Victoria de Stefano: “Vivimos con temor a que el país nos arrastre” / Hugo Prieto

Victoria de Stefano: “We live in fear of the country sweeping us away”

                                                  [Photo: Elvira Prieto]

The writer is struggling with the novel she’s writing at the moment. She has chosen a Gauguin painting as a lamp that guides her path... Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Surely the country, the bog that Rómulo Gallegos spoke of, is imposing formidable obstacles for her. But we already know about her tenacity, her perseverance. There will be continuity, a line that extends to her most recent novel Paleografías (2011), but also a portrait of what we are and a renewed exploration, perhaps without the joy of other experiences, of that great theme which is desolation nearly transformed into a literary genre.

Victoria de Stefano will speak about the contemplative world, which is the world of artists and of intellectuals in general, and about her extensive literary oeuvre at the Plaza Altamira Book Fair tonight. She will be joined by another great Venezuelan writer, Elisa Lerner, in a colloquium that will be moderated by the poet Rafael Castillo Zapata. The event is scheduled for 6:00 P.M. What follows is a long conversation with the author of Historias de la marcha a pie (1997).

What’s your view of the panorama of Venezuelan literature?

I think that the crisis of these last few years (economic, political, cultural...) the crisis of a country more that divided, right? even with people completely cut off from one another, has forced everyone to feel the necessity of reading Venezuelan writers. In the 1970s, when I began to appear as a writer, let’s say, there were very few writers, apart from the already famous ones: Adriano González León, Salvador Garmendia, Elisa Lerner, Baica Dávalos, Orlando Araujo, Francisco Masiani... I could name more, but there wasn’t the quantity of writers from different generations who coexist as they do today. I’m talking about fiction, about the novel, the short story. Of course, there’s also the poets. In those years, young Venezuelan writers needed to read the elders. Now I think we read each other more. Today I have no problem reading both younger and older writers. There’s a need for acknowledgement and also, perhaps, for establishing a tradition.

That seems to come later in Venezuela, right? That is, if there’s not a tradition, there’s not a school, there isn’t constant renovation but rather a literature like the one we’ve seen: zigzagging, abrupt.

But we definitely can say that the academy has grown, the professors have grown. We can’t talk about literary critics, since there aren’t any publications where literary critics might write. I mean, the tradition of criticism is weaker, but we do have one. What I think is that there’s been an attempt to remake a tradition.

With the existence of talent, isn’t there a need for that literary tradition, that tradition of criticism?

There is a literary tradition! That is, there’s been a tendency in the country to depend on tradition. In Argentine literature, for example, where that fact is very present, there’s something interesting as well. There are even writers who in their novels make references to not only literary tradition, but they embody it in characters, in situations, in circumstances. There’s a type of dialogue with other writers, with other tendencies. We’ve seen much less of that process, but the tradition exists. We’re not going to say that it’s a tradition like the French one or what Gombrowicz calls the primary traditions. No. We still belong to the secondary traditions.

Does that make you uncomfortable? Does it make you perceive a more precarious reality?

No, more conflictive for the writer. I mean, if the writer is reduced to the local world, to the Venezuelan tradition —which of course is part of the Latin American tradition, right?—, if you localize yourself too much, you lose the possibility of creating beyond those immediate surroundings and if you turn too much to the outside, in regards to writers from abroad, that also turns you into a second rate writer. I’m going to lay it out for you as a writer not a critic, because the question you ask me about the panorama would imply that I’ve tried to internalize that panorama, something I haven’t done. I’ve never been a professor of Venezuelan or Latin American literature. What is the conflict one faces? Well, in the end I say to myself, I’m going to write what I want, what I can and what interests me, no matter how much the country might scold me for not writing about what’s happening here, regardless of someone telling me I have a lot of references to Italy in my work. Yes, those are in there.

To traditions outside our own?

