Piedra de mar

Ignoro lo que debe darse lugar en las páginas y lo que hay que dejar a un lado. Supongo que debe ser lo más importante de la vida. Pero entonces ¿qué es lo más importante en la vida?

I don’t know what should be in these pages and what should be left out. I suppose it should be the most important things in life. But then, what are the most important things in life? 

Reading Francisco Massiani‘s Piedra de mar (Monte Ávila: 1968) today, it is easy to miss its significance. We’ve become used to youth language, to stream-of-consciousness, to the bored and self-obsessed teenager as protagonist. However, on its release, Massiani’s debut novel caused a stir for its radical rupture with traditional, national narrative. It has since become a Venezuelan classic itself, often included in school reading lists and frequently cited as an influence on contemporary writers.

Piedra de mar is the story of Corcho, who is painfully shy, depressed and lonely, despite seemingly spending all of his time with friends. Corcho tells us of his struggles and his sadness, encapsulated in the love for Carolina which he is unable to express to her. Massiani’s brief novel is often compared to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), as there are multiple similarities between the two in terms of both protagonist and narrative technique. Corcho is individualist and self-absorbed; the novel takes us into his head and attempts to make us share his angst. Written when Massiani was just 24, it is a document of the youth language and culture of the 60s in Venezuela, but the emotions are those that every teenager supposedly goes through at some point. As the blurb for Piedra de mar advertises:.”La suya es una prosa […] que no tiene ningún respeto por las palabras” [His is a prose that has no respect for words]. Just as he cannot vocalise his feelings for Carolina, Corcho’s stream-of-consciousness prose suggests an inability to neatly verbalise his excessive emotions, as well as a rebellion against literary tradition.

In fact, Corcho is writing a novel throughout Piedra de mar, making the novel a self-reflexive exploration of the nature of writing.

“Creo que hace millones de años, la gente necesitaba contar algo. Quiero decir: el escritor cuando se ponía a escribir quería decir algo […] Pero llegó el día que al escritor le importó más la forma de contarlo que lo que podía o no contar y se puso con las jeringas, y tijeras, y a cambiar una palabrita para acá y otra más arriba, y blá blá blá, hasta que llegmaos a nuestro siglo y todo lo que se escribe es un asco”.

“I think that millions of years ago, people needed to say something. I mean: when the writer sat down to write he wanted to say something […] But the day came when the writer cared more about the form of the story than what he could or could not tell and he got the needles and scissors and changed a little word her and another up there and blah blah blah, until we arrive at our century and everything that’s written is revolting”.

Piedra de mar has become mythologised. Every writer seems to have a story about where they first read it or how it affected their lives. Even its inception has become a legend. One of Massiani’s favourite stories is about how when he met Simón Alberto Consalvi, who was just about to set up Monte Ávila, Consalvi asked him whether he had a ‘short, fresh, youthful’ text. He replied yes, of course, even though he had nothing of the sort. He then ran straight home to write Piedra de mar, a story he had not even considered before, and after a year and a half of frantic writing, a classic was born. 

Víctor Alarcón Wins 2012 Oswaldo Trejo Short Story Prize

You can read the full verdict here.

The Incident (El Incidente) by Ana García Julio

I translated this short story about the human effects of urban violence by Ana García Julio as part of Palabras Errantes’ Voices of the Venezuelan City project. Ana has kindly let me reproduce her original story and the translation here.

VERSIÓN EN CASTELLANO ABAJO.

The Incident

A man goes out into the street. He walks. Nobody knows what he is thinking about, which pleasures or sorrows, which illusions of grandeur or modest plans flicker inside him. Perhaps he isn’t thinking of anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps he is only feeling the simple happiness of existence, with its highs and lows. Perhaps he is heading somewhere thinking he knows where he is going and that fills him with enthusiasm.

The shot comes out of nowhere. It hits him in the temple. Deep.

The man lasts for one or two steps more and collapses. He is bleeding profusely. Without drama, however. It is a silent, slow cascade. Images, sensations, and will escape through the open wound.

Words and their threads.

Time seems to stand still at ground level, at the level of fallen humanity.

