Un bolero llamado Caracas / Gustavo Valle

A Bolero Named Caracas

Ever since I’ve known her she hasn’t stopped cross-dressing again and again, always submerged in a frantic race toward metamorphosis and thrift store.

If Caracas were to see herself in a mirror she’d laugh. And she’d laugh with a smoker’s laugh, that cavernous but intimate laugh the most beloved sick people have. Facing a (distorting) mirror she’d stretch, she’d shrink, and in those ominous images would identify herself more clearly.

Caracas has grown but I don’t really know in what way, nor in what direction. One doesn’t see many new buildings, nor too many old buildings, the highways are the same, the streets packed with cars are jut as narrow and noisy. But something has grown, something spills over. The temperature, for example, has gone up in every corner. Even on balconies you can feel the blast of that warm air. The winds that entered the valley through Petare no longer blow, they’ve shifted to other corridors. I breathe a lazy air that seems to come from the subsoil, pass through the asphalt and dance with the motors.

Caracas is a pulmonary city. There are visual cities, like Paris; osseous ones, like Rome; intestinal ones, like Calcutta. But Caracas is alveolar and pneumatic. She has the consistency of smoke, and always seems to be immersed in a haze different from smog. That’s why it’s hard to define her, to limit her. Even her busiest avenues seem to lose themselves in a beyond of street vendors and automobile transit. This isn’t a Caribbean version of London – despite the fact that killers of blondes abound. It’s a mental haze, as though that ant-like effect of the scenery always remained in the eyes of whoever visits her. The same thing happens when we see her from afar, from the heights of Mount Ávila. Down there she seems irregular and mottled, settled amid trees, crawling up the nearby cliffs, expanding without order under a tenuous grey cloud.

And she exhibits herself, she disrobes, revealing everything. From the shiny glass buildings to the corners full of trash; from the dressed-up housewives of the East to its most scandalous murders. Shameless, she likes easy compliments, and make-up makes her delirious. She always wears new little dresses. She likes loud colors that will keep her happy, because if one thing is true it’s that Caracas is a happy city. She avoids melancholy at all costs, she flees sadness like the plague and all of us Caraqueños are willing to die (and to kill) before becoming sad.

I thought her rhythm was quick, vibrant, frenetic. I believed no other city was as lost as she was in her crazy, flustered movement, but I was wrong. Her speed is only an illusion, her vertiginous march is barely a simulacrum. She doesn’t move: she sways. A daughter of the Caribbean in the end, her speed is subdued. Her splendid traffic jams slow her down, the minimal resolution of her functionaries put the brakes on her. And it’s just that there’s no hurry – and this makes you desperate. Desperation got confused with speed and all of us Caraqueños convinced ourselves we live in a vibrant city, as if this were synonymous with something good, because Caracas, among other things, likes to compare herself.

At night, she has the face of a woman who’s visited many operation rooms. Like the cabaret stars who’ve invested their years between dance and whiskey, and at an old age regain time by giving themselves over to liposuction or applying enough silicone to their butts.

And Caracas is a city fragmented even in the possibility of its happiness. And if we think of an order, a logical structure we won’t be thinking of Caracas but rather of its dream. A dream that has been asleep for many years, hanging from a hammock at an altitude of one thousand meters.

Everyone tells me: “Don’t go downtown and if you go don’t dress like that, wear some old blue jeans, an old shirt, and no watch because it’ll get stolen, be careful with the esquina caliente,” and things like that. But I love to go downtown. I worked downtown for many years. I always liked downtown, its confusion, its thanatic energy, the periphery of downtown. And it’s just so chaotic that it’s charming to see how impossible it is for people to agree: street vendors, cars, pedestrians, they all mix together in an asphyxiating blend. It’s called downtown but it’s actually an outskirt. It’s a downtown at the margin of everything: of the law, of reason, of the city itself. Or better yet: it’s another city. The most real one of all. Once you’re downtown the rest seems like an incredible invention. The East: Fantasy Island. I love downtown Caracas because it’s so real it scares you. I love downtown because incomprehensible things happen there.

Someone once said Caracas didn’t exist, didn’t have a memory, that because she was continuously changing she never ended up being anything, and that her landscape was a sum of temporary buildings, ruined houses that are rebuilt, businesses that change branches, names, go bankrupt, close their doors and then open under another name with new merchandise. That’s why it’s hard to recognize her, she lives in a carnival of new situations and always takes one mask off to put on another: she dresses up like New York with its knife-like buildings, or wears Bogota’s aristocratic ceramics, or invents the malls of Miami, or lifts up Los Angeles-style asphalt tongues, or crowds herself with street vendors like the markets in Cairo and reproduces Calcutta’s abundant street kids.

Caracas is an emotional city. But it’s not a romantic geography, nor a postcard where two hands clasp each other over a background of renovated streets, nor is it the landscape of urban passion that Robert Doisneau has magnetized onto our pupils. Caracas is emotional because she isn’t able to control herself, and she’s given herself over to the capricious game of her mortal contradictions. Caribbean, but at one thousand meters above sea level; modern and provincial; frenetic and simultaneously slow in a combination that drives people mad; seductive and violent. Like a perplexed and also desperate lover, she ceases to be herself so as to always be another, a little more cowardly and attractive, enchantingly pathetic, and in that transit she vanishes and becomes something strange, even to herself.

* Fragment from the homonymous text published in La paradoja de Ítaca: De ciudades y de viajes (Caracas: Ministerio de la Cultura/Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, 2005).


{ Gustavo Valle, Los Hermanos Chang, No. 27, Anno 2, November 2008 }

No comments: