On Contemporary Venezuelan literature

In order to give you a bird's-eye view of contemporary Venezuelan literature, I believe it is my duty right at the start to make it clear what I mean by "literature" and by "contemporary" in this context.

First of all, due to the richness and the complexity of the letters in our alphabet, I must necessarily confine my remarks almost exclusively to genres of poetry and fiction, which does not by any means imply that in Venezuela, for example, there are no writers of drama or producing plays and publishing them in book form. Secondly, the "contemporary" used in my title refers roughly to a period that encompasses the last thirty years, which again does not mean that what was written in our country during the first half or so of this century is not worth mentioning.

Now, you may ask me why I have chosen to focus my attention on the last thirty years and the answer to this question is not difficult to find. Thinking about a significant day that could serve as a point of convergence, it suddenly dawned on me that 1968 was precisely that date, because it was in that year that Monte Avila Editores was founded thanks to the initiative of the President of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura y Bellas Artes, former Ambassador in Washington DC, Simón Alberto Consalvi, backed enthusiastically by a large number of intellectuals and writers. Monte Avila opened its doors not only to the well-known Venezuelan poets, narrators, playwrights and essayists, those men and women born approximately between 1913 and 1925, but also welcomed Venezuela's younger generation of writers, i.e. those individuals born in the thirties that had spent their youth suffering the cruel and hard political situation of our country under the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez (I am referring to almost a decade of terror, from 1952 to 1958). The creation of Monte Avila in the restored democracy is undoubtedly one of the best things that had happened in our cultural world. Venezuela is a country of poets and narrators and the re-establishment of democracy (which means freedom of speech for the creative writer) fostered a production of fine literature that Monte Avila was more than eager to publish.

Looking through Monte Avila's complete catalogue allows one to bring to the attention of the curious the works of poets of the older generation such as Vicente Gerbasi , Juan Liscano and Juan Sánchez Peláez. Vicente Gerbasi (b. 1913) is the author of over a dozen collections of poetry. His voice, inspired by German Romanticism and by certain surrealism, talks about love and death with a depth of feeling that perhaps no other Venezuelan has reached. His most famous single poem, "Mi padre el inmigrante," is one of the most moving elegies ever written in the Spanish language. In 1986, Biblioteca Ayacucho published the "Obra Poética" of this great Neo-Romantic bard.

Juan Liscano (b. 1915), is a man with a complex, many sided and controversial personality, a prolific poet and very often a deep and stimulating essayist and writer of newspaper articles. In 1968, our annus mirabilis, Monte Avila published his anthology, "Nombrar Contra el Tiempo", an ample selection of his first six books of poetry. It is almost impossible to label Liscano's mercurial, polyphonic, almost dramatic poetry, which is about to be published in its entirety by Biblioteca Ayacucho. His essays, "Epiritualidad y Literatura" and "Los Mitos de la Sexualidad", in particular, abound in deep insights about modern man's plight in a world deprived of true religious values.

Ana Enriqueta Terán (b. 1918) Ana Enriqueta Terán is arguably Venezuela's finest poet. Celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, she is almost unknown among anglophones. Until now only a handful of her poems have been translated into English, giving at best a diluted impression of a uniquely intense imagination (More).

José Ramón Medina (b. 1921), founder and director of Biblioteca Ayacucho, whose anthology "Ser Verdadero", appears on Monte Avila's back list, is the author of over fifteen books of poetry and an excellent critic and historian of our literature. His poems, from "La Edad de la Esperanza" (1947) to "Sobre la Tierra Yerma" (1971) and "Certezas y Presagios" (1984) speak, as Fernando Paz Castillo expressed it, about "small things that are in the nearness of God, of death and of his profound philosophical preoccupation." José Ramón Medina is also the author of an important history book, "50 Anos de Literatura Venezolana", published by Monte Avila in 1969, which he reviews and brings up to date every ten years.

Juan Sánchez Peláez (b. 1915) is perhaps the purest of all Venezuelan poets. I use the adjective "pure" here, however, not in the sense in which it was employed in France in the twenties by the critic Henry Bremond or the poet Paul Valery when they spoke about poesie pure. Not at all. Juan Sánchez Peláez's purity derives from his surrealist conception of poetry and of the act of creation. He is pure in the sense that he is entirely and exclusively devoted to the writing of poetry, to the exploration of unknown territories of the soul as well as of the body and to listening to the dictates of the unconscious. His "Poesía 1951-1981" (Monte Avila, 1984) includes all of the poems written by this visionary and soothsayer. A few months ago, this prophet of the cryptic word surprised his readers with a beautifully printed plaquette: "Aire Sobre el Aire", published by Tierra de Gracia Editores, the most recent cultural undertaking of our indefatigable Simón Alberto Consalvi, assisted by the poet Enrique Hernández D'Jesus.

We must turn now to a younger generation of poets, that is to say, those born roughly between 1930 and 1950. But before we do so, I think it is absolutely necessary to pause in order to mention a curious and important figure of our letters whose centenary is being commemorated this year. I am referring to Jose Antonio Ramos Sucre, a sullen and surly individual, a tragic man who committed suicide in Switzerland in 1930, a few days after his fortieth birthday. Ramos Sucre developed in our country, bringing to its perfection, the prose poem and cultivated what T. S. Eliot called, in a famous essay, a poetic of impersonality. Indeed, Ramos Sucre, with the purpose of erasing himself from creations, recurred constantly to the use of masked speakers (much as Robert Browning had done in Victorian England) and, in order to avoid any reference to the dreadful political and social situation of our country (the times of the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez: 1908-1935), alluded in almost every poem to different periods of European literature and history, with a market predilection for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, viewed of course through the distorting lens of a whimsical and somewhat belated Pre-Raphaelite. Like all true poets, Ramos Sucre is unique and inimitable. Nevertheless, in the late fifties he was rediscovered and much admired by some if not all of the poets of my generation, among whom one can mention at random: Francisco Perez Perdomo, Juan Calzadilla, Guillermo Sucre and Eugenio Montejo. What these and other poets so different from Ramos Sucre found and admired in him was, I am inclined to think, Ramos Sucre's absorbing and total preoccupation with the craft of poetry, his brilliant athough erratic historical erudition and his insistence on reading so many poets of the past in their original language, a series of traits that definitely points to him as the only forerunner of Jorge Luis Borges in our country.

Rafael Cadenas (b. 1930) was a very precocious author. His first book, "Cantos lniciales", came out in 1946, when the poet had just turned sixteen. In his "Panorama de la Literatura Venezolana Actual" (1973), Juan Liscano has said that in this first work written by a boy destined as no other to write poetry, the expression of feelings by means of a sober and tactful writing isr surprising, coming from an adolescent. Cadena's style in that book, impossible to find today, was influenced by his reading of Rabindranath Tagore, the Spanish Juan Ramon Jimenez and the Argentine Francisco Luis Bernardez, as Salvador Garmendia pointed out in his foreword. And behind that youthful writing we are able to perceive, as Liscano suggests, a lucid and alert sensibility determined not to be dominated by words but, on the contrary, to put them under control. Liscano has also pointed out that from that early book on, Cadenas has devoted his writing life not to the pursuit of success, but to trying to answer deep questions about man's condition with the hope of reaching some sort of spiritual liberation; an illumination. I have paraphrased Liscano's words because I can think of no better way of defining the trajectory of a poet that has made no concessions to passing fashions and who has written about man's failures more intensely than anyone.

Rafael Cadenas has published the following books: "Los Cuadernos del Destierro" (1960), prose poems where one can find the influence of Rimbaud and Ramos Sucre, "Faisas Maniobras" (1966), "Memorial" and "lntemperie" (1977) and "Amante" (1983), in which it is pointless to try to find concrete, specific influences because their author, during the six years which elapsed between "Los Cuadernos del Destierro" and "Falsas Maniobras", was able to assimilate and integrate his vast readings and to transmute them into the very flesh and bones of his poetic quest, a quest which is always on the verge of leading Cadenas to the proverbial silence of the mystics, as we may appreciate by listening to the following poem, entitled "Satori", which I should like to read to you in my own translation:

Let us sail. There are triremes, clouds of insects, a beach with a parrot near by. The treasure is not awaiting us. ft has to be gotten in this very instant.. A flash of lightning. Let us sail. Under whatever conjunction, bent upon the rail or asleep. Suddenly one day is the day! A putting about, a sharp sound, the lapping of sparkling wave throw us where it must be. Let us sail. Have we arrived or have we not? Smells, smells of hidden earth, fresh paint, marrow. One more thrust. Whoop, whoop Let us sail. Where is the bottle, the bottle with the message? There it goes, there! Must bring alongside now, make fast now. At any point (but there has to be a point). An invented shore. A big ear.

Francisco Perez Perdomo (b. 1930) is the author of four books of poetry all published by Monte Avila: "Huespedes Nocturnos" (1971), "Ceremonias" (1976), "Circulos de Sombras" (1980) and "Los Ritos Secretos" (1988). As the title of his latest book aptly suggests, Perez Perdomo's poetry tells us about the poet's efforts to tame his obsessions and to live with his ghosts, that is, with the terrific and at times obscene creations of his imagination. The multiple and overwhelming splitting of his imaginary egos invite the reader to participate in a series of secret and repetitive rituals that seem to come out from Gothic novels or a medieval wizard's book of spells. Perez Perdomo's dismal sense of humor has absolutely nothing in common with Juan Calzadilia's. Calzadilla (b. 1931), who is a respected graphic artist and art critic is the author of several books of poetry also of surrealist inspiration in which a delicate lyricism is mixed with a direct, bitter and sarcastic criticism of life in modern Caracas. Perez Perdomo is a poet of our countryside, Calzadilla is a city poet.

Ramon Palomares (b. 1935) has produced an important corpus of poetic writing which has been collected in "Poesfa", brought out in 1977 by Monte Avila and reproduced in a facsimilar edition in 1985. Palomares's poetry is our ancestral memory. In it we can read, couched in a singularly, coming from an adolescent. Cadena's style in that book, impossible to find today, was influenced by his reading of Rabindranath Tagore, the Spanish Juan Ramon Jimenez and the Argentine Francisco Luis Bernardez, as Salvador Garmendia pointed out in his foreword. And behind that youthful writing we are able to perceive, as Liscano suggests, a lucid and alert sensibility determined not to be dominated by words but, on the contrary, to get them under control. Liscano has also pointed out that from that early book on, Cadenas has devoted his writing life not to the pursuit of success, but to trying to answer deep questions about man's condition with the hope of reaching some sort of spiritual liberation, an illumination. I have paraphrased Liscano's words because I can think of no better way of defining the trajectory of a poet that has made no concessions to passing fashions and who has written about man's failures more intensely than anyone.

About Eugenio Montejo (b. 1938), author of several books of poetry among which one must mention "Algunas Palabras" (1976), "Terredad" (1978), "Tropico Absoluto" (1982) and "Alfabeto del Mundo" (1987). I have written, in an essay included in my book, "Entre el Silencio y la Palabra", that his a cosmic poetry moves in rhythm with the motions of the earth and the other planets, a poetry nostalgic of the terrestrial aspects of the world, a poetry about birds, rivers and trees.

A poet close to the soil, to his native soil, rather than to the earth, is Luis Alberto Crespo (b. 1941), author of the "Costumbre de Sequia" (1977), "Resolana" (1980) and "Entreabierto" (1984), all of them published by Monte Avila; "Senores de la Distancia" (1988), brought out by Editorial Mandoria (an interesting project of Juan Liscano) and "Mediodia o Nunca" (1989), published by Tierra de Gracia Editores. Crespo is a poet embarked on an ontological search that has made him revisit, in his writing, the arid and barren landscape of his childhood and the haunted and haunting home of his elders, a house full of ghosts and lizards through which the wind blows bringing in sand and more sand. Crespo's language is as dry as that sand and as cutting as that wind; and his syntax and vocabulary, in which it is possible to trace the influence of the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, reflect perfectly well the anguished and syncopated rhythms of the poet's search.

Hanni Ossott (b. 1946) has written several books of poetry. She writes as she lives, in close contact with the mysteries of existence and always feeling what George Bataille called the experience of the limits. In 1982 Monte Avila brought out her "Espacios de Ausencia y de Luz"; and in 1986 Mandoria published "El Reino Donde la Noche se Abre", where this excellent translator of D. H. Lawrence and Rilke invites us to explore with her the nocturnal world of the poem captured in the very moment of its creation. Recently Tierra de Gracia Editores has brought out a lovely book of poems by Ossott: "Cielo tu Arco Grande".

Tierra de Gracia Editores has also recently brought out "Mi Sagrada Familia", the second edition of a charming book of poetry by Enrique Hernandez D'Jesus (b. 1947), one of the key books of this poet who was first published by Monte Avila in 1968. Hernandez D'Jesus has made of his own family and of his Andean childhood and adolescence, a fable in which real and invented facts intermingle in a moving and fanciful manner.

It would be unjust, critically speaking, not to mention here the appearance in our literary world of a young poet, Rafael Arraiz Lucca (b. 1959), who has already published two remarkable books: "Terrenos" (Editorial Mandoria, 1985) and "Almaeon" (1988) for which this brilliant writer and important figure of our cultural and publishing world was awarded the Fundarte Prize for Poetry in 1987.

Let us turn now to Venezuela's contribution to fiction. Here it is necessary to refer, even if only for a brief moment, to certain figures of the first half of this century who are the solid ground upon which the evolution of our novel stands. We begin with an internationally known writer: Romulo Gallegos (1884-1969) who published, during a long life devoted to teaching, writing and participating in the political life of our country, some eight novels, of which I should mention: "Dona Barbara" (1929), "Cantaclaro" (1943) and "Canaima" (1935). Romulo Gallegos, as some of you have undoubtedly heard, is Venezuela's most popular and most beloved novelist. He set out to explore and define our national identity and, following realist and naturalist techniques, created a vast and appealing fictional world which was a true mirror of our country torn between the forces of civilization and barbarism. If, from the point of view of narrative techniques, Gallego's work may be considered a thing of the past, from the point of view of our permanent search for our origins and our identity, Gallegos' novels and short stories are works to which we must always go back as one always turns to basic books and "Dona Barbara" today more than ever continues to be, in the words of our greatest essayist, Mariano Picon Salas, a "symbolic key" that allows us to glimpse at the cryptic beyond which is found its hidden messages when we turn our attention to it.

It is absolutely necessary to allude in this context also to the work of Teresa de la Parra , whose centenary is being celebrated this year and whose two novels, "Higenia" (1924) and "Memorias de Mama Blanca" (1929) are to be found, together with Gallegos', in Monte Avila's Coleccion El Dorado. "Higenia", as I said in my introduction to that long and fascinating novel over a decade ago, has not lost a bit of its interest since it tells the sad story of a young upper class woman who is sacrificed and betrayed by the stern patriarchal society in which she lives. A particularly intelligent and cultivated woman, Teresa de la Parra would have written more and deeper novels about the feminine condition had she not prematurely died in 1936, victim of tuberculosis.

Another female writer published also in Coleccion El Dorado is Antonia Palacios , whose charming and poetic novel, "Ana Isabel, una Nina Decente" (1949) is obligatory reading for those whose want to understand the subtle changes that were taking place in the Venezuela of the forties seen through the eyes of a woman who knows how to tell stories without forgetting the intimate, mysterious and lyrical elements that have to be present in all fiction worthy of its name. Biblioteca Ayacucho is about to bring out the works of this fine writer.

It is imperative, when talking about Venezuelan fiction of the sixties, to refer to another admired and influential writer. I am talking about Guillermo Meneses (1911-1978).

