Ten questions for writer Israel Centeno

John Montañez Cortez over at Cervantes @ Mile High City has once again been kind enough to let me publish an English version of an interview, this time with the multi-talented Israel Centeno. You can read the original Spanish here.

Photo: Laura Morales Balza

For the author of the excellent novel Bajo las hojas (Alfaguara, Caracas, 2010), or the collection of stories – his latest book – Según pasan los años (Sudaquia Editores, New York, 2012), an author whose works have already been published in important publishing houses, just ten questions would not be enough.

Today, Israel Centeno (Caracas, 1958) is one of the principle storytellers in Venezuela and one of the most provocative voices in Latin America.

In an article entitled ‘Repaso a la narrativa de Israel Centeno’ (in cultural magazine destiempos.com, October/November 2009, 4 (22), México, D.F.), Venezuelan university professor, editor and writer Valmore Muñoz Arteaga could not have defined it better: “In current Venezuelan narrative, Israel Centeno’s work stands out as one of the most original and most solid. A body of work that aptly mixes narrative genres looked down upon by critics like detective fiction and eroticism, uniting them in an atmosphere of violence and chaos in which the darkest features of modernity twist man’s neck making him – today more than ever – a being for death. Perhaps for this reason he has become, almost unanimously, an obligatory reference among younger writers in a Venezuela devoured by the same chaos it caused”.

Multitalented and with an astonishing creative capacity Centeno is a poet, writer, critic, professor, prestigious editor, translator and promoter of Latin American literature. He studied theatre at the Escola d’Actors in Barcelona, Spain. He has represented his country in international literary events and has won prizes both in Venezuela and Spain.   

Highlights among his novels include Calletania (Monte Ávila, Caracas, 1992, winner of the CONAC Prize and reprinted in Spain in 2008 by Editorial Periférica), Criaturas de la noche (Alfaguara Venezuela, 2000) or Bengala (Norma Venezuela, 2005). In 1996, the Venezuelan branch of the publisher Planet published in one volume two novels, Hilo de cometa y otras inicaiacones. He currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as writer in residence at City of Asylum.

Cervantes@MileHighCity had the opportunity to interview him:

How would you define Israel Centeno?

IC: It’s difficult to define oneself, you can always do it badly, lack objectivity for it. Fundamentally, I am a writer obsessed with telling stories, telling them well, captivated by aesthetic forms and the possibilities to express oneself through words. I’ve spent my life being very stubborn, attached to these rules of risks and aesthetic searching, I’m restless when it comes to this.

How did Israel Centeno emerge as an author?

IC: I read a lot, always, since I was young. I read everything that fell into my hands, not just fiction. I’ve read so much that I’ve forgotten many of the things that I’ve read, or they have been incorporated into this complicated memory that loses categories in becoming knowledge. They are there, sometimes abandoned, and suddenly emerge like divine intervention. Through reading I felt motivated to write my own things, but actually after spending my early youth immersed in many conflicts and a year and a half of travelling in Europe, in Barcelona (Spain) I realised what I wanted to do in life, or do with my life, was write, get involved in the process, reading, invention, reinvention, pleasure, traps, all those things that come when one sits in front of a blank screen or in front of anything blank to try to fill it with time, with movement and with time.

Which authors have influenced you? What did you read?

Just imagine! To start with I read the classics, in those cheap Bruguera versions… I read Plato’s dialogues early, mixed with Dostoevsky’s Demons and Crime and Punishment, and so I intertwined classics until I arrived at contemporary literature. I read the authors of the so-called Latin American boom.

Among my influences or my principal reading are Franz Kafka’s The Trial, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Guillermo Meneses’  La Mano junto al Muro, Jorge Luis Borges, Oswaldo Trejo, José Napoleón Oropeza, Renato Rodríguez, One Thousand and One Nights, Don Quixote, Tirant lo Blanc, Juan Carlos Onetti, Maupassant, Flaubert, the Arthurian saga, Juan Marsé, José Donoso, Teresa de La Parra, La Habana para un Infante Difunto and Tres Tristes Tigres by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, and all of Cortázar’s stories, especially those from Bestiario, I often compare them with the fantastical imaginary of Ednodio Quineto, another great Latin American storyteller. I have to specify among my poetic influences T.S.Elliot, José Antonio Ramos Sucre, Andrés Eloy Blanco, Eugenio Montejo, Rafael Cadenas, César Vallejo, John Woolworth, the classic poem Gilgamesh, the Bible, especially the wisdom books, the principal Greek tragedies… Sappho, and well, the works of Shakespeare… it’s useless, I feel like at this stage of my life I’m leaving aside much important reading. Take this as a brief attempt at an inventory of influences.

