La voz intelectual se escucha en la escena pública / Ana Teresa Torres

The Intellectual Voice is heard in the Public Scene

I told myself to begin from a point that would organize the course of these years, in order to think the time I've sometimes felt to be vertiginously scandalous and other times wandering amid a reiteration of situations, discourses, incidents. An overwhelming time in which I frequently find myself disoriented and unable to explain the occurrence of this or that event. A time detained in the rituals of political confrontation, distorted in thoughts and actions governed by convulsion.

A crowded time of occurrences that have accumulated like a piece of hardware in which it's hard to distinguish the main component from the accessories, the ephemeral from the permanent, what belongs to the self and what to the other.

A time of writing by leaps and bounds where literature has followed its silent march, and we writers, despite history's fury, have continued to practice the craft, defying the risk that it become irrelevant for us. And yet, the key is there. In the personal register each one of us will have saved from this crossroads where Venezuela has been living since the end of the XX century.

What I propose here is my own.

There is no aseptic separation between what's happening there, outside myself, in the world of power, and my own life. It isn't (it hasn't been) an era of ivory towers, if those precincts have ever existed at any moment. Nor have we suffered the turn in the country's tragedy accepting a fate of sacrificial abandonment of what is most loved by the writer. We have lived and written in the country, of the country, without the country, with the country. A time has passed that has obliged us to all these contradictions, rugged paths, uncertainties, and thus we have built (we build) a unique experience, which we can't classify within memorable events that have occurred elsewhere.

It has corresponded to us Venezuelan writers to be protagonists and witnesses of a century's turning that was much more than an ephemeral event. It had as a sign the wait for a new millennium that received us with the devastation occasioned by the floods of December 15th 1999 and the arrival of a political project calling itself the Bolivarian Revolution (for some the burial of democracy, for others the renovation of the homeland), which brought the fierce confrontation of opinions, actions and, undoubtedly, feelings. The literary life that seemed to gestate within a small (comfortable?) nest, an almost intimate world, always conscious of its minority status, did not cross into the XXI century untouched.

There's no doubt. The landscape has changed. To define the destiny of its transformations is premature, since we're barely beginning to discern a new grouping, still amorphous, incipient, maybe ephemeral.

Let's try to understand its outlines.

In search of my (our) experience I turn first to the curricular register. The figures contained there indicate a good rhythm of national and international literary encounters, which are sensibly diminished as the final years of the XX century drain themselves.

Instead, interventions begin in different fields that include political themes, reflections on democracy, culture as citizenship, the ethics of intellectual discourse, cinema, genre discourses. I also notice that my panorama of relations has spread out toward other disciplines and preoccupations; consequently, I receive announcements for conferences, forums and events with the most varied goals, sponsored by the new and old civil organizations that have proliferated.

An unforeseen consequence of the confrontation has been the opening of a dialogue between segments that previously seemed to exist in isolated compartments. Because of the necessity of coinciding in political objectives, we Venezuelans have reached a greater awareness of our intellectual resources as a country. Paradoxically, the discourse of the Bolivarian Revolution, guided by separation, has produced, as a secondary and possibly unwanted effect, an amplification of social dialogue. Although there have been many misunderstandings between certain sectors and others, and violence has replaced the word on too many occasions, it is no longer possible for today's Venezuela to be unaware of its own multiplicity.

Many Publications

Many things have been published in these years. The majority of titles have been in the essay, journalism, history, social and economic studies, political and judicial analysis, interviews; but the invitations to the presentations of literary books are constant. They used to have the character of meetings for sects or friends of the author, but now those who attend are frequently tumultuous and multifaceted.

People who aren't a part of literary movements have become interested, at least with a sense of curiosity, in the gatherings of writers convened at different instances and, on the contrary, cultural protagonists are participating in political militancy; literary names who have usually been reserved have assumed their voice of discontent, and others exchange figuration for silence. At bookstore displays there are considerable quantities of books by Venezuelan authors, while it's becoming difficult to find new titles from other countries and languages. The bookstores in Caracas have multiplied and are an active component within the promotional stimulus of national books; in the past—with obvious exceptions—they were hesitant to accept them on their shelves. Today the Venezuelan book, literary or not, begins to be appetizing as a consequence of the control of exchange rates which has made importation expensive or impossible, but also because of the necessity to understand what we think of ourselves.

Fiction writers send their short stories via e-mail and we discover excellent essayists among spontaneous op-ed writers. New print magazines for thought, ideas, creation, book reviews are born (El Puente, the new Revista Cultural Bigott, Revista Fundación Conciencia Activa, Qué Leo), and a few traditional ones (El Nacional's Papel Literario, El Universal's Verbigracia, Monte Ávila's Folios) have disappeared for long periods of time; Imagen, the central magazine for the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, interrupted since 1999, now announces its resurrection. Digital media emerge (El Gusano de Luz, Gente de la Cultura, Panfleto Negro, Trama, Texto Sentido, PEN Venezuela, El Cautivo) containing articles, essays, creative writing, literary news, and others that had gained a respected presence die (Ficción Breve, Kalathos). The state-sponsored magazines (A Plena Voz, En el Camino) take the route of propaganda or of unconditional political support; the private ones, on the other hand, are marked by dissidence. It's not unusual to find angry (sometimes insulting) open letters in the press or in e-mails through which writers express themselves in favor of or against their colleagues; as well as political documents and pronouncements. The intellectual voice, which seemed to have silenced itself for decades, is heard in the public scene.

This presence in the arena of debate has probably been the cause of a still fragile, yet attention-worthy phenomenon, which is that it's no longer fortuitous to listen to or hear writers on the radio and on TV.

In the past, the few programs devoted to literature were of a cultural type. Recently, a few programs with many listeners on commercial radio stations are beginning to concede small sections to books and interviews for the purpose of "refreshing" the political saturation. Whatever the reason might be, it promises a stimulus for reading.

Territories of an Unusual Map

At the same time the borders between writers and society are tending to disappear tenuously, an invisible line marks the territories of an unusual map in Venezuelan literature: "opposition" writers and "official" writers (the quotation marks don't suggest doubt in this instance; they're used to mark the new adjectives). The implicit confidence Venezuelan writers had in official institutions has changed its face; these exhibit their faithfulness to "el proceso," and cultural functionaries cannot always openly reveal their opinions. The radicals are attentive to any sign of cohabitation; those who wish to be tolerant question the walls that fracture territoriality.

Old literary and personal friendships have tacitly or openly fallen apart, and new groupings have shuffled the general status of relations. Without a doubt political solidarities have played a defining role in the new coordinates whose stability is yet to be seen.

When appreciating what is happening in the literary world it's impossible to leave out the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura (CONAC), the institution that historically has represented the Venezuelan State in cultural affairs, and which today has become a cold point of political division. Beyond criticisms and disagreements, or complaints regarding an arbitrary marginalization or a privileged preference, and in which now and again confrontations would emerge due to personal reasons, in general terms writers felt like eventual recipients of its legacy.

These days, the only people invited to the central convocations by the Government (1st Encounter for Cuban and Venezuelan Writers, Caracas International Book Fairs, Festival of World Poetry), and to the international events with official invitations for Venezuela, are the official writers, almost always those who are part of the bureaucratic payroll.

The opposition writers publicly denounce that they have been excluded from participating; others, the majority, voluntarily exclude themselves and their absence is notorious in the ceremonies and presentations of official writers (and vice versa). The national prizes are beginning to rotate suspiciously within the circle of unconditional writers; since one of the requisites to receive a prize is the imposition that one not give public pronouncements. In 2004, an unusual event in the history of literary awards occurs: a writer (José León Tapia) rejects the distinction. An official magazine makes an unheard of proposition: a political questionnaire.