Meneses wrote five novels, several short stories and many essays and newspaper articles, but his masterwork, the work that has made a deep and lasting impression on my generation is his "El Falso Cuaderno de Narciso Espejo" (1 952), included in Monte Avila's "Cinco Novelas" (1972) and in Biblioteca Ayacucho's anthology "Espejos y Disfraces" (1981). The Spanish title of Meneses's masterwork is somewhat difficult to translate into English. If we were forced to do so, we would also be obliged to explain to the English-speaking reader that Narciso is a very common man's name in our language, meaning of course Narcissus, and that Espejo, which as many of you know means "mirror" or "looking glass", is also a widely used last name in all Spanish-speaking countries. Should we wish to translate Meneses's title literally, we would have to write "The False Notebook of Narcissus' Mirror" or "Narcissus Mirror's False Notebook". It sounds terribly odd in English. No publisher in his right mind, I am sure, would accept that as a title for a novel. It just simply would not sell. But, let us forget about these problems of translation and let us try to say something about this extraordinary and stimulating novel. "El Falso Cuaderno de Narciso Espejo", as I wrote in a brief essay that appeared in the Mexican magazine Vuelta a few months after Guillermo Meneses's death, is perhaps the first book in the evolution of our novel where we as readers are confronted with the problems of reading fiction. "El Falso Cuaderno de Narciso Espejo" invites us to participate in subtle narrative games as it is a work in which narrated fiction and referential reality interfere with one another constantly. Each work of art is inimitable. It would be silly or absurd to try to reproduce in a new work of fiction the gallery of mirrors of Meneses' novel. Meneses' influence - and I know of no narrator of my generation that does not admire and respect him - is far more subtle than anything we could say about it. Meneses, perhaps like Ramos Sucre in the field of poetry, has made us conscious of what Percy Lubbock, in a classic study of 1921 , called "the craft of fiction". After the publication of Meneses' "Falso Cuaderno" no Venezuelan writer could think of writing fiction, be it short or long, innocently.

Oswaldo Trejo (b. 1924) owes much to Antonia Palacios and to Guillermo Meneses. Monte Avila has published almost all of the books of this notable and difficult narrator who began his career with a nostalgic and delicately poetic narrative inspired by his Andean childhood and adolescence, "Tambien los Hombres son Ciudades" (Bogota, 1962; Monte Avila, 1973). He then went on to develop, with a dauntless perseverance, the most singular avant-garde narrative style in Venezuelan fiction, a mode of writing that begins in "Anden Lejano" (Monte Avila, 1968) in which the plot is told as if it were a musical composition, with recurring themes and variations, and has gone on through the years guided by two principles: to experiment linguistically, that is to say, to explore the possibilities of language, and never to repeat what he has done from one book to the next. "Textos de un Texto con Teresas" (Monte Avila, 1975) is full of linguistic games and audacities. There is no plot to it. One could even say there is no narrating ego. We are shown many egos that prattle endlessly and finish up exhausted, befuddled, confused... intoxicated with their own shamelessly idiotic and tragic chatter. Trejo's method of writing fiction consists in creating speech by means of destroying it, if I am allowed to put it this way. Trejo wants to put the very act of communication to test. And it seems that this tireless and stubborn experimentalism will go on for many years to come: "Metastasis del Verbo" has just come out published by Fundarte. In it Oswaldo Trejo offers the reader a longish narration from which he has eliminated all of the conjugated tenses of Spanish verbs, imposing upon himself the arduous task of narrating his story employing only the gerund and the past participle. Could one see the influence of Ramos Sucre in Trejo's experiments?

Salvador Garmendia (b. 1928) is another of Venezuela's most interesting narrators. Let us mention here some of his novels. "Los Pequenos Seres" (Sardio, 1959; Monte Avila, 1972), with which Garmendia starts an amazing decade of fiction writing destined to instill new life into our realist novel, tells the story of one long day in the life of a bureaucrat, Mateo Martan, an uprooted individual lost in the midst of a cruel and thoughtless city, who is not capable -in spite of all his efforts to that end- to reconstruct his own past in order to catch a glimpse at his own identity. "Los Habitantes" (1961; Monte Avila, 1968) tells the story of a middle-class family which little by little disintegrates and whose members instead of victims of each other become their own executioners. In 1963 Salvador Garmendia brought out what is his most accomplished novel, both from the point of view of narrative construction and style: "Dia de Ceniza" (Monte Avila, 1968), a somber and terrible novel, in which we are invited to watch the last days in the life of Miguel Antunez, a character -if this be possible- even more mediocre and alienated than Mateo Martan, who, in the midst of Carnaval festivities and drunken celebrations, goes from degradation to an inevitable suicide. A sordid life literally covered with ashes. "La Mala Vida" (1968; Monte Avila, 1982) brings brilliantly to a close this unsurpassable description of city life that definitely puts Salvador Garmendia on the list of Venezuela's classics in the field of fiction.

Adriano Gonzalez Leon (b. 1931) starts publishing in 1957 with a collection of short stories entitled "Las Hogueras mas Altas" with an introduction by Miguel Angel Asturias whose famous novel, "Hombres de Maiz", made a deep impression on many of our narrators. This first collection of short fiction introduced into the creative Venezuelan prose a highly personal combination of the magic realism of the Guatemalan author with certain important features of Andre Breton's poetic as well as of that of certain forerunners of surrealism like Lautreamont and Rimbaud. In 1963 Gonzalez Leon brings out "Asfalto Infierno", a longish story in which he describes masterfully the horror of a city gone mad and utterly brutal, bent frantically upon its own destruction. In 1967 this author publishes his second book of short stories, "Hombre que Daba Sed", which contains some excellent examples of the genre, such as "Madame Clotilde", a ghostly brief biography of a perfectly surrealist character, a fortune teller, a kind of mysterious and many-sided figure who permits the artist to get in touch with the deepest layers of his psyche. In 1968 Gonzalez Leon published his only novel to date, "Pais Portatil", for which he was awarded the prestigious Premio Biblioteca Breve sponsored by Spain's Seix Barral. "Pais Portatil" is a truly outstanding novel. By means of the constant juxtaposition of shots which evoke or describe different milieus and various characters who act in the narrative's present or move as haunting remembrances in the mind of the narrator, Gonzalez Leon offers us powerful and, at the same time, highly poetic images of rural Venezuela intermingled with the Caracas of the sixties, a city full of cars and pollution, similar to the one described by Garmendia, that has grown monstrously and threatens to devour its inhabitants. Through such a city Andres Barazarte, an urban guerrilla fighter, moves during a period of twenty four hours, since he must carry out a mission. Technically, "Pais Portatil" is fascinating and the Venezuela that it depicts becomes even more real, if I am allowed to say so, thanks to the capacity for writing poetic prose that Adriano Gonzalez Leon has displayed in every one of his books.

Jose Balza (b. 1939) has been writing and publishing fiction since 1965, the year in which "Marzo Anterior" appeared. This youthful novel, the first of its author's "narrative exercise", as Balza modestly insists on calling his books of fiction, is based on an early and fecund creative intuition he had in his early twenties -that of the Psychical multiplicity within each individual, a discovery, I suppose, made thorough the reading of Marcel Proust. A trained psychologist, Balza, like Oswaldo Trejo, is an experimentalist, but, unlike Trejo, his experiments have to do with how to present the psychology of his characters and, above all, how to construct his exercises. Monte Avila has published almost all of this author's books: the novels "Largo" (1968), "Setecientas Palmeras Plantadas en el Mismo Lugar" (1974 ), "D" (1977), and "Un Rostro Absolutamente" (1082) and "La Mujer de Espaldas" (1968), which are collections of short stories. Recently, the Mexican Fondo de Cultura Economica has published what to me is Balza's best novel to date, "Medianoche en video: 1/5".

1 should not like to put an end to this brief survey of our contemporary fiction without mentioning the names of two writers born both in 1941: Luis Brito Garcia, author of "Abrapalabra", a highly structured formal and linguistic experiment, full of humor and social criticism, and Eduardo Liendo, author of one of the best short novels of the last decade, "Los Platos del Diablo" (1985) and of the best-seller, "El Mago de la Cara de Vidrio" originally published in 1973.

Taken from the publication Arts and Literature, published by the Embassy of Venezuela, Washington DC. Reproduction for commercial purposes is prohibited.