The man isn’t dead. He isn’t dying. Somehow he realises. But realising brings no relief. His reactions are disrupted. He gets up. He tries to start again. Staggering at first. He touches his temple and sees his fingers are stained with a dark silk. The vermilion replaces the pain. It could be everywhere too, lurking.

He smiles. The pain spreads through the nerves of his face, progressively but quickly, like a private sunrise.

His attempts to keep smiling end in a grimace.

By the time he reaches the corner, the warmth of the blood is mixed with that of tears.

He cleans his fingers on his trousers, as if they were only damp with sweat, and goes on. He struggles to keep his throbbing head up. His eyes struggle to focus. And as if he didn’t know how to do anything else, he smiles.

A man who does not sew enemies has reaped a shot, he says to himself, pushing the sorry smile to the corners of his mouth.

He tries his best to recall his last thought, his last heartbeat, things that nobody knew and that his whole body seemed to shout to him a few minutes before.

Some kind of joy, of treasure.

But instead, the shot keeps coming back to him, again and again. The sickness of a soul interrupted mid-swallow.

The man is stunned, so stunned that he doesn’t even realise he is.

His daze isn’t caused by resentment or sorrow.

His daze is pierced by concern about his aggressor. By terror at the gulf between two people revealed in the path of a bullet. By anxiety to know the who, how, where, and why of this shot.

Surprise. The precision of the shot. The sudden despair of finding himself lost in the middle of the city. Thrown off balance.

The man walks as well as he can. Although he stumbles a few times, he manages to fake a certain stability. He pretends that nothing has happened to him. And he fakes it well, as nobody asks him what happened to him, nobody offers him help. Nobody stops when they see him in that state, nobody looks at him. As if a bleeding man were the most normal thing in the world.

At one point his strength fails him and he gives up trying to hang on to his own name; so that, if someone called him, he wouldn’t turn around. Syllables and meanings mixed with his history leave him through the bullet hole, zigzagging in the ether with everything else. He needs the energy that he would usually use to cling to them to stop his legs from giving way.

He begins to sing, very softly, to see what is left inside him. And he discovers that he does not recognise, does not even understand, the music that comes out of his throat.

The sun bathes his face again. He is scared, but he can’t even realise that he is. His helplessness doesn’t seem to come from within him. He feels like the walls are breathing on him, out in the open.

And what if it had been unprovoked? And what if it had been deliberate?

There is no better or worse. It’s not something he chose, but something which chose him. A stone that keeps travelling though the air. Breaking an imaginary boundary between a person and that which surrounds him.

The man shudders: pushed to within a hair’s breadth of his animal state, as though he had no thought left, but still feeling. He only felt, cut off from his powers of reason. An incessant train of thought had always been his shield against hostility or his bridge towards affection. Disarmed, his flesh feels at the mercy of any random thing.

Now and then he lifts his hand and wipes the back of it against his cheek, trying to maintain composure. Judging by appearances, anyone who saw him would say that his arm ended in a razor blade and not five shaky fingers.

But nobody notices. Nobody comments.

A man walks bleeding down the street, in the middle of the day, his light gushing out of a hole in his head, caused by an unknown person for an unknown reason. Nobody looks. Nobody has seen anything. Light is camouflaged in light, the man fades away.

****************************

El Incidente

Un hombre sale a la calle. Camina. Nadie sabe en qué va pensando, qué contenturas o congojas, qué ilusiones de grandeza o modestos proyectos chispean en su interior. Quizás no piensa en nada del otro mundo. Quizás solo experimenta la dicha sencilla de existir, con sus bemoles. Quizás va a alguna parte creyendo saber adónde va y eso lo llena de entusiasmo.

La pedrada no se sabe de dónde viene. Le da en la sien. De lleno.

El hombre dura uno o dos pasos más y se desploma. Sangra en abundancia. Sin teatralidad, no obstante. Es una cascada silente, espaciosa. Por la herida abierta se le fugan las imágenes, las sensaciones, la voluntad.

Las palabras y sus hilos.

El tiempo no parece transcurrir a ras del suelo, a ras de la humanidad derribada.

