One of the books I bought during the month I spent in Caracas recently was the collection of short stories by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón (Caracas, 1981) Una larga fila de hombres (Monte Ávila Editores, 2005), which was awarded the Monte Ávila Prize for Unpublished Fiction Writers two years ago. The book is one of many signs that Venezuelan literature is undergoing a fertile and exciting period at the moment, with bookstores full of new publications by Venezuelan authors, a small but dedicated readership, and presentations and readings happening on a weekly basis. Much of my month in the city was spent visiting bookstores, reading and trying to write, whenever I wasn’t seeing family and friends. I found Caracas to be the same as I remembered it from five years ago, though surely more disintegrated and sinister.
Una larga fila de hombres [A Long Line of Men] is composed of five stories that end up being subtly related by means of symbols, gestures, characters and intertwined plot lines, although their connection is not evident until the brilliant final story, “Uñas asesinas.” Spanning nearly 80 pages, “Uñas asesinas” [Killer Nails] begins with an epigraph by the Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi: “Our species barely distinguishes the sounds of agony and of orgasm.” Like Volpi, Blanco Calderón is an ambitious and gifted writer, one whose fiction begins from the vantage point of being an avid reader, someone immersed in the rich traditions of the Latin American avant-gardes. Several of the characters in his stories are readers, individuals for whom figures such as Bolaño, Piglia or Borges are talismanic reference points. “Uñas asesinas” is written in the form of a diary kept by a college student in Caracas who reflects on his theories regarding who might be responsible for the serial murders of homeless people on the streets of the capital in 2004 [a gruesome series of murders that actually occurred several years ago]. Part of the brilliance of this story is the way it gathers stray imagery and plot lines from the four previous texts in the collection, reminding the reader of how interconnected the experiences of a city can be for its inhabitants. Blanco Calderón’s Caracas is a paranoid, dangerous, brutal and impersonal city that has reached a saturation point. The political and social labyrinths of recent years are mere footnotes to the personal stories of the characters in this book. At one point during the title story, a psychologist arrives at work one morning at the city morgue in Bello Monte and observes a group of heroin addicts being transported in a police truck. Pausing to observe the prisoners, all of them middle class teenagers, he thinks to himself: “This city is fucked.”
In August 2006, Blanco Calderón won the prestigious 61st annual fiction prize awarded by the newspaper El Nacional for his short story “Los golpes de la vida,” which is where I first read his work. In that story, as in this book, he displays an affinity for the marginal aspects of urban life, at times echoing the best qualities of Bolaño’s fiction. For Blanco Calderón, as with Bolaño, literature is not removed from the trauma and psychic isolation of city life, poetry exists (at least potentially) on every avenue, apartment and highway. The danger and beauty of Caracas are never idealized or bemoaned. Rather, these short stories gather their beautiful intensity from such a contradictory setting. In his first book, Elena y los elementos (1951), Juan Sánchez Peláez hinted at this terrible aspect of the postmodern city, its brutal indifference to its inhabitants:
“City of inexpressible sadness:
I perish in your fatigued ships, in your fatal ambushes.
Your indulgent women set up a net of avid tigers for me.
I cover your naked back with my fluency dressed in underground harps.”
In this astonishing collection, Blanco Calderón gives us a city that has surpassed a crisis point, choked by traffic and crime, where literature is simply another one of the talismans some of its citizens cling to for temporary protection. I read the book in one sitting, staying up late into the night to enjoy how its author brings together so many disparate narrative strands and characters within five impeccably composed stories. Una larga fila de hombres is a stunning and masterful first book that bodes well for the state of Venezuelan letters.
I began this post with the intention of writing about my impressions of Caracas after five years’ absence. I now realize my thoughts will have to emerge slowly, over the next few weeks. I’ve come back inspired by the profusion of new Venezuelan publications I came across in bookstores and what I heard about Venezuelan letters from the writers I had the pleasure of meeting, including Iria Puyosa, Héctor Torres, Karl Krispin and Malena Sánchez Peláez. (I’m grateful to all of them for taking the time to speak with me and for making my visit so fruitful.) Books are being published on a weekly basis and there seems to be a healthy demand among readers for fiction and poetry by Venezuelan authors. Yet, I was deeply saddened by the physical state of Caracas, by the realization that I long ago lost certain aspects of the city I grew up in to physical disintegration and the speed of change in that valley.
Almost every day, I would catch a bus from the El Cafetal Boulevard to various points in the city and observe Caracas from my seat. The saturation of traffic throughout the city is the most vivid example of how unmanageable Caracas has become and how the current oil boom has filled the streets and its ubiquitous shopping malls with money to spend. Every shopping mall I stepped into was packed with people, the streets were choked with late model cars, a frenzy of consumerism that contradicts the moralizing and self-mythology of Chavismo in its current decadent phase. I spent hours watching the state-funded TV stations, amazed at their poor production quality (despite vast sums of petrodollars) and their lack of creativity. The image , words and voice of Chávez are everywhere you go in the city, plastered on humongous, expensive billboards that are surrounded by the trash and dilapidation of a city whose residents and rulers seem to have abandoned long ago.
The stretch of coastal highway from the airport in Maiquetía to the beachside town of Macuto is a wasteland that reminds me of photographs I’ve seen of Iraq or Afghanistan. Eight years after the devastating mudslides and avalanches that afflicted the coastal regions of Vargas state, the Venezuelan government has yet to reconstruct the towns in that area. In the center of La Guaira I saw a large billboard advertising a reconstructed market, and underneath said billboard was the market itself in shambles, a pathetic assortment of tin tables and improvised tarps. There are entire blocks of apartment buildings and houses along the coast of Vargas state that remain in shambles, some of them taken over by squatters, many of them with gaping holes where gigantic boulders crashed through as they rolled down the mountain towards the sea in 1999.
While the government reaps the highest oil prices in Venezuelan history and markets itself internationally as a “progressive” revolution whose main concern is helping the poor masses, Venezuela continues to sink into horrifying levels of poverty, with the escalating crime rate being one visible symptom of this decline. Political tourism is thriving in Caracas, with naive Europeans and Americans flocking to Venezuela in hopes of seeing the great revolutionary hope of the 21st century. I imagine their tour guides at government-funded institutes such as the Centro Internacional Miranda (recently created for the distinct purpose of marketing the “Bolivarian Revolution” abroad) will convince them that Venezuela is actually undergoing a “revolution,” even if all the material evidence points to yet another in a long line of Latin American tyrannies built on the backs of the poor. The contrast between extreme wealth and brutal poverty has become much more explicit since I was in Venezuela five years ago, and one can see the decadence of the so-called “Boliburgesía” [Bolivarian bourgeoisie] ruling class all over the city. Government ministers, congressmen and other assorted “revolutionaries” continue to grow obscenely wealthy while the masses sink deeper into poverty, mired in frightening levels of crime and unemployment.
What remains most vivid for me from Caracas is the magnitude of problems facing Venezuela today and the relative inability of any single person to do anything to change this situation. Chávez is now more powerful than ever, flush with petrodollars and intent on gradually imposing a Cuban-style regime on the country, one which will last for as long as he lives. It’s not coincidental that he has recently been employing the derivative and reactionary Cuban slogan “Patria, Socialismo o Muerte” [Homeland, Socialism or Death] at every opportunity. All military personnel are now required to chant this slogan whenever they address their superiors, and many government ministers sign their letters and finish their public statements with this absurd phrase.
Of course, life continues in Caracas in its daily routines: work, school, weekends, parties, love, family, friends. But I noticed a weariness or hesitancy in many people regarding the subject of the country’s political situation, now more convoluted than ever. After nearly 9 years of Chavismo, political reality is repetitive, predictable and depressing. Even the Chavistas I spoke to seemed to lack any passion for the cause they support. The ministers and government bureaucrats I saw on TV and listened to on the radio sounded listless and angry. Watching the president of the National Assembly, Cilia Flores, as she tried to explain the difference between indefinite election and continuous election as proposed by Chávez for the upcoming revisions of the Constitution was an exercise in Dadaist absurdity. Venezuela is mired in a reactionary government gorged with billions of petrodollars, and no amount of money or marketing can create a revolutionary consciousness.
In a recent “Contradicta,” Nick Piombino wrote the following at his blog:
“In the heart of your wound, find your path.”
It’s obvious to me that since my childhood in the 1970s I’ve experienced Caracas as a wound, long before the country fell into its current situation. So, in many ways, my time in Caracas this past month was actually quite pleasant, as I had no expectations of the city. In fact, I was blessed to spend time with my family and to explore the city and all its remaining magic. In some ways, my bleak perception of Caracas is irrelevant since life continues unabated in its countless neighborhoods and streets, always under the silent green shadow of Monte Ávila; Caracas has always been an entity beyond my control, a place I love regardless of its circumstances. What interests me is that Venezuelan writers are producing valuable and exciting new work that might help us understand our tragedy and emerge from it someday with a sense of direction. I intend to discuss some of these texts here in the near future.