Rating

En la televisión, la realidad también es un espectáculo.

In television, reality is also a show.

With his third novel, Rating (Anagrama, 2011), Alberto Barrera Tyszka brings his experience of writing for television to the page.  It is the story of literature student Pablo Manzanares who becomes the assistant to Rafael Quevedo, Vice President of Special Projects for a major television channel. Obsessed with ratings, Quevedo dreams up a cross between a telenovela and a ‘reality’ with people left homeless by landslides as contestants. Veteran screenwriter Manuel Izquierdo is hired to craft the programme and his ruminations on life, death and telenovelas compliment Pablo’s youthful concerns about status and sex.

As well as traditional prose, the novel incorporates fragments of television scripts and technical reports, questioning the border between reality and fiction and the absorption of television into everyday lives. The main theme of the novel is telenovelas as key Venezuelan cultural expression. It examines the rules of telenovelas, their purpose, and how this reflects the Venezuelan people. It presents television as aspirational, serving to distract the people from their problems, allowing Barrera Tyszka to consider the poor conditions in which a large amount of Venezuelans live despite being an oil-rich country. Other key themes of the text are the commodification of culture and the division between high culture (poetry/literature) and low culture (mass media), which draws on the classic civilisation/barbarism divide.

Click here to download a free sample in .epub format from Anagrama.

Prizes:

Runner-up of the 2011 Premio de la Crítica de la Novela

Reviews/articles:

Rating presented on Anagrma’s website

‘Ese corazón partido’ by J.A. Masoliver Ródenas in La Vanguardia

‘El melodrama latinoamericano’ by Juan José Becerra in Letras Libres

Blood by Tibisay Rodríguez Torres

In April 2014, Tibsay Rodríguez Torres’ short story Blood, translated below, beat 124 other entries to win the Premio del Cuento de la Policlínica Metropoliana. The judges praised her blend of literary and youth language, and the bold, brave narrative. If you’d like to read more from Tibisay, click here to download her short story collection Un hielo en mi boca for free.

Blood* by Tibisay Rodríguez Torres

“Do you want to go up to San Antonio?”
“What for?”
“To have a drink”.
“Ok”.

You picked me up at the exit to the University.

“And what did they talk about today?”
“About Foucault”.
“How nice!”
“Oh, have you read him then?”
“No, but I know that he’s complicated”.
“Aha…”

We looked for your friend, the funny one*, we could sense him behind us.

“How you doing, girl? You bring a friend along?”
“No”.
“Too bad, too bad, I want to get to know them all, y’know”.

We started the journey, we suffered the motorway.

“Can you put some music on?”
“Of course, what do you want to hear?”
“Anything but reggaeton”
“Do you like Kraftwerk?”
“If there’s no other option…”

Infernal queuing, Kraftwerk, and my overwhelming need to pee seasoned the ride. I had lived similar scenes before. I remembered one in particular. My tendency to narrate painful situations obliged me to tell you about that analogous incident from a few years earlier:

Someone from the Faculty had invited me to the cinema and then for a few beers. We went to los chinos, the damned Caracas routine that I never got used to but pretended to enjoy. He spoke to me all night about some poetry jams that they did in Bello Monte, in which people were encouraged to read their poems in public. How boring, I thought. I thought but I didn’t say, because I already knew how these comments of mine end.

I tried to get interested, I laughed at his bad jokes and I feigned amazement at his analysis of the books that he said he read. I looked at him nicely, I smiled even when he told me that his professors were “the greatest” and that Gabriela Pérez – an extremely young lecturer who I had baptised with the oxymoron irreverent flatterer– was one of the most erudite scholars of Russian literature in the country. He ordered two more. I understood that I didn’t need to smile at him, he had his plans from the beginning and the game was in my hands but I wasn’t sure. I thought he was cute, yes, but his literary optimism and arrogance put me off him. That and his manner of exhibiting himself: the “Join me for a smoke” as a euphemism for wanting to touch me up, for example. I decided that no, this guy wasn’t going to work out tonight, despite my dry spell. I mentioned the Metro and the fight to say goodbye began. The “Don’t worry, I’ll call a taxi”. No, it’s better if I go now. The “Have another drink and go later”.

