Chulapos Mambo



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