El extranjero que escribe / Annie Van Der Dys

The Foreigner Who Writes

(L-R: Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez, Juan Carlos Chirinos, Israel Centeno)

Some reflections on exile, nostalgia and the culture of a country called Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela with the writers Juan Carlos Chirinos, Juan Carlos Méndes Guédez and Israel Centeno.

Is the one who leaves a traitor?

Juan Carlos Chirinos: Well, I still think, after fifteen years living outside the country, that I haven’t left completely. One never quite leaves the place where he was born, for the simple reason that one carries this place in one’s skin. I have been, I am and always will be from Valera, wherever I might go; and Caracas, Salamanca and Madrid, the other cities where I’ve lived in my life, have settled on top of that layer of Trujillo state —as if one were confectioning a palimpsest. I get the impression that we Venezuelans have the fine quality of despising ourselves for reasons for which we wouldn’t despise people from other countries. Maybe we suffer from a variant of the Peter Pan Syndrome, and we continue to think we’re a young republic that’s still in search of its own identity and, for that reason, we’re more sensitive to attacks against our homeland.

Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez: I’ve been gone for fifteen years and when I go to Caracas I receive so much kindness from people, a great deal of affection, a great deal of cordiality and good will. I’ve lost track of the beautiful comments that family, friends and readers tell me or write to me. I don’t really notice that animosity. There’s a Venezuelan dynamic imposed by power: only the person who shouts, who threatens, who offends, who proposes the lynching of the adversary is heard. But I would also pay close attention to the whispers, to the more subtle, more beautifully complex signs. Those pathetic commissaries of patriotism exist, but we also have the poetry of Rafael Cadenas, a man from Barquisimeto who writes with Asian influences; we have Slavko Zupcic, a man from Valencia of Croatian ancestry who writes short stories in which he alternates his city of origin and his current city; we have José Balza, a man from the Delta Amacuro who has invented his own method of fiction from his readings of Proust, Kafka and Guillermo Meneses. And we had and continue to have in her words Teresa de la Parra, a Venezuelan born in France, who grew up in Spain and created an oeuvre that draws the complexity of the feminine and of that country where she developed.

Israel Centeno: Venezuela is a country that has lost its capacity to notice nuances. I understand we already had some of that but, even during the moments of political violence in the sixties and seventies of last century, people would look for gradations and that’s why the extremes were defeated. Today the extremes have triumphed and as we know, they parallel each other.

If there’s one thing that’s been exalted in recent years it’s the old-fashioned idea of homeland, the most superficial and frivolous aspect of belonging to “an earth, a sky, an etc.” No one seems to know, I can’t tell if ex profeso, that our country was made by people who left their lands: Italians, Polacs, Germans, Spaniards, people from all latitudes.

Why does the homeland need to be defended? What is the origin of this competition over the love for patriotic symbols?

Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez: Books by Germán Carrera Damas, José Balza, Luis Castro Leyva and Ana Teresa Torres have touched on this point from different angles, and I think they coincide in the idea that a type of Bolivarian religiosity that replaced the serious reflection on what we have been and what we are in the process of being. To sing the glories of a perfect homeland that annihilates or persecutes its supposed traitors is a very comfortable position and it exempts you from thinking.

There are two phrases that always come to mind when I hear these exaltations. One is by a man who loved Venezuela a great deal and who ended up living twenty-some years beyond its borders: Rufino Blanco Fombona. He said: “Nothing is more patriotic than a fool.” I don’t know who the other one belongs to but it’s quite accurate: “Nationalism is a disease that is cured through travel.”

Gustavo Dudamel, the deceased Inca Valero, or Pastor Maldonado are now our extolled fellow countrymen. And what does that reflect? They have shown themselves to be capable of the most vile adoration towards the caudillo in order to enjoy their privileges. As human beings, they don’t interest me. A flag with eight stars will never substitute for the dignity that they ignore.

