[Photo: Cambridge, MA, 1969]
Since reading Renato Rodríguez’s novel El bonche (Monte Ávila Editores, 2006) this summer, I’ve been asking friends how they might translate the title into English. The word “bonche” really has no direct translation, and everyone I asked agreed the word “party” wouldn’t be accurate. A “bonche,” as I understand its spoken context, is more than just a party, it’s an event, a spectacle, an excess and a release from the everyday. While a party might be fun, a “bonche” is memorable long after it ends.
This is Rodríguez’s second novel, first published by Monte Ávila Editores in 1976. The entire book takes place during one day in New York City, as the narrator travels by subway to a bonche being held by friends, hangs out in the kitchen and living room of their apartment while commenting on the various denizens of that evening, and concludes after he ingests from a potent batch of LSD (or, as he calls it in the book, “lisergistuff”), stumbles out into the dawn streets of Manhattan and is transported via hallucination back to Caracas.
Born on the island of Margarita in 1927, Rodríguez has spent much of his life living outside Venezuela, in places such as San Francisco, New York, Boston, Paris, Bogota, Santiago and sundry towns and highways in between, employed in all sorts of jobs including carpenter, electrician, hotel night clerk and chef, among others. He published his first novel, Al sur del Equanil, in Caracas in 1963, inaugurating an experimental fiction that still hasn’t been completely digested in Venezuela. He was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura in 2006, and Monte Ávila Editores has committed to reprinting all of his books, an endeavor that will hopefully assure his work gains the wide readership it deserves. In Venezuela, for instance, Rodríguez remains an underground figure, read and admired by a fervent minority. He now lives in the mountains outside Caracas, far removed from the literary circles of Caracas, and as far as I know he’s no longer writing.
I read El bonche within a week, not wanting to finish the book because it’s such a pleasure to inhabit its pages. I also identify with the situations and characters in their late 1960s and early 1970s setting of New York City and Boston, hippie or counterculture Venezuelans and Latin Americans adrift in an age where traditions, cultures and the world seemed to be disintegrating. I was born in 1970, so what I actually remember are fragments of my parents and their friends. The way, for instance, I was aware of how my parents and I seemed “weird” to other people when we arrived in the middle class milieu of Caracas in 1976, with our long hair, vegetarianism, simple clothes and whatever other hippie accoutrements we brought from Cambridge. Reading El bonche, I often felt like I was getting a chance to finally listen in on parties and conversations I missed as a child but which had somehow filtered into my consciousness. Above all, though, I identify with Rodríguez as a writer for whom the act of reading is an adventure in itself. His narrator often comments on his obsessive reading habits:
“The vice of reading dominates me. Every day I lie down with a book and read until I fall asleep.” (93) [All translations from the Spanish are my own.]
Rodríguez’s funny, irreverent voice certainly has some parallels in writers such as his contemporary (and I would say aesthetic cousin) Kerouac, or Henry Miller, or even moments in Bukowski. But reading El bonche one is continually reminded that Rodríguez is inventing his own type of novel, one that is never satisfied with being a novel but ventures into the realm of memoir and countercultural rebellion against aesthetic or political orthodoxy. Being the late 60s/early 70s, there is, for instance, the requisite presence of radical political stances. Yet El bonche’s narrator remains outside any attempt at purity, positing an anarchic irreverence toward both conservative and revolutionary alignments. In one scene, the narrator reacts to a friend’s revolutionary ideas with irony, and also composes a poem in English that hints at the untranslatability of the book’s title:
“That Ludwig is pushy, I can’t stand his attitude, he claims to be an intellectual and a Marxist, but I’m more of a Marxist than he is, after all I’ve seen every single Marx Brothers movie. He always wants to hang out with intellectuals and artists. What right does he have to keep calling me a poet? Does he think that flatters me? Not really, I know several poets and I don’t envy them at all, they’re mostly just pathetic, unhappy creatures. Now, if he wants me to pass for a poet, I’ll do it to make him happy. But, what the hell is this idea of his of refuting me in front of people? Bad manners and nothing else. I’ll even write him a little poem if he asks me, in English no less. You don’t think so? Well here it goes... What should its title be? Let’s call it El bonche, since we’re all in the midst of a bonche.
EL BONCHE= THE BUNCH
(The translation isn’t very catholic, but with a little effort and imagination it works.)
Everybody is sitting on his own stone age.
All things are brand new.
Languages haven’t yet been created
at the tower of Babel
Matters not the awful silence
when every fucking word is elsemeaning
I read the newspapers and ask myself
How much in God we trust?
