A meta-novel that weaves the language of arrest records and surveillance reports from the Historical Archive of the Guatemala National Police, with the contemporary journal entries of a novelist (named Rodrigo) who is attempting to synthesize the stories of political activists, indigenous people, and other women and men who became ensnared in a deadly web of state-sponsored terrorism.
Had Rey Rosa written a nonfiction account of what he learned from the missing-persons files, it likely would have been gripping in its own right. Instead, Rey Rosa wrapped his real-life search in a fictionalized container, and the results are haunting and revelatory in ways that nonfiction couldn’t accomplish ... For many American readers, Human Matter may resonate in a number of potentially contradictory ways. The involvement of the American government, and of American corporations, in Guatemalan affairs in the twentieth century is deeply felt here ... Contemporary events have also caused Human Matter to take on newfound relevance ... The timing of the publication of this translation of Rey Rosa’s novel acquires an ominous dimension with this information ... But like the ways in which the author weaves together fact and fiction, it never feels like a demonstration of literary cleverness as much as the gradually suffocating sensation of moral rot, a terrifying post-script to a novel already terrifying in its implications.
Political violence in Guatemala—past and present—and how it filters into the life of one of its citizens drives this short, intense novel ... An undercurrent of slow dread seems to permeate the small, inconsequential details of daily routine throwing into stark relief the paranoias that are lurking close to the surface ... In Human Matter, Rey Rosa turns abnormality into a new normal, where spending time with his young daughter or having a drink in a bar with a friend is a welcome break from the political and personal violence that seem to constantly linger and that threatens to erupt on the next page. By the end of this novel you feel glad to have come out on the other side and carry the hope that Rodrigo Rey Rosa, those close to him, and his fellow countrymen will do so, too.
...[a] somber, allusive story ... Rey Rosa is suggestive rather than explicit, his narrator slowly despairing of ever finding the truth: When asked who his story is intended for, he finally replies, 'maybe it’s just for me.' ... Of a piece with the author’s Dust on Her Tongue as an exploration of political violence and its troubling reverberations.