El hombre no está muerto. No muere. De algún modo se da cuenta. Pero darse cuenta no lo alivia. Sus reacciones están trastocadas. Se incorpora. Intenta reanudarse. Primero, tambaleante. Se toca la sien y observa los dedos teñidos de una seda oscura. El rojo buriel sustituye el dolor. También podría estar en todas partes, agazapado.

Sonríe. El dolor se le riega por los nervios de la cara, progresiva pero rápidamente, como un amanecer privado.

Sus intentos por mantener la sonrisa desembocan en una mueca.

Al llegar a la esquina, la tibieza de la sangre se le confunde con la de las lágrimas. Se limpia los dedos en el pantalón, como si apenas estuvieran húmedos de sudor, y avanza. Le cuesta mantener la cabeza en alto, palpitante. Le cuesta enfocar la mirada. Y como si no supiera que otra cosa hacer, sonríe.

Un hombre que no siembra enemigos ha cosechado una pedrada, se dice, empujando la sonrisa lastimera hasta donde las comisuras se lo permiten.

Se afana en traer de vuelta su último pensamiento, su último latido, eso que nadie sabía y que a él le parecía gritar con todo el cuerpo, minutos atrás.

Alguna clase de gozo, de tesoro.

Pero en lugar de eso, le viene la pedrada, una y otra vez. Náusea del alma interrumpida en plena deglución.

Ese hombre está aturdido, tan aturdido que no alcanza a saberlo.

Y su aturdimiento no está hecho de rencor, ni de pena.

Su aturdimiento está cribado de inquietud por su agresor. De pavor por el abismo que una pedrada, en su trayectoria, puede revelar entre dos seres humanos. De angustia por no saber quién, cómo, de dónde, por qué esa pedrada.

La sorpresa. La exactitud del golpe. La repentina desesperación de sentirse extraviado en plena ciudad. Expatriado de su equilibrio.

El hombre marcha como puede. Aunque trastabilla algunas veces, logra fingir cierta estabilidad. Finge que no le ha pasado nada. Y lo finge muy bien, porque nadie le pregunta qué le sucedió, nadie le ofrece ayuda. Nadie se detiene al verlo pasar en ese estado, nadie lo mira. Como si un hombre sangrante fuera la cosa más normal del mundo.

En algún momento le fallan las fuerzas y deja de luchar por mantener asido su propio nombre; de modo que, si lo llamaran, no se volvería. Sílabas y sentido amasados con su historia se le van por la tronera, zigzagueando en el éter junto a lo demás. Necesita la energía con que suele aferrarse a ellas para que las piernas no le flaqueen.

Empieza a cantar, muy bajito, para ver qué le queda adentro. Y descubre que no reconoce, que ni siquiera comprende la música que sale de su garganta.

La aurora vuelve a bañarle por el rostro. Tiene miedo, pero tampoco alcanza a saberlo. La indefensión no emana de su interior. Se le antoja un aliento que exhalan los muros, el cielo abierto.

¿Y si hubiera sido gratuito? ¿Y si hubiera sido deliberado?

No hay mejor ni peor. Algo que no escogió, algo que lo escogió a él. Una piedra que sigue atravesando el aire. Quebrantando una frontera ilusoria entre el ser y lo que lo rodea.

El hombre se estremece: empujado en un tris a su reducto animal, diríase que ya no idea, sino que siente. Que solo siente, inhabilitados los resortes de su racionalidad. Un incesante tren de pensamiento solía ser su escudo contra la hostilidad o su puente hacia la simpatía. Desarmada, su carne se intuye a merced de cualquier sinsentido.

De vez en cuando alza la mano y rema sobre la mejilla con el dorso, tratando de mantener la compostura. A juzgar por los resultados, quien lo viera diría que su brazo termina en una hojilla y no en cinco dedos vacilantes.

Pero nadie se fija, nadie comenta.

Un hombre va sangrando por la calle, a pleno día, su luz escapando a borbotones por un agujero en su cabeza, que no se sabe por qué ni quién le hizo. Nadie mira. Nadie ha visto nada. La luz se camufla en la luz, desdibujándolo.

