La memoria inútil / Carlos Ávila

Useless Memory

                    [Collage from the series “Me acuerdo”, by Burócrata]

The death of Alejandro Rebolledo (1970-2016) has evoked an era about which there still doesn’t seem to be any consensus. Visibly opposed reactions in notes and articles about the death of the author of Pim Pam Pum (1998/2010) suggest questions about how we register our nineties. The prevailing opinion recalls that time as being marked by a joyful, luminous and what I’d even call a happy mood. I want to, as they say, propose a question that’s “out of context” and relates to another type of complexities: I’m referring to certain differentiated uses we make of memory.

I’ll start with some of what was said in the note they published in Luster Magazine, where they describe Pim Pam Pum as a novel in which “the nineties shine in all their splendor.” Recently I read or heard a phrase that went something like memory is that thing where we invent all the days of our past. If this is correct, then memory is a necessity; and in that direction, especially because of its subjective nature, it would also end up being an object of dispute. It’s quite clear: there’s no single memory, that’s why our different sense of the past are inherent to the discussion. The question is whether there can be an agreement about certain eras. It seems difficult, in the first place because memory projects towards a space of political struggle, especially conceived “against forgetting” (one remembers so as to not repeat); but also —and above all— because memory is substantial to the moment of strengthening the sense of belonging to sectors and collectivities. Our case sends us once again to a time that was undoubtedly rewarding for many, but adverse and nefarious, without saying more, for others. The struggle seems to be between memory and memory: each one forgetting at its own convenience.

What remains curious is that today, when we reproduce this type of worship of the past, expressed in the consumption and distribution of so many “retro” styles, our “culture of memory” coexists likewise with the brief and the fleeting: on the one hand we privilege the immediate and the present, and on the other we are fabulously nostalgic, fans of the retrospective, almost incapable of generating genuine novelties. The result is this type of tension produced between instant oblivion, let’s say, and the constant presence of the past. I’d even venture to say there’s an inability in that fissure, one that’s especially visible in the youngest generations, the inability to connect certain disinterest for the past/present with future failures. But that’s another part of the discussion.

Going back: in a political sense, the responsibilities for certain eras —we’re still talking about the Venezuelan 90s— are combined with demands, mainly of a moral nature, that due to the conflict they carry aren’t easy to resolve. In Los trabajos de la memoria (2001), Elizabeth Jelin locates the sense of the past directly in the present, but as a function of a desired future, that is, the present contains at once the (past) experience and the (future) expectation. Following her line of thought, we could say that while it’s true that memories are incorporated, they remain dynamic, by which I mean, they modify themselves, vary, transform over time: in part because the experiences absorb other experiences, but also because one’s own experience incorporates the experiences of others —of course, often intervened by the so-called discourses of power—, making the past shrink or expand, according to the case. In this way memory ends up being a process through which we move and orient ourselves in history, but where in the same manner we lose ourselves. It’s the intervention of memory in the social world’s tasks: in it we perceive and at the same time construct society, actively and productively.

And this is where the political use we make of our memories is evident, since all this exaltation and fury about the 90s is created, in this case, for the purpose of despising the present juncture, and I suppose for directing our glance, as they say, towards “a better future.” But careful: I’m not denying how difficult our present scenario is, I’m just trying to note that eventually the reality we live, added to the exacerbation of nostalgia I mention, might be impeding us from making a useful reflection.

If every memory disputes its own sense of the past, then the omission (the forgetting) of fundamental hallmarks for understanding the complex landscape of those years likewise grants meaning; so it seems to me at the very least careless, and a risk for us of slipping time and time again on the perpetual spiral or .gif of forgetfulness —especially amid our current tangled frame—, confusion and illusion, so close to mere nostalgia, on the part of the youngest generations I insist, for the 90s.

Another mode is found in the note published on the website El Estímulo, that speaks of today as an era “in the midst of a nineties revival,” and where Rebolledo is presented as “The only finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize who’s never read Doña Bárbara” (Rodrigo Blanco Calderón brought part of this to the debate a days ago). If I’m not mistaken, from what I understand that was the slogan that accompanied the marketing strategy for the book when it was published, and I presume that what it meant to show was a certain irreverence; in any case, the phrase reveals another side of the operation I’ve tried to describe: now it’s no longer a matter of remembering, happily or not, a certain time in parts, in this case the sights are set on not knowing and forgetting; the gesture —a push that’s typical of the era’s climate, I’d like to think— aspires to diminish and empty the meaning of a specific literary tradition, overlooking what some young writers in the 60s (and even earlier) has already sought, among them Oswaldo Trejo, Salvador Garmendia, Adriano González León, and later on, none other than José Balza: an expressive renovation in the field of fiction that implied expiating the Galleguian model. The consequences of praising these tendencies over extended periods of time are well known: they can be tracked in the programs of Venezuela’s literature departments during the 70s, for example, or in that special issue dedicated to Venezuelan literature (over 600 pages) that was published by the Revista Iberoamericana at the University of Pittsburgh in 1994, where Gallegos’s absence is quite evident. In any case, that really does belong to another discussion.

The truth is that contrary to what the aforementioned slogan suggests, Rebolledo’s readings, at least the ones cited in the Luster Magazine note based on an interview with the author in 1998 by Vicente Lecuna , reveal his preference for stories from the realist tradition, more precisely from 19th century novels: “He was a very classical reader,” Lecuna says, “nothing extravagant, he read the same things Arturo Uslar Pietri might have read.” And further on, when Lecuna asks about the testimonial nature of the novel, Rebolledo not only disdains life in Caracas, which is already quite significant, but he opens and closes a very precise arc, that practically encompasses the decade’s generality, and fits entirely —give or take a few months— within the second terms of presidents Carlos Andrés Pérez and Rafael Caldera (amid the Caracazo disturbances, coup attempts and banking crises). Rebolledo says: “From 87 to 98 the only thing we breathed in Caracas was frustration, ire, resentment, incapacity. The macroeconomic circumstances and politics of that time produced a negative energy that was hard on caracas and was able to get people to be really skeptical, disconnected and bitter. According to that energy Caracas was a city that wasn’t worth loving.”

We weren’t happy and we knew it. That’s why I urge critical distance, which is never, really never, too often, since through those elaborations, as we’ve seen, the possibility for action is acquired over reality. I add myself to the challenge Jelin proposes of taking a certain distance, overcoming the compulsion to repetition, to get rid of oblivion and promote an active reflection and debate about the past and its meaning for the present/future. Useless memory doesn’t proceed: it omits and repeats itself, excludes and repeats itself, dismisses and repeats itself, and this is a mark that insists with a fatal continuity in our time.

{ Carlos Ávila, La Cultura Nuestra, 30 August 2016 }

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