Renato Rodríguez viaja por su memoria: “La escritura nunca fue un pretexto, siempre fue mi vida” / Albinson Linares

Renato Rodríguez Travels Through His Memory: “Writing Was Never A Pretext, It Was Always My Life”

[Photo by William Dumont for El Nacional]

From his refuge in Tasajera, the winner of the National Prize in Literature [2006] talks about his obsession with Latin America, Europe and the United States, which led him to live in various countries and write titles such as Al sur del Equanil (1963), El bonche (1976) and La noche escuece (1985), novels in which his experiences as a wanderer are told with particular mastery.

It takes nearly two and a half hours from Caracas. The extreme changes in temperature pass from the warm steam of the capitol to mountainous cold, while one ascends on a narrow road that snakes its way to Tasajera. In the middle of the mountains of Aragua state, breathing the fresh air that imposes itself at 1,250 meters of altitude and in a building that was once a saw mill, lives Renato Rodríguez.

The aroma of a certain type of piled up wood reigns in the little house where, since a few years ago, the winner of this year’s National Prize in Literature lives. A small living room in which an old television and a bookshelf stuffed with books occupy almost the entire space, barely leaving room for the dark leather armchairs where the interview takes place. Renato is thinner, maybe the result of his convalescence from a fractured femur he sustained a few months ago, after a fall.

The humidity makes the air heavy and, at the end of the room, a rusted oil lamp presides the table in the improvised kitchen area. With some difficulty, the writer clings to his walker while he settles in front of his library, a peculiar display of literary remains from many travels, throughout half the world.

McLuhan and Count Villamediana, Balzac and Stendhal, next to books about Italian and Spanish cuisine. Hesse and Goethe take spots between Rafael Pocaterra and Eduardo Liendo, among the writers the author has been going through recently. The roar of the rain that assaults the fragile tin roof marks the moment when the author, pulling on his whitish beard, begins the twisted transit of his memory. Then, the journey begins.

Al sur del Equanil
– Do you remember your first contact with literature?
– I’ve always read everything, many European, Latin American and American authors. I remember the French, like Dumas with The Three Musketeers. But when I was a child my grandmother would sit me on her lap and read to me. She read The National Episodes by Pérez Galdós and some things from Don Quixote. Her name was Victoria and she was an impenitent reader, she was actually my godmother, but since my natural grandmothers died I speak of her as my grandmother; it’s funny because I was a reader before I learned how to read. I was read to. In fact, they eventually started to scold me because I read so much.

– There has always been talk of a tense relationship with your father. Were you named after him?
– No, my name is René Augusto, but ever since I was a child everyone called me Renato like my father. I’m the oldest, the only boy and I carry his name like an old custom. You could say our relationship was never very good. I remember that dad went to elementary school with Andrés Eloy Blanco, in fact, our families were close and the Blancos’ crib ended up in my house, and that’s where I slept when I was a child. Although I never spoke with him, I tended to see him in Caracas, and on several occasions I witnessed his drunkenness.

– Your travels begin when you are a child. When do you have to move away to various places in order to study?
– Yes, actually everything began here in Venezuela because I studied in Porlamar, La Asunción, Carúpano, Los Teques and Caracas. It used to be very difficult, because in the interior of the country there were no secondary schools, only federal schools that only presented two years, which would always alternate. So you would study your first year at one, your second at another, and so on. That’s why you had to live in different places.

– At what moment did you feel the need to express yourself through writing?
– There were always signs. While I studied in Los Teques, I felt the calling of God and I thought I would dedicate myself to the priesthood. I immersed myself in what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” and I began praying and taking communion on a daily basis. Finally, when I spoke to Father Ojeda, who was the superior, and told him about my problem, he laughed at me and said I was crazy, that I wasn’t made for such a calling. Since I felt so bad, so confused, I told him that nothing existed for me anymore. And he was the first person to tell me that I had to dedicate myself to writing, because that was my trade. I remember that very clearly.

– Do you remember those first attempts?
– I began to write on my own in Chile, because I had a friend who was driving me crazy telling me that I should be a writer. It turns out we were walking around the streets of Santiago one night and he told me: “Now you’re ready, go home and start writing.” Like an automaton I went to my little rented room and spent the rest of the night writing a story, which turned out to be very bad, about prostitutes and brothels, something very immature and common.

– When you left on that first trip, did you think you would visit so many countries in those years?
– I left Venezuela for the first time in 1947. I left for Bogotá and I ended up living in Ecuador, Perú and Chile. I had desire, youth, and now I believe that was my destiny. I was obsessed with my continent, which gave me strength to live and open a path for myself. Besides, in those times people were marvelous, very attentive and cordial.

– What anecdotes do you recall from that first voyage?
Caramba! There’s so many of them. I remember I traveled from Cúcuta to Bogotá in the same plane as Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who at that time was on a tour for his electoral campaign. Out of sheer coincidence I emerged from the plane right after him and, at that instant, I realized that Libertad Lamarque was also on board. Imagine my surprise when I saw myself on the front pages of all the Colombian newspapers the next day. That was a marvelous city, in the Gran Colombia café on Seventh Avenue, I met many Colombian writers, such as Arango and León de Greiff. I was in Perú when Gaitán was assassinated, which was horrible. I used to frequent some of the circles of the APRA [Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana] and met Víctor Raúl Haya de La Torre, who I also coincided with in Paris. In Santiago, which is a city that enchanted me, I always went to a café named after a woman, I think it was the Flora, and there I engaged in delicious conversations with poets like Nicanor Parra, Violeta Parra, Pablo and Carlos de Rohka. I remember that’s where I met Albert Camus, who was a friendly guy who spoke Spanish very well. Then I returned to Venezuela, stopping before in Chiclayo, a city in Perú, where my father had to “rescue” me because I had a stomach virus.