Many Moons (Tantas Lunas) by Arnoldo Rosas

It’s a great pleasure to share with you Tantas Lunas, a short story by Arnoldo Rosas (Porlamar, 1960), originally published in 1992 in a collection called Olvídate del tango (Forget the Tango), which will be republished this year. Arnoldo kindly sent me the story to translate and share on this site. Please find the original Spanish version below the English.

Many Moons

The living room is also the dining room and the kitchen. Only a cabinet separates it from the bedroom. The bathroom, though, is separate and roomy.

“It’s only five months” I tell Carmen. “We can do this!”

“Let’s hope it’s only five months”.

“They have to hand over the apartment then, have faith”.

Carmen is cooking. By her side, in the armchair, I listen to music and smoke.

“You shouldn’t smoke. The doctor said that it hurts the baby”.

“That’s true”.

I throw the butt through the garden door, it lands amongst the rosebushes.

“Marta will get annoyed. You know how she looks after her roses”.

“What a pain!”

“Well, my love, be patient. It’s her house, you have to respect it”.

We sleep. Carmen with her legs raised up. I dream that I’m sailing along a river to a cave. Stalactites and stalagmites flower all around. A dim light illuminates the grotto from high above. My boat stops despite the speed of the current. A terrifying roar rises from the riverbank. My hairs stand on end and I don’t know what to do. I want to get out of the boat and there are piranhas in the water.

I wake up.

Carmen, in the semi-darkness, is standing by the cabinet that separates us from the kitchen-living-dining room, alert, with a hand on her heart.

“What’s wrong?!” I ask as I go up to her.

“Ssh! The man upstairs just came in drunk. He’s fighting with his wife. Listen to the little girl crying”.

“Come on, let’s go to sleep”.

Back in bed, Carmen asks me to hug her.

“Let’s never fight in front of the children” she begs, stroking my hand.

Marta, the landlady, has come for the rent. While I write her a cheque, she glances around at things and chats to Carmen about how the pregnancy is going, telling her stories about her own pregnancies and suggesting herbal remedies for morning sickness.

She gives me a receipt and goes to look at her roses in the garden.

About the apartment, they’ve told me that they’re looking for somewhere to move to, not to worry, that they’ll give it back to me in the allotted time, and, hopefully, before, if they find anything suitable. Have faith. Scout’s honour, they swore.

Carmen bought a little onesie for the baby: it’s white and yellow.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?”

I smile, taking it to feel it. It’s soft.

“Yes, it’s nice” I say without more enthusiasm.

She seems sad.

“Aren’t you excited?” she asks me, pouting.

She washes it with lukewarm water and blue soap, then leaves it drying in the bath. When it’s dry, she puts it into a hermetically sealed plastic bag.

“Done”, she tells me. “Ready for the baby to wear it”.

We assign a space in the cabinet for the things we buy for the child.

“Arnoldo, look!”

Carmen is pointing to the shelf in the cabinet… Small mountains of dry, greeny-brown grains:

“Fuck, there are rats!”

We’ve put emerald green crystals all over the cabinet, the kitchen and the bathroom: rat poison.

Every day, when we get home, we check and they seem to be intact.

We’ve seen more little rat turds.

“I can’t live like this” Carmen moans. “And what about the baby? We can’t have it in this dump”.

“Calm down, dear, you’ll see, they’ll hand over the house in time”.

“And what if they don’t?”

“Have faith. These people are serious. They promised”.

A colleague gave us a cot. Her children had used it. It needs a new mattress and repainting.

We took it apart. So we didn’t lose them, screws and springs went into the chest where Carmen keeps her jewellery. We covered the floor of the room and the corridor to the garden with newspapers. With the patience of saints, we sanded down the lathed slats of the railings and the arabesques of the headboard.

We finished at 8pm, with dead arms, sweaty, and covered with paint specs and sawdust.

“We’ll paint it next week” I tell Carmen as I serve two Pepsis.

“Yes, let’s tidy up all this”.

“Leave it to me. You’ve already worked hard enough and it’s not very good for him”.

“Or her. We still don’t know”.

“He’s male”.

“I didn’t know you were psychic”.

I sweep the house and more rat turds appear. I hide them so Carmen doesn’t worry.

We keep the cot under our bed.

I wash. Carmen already has.

The stench forces us to step back when we open the door.

“Maybe a drain in the bathroom has broken?”

Everything is intact but the smell is so thick you can almost touch it.

Carmen stayed outside retching. The lady from upstairs has come down to help her, I think she gave her some water. Marta is also with her.

I open all the windows and try not to breathe.

I search everywhere. I take the lid off the cistern, rummage under the bed, under the dismantled cot, I look among the clothes and finally, behind the pack of bottle sterilisers that we bought a fortnight ago, there’s the grey, meagre, foul body of the rat.

“Oh, just a little rat! That’s nothing” our landlady says when I take it out to the rubbish bin in the street.

 I spray the air freshener that the lady from upstairs gave us all over the kitchen-living-dining room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the cabinet.

Carmen is crying.

“Fuck, Arnoldo, I can’t cope, let’s get out of her!”

Yes, of course, don’t worry, you’ll have the house before your wife gives birth. You have my word. It’s almost certain that we’ll move at the end of the month or the middle of the next. Stop the pressure! Don’t you trust us?

Marta pays us her monthly visit. She gives Carmen some bootees that she has sewn.

“They’re beautiful, thank you”.

“Do you know what it is yet?”

“Yes! A little boy”.

“Oh, that’s great! Now you can get blue baby clothes ready for him”.

“Best not. Doctors can get things wrong sometimes”.

“Yes, that’s true”.

Carmen is now fat and finds it extremely difficult to get to sleep.

“Arnoldo, are you asleep?”

She changes position every so often, pants and moans.

“Arnoldo, get me a glass of water”.

“Thanks”.

She gets up to go to the toilet and I take the chance to smoke.

“Enough with the smoking already, ok. Remember that it hurts the baby”.

She comes back, shuffling her slippers, supporting herself on the walls.

“Fuck!”

She takes a deep breath as she sits on the bed.

“You don’t love me anymore, do you?”

I throw the butt out of the window.

“Of course I love you, baby. How could I not love you?”

“So?”

“So what?” I ask sitting by her side and hugging her. She rests her head on my shoulder.

“Why don’t we do it? Don’t you fancy me anymore? I’m very fat, aren’t I?”

“You’re crazy. We don’t do it because of…” I stroke her stomach and kiss her cheek.

“Idiot. Of course you can still do it!”

“Aha”.

“And?”

“It’s like respect, fear, I don’t know”.

“Idiot”.

Now it’s her who hugs and caresses me.

“Ow, a kick! Can you feel it?”

“Yes, yes”, I touch something hard in her stomach, “is it painful?”

“A little. I’m thirsty and I need to pee. What a joke!”

“Go on, I’ll get you some water”.

I hear the tinkle of urine in the toilet.

“Don’t be afraid, ok?” she tells me sweetly.

We go to the bed together. I help her to lie down.

“My love, never leave me, even if I get like a whale”.

“Don’t worry, you’ll always be my favourite fatty”.

“Bastard”.

I look at displays in the shops on my way to the house. (The law protects me, ok). There are various things that attract me. (Yes, yes, ok, I gave you my word and I’ll keep it as soon as I can). But at the moment I have to contain myself, save money. (I still haven’t found a house or apartment that suits me, I assure you I will leave yours in the allotted time, but don’t pressure me). The birth is imminent and you don’t know if there’ll be a problem, if the baby will require special treatment when it’s born, if… (The law protects me, ok). A lawyer…

Tantas Lunas

La sala es el comedor y la cocina. Sólo un escaparate la separa de la habitación. El baño sí es independiente y amplio.

—Son apenas cinco meses —le digo a Carmen—. ¡Guapeemos!

—Ojalá sean sólo cinco meses.

—Nos tienen que entregar el apartamento entonces, ten confianza.

Carmen cocina. A su lado, en la butaca, oigo música y fumo.

—No deberías fumar. El doctor dijo que le hacía daño al bebé.

—Es verdad.

Tiro la colilla por la puerta del jardín, cae entre los rosales.

—La señora Marta se va a molestar, Arnoldo. Sabes cómo cuida sus rosas.

—Qué vaina.

 —Bueno, mi amor, ten paciencia, es su casa, hay que respetarla.

Dormimos. Carmen con las piernas en alto. Sueño que navego por un río hasta una cueva. Estalactitas y estalagmitas afloran por todas partes. Una luz tenue ilumina la gruta desde lo alto. Mi bote se para a pesar de la rapidez de la corriente. De la ribera surge un rugido aterrador. Se me erizan los pelos y no sé qué hacer. Quiero saltar del bote y hay pirañas en el agua.

Despierto.

Carmen, en la semipenumbra, está de pie al lado del escaparate que nos separa de la cocina-sala-comedor, alerta, con una mano sobre el corazón.

—¡¿Qué pasa?! —inquiero mientras me le aproximo.

—¡Sh! El señor de arriba llegó borracho. Está peleando con la esposa. Oye cómo llora la niña.

—Ven, vamos a dormir.

De vuelta en la cama, Carmen me pide que la abrace.

—Nunca peleemos delante de los niños  —suplica acariciándome la mano.

La señora Marta ha venido a cobrarnos la mensualidad. Mientras le hago el cheque, observa las cosas disimuladamente y conversa con Carmen sobre la marcha del embarazo, le cuenta anécdotas de los suyos y le sugiere infusiones para los malestares.

Me entrega el recibo y sale a mirar sus rosas en el jardín.

Del apartamento me han dicho que están buscando dónde mudarse, que no me preocupe, que me lo devuelven en el plazo previsto y, a lo mejor, antes, si consiguen algo conveniente. Que tenga confianza. Palabra de Boy Scout, juraron.

Carmen compró un monito para el bebé: es blanco y amarillo.

—¿Verdad que es precioso?

Sonrío, tomándolo para palparlo. Es suave.

—Sí, es bonito — respondo sin mayor entusiasmo.

Ella se nota triste.

—¿No te ilusiona? —me pregunta haciendo pucheros.

Lo lava con agua tibia y jabón azul. Lo deja secando en el baño. Cuando está seco lo mete en una bolsa plástica de cierre hermético.

—Ya está — me dice—-. Listo para que se lo ponga.

Asignamos un lugar en el escaparate para guardar las cosas que vayamos comprando para el niño.

—¡Arnoldo, mira!

Carmen señala en el entrepaño del escaparate… Unos montoncitos de granos marrón-verdoso, secos:

—¡Coño, hay ratones!

Por todos los rincones del escaparate, la cocina y el baño hemos puesto cristales verde esmeralda: raticida.

Diariamente, al llegar, revisamos y nos parecen intactos.

Hemos visto más mojoncitos de ratón.

—No puedo vivir así – se queja Carmen —. ¿Y el bebé? No lo podemos tener en esta ratonera.

— Tranquila, amor, ya vas a ver, nos van a entregar la casa a tiempo.

 —¿Y si no?

 —Ten confianza. Esa gente es seria. Lo prometieron.

Una compañera de trabajo nos regaló una cuna. La habían usado sus hijos. Necesita otro colchón y pintura.

            La desarmamos. Para no perderlos, tornillos y resortes fueron al cofre donde Carmen guarda sus joyas. Cubrimos el suelo de la sala y del corredor del jardín con periódicos. Con santa paciencia sabatina nos fajamos a lijar los palitos torneados de las barandas y los arabescos de la cabecera.

            Con el brazo muerto, sudorosos, cubiertos de polvillo de pintura y aserrín, terminamos a las ocho de la noche.

—La pintamos la semana que viene – le digo a Carmen mientras sirvo dos Pepsi-Colas.

—Sí, vamos a recoger esto.

 —Déjame a mí. Descansa. Ya has trabajado mucho y eso no es muy bueno para él.

—O ella. Todavía no sabemos.

—Es varón.

—No sabía que fueras adivino.

Barro la casa y más mojones de ratón aparecen. Disimulo para no alarmar a Carmen.

La cuna la guardamos desarmada bajo nuestra cama.

Me baño. Ya Carmen lo hizo.

El hedor nos obliga a retroceder al abrir la puerta.

—¿Se habrá roto una cloaca en el baño?

Todo está intacto, pero la hediondez es tan densa que casi se toca.

Carmen quedó afuera con arcadas de vómitos. La señora de arriba ha bajado a ayudarla, creo que le dio agua. La señora Marta también está con ella.

Abro todas las ventanas y contengo la respiración.

Reviso por todas partes. Saco las ollas del gabinete, remuevo bajo la cama, debajo  de la cuna desarmada, busco entre la ropa y, por fin, tras la caja del esterilizador de teteros que compramos la última quincena, el cuerpo gris, magro, pestilente del ratón.

—¡Ah, sólo un ratoncito! No pasa nada —dice nuestra casera cuando me ve llevándolo al tobo de basura en la calle.

Rocío el desodorante ambiental que nos dio la señora de arriba por toda la sala-cocina-comedor, en el cuarto, en el baño, en el escaparate.

Carmen llora.

—¡Coño, Arnoldo, no aguanto, vámonos de aquí!

Sí, vale, seguro, no te preocupes, vas a tener la casa antes de que tu señora dé a luz. Palabra. Es casi seguro que nos mudemos o a fin de mes o a mediados del otro. ¡Deja la presión!  ¿Acaso no confías en nosotros?

La señora Marta nos hace su visita mensual. Le da a Carmen unos escarpines que ha tejido.

—Son bellos, señora, gracias.

—Y, ¿ya sabes qué es?

—¡Sí! Un varoncito.

—¡Huy, que bien! Ya puedes preparar una canastilla azul.

—Mejor no. Los médicos a veces se equivocan.

—Sí, es cierto.

Carmen ya está gorda y le cuesta un mundo dormir.

—Arnoldo, ¿duermes?

Cambia de posición a cada rato, respira jadeante y se queja.

—Arnoldo, tráeme un vasito de agua.

—Gracias

Se levanta para ir al baño y yo aprovecho para fumar.

—Ya estás con el cigarrillo, vale. Acuérdate que le hace mal al bebé.

Regresa arrastrando las pantuflas, apoyándose en las paredes.

—¡Coño!

Aspira profundo al sentarse en la cama.

—¿Ya no me quieres, verdad?

Boto la colilla por la ventana.

—Claro que te quiero, negrita. ¿Cómo no te voy a querer?

—Y, ¿entonces?

—Entonces qué —pregunto sentándome a su lado y abrazándola. Apoya su cabeza en mi hombro.

—¿Por qué no lo hacemos? ¿Ya no te gusto? Estoy muy gorda, ¿verdad?

—Tonta. No lo hacemos por… — le acaricio el vientre y la beso en la mejilla.

—Gafo. ¡Sí se puede hacer!

—Ajá.

—¿Y?

—Es como un respeto, miedo, qué sé yo.

—Gafo.

Es ella ahora quien me abraza y acaricia.

—¡Ay, una patadita! ¿Sientes?

—Sí, sí — toco algo duro en su vientre —.  ¿Es doloroso?

—Un poquito. Tengo sed y ganas de orinar. ¡Qué broma!

—Ve, yo traigo el agua.

Oigo le repiqueteo de la orina en la taza del váter.

—No tengas miedo, ¿sí?  —me dice con dulzura.

Vamos juntos a la cama. La ayudo a acostarse.

—Amor, nunca me dejes, aunque me ponga como una ballena.

—Tranquila. Serás la gorda de mi vida.

— Maluco.

Veo las exhibiciones de las tiendas cuando camino hacia la casa. (La ley me protege, vale). Hay varias cositas que me atraen. (Sí, sí, okey, te di la palabra y la voy a cumplir, tan pronto pueda). Pero en estos momentos debo contenerme, ser ahorrativo. (Aún no hallo casa o apartamento que me convenga, te aseguro que te desocupo el tuyo en el plazo fijado, pero no me presiones). El parto está próximo y uno no sabe si hay algún inconveniente, si el bebé al nacer requiera tratamiento especial, si… (La ley me protege, vale). Un abogado…

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