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

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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

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

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

Chulapos Mambo

YA ESTA AQUÍ. LLEGO LA BOMBA. ESPERE LA EXPLOSIÓN QUE CAMBIARÁ PARA SIEMPRE EL CURSO DE LA LITERATURA UNIVERSAL.

IT’S HERE. THE BOMB HAS DROPPED. WAIT FOR THE EXPLOSION THAT WILL FOREVER CHANGE THE COURSE OF LITERARY HISTORY ACROSS THE WORLD.

Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez’s Chulapos Mambo (Madrid: Casa de Cartón, 2011) is an absurd, ironic and darkly hilarious tale of three unconventional characters tied together by one outrageous plan. Alejandro wants to get away from his wife to be with his lover, and Simao desperately needs money. The solution to their problems is Henry. Henry has come to Madrid from Venezuela as a representative of the Bolivarian Republic, hailed as the greatest writer who ever lived – although he has no talent at all and has only written one book of short stories plagiarised from the Boom authors. While Henry puzzles over how the literary world has yet to recognise his genius and writes his MASTERPIECE, Alejandro and Simao’s scheming gets them all caught up in violence, prostitution, stalking, and kidnapping.

Méndez Guédez’s talent for creating characters who are utterly absurd and yet somehow still believable makes Chulapos Mambo incredibly funny. However, this absurdity also serves to criticize current Venezuelan politics without ever openly saying anything against it. The contradictions of ’21st century socialism’ are certainly evident throughout the novel:

“La costosa camisa que llevaba en la mañana; la tarjeta dorada que descubrí en su cartera […] Henry seguro estaba vinculado al gobierno de mi país” / “The expensive shirt that he was wearing in the morning; the gold card that I found in his wallet […] Henry was surely linked to my country’s government”.

As a literature geek, what I find most interesting about the novel though is its self-reflexivity: it’s about writing, what makes someone a writer, what makes someone a successful writer. Is it enough that Henry believes himself to be writer? It’s fun to play detective, working out which works Henry’s writing plagiarises, and spot the different authors who pop up around Madrid. At the same time, Chulapos Mambo makes serious points – though clothed in humour as always – about how the current Venezuelan government uses literature.

“Ahora en el país se lee mucho y se nos valora a los autores nacionales, a los que interpretamos de verdad el poder popular y el sentir profundo de las verdaderas raíces…” / “Nowadays in our country people read a lot and value us national authors, we who interpret the truth of the popular power and the deep meaning of the real roots…”

Whether you’re particularly interested in literature and its importance in today’s Venezuela, or you just want a good laugh, you must read Chulapos Mambo.

Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul

– ¿Qué quieres ser cuando seas grande?

– Francesa

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “French”.

Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul (Caracas, CEC: 2010; reprinted in the USA, Sudaquia: 2013) is Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles‘ first novel, for which he won the Arturo Uslar Pietri Prize, whose judges praised the work for capturing the realities of Venezuelan middle class urban youth, both in terms of their language and their sense of confusion and disillusionment with the country. In his forward to the novel, Antonio Ecarri Angola claimed that it is proof of what young Venezuelan authors are capable of despite their disadvantages in terms of national education provision.

If you like a story that tugs at your emotions, then Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul is the book for you. It’s the story of a bored, lonely and deeply sad 17-year-old caraqueña, Eugenia Blanc, who experiences a whole new world through her adventures with classmate Luis Tévez, an enigmatic outsider. Like so many young middle-class Venezuelans (see figures from El Universal), Eugenia yearns to leave the country, and hopes that if she can find her French grandfather, she will be able to get French citizenship. This is the catalyst for a road-trip across the Venezuelan interior (Caracas-Barinas-Altamira de Caceres-Mérida), which brings the two shy teenagers together, while at the same time, like Y Tu Mamá También, reveals the realities of the country – poverty, violence, corruption, and lack of infrastructure – through the car window.

Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles receiving the Arturo Uslar Pietri Prize

The story takes its name from the Johnnie Walker whisky which appears as a status symbol in the homes of supposed socialists: “Nada de andar tomando charichari ni whisky barato. En esta casa se bebe Etiqueta Azul” [None of this going around drinking charichari or cheap whisky. In this house we drink Blue Label]. The bilingual title is also a hint to border crossing nature of the novel: while Eugenia and Luis drive across the country (it’s no surprise that Sánchez Rugeles is a big fan of Kerouac’s On The Road), the novel blends languages, time periods (flashing forward and back between events) and different media.

A particularly striking feature of Blue Label is the incorporation of popular culture; references to TV, films, and above all music frame, underscore and foreshadow the events narrated. The road-trip has a constant soundtrack, consisting primarily of Bob Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, and Sánchez Rugeles skilfully weaves together the plot with the lyrics. Luis is the ‘little boy lost [who] takes himself so seriously’ while Eugenia is the Mona Lisa with the highway blues. If you’re not yet familiar with Visions of Johanna, listen to it before reading Blue Label, as the whole story is encapsulated in that song.

Jean Franco wrote in 2002 that in an age when all other certainties – nationality, political ideologies, religion – have become confused, blurred or lost, it is music that connects us to other people through time and space. Through the novel, it becomes clear that the ‘homeland’ no longer provides a solid base for identity, that the pure ideals of socialism have failed, that Eugenia and Luis are completely lost and ‘finding yourself’ is just what happens in bad fiction. Within all that, their link to music, and to each other, is the only thing that seems real.

While the novel offers a fascinating insight into the attitudes of middle-class youth to contemporary Venezuelan society, it is above all an incredibly engaging portrait of two tragic characters. You can’t help but feel for them and get swept up in their lives and their journey. I couldn’t put it down.

Reviews/opinion pieces:

Caracas, la horrible – Ricardo Blanco, El Nacional: Papel Literario, pp.6-7.

Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul: Young Venezuela’s Desperate Cry for Attention – Montague Kobbe

El infierno es la memoria – Alfonso Molina

Ante Blue Label – Robert Lovera de Sola