Guillermo Sucre: “El legado de mi generación se llama Rafael Cadenas” / Hugo Prieto

Guillermo Sucre: “My generation’s legacy is named Rafael Cadenas”

                    [Guillermo Sucre, by Roberto Mata]

The living room in Guillermo Sucre’s apartment has a completely living cell. A table, a reading lamp and a small typewriter, on which rests an envelope full of paper. The table is flanked by two bookshelves, full of books. The three-piece sofa against the wall seems like it was left there, temporarily, they day he moved in. One might say everything else is of scarce and fortuitous utility.

It was on that table that Sucre rewrote and expanded his essay about Neruda, at the end of the 90s, which he finally added to La máscara, la transparencia (1976), a book of essays about Latin American poetry that’s been celebrated abroad and is a cult classic in Venezuela, revealing itself for new generations as an accomplishment of brilliant writing.

The scene might be unsettling for an intruder. Not so much because of the solitude that reigns there, but because of what it conceals, the discovery of a writing transformed into spirituality. Sucre has raised his voice when it’s been necessary and unavoidable. Without regards to being condemned to the ostracism or disdain that politics tends to react with when its power diminishes. He’s done so at his own pace and his sense of humor is the best proof he doesn’t regret anything.

Within the postulates of the “Sardio” group, a poetic and intellectual movement whose name came from a magazine, one sees that the commitment of its members was with “intelligence” and not with politics or a particular ideology. What led you to follow that purpose, that quest?
In those days we were, as they say, on the left. I was in the center, of course, a supporter of the Acción Democrática party. Adriano González León, Francisco Pérez Perdomo, Ramón Palomares, who was truly a pure poet, a poet from the Andes, Elisa Lerner, Luis García Morales, Manuel Quintana Castillo. We never thought there could be guerrillas like in Cuba here. The Cuban revolution marked our generation enormously, for good or bad. I was always against it, because I said that “we (the members of Sardio) hadn’t participated in armed resistance against the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Giménez.” All the attempts made by Acción Democrática were ridiculous. I was in prison in Ciudad Bolívar when Pérez Giménez was overthrown on January 23rd, 1958, with Ramón J. Velásquez. So when we left prison, the fundamental thing was democracy. I wrote many of those manifestos, along with Rodolfo Izaguirre, though he was a communist hippie.

The members of Sardio sought “rigor, discipline, lucidity so as to understand the truth of their moment.” Did you really observe those principles?
I wish we’d been more rigorous. But that was more or less how it was. We’d gather in a café that was next to the Municipal Theater, before the Centro Simón Bolívar (the Towers of El Silencio) was built. We had a bookstore that was run by José Meneses that later became Suma (which still exists on Sabana Grande). It was a very important bookstore for us. In the first issue of Sardio I published a very polemical essay about Neruda, who came to Venezuela in 1958, right after the fall of Pérez Jiménez. Neruda was furious. I tell you, he was an odd fellow. For example, he charged a fee for giving a poetry reading in Barquisimeto, and things like that.

You also defended “a collective dimension of art.” That’s unusual, because the artist, when he develops his work, is on his own, completely alone, naked. How’s that?
When the ideological issue doesn’t intrude, but instead a balanced, shall we say, vision of politics, a certain defense of human values appears. It wasn’t called human values, but that’s what it really was. We couldn’t accept how everyone was being arrested. Well, I know there were excesses committed in the second term of Rómulo Betancourt. But it was also in the context of a guerrilla war that fortunately was never able to become very urban. It blew up, right? Remember there was help from Cuba and from the Soviet Union through the Venezuelan communist party.

There was a clear goal of overthrowing Betancourt.
That was the problem. But in 1968, with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the so-called orange revolution of (Alexander) Dubcek, Teodoro Petkoff and Pompeyo Márquez said: “We have to support Czechoslovakia,” while Russia sent tanks and Fidel Castro accepted that, which is where he lost his aura of independence and other things.

The intellectual is seen, indistinctly, as an artist who plays a role “as a guide, a critic or counselor for society.” Politics is avoided, but not completely. Couldn’t we call that a pretty comfortable role?
I don’t agree with that part about counselor, nor guide either.

A critic who doesn’t participate in politics?
For us, there were two important figures in French literature that we began to read in those days, Sartre and Camus. Camus was a critic, democratic, but not Sartre. He believed there could be no historic change without spilling blood. In a certain way, without a certain dictatorship. On one occasion Sartre said they had modified one of his plays in the Soviet Union and yet he said nothing, because he understood that for the Soviet Union that’s how things had to be. But not form him, he belonged to a freer world.

That’s been a characteristic attitude of leftist intellectuals... one has to understand the poet, but in this case, the poet is Stalin or Fidel Castro. But none of those intellectuals ever considered (or would consider) living in Russia or Cuba. What’s that dissociation like?
I met Mario Vargas Llosa in Caracas when he came to receive the Rómulo Gallegos Prize after it was awarded for the first time. That was in 1967. Simón Alberto Consalvi was president of the National Institute for Culture and Fine Arts, we met several times with Vargas Llosa, whose attitude wasn’t very Cuban, although he defended the Cuban revolution. But he also didn’t understand very well why Venezuela didn’t have a similar revolution. And really, at that point the Venezuelan guerrillas were already in decline, of course. Gabriel García Márquez also came on that occasion. Simón Alberto brought Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech to my house, so I could red it, and I told him: “What’s wrong with this speech?” It’s not like President Raúl Leoni was going to be there, but he said no to that speech. So, García Márquez said to Vargas Llosa: “But why do you have to bring up the Cuban revolution here?” Incredible, right?

Sardio also welcomed the Cuban revolution “as the most vigorous hope for democracy’s rebirth.”
No, I didn’t write that. I got very angry about that text. I told Izaguirre: “Rodolfo, what the hell was that?” That was during the early days of the revolution. That was written by Gonzalo Castellanos, an architect who was a close friend of mine. But when I returned to Venezuela, Gonzalo barely even said hello to me. Same with Cristóbal Palacios. Cristóbal would speak horrors about Betancourt. Salvador Garmendia was also very pro-Cuban, but then Czechoslovakia happened and he saw Teodoro Petkoff’s attitude about it and he began to distance himself as well.

The rupture occurred. Was that influenced by the “Padilla affair,” when the Cuban poet “was put on trial and condemned beforehand by Fidel Castro”?
Of course. That was it. And that was also Sartre’s moment of rupture.

Was it a rupture between you and your friends, with whom you’d been imprisoned? How did you face that in personal terms?
The second time we were jailed, my brother Leopoldo and I, we were nearly in solitary confinement (in 1957). We lived near the Cruz del Sur bookstore (two blocks away from Sabana Grande boulevard), Jesús Sanoja Hernández was in jail with us. He was expelled from the country, wandered around quite a bit, in Paris and many other places. Rafael Cadenas went to Trinidad, which is where he learned English so well and after Marcos Pérez Giménez fell we all saw each other frequently. So there was no rupture.

But Jesús Sanoja Hernández was living clandestine during Betancourt’s government.
Ah! I didn’t see him during those days. Years later, when the first edition of La máscara, la transparencia was published by Monte Ávila Editores, I was never mentioned in El Nacional [because of Guillermo Sucre’s critique of a novel by the newspaper’s founder Miguel Otero Silva], but Jesús took up two pages of the Papel Literario literary supplement to review it, and since he was an old friend of Miguel Otero Silva, well, that was that.

The Venezuelan guerrilla struggle didn’t unleash a schism among poets?
Manuel Caballero, for instance, was against the guerrillas. Of course people drifted apart, there wasn’t the same cordiality and the same capacity to get together. But that wasn’t the case with Rafael Cadenas and Jesús Sanoja Hernández. Remember that during the dictatorship Jesús lived near us, he would always stop by the house and ask about my brothers and about me when I was arrested. The only Christmas card I received in prison was from Rafael. When I returned to Venezuela [in the 1970s], I applied to the Central University. Elías Pino was the Dean of the Humanities Department. Nelson Osorio, whom I had met at the Instituto Pedagógico, taught there. He was tremendously pedantic and, of course, a communist who had a certain amount of influence. Someone told me that in the meeting where my application was discussed, Osorio said: “But Guillermo is the brother of Leopoldo Sucre Figarella, the president of the CVG (Venezuelan Corporation of Guyana).” Oswaldo Barreto became furious and said: “That’s no way to criticize Guillermo, I disagree.” And Michelle Ascencio, who was the director of the School of Letters, supported my candidacy. I had to write Luis Fuenmayor, who was the President. Fuenmayor said: “Of course, Guillermo has every right to enter.” They paid me less than I had earned before, I had been a full professor at Simón Bolívar University and at the Central University I was an associate professor. I earned a miserable salary.

I’d like your opinion about a phrase written by Mariano Picón Salas. This is a direct quotation: “Disillusionment or resignation, or a romantic escape from things. These had been the symptoms of a prolonged defeat during the years of civilian eclipse. That it wasn’t worth struggling to break the hard shell of customs and bad habits, because a mysterious autochtonous inertia ended up prevailing over any impulse toward renovation.”
I remember that perfectly, it’s from a series of seven essays in Páginas de Venezuela.

Isn’t it a very pessimistic vision of the country?
It’s basically referring to the Juan Vicente Gómez era and the previous era under Cipriano Castro. Remember that when Mariano Picón writes Los días de Cipriano Castro, during the dictatorship, that book sold out immediately, because everyone said it was a metaphor of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Then Mariano Picón left the country. There’s a phrase of his, in reference to his trip to Chile, he was on an immigrant ship and in the hold he said: “I always saw my father who was defeated, disillusioned.” And that was because he had encountered economic hardship in the coffee industry in Mérida, since they were land owners. His father, don Pío, died in Chile and through his second marriage there are relatives of Picón Salas in that country. He belonged to a literary group there, but none of its members were as good essayists or historians as Mariano Picón Salas.

Let’s say the phrase offers a clear impression of Venezuelan obscurantism, but from your viewpoint and thinking about times closer to us, does it make any sense to you?
Comprensión de Venezuela is an important book of Mariano Picón’s. He finished writing that book in 1947, after founding the Department of Philosophy and Letters at the University. Rómulo Gallegos had already named him ambassador in Bogotá. Initially, those essays were published as articles in the Revista Nacional de Cultura, which he started. In the early days after the dictatorship, Mariano Picón was the secretary general for the ORVE political party, which included Rómulo Betancourt, but also the communist left and the democratic left. Picón was against certain ORVE initiatives, because he said “that would force Eleazar López Contreras to take radical measures.” He was named ambassador in Czechoslovakia, where he writes “Europa América” and various essays. Of course, he has a very critical vision of what Venezuela was at the time. Picón was about to take up his professorship in Chile, after López Contreras fired him for being a “communist.” There was a polemic between him and Ramón David León, the director of Esfera, who was the one that started accusing him of being a communist. But maybe the phrase had a ring of truth to it, within what would have been the Venezuelan political psyche. He doesn’t use phrases like those of Arturo Uslar Pietry, “we should sow our petroleum.” It’s something quite different.

Speaking of the psyche, there’s another phrase by Picón Salas I’d like you to comment on. “Tragic episodes such as the war to the death or the great emigration of 1814, facing the Spanish advance and reconquest, seem decisive in shaping the Venezuelan soul.”
Well, Mariano Picón effectively warns us that it would be irresponsible of us to not become aware of the damage caused by those episodes. Uslar Pietri would always say to me: “But Sucre, during Gómez’s era there wasn’t a single technician in the petroleum industry.” As if the country’s backwardness were a technical, cultural matter. No. It was also something else. It was this.

What does that phrase mean for a poet? What could it signify?
Well, if you start to look at it, Venezuelan literature hasn’t been very optimistic, right? Mariano Picón has a book called Buscando un camino, I photocopied it from the library at the Central University because there were no available copies. And in it there’s an essay about Nietzsche, dedicated to José Antonio Ramos Sucre. That’s in 1918, it includes an essay about Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, who was the best poet of her generation, including her brother [Alfredo Arvelo Larriva], who was a supporter of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, and who really did follow the plain path. And Mario Briceño Iragorry, who in those days supported Juan Vicente Gómez. The thing is that Briceño Irragory vindicates himself because he stood up against Pérez Jiménez and really, he was beaten with sticks in Madrid (an attack ordered by the dictator).

In the mid-sixties, you criticize the elites because they weren’t up to the challenges that were facing the country. You refer to those who have the capacity to guide society and make decisions. Could you make that same critique about our current moment?
If you compare the resistance to Chavismo with that against Pérez Jiménez, of course we’ve progressed quite a bit. That’s the truth. One thing is Uslar Pietri, who came back with the same theme of corruption. “Where’d the money go?” That’s how Uslar Pietri would present himself at rallies in wealthier neighborhoods, in El Paraíso. During the 1963 elections, Uslar was elected senator, just like EL Pirujo (Ramón) Escovar Salom, with support from the FNP party, which later formed part of the “wide base” government (1963). But it wasn’t the wide base ORVE had, but rather that of the banker who said he had a castle on Mount Ávila (José Joaquín González Gorrondona). Escovar was the minister of Justice. My brother Leopoldo would say to me: “El Pirujo is good, he knows how make good political analyses.”

It’s true, the resistance isn’t the same, but that doesn’t answer my question. Would you make the same critique of the elites at this moment?
I really do think they’re prepared, if we consider the university (the Central University and the rest of the autonomous universities) where Chavismo hasn’t entered. Those people are prepared. During the days of Pérez Jiménez, of course, people were against him, but no one there spoke up.

A series of articles published in the Mexican magazine Vuelta in the mid-90s (they can be read in the digital archives of the magazine Letras Libres) created a great polemic. I’m quoting directly: “Those who called themselves intellectuals gave up on democratic ideas to join the armed conspiracy, and to even encourage it, without caring very much about the terrible consequences they could bring the country, the chain of coups, the chronic violence, the devastating social turmoil...”
Uslar Pietri, José Vicente Rangel, Juan Liscano, who was a friend of mine, but in the end he joined the conspiracy. Juan Liscano always had an open invitation to see Carlos Andrés Pérez at Miraflores Palace, during his first government. The first president of the CONAC (National Council of Culture), Luis García Morales, told me that Carlos Andrés Pérez would invite him over to dinner on Thursdays and there were Francisco Herrera Luque, who was a type of Chavista of the novel and Rafael Pizano, whose 80th birthday Pérez celebrated at Miraflores. The minister of Interior was my friend from prison, Alejandro Izaguirre, who would also tell me about these gatherings. I remember when I was working at Monte Ávila Editores, Liscano would arrive on Friday mornings and say: “President Pérez says this publishing house is elitist. What does he mean by elitist?” That’s what he’d say.

Violence (more than 20,000 homicides in 2015), social turmoil (looting and lynchings) and institutional coups (in the National Electoral Council, in the Supreme Court).
I saw all that, I had no doubts.

What could be considered your generation’s most important legacy?
I think Rafael Cadenas. Rafael is a magnificent prose writer, he’s written books in defense of language, but also books of essays and his poetry. Perhaps with the exception of his first book. Jesús Rafael Soto made sculptures he called penetrables, but half of that book is impenetrable. For a prize that was named after José Rafael Pocaterra, awarded by the Athenaeum of Valencia, I was asked to be a judge along with Ramón Palomares and Juan Sánchez Peláez. It was unpublished work. I said I couldn’t vote for the other one. I voted for Falsas maniobras, which was Rafael’s second book and from that point onwards the communists began to accept me into their circle again.