You’ve worked in many genres. Where do you feel most comfortable when the time comes to write?

IC: With narrative.

Tell us about your experience as an editor and translator.

IC: It’s complicated. In regards to editing, it had more to do with circumstances than with a calling. At this stage, I believe that you should dedicate yourself to one of the two, writing or editing, as both can enter into conflict. However, I won’t preach about it, sometimes it is necessary to do it, and that’s what happened with me. There are people who can handle and balance both. As for translation, I arrived at it through the suggestion of my editor in Spain, Julián Rodríguez Marco.

Juan Rulfo once said “Social problems can be posed in an artistic way. It is difficult to avoid social problems in a work, because conflictive states arise which oblige the author to develop them”. Do you think that this, in part, could define your literature?

IC: Nobody escapes this situation. The writer belongs to a moment, a particular time. Without them there is no gravity. Social matters are history. How can we tell stories without history? However, these things don’t necessarily have to be presented in an explicit, underlined, demagogic way.

In your opinion, what differences have you found between being a Latino writer in the USA and in your country?

IC: In my country everyone is Latino, whether they want to be or not. Here I am part of the main “large minority”. Here I will probably have to overcome the language barriers or find a way to place my work within the Spanish-speaking population in the United States, which is vast. In my country, for some time now, the problem has sometimes lain in those exclusions that have nothing to do with race or things like that, it’s more that you have to fight against the matter of exclusion for beliefs, for thinking differently. There is something unforgivable in Venezuela today: independent thought. Systematically, from those in power, and sometimes regrettably from other angles.

In the States, when I write I’m a lot more conscious of my language, its formal resources and its ability to signify I everything I want to say, or to express it aesthetically. I write knowing that I don’t have a publisher waiting for my work, well, in Venezuela it was the same, but here the feeling has more weight. I write in contrast with other languages and that’s always good.

How would you define the current situation of contemporary Latin American literature? Is there any author, or authors, that stand out in that environment in your opinion?

IC: It’s a much freer literature, for example you no longer have to write in this or that way, show marvellous worlds, or reveal ourselves to others, who are always more educated and thoughtful. I’m interested in what Horacio Castellanos Moya, Yuri Herrera and Edmundo Paz Soldán write. Equally, everyone could write their own list which would show the diversity.

Would you venture to recommend any book, or writer, in particular?

IC: Venezuelan? I’d like to recommend some Venezuelan authors because we sometimes tend to avoid this topic, with the pretext that we could forget someone and hurt people’s feelings. And yes, that does happen. It’s always possible, it’s got nothing to do with esteem or interest. They simply escape. The issue is that we have to start to name each other, to make ourselves attractive and mark ourselves out as something existing, that doesn’t fit in a quick inventory, it’s an issue that invites researchers to investigate this large and complicated diversity. As I said, Latin American literature is diverse and that is also reflected in what is happening in Venezuela. I’m going to name three or four and leave the possibility open for everyone to look into this rich virgin territory that Venezuelan literature could be. Contemporaries: Rubi Guerra, take any one of books at random, you’ll never feel cheated.  Eloi Yagûe’s crime novels. Don’t overlook  Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez, particularly El Libro de Esther and Tarde con Campanas, and don’t miss reading his short stories. Oscar Marcano y Juan Carlos Chirinos. We have two marvellous female writers, scandalously young and brilliant: Liliana Lara and Enza García Arreaza, I believe that these storytellers are making a difference with their writing, but to not give any more value judgements, I’m going to give another little list without comments: Fedosy Santaella, Roberto Echeto, Héctor Torres, Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Salvador Fleján, Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles, Gustavo Valle, Keila Vall De La Ville, and as I said, investigate, you’ll find good things, José Urreola’s debut novel, the name Lesbia Quintero and many etceteras. Behind these authors, I can mention with some pride Victoria de Estéfano, Silda Cordoliani, Ana Teresa Torres, Antonieta Madrid, Milagros Mata Gil, Ednodio Quintero, José Napoleón Oropeza, Eduardo Liendo and here the same thing applies: investigate this great tradition on which we ride and you’ll keep adding names. The list will end up long and controversial.

Venezuelan literature is no better or worse than any other. It just is. It has a tradition. It needs to be put on the map.

Is there any funny, or interesting, anecdote that you would like to share with the readers?

IC: I don’t have funny anecdotes, I’ve tried to reinvent them all through fiction. What’s more, some of them are divinely private.

Many thanks Israel for this much appreciated opportunity.

1 thought on “Ten questions for writer Israel Centeno

  1. Pingback: Bajo las hojas | Venezuelan Literature

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