Israel Centeno: They aren’t defending the homeland, it’s a defensive reaction, to see oneself in a mirror and to notice the darkest creases of our soul and to become frightened in a particular manner, to evade, deny, defend an entelechy, a value of the homeland. Besides, I think we feel ashamed of what we are, and that shame, paradoxically, is expressed in a disproportionate defense of ineffable values, of picturesque scenes. Behavior of existential customs and manners. What homeland am I going to defend? The one that murders me, that exposes me, the one that commits fraud, that demotivates me, the one that tears me to pieces if I sing out of tune? I have no obligation to feel love for that homeland, nor to see it exalted in symbols, many times used to express our prejudices: xenophobia, homophobia, class resentment, ridiculous ideas of racial superiority, in this case of a mixed or cosmic race or of a “heroic” vein. The complex Venezuelans have is that we believe ourselves to be the sons of the heroes of Independence. That’s enough for us, along with two or three pretty beaches, some girls salted with sand, Angel Falls and coconut preserves. The idea of the homeland ends up being an atavism, in contexts like ours. We have to reconsider our belongings, as a more complex matter, today it’s something that goes beyond a folkloric, landscape or gastronomical sense of belonging.


Why do you think we look at the past so much and look at it as a place of happiness from where we were expelled?

Juan Carlos Chirinos: The myth of the golden age holds a great deal of power in the culture, and Venezuela wasn’t about to be exempt from being seduced by it. But I think that, again, the socio-political circumstances into which we’ve been pushed have provoked an interest in history, but —I insist— that interest has always been there. Maybe the difference is now is that a cuasi (and not so cuasi) totalitarian government has wanted to, impudently, use history as an instrument to benefit itself, just like Francisco Franco did in Spain during the second half of the 20th century. Seen in perspective, the nationalist and obstinate discourse of the president isn’t too different from the one used by Juan Vicente Gómez, Rufino Blanco Fombona or Luis Herrera. In Venezuela, the semi-religious cult of Bolívar existed long before the Bolivarian Revolution; and it has always been equally ridiculous.

Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez: We’ve been taught since school that all our glory resides in the past. In the epic feats of 19th century soldiers. A supposed lost paradise that blinded us, and prevented us from appreciating that the governments of the democratic period build many universities, eradicated illnesses, gave public services to millions of people, created museums, orchestras, they turned Venezuela into a point of cultural confluence. Our country between 1959 and 1998 was a place with many problems, miseries and contradictions, but it was also a place of plurality, of progress, of growth, of vitality.

Israel Centeno: The archetype of Lot’s wife, who looks at the past and becomes a pillar of salt and is paralyzed. That’s out great lack, if we place our hopes in the future, inspired by a glorious past, where everything was always better, in El Dorado or in the Venezuelan Arcadia and in the vibrant Arauca river, we don’t assume the only moment in which we might have an influence to change things. The topic is responsibility. Looking backwards or putting our lives in the future, these are ways of being irresponsible.

What’s happening culturally in Venezuela? How is literature developing in the country?

Juan Carlos Chirinos: This question has an extensive answer and a short one. I’ll give the short one: Art and literature in Venezuela are as healthy as art and literature can be in any other part of the world.

Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez: The military government has isolated the country creating Kafkaesque obstacles so that people will be forced to read the poems of Farruco Sesto, the proclamations of Che, the little verses of Gustavo Pereira and Fidel’s speeches, but something beautiful exists. People have been resisting this Chavista dandruff for years with an attitude that seeks the beauty, the splendor, the lucidity of the poem, of the novel, of the short story collection. I see a plural literature, of great richness, muscular, and with diverse ambitions. Authors of great force coexist together, such as José Balza and Eduardo Liendo, with very talented young voices like Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Roberto Martínez Bachrich, or people who have consolidated their work like Silda Cordoliani, Óscar Marcano, Federico Vegas, Alberto Barrera Tyszka, and the very brilliant authors of the diaspora: Israel Centeno, Juan Carlos Chirinos, Slavko Zupcic, Doménico Chiappe and Liliana Lara. And we also have an author who I think is overlooked and who is one of the most talented voices of the Spanish language: Rubi Guerra.

Israel Centeno: There’s an interesting movement. There are diverse proposals. Despite uniformity and lack of contrast of our political momentum, we have seen the emergence of contrasting voices, with nuances; it’s a beautiful paradox.

Literature and culture should never be a government. When aesthetic proposals are real, they sing out of tune and are dissident. Maybe because of this there is an encouraging clarity in younger artists. I hope they always maintain that worldview, that need to transcend the limiting posts, always recognizing themselves in the tradition and at the same recognizing that there wouldn’t be a tradition without the outside, without the world.

{ Annie Van Der Dys, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 6 October 2013 }

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Exellent work! Thanks for sharing us all these memorable reflexions. Please continue.