Rain is all over and something is rotting
on the mount Ararat
While I wait for an answer
I will turn on my TV box.
Who’s gonna stop me? With the same right that a bunch of guys who call themselves poets and artists go around working as carpenters, I can, as an actual carpenter, write poems. There’s no school where you can study poetry. Poetry is the wisdom that’s never learned. Only in Venezuela are there poets with degrees, who’ve graduated from the School of Letters at UCV.” (74-75)
The beauty of this novel is that it defines itself as something other than a novel, just as it captures the ephemeral nature of a memorable bonche, a party where anything can happen, an event that is merely an allegory of that larger bonche that is life. While Rodríguez’s characters are involved with the counterculture impulses of a specific moment in the U.S., his narrator is never completely devoted to any single approach to living. Rather, like Kerouac’s lonesome travelers, he’s always aware of the distances he has traversed and how his self-imposed exile is at once literal and metaphysical:
“But a bonche is a bonche and when one shows up at the door I become a wild animal, I do my yoga asanas with extra concentration, practice my most spectacular dance steps. Most of the time I come back to my house frustrated, deep in thought and with my head hanging down. But, what the fuck? A bonche is a bonche and you can never discount the possibility that something might happen, something important. That’s how it’s been since I got to New York.” (78)
The book is dedicated to various friends, including “My cat Micifuz,” who shows up in several hilarious scenes, such as one where he writes a confessional memoir the narrator comes home to find in his typewriter one afternoon. “Micifuz’s Memoirs” is a mirror image of El bonche itself, a text within the text that mocks reader and writer, pointing out our arrogance as humans when we forget our pets are sentient beings too.
Rodríguez’s aesthetics are wide ranging, nurtured as much by his voracious reading as by his travels throughout the world. A particularly fascinating interlude occurs in Paris, where the narrator works as a night clerk at a cheap hotel. There he spends his night shifts reading at the solitary desk and befriends a man named Goldstein who is a member of the Letterist International, and who begins to recommend books for him to read. The narrator is always making wondrous discoveries as a reader, in the books, people and cities he encounters.
From the perspective of his wanderings, the narrator of El bonche often looks back at Venezuela as an absurd and contradictory place that is “... carefully disorganized so that punctuality becomes impossible.” (209) During a season spent traveling in Germany, the narrator spends hours on a park bench learning to play a guitar. In one beautiful moment, a German girl sits silently beside him one afternoon reading Die Vorsokratischer Philosophen and looking over at him occasionally, finally departing without a word. In El bonche, personal and amorous connections occur but they always seem to fade as unexpectedly as they appear. His focus on trying to learn how to play guitar symbolizes the novel’s self-reflexive analysis of the art of fiction and its relationship to visionary experiences:
“I put the guitar back in its case and remained there, sitting still, overwhelmed by a lack of inspiration, I regretted having bought the guitar. The ancestral sounds of the al-ud weren’t coming to me, it was like the most authentic emptiness, an absolute emptiness and I once again felt the fear of the absolute that pushed me to flee toward a north that never ended in any physical border, of the absolute nothingness, which is the most chilling of escapes, and of finding everything and nothing at every corner, at every café, at every barber shop, at every cigarette shop, in all the nooks of a country where holy water is called beer.” (212)
At one point late in the party, having ingested his dose of “lisergistuff,” the narrator wanders into the streets of downtown Manhattan and mocks poets once again, as he notices they never fully prepared him for the wonders of the night he’s now experiencing, a moment of visionary consciousness that Rodríguez leavens with his sarcastic wit:
“Poets are a bunch of motherfuckers, they’ve swindled me. How is it they’ve never been capable of telling me about the beauty of this night and all its splendor?” (229)
But of course Renato Rodríguez is a poet, one whose medium is prose, and the texture and visionary nature of this book confirm this. Throughout the novel one finds moments of insight on exile, travel, love, desire, ambition and the labyrinthine paths of writing. Rodríguez and his narrator (are they the same person?) mock and curse poets because they identify with them, in all their sublime moments as well as their frequent tediousness. After all, it’s the poet who seems to sustain these pages and their ability to transform us and our surroundings momentarily:
“But reaching Brooklyn Bridge probably would have cost him more than what he had left and, besides, Brooklyn Bridge no longer exists because Hart Crane died, the one who kept it upright with his song, just as the laments keep the Wailing Wall upright in Jerusalem; the day the lamentations end, the wall will collapse.” (119)