Una lección de abismo (sobre Bajo tierra de Gustavo Valle) / Rafael Castillo Zapata

An Abyss Lesson (on Bajo tierra by Gustavo Valle)


Implicitly or explicitly, there undoubtedly exists a history of the reactions of the human imaginary when faced with the telluric manifestations that overwhelm it. A history of the experience of the sublime that is, simultaneously, a history of the experience of the sinister. Let us situate Gustavo Valle’s book in this long constellation of imaginary fabrications by which man’s spirit symbolically faces the powerful and prodigious challenge of great earthly phenomena: earthquakes, cataclysms, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, storms, inundations, hurricanes, eclipses, all of which would have, who knows, their corresponding manifestations, as spiritual doubles, in the labyrinths of consciousness and unconsciousness and would demand, they too, works of discursive configuration and sublimation.

The experience of the catastrophic mudslides that took place on the mountain range that separates Caracas from the Caribbean coastline in December of 1999, with its consequence of dead and disappeared and of extreme psychological suffering among the survivors, produced a collective spiritual commotion from which we Venezuelans still haven’t recovered completely. Bajo tierra is, to a certain degree, a way of assuming the charge of this unresolved mourning wagering for the regenerative powers of the fable, recurring to the magical operation, always humanly efficient and effective, that consists of giving a narrative form to that which moves us. We all need, as the novel’s protagonist confesses, a legend where we can take cover, a myth that can serve us as a shelter and allow us to survive and continue moving forward.

At least in part, one could say that Bajo tierra is the satisfaction of this urgent spiritual need. Thus, the novel clearly inscribes itself in the very heart of a demand by the community to which it is destined in the first place: it is a response by the imagination to a radical demand of the most crude and rude reality. A novel that we’ve needed, then. A novel that contributes to remaking the unraveled thread of the collective soul with an exercise of memory that is at once a celebration of the disposition of the imagination to transform a traumatic catastrophe in an adventure of senses.


To achieve this, like any good narrator, Valle pulls the tale from the margin of the problem:he doesn’t face the tragedy of those torrential rain falls head on, he doesn’t describe, nor does he lament. Instead, he organizes a fable that allows the evocation of those events in a mythical key. And he chooses the masterful thread of the story of a son who has lost his father under strange circumstances and who, driven by a compulsion he himself doesn’t know how it begins, he takes on the search of his specter through a labyrinthine landscape that allows the narrator to speak about Caracas, the city affected by those terrible disasters of sky and earth, as if it were reflected within an inwards-looking mirror, in the dim depths of a deep lake. An inverted city, then, which the tale invites us to explore through its subterranean entrails, in an unexpected infra-world that seems too close to the ancestral infernos painted by the most ancient myths. Revealing the flip side of a City that has been run over by the abysmal rush of enraged nature, the narrator makes us descend to the depths where the great mysteries of that earth are brewed, the earth that, unsuspected by the incautious citizens, is alive, traversed by ominous, threatening, latent currents under their feet.


Well aware of the close tradition that precedes him, Valle invites us to establish crucial correspondences with magnificent books like the Aeneid or A Journey to the Center of the Earth, which reproduce very ancient scenes of relations with the dead and contact with the entrails of the Earth. Like Aeneas, Sebastián C., the protagonist of Bajo tierra, goes in serach of the trail of his dead father and in a precisely sybilline manner, by means of the mediation of memorable characters such as the manager of the disquieting Hotel Teresa or the shaman on the trail of his lost family, he finds himself involved in a strange adventure crossing the entire valley where Caracas lays as if over a gallery of secret catacombs and submerged passages. Like Axel, in Verne’s novel, he will give himself over to a form of initiation rite that will take him through the terrible tests of a spiritual conversion that develops as he passes through the dark of the abyssal depths of the earth (which is another way of referring to the abyssal depths of the soul) and acceding, eventually, after abundant vicissitudes, to the clarity of light facing the sea’s purifying waters.

A search for the father and an adventure of conversion, Bajo tierra is, at its core, a Telemachy. The impulse toward adventure that irrigates it is precisely the impulse of the search that all losses implie; in this case, the loss of the father. Günter Grass said somewhere that loss had infused him with eloquence: “only what is lost demands infinite names passionately;” and that
demand of passionate names, it seems to me, is none other than the demand of the story, the demand of literature. “I had never before felt the need to look for anyone and much less to tell a story,” says Sebastián C., adding: “I think you only feel that need when what you look for, or hope to tell, has disappeared completely.” We only tell tales about what is absent, one would say; and the narrative trigger of Valle’s novel is precisely that, the attempt to recover something lost, the persecution of a ghost in the depths of a subterranean labyrinth.


