Oswaldo Barreto

The sociologist and philosopher Oswaldo Barreto, a Professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas, writes two columns for Teodoro Petkoff's newspaper Tal Cual. "Pórtico" which appears 2 to 4 days a week and "Balanza de Palabra," a longer column that appears every Friday.

I first began to translate Barreto's columns because I found his analysis of Venezuela's political crisis refreshingly unemotional and insightful. When I first started to read and translate his work I had no clear idea of who he was, his writing simply appealed to me.

Barreto turns out to have very close ties to Venezuelan and Latin American poetry. In an interview with Miyó Vestrini for El Nacional in 1982, the Venezuelan poet Juan Sánchez Peláez recounted how upon his arrival in Paris in the 1950s he ran into his friend Barreto and was thus saved from being homeless:

"I lived an initial season in Paris in the worst of financial circumstances. Oswaldo Barreto, when we ran into each other by chance in front of the Luxembourg Gardens, gave me a place to stay in his little apartment as soon as I arrived. But why dwell on poverty? I was in Paris, there were luminous days, and I was among friends!" (quoted in José Ramos, ed., Juan Sánchez Peláez: Ante la crítica, Monte Ávila Editores, 1994)

Barreto was also friends with the legendary Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, whom he met in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s. Dalton wrote a hilarious prose poem in honor of Barreto, entitled "Primavera en Jevani," which is included in his collection Taberna y otros lugares (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1989). You can read my translation of that poem into English going back a few months into the archives of Venepoetics. Here's what Barreto says about Dalton:

"Against the grim backdrop and maybe as a reaction to it, some of the friendships I made in Prague were very deep. One of the most important of these was with Rocce Dalto, who arrived in Prague at around the same time I did to the editorial conference as an observer delegate for El Salvador. Rocce had the same kind of charisma as men like Fuchs and Lorca must have had. He appeared to be as much human as divine, as much male as female; he was both young and old; he even managed to represent both the Left and the Right politically. In short, Rocce Dalto was like a god: a person of irresistible attraction. During the months I was in Prague, his companionship opened up the city and its society." (292)

It turns out that, like Dalton, Barreto spent much of his life as a guerrilla fighter in various parts of the world, including stints as an aide to Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende, as an associate of Che Guevara in Algeria, as well as being active in France, Venezuela and other countries. Although he was educated as a lawyer and sociologist at the Sorbonne, he didn't settle into "civilian" life until the 1970s, when he began to work as a researcher and teacher for the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos institute in Caracas.

His close friend and former cousin-in-law, the English writer Lisa St. Aubin de Terán, has published a novel, Swallowing Stones (Harper Perennial, 2005), based on his life. I'm mid-way through reading this 500-page novel and am enjoying it very much, partly because it's written from a first-person perspective, with the conceit of Barreto narrating his own life. His narrative voice is irreverent and vivid, looping back & forth across decades and continents.

After surviving throat cancer in the early 1990s, Barreto asked St. Aubin de Terán to transcribe his memoirs and she began to interview him in Paris and Umbria for the project. When she took her book to her editors they suggested she publish it as a novel, which would allow her more flexibility in covering the events of a long and surreal life. While marketed as a novel, this book actually falls into the recent tradition of Latin American testimonials, such as those Elizabeth Burgos transcribed from Rigoberta Menchú and another associate of Che Guevara, the Cuban officer Dariel Alarcón Ramírez (a brilliant though relatively ignored text called Memorias de un soldado cubano, Editorial Tusquets, 1997), who has been exiled in Paris since the 1990s.

While Barreto's columns for TalCual are sober, formal and objective, his narrative voice in Swallowing Stones is wonderfully contradictory and vulgar. He describes his own misadventures with the awareness that he could have died many times in his life, mainly due to his own mistakes and ignorance. This book will stand as yet another document that chronicles the dead end of the extreme radical left during the XX century:

"This brings me back to the 'ifs' again. Because if I had known then about Stalin's labour camps, or his ethnic cleansing, or his torture cells, I could have lived a different life. If I'd known what would happen in the USSR, in Poland, in China, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, I would have never fought for what turned out to be their arm of oppression. But I didn't know, and it was the 1950s in a world without mass media." (151-152)

Early in the book, Barreto discusses how it was a love of poetry and literature that led him to politics. Poetry remains a constant throughout this wonderful book, in St. Aubin de Terán's lucid prose and Barreto's charged voice. Rilke and Celan are two of the poets Barreto passionately invokes in his memoirs. The book mentions the influence of Juan Sánchez Peláez (his name slightly changed) on the young Barreto before they even met:

"Nene, my mentor, returned to Valera shortly after the military coup of '48. The military junta had taken over and was 'cleansing' the capital. I was fourteen and Nene was nearly seventeen when he came home with all the latest literary ideas. In Caracas, he had got in with important intellectuals. In particular, he became friends with Juan Sanchez Pelares (who came from Chile, and had been a member of a surrealist group there called Grupo Mandrágula). When Nene arrived in the capital, Juan Sanchez did for him what Nene had done for me. He told him, 'Neruda isin't the question, that's old hat, you have to see beyond that. You have to read Rimbaud; you have to read Breton and Virginia Woolf. Read The Waves.' " (64-65)

St. Aubin de Terán frequently changes or mistakes names and omits accents (for instance, Sánchez Peláez was not Chilean, he had merely attended university there and the surrealist group he had belonged to in Chile was called Mandrágora). But these are minor glitches in an excellent book. Plus, the mystery of not knowing how much is true and how much is invented adds to the mythical quality of the stories being recounted.

I almost always coincide with Barreto's sharp analysis of the Venezuelan political crisis in his TalCual columns. He is an eloquent critic of Chavismo, constantly pointing to the fascist and dictatorial tacticts of a regime whose only ideology is absolute power. You can read a few of the columns by Barreto I've translated into English below, in chronological order. I will undoubtedly be translating more of his work this year.

Reading this book is a chance for me to understand a writer I've grown to admire. It also provides a glimpse into the convoluted and fascinating history of Venezuela's radical left in the XX century. So far, the only US newspaper to review the book has been the Baltimore Sun. I'm curious to see what others will have to say about it. (England's Guardian and New Statesman reviewed the book when it appeared there earlier last year.)


Selected recent columns by Oswaldo Barreto translated into English:

9 December 2004
4 May 2005
15 July 2005
25 July 2005
22 September 2005
30 September 2005
14 October 2005
4 November 2005
2 December 2005
9 December 2005

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