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.
Review by J. L. Maldonado from Librería Sónica