Iniciaciones & Hilo de cometa
[Photo: J. Caldera, El Periódico Extremadura, 2007]
The Spanish publishing house Editorial Periférica, based in Cáceres, has embarked on the project of releasing several novels by the Venezuelan writer Israel Centeno. So far, they’ve published Iniciaciones (2006) and Hilo de cometa (2007), both of which originally appeared in Caracas in 1996. The latter volume includes the previously unpublished novel Retrato de George Dyer, a manuscript also dating from the mid-1990s.
In a recent interview, the founder of Periférica, Julián Rodríguez, talks about his reason for starting the publishing house in 2006 [all translations are my own]:
“[A]t Periférica we’re very interested, as readers, in contemporary Latin American literature, which offers (this is our opinion, which could be wrong) more interesting texts in Spanish than those being offered by the Iberian peninsula itself. We’re very clear about where our strength lies, and the two central branches are: attention to lesser known classics (at times even starting from aspects that reach beyond the literary) and attention to the riskiest, most singular Latin American literature.”
These editions are impeccably produced, in pocket-sized paperback made from exquisite hard paper for the covers and durable pages inside. Periférica plans to release other volumes by Centeno, including his acclaimed first book Calletania (1992) and the short story collection El rabo del diablo y otros cuentos (1994), which were written while he was still a member of the Eclepsidra writers collective in Caracas, alongside poets such as Martha Kornblith, Carmen Verde Arocha and Graciela Bonnet.
This connection to poetry is important to note, since Centeno began as a poet, publishing in various newspapers and magazines in the 1980s and winning the Premio Federico García Lorca in 1987, awarded by the Spanish embassy in Caracas. These three short, intense novels demonstrate his early development of a style resonant with precise, often visionary, imagery that magnifies its vivid characters and their situations within well-orchestrated plot lines. As when, for instance, he describes the sound of tree frogs singing at night in the Venezuelan countryside (from Iniciaciones):
“The darkness begins in the rooms, moving towards the jumping frogs in a night of invisible guitars, occasionally silenced by the murmur of prayers.” (34)
Iniciaciones tells the stories of several members of an extended family living in Caracas and on an estate in rural Venezuela. One of the most moving sections of the book is the final one, entitled “Bárbara,” in which one of the young cousins speaks of her life as a college student in Caracas during the 1980s. Bárbara addresses the contradictions of a city that can be at once cosmopolitan and provincial:
“Caracas probably continued to be that small city that once copied the structures of a Napoleonic France and now imitates San Francisco’s big towers, the cold theaters made from truncated pyramids, the desert and the mirage of the boulevards, the flood of freeways and that mania for making so much noise with music, the anguish for being well-dressed, if being well-dressed means wearing designer clothes whose labels are blatantly visible, so as to continue following and envying, for sterile council brawls that aspire to be polemics.” (78-79)
Centeno is alluding to a tradition of Venezuelan novels that recount the ancient struggle between city and countryside, from Rómulo Gallegos’s classic Doña Bárbara (1929) to Miguel Otero Silva’s Casas muertas (1955), or Doña Inés contra el olvido (1992) by Ana Teresa Torres (to name just a few). However, he purposely undermines this tradition by focusing on the often distorted inner lives of his protagonists, awash in sexual, political and spiritual contradictions that are never fully resolved. This is where Centeno’s identity as a poet emerges at its most incandescent, in his ability to conjure such an array of imperfect and alluring human voices. In a review for Spain’s leading newspaper, El País, J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip noted the book’s innovative form:
“In a novel such as this one, where brevity is a matter that goes hand in hand with the theme it develops, the psychological tension and the precision of the writing demand synchronization, the illusion that none of its instances ever remain subordinate to the others. A difficult equilibrium that Centeno achieves completely.” (El País, 11/18/06)
Hilo de cometa reiterates Centeno’s position as one of Venezuela’s most vital contemporary writers. It is told from the perspective of a teenage boy spending time at a beach with his aunt, uncle and cousin, while his father sits in jail for having led a coup attempt against a dictatorial government. The boy’s thoughts veer between fear at his father’s fate and a sexual awakening manifested in his encounters with various women. These encounters, including his cousin, a local villager and a teenager also visiting the beach, are all incidents that occur primarily in the protagonist’s thoughts, as he tries to untangle the obsessions and doubts crowding his mind.
