unger renders daily experience as an acceptance of inevitable incompetence, murder, exploitation, and fraud, as resignation. “The beauty of living in a country as corrupt as Guatemala,” he writes, “is that evidence can vanish as easily as smoke. Scarcity creates a society in which the truth of any situation can be variable or even paradoxical, and very few people will care. It happens all the time…” Still, there is an undercurrent of hope displayed by all characters, even Rosensweig himself, who, after all, by creating the video, declares his willingness to sacrifice himself in order to expose corruption and ‘save’ his country (true, his life was in shambles by this point and he is an at times detestable, egoistical character, but still, he is unquestionably passionate about the state of Guatemalan politics/life).

The book is not perfect—there is a good amount of ‘telling’, especially polemical asides about the political situation in Guatemala. I did not actually mind this at all (as I would if this book was set in the US and written by an American author), because this is the first I’ve read a Guatemalan voice on the matter. It’s also definitely rated “X” for graphic sex (not my thing in literature; usually I see it as a cop-out, but in this instance, it worked well with the tone/mood and characterizations).

Probably the most exciting effect of reading this is that I am now absolutely motivated to read more about Guatemalan history (I have had The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation by Greg Grandin on my shelf since my trip to Guatemala, definitely time to move it to the top of the list—and also, to find history books written by Guatemalans); I also very much look forward to reading more Guatemalan fiction.

Definitely recommended!

Read another review of The Mastermind @bookhaunt, which inspired me to get to this book already! Thank you!!! xx


  1. This sounds fascinating! And definitely the ‘stranger than fiction’ description sounds very apt for this book. I don’t know very much about Guatemala, but your review makes me want to know more!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a wonderful review, Ioana! Once again, you’ve introduced a fascinating book that I hadn’t even heard of before. I love that your reviews always incorporate what a book means to you personally. I’d definitely be interested in reading this, as I’m not too knowledgeable about Guatemalan politics and corruption.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Fatima! Hehe another friend pointed that out as well – I do use books and my reviews as a ‘journal’ of sorts.. And I did love this book for motivating me to learn more about Guatemala – it is so overlooked here in the US at least (literature and politics). Thank you for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like an intriguing read! I also feel ignorant of Guatemalan politics and the U.S.’s involvement in the region. Thank you for reviewing books from such varied viewpoints and places, with such passion. You inspire me to branch out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Laila, the feeling is definitely mutual, I am also very much inspired by your reading selections. I do feel we completely ignore most of Central America in the US so I was very happy to come across this book in a random late-night Goodreads binge of clicking through recommendations.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t read any books by a Guatemalan writer yet. It’s great that you first venture into Guatemalan literature went so well!
    Your passion of learning is admirable. You read a novel such as this one and are innately motivated to read more about Guatemalan history! That’s wonderful and speaks volumes about your intellectual curiosity.


  5. Wonderful review, Ioana! You do know so much and maybe we can never know more than that we don’t know enough! 🙂 But you are definitely educating me! I do need to read some Guatemalan lit, perhaps it’ll be this one it sounds great fun! Love the genre mix especially.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Bina! I realized when I picked this up that I’d never read fiction out of Central America before – so need to rectify that situation and hopefully this is just a start. Unger writes in both English and Spanish and I realized after writing this post that although he was born in Guatemala and has been awarded Guatemala’s Miguel Angel Asturias National Literature Prize, the highest of honors, he actually lives in the US (NYC) at the moment… So I’m definitely looking forward to finding more novels by authors still residing there.


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