The Metro closed. The chinos closed. We ended up wandering around at midnight and had to walk forever to reach the avenue. We crossed that moribund plaza, we stayed there for a while, stopped on a bench. That’s when the damned need to pee appeared. “Look for a bush”. I can’t. “Don’t be embarrassed because of me”. It’s not because of you, there are strange people looking at us. I didn’t feel fear, just discomfort. I NEED TO PEE. I had to move. “I know a place, babe”. We had to turn around to change direction, but the circumstances of desolation and darkness didn’t improve at all, they even got worse. We had to cross a bridge almost running, between rubbish, vomit, and crackheads strewn across the floor. I could barely slide my legs because of my incontinence. We arrived. “You see? That’s all it took, beautiful. We should have come here from the start, you can go to the toilet, no problem”.

A budget hotel. I peed. I saw his naked chest and imagined what it would be like to perforate a thorax.

Comparisons are loathsome, or so they say. Differences on the other hand… But instead of telling you this story, which shot through my memory while we looked for somewhere I could expel my anxiety, I asked:

“Is there still a long way to go?”
“Yes”.
“Couldn’t we make a stop? It’s just that I really need to go to the toilet”.
“Yes, I’ll stop at the next gas station, don’t worry”.

My friends would say that you behaved like a gentleman.

“Ready, here’s the station”.
“Oh! It’s closed”.
“Let’s ask at the pharmacy, they’ll surely have a toilet there”.
“Ok”.
“Excuse me, ma’am, could we use the bathroom?”
“We don’t let people use the bathroom”.
“But it’s an emergency!”
“You’ll forgive me but the last time we let someone use the bathroom they left it in an absolute state”.
“We’re not those people. Look, you know that…”
“I was going to let you use it… but not now!”

We asked another employee, after you advised me to let you talk first.

“Excuse me, sir, would it be possible for the lady to please use your bathroom? She’s not feeling well”.
“Of course”.

I looked out of the window, without paying much attention to the conversation that you tried to start while you drove. We arrived at that moment when, having drunk a few cans, a connection is made beyond words, the spark set off by the involuntary grazing of skin, a fleeting movement to change the speed of the car that makes you touch me. The hand on the knee that is barely felt, but yes, I felt it.

“You know? I always wanted to be a dandy: extravagant, rich, stylish”, you tell me.
“Ah, really? Well I always wanted to be a cocosette”, I said spitefully.

We arrived at the apartment and at the date. You smoked a few cigarettes in the car park observing the mountain, the woods, rallying for the climb up eleven floors!

“Mate! I didn’t know it’d be like this! Eleven floors?!” you tell your friend, the funny one.
“Yes, the thing is, the light went out…”
“No, mate, it’s better if we stay down here”.
“Fuck, but Luis is waiting for us upstairs”.
“Haha, tell him to come down”.
“That one isn’t going to come… let’s hang out here a while”
“Exactly”.

An electric fault covered the city and the building in delicious darkness. We climbed the stairs with the scarce light provided by our mobile phones. Either way there would be a party.

“Go on, go on, turn it on there… that’s it, light”
Marico, I can’t do any more… I swear… Ah, I’m sweating!”
“We’re only at the third floor”.
“Oh, mate, you need to climb up the Waraira at least twice in your life”.

I meekly attended the social ritual. Anyway there were only five boys, and me, the only woman, I went about unnoticed opposite the leader of the group: the owner of the house and his travel anecdotes, the reigning theme for the night. Europe this, Europe that. I kept quiet and smiled, and took the hand that you offered me every now and then.

The apartment lit with candles was the centre of the complicity and laughter of your most intimate friends who accompanied you that night. The narration was impeccable, stories of journeys and returning, and why-I-had-to-return. Throwing your passport into the Mediterranean, now that’s poetic, I said (to you). At the same time, I separated myself from the laughs, I looked for the balcony. I lifted my gaze for the second time that night to the mountain, the mist, and the chaos on the motorway due to the absence of light. I got sucked in, as I so often do; anxious, breathing uneasily. Like that, absent, mine was to feel the cold from the balcony. That’s what I was doing, that and listening to the mix of sounds from nature and from the street, thinking about why I said this or that, and if only everything between us – everything that we call “ours” – had started another way: when your hands around my waist and a kiss on my neck suddenly roused me.

“What are you thinking about?”
“About how I need to stop being such a slut”. I laughed, we laughed.
“What are you doing here?”
“Nothing, looking. It’s chaotic outside, you know, with no light. It’s a beautiful night”.
“Don’t you like my friends? I’m sorry, they’re just like that”.
“You don’t have to apologise for your friends, or for anything, I’m fine, honestly”.
I looked at you fixedly for a while, stare**, I think the gringos say. I smiled, thought about the possibilities.

2

Neither of us knew the signs. You were at the door to my house at the agreed time, you’d printed a map from Google Maps, we studied it, we got lost. A surrounded clinic: bordered on one side by the biggest University in the country, on the other, by the immense mountain that seemed to follow us from the first moment. We arrived late.

At the reception they gave us a little laminated number. We didn’t care what the doctor’s name was, we didn’t know anyone. Waiting list, queue. I got out my book of pathologies to cope with the wait. I went to the toilet some ten times, my hands remained impregnated forever with the smell of antiseptic soap. I itemised every wall, every poster that insinuated the ideology of that place, one of them caught my attention because it was corroded, I thought it was, the first phrase had been rubbed out and all you could read was “….is an option”.

I heard my name through a loudspeaker and I went into that consulting room alone. You waited outside, in the car, listening to Kraftwerk, or that’s what I imagined you listening to. When I came out, I got in the car, and after two seconds I tried to talk about Foucault, educate you in the matter, but you wouldn’t stop interrogating me. I didn’t say anything, I stopped talking about Foucault and I replied by asking about that funny friend of yours. You finally gave in: “That Foucault has some treatises about violence, right?”

3

One day I returned to San Antonio Street, this time I went by foot and sober. Not needing to pee, I yearned to find a toilet like an insomniac desires the sleep of the night. My hands… I didn’t want to see them.

The cars passed at a speed that was difficult to calculate and the wilderness hurt my ankles, although my pain was another, an indescribable one. I came across that pharmacy with neon lights that seemed so familiar to me. I thought about you, even though forgetting had already begun to stick its claws in ferociously, I remembered your friends and the party without light.

My pale skin seemed occupied by a thought: although I never told you, dear Scott, I always thought that when you put on that leather jacket you really did look like a dandy. I went in anxious and unaware of how I looked.

“I’m bleeding, can I use the bathroom?” I said, or I thought.

This time the receptionist did not let me enter.

* In English in the original

** The author notes that there is no one word equivalent of ‘stare’ in Spanish, which is why she is drawn to the simplicity of the English word.

Un hielo en mi boca

un hielo en mi boca coverAl compás de la música, sentía proyectarse como una pelicula aburrida y lenta las cosas que he visto y vivido, la sensación del hastio, el morbo por estar, la indiferencia al terror, la rutina, el doble sentido del todo, la miseria de las noches, la represión de los días, la muerte como algo natural. Esos golpes secos de batería que no me tocan el alma.

To the rhythm of the music, I felt the things I’ve seen and lived project themselves like a slow and boring film, the feeling of weariness, the desire to be, the indifference towards terror, the routine, the double meaning of everything, the misery of nights, the repression of days, death as something natural. Those dull drumbeats that do not touch my soul.

Very shortly, I will be bringing you a translation of Tibisay Rodriguez Torres’ short story ‘Blood’, winner of this year’s Premio de Cuento Policlínica. In the meantime, I am very excited that Tibisay has kindly allowed me to share a free PDF version of her first collection of short stories with you, Un hielo en mi boca (first published by El perro y la rana in 2006; republished by the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in 2013).

Click here for your free PDF of Un hielo en mi boca.

The narratives weaved in Un hielo en mi boca, switching between the viewpoints of often unnamed protagonists caught in an undefined present, are as mind-altering as the sex, drugs, rave music and other substances which fill its pages. In some ways small, confessional tales, each has a wealth of meaning and emotion lurking beneath the surface. Tibisay Rodriguez Torres significantly juxtaposes the awkwardness of everyday social situations with moments of genuine horror. When connections are formed between people they are fleeting and fragile. In this short but powerful first collection of stories, Rodriguez Torres develops an increasingly poignant picture of the loneliness, self-doubt and disconnection that plagues the postmodern subject.

 

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

A Chinese Tale by Hazael Valecillos

As well as travel guides based on literature (whether visiting the places where stories are set, or places of significance to authors), my good friends over at A Pie de Página also publish stories that take their readers on a journey. One such story is Hazael Valecillos‘ Un cuento chino, a short story of culinary discovery in Mérida. Hazael kindly agreed for me to translate and publish the story here. Read the original in Spanish at A Pie de Página.

A Chinese Tale

The cities in the interior of a country always imply a bet on the unknown. In Latin America, this phenomenon is even stronger as, depending on who is looking and visiting, perceptions of the province can swing between bucolic and wild, barbarous, dangerous. In a city like Mérida, situated some 800 kilometres from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, the situation becomes even more interesting, being as it is the seat of the principal university in the country and not having more than a handful of avenues.

For Kostas, born in the mythical Greece and raised in the rapidly changing Caracas of the 1960s, Mérida meant nothing but the chance to continue his studies after the President at the time, Rafael Caldera, closed the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Moved in reality to chase some long legs rather than by a vocation as a student, Kostas did what innumerable compatriots had done before him: he set out on a journey into the unknown.

But the unknown in this case did not include Cyclopes or Laestrygonians, and the cold was too fierce to even think about mermaids. For the rangy Greek, the adventure was more pedestrian and mundane, to face being far from home for the first time, and most importantly, far from his father’s cooking.

From a young age, Kostas’ father, Petros, became a renowned cook – it always seemed pompous to him to be called chef -, eventually acquiring so much prestige that even the president of Greece was a regular at his table. Kostas never knew to which president his father was referring, but the latter assured him with pride that he was his godfather. The successive conflicts, the unending periods of crisis in their native land, made them emigrate and no sooner had they arrived in Caracas than he opened his own restaurant. His enormous talent and tenacity turned Petros into a star almost immediately, removing him and his family from the scarcities common to immigrants.

It’s not surprising, then, that with the economic solvency afforded to him by his father and all of the comforts offered by this city which seemed much older than any that he had known in Venezuela, the principal problem which Kostas had to resolve was that of food, not for a lack of resources, but for gastronomic quality.

Too far from the heat of the fasolada which had so helped him to cope with the climate, the explosion of flavours of mousakka or the afternoon gyros on workdays, Kostas had no other choice but to try his luck in the limited options offered by the small city, immediately becoming acquainted with the rigors of the restaurante ejecutivo[1] and the popular menus. A few weeks after his arrival, a friend from university recommended a place right in the city centre, just next to the School of Arts and a few blocks from his halls of residence, where you could eat the very best for just five bolivares (less than one dollar).

chipen

When Kostas arrived at the indicated address he saw a very austere frontage, with a glass door and a sign that announced Chipén. The long minute that he spent standing in the road opposite, with his eyes glued to the sign, served to bring him face to face with his demons. Today there is a Chinese restaurant on practically every corner, and with the passing of time it has become the number one fast-food option in many places, but 40 years ago, entering a Chinese restaurant was more reproachable than leaving a brothel. If you add to that Petros’ legends of the culinary habits of these people, the sense of discomfort and the shivers that Kostas felt at the moment are understandable.

That day he understood that, like all human beings, he had prejudices and that those would remove him from what was definitely cheap, and according to his friend, even excellent quality food. He started to walk away from there and ended up chewing meat and potatoes at an ejecutivo nearby, with an expression of disappointment that was difficult to hide. The following day he left classes and walked up to the road in question, he stopped in the same place and stayed for around five minutes, trying to leave his thoughts to one side and act; however, he only managed to look strange to the passers-by and ended up copying his actions of the day before. He tried the same thing a couple of times more until he surrendered and from then on, during the year that he lived in Mérida, he avoided passing by the Chinese restaurant in any way possible.

Later they reopened UCV and Kostas returned to Caracas to complete his studies. The shadow of the Chipén came to affect him so much that when he returned to Mérida after a couple of years, this time for good, although he did not know that yet, following the same long legs as last time, the first thing that he did was go directly to the restaurant, park his brand new yellow Volkswagen Beetle and open the door with a shove.

What he found surprised him greatly, it was more of a Spanish tavern than anything else, with an enormous bull’s head on the right wall, a few tables crammed into five square metres and walls papered with bullfighting posters. Kostas cursed his prejudices and before the disconcerted faces of the waiters walked in silence to the bar and asked for the menu. That day he ate the most delicious plate of king prawns – each one the size of an arm, so he says – that he had ever tried – he still maintains today-, while the owner explained to him the origin of the name and they laughed together at his idiotic confusion.

Sitting at what became his table, right next to the kitchen, Kostas watched an enormous number of bullfighters parade by, each one more renowned than the last, he even came to share his chicken stew with one of them, apparently the best of all time, but not knowing anything about bullfighting, he never knew who he was. He also saw, with the passing of the years, couples begin and end beneath the serene head of Manolo (he thought it was stupid to give the name Minos to the bull’s head which he had grown so fond of). Later, the toreros, the banderillos and the novilleros were replaced by poets, short story writers and novelists, or at least by men and women who referred to themselves as such. Some very good, others moving, the majority just good-for-nothing drunks. At the peak of the poets, as they liked to be called among themselves, he saw how one day they arrived liked a cloud of mosquitos around a disproportionately tall bearded man with bulging eyes, who sat in front of the door to watch the falling rain through the glass while the others did not stop talking. That day Kistas understood that, even though he had never read more than the Selected Works, there was an enormous difference between writers and poets.