We all have the right to do that. The homeland, for writers, for intellectuals in general, can’t be reduced to geographical limits. That theme of identity no longer interests me at all. That was back in the 1970s, not just for me but for many writers. Well, trying to write proudly, to write what you think has to be written. There’s a detail too. I was born in 1940, in Rimel, Italy. When the war was over, I came to Venezuela. There’s a glance, because I have a family tradition, both my father and my mother were educated, trained people. So, how am I expected to cut that world off? I can’t. Anyways, today we’re all multicultural beings.

Venezuela is a country that’s eternally under construction, that has struggled a great deal in many areas to achieve accomplishments, completed tasks. Could its literature be a reflection of that?

Each generation, each period, tries to build itself from the beginning, as if what came before weren’t there. The generation I belong to studied elementary school in the 1950s, I entered the university in 1958, we had a more vernacular education compared to students today. I say it in a more Venezulanist, more Americanist sense. When I started school, we had many professors who came from Argentina, some of them came after the fall of Perón, we used to read the poetry of Gabriela Mistral. Do they read anything like that in high school today? We read Ramón Díaz Sánchez very well. I used to levitate with “Cumboto,” With the novels of José Rafael Pocaterra. It was actually a world with a more Latin Americanist vision.

I’d like to propose something to you, since you mention Pocaterra. Many people are waiting for the novel about the Bolivarian revolution, like Memories of Underdevelopment in Cuba or the counter narrative, as Memorias de un venezolano en la decadencia could have been. But neither of them has appeared.

But that’s a petition that can’t be made to writers. I mean, Pocaterra’s book has to do with the concrete experiences of a country, it’s the biography of a writer, a writer who’s been in jail, who has known conspiracies, who also has a lineage and antecedents in England, he forms part of a time period when politics, the country and literature went practically hand in hand. The role of the writer now isn't Pocaterra’s, nor is it Arturo Uslar Pietri’s. They're more isolated figures, they’re less engaged with the country in that sense. By this I mean the country has become departmentalized, just like in France today you can’t think of figures such as Sartre or Albert Camus, it’s another era, another story, another world.

They’re more solitary, more self-absorbed.

It’s another society. That starring role no longer exists and whoever aspires to it might attain some social or media success, but it won’t go beyond that. We write, and who knows if in 20 or 30 years anyone will read us or not. I think the idea is that writers should write, regardless of whether they might hope or not hope to be read. What will be left of this small world in 20 or 30 years? We don’t know.

What’s left of that country from your first novel El desolvido (1970)?

A great disenchantment and a great sadness. But there might also be a certain nostalgia for youth, for the chimeras and the experiences that were lived and took shape.


No, not bitterness.

It’s nostalgia, a sorrowful feeling, a certain mourning, but not bitterness.

It includes a portrait of your generation.

Yes. Historias de la marcha a pie, which I wrote much later on and was very difficult to publish, is a continuation of La noche llama a la noche (1985), it’s another reflection on the same theme, amplified. In the tradition of universal literature, the theme of disenchantment is very present, there’s even a category of novels called the category of disenchantment and in Cuban literature there are great novels of disenchantment, for example, the novels of Jesús Díaz. There’s a tradition, it almost constitutes a genre. But when I write, I don’t do it based on a plan... I’ll write about this... I’ll write about that, no. I start writing from very small things. For example, in Cabo de vida (1993), which is a novel that hasn’t been read much, because it didn’t have editorial continuity, the theme is a group of waiters for a party planning agency, who go from party to party, serving, so there’s both worlds, how they see them and the fact that being waiters doesn’t prevent them from having a spiritual rather than an intellectual life.

Out of those utopias, those experiences, what remains? What line could be established in continuity?

I wouldn’t know how to answer what line of continuity might exist. There are people who lived through those experiences, some of them are writers, some are intellectuals, some are even in politics and have lived through the fact of disenchantment. Sometimes, a few of them can do this with bitterness, others not. I don’t feel any bitterness.

The characters in your novels live in surroundings that dominate them, that impose themselves, but at the same time they’re characters that reflect tremendously about that. One could say they’re not people of action and yet they experience situations of great adversity.

