Israel Centeno: “Venezuela hoy espanta” / Daniel Fermín

Israel Centeno: “Venezuela today is frightening”

Israel Centeno (Caracas, 1958) recreated a post-apocalyptic Venezuela in his new novel. Jinete a pie (Caracas: Lector Cómplice, 2014) is a fragmented love story that takes place in a world dominated by motorcycle riders. There are pedestrians who must survive the hunts imposed by the hordes that wield power, there are voices trying to reconstruct their past, to provide continuity for their memory.

“We are incapable of remembering things that happened just two years ago. The dynamics of Venezuela make us forget what came before. It’s a very toxic atmosphere where everything gets distorted. I see my characters as if they were licing a nightmare within a mirror where they’re reflected in multiple ways. When I look at my country, that’s the type of story that comes out, that’s the discourse I capture.”

Jinete a pie [Rider On Foot] is the beginning of a trilogy in which Centeno proposes a deconstruction of modernity in Venezuela, amid an atmosphere of Gothic realism. It takes place in the Altamira district of Caracas that, according to one of its characters, was at one point the last holdout of the resistance. “Because the country,” Centeno assures us, “is like a mystery, or a horror story.”

“Today in Venezuela rationality is being broken, fractured. We even celebrate death when it takes away an enemy. We witness the apparition of figures that blend into each other, they could be vampires, witches, politicians. The country’s reality is frightening. Much more than the tales of Gothic horror from the 18th and 19th centuries. You see rituals linked to politics. The fact that Simón Bolívar was disinterred, that Chávez and others shouted “Fatherland, Socialism or Death!” at his bones, this is all somewhat chilling. If you place all that in a different scenario it would fill anyone with fear. Imagine that all the powers in France appear and worship the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte. That would make everyone panic. Hugo Chávez walked to his death surrounded by a bizarre mysticism. Nicolás Maduro slept in Chávez’s tomb. I haven’t seen anything more Gothic than that. There’s a castle at the foot of the mountain, a tomb in a castle. We’ve got enough elements to exploit Gothic literature for 200 years.”

Israel Centeno tries to understand the country through fiction. No one who writes about Venezuela can avoid reflecting our reality, of interpreting it, analyzing it. Because during moments of crisis, of violence, of social confrontation, of deaths, there’s not much else a writer can do.

“Literature can’t assume the role of political parties nor that of their leaders. Literature can only do what it tends to do: establish a connection and links between reality, fiction and the truth. Writing in any field is a means of resistance, it’s a political position. There’s nothing else I can do. Literature can’t save anyone, but I can keep writing. Any publication that appears in this context is a political gesture that won’t free us. I won’t land in Caracas with books, nor will I try to tell people that the more they read the freer they’ll be. You can’t expect the writer to be more intelligent than everyone else, that he construct a truth for the rest to follow. I think it’s been a curse for Venezuelans to believe in Messiahs. I don’t want that type of heroism.”

One of the protagonists of Jinete a pie says that without rights we’re all equal, that this is the only possible equality. There are many voices in the novel that pretend to own the truth. Israel Centeno believes that Venezuela today points in that direction.

“Everyone is equal in a concentration camp; everyone is equal when you’re in a supermarket with no food. When equality is imposed on you in such a manner that your rights are taken away. When you can’t have access to dollars on the exchange market they equalize you. When they kill all of us, we’re equal. Venezuelans are suffering from a flood of violence that is State policy. It’s a way of equalizing. Impunity strips the citizen of his right to enjoy public spaces. No one can enjoy those places without fearing he’ll be killed in a horrible manner.”

In Jinete a pie there was a pact between pedestrians and motorcycle riders. After multiple safaris in which they would kill pedestrians, they arrived at a pact of non-aggression against the weak. Until the rules are broken (including a curfew). And the truce, or dialogue, imposed by those in power is over.

“It’s like those acts of justice that exist in Venezuela. The Supreme Court judges dictate in favor of the murderer, which is the government. Power has become an element that persecutes, that tortures, that hunts, that lays blame on others. The Supreme Court decides when that hunt should be augmented or not. Maduro calls out for dialogue but he breaks it. That’s the reality, the suspension of the safaris is the alleged plan for peace in which they keep killing us.”

Israel Centeno finished writing this novel in 2011. It wasn’t made in response to the recent acts of violence involving collective paramilitary groups at the service of the government. The author, who once watched a group of motorcycle riders in Caracas beat up an elderly man for crashing into one of their motorcycles on the highway, isn’t trying to demonize them.

“It’s not that motorcycle riders are evil. It’s that when Maduro calls them his “gentlemen of steel” he’s giving them blank check. If I give them immunity, I turn them into a criminal arm. It’s not a possible reality to think of a world dominated by them, it’s a reality that already exists. Now the problem is to revert the situation without taking away all their rights.”

The protagonists of Jinete a pie can’t leave the zone, that destroyed Altamira that became one of the cantons into which the country has been divided. Centeno doesn’t want to sell an epic of urbanization. It is merely a vision that comes after a conflict that is suggested. There is also a love that is unable to find itself, that suffers from distrust, from paranoia, from the fracture itself that reigns over society; a pathological love that looks like hate, that alters people and tries to cure itself.

“The reading I would give is to ask, up to what point was the city made parochial to an extreme. Up to what point did each place in Caracas become divorced from the other, up to what point did it cease to be a whole and become small cantons, fragments with no connection. In the story there’s a defeated Altamira, in the shadows, in darkness, in uncertainty, as if they were mere zombies.”

More Books

• Israel Centeno has already completed the other two parts of the trilogy that begins with Jinete a pie. El cruce de los vientos [The Crossroads of the Winds] and La torre invertida [The Inverted Tower] complete the saga of a post-apocalyptic Caracas.

• The Venezuelan writer also has another trilogy waiting to be published. It is a story about Sherlock Holmes that takes place between the United States and Venezuela right during the time period when Arthur Conan Doyle made his character disappear for three years. Centeno has him solving cases in both countries.

• The Caracas-born writer has also just completed two other novels: one about a love affair and another one about social networks and the impossibility of writing. He is also giving shape to a third one about the guerrilla fighters in Venezuela during the 1970s. “I’ve written more than ever during the last few years,” said the novelist.

• Just recently a publishing house in the United States released a translation of his 2002 novel El complot. The process of bringing the book from Spanish into English was under the care of Guillermo Parra. [Israel Centeno, The Conspiracy, Pittsburgh: Sampsonia Way, 2014]

{ Daniel Fermín, El Universal, 25 May 2014 }

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