Palabras Errantes: Voices From the Venezuelan City

1

I

In 2010, Simon Romero published an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Venezuela, More Deadly Than Iraq’. Comparing statistics of civilian deaths in Caracas unfavourably to those in Baghdad, Romero claimed that citizens of the Venezuelan capital might feel safer living in a war-torn country in the Middle East. The comparison quickly spread on Twitter and across the blogasphere, as such sensationalist statements often do. This wasn’t the first time that the Venezuelan city would receive such provocative treatment in Anglophone media. In July 2007, the New Statesman’s leading story described a ‘power-crazed Chávez’ and his tyrannical behaviour. The issue featured an image of the president-made-devil doll on its front cover and a description of a ‘cold civil war’ inside. An explicitly visceral Guardian video on ‘Venezuela’s most violent city’ did the rounds in 2011, while in the run-up to 2012 presidential elections, The Economist dubbed Mr. Chávez ‘Hugoliath’, the autocrat leader of ‘one of Latin America’s most dangerous places’.

It is difficult for the reader of the English-language press to avoid the predominant issues surrounding ‘chavismo’ and civil unrest when thinking about Venezuela. Images of violence and political polarisation have come to inform our imagination of a place previously defined by baseball, oil, and world-famous beauty queens in equally superficial terms. Flattened by constant reports of death and destruction, our contemporary world-view of Caracas is determined by a small group of reporters intent on making news. We feel that such a narrow representation does the complexities of daily experience an injustice, simultaneously locating Venezuela as an unknowable tropical hellhole contrasted with Britain’s temperate shores. While the topics covered by the global media are undoubtedly of local importance, they smother other concerns, movements, and events equally pertinent to twenty first century reality. Not least of these is a burgeoning national literary scene that engages with plural perspectives of spaces that are multi-dimensional, ever changing and endlessly vibrant. This multiplicity is the focus of Palabras Errantes’ latest edition, ‘Voices from the Venezuelan City’.

The project began in late 2011 with a small selection of texts found on Venezuelan fiction blogs. From there, the project grew organically along various lines of suggestions, recommendations, and textual donations. By October 2012, we had gathered works by twenty writers. Our authors span two generations. Some are upcoming names in cultural circles: our youngest, born in 1987, is Enza García, who has published three books and has received a host of literary prizes. Others are perhaps better known on the international scene: Alberto Barrera Tyzka’s novel, Sickness, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year. For our writers, dozens of cities serve as places of birth, origin, residence, and matter, both within and outside of Venezuela. For our translators, there are many more. As such, we understand ‘the Venezuelan city’ to be something other than one particular entity made up of concrete articulations. Working with distinct times and places, we offer not a definitive vision of Venezuela and what Venezuelan literature might be today. Rather, we listen to voices that are sometimes harmonious, sometimes in discord, sometimes trying to speak across a divide.

II

For this edition, Palabras Errantes has translated twenty-five texts, which include poetry, prose, short stories, and novel extracts. United somewhat sporadically under the banner of ‘urban literature’, the texts bear stark differences in content, style, and attitude. At a first glance, Federico Vegas’s wild fantasies of a night out with Freddie Mercury on the Caracas gay scene in ‘Mercury’ has little in common with, say, Gabriel Payares’ ‘Nagasaki (In the Heart)’, a love story between a university lecturer and his Japanese student in the Andean city of Mérida. Despite their obvious disparities, however, readings of the texts in tandem reveal lines of thought that can be traced through even the most unlikely of narrative companions. As such, we have loosely grouped the texts into five categories that come under the titles of domesticity, eccentricity, toxicity, atrocity and fugacity.

Our narratives of domesticity begin in one of the city’s smallest, most intimate spaces: at home. Within the four walls of the penthouse, the block, the shantyhouse, lives are equally held together and fall apart. The hopeless protagonist of Miguel Hidalgo Prince’s ‘Lost Battles’ struggles to maintain a relationship with his errant son and cheating wife while on the verge of losing his upmarket flat to bankruptcy. ‘For Sale’ is taken from Mario Morenza’s ‘novel of stories’, La senda de los diálogos perdidos. Here, each story is set in different flats that make up a 1950s apartment bloque typical of modernist Caracas architecture. The owner of A-8 carefully packs his belongings, ruminating on reminiscences and the meaning of memory. Meanwhile, the protagonist of Krina Ber’s ‘Signals’ moves in, encountering difficulties in communication and the quotidian in contemporary Caracas. Finally, ‘Lurking Objects’ takes us from block to barrio. Here, Gisela Kozak deals with gendered structures of power in city slums, as the macro becomes micro and violence invades the home.