The theme of adversity is present in my novels. In La noche llama a la noche, there’s a man of action, who is the kidnapper, then he leaves and continues his political activities throughout the world. He dies on a train. We don’t know how, I don’t even know how, if it’s a suicide or a paranoid situation that leads to his death. In my novels there’s a reflection on action and on the contemplative world, which is the world of the artist. That’s in all my novels. Even in the one I’m currently writing. But there’s an overarching theme which is adversity. Maybe when you asked me if there’s bitterness, I said no, but there is a great fear of adversity. Of the adversity that can present itself in different ways. There’s also the theme of freedom and of how you’re determined, how others determine you, and of what the human being’s space for freedom might be. As a question. I never have an answer.

Adversity isn’t the result of an action, it’s the result of a circumstance, of events that are unleashed and those characters are unrelated to those events.

And that’s our reality, for my characters. I don’t know if I’m making sense. My characters include many depressed people, who are living through a moment of crisis. Some of them very serious, others not as much. I don’t know how a French person might live in Paris, who’s a professor or writes. But I do know how we live here in Venezuela. Those of us who are intellectuals, writers, even other types of people, we live everything as if it were a crisis, with a fear of a certain adversity, that the country might overtake us, that it might sweep us away, that we might return, as Rómulo Gallegos would say, to the bog. I do think that’s present and, surely, it can be found in many other writers.

There’s an anguish that competes with adversity. One notices that the country already devoured us and it continues to do so. How can we fight against that?

As an individual, independent from your social or intellectual condition, we all have to fight against that, individually.

With an intellectual life or a political one?

Each person makes a choice. Some are made for political life and they fight from there. Others are made for the spiritual life. Regardless, they’re not two separate things, right? Are they two separate things?

I think that in Venezuela, yes.

Ah then, in Venezuela yes.

Would you agree with that?

Yes, I agree.

Is Historias de la marcha a pie a novel about death?

It’s about illness, death, adversities. Yes, that’s the central theme. On one occasion I read a chapter at a university in Mexico, where I was invited. At first I said I felt bad with them, for reading such a terrible chapter to them. And the professor who invited me, who knew my novel very well, said: “But it’s written in such a jubilant style. One feels that when the writer writes she enters into a certain ecstasy, a certain jubilation, so read it like that.”

It’s also a jubilation for life.

Of course, exactly. That’s what he meant.

It has that counterpoint.

That’s life.

And what you’re narrating is death.

Which is a part of life.

Don’t you think death is a business we should leave to doctors, priests, conjurers?

I think that regardless of the word business, each one of us negotiates with our illness and our death, in our own way. There are people who don’t negotiate illness and death. I’m remembering a friend who was gravelly ill and the doctors told him he needed an operation and he didn’t do it. He died on his own terms.

Which is also valid.

Perfectly valid. Juan Sánchez Peláez [the poet] also refused treatment. But regardless of that, maybe recovery by means of medicine is valid. But there’s also recovery through desire, through necessity, through will. All the variations exist. So does suicide. At the moment, I’m writing a novel. Each time I write a novel, I set up a painting for myself. It’s as if it guides me, maybe it doesn’t guide me and I find another one. But the one I have for my novel right now, which I’m having a lot of trouble writing, I think I feel a certain amount of dejection. Where am I heading? What am I writing? What interest can this have? I’m not writing with the jubilation I had when I wrote Historias de la marcha a pie. Does that have to do with what’s happening in Venezuela? I suppose. Obviously yes. But the painting I set up is Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Do you know which one it is? The famous painting by Gauguin that he painted in one of those islands.

In that sense, will your next novel have continuity with Paleografías?

I hope so. But I feel that what we’re living is slightly where we come from, who we are, where we’re going and that it’s an eternal question and that maybe with us it’s more present, marked.

It’s an eternal question, but at this moment, for us in Venezuela, it’s an urgent question.

Well, eternal and urgent.

{ Hugo Prieto, Contrapunto, 16 November 2014 }

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