An Introduction to New Venezuelan Writing

It surely is far from good manners to start an introduction with a caveat, but if the subject to be addressed is related to Venezuela, as this one is, it also may be dishonest, even slightly deceitful, to simply begin in medias res. At any rate, I think the reader should know that this introduction has gone through half a dozen versions since the first draft was almost finished, for it was then that a very serious crisis erupted in Venezuela. Starting on February 4, thousands of students have taken to the streets in this country to demonstrate against a radical deterioration of living conditions over the past years, and especially against the increase in violent crime. With an annual homicide rate of close to 25,000, or roughly 79 per 100,000 residents, Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous places in the world. This figure is all the more appalling since the country is not at war. Furthermore, the main victims of what Venezuelans euphemistically call “insecurity” are young men aged fifteen to twenty-four. To compound this situation, the economy is in shambles. Soaring inflation figures are second only to Syria’s, where an all-out armed conflict is indeed in full swing. Severe food shortages hit Venezuelans across the board, amid daily power outages and the collapse of basic infrastructure and services. Having wielded power uninterruptedly for the past fifteen years, the late President Chávez and his followers have confiscated government and State institutions and exert a control that is both egregious and ineffectual on almost all productive sectors of the economy. Political opponents and dissenting voices are censored, and mainstream media outlets as well as social networking sites face increasing threats and punitive restrictions. It is amid these and other daunting political, economic, and social hurdles that university students took to the streets all over the country to publicly and peacefully voice their fears and demands. The government’s response has been brutal and vicious. As I write, ten protesters have been killed and several hundred jailed (including minors), and several cases of torture by police and the military have been reported and documented. On the Colombian border, the State of Táchira, where the first protests took place, has been declared a militarized zone. One of the most vocal opposition leaders has been thrown into jail on trumped-up charges. For more than a week, in cities like Mérida and Valencia as well as in the capital, Caracas, government-sponsored gangs, known as colectivos, have roamed the streets heavily armed, especially at sundown, intimidating and attacking demonstrators and bystanders with impunity.

Some may say none of these facts bear any significant relation to cultural and literary issues. Novels and poems and short stories usually do not engage in direct fashion with mundane realities, but their authors are not disembodied beings pouring forth their verbal constructs in an ecstasy, like Keats’s nightingale, oblivious to and cut off from daily hassles.

The realities Venezuelan authors perforce must contend with in order to reach an audience include, in addition to those formidable obstacles just mentioned, the fact that their country is almost constantly ignored by the mainstream circuit of international publishers, literary prizes, and specialized media. Indeed, how many readers have recently come across a book by a Venezuelan author? Students and researchers in Latin American studies surely have, but these small pockets of acclaim and interest do not represent a trend among the larger reading public. For the general public, knowledge of Latin American literature at large is more often than not restricted to household names, i.e., authors and works that have achieved global visibility through mainstream publishing channels. Unfortunately for Venezuelan authors, none of them has. True, this condition affects literary output from other countries in the region as well, but a case can be made for Venezuelan authors being customarily ignored outside their native country, irrespective of the quality and scope of their oeuvre. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with a conspiracy. Nobody is censoring these authors, at least not outside Venezuela, and some of them have lately started to pop up on the lists of Spanish publishing houses both big and small. But the condition alluded to here is at once subtle and pervasive, and has to do with our common perception of Latin American literature in general, as well as our specific knowledge, where any is available, of Venezuela in particular.

The poor visibility of Venezuelan authors, thus, stems from a hodgepodge of factors. For instance, it is a sad yet inevitable fact of life that stale commercial stereotypes help connect readers with foreign cultures. On this count, Venezuela can boast its own salvo of world-renowned tropes, from oil exports to soap operas and beauty queens. But on the cultural front there is simply nothing associated with this country that would ring a bell for the public at large, at any rate nothing that compares, say, to Brazilian bossa nova, the Argentinian zest for psychoanalysis, or Colombian magical realism, amid other worn-out yet long-standing Latin American cultural clichés. In short, Venezuelan authors wishing to reach a wider audience outside their country have to overcome at least three formidable obstacles: the tendency among mainstream publishers to churn out work mainly by well-established literary authors, an insufficient or hackneyed knowledge of their native country abroad, and fast-deteriorating political and economic conditions at home, fraught with limitations and outright danger.

The nine authors—five women, four men—showcased in this special issue of Words without Borders have all published extensively in Venezuela. The majority have been translated into several languages, though none has yet appeared in book form in English. At least one narrator, Alberto Barrera Tyszka, and one poet, Rafael Cadenas, are also read by and enjoy a following among a select yet growing public outside Venezuela, the former since having been awarded a prestigious Spanish literary prize in 2006, the latter thanks to a slow but steady recognition of his work as one of the most distinguished and significant achievements in poetry written in Spanish in our time.

Among the narrators, three have also developed a significant body of work in fields other than the literary. Barrera Tyszka and Milagros Socorro are renowned journalists and media professionals, and Ana Teresa Torres, although now retired, is also known for her practice as a psychologist and analyst. The three regularly publish op-ed articles in important local journals, both printed and digital, and Torres’s essays on various historical and political issues have hit the local bestseller lists. Victoria de Stefano, now regarded in Latin America as an outstanding novelist, has also lectured and conducted research in philosophy at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, and published essays on such topics as Sartre, Marxism, and Baudelaire’s aesthetics.

All of the authors selected have a solid following among Venezuelan audiences. Their work is published locally by independent commercial publishers, yet it must be noted that it rarely, if at all, circulates through official government-funded channels, and they are not invited and/or willing to participate in literary events promoted by state institutions. Monte Avila, for instance, a publishing house funded by Venezuelan governments since its inception in the late 1960s, which in its heyday attained a reputation comparable to Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica, is now forced to comply with an ideologically oriented and extremely sectarian political agenda dictated by the government. The selected authors have all chosen not to conform, and most of them are vocal in their criticism of the government’s coercive methods. As a result, they are treated as personae non gratae, and those who published there before 1999 (Cadenas, De Stefano, Torres, Centeno) have seen their titles expunged from the catalogue. This grievous situation echoes that of a country deeply divided along partisan lines, with both sides ignoring each other. It is as if an invisible yet impenetrable wall kept Venezuelans on either side of this artificial, enforced divide from freely communicating. A tropical version of the Berlin Wall.

Three of these authors have left Venezuela and now live abroad: María Auxiliadora Álvarez and Israel Centeno in the United States, Sánchez Rugeles in Spain. This needs to be stressed, for until very recently, and as opposed to other Latin Americans, Venezuelans as a rule rarely emigrated. In the 1960s and through the 1990s, at a time when most countries in South America struggled under brutal dictatorships, Venezuela was a fairly open and liberal democracy. Now, authors unwilling to submit to ideological indoctrination have the choice either to stay and work under the harsh conditions described, or take the hazardous path to exile.

All texts have been selected with the intent of showing at least one significant feature of the authors’ work. De Stefano and Torres masterfully handle innuendos instilled with a civil irony, as they make sense of the most common experiences sifted through memory. Socorro’s wry humor is here aptly applied to a farcical situation, with a surprising twist at the end to boot. Sánchez Rugeles’s straightforward realism and conversational style all the more enhance the grotesque details of a marriage gone terribly wrong. Israel Centeno’s story is a narrative tour-de-force, typical of his daring, experimental stance, and is the only piece in this selection to directly address a contemporary historical event closely related to the new Chavista masters of his country. Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s story of a romantic infidelity is wrapped in clever and skillful suspense, and its humorous implications make it a memorable reading experience.

As for the poets, the humble voice in Cadenas’s poem, selected from his most recent book, miraculously opens up a space where words, poet, and reader meet, recognizing and simultaneously exchanging identities, in a graceful enactment of a soul-searching and soul-finding dialogue. In Yolanda Pantin’s poetry, ordinary occurrences have the uncanny ability to shatter the surface of our apparently normal lives, to reveal under its crust a chasm, a gulf where desire and memory are no longer nostalgia’s prestigious masks, but the very stuff the poem is made of. And María Auxiliadora Álvarez weaves a gossamer yet unbreakable thread of words in and out of silence, until a spark of pure sense briefly illuminates the world, as if the poet strived to reenact the very first moment of creation, when words gave birth to meaning out of nothingness.

This body of work proves how ultimately futile it is to read such a historical, social, and ideological construct as “national character” into a piece of writing. More often than not, this notion thrives in the eye of the beholder. But these authors’ works, it seems to me, manage to capture a fleeting image of something true and complex and changing that is an essential part of their country and their world, something that’s within each of them, that they carry with them and probably will always carry, and that at the same time they see mirrored by and reflected in the actual world they come from or live in. An almost instinctive sense of humor, a common detestation of self-pity and arrogance, a tone almost always conversational, even in the poetry, a search for communion without fuzzy mystic roundabouts. A literature that is humane, open, unpretentious, but highly effective in showing human foibles for what they are, and without drama at that. Maybe it’s in these traits, this tone, this general outlook that “Venezuelanness” ultimately lies.

© Ana Nuño 2014. All rights reserved.