La tarea del testigo / Juan Carlos Chirinos

The Task of the Witness

Books are always about other books; writers always write about other writers.

This is a rule passed from generation to generation, from the first human being who invented a story —a woman, surely—, up to the youngest fiction writer today, furious and always parricidal with his ancestors. The reason for this is very simple: every writer is a reader first; every person who tells tales listens to someone else first. And he wants to emulate that person, imitate their voice, to be that writer he once admired with fascination. Besides, as Proust teachers, when the reader reads alone he reads himself; and by extension, when the writer imitates he merely does so with the voice he thought he heard one time. When one writer speaks of another, or imitates them, or evokes them, he executes both a tribute and an acknowledgement: he is recognizing himself in the voice he admires. This strategy has been practiced many times, not always in a felicitous manner; but when the writer is able to achieve, by means of a foreign universe, the creation of a cosmos that is at once his own and similar to the one he sees, the result is formidable.

Rubi Guerra (San Tomé, Venezuela, 1958) has immersed himself in the life and work of José Antonio Ramos Sucre (Cumaná, Venezuela, 1890­ - Geneva, Switzerland, 1930), the most extraordinary Venezuelan poet of the first third of the 20th century, undoubtedly one of the key names in poetry written in Spanish, and from that immersion has appeared La tarea del testigo (with two editions, El perro y la rana, Caracas, 2007; and Lugar Común, Caracas, 2012), a novella that places him among the best of the avant-garde in Spanish today. It’s not strange that he who returns to the sources would be at the forefront; because there, in those original mothers, where the nameless gem shines, the one all artists seek and was already found once, at the beginning of everything.

The reader shouldn’t hope to find a typical historical novel, in which the life of the poet from Cumaná is told, which would provide —no one doubts this— enough for one or several important texts. Nor should we suppose that Guerra’s text will unravel the secret anagrams hidden in his prose poems, all of them terrible and telluric. No, Rubi Guerra has read Ramos Sucre’s oeuvre (very) well and he knows the details of his life; he has studied his personal letters and reflections. But I think that when he began to write his novella he set all that aside —he has hidden it in the trunk from which all stories emerge— and he has “invented” a Consul who is and isn’t Ramos Sucre, because he’s also what Ramos Sucre wrote, and what he thought, and what he left as suggestions beyond the limits of his thought. He has constructed and asphyxiating universe, the universe of a brilliant man, a poor sick man who can barely sleep; he has surrounded him with “real” and “imaginary” characters, and he allowed the Ramos Sucrean spirit to permeate everything. This is a case of a contemporary writer who constructs the image of a writer from the past, with the awareness that it’s not possible to truly recreate him, and he has limited himself to letting that figure act in a probable situation that is too similar to his nightmares, in which even the Jesuit scientist Athanasius Kircher plays a prevailing role. Rubi Guerra doesn’t write about the solar, clear Ramos Sucre, of whom we have a record, but rather about the one that exists in a subterranean world, who has a universal writing and who continues to love in the consciousness of those who have read him, and even in the imaginary of those who haven’t read him.

Depending on how he reads, the skillful reader will intuit the author’s influences: the Mann of The Magic Mountain, the Schnitzler of Dream Story, the Meyrink of The Golem, even the Dürrenmatt of The Judge and His Hangman. But surely his pages are crossed by the poems of Cruz Salmerón Acosta (Cumaná, Venezuela, 1892-1929) and, of course, Ramos Sucre’s own work, with its hallucinating girls and damned figures, its cruel mandarins and its Lovecraftian landscapes (accepting, surely, that Lovecraft’s work is full of Ramos Sucrean images). And this is one of the most joyful merits of this novella: luckily, several readings of this book await the reader. I don’t know how many, but I do know what the first and last one will be like.

The first one, distrustful and anxious, will discover what is mentioned above, that it’s not a biographical or historical novel, and he will then be immersed in Rubi Guerra’s exquisite prose, which is apparently simple but full of radiant writerly moments (“I knew the happiness of having a sleeping girl next to me, the happiness of watching her chest rise and fall in devoted trust”; “there is also the sin of pride in the exaggerated vilification of oneself”). It will be a luminous and avid first reading, pained because it ends; it will also be a child-like first reading, but of the type of childhood that already incubates the cruelty of consciousness.

On the other hand, I predict the final reading will be sober, admiring, that of a captious seneschal: the reader will seek out clues and, behind those, further clues that might speak of Ramos Sucre and of Rubi Guerra and of the subterranean and relating to the references. And it will be a desperate reading, because he will find himself in a Möbius strip that will obstinately bring him back to the starting point: the beauty of Ramos Sucre’s prose distilled into this very sharp novella, a small jewel of 21st century Venezuelan literature. A great gift for the eyes.

{ Juan Carlos Chirinos, Tal Cual, 21 September 2013 }

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