As a journey to the infra-world, Bajo tierra can quickly be associated with the adventure of a descent into the unconscious, as if this could momentarily be considered a place, a place in the soul. This is why the protagonist’s dreams are so important to the tale’s composition: dreams have to do with the exploration of the subsoil of consciousness and communication with the dead, a space of links beyond the mundane, the flow of transitions between reality and fantasy, between life and death. Dreams, moreover, can become a safe conduct for entering into the labyrinth: a ciphered message that secretly orients us through the trails of the depths, as happens most certainly in the adventure of Sebastián C., with the drawings of Nabarima, the shaman’s lost son, where the hieroglyphs of an esoteric map of the world are read. That’s why so many episodes appear in the novel referring to false readings and the misplacements to which writing can lead, as in a type of speculation on itself that the novel allows to develop, in a secret code, amidst the deployment of its imaginary adventure.


So, deploying the resources provided to him by a very antique narrative tradition, Valle transforms the traumatic experience of the telluric commotions of a city to which he is linked by powerful ties of affective and imaginary dependence in an adventure novel. A venturesome novel, launched with courage to run all the risks of a narrative adventure, which is always a dangerous journey, an occasion for misplacement.

There is always an impulse toward adventure, toward the temptation of what is to come in every tale. In the so-called adventure tale, and Bajo tierra is undoubtedly one, this tempting impulse has been redoubled, has been converted into a motive, a trigger of stories chained together by the intermittent proposal of promises of things to come. What has yet to come, what will happen, points to the ventured attraction – misadventure or venturesome – of what will be, of what is arriving, of what will come. As Jankélevitch suggests, the adventure is marked by the consciousness of what is to come and, at the same time, let’s put it this way, by the unawareness of what will come: we know that something approaches, that something always occurs to us, has to arrive, but we ignore what it might be. This is where mystery plants its powerful hoof. There is no tale, Barthes said, without enigma: the tale is the proposal of a question that indefinitely postpones its answer. Bajo tierra clearly responds to these imperatives. It is, by all the conventions, an adventure novel, the notebook of a journey of conversion full of episodes that open and close enigmas, suspend them, partially resolve them, announce them, maintain them in the unsettling suspense where we see the hatching of the intrigue without which the tale’s seduction falls and comes apart. “In order for an adventure to exist,” Jankélevitch himself once again says, “it is necessary that a series of episodes or peripeties be engaged throughout the duration” of an experience or of the telling of that experience (since an adventure tale is as venturesome as the adventure itself, the trail of a verbal search). Bajo tierra is rich in episodes and peripeties to the degree that it wagers openly in favor of the model of the adventure book, purely Vernean. But it is precisely there that some of this tale’s worst temptations hide.


The natural pulse of the tale is to infinitely suspend its conclusion: once unleashed, it is called to flow unendingly; this is why it’s necessary, precisely, to submit it to an economy. A narrative economy implies, then, a strategy for controlling this spontaneous compulsion to narrate. The narrator is always at risk of gorging himself with his story and resisting its close; this is why if he doesn’t pay attention to his own rapture, he can turn the tale into something sickly, excessive: after postponing the resolution of its enigmas for so long, he makes the tale stagnate and he runs the risk of transforming it from venturesome to boring. These are dangers that, it seems to me, Valle avoids quite well throughout the book. Only at the end does he seem to lose some control over the reins of his vehicle.


The tale, we said, has the impulse – inherent in its own dynamics – of postponing its possible end; but its own forces, at a given moment, oblige it to close. The narrator’s breath runs out, the tale itself is conquered by a certain exhaustion: an acceleration, at times brusque, must be printed so as to stop the flow of the tale before the tension is diluted. The chain of peripeties is concentrated, and the zones of distension are shorter each time. The tale wants to advance at the cost of quick and definitive changes; it wants to finally reach that space of resolution, of detention and repose to which it is, after all, destined by the very material contingency of its existence. Bajo tierra is affected by this fatality in the majority of tales: the quick resolution of the suspended enigmas in the final stretch of the race. That’s why so many tales seem to end so suddenly and leave us with a certain bad taste in our mouth; but not because they end bad but because they change the rhythm in a surprising manner and what had been disposed as a dilated play of entertaining episodes abruptly comes to a stop. Perhaps good tales, those that most powerfully move us to cling to the infinite flow of stories, are those that disappoint us in the end, precisely because they come to a close. Bajo tierra could belong to this family of venturesome adventure tales: it pulls together loose threads very quickly, perhaps, towards the end while leaving others untied. These last ones, the untied, are those that leave open the always imminent possibility of starting the thread over again. The tale, after all, has no end.

{ Rafael Castillo Zapata, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 9 May 2009 }

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