Una calle llamada Tania / Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez

A Street Named Tania

When the decade of the nineties opens there are at least three tendencies coexisting within Venezuelan literature: the exhausted romantic epic of the sixties; the depressive withdrawal of the short story of the following years and the anecdotal populism of certain fiction writers from the late eighties. It is true that a few fundamental texts had been appearing throughout those years, titles that transcended general panoramas, managing to establish themselves as brilliant and solid proposals. I’m thinking of books such as Confidencias del Cartabón by Iliana Gómez Berbesi (1981); Setecientas palmeras plantadas en el mismo lugar (1974) and Percusión (1982) by José Balza; Los platos del diablo (1985) by Eduardo Liendo, but the general climate evoked was of an oppressive, asphyxiating house, as though Venezuelan fiction were condemned to never surpass the glimpses of projection and acknowledgment it experienced in the sixties with works of great magnitude such as those of Salvador Garmendia and Adriano González León.

Writing during those years seemed a melancholic exercise, a task condemned to incomprehension, to indifference. The word “crisis” seemed to be repeated over and over, as though there were no opening from within critical circles toward the new names that could have been emerging at the time.

But then Calletania appeared, the novel that Ediciones Periférica has now released in Europe.

The positive response was immediate; readers reacted with enthusiasm; critics responded effusively and its author, Israel Centeno, won the prize for best book of fiction published during the year [1992] in that Caribbean country.

Optimistic airs then moved through a generation of authors who understood that the space of their creation needed to have the size of an infinite literary ambition, unconstrained by the claustrophobic limits of Venezuelan literary history, attuned instead to the ensemble of the Spanish language and (why not?) that of world literature. Centeno gathered moments from his country’s tradition: certain atmospheres from Guillermo Meneses; a particular vision of the urban from Salvador Garmendia himself; the constructive precision of Gustavo Díaz Solís; but he also combined them with an intelligent reinterpretation of Raymond Carver, with the viscosity of Onetti’s worlds and Juan Marsé’s expressive force.

Calletania took up once again themes belonging to fiction from the sixties: political struggle, politicized intellectuality, life in marginal zones, but with a new vision. A vision of disenchantment, tenuously parodic, soberly ferocious. Yesterday’s dreams now appeared like a crude masquerade; a circus that resulted in compassion and the ridiculous. The narrative thread was tensed thanks to a succession of blocks where, little by little, the presence of a real but hallucinated world was drawn with precision, a recognizable world that bifurcated between territories of what was lived and dreamed.

With this novel Israel Centeno managed to regain a certain branch of Venezuelan fiction’s own universes and transform them as one might turn a sock inside out. Faced with the unrestricted heroism and kindness of characters with a social conscience, faced with the stone cardboard epic, a more believable, more human texture appeared, uneven and eroded.

But this text did much more than that, because the result of its attempt was the construction of one of the great Latin American novels of recent years; an attempt that when seen today as a global proposal within the Spanish language, rises like a vital fresco suffused with vigor, enchantment and literary virtuosity.

Throughout its 167 pages Calletania draws the din of an urban universe in which its characters are subjected to erosion, to the undermining of its silhouettes, since the city’s frenetic time, the story’s time is a monster that devours (fiercely, but also with pleasure) the totality of the materials it finds in its path.

Perhaps that devouring movement might explain one of the fundamental elements of this narrative piece: its capacity of absorption, its magnetism, as if we readers were also being devoured by the years, by the written city, by the story itself. Calletania’s pages grow from a force of attraction that pushes the reader forward, as if a pole of energy were drawing one closer with slow but sure clarity.

But it’s not an effect achieved with the clichés of those light novels that tie together action-packed televised situations. Calletania propels the rhythms of its actions only in its final pages. The rest of the time the novel moves on two planes: one is the public space, a shantytown where little by little the elements of a great confrontation between drug dealers and far left political activists who have decided to act as a moral phalanx are insinuated; and another is the intimate space of various characters seen within their individuality, outlined through their relationship with their houses: a shanty they call El Faro; the house of shadowy worlds where a girl named Tania will be crushed by time; a Colonel’s house where the ghosts of an ancient military dictatorship remain.

That oscillation gives the novel body and musculature. The complexity of this work of fiction spreads out along its exterior surface and in its subtler intimacy. The actions move from one point to another creating and asphyxiating tension, a potential explosion we intuit at each paragraph.

The close of this novel that up to now has advanced sustained by the continuous unfolding of the characters (phantasmal, historical, mythical revelations) leads toward the unifying condensation of a defeat, of an accepted defeat. And thus we witness a compact, indispensable narrative text; a great moment in the genre of late 20th century fiction.

{ Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez, La Opinión de Tenerife, 8 June 2009 }

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