The Conspiracy

conspiracy centeno

In Buenos Aires it’s called mist. In Mexico City they call it smog. When the wind from the Sahara blows and covers Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the islanders know it as haze. In Caracas, there was soot, and I was moving through smoke and ashes on the day I went out to kill the president.

In 2002, shortly after the failed coup attempt of 11 April, Israel Centeno published El Complot. The stark criticism and demythification of the Bolivarian government presented in the novel lead to a campaign against Centeno which ended in his exile. Now thanks to Sampsonia Way Publishing and translator Guillermo Parra,  Centeno’s remarkable, provocative novel is available to Anglophone readers for the first time.

As with all Centeno’s work, The Conspiracy has a dreamlike – or rather, nightmarish – quality, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, and shifting the focus of narration between identifiable characters and an unknown but all-knowing observer. The dizzying quality of the narration leaves readers feeling as disorientated as the protagonist Sergio, who cannot reconcile his revolutionary zeal with Venezuela’s new political reality.

Beginning with a failed assassination attempt, The Conspiracy explores what happens to far-left revolutionaries – those remnants the from the guerrillas and radical movements which flourished in Venezuela following the end of dictatorship in 1958  – once the ‘Revolution’ is in power. The novel expresses Centeno’s own disillusionment with the Process, having grown up surrounded by radical activism. It is deeply critical of power-hungry former radicals turned ministers, who abandon their Marxist beliefs to form part of the establishment. At the same time, the novel shines a light on the sinister undercurrent of this process, that is, the ruthless violence necessary to cover up any traces of former ‘undemocratic’ behaviour by those now in power.

“All processes need elite groups for executing indecorous tasks. Every process has its indecorous tasks, it was romanticism to believe otherwise”.

In the background bubbles a criticism of Chávez himself (only ever named as ‘the President, but instantly recognisable), his populism, his reliance on the military and his use of the media to secure his power.

Ultimately, the novel is about the government’s betrayal of the revolutionary ideals it purports to represent. While anti-government sentiment is not hard to find in current Venezuelan literature, nothing attacks the core values and myths of Bolivarianism like The Conspiracy. At a time when opposition to the government is consistently labelled right-wing, imperialist, and oligarchic, The Conspiracy is a powerful document of the objections of the radical-left.

Click here to buy The Conspiracy from Sampsonia Way Publishing

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Bajo las hojas

portada-bajo-hojas_grande

Qué son las novelas, una gran mentira, un conjunto de intrigas, un despliegue de manipulaciones…

What are novels, a big lie, a set of intrigues, an unfurling of manipulations…

The first forty or so pages of Israel Centeno’s 400-page novel Bajo las hojas (Alfaguara, 2010) are a relatively straightforward, if self-reflexive, account of a middle-aged novelist, struggling to make it in Venezuela, who seizes the opportunity to run off to London – a city he had briefly enjoyed as a young man, 26 years earlier – with his young and beautiful mistress in tow. Then it all gets complicated. Julio turns out to be a pawn in a grander scheme involving his mistress, his son, his old revolutionary colleagues turned police officers, an Italian dancer, and a death-worshipping cult of psychologists. The narration constantly switches between these disparate but linked characters and a mysterious omniscient power, so the reader must continually ask who is speaking, or more specifically, who is writing, as one of the key themes of Bajo las hojas is that whoever controls the narrative controls reality. 

Bajo las hojas, then, is a challenging novel. For a start, it demands constant concentration and perseverance to follow the story and the web of intrigues it spins. As the name of the cult – Los argonautas jungianos de los últimos dias – illustrates, the novel is replete with erudite references to Greek myths and legends, psychology and religion, as well as British history, Latin American poetry and more. At the same time, Centeno experiments with many popular genres – mystery, fantasy, Gothic, suspense, crime and eroticism – using them to hook the reader but also subverting generic expectations. Some of the characters, like mystic Trompetino, can be frustrating to read at times (although that seems to be the point), while others, particularly Julio’s son Alberto are understatedly engaging. Those challenges are the very reason for reading Bajo las hojas – while its characters ponder the nature and power of literature, the novel itself seems to be a protest against both the ‘dumbing-down’ of literature and the use of narrative as a political tool, fighting instead for writing – and reading – as artistic and intellectually stimulating endeavours.

Moreover, as an English reader, it’s interesting to picture Venezuelan characters in familiar settings. As Centeno confirmed when I recently met him, his London, the London of the 1980s, complete with orgies in graveyards and squatting in Brixton that appear in flashbacks throughout Bajo las hojas, is one completely alien to me today, even while the places, the climate and even the smarmy estate agents are strikingly familiar. This time in London as a young man was clearly fundamental for Centeno, so Bajo las hojas is fascinating reading for anyone wanting to better understand the work of this prolific Venezuelan author.

Reviews/features

Review by J. L. Maldonado from Librería Sónica

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.