The use of eccentricity as a stylistic feature that exposes the mundane domestic sphere to the whims of fantasy and the fears of horror grants urban narrative a dreamlike dimension. Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez’s ‘Brief Treatise on Coughing’ takes a small irritation to its illogical conclusion, bearing hallmarks of the uncanny as the familiar becomes a nightmare. Mrs Hyde, the narrator of Sonia Chacrón’s eponymous short story, undergoes an other worldly transformation before her mirror and is unleashed on the city’s streets, now rendered dark and dangerous. ‘The String of Beads’, one of Leila Marcano’s fictional pieces, contains the remnants of magical realism, transposed into a globalized context. Here, an inexplicable hole opens up in the floor of an Andean ranch. Soon colonized by Western tourism, the pit becomes less a literary lack and more an object of commerce, causing some inconvenience to the campesino family.

Outside, in the bars and clubs of the city, the texts become infused with toxicity. The narrative is drunk on love and excess, moving to the erratic beats of lust and nightlife. The wildchild protagonist that forms the focus of Dayana Fraile’s ‘The One About Dove’ scours Caracas for her magical place, reaching the highest point of the city in a moment of ecstasy before falling to the ground with a bump. The awkward teenage narrator of Rodrigo Blanco’s ‘Flamingo’ struggles with entering an adult world made up of strange signs and objects. Music and sex inform his existence, until he is confronted by the darker side of urban experience. The old, weathered characters of Oscar Marcano’s homage ‘To Those That Never Finished Anything’ find themselves drowning in whisky and sorrows, now beyond the joys and distractions that the city once had to offer.

From toxicity comes atrocity, perhaps unsurprisingly. These are the texts that deal with the horrors of urban life, seeking to highlight feelings of despair but also the presence of hope. Senseless, barbaric, or driven by desire, here the pedestrian narratives explore the anthropomorphic toll of social discontents. ‘The Incident’, by Ana Garcia Julio, is a short piece of prose that imagines the falling footsteps of a man caught unawares in crossfire. The faceless victim of press reports is given space to reflect on existence at the edge of death. Raquel Rivas Rojas’ ‘Debt’ envisages a point of contact between an aggressive rift in political rhetoric, inviting us to consider the consequences of compromise. ‘Her Own Calendar of Saints’, from Héctor Torres’ journalistic collection Caracas muerde, reminds us of the power of paranoia and the myths it perpetuates. A graveyard of humanity, the city is also a cradle, protecting those most vulnerable to the unpredictable throes of modernity.

Finally, fugacity: fleeting spaces of escape. Now we leave our places of origin, delve into secret realms and seek new beginnings. Still we fantasise of a moment of return. In the city, absence invades our subconscious and clings stubbornly to all notions of identity. We are introduced to the Mickey Rourke look-a-like of Gustavo Valle’s Underground as he embarks on a search for his father, literally lost beneath the urban fabric years before. Observing a ‘Chinese beggar’ from afar, Sebastián C. debates the politics of global migrations and cultural exchanges with the short sightedness of someone safe in the knowledge of belonging. Carolina Lozada’s ‘Liberty Queen’ follows the journey of Feliz Hernández from her native island to somewhere that might, potentially, offer more opportunity, only to find her trajectory cut short. In her story ‘Just Like Riding a Bike’, Marianne Díaz Hernández takes us to an airport, possibly the most impersonal ‘non-place’ of our times. But here childhood nostalgia seeps through the cracks of the text, transforming the clinical atmosphere into a situated space of dreams of lost loves and home.

So we come full circle, via the twists and turns of the urban labyrinth, back to where we began. Feelings of spatial belonging are juxtaposed with sentiments of exclusion and uncertainty, all the while carrying a compassion for citizens more real than the pictures of the press. Navigating these texts has, for me, been an experience comparable to stepping out of a plane in a new place for the first time. At first, it was unclear quite what to expect: our itinerary was far from determined, our route from A to B not yet mapped. Our familiarity with the cityscape was not extensive, though some landmarks were recognizable from a popular imaginary. The challenges we faced were both predictable (an attempt to avoid facile political judgements was a particular concern) and unforeseen. Gradually, with the guidance of our authors and skill of our translators, we found our footing. Trailing stories set in La Guaira to Sabana Grande, from Los Palos Grandes to Propatria, we have made our way through the breadth of urban space. The journey has been eye-opening, thought-provoking and extremely rewarding. It is also, I hope, incomplete. In opening a dialogue now with our readers, we look forward to exploring further the literary spaces of the city, and listening to more of the voices that it holds.

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