Forty years later, the yellow beetle can still be seen outside the Chipén periodically. Kostas sometimes gets his son to accompany him, although in general he prefers to go alone, he says that that way he can keep reading the world while he eats the best liver in the world, at his table in the Chinese restaurant that never was a Chinese restaurant, in a city that never quite became a city.


[1] Restaurants mainly serving fast and simple lunch, offering a choice of set menus.

Granizo

granizo

Yo, una estudiante normal, devorando libros echada en mi cama y pensando que llevaba una vida normal, no como en las grandes películas, o en las grandes historias, sino una en donde la gente vivía y moría, como si no fuera gran cosa, como parte de algo que resultaba tan cotidiano, que no se dejaba notar y mucho menos analizar en profundidad.

Me, a normal student, devouring books lying on my bed and thinking that I lived a normal life, not like in the great films, or the great stories, but one in which people lived and died as if it was no big deal, like part of something so everyday that you didn’t notice it, let alone deeply analyse it.

With her debut collection of short stories, Granizo (Caracas: El perro y la rana, 2010), Dayana Fraile won the I Biennial Literaria Julián Padrón, whose judges praised her use of dialogue, suggestive narrative techniques and very ‘current’ irony.

What I love about Dayana is how she refuses to give in to the demand that literature should be overtly political. Instead, hers are simple stories of normal young people – students or factory workers – their friendships, their everyday pleasures or struggles and their search for independence. Dayana’s are strong, nuanced female characters, of which there are still not nearly enough in contemporary literature. While the settings are small, the characters are so real and engaging that you genuinely care for them and often feel like a friend is confessing secrets to you as you read. La vida con Fiori, for example, begins with a brilliantly evocative description of a flower made of guacamole and peppers, just a small detail of a joyful drunken evening between friends, but the juxtaposition between this and understated, almost casual way in which a huge emotional secret comes to light later in the story is extremely powerful.  Though Granizo is short, it proves Dayana to be an extremely talented story writer and deserves to be much more widely read.

Prizes

I Biennial Literaria Julián Padrón 2010

Read

Granizo (short story) in País Portátil

La vida con Fiori in Ficción Breve

When Adam Lacroft Met Death

when adam lacroft met death

“I’m what awaits at the end.” She added in a deep
voice, mocking a storyteller, “The one thing no man can avoid.” She giggled at my unchanging look of incomprehension. “I’m Death, silly.”

When Adam Lacroft Met Death (New Generation: 2013) isn’t the kind of Venezuelan literature I usually come across. For a start, it’s written in English. The author, Carlos Paolini, is currently resident in the States, studying marketing, but was born and raised in Caracas and smatterings of Venezuelan speech appear throughout the novel. I must admit I was anxious when I received the book, as 19-year-old Paolini, like his young protagonist Lacroft, seems extraordinarily self-assured – would he have the talent to back it up? I’m happy to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by his debut.

When Adam Lacroft Met Death is the first of a trilogy of fantasy novels for young adults, revolving around an underachieving high school student who comes face to face with Death after a car accident. Far from the stereotypical hooded figure, Death is a beautiful 20-something brunette, who calls herself Eve and seems to know all of Adam’s hidden desires. Eve offers Adam a moral dilemma: if can find and kill the man who killed him within three days he will  win back his own life. As t becomes increasingly clear that Eve cannot be trusted, will Adam be able to resist his temptation towards her and find a way to save himself? If a battle of wits with Death wasn’t complicated enough, Adam must also save his budding romance with the love of his life, Erica, but she has secrets of her own.

Having dropped out of law school after three months, Carlos spent a year just trying to absorb as much literature and film as he could. It shows, as references abound, from Dante’s Inferno to Oscar Wilde. As a Brit, I particularly appreciated Adam’s passion for our indie music too!

The initial irritation at Adam’s character gives way to a real warmth towards him thanks to his endearing nervousness trying to woo Erica, and then an admiration at how he matures as he tries to deal with death. It’s easy to get sucked in by him, just as Eve and Erica do. Not just the cliffhanger ending, but the fast-paced, engaging narrative throughout, left me impatient for Carlos to finish the next instalment.

Buy When Adam Lacroft Met Death from Amazon UK