6.18.2011

Recuerdos de Ramos Sucre / Julián Padrón

Memories of Ramos Sucre

Last Friday the 13th marked 15 years since the death of doctor José Antonio Ramos Sucre, a writer of chaste style and deep thought whose books La torre de Timón, El cielo de esmalte and Las formas del fuego constitute one of the most original and profound oeuvres in Venezuelan literature.

I owe him these memories. He was my Latin and Greek roots professor at the Liceo Andrés Bello, and one of my first literary confidants. He was of short height, of thin complexion, with penetrating blue eyes, of nervous temperament. I can’t forget that emphatic voice, nor those incisive words, nor that dry laigh, with which he’d finish the emphasis of his phrases. He had the figure of a syllogism in his three propositions for life, love and literature.

My academic and literary adolescence had to receive an impression from that austere and wise man from Cumaná. I started taking notes from his comments in class and in conversations outside school in a notebook with the rules of Latin grammar that he taught us, a notebook I now deplore having lost along with other school notes. But since I owed him these memories I’ll try to recall those notes in order to weave this account of the interesting days when the cordial paths of that teacher and this disciple crossed.

Ramos Sucre gave his Latin lesson from 2 to 3 in the afternoon, the most stifling hour in the tropics, and yet his was one of the most pleasant classes in the school, because he didn’t limit himself to making us repeat by rote the declensions and conjugations, but instead applied a practical method for teaching them through the analysis and translation of selected excerpts from the Latin. Graeci troyanos, equo ligneo, dono pernicioso, superaverunt. Moreover, he enjoyed livening up his classes with stinging comments on the most varied topics and events, and with the reference of anecdotes regarding facts and characters he was the first to celebrate with that dry laugh that we his disciples would chorus.

It is doubtful that saying a writer writes like he speaks is praise; but it is high praise to affirm that Ramos Sucre spoke like he wrote. Among us there was a classmate, whom I have lost track of since the school benches, who liked to bother him with those childish pranks students employ against teachers. That classmate was tall, physically strong, ruddy and with his adolescent face covered with pimples, and to make more noise he wore thick-soled shoes like the ones worn by poor seminary students. That classmate’s jokes consisted of scandalously chorusing Ramos Sucre’s laugh, in entering the classroom loudly stamping his shoes on the floorboards and in asking him too many unnecessary questions and pointlessly debating his answers. One day when our classmate entered class later than usual, making his shoes stamp the floor more loudly and deliberately so as to interrupt the teacher’s lesson, Ramos Sucre couldn’t stand the impertinence, and before he took his seat he said to him with that full and emphatic voice, as though wanting to pulverize him: “Listen, kid, you’re nothing but an annoying and insipid German!”

Regarding that occurrence, and without any other proof to say so, Ramos Sucre seemed to harbor a certain animosity for some characteristics of German culture, which perhaps originated in the love he felt for Greco-Roman culture. Once, he interrupted class to make one of those comments with which he liked to illustrate his lessons.

“The Germans,” he concluded with that voice that took joy in the correct pronunciation of words, “are a people who have no knowledge of human dignity. In Germany a learned man writes a library in order to defend an unjust crime.”

On a certain occasion another classmate, today a reputed medical professional in Caracas, and in reference to those mischievous student pranks, moments before class placed on his desk a copy of “Fantoches,” in which the writer was mocked for one of his prose poems published in those days. Ramos Sucre arrived, sat down, grabbed the newspaper and threw a quick glance at the comment marked in red ink, and glancing beyond the students, ordered, undoubtedly addressing the author of the prank: “So-and-so,” and stopping after an accusatory emphasis on his last name, “go to the chalkboard.”

In the Greek roots class, he was writing on the chalkboard a list of Spanish words derived from the Greek, while at the same time explaining their respective etymologies. One of the classmates, by all signs a budding poet, pronounced from his seat: “Glauco, sir,” and Ramos Sucre, turning around quickly, as if stimulated by an electric discharge, defined him with his emphatic voice: “You are a silversmith.”

***

My literary encounter with Ramos Sucre is also one of the unforgettable moments for me. At that time I was secretly writing avant-garde romantic poems which later on ended up being so detestable to me that I still feel the embarrassment of having published them. This explains why I would read with admiration the prose poems Ramos Sucre published frequently in El Universal, and I paid attention to his words when he would reflect on literature during passing remarks in class. As a consequence of the word silversmith [orfebre], for example, after teaching its etymology, he would use the occasion to offer a friendly dissertation on silversmithing, in the worst sense of the word, among the majority of Venezuelan writers.

“The writer should be original,” he would conclude. “Originality consists in expressing oneself with clarity, accuracy and precision. He who has nothing to say writes one word after another with the goal of filling up the emptiness of his thought. Silversmith, in the worst sense of the word, is the writer who writes making cornucopias and garlands.”

At the time, Ramos Sucre’s renunciation against employing the word que [that] was very well-known, and even greater was the aversion he felt when someone used the verbal locution a base de [based on]. Once, I asked him the reasons for his aversion.

“The word que is an insignificant term,” he answered. “As for a base de, it’s a very tasteless phrase used by writers with a suspicious pharmaceutical flightiness.”

These pronouncements by Ramos Sucre made me admire his singular temperament. Young writers always try to be original and such an inclination is a good vocational symptom when originality isn’t attempted at the expense of the pedantry that nourishes the ignorance of youth. Ramos Sucre distinguished me with his regard and deference toward a student eager for knowledge, but he didn’t know I was committing unforgivable sins against literature. One time, I dared to confess my faults and expressed my desire to show him a few things. He made an appointment for me to visit him at his office in the Casa Amarilla [offices for the Ministry of Foreign Relations] at 5 in the afternoon that very same day.

With all the adolescent audacity that wasn’t overcome by a beginner’s timidity when faced with the severe writer that was Ramos Sucre and with a punctuality that was most un-Venezuelan, at the agreed upon hour I went up one of the staircases that lead to the second floor of the Foreign Ministry. When I knocked on the door indicated to me by the clerk in the front room that faces Plaza Bolívar, the teacher’s emphatic voice invited me to enter. He was organizing a big pile of books that were lying on the floor. He stood up with a volume in his hands and began to speak to me about the initiation of the writer, of the tremendous vocation of writing and of the suffering and joy of the literary art. I gave him the original copies of some poems and he took them, abandoning the book, and began to read them quietly, strolling through the room with a tiny yellow pencil behind his ear.

“Leave them with me,” he said after a long and embarrassing silence. “We have to talk. You can come every afternoon at this very hour. Plaza Bolívar is my home. Whenever you want to see me, you can find me here.”

That same afternoon we walked around the Plaza and afterward I accompanied him toward El Panteón while we talked. He did the talking. I listened and asked questions. Frequently, he would interrupt the chat to let his glance wander toward the beautiful women who walked by. Then he would raise the chape of the cane off the ground and the stroll and chat would continue.

On several afternoons afterward I accompanied him in his stroll around the Plaza and in his walk toward El Panteón. But that first time, after he conversed deliciously about literature, when he had already said goodbye to me and advanced a few steps, he suddenly turned around.

“Ah!” he called. “Listen. You have to read a few books. It’s not necessary to read so much, but rather to do so well and only the best. The good books are not that many. It’s enough to read the main classics of universal literature. However, it’s preferable if you can read them in the original language. And always with a good dictionary at hand.”

***

The personality of Ramos Sucre’s style has been pointed out and some have noted that he was dark and that his prose poems reveal an exotic spirit and a temperament touched by eccentricity. It would be curious to examine the imaginative world of Ramos Sucre in relation to the creations of the surrealists so as to discover, with the astonishment of the Rilkeans, that Ramos Sucre’s prose poems were the first to be written here under the vision of a subconscious world or an ancient world. And to notice that his first book was published in the year 28, when among us the movement known as vanguardismo, and which wrongly appropriated him, was at its peak. The formal characteristic of Ramos Sucre’s style is the precision and synthesis of the straight line, and in that line words exhale the profound meaning of the original, pristine, virgin term taken from etymology itself, when language was in its origins. But words start to lose their primitive style over time, and through the use and the different mentality of a people in their historical transformation. When we write the term virtud [virtue] today, we attribute to it the sense it is given in the latest edition of the Diccionario de la Academia. When Ramos Sucre wrote it he attributed to it the genesial meaning of man’s condition or way of being. Because his deep knowledge of the matrix languages of Spanish kept him in touch with that first meaning the word had at the birth of the language. There was in him a bit of rhetoric, but the good rhetoric that is given by the possession of the instruments essential for the creation of a literary work.

One proof of his formal conception of style as a straight line is produced by the analysis of his poems. They are all made with the greatest economy of the primordial elements of the sentence. At one point he maximized this idea in an article shorter than the author’s own signature. The article contained only three lines: the title above, the signature below and in the middle the thought: “Conservatives are liberals” [Los godos son liberales].

***

How did Ramos Sucre react to the Venezuelan environment of his era? A spirit of his intellectual heights could not live harmoniously amidst an environment of hostility and ignorance and the subversion of spiritual values. At one point, I can’t recall whether responding to allusions to his small physical stature, or thinking of the first chapter of his autobiography, I heard him say: “A man must be small and have been born at the edge of the sea.” The Venezuelan writer begins to be appreciated among us when he brings from abroad the letter of recommendation and acknowledgment of his worth. For that reason or for health reasons, Ramos Sucre obtained a Consulate to leave the country and breathe more propitious airs. In the year 1930 he died in Europe. His close friends can surely remember his caustic phrases against the hostility and meanness that prevailed in the atmosphere of the homeland that we have yet to overcome in regards to the appreciation of our cultural values.

I can’t forget that dry laugh that seemed like the act of reading, with his emphatic voice, from the engraving of laughter. Nor that allusion to human dignity he later condensed in a prose poem, not included in a book, regarding religion. I recall it began like this: “Dostoyevsky, that anomalous Russian, preached the religion of suffering.” And it concluded: “The best religion is that of human dignity, without clerics or altars.” And yet, Ramos Sucre died of suffering, of physical and spiritual suffering. His close friend Pedro Sotillo, who wrote one of the best studies of his work, read to me after his death a few of his letters. They are the most harrowing confessions of a man who was a good and wise Venezuelan writer.


Obras completas, Aguilar S.A. de ediciones, México, 1945, pp. 85-93.




{ Julián Padrón, Ramos Sucre Ante la crítica, ed. José Ramón Medina, Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1980 }

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