What would characterize literary criticism today in Venezuela?
That’s a problem, no just in Venezuela, but all over the Hispanic world and the world in general. Literary criticism, if you look at it, has always been dominated by the big publishing houses. For example, the Goncourt Prize, in France, Gallimard was very influential in that.

That’s not the case in Venezuela, where various publishing houses have disappeared.
What would matter is a bit of sincerity, but not expressed in a primitive way, insulting and sending someone to hell, not like that. And a bit of clarity. Not saying, right away, this is the great work. Eliot said something: “one can speak of an authentic work, but not of an eternal or great work,” because time decides that.

You writing is attained by means of passion, not virtuosity or erudition. Are you an adherent of any utopia?
I think we’re always oscillating between utopia and discontent, disillusionment. But that seems good to me. That we realize that. Because an excess of utopia leads to dictatorship, as we saw in Russia and Cuba. I was friends with Alejo Carpentier. He lived in La Florida, here in Caracas. Of course, I didn’t have a car and Carpentier didn’t drive, but his wife Lilia drove and would come get me on Saturdays, because there was a gathering at their house, we’d eat and have drinks afterwards. Alejo never spoke about politics. But when Castro’s guerrillas took Havana (January 1st, 1959), I remember I went to visit him and Inocente Palacios was there, proposing a champagne toast for the following week and offering to provide the food. A few months later Carpentier went back to Cuba and from there to Paris. Cuba's Communist Party didn’t like Carpentier. The only one who offered him support was Che Guevara. And when the Padilla affair happened, many people said Carpentier kept a low profile so he wouldn’t run into Sartre and his wife, Simone de Beauvoir, on the streets of Paris, because he was so ashamed.

In Mea Cuba, Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes about that anecdote and even claims that Carpentier seemed uncomfortable because he was supporting something he didn’t believe in.
I don’t think it was due to social climbing, because he knew very well he was submitting to a regime. But after men like him enter, it’s very hard for them to get out.

Isn’t that the relation between intellectuals and power?
Yes, of course. There’s some of that.

You’ve included an essay about Neruda in the new edition of La máscara, la transparencia. A great poet who had a dark side. The controversy around Stalin, the matter of freedom and democracy. Has this essay been an act of justice or a deserved acknowledgment of the poet?
I had that essay planned from the very moment I began to write La máscara, la transparencia. But it coincided with Pinochet’s coup and Neruda’s death, a few months later. I thought about publishing the essay, which takes some issue with Neruda, but that would have meant benefiting Pinochet. I decided not to publish it. I continued to edit and expand it. I wrote the final version in 1998. And I included it in this latest edition of La máscara, la transparencia, because I had made a commitment. So, I had always conceived the Neruda essay and I think I enjoyed writing it more that way, slowly, rereading nearly all his work. Except for his final books, which perhaps weren’t works of genius and, worse, used repetitive language.

Neruda held his ground. He never denied his communism, he wasn’t a revisionist.
Because he was very influenced by the French communists, instead of the Italian communists who were more revisionist. And he never thought about dissidents. I don’t think Mandelstam had been translated yet. The poet who reads a poem against Stalin. Stalin calls Pasternak and asks him: “Do you know a poet who gave a reading at which you were present? What do you think of that poet and his poem?” Pasternak didn’t know what to say. He opted for praising the person, not the poem. “I already know your opinion,” he says like a herald of death. The Hispanic world has been very obscurantist in regards to translating the dissidents of communism. I read the memoirs of Mandelstam’s wife in English, when I was living in the United States. And also in French. They weren’t published in Spain until much later.

What do you think of the fact that your book is a reference point for future poets?
The truth is that in Venezuela La máscara, la transparencia hasn’t been discussed very much, except for those two pages Jesús Sanoja Hernández wrote in Papel Literario, not much. It’s been talked about more abroad than here. But La máscara, la transparencia has sold very well in Venezuela, both the Mexican edition published by Fondo de Cultura Económica, as well as the Monte Ávila Editores edition and now the recent one published by El Estilete.

{ Hugo Prieto, Prodavinci, 7 August 2016 }

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