Old Europe
– When did you depart for the old continent?
– I was in Caracas for nearly 10 years, until 1960. Because of a political deception I decided to leave the country and I fell into a desperate crisis, a very serious one. I remembered that as a child I always tended to see a freight ship on Margarita island called “El Colombie,” and actually, at a certain moment, my grandmother once took me on a guided visit to the ship when it was in port. So, the idea came to me to enter a travel agency where a friend of mine worked and when I asked him about the ship he casually answered that it was making its final trip and no longer came to Venezuela but to Guadalupe instead. I went to Guadalupe, got on board and shared a cabin with captain Joseph Ropars, a very pleasant man from Martinique; as soon as I entered with my luggage, I noticed a box of rum. I remember he said to me: “Look, my friend, we have to drink this box of rum because customs won’t let me enter with it.” Of course, we traveled very happily and the “twelve girls” lasted for the entire trip to England. Although I must recognize that on the leg between the Azores and Great Britain, the sea became very violent and the rum almost ran out. That really would have been a tragedy.

– How important was it for a young writer to live in the “City of Light”?
– Very important, a dream come true. I still remember when I arrived at Le Havre, I was still dizzy from the amount of rum I had drunk and as soon as I got off, a pretty prostitute asked me if I wanted to go out with her; it was really something unforgettable. I did everything: I was a night receptionist, a cook, a worker and I also organized travel packets to a French dependency. There were writers and painters from all over the world. In the Latin Quarter even the air you breathed was artistic. As soon as I arrived, I registered at the Sorbonne, in Literature and Human Sciences, so I could eat at the university cafeteria, where one could eat well for little money. I attended a few classes, but soon grew bored.

– What was your encounter with the Peruvian novelist Julio Ramón Ribeyro like?
– We shared a great friendship that marked me a great deal. Since we first met, we got along well. I remember him very well. He wasn’t too tall, about my height, thin and always very affable. He had been writing for a while and he had even been published. Since I was an unpublished author, he always cared about me a great deal and would always give me advice. I learned a lot from our conversations, and we’d always go to La Contraescarpe where we would spend hours talking about books, women, and drinking wine. On that same corner lived a Peruvian painter with the last name Orellana, whom we’d wake up late at night to continue the conversation in his miniscule studio. Those were other times when we were all exiles in Paris, but we were creating a lot, everyone wrote. I remember that’s where I also met Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce Echenique.

– At that time, were you writing Al sur del Equanil?
– Of course, while I’ve lived, I’ve always been writing. For me, writing was never a pretext, it was always my life and that novel condensed much of what had happened to me. I also loved living in New York, where they called me Rubber Legs because of my talent for dancing. I lived in Little Italy, specifically in the Saint Anthony neighborhood. I still vividly recall the mailbox located on Grant Street for contributions to the mafia. Everyone assumed I was just another Italian, they said I was Neapolitan, because I worked as a pizza cook in a restaurant, and my pies were always good. In the miniscule apartment where I lived I owned a gramophone. I used to peek through a hole in the gramophone and I always saw Caruso singing inside, standing up.

Political Deceptions
– What do you remember from your time as a political activist for the Copei political party?
– Many things. When I began I was still a student and it wasn’t a political party yet, but instead it was busy supporting candidates in elections. I liked it because I felt I was being useful, and this was a country that was being shaped in democracy.

– Why did you abandon its ranks before you went to Europe?
– When I returned to Venezuela from my journey through South America I rejoined Copei, which was already a political party, but there came a time when I became disillusioned; I always questioned the party because I had the impression that it had become an organism merely destined to support Rafael Caldera’s aspirations.

At that time, because of my travels and readings, I had learned a great deal about the structures of political parties and I knew that those institutions needed to have a defined ideology, a social and economic proposal, a vision for the country. Y grew disenchanted and I was a real pest for other activists, because I would question many of the politics and declarations of the leaders.

– Is it true that someone accused you of being a conspirator?
– Of course! Someone in the party accused me of being a conspirator. That was fashionable in those times, because democracy was just beginning with Rómulo Betancourt’s government, and the famous Punto Fijo Pact had just been signed. Anyone who didn’t support the pact totally and completely was considered a conspirator.

One time, a friend of mine who worked for El Nacional called me, because he was in Copei and among its higher circles. He told me: “Look René, be careful because someone in the party denounced you as a conspirator and they’ve already given the order twice for Digepol to arrest you.” When I asked him what the party was going to do about it, he answered that Horacio Moros had gone twice to talk about the topic with Oscar Zamora Conde and hadn’t been received; in other words, they didn’t care about me.

When that happened, I renounced my position as Secretary General of Sabana Grande, in the parish of El Recreo, and in the branch I had founded in Chapellín; that’s when I decided to retire completely.

{ Albinson Linares, El Nacional, 21 August 2006 }

No comments: