– ¿Qué quieres ser cuando seas grande?
“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.
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.
Caracas, la horrible – Ricardo Blanco, El Nacional: Papel Literario, pp.6-7.
El infierno es la memoria – Alfonso Molina
Ante Blue Label – Robert Lovera de Sola