Renato Rodríguez: Del Equanil al infinito / Carlos Flores

Renato Rodríguez: From Equanil to Infinity

Renato Rodríguez by William Dumont

Fifty years ago, Al Sur del Equanil [South of Equanil] was published. Its author lived in a dozen countries looking for something he hadn’t lost.

“Of course I met Merv Griffin!, who was later taken off the channel and substituted by David Frost, with whom I also worked,” he pauses. He scratches his chin, then rubs his neck, exhaling: “And by the way, that Englishman never saw me with good eyes. Once, they called me to his office because the air conditioning wasn’t working. I went and realized it wasn’t plugged in. I plugged it in and it worked. Frost asked me, with his impressive British accent, What was the problem with the air conditioning? And I answered that there wasn’t a problem, just that he had it unplugged. Two guys who were with him in his office died laughing and Frost, who had been made to look ridiculous, grew ferocious and said to me, his teeth gritted: What a brilliant man you are! But he said it with irony, of course.”

After narrating an anecdote like that with the calmness of someone who’s telling of an everyday occurrence, Renato Rodríguez lit a cigarette and let out a mouthful of smoke.

His voice diminished and he accommodated his slight anatomy in an old and creaking wooden chair. That was eight years ago. An encounter that I now feel occurred centuries ago. Actually, I’ve sometimes asked myself, did I really sit down to talk with the author of Al sur del Equanil, up there, in the cold mist of a mountain in El Consejo, in the state of Aragua, or was it all some type of post-beat-post-hippie-post literature hallucination; a fantasy typical to someone who wants to become a writer and hopes that, at some rare moment in his life, he might bump into a giant of letters (at the same time nearly anonymous), like Renato Rodríguez? But at this moment, on a nearly erotic Saturday night, while the stars are hidden in the dark stellar cupola, I remember many details, nearly all of them, from when I heard the legends, epic stories and barbarities, pronounced with a thick and aged voice, by Renato Rodríguez. A man who lived, raised hell, wrote about it... and then, just as many other warriors, he retired to a chosen rest in his personal Valhala, where immortality is a poem whose verses persist like a supreme consciousness.

Seeking, Always Seeking
Al Sur del Equanil (1963), El bonche (1976), La noche escuece (1985), Viva la pasta: las enseñanzas de Don Giuseppe (1985), Ínsulas (1996) and Quanos (1997). The work of a dispersed life is expressed in a handful of volumes. Of long and variable journeys; characters that seek, with no fixed destination, the future and, perhaps, some explanation of their past. I remember finishing the final paragraph of the treasure that is Al sur del Equanil. I was barely 21 years old and I hated the book as much as I envied it.

If Hunter S. Thompson was my American giant, I had found another literary titan, and this time a Venezuelan. There is a formidable vitality in that text, in little big phrases such as: “And although you don’t like to type you have to admit that the clatter of the Olympia is so nice.”

I was frustrated to live in the future and to write in front of an illuminated, cream-colored box and not hitting the keys of an old typewriter and to see, right there, how the paper begins to fill with that mystical essence that is literature, as the protagonist of Al Sur del Equanil, David, searches for his identity as a writer and as a human being. He searches, searches... and keeps searching.

All Trips... The Trip
“I’ve lived here since 1997, because it’s quiet,” Renato sighed, who was 78 years old at the time. True, that place was as calm as it was distant, 12 kilometers of mountainous ascent. Always heading upwards, seeking the clouds. You could feel the climate change; the temperature drop, another world extending its fresh and soft arms. “You’ve got a ways to go before you reach old man Renato’s place,” that’s what I heard the few people I found on that desolate road say. The residents knew his name was Renato Rodríguez and that he was in charge of a small coffee plantation (despite the fact that his real name was René, but that’s another story).

However, few of them had any idea at all about the “character.” They didn’t know he was a writer, near-rival of Salvador Garmendia; the Venezuelan Kerouac. A fox expertly trained in hunting paragraphs saturated with experiences he would later establish on the page.

On a table built with a thick and dented plank, a large quantity of books were piled up, most of them classics. Yellowed pages. Worn covers. Renato could barely see anymore. He was about to lose an eye to glaucoma. But his novelist’s soul remained intact.

“I was born the same day as Kafka, a 3rd of July, in Margarita. 40 days after I was born my father, who was a quick foot, took us to live in Cumaná. He liked to move a lot.” And they moved so much that in 1929 the family installed itself in La Guaira.

“My father worked in a customs house. We lived in the hotel La Mejor, which belonged to a woman from Martinique, Mrs. Cecilia Sant-Laurent. Everything was very confusing there because a German couple, of advanced age, wanted to adopt me, for my mom to give me to them. “Ma’m,” they said to her, “you and your husband are young, you can have more children. We’re unable to conceive.” Renato’s mother was so frightened she packed the luggage and went up the mountain to Caracas with her boy. There, in a humble guest house, would occur another encounter that also marked the future writer: on a quiet evening, with a fresh breeze and a clear sky, the silence inside the room where Renato lived with his mother was broken. A jarring sound awoke mother and child. Something was happening. In the middle of the room, and emerging from the shadows, a masculine figure appeared whose silhouette emerged, step by step, as it was lit by a street light that was shining through the window. “Miss, don’t worry, I won’t do anything to you or your child,” said an elegant voice that came from a very presentable body, dressed with a vest and tie.

