New Novel by Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez Narrates the Violence and Corruption of Chavista Venezuela

                    [Photo: Maialen López (EFE)]

The movements of mysterious green suitcases that leave Caracas for Prague, Geneva, Rome or Madrid occupy the nearly four-hundred pages of Los maletines (Siruela), the new novel by the Venezuelan writer Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez. The grey and insignificant little man that carries them doesn’t know what he’s transporting but it must be important since that’s why they watch him, beat him, torture and chase after him, one and all, who are all bad and corrupt because there’s no good guys in this homemade spy story set in the inhospitable and treacherous Caracas of a dying Hugo Chávez, who is never named. “I’m superstitious. I haven’t wanted my blood to turn by citing in my novel the name of this character who poisoned our existence and brought me and the country such bad luck,” says the writer from Caracas who has now lived in Madrid for more than two decades. “But the caudillo’s name isn’t as important as the human situation his power generates.”

The Caracas of Los maletines is a rude and ill-tempered city where one minute you’re alive and the next you’re dead. The perfect setting for a crime novel where violence, stray bullets, brutality, abuse and tense situations, are always a threat, already there. Méndez Guédez acknowledges that his Venezuelan readers see the tragic dimension of his novel, while non-Venezuelans might notice a more humorous aspect that seems to exaggerate the violent gesture of a city that, in actuality, can be even crueler and more aggressive than its fiction. “Something painful has happened in Venezuela,” he says somberly. “It seems significant to me for a country to make horror something daily. You stop for coffee amid gunshots, news of kidnappings, violence, terrible things... and life goes on. My eye is local but estranged. I’ve been in Madrid for many years now, and from here a situation like that really shocks me. It’s also true that from a literary perspective, as a crime novel, that tension seems seductive to me because it’s a genre of viscous atmosphere and ferocious drama.”

“Chávez who poisoned our existence and brought us bad luck”
One of the motivations for Los maletines appeared one day when he was driving through Caracas. A taxi driver confessed a deep desire to Méndez Guédez that seemed fair to the author. “He told me that what he wanted was throw a surprise, make a whole bunch of money and escape from everything with his family, to save his children, to save them from having to live through that hell.” When he got out of the taxi he noticed he had been circulating through the location of his next novel and that this driver’s anger had procured him a topic. The difference between his story and that of the George Roy Hill movie “The Sting,” “with two bad guys who get revenge against two other bad guys,” is found in how it’s anchored in the violent, bureaucratic and corrupt reality of Chavista Venezuela. “I had in mind Agent 86, a bungling spy,” he recalls. “The reality of Venezuelan intelligence agencies today is shoddy. I was interested in portraying the ridiculousness, the cheesy, the soap opera quality of the exercise of power in Venezuela, without ignoring that it remains power and thus it intimidates, even if it seems like a military boot with purple lace.”

Los maletines is a Caracas novel. Its characters bear that city’s traits. Its heroes, two fed-up citizens who end up in a picaresque situation as they take revenge against the system, which leads to an unraveling where the lesser of two evils wins. “I was interested in having a happy ending in a country that doesn’t have them. I liked the idea of at least saving two people via fiction.” At the same time, the author wanted to destroy stereotypes with deep roots in that society. He dismantles the myth of the macho latin lover with a protagonist who fails spectacularly each time he goes to bed with a girl and places alongside him an unconventional gay friend who is addicted to boxing and not to Miss Venezuela contests. “The characters are constructions based on people you know. You mix into one character traits from six or seven people you know and that’s how the protagonists emerge, in this case two friends who’ve been knocked around by life, Caribbean lazarillos with different postures who end up agreeing on friendship and their attempt to escape. There are lots of people like them.” They’re surrounded by characters typical of Caracas: corrupt officials, swindlers, murderers, unscrupulous types, violent people, grifters, arrogant, miserable, frauds, cheaters, santeros, fanatics and, of course, that new national typology that is the Chavista Cubans, characters that push the city —and the novel itself— towards routes of frenetic urban thrillers. “Los maletines is an artifact of fiction,” as its creator defines it, “but it’s based on real reconstructions.”

“I wanted to portray the ridiculousness of the exercise of power in my country”
This is the first time Méndez Guédez, author of titles such as Arena negra, Chulapos mambo, Tal vez la lluvia, Una tarde con campanas or El libro de Esther, so directly addresses political matters in that divided Venezuela, but it’s not his first to portray the Caracas where he grew up, or the return to topics like paternity, love and solidarity amid stories that, while having the political crisis as a backdrop, always move between Venezuela and Spain, their two countries. “I became a writer because I was a solitary child who read a lot and was useless for anything else. When I was young I tried to improve the episodes of El Zorro that I’d see on television, or I’d invent stories in which Bolívar and the Indian chief Guaicaipuro were superheroes. I always say that I became a writer because of a vital rejection. I grew up in a working class neighborhood and I didn’t know how to dance. That marks you there, it makes you different.”

{ Omar Khan, El País, 14 July 2014 }

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