The blurb on the back cover describes how the novel employs “As a back drop, one of the many dictatorships of Latin America.” Dictatorship, surveillance, the totalitarian impulse, these factors are never brought to the surface of the novel, but instead remain in its soil as evidence of the multiple forces that assault the teenager. Part of what we find here is Centeno’s persistent desire to make sense of the dictatorial tendencies inherent in Venezuelan culture. Though Hilo de cometa was written over a decade ago, it captures the sense of paranoia and political degradation that has engulfed Venezuela in recent years under the the totalitarian project of Chavismo.
While Editorial Periférica is a newly-born endeavor, its publications have quickly garnered a great deal of attention from the Spanish press. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Periódico de Extremadura last November, during a visit he made to promote the book in Spain, Centeno was asked about the inevitable topic of Venezuela’s current political labyrinth:
“And why do so many Europeans maintain a lukewarm or openly enthusiastic attitude toward Venezuela? “There’s a certain amount of guilt in Europe about what’s happened in Latin America,” Centeno explains. “They still think they deprived Latin Americans of their destiny, that they exploited us. They feel guilty about that misery and think it’s impossible for us to follow the most sensible path for modernization and that we need strongmen, conductors, like Castro.”
If forty years ago, during the apex of the Boom (García Márquez, Fuentes) “Latin America’s beautiful aspects had to be told, today there’s also room for the deviant ones. The wars lived by the Buendía family (in One Hundred Years of Solitude) are romantic; but Bolívar was capable of treason, of treachery. Although if I say this in my country, they’d call me a traitor, because they think all of them were perfect and continue to be so today: Castro, Che, Sandino... What’s the problem with telling the story? Latin America needs to show that face, it needs to demystify itself.” ” (El Periódico Extremadura, 11/12/07)
Retrato de George Dyer complements the tense narrative of Hilo de cometa, shifting scenes to London in the early 1980s, where Centeno himself lived during the same period. The title is taken from a painting by Francis Bacon and Centeno reveals himself to be completely at ease creating a landscape so unlike the urban and rural Venezuela of the two aforementioned texts. The novel deals with the tormented love affair between two Venezuelans in London, maintaining throughout a pressure and darkness that are inherent to both the characters and to a city in the midst of the political and racial upheavals of the Thatcher era. Part of the pleasure of this book is that it enacts a certain punk and post-punk energy in its prose, tinted as well with Gothic undertones that at times give the impression of a theater performance. Centeno knows and loves London as well as he does Caracas, and this familiarity comes through in the dynamic psychological landscape that emerges around this pair of flawed lovers.
It’s an ironic yet hopeful circumstance that while the world is entranced by the totalitarian flirtations of yet another military caudillo in Latin America (the eternal return of the XIX century via petrodollars), Venezuelan literature is experiencing a renaissance that has nothing to do with militarism. Venezuelan fiction, in particular, is undergoing an incredible resurgence, with an overwhelming array of young writers producing texts that will eventually change the way the country’s letters are understood, abroad and at home. And yet, the promotion and distribution of these writers hasn’t caught up to the immense pool of talents now at work. These recent editions by Centeno, for instance, are only available at one bookstore in Caracas (El Templo Interno, owned by the poet Alexis Romero), and those are copies that Centeno himself brought over from Europe. As Spain and the world begin to take notice of the multitude of talented writers at work in Venezuela, this situation of relative obscurity will eventually change. There’s news, for instance, that a mass-market edition of Centeno’s recent novel El complot (2002) (which I reviewed here in 2006) will be published in Spain.
Israel Centeno is a crucial element in Venezuela’s literary renaissance because his novels present an original voice that hovers between the realms of poetry and fiction, nurturing a vision that’s politically engaged, sensual and ambitious. Tracking down these novels is well worth the effort, as they remind us why literature can change our lives even while we suffer under the shadows of this crepuscular era. Iniciaciones, Hilo de cometa and Retrato de George Dyer are novels that portray and transform our immediate surroundings. As in the work of Roberto Bolaño, one emerges from these books moved by the undeniable presence of a visionary poetic discourse.