Israel Centeno has written what might be the first work of fiction to evoke the chaotic political and social crisis that has engulfed Venezuela since 1998. His third novel, El complot (Caracas: Alfadil Ediciones, 2002), is centered around a convoluted plot to assassinate a militaristic leader obviously based on Hugo Chávez. When the novel was first published, Centeno was accused by Chavistas of advocating or encouraging assassination. But in fact, the unnamed military leader in the novel is hardly in the book at all. What Centeno is doing instead is drawing a portrait of a nation enduring a prolonged crisis that reaches all levels of society. In many ways, El complot (The Conspiracy) is prophetic in how it anticipates aspects of the dangerous months before and after the so-called "mini-coup" that briefly deposed Chávez in April of 2002 (Centeno finished the novel in October 2001). The novel is a frightening portrait of a country immersed in a confusing and seemingly-endless crisis.
Centeno masterfully employs this conspiracy as a way to discuss the nature and effects of the unprecedented political situation in Venezuela. In particular, the novel tries to untangle how exactly Venezuela has degenerated into the violent spectacle it is today, a staging ground for the ideas of what Teodoro Petkoff has called the "Jurassic left." The novel illustrates how the chaos and fear that now reign in Venezuela could very well be exactly what Chavismo is fomenting, as a camouflage for the establishment of a dictatorship partly modelled after the Cuban regime. The novel remains clearly grounded in Venezuela's postmodern situation, but I came away from the book thinking about the radical left in Latin America during the second half of the XX century. It is important to note that the assassination attempt is carried out by a small group of leftist guerrillas, former associates of the president who have become disenchanted with the course of the revolution.
The novel opens in Caracas, on a day when forest fires on Monte Ávila have sent plumes of smoke into the city. The fires go on for days and their smoke becomes mixed in with the smog of the city, so that much of the action takes place in a Dantean atmosphere. The assassination attempt occurs within the first pages of the book and it is foiled at the very last minute. The rest of the book follows the escape of one of the assassins, as he leaves Caracas by bus headed toward the provinces, followed not only by the government but also by the comrades who have betrayed him.
The plot is built on layers of paranoia and half-discerned events, so that the characters and the reader are never allowed a full glimpse of the situations in which they are immersed. The generous amounts of sex and violence in the novel (conveyed in Centeno's crisp, alluring prose) are written in a way that is realistic yet tinged with moments of visionary transcendence. By this I mean that most readers would be able to recognize at least some of the situations the characters are thrown into, and yet there's a magnificent strangeness in certain moments of the book.
The escaped assassin, whose code name is Sergio, often mentions that what he is experiencing feels like it belongs in a novel. Toward the end of the book, when Sergio thinks about what he might do if he manages to escape, he says: "...I'd rather write a novel...they're more truthful." (All English traslations from the text are my own.) There is a sense throughout the book that Venezuela's contemporary history is being fictionalized in order to decipher a country in perpetual crisis. El complot is an ambitious novel, since it aims to illuminate the nature of revolution, in both individuals and collectives.
It is fitting that Centeno published this book in 2002, the year Chavismo and its opponents began to fully and directly confront each other, leading many Venezuelans to fear the very real specter of a civil war. This threat of civil war has not receded and has instead only intensified since then. One might interpret the marginal role of the presidential figure in this novel as Centeno's way of saying that this conflict is not so much a consequence of Chávez as it is of historical and social factors that have remained unaddressed since Venezuela's founding as a nation. What is impressive about this novel is how it interprets Venezuela's current situation through the experiences of a handful of individuals, including a government minister, various leftist guerrillas and an investigative journalist.
As with his famous first novel, Calletania (1992), Centeno's characters are mostly drawn from the radical political underground of Venezuela's late XX century. Centeno is concerned with portraying how violence often ends up disintegrating revolutionary ideals. Not only has Venezuela become the most dangerous country in Latin America during the Chavista regime, but that violence has taken on a life of its own, well beyond the control of the government itself, despite its record-breaking high oil profits. El complot makes this violent atmosphere a central component of the novel and its protagonists.
One episode that addresses this phenomenon of the political and criminal violence that has engulfed Venezuela involves Manuela, a journalist who is investigating the failed assassination attempt. Recalling a colleague who was killed during a robbery, she muses on the plague that today affects all Venezuelans in some way, regardless of political affiliation:
"The journalist killed by a thief in a bar. A victim of the violence that had a thousand faces and none. A violence that flowed throughout the country. It wasn't social, or political, or religious, it was a violence without adjectives. Behind the violence there always remained the operators of the sinister plan, there is always a plan; the revolution will be born of confusion, it will be read between the lines, its coherence will emerge from anarchy, it will later impose a different and inevitable order."
Centeno is not the first to suggest the Chavista regime is allowing violent crime to surge in Venezuela as a tactical maneuver. By letting the nation be engulfed in violence and fear, the Chavista regime can then keep society distracted and paralyzed as it installs its dictatorial project. The problem with this tactic, of course, is that violence cannot always be controlled. One of the recurring motifs of El complot is the notion that revolution is equivalent to a religious faith, in the sense that the desired goal is never fully tangible. What happens to the individual on earth is merely a prelude to eventual utopia or spiritual redemption. Within this idea, the revolutionaries in Centeno's novel exist in ever-deepening circles of mistrust and paranoia. There are always betrayals and new alliances to be made within the multiple factions of revolutionary groups within the government and at its fringes. In this way, El complot is a realist novel, evoking a country that has been taken over by the most reactionary, violent and fundamentalist sectors of the "Jurassic left."
For those who read Spanish, Centeno talks about El complot in interviews at Ficción Breve Venezolana and La Prensa Literaria (Nicaragua). In December 2005 El Universal published an article ["Estética del realismo gótico"] on his most recent novel Bengala (Caracas: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2005).