The literary life of Caracas reveals geographic transformations (unfortunately, I don't have enough information about what's happening in other parts of the country). In the same way the city was territorialized by political bands, some places are adjudicated to pro-government writers (the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos, the Casa de Andrés Bello—today known as the Casa de las Letras—, the Teresa Carreño theater, the Monte Ávila bookstore), and others are grounds for the opposition (the universities, the auditoriums of private entities, the cafés of the East of Caracas, independent bookstores). The crossings between zones are, of course, permitted, though they are done with caution.

Different Motives

I've heard someone who belongs to the sixties generation say that his generation remained divided regarding that decade's armed insurrection. Our case today is different.

Not only as the result of separations and distance in personal relations but rather the fear that the freedom of speech we had exercised—not as the merit of any particular government but as the essential condition of a democratic system—could find itself in danger. The words "exile," "censure," "persecution" were associated for us with writers from the southern cone. (Will these years remain to enrich our fictional imaginary or, as in the short story by Monterroso, will the monster still be there when we wake up? This question had never been formulated among us before. The possibility that literature might end up fractured, the same as in those countries where totalitarian regimes imposed themselves, overran the lettered city like an unrecognizable ghost.)

The climate of malice toward intellectuals, artists and writers began when, in 2001, the President announced the Cultural Revolution and the change of authorities in the organisms of culture during his Sunday talk show, Aló Presidente; he did it with an attitude that, to say the least, was ignominious toward those he was firing. It was a type of "declaration of war," since it strove to condemn everything that was produced in the past, and it immediately provoked what he was looking for: the polarization achieved in other sectors. However the writers who today support the Bolivarian Revolution and those of us who are today called "right wing writers," because of our refusal to adhere to his thesis, might not only coexist but also share the good and the bad of public policies, the division that was planted acquired an unusual and injurious character. Immediately following this decree, the successive Ministers of Education and Vice Ministers of Culture continued the attack with the device of qualifying as elite all the cultural production that had taken place before, and as the national confrontation kept increasing, the official pronouncements also became more direct and hostile. In an unheard of gesture a foreign representative (Cuba's Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto) joined the attack qualifying as mediocre and mercenary all those writers who repudiated his visit to Venezuela.

This is why the situation today is different from the one during the sixties. In the present circumstances we're facing a conflict in which the State itself has led the derogation and disqualification of both the opposition cultural producers as well as the construction their organisms helped build over four decades. Circumstances of this nature have probably incurred with much more weight than the reduction of monetary resources, which have undoubtedly been evident in the partial or total abandonment of subsidized and tutelary entities, which ended up with the financial prostration of official institutions during the final months of Manuel Espinoza's management.

This changed notably with the designation of Vice Minister of Culture Francisco Sesto. Despite the fact that the disappearance of publications by regional entities is understandable, the state-funded Monte Ávila publishing house, after a few budgetary stumbles, has regained a reasonable rhythm of published titles; some literary encounters and alternative publishing houses continue to receive funding; the literature seminars abroad have continued; many prizes have disappeared but others have been maintained, as well as the workshops at the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos.

The Centro Nacional del Libro organizes the Caracas International Fairs, and the CONAC, through its organisms, develops various literary programs. However, even though commendable actions have been accomplished, and despite the occasional rumors according to which a "reconciliation" is sought by those in power, the discursive practice remains unchanged.

The public declarations, by the President of the republic as well as those of government spokesmen, in which it is explicitly affirmed that intellectuals must be "organic" (in the Gramscian sense) so as to incorporate themselves into the Bolivarian Revolution, reveal, without a doubt, a totalitarian vision for their participation. More than this or that program or financial budget cut, what gave the problem the dimensions it has reached has as its center the political project itself and it is part of the national conflict.


If the notion of belonging to a body of literature hasn't been prevalent, what were the mechanisms through which we've felt ourselves to be "Venezuelan writers"? During the nineties, writers continued their ties as they'd been doing, in other words, based around official institutions. These were the ones—mainly the Office of Literature at the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, the Monte Ávila publishing house, the offices of literature of the various state governments and the public universities—who edited books and magazines and organized conferences, seminars, symposiums, workshops, expeditions, prizes, readings and a long list of events. The Venezuelan State was not just our biggest sponsor, it was our main organizer. We gathered and made ourselves visible through the State.