“I’m a thief. And so I don’t waste any time, allow me to rob this medal here.” That apparition, delinquent but at the same time distinguished and polite, made an impact on young Renato. “Wow! I said to myself. I have to a thief if I want to be as elegant as that man.” But he never dared to rob; he could never fill, with the required pension, the shoes of a criminal.

He would soon trade sin for sanctity. While he was in high school as a boarding student at San José de Los Teques, he felt a spiritual calling. “One day I went to speak with the school principal, who was a priest named Isaías Ojeda, and I said to him: Look, father Ojeda, I need to ask a favor.

I want to enter the seminary because I feel the calling of God. But the priest wasn’t too enthusiastic about the petition and he was cutting: You’re not made out to be a priest, your thing is writing, start writing. You’ll see you’ll be able to develop it.”

And from that afternoon onwards that’s was what Renato Rodríguez did: he wrote, he wrote sitting down, in bed, hungry, while eating, sinning and even praying, but nothing transcendent, memorable seemed to emerge from his texts. Just words that fell on each other, like flimsy houses made from cards.

After finishing high school in Venezuela, he travels to Colombia and enrolls in a military academy, in order to obtain a higher baccalaureate. When he finished, he met a young singer and became his manager. Together they travelled around half the continent. “That was because I found out and was fascinated by the fact that someone from Margarita was Carlos Gardel’s agent. But my singer was rowdy and wanted to interpret even opera, so we split up in Quito,” he recalls smiling. From Quito he moves to Lima, where he continued his training as a writer. “Faulkner had given a piece of advice to a kid who wanted to be a writer: get a job in a whore house, he told him.” Immediately, Renato placed his luggage on a cot in the famous brothel of Doña Elvira. That was his home until he left Peru to go to Chile, where he was finally able to write.

“I used to write anything, day and night. That was in 1949 and after 1950 I returned to Venezuela because my father dragged me back by one of my ears.” And in his country, between Caracas and Cumaná, he was a milk producer, a farmer and office worker, at the same time that he was finishing the redaction of his disorganized first novel, which eventually became a classic.

Just South of Ecuador
The story is already a popular legend: “One day we were in a very good bar, on Caroní avenue in the Bello Monte district of Caracas. I was there with some people and among them was Gonzalo Castellanos, who was an architect and asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer and had a novel ready. When I was going to say it was called Al Sur del Ecuador [Just South of Ecuador], which was its original title, I made a mistake and told him: Al Sur del Equanil, which was a popular painkiller at the time. Salvador Garmendia, who was present and quite drunk, said: Ah, that’s so great.” People imagined he had read my novel and had found it to be very good but the truth is that Garmendia was referring to the pill called Equanil, which was very good. So it turns out that word spread about me having a novel that was so good that even Salvador Garmendia had approved of it.”

Months later Al sur del Equanil was published. “When I published it they said all sorts of things to me. An incident occurred because people were arguing about which was better, Salvador Garmendia’s Los pequeños seres or Al Sur del Equanil. But I wasn’t competing with Garmendia because our styles are quite different. I was being accused of plagiarizing Kerouac, Henry Miller, the French noveau roman.” He escaped from his minor literary polemic and left the country, once again, to install himself in vibrant New York.

There he worked in a restaurant on 33rd street and he was among the first people to live in a loft in what today is known as Soho. When he got tired of that, he boarded a bus and crossed the country, all the way to Los Angeles, where he would pick up the dirty plates of guests at the Biltmore Hotel and, after a brief stay, moved to San Francisco. “Such a beautiful city!” he remembers with his eyes shining. “And what about the Golden Gate bridge, the bay and then Chinatown!” he sighs, “San Francisco in the mid-sixties was a very special place.” Later he would return to New York, to work in the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, on the Merv Griffin show. “But I would spend my time dancing, they called me rubber legs,” and it’s precisely from those dances that the idea emerged for El bonche (Monte Ávila Editores, 1976).

Renato Rodríguez’s exaggerated life isn’t limited to the American continent. He travelled by cargo ship to France. He disembarked and took the train to Paris, where he ran into an old Chilean friend and got a job at the School Cooperation Office for the French government. “If you’re patient and have a sense of humor things will go well for you wherever you are. I was in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and spent a long time in Germany, in Dusseldorf, working at a car parts factory.” As the years progressed the tank emptied. The trips became less frequent and one fresh and sunny morning, there I was in front of Renato, the great Venezuelan writer and recipient of the National Prize for Literature, in a small coffee farm in the state of Aragua, listening to the great story of his life that, at the same time, is his best work. Renato Rodríguez died on June 22nd, 2011, a Wednesday. He was 86 years old.

During that memorable encounter, Renato told me that he felt his gunpowder was damp and he no longer wanted to write. “Why should I write? No one here reads,” he murmured sadly.

Maestro: I hope you’re on a celestial bus, accompanied by Kerouac and the rest of the troop, and that you’re going full speed, the great spree of all sprees, the cold, strong breeze coming in through the windows, just beyond the Golden Gate... just beyond the Equanil.

{ Carlos Flores, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 3 November 2013 }

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