El peso del mundo y de la noche: Rubi Guerra / Juan Carlos Chirinos

The Weight of the World and of the Night: Rubi Guerra

Without intending to —because a reader doesn’t have a plan or a map of the books in his life— I’ve been reading Rubi Guerra (San Tomé, Venezuela, 1958) for over twenty years, but I’m not sure when I first became aware that he’s one of the great fiction writers of my generation; maybe I’ve always felt this way, even when it was merely a hint. I’ve verbalized this idea several times, in different places and for different reasons; and every time I doubt my words I read, or reread, one of his short stories and convince myself that I’m correct to feel this way. “A singular atmosphere of expectation characterizes Guerra’s short stories,” say the anthologists of La vasta brevedad (2010), the voluminous collection of 20th century Venezuelan short fiction. So then I’m surprised to find myself grateful when I find in that phrase the perfect word to describe the sensation that invades me when I read Rubi’s prose: expectation. And that might be one of the author’s narrative tricks, because if there’s something a reader appreciates it’s when they incite him to keep reading. To be unable to stop: that’s the reader’s vice. The perfect reader would be the expectant reader. Or, at least, one of the most desirable readers for a book.

The novel I want to talk about, El discreto enemigo (2001), is a crime novel, of course, but it knows it can’t be a classic crime novel. In another commentary I’ve tried to explain that Venezuela has a particularity regarding crime or police novels; in a country whose violence has been especially bizarre for a long time now —the violence follows a continuous line that goes from 1810 to our days, and barely presents a few surprising interruptions—, a genre in which a scandal provoked by a specific crime serves as the axis for the narration, doesn’t have much of a future. One single crime scandalizes the society in which it happens; one among two hundred thousand doesn’t. So, Venezuelan novelists, aware of their Western logos, when they find themselves impelled to write crime literature, must figure out how they can stop verisimilitude from ruining their fiction’s party. Some, like Rubi Guerra, are able to achieve it and they offer us works that are worth rereading. Which is what I’ve done this week; I’ve let myself be dragged along by expectation, and because it had been a long time since I’d returned to the pages of this novel, I have (re)encountered several pleasant surprises. One of them is the text’s awareness of its own condition:

“Stop, don’t try so hard. You don’t have to explain everything to me, I’m not the commissary. I believe you” —the wrinkles on his face stretch, like an animated mask—. “You must feel like you’re in a crime novel. (...) Don’t be surprised. I’ve read some stuff. Somewhere in the house I have several boxes of books feeding the cockroaches. You’re the classic hero who’s been falsely accused. Although I don’t think there’s been a formal accusation yet.”
“If this were a police novel, we would have already seen two or three murders a long time ago.”
“You’re right. But this town can’t handle more than two deaths per year.”

It remains paradoxical that the fictitious town —La Laguna— to which the protagonist Medina arrives, in an apparently paradisiacal Araya peninsula, can sustain so few murders, because it’s a nest for all types of crimes and shady events. Like Hammett’s Poisonville, or Thompson’s Pottsville with its 1280 souls —or the Los Angeles of Chinatown—, La Laguna is an infected, rotten place full of secrets. Medina, who’s a journalist with a less than edifying past, arrives in town with the intention of writing an article for a tourism magazine, for which he hopes to learn about the customs and traditions of the area. Useless: in that town, instead of fishermen, the closest thing to tradition is a dive bar and the hotel owned by a German man, Wilhem, a former doctor and drug addict. And this is where we find an expectant atmosphere: perhaps following the tradition of fiction writers like Gustavo Díaz Solís, the author describes for us in the opening pages the ruined atmosphere without a future in which the protagonist finds himself. But he lets us glimpse how that story has more to it than we’d expect: “The girl appeared from behind a corner with a load of firewood on her head. She walked very poised: blue shorts, a yellow t-shirt, black face, thin, pleasant. Her firm, round breasts, with tiny nipples, were visible beneath the fabric soaked in sweat.” It’s not a “classic” crime novel, that’s true; but oh how it seems like one at times. This girl, María, will be the trigger for transformation of the mediocre journalist’s visit into a journey towards a territory that borders the abyss, that human temptation. María will be the recipient of Eros and Thanatos: her body’s sensuality, which he enjoys, will also be the place where the killer’s hands take pleasure.

At the same time, the narrator hasn’t forgotten to give the reader clues so he can add volume to what would otherwise be merely the story of a distorted and flat passion. The author reveals the pit, what helps every story make sense: “I started on the trail going back, or rising, because I knew I was in an underground fortress, in a condemned, sorrowful city, below the river line, supporting tons of stone, mud, dirty water filled with excrement, slime and the roots of trees along the shore, it all gravitated over the building and its inhabitants. The weight of the world. The weight of the night.” And that infinite weight is what forces the reader to continue until the end. He must follow the progress of Medina the journalist, who becomes Medina the detective, in order to find out who has murdered María, his very brief and young lover; for this task he must dig into the past of the town’s residents, especially Dimas Marcano, a chieftain, boss, owner and benefactor of the area. If he risks his life in the attempt it’s something neither he nor us will find out; the only certainty is that in La Laguna the law doesn’t function normally. Neither the police seem like police, nor are the suspects suspicious, and the murderers and victims don’t occupy their positions. It’s as though, while he was writing a police novel, Rubi Guerra dropped his papers on the floor and his characters became fragmented. But that’s not it: what happens is that in a remote place of the Paria peninsula, with the heat, humidity, the literary air and the sea that’s presented as barren, the images are distorted and tremble on the horizon, creating a series of mirages. The mirages that make possible a crime novel with only one crime in a country of twenty-five thousand homicides per year.

This brief novel by Rubi Guerra would be enough to place him among the leading Venezuelan novelists of today, but then, on top of this, he published La tarea del testigo —that second life of the poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre—, through which he’s reached new heights: he has turned expectation into an essential weight of the world and of the night.

{ Juan Carlos Chirinos, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 11 October 2014 }

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