This circumstance, which is nothing more than the consequence of our petroleum-producing destiny—at least as it has been conducted up to today—, and which defines us Venezuelans as subjects of a petro-state, deserve a pause.

In retrospect it would seem that years of statism marked a particular slant in writers up to a contradictory point: on the one hand, anarchic, individualistic, rebellious against the grouping and solidarity among fellow writers, insensible to the task of producing their own destiny (I'm referring, of course, the task of the writer and not to the product of his creation); on the other, solicitous children of the richest father in the country. (The contradiction is apparent. Sheltered by the same parent, the brothers needed each other less and less.) In this way a culture that wasn't favorable toward free initiative developed, because literature was not a private interest with a collective transcendence, but was instead a cultural action derived from the public.

In a certain manner we functioned like cultural agents of the State, undoubtedly with an unrestricted freedom, but as actors, promoters, and receptors of the State's actions in the cultural field. This marked the writer's way of seeing himself as someone who offers a benefit for the State, and who in exchange should be compensated with the production and dissemination of that beneficial product. Finally the work of the writer was for the State; the State was his editor, promoter and audience. Many of us have complained about the scant reception of our work, and surely Venezuela is a country with poor reading habits, but in that link between writer and State, it's possible the main audience was left without a place: the reader-consumer. In sum, Venezuelan literature since about fifty years ago has been almost completely written from outside the market. The market has not mediated between the writer and the reader; the mediator was the State, but a mediator that, by its own nature, doesn't market.

This is why all attempts to make all the state publishing houses and distributors self-sustainable have failed. Beyond counting on efficient managers and honest functionaries, the State—and much less one of the proportions and uses of the Venezuelan state—cannot, almost by definition, exercise good marketing.

On occasion I have sustained that without the State Venezuelan culture would not have existed. I continue to sustain this idea but, at the same time, it seems to me indispensable that we revisit the effects this condition has had on all of us. The XXI century surprised us in the passage between the Editor-State and a market with no editorial industry.

Let's look at some nuances. A minimal editorial industry exists (Planeta, Alfaguara, Norma, Los Libros de El Nacional, the recent collection Debate run by Sergio Dahbar for Mondadori, Comala.com and, above all, Alfa Grupo Editorial which, even though it doesn't do so preferentially, also makes incursions in literary publications; as well as publishing houses dedicated to children's books—Ekaré, Isabel de los Ríos, Playco—and those who produce for mass consumption, like self-help titles—Pomaire—and general knowledge). We've had independent publishers with a long trajectory including, among others, Ernesto Armitano, Oscar Todtmann, José Agustín Catalá, the Vadell brothers and Domingo Fuentes—these last three more linked to political themes—, which allows us to say that not all the books produced in Venezuela have been under the hand of the government.

Some writers have gathered together on other routes to create what came to be called "alternative" publishing houses—although many of them functioned with state funding—, most of which have notably diminished their active production, whether because their subsidies have been denied (Harry Almela's La Liebre Libre) or because they've gradually stopped soliciting funds (Antonio López Ortega, Yolanda Pantin and Blanca Strepponi's Pequeña Venecia; Israel Centeno's Memorias de Altagracia; Verónia Jaffé, Angelina Jaffé and Ana María Fernández's Angria Ediciones). Carmen Verde's Eclepsidra continues to publish, as do other more recent ventures: Javier Lasarte's La Nave Va; Víctor Bravo's El Otro, El Mismo in Mérida, with an impressive catalogue; Editorial Blanca Elena Pantin; Fundación Salvador Garmendia, run by the Garmendia family; Belkis Arredondo's El Pez Soluble; Teódulo López Meléndez and Eva Feld's Ala de Cuervo. The Círculo de Escritores de Venezuela has also achieved a group of publications, without counting the numerous repetoir of publishing imprints with more or less occasional presences.

