Pais portatil

If there is one novel I would want to try to translate into English it would be Pais portatil (1968) by Adriano Gonzalez Leon (Venezuela, 1931). Tonight in Caracas there is a ceremony scheduled to honor the 35th anniversary of this novel, which won the Seix Barral Premio Biblioteca Breve prize in 1968.

The novel centers on the journey of one man through Caracas in a single day, from east to west. He is on an errand for the Leftist guerrilla group he belongs to, delivering items from one end of the city to another. The novel vividly captures the shift into postmodernity that Venezuela underwent during the 1960s, a period which was marked by the rise of various guerrilla movements throughout Venezuela. Many of these guerrillas were recruited from the Universidad Central de Venezuela and other universities, and several of the groups were funded and trained by Cuba. For anyone who came of age in Venezuela in the 1960s, the guerrilla movements would have affected their lives in one way or another. My father occasionally has mentioned people he knew at UCV in the early 1960s who ended up joining clandestine guerrilla groups.

Interestingly enough, many of these idealistic young people later abandoned their weapons and returned to Venezuelan society. The founder and current editor of the newspaper Tal Cual, Teodoro Petkoff, for instance, was one of the most hunted-after guerrilla leaders of that time period. When I was in Caracas last year, I remember a conversation I had with a neighbor who is in his 80s. We were, as ever it seems, talking about the Chavez problem. He pointed out the differences to me between that earlier generation's attempt at revolution and the current Bolivarian telenovela. He mentioned how he still had a great deal of respect for the way in which that older generation had at least followed a set of moral standards, even if their methods were mistaken. As for his thoughts on Chavez & co. he was hoping like the rest of us for a way out of their "revolutionary" clutches.

Gonzalez Leon's masterful novel intersperces two narratives throughout its pages. In one, the protagonist moves through Caracas on foot, and by car and bus, reflecting on the oil-rich boom of Venezuela Saudita and its effect on the city's landscape and language. The presence of English in Venezuelan Spanish, through phrases and words that have been adopted and spanglified or Venezuelafied. I remember Caracas hippies in the 1970s, for instance, always calling each other "brother" (Epa, brother!"). The second narrative recounts certain events surrounding the protagonist's ancestors in the state of Trujillo during the late 19th century. Gonzalez Leon brings the era of caudillismo alive quite well, when much of the country was split into distinct regions that were ruled by caudillos, or local chieftans/warlords.

Now, as the 21st century begins, it often seems as though the current government is insisting on taking us all back to the days of caudillismo. As far as I know, Gonzalez Leon is still a Professor in the Escuela de Letras at UCV. I've spoken with friends and acquaintances who studied with him at UCV and they commented on his love of French symbolist poetry. To my knowledge, Pais portatil has never been translated into English. Yet another symptom of Venezuela's relative invisibility on the global literary map. I consider this novel to be one of the best of the Boom.

No comments: