Oswaldo Barreto: Al margen del desencanto / Carlos Egaña

Oswaldo Barreto: On the Margins of Disenchantment

                    [Photo: Oswaldo Barreto, by Vasco Szinetar]

“Cancer is a wonderful thing.” That’s how Swallowing Stones begins, an ironic portrait of a Venezuelan ex-guerrilla fighter in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, written by Lisa St. Aubin de Terán.

The novel isn’t very well known. It was never translated into Spanish. And it has the particularity of having a narrator who isn’t a fictional character. The character, who physically looked like a shorter Einstein who never stopped gulping down water, who travelled from Trujillo to Germany to study with Martin Heidegger, who was an ideologist for so many guerrilla movements around the world, who lived to be an old man on some corner in Caracas.

His name is Oswaldo Barreto. And today, a few days after his death, I still don’t understand why his adventures are so unknown. “I brought Todorov to Venezuela once,” he mentioned when we met, after I told him I study Literature. I hadn’t even been able to ask him, astonished, about his friendship with Roque Dalton and Régis Debray or for having allegedly hijacked an airplane, or any number of stories that could have been narrated by Adriano González León in his 1968 novel País Portátil.

Maybe he wasn’t interested in being anything other than a professor —at the Central University of Venezuela, the University of the Andes and at the University of Havana—. It’s true that as a member of the French Communist Party and the Armed Forces of National Liberation, he participated alongside Teodoro Petkoff in Venezuela’s guerrilla movement, he was a mediator for Cuba and Algeria while the African nation was seeking its independence and he resisted the coup against Allende in Chile.

But in the country that had recently been established by Fidel, he was known as el profe [the professor], a role he assumed proudly. “I’m less extraordinary than the myth says I am,” the alter ego of Swallowing Stones insists, while qualifying his wanderings all over the world as “a comedy of errors,” and finding peace in being an academic. Not everyone, no matter their talent and fame, wants to be the face of change; some people prefer to think it.

Maybe his personality reduced him to the margins of our history. In one of the few books that mentions him, the Diaries of Ángel Rama, he’s characterized as “the prototype of the revolutionary garrulousness of bars.” This was in reaction to a devastating critique Oswaldo had written about an homage to Léopold Sédar Senghor by the Uruguayan critic.

I had myself tried proposing to him a translation of St. Aubin de Terán’s novel. And he said no, because he insisted that people tend to confuse fiction with reality in Venezuela, and he didn’t want to see himself caught up in dilemmas about his past. Later on I wanted to interview him for a compilation of interviews with ex guerrilla fighters that I once hoped to write; but he was impassive with each question —he judged them as imprecise, based on citations that were taken out of context and poorly-understood concepts—. In the end, all the projects I came up with to give Barreto more visibility failed, which didn’t seem to bother him much.

Notwithstanding, he couldn’t have been any other way. The incisiveness of his personality went hand in hand with his critical vocation. There was a great deal of disenchantment around him during his life, and he never faltered when it came time to point that out.

Rama may have considered him another generic product of the República del Este, but Oswaldo accused Juan Calzadilla, Edmundo Aray and Daniel González of having betrayed the ideals of the 1960s literary group El Techo de la Ballena when they sided with Chavismo.

The times I accompanied him to the Gran Café in Sabana Grande, he never stopped lamenting the miserable conditions of the women who sell mango jelly on the street, and he couldn’t stop complaining about the bad interpretations of a friend of his: Che.

His house, by the way, was chaos. Although the sum of jouneys that defined him and all the disillusions he carried explain the disorder of his books and kitchen. “Why this brusque home, half outside, half inside?” Paul Celan, a poet of his preference, asked himself once. And the question goes with his cave in the San Bernardino neighborhood of Caracas. How could he not live amidst ruins with children in Germany, France, Iran and several failed revolutions behind him?

“What is a revolutionary intellectual? The person who wants to change things thanks to words,” said Debray in an interview Oswaldo conducted with him in 1997. I think reflections such as this one influenced him to drop his weapons and eventually become a columnist for the newspaper Tal Cual.

This, along with his work as a teacher and researcher for the Rómulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies. More than ever, in a decade when radical change seems like a commonplace thing, we should research his archive and separate fact from myth. So much disillusion and apprenticeship shouldn’t remain a mere reference.

{ Carlos Egaña, Prodavinci, 15 April 2017 }

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