The actions of private businesses have financed diverse editions, among them CANTV, the Cisneros Foundation, and a few belonging to banking entities like Mercantil and Provincial, but undoubtedly the ones with the most influence are the collections published by Fundación Polar, Fundación Bigott—which recently initiated a literary collection for poetry and novels—and Fundación para la Cultura Urbana. I don't intend to make an inventory because it would surely be risky, but in my personal register I know that a significant number of writers have published a title in the last five years. We should also note that Fundación para la Cultura Urbana created in 2000 the Premio Intergenérico, which has been won by the poet María Antonieta Flores and the novelist Wilfredo Machado (with Roberto Echeto as finalist). Alfa Grupo Editorial created the Premio Letra Erecta (2003) for the genre of erotic writing (the winner of the first edition was Vivian Jiménez with Valentina Saa as finalist). Fundación Bigott develops literary workshops and since 2001 Fundación Polar maintains a Journalism and Memoir workshop, coordinated by Milagros Socorro. Econoinvest sponsors the Premio de Novela Adriano González León, created by PEN Venezuela in 2004.

Private initiative is rapidly visible in these years and has begun to supplant part of the space left by the State, not only in terms of publications but also in gatherings. The conflict previously described between a majority sector of writers and the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura made it impossible for a literary exchange to continue through official organisms, and it began to be substituted by the occasions produced by universities, foundations and private entities—among them PEN Venezuela (with the programs Sólo Literatura, Recitales Intergeneracionales, Visiones de la Tradición Literaria Venezolana and Letras Libres)—, and sometimes by means of personal initiative, in this way generating new formulas for encounters. Book fairs have also been realized with great results, such as the ones in Valencia and Mérida, and a few prestigious convocations (Bienal José Antonio Ramos Sucre in Cumaná, Bienal José Rafael Pocaterra in Valencia) have persisted; this year the return of Mérida's Bienal Mariano Picón-Salas has been announced.

What remains to be discussed is how to conjugate the need for official publishing houses that can carry forward public policies of reading and publication for vast sectors, and the private initiative of authors and editors to produce the books we want to read and write. Perhaps the moment has come to ask ourselves who can compete with an Editor-State in a country where the State is always, not only the major capitalist within a reduced market of readers, but an editorial participant that has no concern for sales returns. Though I have no doubts about the importance of counting on an editorial industry, even if it's one of modest proportions, I also can't ignore that not all books are objects for the market. And in that intermediary zone between the subsidized and the commercial edition, the standard of the self-sustainable edition has appeared. Now that we're far from abundance, writers and small editors turn to self-publication on demand, producing editions "for friends" or, at least, whatever edition might be possible. This indicates that we publish with the desire to disseminate our texts but with reasoned standards (an example is Blanca Elena Pantin who has successfully developed the Breves collection for her press).

It would be illusory to say that in a battered and impoverished country we're living a moment of splendor; and yet, literature has resisted. The abandonment of the writer as a creator with scant possibilities for publication has been perceived as a grave loss, and it effectively brings results with few benefits in the present moment. On the other hand some ailments are fruitful. More so when in terms of the future of literary matters we move amid uncertainty. Do we feel nostalgia for the past or do we want to open new roads? In a scene of resolution to the political convulsion, would we return to being writer-islands, would we once again wait for the sate hand to congregate us, or would we organize ourselves according to new constellations these years have drawn in the literary firmament? Facing the literary body organized by the State and the dispersion of individuals, having crossed the swivel of circumstantial solidarities, it is appropriate to arrive at new ways of understanding our links, perhaps more pragmatic, guided more by alliances in procurement of shared benefits. It's possible that this cycle might leave an experience of the agreement of interests. Let's hope for the best.

I conclude this register by asking myself what has been the material of writing at the beginning of the XXI century. It's a question I hear quite frequently.

