Réquiem para un premio / Gustavo Guerrero (*)

Requiem for a Prize

At the beginning of this year, when the members of the jury for the XIV Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos were announced, many of us Venezuelans felt that, without warning, a long stage in the history of our central literary contest was closing. Simultaneously, and just as brusquely, another one or other ones seemed to open, announcing themselves as more uncertain, more ill-fated and more disquieting. Created in 1964 to honor and perpetuate the memory of the author of Doña Bárbara—and at the same time as an alternative and counterweight to the growing influence of the Casa de las Américas and Cuba’s cultural politics—, the Rómulo Gallegos Prize had been one of the most prestigious events for the field of fiction in our language throughout four decades.

Just as an undoubtedly impressive list of winners shows, many people passed through Caracas to claim that distinction, including the Mario Vargas Llosa of La casa verde in 1967, the Gabriel García Márquez of Cien años de soledad in 1971 or the Carlos Fuentes of Terra Nostra in 1977. More recently, and to cite another three examples, the award was given to Javier Marías in 1995 for Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, to the ill-fated Roberto Bolaño in 1999 for Los detectives salvajes and to Enrique Vila-Matas in 2001 for El viaje vertical. It’s true that the juries were not always correct, and it’s also true that the prize faltered in status and regular recurrence on several occasions; but it’s no less true that, over the last 40 years, it had been one of the most solid and accredited institutions of our literary republic, a dignified, liberal and open contest which, in contrast to its Cuban rivals, was proud of its independence and did not require its juries nor its winners to follow a determined political affiliation. If these could just as well be conservatives, Marxists or Social Democrats, they represented, year after year, a living and impeccable example of pluralism and diversity. As proof we can refer to the jury from 1993, which consisted of Arturo Uslar Pietri, Lisandro Otero and Fernando Alegría, or the one from 1999 made up of personalities as different as Saúl Sosnowski, Antonio Benítez Rojo, Hugo Achugar and Carlos Noguera.

The 2005 edition marked a clear rupture with this healthy tradition.

I remember that, when the list of jury members was published, a Cuban friend of mine said to me, half-jokingly: “Man, El Comandante has arrived and he’s ordered for things to stop.” And it’s just that one would have to be blind or naïve, or be in bad faith, to not see that, of the five members of the tribunal, three were old and hardened guardians of the Castro revolution and the other two fervent partisans of the Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frias and his Bolivarian revolution. I ask myself and I ask the learned reader, who can ignore today, in our literary sphere, who the ex-director of the magazine Casa de las Américas Antón Arrufat obeys; who Neruda’s former secretary Jorge Enrique Adoum obeys, and who the veteran paladin of Marxist criticism, Nelson Osorio obeys. And who in Venezuela ignores that professor Cósimo Mandrillo publicly denounces people on the left who don’t cheer the madness of our president, or that professor Alberto Rodríguez Carrucci signs manifestos in support of Castro and travels to Havana as a guest of the Casa de las Américas.

For the first time since its creation, the five jurors for the Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos constituted a single political front and represented the guarantee of an unquestioning adhesion to revolutionary ideology. With them, Castrismo and Chavismo placed a flag in the very heart of an institution that had until then enjoyed a small margin of enviable freedom and whose prestige proceeded precisely from the unhindered autonomy of its decisions.

It’s not unlikely that Fernando Vallejo’s provocations when he received the prize in 2003 for El desbarrancadero might have precipitated these events, forcing Hugo Chávez Frias to fix his cards ahead of time in the matter. That the Colombian had the nerve to pronounce a lecture in Caracas in which he ridiculed both Christ and Castro, that he declared Bolívar and the Independence had been an evil imposed on our nations, and that he ended up giving his $100,000 dollars from the prize to the Society for the Protection of Animals, these were all much more than our president and his Cuban ally could stand. Within a context of live political tension, Fernando Vallejo seemed to offer them the ideal excuse on a silver platter to tightly control the organizing entity of the prize and to gain power over it. And it is simply that, even though Hugo Chávez Frias, in the best military tradition, feels a deep disdain toward writers, he couldn’t allow for the spectacle of Vallejo to repeat itself, nor another worse one, with more criticism and more threats toward the regime’s ideology. This is why nothing was left to chance in the selection of the new jury, the one made up of those five unconditional supporters who, just as expected, have perfectly accomplished the mission that was given to them when they announced their verdict on July 8 in Caracas.

The first finalist is predictably Cuban and a writer from the publishing house Letras Cubanas: Jorge Angel Pérez with his novel Fumando espero; the winner, on the other hand, coud well have been a divine surprise if no one had found out that the young and talented Isaac Rosa, author of El vano ayer, has not hesitated in his efforts to make public his sympathies toward the Castro regime. Although his novel is a brave attempt to critically reconsider the Franco era, assuredly the Sevilla native still believes, like his friend Belén Gopegui, that there are good dictatorships and bad dictatorships, good repression and bad repression, good political prisoners and bad political prisoners, accordingly and depending. Last summer, along with many other critics and editors, I took the time to read his novel and, without arriving at the extreme of saying that his is a necessary novel, nothing stops me from acknowledging it seemed brilliant to me and that’s what I wrote to its French translator. But with the same honesty I say that, while it’s true another jury could have awarded him the prize, this one made up of the five unconditional judges couldn’t not give it to him, since, from the start, it had been conceived, designed and prepared not to judge a novel without prejudice but rather to guarantee the triumph of an ideology and those who support it. I’m left with the extremely uncomfortable suspicion that other finalist novels, and in particular Juan Villoro’s excellent El testigo, did nothing but play the role of back-up band; I’m left with the almost intimate conviction that, behind the final decision, there is no “intense aesthetic debate” to be found.

I close by saying something obvious: all this leads to the thought that, in its new Bolivarian phase, the Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos is being summoned to become an instrument for rewarding loyalties and raising up servitude, a sort of substantial appendix to the awards of the Casa de las Américas (let’s not forget that the prize brings $100, 000 dollars). Just as the Supreme Court fell in its moment, just as the National Electoral Council and the National Museums and so many other institutions of the Venezuelan State which I won’t even mention fell, this is how the Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos seems to have fallen now beneath the shield of the personal power of Hugo Chávez Frias and Fidel Castro. It’s not easy to drown all the sadness and shame that one feels at the sight of those two uniformed soldiers presiding over the destiny of a contest that carries the name of one of the symbols of the struggle of Venezuelan intellectuals throughout the XX century, a man who preferred exile, opprobrium and jail before receiving honors from two of our most fierce dictators, General Juan Vicente Gómez and Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Those of us who can raise our voice to say this are conscious there’s little we can expect from the effects of our words for now. But despite that, we will not cease denouncing the advances of the hegemonic and autocratic project of Hugo Chávez Frias. May these lines serve to establish a testimony. So that no one tomorrow may tell us they didn’t know what was happening in Venezuela.

(*) Venezuelan editor and literary critic

{ Gustavo Guerrero, El Nacional, 19 July 2005 }

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