A striking meditation on the power of affective marketing to infiltrate and manipulate the national and individual psyche delivered in a gripping, suspenseful narrative web, Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s Patria o Muerte, winner of last year’s Tusquets Prize, is among the many novels that are garnering praise among Spanish language readers but have not yet reached American readers. Offering an intimate glimpse into a climactic moment in Venezuela’s sociopolitical trajectory, it resonates eerily with the media’s current stronghold in American politics.
The novel’s intertwined narratives unravel between 2011 and 2013, amidst the secrecy and suspense surrounding Chávez’s cancer diagnosis, treatment in Cuba and eventual death, during a propaganda campaign that sustained his political grip in a country plagued by mass unemployment, a housing crisis, extreme media censorship, unprecedented violence and an astounding fifty-two deaths a day. Chávez’s physical absence through most of the novel paradoxically strengthens his cult of personality and his power over the Venezuelan citizenry as uncertainty about the future imbues the character’s lives with constant, palpable paranoia, insecurity, and fear of the menace of violence. After his diagnosis, catastrophic collapse appears imminent but its approach is excruciatingly slow.
The action centers on Miguel Sanabria, a melancholic retired oncologist suffering from insomnia, who lives in Caracas with his wife, Beatriz, a fervent antichavista, in a building he manages. He attributes his psychic unease to his advancing age until it dawns on him that its real source is Venezuela’s state of suspense—a symptom of the national psyche in the vacuum of information about Chávez health.
At various points throughout the novel, Miguel and his brother Antonio, a fervent Bolivarian, argue about the legitimacy of Chávez’s revolution—the viability of the transition from capitalism to socialism—as the country dissolves into poverty and violence. As Chávez undergoes chemotherapy in Cuba, Vladimir, Antonio’s son and one of the president’s trusted officials, fearing the president’s mounting paranoia, asks Sanabria to keep a cell phone with compromising recordings of the gravely ill Chávez from the operating table, entangling Sanabria, who had always willfully abstained from involvement in politics, in the president’s fiction of immortality.
Meanwhile, in a neighboring apartment, the financial turmoil wrought by Chávez’s housing policies and rampant inflation plays out: Fredy Lacuna, an unemployed journalist, his wife Tatiana and their nine-year-old son Rodrigo face the threat of eviction by the apartment’s owner, Andreína, who calls Miguel to report that they have ignored her repeated attempts to contact them. Sanabria finds Lacuna in his apartment on Wednesday at 11am dressed “as if it were 4:00 on Sunday afternoon” and tells him he must vacate the apartment because Andreína needs to move back in (because of the housing shortage, she too has nowhere else to go). Lacuna tells him he hasn’t had work in three months since the newspaper had been sold to a business that refused to publish news about insecurity or violence.
Some days later, as he’s trying to fall asleep, an idea occurs to Fredy: he will write a book. In among the Patria o Muerte’s most humorous and incisive scenes, he meets with a friend who works in publishing. She tells him the market is good for journalistic writing but he worries about putting himself in danger (indeed, Chávez implemented a series of legislations that debilitated the independent press and gave his state media unprecedented power). She tells him he can use a pseudonym and he rejects the idea. She offers him a gig as a ghost writer for Miss Venezuela and he doubts his ability to write convincingly on a subject he knows nothing about. “What I write is real, not fiction,” he says. “Well you’re mistaken,” she replies. “Everything is fiction, even reality,” foreshadowing the complete cession of verifiability to the manipulations of Chávez’s propaganda machine. Just as the conversation seems to have reached an impasse, an idea suddenly occurs to her: he should write about Chavez’s illness.
In the meantime, Andreína confides in Carolina, her old friend from high school, about her apartment troubles (both of them are what the narrator describes as “typical good Caracan girls”—a class distinction Andreína recognizes guiltily). Carolina puts her in touch with an official in Chavéz’s administration, who sends her to a poor neighborhood to meet three militant Bolivarian women who help her “invade” the apartment (part of Chávez’s campaign urging the poor to squat in supposedly empty apartments as a solution to the housing crisis). Along with a conflicted Andreína, the women, roughened in Venezuelan slums, mercilessly, even delightedly ransack the place. Tatiana comes home with Rodrigo unsuspectingly, confused by the smell of fried pig emanating from inside; she opens the door to find the imposters in the kitchen spattered with grease, her bedroom in disarray and urine in the hallway. She sends Rodrigo to stay with Miguel downstairs and returns to the apartment to vie for her space in a stand-off that metonymically reflects the polarization of the population into those loyal to and opposing Chávez and his simultaneous enfranchisement and use of the poor as an tool of his manipuation of the economy. As reported in a review published by the Harvard Institute of Politics, Chávez implemented a series of policies to empower the poor economically and politically. While extending rights and protection to women and indigenous people, his rewriting of the constitution also bolstered the presidential and military power, placating and securing the loyalty of the formerly disenfranchised while ensuring the duration of his univocal rule. In 2009, he extended his rule indefinitely by removing any limit on the number of terms a president could run for.
After a few days, Tatiana can no longer stand the squalor and, helpless to do more than sneer at Andreína, she packs her bags and seeks refuge in a friend’s apartment.
A curious wink to the role the internet plays in young people’s lives today, the purest escape from the sociopolitical turmoil develops in an online relationship between the novel’s two children. Seeking refuge from his family’s turmoil, Rodrigo meets a girl in a chat room. He goes by the pseudonym Vampiro (“Vampire”) and she by Mariposa (“Butterfly”) and they decide to be boyfriend and girlfriend. While Rodrigo finds solace from his father’s absence and his uprooting from his apartment, Mariposa, whose real name is Maria, creates a fictional reality to deal with the trauma of her mother’s death. She remembers her mother warning her not to trust anyone on her first day of preschool. Indeed, Chávez’s reign saw an unprecedented proliferation of violent crime—attributed among other factors to a lack of confidence in the justice system, police corruption and easy access to guns (another disturbing point of resonance with contemporary American politics)—with over a hundred thousand deaths during his ten years in power, and countless kidnappings and robberies, turning Caracas into a murder capital. Fearing for her daughter’s safety in the midst of shootings that sometimes left fifty casualties in one day, Maria’s mother pulls her out of school and confines her to their apartment, where television and the internet become her only access to the outside world. During a rare outing to the dentist, Maria’s mother is shot and killed. Maria runs home and proceeds as if nothing has changed—she watches the news as had been routine with her mother, makes food for herself, chats with Rodrigo, and manages to convince everyone that her mother is merely sick.
Maria and Rodrigo’s relationship attests to the potent genuineness of childhood: in a political climate where the omniscience of state power precludes any possibility of verifiable truth, Maria and Rodrigo find a world on the internet safer and more real than anything in their actual lives (a refuge put starkly to question by the FBI’s current reach into internet privacy). In among the novel’s most tender scenes, after the police put the pieces together about Maria’s mother’s death and pursue the girl, the two children decide to video chat for the first time: Maria dresses up in her mother’s clothes and they reveal their real names to one another, lifting the veil of fiction from the world they’ve created together, untouched by the violence and trauma of their real lives. After each shares their story, they decide to run away together. He takes the train to her and they pass their first night together in her bed, the only characters who remain unaware of the Vice President’s announcement of Chávez’s death and the subsequent paralysis that gripped the nation (“a tense, electric silence: an abyss full of metal, an unfinished lyric, a shout on the verge of bleeding”).
A particularly interesting detail in the novel is its attention to the power of language in creating the impenetrable fiction that sustained Chávez’s authority. In his Bolivarian Revolution, the first thing he revived from the socialism of the 1970s was “a language, a way of naming things. He revived Stalin and the Soviet Union, cited Mao Zedong, spoke of Gramsci and the organic intellectuals…the revolution was a hard drug, a sort of ideological stimulant, a way of returning to one’s youth.” It was the language that kept him in power even as his policies reduced the country to turmoil, his voice that created a myth of prosperity and progress as violence propagated and opposition was silenced. And the sicker he got, the more he disappeared from the eyes of the people (particularly during his internment in a hospital in Cuba for the entirety of the novel), the more inflated the fiction became. The media described him in relentlessly life-affirming terms: “The miracle of the multiplication of adjectives,” Tyszka calls it: “collosal…supreme, unique, immense, saintly…immortal, celestial, universal, galactic” The adjectives accumulate and the real man disappears, subsumed by the cult of personality, the religion of Chávez. As his body—the one thing he cannot control—betrays him, his physical appearance is replaced by a disembodied voice amplified by a univocal media machine, so that his invisible omniscience in Patria o Muerte becomes the novel Fredy does not (because he, extraneous to Chávez’s regime, cannot) complete.
Chávez’s despotic grip on power even as, with the progression of his illness, his public appearances diminished, and the resulting anxiety and turmoil that pervaded Venezuelan society in the years and months before his death serve both to prefigure the political and economic chaos that has since engulfed the country under his successor, Nicolás Maduro, and as a dire warning of the totalitarian regime a politics of fear can give rise to in any country. Chávez’s specter as embodied by an impenetrable, all-pervasive media campaign in this novel resounds disturbingly with Donald Trump’s rise as Republican candidate at the head of the polls. Like Chávez, Trump’s appeal is based not in reality but in the fiction of an inflated savior figure created to sow fear and preclude critical consideration of real issues facing the United States—a degree of blind fear that makes it possible for Trump’s claims, as impossible to fulfill as they are virulently racist, that he will deport eleven million people within two years and build a 1,900-mile wall, to elicit cheers from among a broad swath of the population. Garnering support by appealing to xenophobia and racism with hyperbolic, unsubstantiated, contradictory and blatantly false claims—generating a rhetoric of fear that he then feeds on—Trump and his campaign echo Chávez’s totalitarian politic and the power of the media to foster and perpetuate fictions as a means of political manipulation. More than just a salient meditation, the novel reads as a very actual warning: the daily shootings (and especially the connection between the soaring crime rate and access to guns), censorship, disenfranchisement of Chávez’s Venezuela, though differently-scaled, are by no means foreign to America or Europe.
Dana Khromov is a writer, translator and editor currently working on her PhD in Hispanic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
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