Ricardo Azuaje: Escribir para mí es compulsivo / Eduardo Cobos

Ricardo Azuaje: Writing Is Compulsive For Me

I began writing at around age fifteen, but more seriously at nineteen. At first, like everyone, I wrote poetry. Then short stories very influenced by García Márquez and by Francisco Massiani. The latter was a voice that felt very close to me; he had a big impact on me when I read him between the ages of sixteen and seventeen: Piedra de mar, Las primeras hojas de la noche and El llanero solitario tiene la cabeza pelada como un cepillo de dientes. Also another Venezuelan writer, Norbith Graterol, with a short novel titled La invención del fuego, which I must have reread several times. There’s Renato Rodríguez with Al sur del equanil, first, and then El bonche. But the truth is I read everything: pulp fiction, many Latin Americans, Julio Cortázar above all. His novel Hopscotch was very important for me for many years, although it’s been a while since I’ve reread it. I also read the Venezuelans from the collection El Dorado from Monte Ávila Editores. I particularly recall Marzo anterior by José Balza; a book by Oswaldo Trejo, También los hombres son ciudades, and Iphigenia by Teresa de la Parra.

In 1978 I left Caracas to study literature at the Universidad de los Andes. I chose the major of Classical Literatures which only had five students enrolled, almost everyone chose Latin American Literature. I was very attracted to the possibility of living alone and changing cities. At the time I was more dedicated to politics than to anything else. However, Mérida was very important because that’s where I began to write seriously. I wrote a first novel in some high school notebooks, which I sent to José Balza. He simply said they were unpublishable, but that the possibility of a writer existed and he encouraged me to keep going. So, as time went on, I published short stories in a few university magazines. I was able to place on in the magazine Zona Franca, then another one appeared in Papel Literario, more or less in the early eighties. But the possibility of publishing a book was given much later.

First Books and Caracas As Sustenance

In the mid-80s my first book of short stories is published, A imagen y semejanza (Monte Ávila Editores, 1986); most of the stories in that collection I had written between Caracas and Mérida, with the exception of “Sanguinela gens,” written in La Gran Sabana. In fact, that was a thicker book. There have also been attempts at long novels, which haven’t been completely successful, because my fiction tends to be short stories that go on much longer or novels that resolve themselves quickly. And really, despite the fact I’ve made a few, I don’t intend to make short novels. Actually, the first one, Juana la roja y Octavio el sabrio (Fundarte, 1991), which is published independently, was going to be included in A imagen y semejanza.

The protagonist of Juana la roja..., Octavio, has a more or less programmed life, he knows he knows he’ll get his Law degree and that he lives with a certain amount of comfort, but he rebels. And this might be one of the most frequent characteristics in what I write: almost all the stories have something like that, at some point the characters become aware of what’s happening and they rebel; they also know that this behavior can lead to failure or calamity, but at the same time they know that, suddenly, they’ll return to their normality, which is to be aware of their surroundings. That rebellion is what makes people more human. Of course, it’s not original at all, we’ve seen it in the stories of Anton Chekov or Raymond Carver, those types of things, common people who suddenly act after a momentary trigger, it illuminates them for a moment and they see life as a series of flashes.

Another constant that’s found there is Caracas. My family came to Caracas in 1972 from the state of Guárico; but in some way or another my entire experience has revolved around this city. So much that when I first left for La Gran Sabana in 1983, I would come to Caracas every two months and spend a couple weeks here, which is to say the contact was permanent. That’s the relationship with Caracas, which has been an important sustenance of what I do; and yet, more than urban texts it has to do with how one lives life here, the unsatisfactory relationships in work and in love, structured life, because in the end you’ll die and nothing will happen. In any case, there’s always an initial idea in my stories, something I want to develop, and if need be I’ll do research. For example, in Juana la roja... I wrote almost from memory about the time period the novel is set in, which is 1982, and I wrote it in 85-86, and I more or less remembered the year of the events in Cantaura. Later I went to the newspaper archives, so the information came after the first draft.
[Translator’s Note: In October of 1982, the Venezuelan military attacked a guerrilla encampment near Cantaura in the state of Anzoátegui, killing 23 people.]

Likewise, with La expulsión del paraíso (Memorias de Altagracia, 1998) there’s some of that. In relation to the fiction of Oswaldo Trejo, to whom I allude in that novel, I tried to read a few essays, but they didn’t help me too much and what I did was take the idea from what I wanted to put into my piece of writing; above all, whatever had to do with my character. The narrator is more cultured, though I try not to make the references too exaggerated; because I think that, in general, no one from our university-educated middle class is extremely cultured, they manage information from newspapers and magazines, television, they have some literary reference that comes from high school, things like that, with exceptions in a few circles of society in Caracas, but they don’t have books as an immediate reference. La expulsión del paraíso is my most literary text and it’s one of the most extravagant ones, because the character’s life is completely changed; the characters in my stories don’t end up doing well; all of them undergo many trials.

Regarding Viste de verde nuestra sombra (Fundarte, 1993), I wrote it more or less during the same time as Juana la roja... and it’s inspired by an issue of the Spanish magazine El Viejo Topo, which included a dossier on the “metropolitan indians,” a radical Italian group that would occupy abandoned buildings. I suppose it was also influenced by the fact that at the time I was living in La Gran Sabana and I was dazzled by what I was learning about the Pemon people. Although I don’t think any of that is reflected in the story. I might have been more influenced by an illustration in the dossier that showed a police officer in riot gear with an arrow piercing his shield, with that we’re already in the story. On the other hand, Ella está próxima y viene con pie callado (1) was written in Caracas during a time when the country seemed to have no future (that no man’s time between the fall of Carlos Andrés Pérez and the second presidency of Rafael Caldera), and I think some of that is reflected in the story and above all in the character. This text appeared in Tenerife, Canary Islands, thanks to the mediation of Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez and Ernesto Suárez, accompanying other short stories, although it also functions as a short novel.

The Art of Rewriting and the Legion Nearby

On another note, writing is actually something compulsive for me, since I can go for months and years without writing; then an idea begins to move around me and I start writing until I achieve something that might be a starting point. I don’t make outlines. And in fact I start stories whose ending I don’t yet know, I really try to be consistent with the anecdote, once it takes off I don’t try to force it. That’s a piece of advice from Cortázar: to be consistent, that the story be credible even if it’s fantastic. That’s why I try to maintain a rhythm. In any case, if I don’t finish a story in one night or in one week, it’s likely that I’ll never finish it and if I do finish it after a long time has passed it will definitely be a bad one. Actually, a few years ago I sent a story to a magazine, I wasn’t convinced it could be published, because I never managed to finish it and I sincerely think I should have never sent it.

That’s where one is left more exposed to criticism. Though I’ve really had a lot of luck with critics considering that if you add up the copies of all the books I’ve published they don’t reach three thousand. And despite this there has been a certain response, I say it because I know of writers who can publish eight or nine books, with readers even, and they don’t have the same resonance. In that regard, the truth is I can’t complain. And I’ve learned a few things from that. Above all because, in some cases, I’ve made myself revise more profusely, to be more responsible with readers, since one can sometimes become a bit arrogant when one has published. Regarding critiques that have pointed out errors in the writing, I’ve given myself the task of rewriting some texts, polishing them a bit more; this is the case with Juana la roja..., which had errors relating to grammar, although I have to say the editors created true disasters. Now that it’s been republished I have revised it and I hope it turned out much better. (2)

People always ask me if I feel I’m part of a generation of writers or novelists; what I think is that there was a group, we didn’t always share the same opinions about literature or about the matter that everyone in this country talks about, which is politics, but that group that wasn’t quite cohesive was interesting. In the 90s we were all working in cultural institutions: the Dirección de Literatura, Monte Ávila Editores, Fundalibro or the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura. And I think chance made it possible for us to know each other because we were all close to the world of books. Even those who weren’t had attended conferences through Fundarte or events that were organized in the book festivals; it was simply impossible not to meet each other. There were ideas about fiction of interest in the group like, for example, those of Slavko Zupcic y Armando Luigi Castañeda. I don’t know if they continue to write bu they, who were the youngest of that cohort, had a writing that was forward-looking. Writers, in many instances, are immersed in the country and express what’s happening, but only on extraordinary occasions do they give clues about what will happen. We’ll have to see if that group or generation, or whatever we might call it, from the 90s, which was very heterogeneous, with very different tendencies, will continue to say things to the country, and if it truly did so at one point.

Notwithstanding, it seems to me that this group belonged to a certain literary tradition. Because I think that in Venezuela we have a strong literary tradition, but one that’s not necessarily tied to the academy. There critics who affirm, many times correctly, that Venezuelan writers don’t know their literary tradition. There is one; but for a writer it can be another one that’s not the national one. A writer, like any Latin American, is formed by reading a Japanese writer or the North Americans, to give an example. There’s a web of dissimilar influences and readings. Many of us who began in the 80s and 90s were influenced by Renato Rodríguez, and we continued to discover him in conversations. Even Rómulo Gallegos has been a reference point for everyone; in this sense I can say there were people who wrote against him. Guillermo Meneses, who was less frequented but had a certain importance, has also been present; there is Julio Garmendia and Salvador Garmendia, the early novels of Carlos Noguera, that are extraordinary, those of José Balza that despite generating so much rejection opened up spaces and influenced other writers; such as Humberto Mata, among others from the house.

That whole tradition of writers I’ve mentioned, regrettably, with specific exceptions, has not been projected outside the country. And maybe that’s one of our writers’ biggest frustrations. Though I think that transcending borders is more of a commercial problem than a literary one. The country’s market can’t sustain a writer because you have to publish abroad and have wider distribution. The truth is I’m convinced the best writers have had to work in other fields since their work has distanced them from the market. There you have William Faulkner, among many others, who didn’t make a living from literature until his final years. Or like the character in La expulsión del paraíso, who when he starts to make a living from what he writes has already betrayed his writing. That’s been the temptation for many writers.


1. Novel published alongside the short stories “De las mutaciones,” “Carro rojo,” “Puertorrico,” and “Buscando su muerte natural” in the book with the same title: Ella está próxima y viene con pie callado (Canary Islands, Spain: El Lobey Ediciones, 2003; republished by Monte Ávila Editores, 2010).

2. Juana la roja y Octavio el sabrio, Viste de verde nuestra sombra and “Ella está próxima y viene con pie callado” were published in a single volume titled Tres novelas cortas (Universidad de Oriente, 2007).

{ Eduardo Cobos, Letralia, 22 April 2013 }

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