In his post, “Our Man in Madrid” series editor Jonathan Blitzer speaks about Wagnerian imprecations and military coups in Juan Carlos Chirinos’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Juan Carlos Chirinos dedicated “Ride of the Valkyries” to his friend the Venezuelan photographer and portraitist Vasco Szinetar. Szinetar had proposed Chirinos try writing about politics outside the realm of fiction, in the form of editorials or essays, and Chirinos responded (as he tells us in his interview) by taking on a political subject in a story, something he rarely does, although to know Chirinos this seems a strange fact. (He is very politically conscious and even something of a political junkie; it’s just not an overt part of his fiction). The dedication is revealing in another way, though. This story is also a kind of portrait: a comic one maybe, full of baroque ironies and motley allusions, but essentially a snapshot of an old and rumpled couple, two aristocrats who were once (perhaps always) ordinary and unremarkable, but who, under the circumstances, happen also to be an outgoing president and first lady. There’s even a touch of Goya about the images in the story. The fumbling pair brings to mind the irreverence of Goya’s portrait of Charles IV and his family; characters gaze off distractedly and are at a comic remove from one another, all while being captured as though in a hastily snapped photo.
The husband and wife at the center of the story are modeled after former Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera and his wife Alicia Pietri. The brewing coup attempt against the president in the story (with its ominous, Wagnerian soundtrack) is a fictional one, but the humor of it is historical. In 1994, Caldera pardoned quite a notable former golpista: Hugo Chavez, whose aborted February 4, 1992 golpe de estado had landed him in prison.
Caldera’s blue-blooded wife, whom Chirinos playfully touches up with descriptions of her childhood longings, rounds out the portrait. And if her lineage (partially invoked in the story) strikes non-Venezuelans as obscure, its prestige is nevertheless unmistakable. Part of the mischievousness of the story—although also a challenge, chasing after the resourcefully referential Chirinos—is in the contrast between the belabored genealogy of the aristocratic Pietri and the equally long parade of literary and historical characters alluded to in the story. In one of the more nakedly allusive moments, for instance, Chirinos writes that the campesinos, or “those who stunk of the earth,” knew as well or better than anyone “who Efraín and María [were] . . . Abelardo, Eloísa and Amadís, and Eulalia too . . .” The campesinos, too, have legendary forebears in a way. And this may after all be another coup enacted in the story, as Chirinos overthrows a political republic and replaces it with a republic of letters.
I’m not sure, though, this is exactly what Chirinos meant when he told his friend he’d write a political story. At first blush anyway, the story seems decidedly nonpolitical—and this in spite of itself. The scene is unquestionably that of a president and his wife in flight, their palace under impending assault. But the closest we get to actual golpistas are the nameless, swarming helicopters that advance on the president and his retinue. And even then, by the time they reach him, the chief threat isn’t armed assault but rather the sort of Wagnerian imprecations they heap, like a curse, upon the crumbling political order. The ironies here are tough to tease out. At times, this all feels like overthrow by evacuation: a political moment emptied of its overtly political content, a president and his wife whose inner lives are vapid and clichéd, language meant to outdo (then undo) itself and drift into pastiche.
The tones blur here—a kind of taunt to anyone trying to render this in English—because Chirinos is turning bombast on itself to lay bare the smugness of the established order. The best part for me, translating the story, was watching when Chirinos occasionally blinked. In these moments, the practiced nonsense of the presidential couple spills out into the narration of the story itself, and Chirinos scurries after the stray verbiage with a humanist’s zeal to redeem words by the weight of their proper meaning.
Read Jonathan Blitzer’s translation of “Ride of the Valkyries” over here.