Canadian author David Cozac was born and raised in Toronto. He works for the United Nations. In the past, he worked for several human rights organizations, including PEN Canada and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
Finishing the Road (2017, Tightrope Books) is Mr Cozac’s debut novel and it certainly augurs well for any future books he may pen. Set in Guatemala in the closing years of its Civil War (1960-1999), it involves three principal characters: Marc, a young man from Toronto who is in the country to learn Spanish, Sixteen-year-old Magdalena and her younger brother Jacinto, Ixil people now living in Guatemala City whose father was taken away by the military, and whose mother died while they were hiding from government troops in the jungle, and Claire, a French journalist who has recently learned of her Guatemalan father and has traveled to the country to meet him for the first time.
What ironically ties them together (although they are all unknown to each other) is their lack of ties, primarily familial ones. Marc was raised by a single mother; his birth father wants nothing to do with him; Claire, a journalist raised by loving parents, finds out about her mother’s dalliance with Rodolfo, a Guatemalan businessman while she was on vacation, and now wants to meet him (he wants to meet her too), and the young Mayan children whose only remaining family is Domingo, their elderly grandfather still living in Nebaj, where Magdalena grew up (Jacinto was born while the family was hiding in the jungle). They are all searching for something elusive, and they hope to find it in this beautiful, but war-ravaged country.
The Flight of the Quetzal
What initiates Marc’s travels in Guatemala is an article by Claire that he reads in an English-language newspaper. It is like anything he has ever read, and totally unexpected in a newspaper. It is not a travel piece, but the beginnings of a personal journey undertaken by Claire to visit “the real Guatemala” that her father spoke about: Lake Atítilan, la Zona Reina, Todos Santos and Nebaj. He tells her:
“Everything has it’s beauty, even amid tragedy. Our aim is to discover that and let it flourish. I wonder sometimes how much longer this country can sustain the sadness. Too many tears have fallen, but I think of those places, and I retain some hope.”
Her spirited articles are written from the viewpoint of a quetzal, a bird native to Central America. Her journey begins from the capital city (as do Marc’s, Magdelena’s and Jacinto’s):
“This bird cannot live in captivity, so my wings must keep me flying far beyond this city whose chaos will only cage me.”
After reading those concluding words of Claire’s first instalment of her journal entry for the paper, Marc decides to follow her travel route, thinking:
What if this paper caused his heart to take notice and act? What if the words he read led him to something inside himself?
There was something contained in Claire’s article that Marc could not ascertain, but he felt he must follow in the writer’s path.
Meanwhile, Magdalena and Jacinto are on a bus headed north to Nebaj. They look out the grimy window of the bus and see two small crimson red kites in the sky:
The string that connected them ran down into the hill. Those maneuvering them were invisible. Perhaps they were running, perhaps laughing, perhaps jostling each other in jest to see who could reach the greater height, Magdalena thought. She guessed that they were happy, if only because seeing the kites soar in front of her eyes made her happy.
Are the kites a sign of freedom for her and Jacinto? True, they are tethered, yet the people holding the tethers are no doubt happy, friendly people. The type of people she remembers the people of Nebaj to be.
The stage is now set for the three principle characters to leave the chaotic capital and fly into the unknown, searching for something undefined in a country that defies definition.
What pulled me into this book so quickly was Mr Cozac’s magical skill of inserting the reader firmly into the consciousness of his characters, embedding us into a time and place so promptly that the three storylines can proceed after a dozen or so pages into the book. Marc and Claire, while coming from disparate backgrounds, are each a story unto themselves. Marc, entranced by Claire’s writing, shuns advances from other women he meets on his trek. He is solely desirous of meeting the woman whose words hold him spellbound, recognizing (or hoping) that what Claire seeks may be what he is seeking also. Magdalena seeks a connection, or reconnection, with her people and with family. She wants to learn how to weave the intricate and colorful traditional garments worn by the Mayans. She knows the city is not for her. A determined young woman, she wants a better life for her and her brother.
Finishing the Road was, for me, the type of book you don’t want to put down, can’t wait to pick up, and yet, at the same time, you never want it to end. For those reasons, I am putting it on my 2018 long list for a “Very Best!” Book Award in the fiction category.