For the first time in many years the social sphere has an expectation of its writers. Let's not fool ourselves, the underlying motivation is political, but it's nonetheless a door that is opening.

I would say that all sorts of things have been written.

Not always within the context of what's happening. The majority of what's been published, particularly in novels and short stories, forms part of the repressed production and surely doesn't respond explicitly to the situation today.

This wouldn't be the case for the novels El complot (2003) by Israel Centeno and La cruz más mas lejana del puerto (2004) by Edilio Peña. The first of these created unfortunate circumstances for its author and direct attacks against the book.

The narrative centered on an assassination attempt against the president was obviously legible from a political perspective. The second novel contains explicit critiques of the Cuban government, besides the elements that are easily applicable to our immediate reality. Also, some of the signs of the political violence that has afflicted Caracas can probably be found in a few of the short stories in the collection Guerras no santas (2004) by Eloi Yagüe. Even though at this date I haven't had the chance to read Una tarde con campanas (2004), the latest production by Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez, which was awarded a prize in Spain, where he lives, it's evident that his theme—emigration—opens up an unexplored register for the contemporary Venezuelan novel.

What these times of revolution might arouse in the fictional imaginary is yet to be seen, and it's difficult to think that new literary keys won't be introduced—not only as a direct result of the political invasion of our lives but also because the country remains plotted within a different subjective geography—, but even then I'd like to defend the right to continue building our own narrative worlds.

To see ourselves as required to provide testimony would be, truthfully, a nationalist obligation we shouldn't have to assume. In my opinion, a large percentage of Venezuelan writers, pro-government as well as opposition, have demonstrated a firm commitment in their positions, but they've exercised it in their role as citizens in their expressions of opinion in the press and in other actions and statements. I don't know if they should also do this in their literary texts (a return to the standard of the committed intellectual?). And yet, no important event has transpired without literature. The country has seen itself shaken by a historic trauma that has affected one and all and has constituted the most difficult stage of our recent history. It would be strange if didn't reappear in writing. In fact, signs of it have already been registered in poetry. At the end of 2003 a reading took place at the Macondo bookstore under the name "Lecturas de la Patria," which included the participation of Harry Almela with his extensive poem "La patria forajida," Edda Armas, Jacqueline Goldberg and Yolanda Pantin, whose book El hueso pélvico (2002) should be added to the category of premonitory writing—with its subject, the statue of María Lionza which is now destroyed, as an emblem of the city—, along with Sangre (2002) by Annabelle Aguilar.

Novelists are slow creatures. In 1975 Imre Kertesz first published his novel Fateless, which gathers his survival in concentration camps when he was 15 years old.

Vargas Llosa's masterful La fiesta del Chivo arrived when Trujillo is merely history. The decanting of what is lived, if it wants to be literature, cannot end up being a pamphlet or libel. I'm referring, of course, to "the novel about Chávez," which some have already begun to demand. On the contrary, a need for the writing of privacy could very well unchain itself, as a defense of intimacy that has suffered and resisted so many threats.

I haven't mentioned, in my register, the readings. At a certain point I can no longer plot I made the decision to continue reading beyond the overwhelming presence of documents and e-mails, newspapers, TV shows and actions of resistance, in order to keep being the reader I like to be. I confirm, however, that in these years I've read more about totalitarianism than I have in almost my entire life. Thus I understood at this late age that the totalitarian consists in forcing a citizen to dilute herself into "the masses," so that later, in the name of the masses, anything can be done against the citizen. This experience of mine (ours) will remain for literature, but let's not play the commissary. Let's write freely and allow for it to appear.

Translator's note: This piece is excerpted from a longer essay called "When Venezuelan Literature Entered the XXI Century," which is included in an anthology edited by Carlos Pacheco, Luis Barrera Linares and Beatriz González Stephan, Nación y literatura: itinerarios de la palabra en la cultura venezolana (Caracas: Fundación Bigott, Banesco, Equinoccio, 2006).

{ Ana Teresa Torres, El Nacional, 5 November 2006 }

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