El país en una maleta: Entrevista a Héctor Torres / Daniel Fermín

The Country in a Suitcase: An Interview with Héctor Torres

                  [Photo: Nicola Rocco]

A man who drives the wrong direction up a one way street; a young man who’s a victim of a crime on a bus; pedestrians who are forced to avoid all the obstacles on the city sidewalks; a boy who jumps from the top floor of a mall. Héctor Torres once again explores Venezuela’s national identity in Objetos no declarados: 1001 maneras de ser venezolano mientras el barco se hunde (2014), which has been published by Puntocero.

“The book complements Caracas muerde (2012). It’s another side of the same topic. If in that book I addressed the spiritual state of the citizen, here I focus on how many of us have contributed to the violence and chaos of the country. Earlier I offered a panoramic view, now I speak introspectively about how each of us participates in the disaster. I felt like I needed to finish saying things that were still unresolved from the first book.”

Emigration is the connecting thread of Objetos no declarados. The title is a metaphor of the elements —good and bad— that Venezuelans carry in their suitcases when they leave the country. Because no matter where you go, your origins travel with you, like contraband. The paranoia typical of Venezuela’s insecurity even when you’re in the safest place in the world, the annoyance of apologizing for everything on the outside, the lack of discipline when it comes to following certain laws.

“The stories came out of conversations I had with friends living abroad. The topic of migration has become something very important. One, because of today’s polarization, two, because until now Venezuela was never a nation of emigrants. People are incapable of seeing the person who emigrates as someone who’s looking for opportunities, but rather as someone who gave up, who betrayed something I can’t even define. The very fleeting idea of thinking they escape the problem yet taking the problem with them. Just like the family, the country is a brand. You can say you’re leaving Venezuela because it’s broken but you go somewhere else and run a red light.”

Power is another topic in several of the stories that make up the book. Power reflected in a girl’s manipulation of her mother so that she’ll scold him in a subway car. Or the bad service of clerks in a store or in any institution, as if they themselves won’t be clients or won’t have to run an errand in the near future. Torres narrates anecdotes that reflect how the obsession with authoritarianism among Venezuelans is still manifested today, even within smaller confines.

“I think we have a long tradition of abusing power. First, we’re a people of caudillos, where the figure of the great father is always fundamental. We’ve grown up with the image that there’s one Venezuela who’s superior to all the rest, which is Simón Bolívar. And that contributes to us living like eternal orphans. If you read La escribana del viento, by Ana Teresa Torres, you realize that Venezuelan society in 1640 already had some of the elements we still see today: abusive, despotic power. When we enter a crisis, the true nature of a society is revealed.”

Héctor Torres nourishes his literature with the streets, with the country’s daily situations. Caracas, because of its stories, its chaos and its violence, is an ideal place for writing. Literature as a reflection of what we are, a way of interpreting a nation from the intimacy of its anonymous characters: the old man who runs a tiny stall for making phone calls, the parents who take their kids to school day after day, the different social classes in Venezuela.

“Reality allows that. Here in Venezuela the crime novel writes itself. Crime, absurdity, contaminated power, we see these every single day. One of the few enviable things about Caracas is the possibility of infinite topics for whoever wants to write. Literature slows down life. It allows us to read ourselves, to relive certain moments. Like watching a video of something we already did. Because daily life impedes us from having a critical attitude toward the events around us, more so in a city as chaotic as Caracas. People live with rules that exist but aren’t applied. According to their individual norms, every man for himself. Because of how corrupted institutions have become in the country, it’s a matter of survival. We’ve become accustomed to violence, to resolving things on our own.”

Héctor Torres has already said he isn’t trying to make an analysis or a social condemnation. His interest is simply literature. The Venezuelan writer is very clear about the fact that a book can’t change a country’s reality, that Objetos no declarados can’t do much in the face of the impunity that reigns in Venezuela. He merely shows it, points to it, exhibits it with a glance that is somewhat removed from the vertiginous rhythms typical of a daily routine.

“Literature tries to reflect reality as faithfully as possible. In the hopes it might produce something in the reader. That it might move people. David Foster Wallace said it: whoever’s calm, shake him up; whoever’s uneasy, give him some calm. It’s an epic ambition to think you can modify a city by merely writing. We’ll leave that to the politicians, to the heroes or saviors of the nation. Literature serves as a consolation. Whoever feels like a stranger in his own country can realize he’s not the only one, he can provide a slight feeling of hope. It could produce a factor, that some people might think they can live in a different manner. Literature shouldn’t ever have the ambition of producing a political change because then it becomes a pamphlet. That’s very dangerous.”

{ Daniel Fermín, El Universal, 23 November 2014 }

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