photo by Daniel Mordzinski
In the first installment in WWB’s Our Man in Madrid series, Jonathan Blitzer speaks to Juan Carlos Chirinos, whose story “Ride of the Valkyries” appears in the February issue of the magazine. Read it over here.
Jonathan Blitzer: You went to Spain fifteen years ago to study in Salamanca, the idea being to get your doctorate and return to Venezuela. But you’ve stayed in Spain . . .
Juan Carlos Chirinos: What began in 1997 as an academic “excursion” became a kind of immigration experience and now seems to have turned into an indisguisable exile. I’ll explain: my initial intention was to finish my degree and return to work in Venezuela, but my desire to pursue a writing career and the way in which the last ten years have gone in my country [Venezuela] have shown the way to Madrid as a “center of operations” where I can connect with the rest of the world. What’s more, my personal life has changed too over the past several years, and these are eventualities you just can’t plan for. I’m still intimately connected to life in Venezuela nonetheless.
JB: Are you happy in Madrid? You have been to New York, Caracas, Paris; your wife is from the north, from Basque country, but you’ve decided to stay here in Madrid.
JCC: “If you are in Madrid, you’re from Madrid”—this is a city motto, and it does have a shred of truth. I’m happy in Madrid, and I believe everyone who decides to live here is also. Some, like my wife [who is Basque], are “national exiles,” since at the time she was a university student the [political] situation, between the terrorism and the fanatical nationalists, had gotten so grave that my wife and her family decided to abandon their home, where their family before them had lived for centuries. Tranquility is always more valuable than tradition, which in any case one can carry within oneself. Madrid is an open city, cosmopolitan; the past does not displace the present, but neither is tradition cast aside. It is the perfect city in which to think, just as the Hague had been for Spinoza.
JB: You grew up in Venezuela, where you published your first book. But most of your writing has taken place in Spain. Would it be fair to say that your literary development has had to do with being here?
JCC: It is inevitable that I write about Venezuela. But I should be clear about something: my life is not divided between my time in Venezuela and my time in Spain. The division is in quarters, and is defined by the cities where I’ve lived—Valera, Caracas, Salamanca, and Madrid. I lived in Valera until I was seventeen; my native city in the Venezuelan Andes, the world of the mountains and the rudiments of my life experience. In Caracas I completed my studies at the university, and I lived there until I was thirty; my intellectual growth, my first, truly conscious and voracious readings; the friendships of my adolescent and student years. Caracas is the most entertaining city in the world, and, as I said before, a real patchwork where everything blends together; each culture, each custom arrives and is mixed in, all without incident. If there is a concept of mixture (mestizaje) it takes on its definitive form in Caracas. In Salamanca, where I lived until 2001, I recovered the tranquility of small cities, like that of Valera. I found, once again, the time to write, the “slow life.” When I was in Salamanca, in 1997, my first book of stories appeared in Caracas; I’d been writing it since 1989, so it’s a book rooted in Venezuela. The rest that I’ve published I have written here in Spain. The years in Madrid have allowed me to be in closer touch with the editorial world and with other writers, which is an important part of promoting our work and becoming better known.
I believe that being in Spain has allowed me to see my own country with a distance that’s been positive for me. The way we carry around our identity, it is stuck to our skin, so much so that it’s difficult to separate it out. When the language changes, in this case as the daily parlance has changed, the lens through which one views the world also changes. Now I’m an Andean from Valera who lived in Caracas, studied in Salamanca for four years and lives these days in Madrid: add these four types of Spanish, mix them together, and you’ll have the language I use right now and, consequently, the type of books that I come to write.
JB: You’ve joked that you’re not a particularly patient reader (and that this may be because of the videogames you played, and the movies you watched, as a kid). Could you explain this? How does this affect you as a writer?
JCC: I read like channel surfing, as if I were watching television. I cannot read a single book at a time; I can’t write a single thing at a time. Television is to blame—also Atari (now extinct) and videogames. I move through books as if I were conquering worlds, I read pages as if I were beating levels [of a videogame]. I’m the Prince of Persia when it comes to reading, and I have many lives. But when I correct what I write I’m slow, like in a game of chess.
JB: What was the inspiration for your novel, El niño malo?
JCC: Two things: a poem by the [Venezuelan] poet Eugenio Montejo that is called “Los arboles” (Trees), and the notion that “exotic” is a relative term. These two things, and the search for a concept about evil. But there’s something more. At dawn one morning in Salamanca, while I was returning home, the moon appeared before me—a sliver of it—and I realized that the crescent moon was not in the same position as I expected it to be, in the “normal” position. Which is to say, in Caracas a crescent moon is like a smile, like a cradle for babies. Here in Spain the moon appears upright, vertical. And I then understood why, on the lunar calendars they sell in Venezuela, the phases of the moon are shown vertically. It is a European look, different from the experience I’d had firsthand. That’s when I realized how relative the word “exotic” was. For me, the vertical image of the moon was as exotic as the Amazonian jungle, or a mango, is for a European. These intuitions also gave shape to an important part of my novel.
JB: Could you say a word about this story, the “Ride of the Valkyries”?
JCC: This story is one of only a few I’ve written in which I take on a political subject directly, since I’m not too fond of that in general. The person to whom the story is dedicated is the Venezuelan photographer Vasco Szinetar, a great friend, who once told me something that inspired the story: that I could be political, or engage in a political act, not only by writing literature, but also by opining in the press, etc. So I wrote this story to show Vasco that I could do so by writing stories; that I could speak of a coup d’état in my country without needing to write an essay about it per se. But at the same time, and thanks to him, I realized that a writer ought to look to all sides and that the spaces for writing are sometimes beyond the realm of fiction.