Adrian Nathan West reviews Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela

Edited by Montague Kobbé, Katie Brown, and Tim Girven (Ragpicker Press, 2016)

For most readers, the literature of Venezuela remains wholly unknown. Asked to name an author from that country, even those well versed in Márquez, Bolaño, Onetti, or Mistral may struggle to come up with another beyond Rómulo Gallegos or, just maybe, the grammarian and humanist Andrés Bello.

The country’s turbulent political history has meant that many who might have contributed more directly to its cultural history, like Nobel laureate Baruj Benacerraf or Proust’s beloved, the composer Reynaldo Hahn, have honed their skills in exile. If there is any truth to the cliché that times of crisis are beneficial to art, the steady decline of the country’s security and standard of living since the oil crises of the seventies, culminating in the turbulence of life under Chávez and Maduro, would suffice to provoke a minor renaissance. But supposing such a renaissance had taken place, how many would know?

The question is an important one at a time in which the imperative to inclusivity, or rather to the appearance of inclusivity, has led less to a serious engagement with the literary traditions of “peripheral” countries than to a tokenism that perpetuates, beneath the trappings of multiculturalism, the patterns of privilege and deprivation it alleges to address. As Adolph Reed Jr. notes in a perceptive essay on identity politics, the difference between a culture that overtly embraces entitlement and an inclusive one that emphasizes minority status over broader ideas of justice may be merely cosmetic:

Within [the neoliberal] moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.

To the extent that it has reinforced the idea of a unitary Latin American identity, the multicultural approach has, in many ways, allowed advantages already extant in authors’ home cultures to be carried over into the international sphere. It is unsurprising, then, that many of the famous names associated with the Latin American boom, from Carlos Fuentes to José Donoso, came from influential and well-to-do families, often with significant ties overseas, or that a bare few women, and virtually no writers of African descent, have achieved the canonical status their compatriots enjoy. Likewise, a small number of countries have overshadowed their neighbors, with Venezuela receiving surprisingly short shrift. For this reason, Crude Words, edited by Montague Kobbé, Katie Brown, and Tim Girven, is a particularly welcome corrective.

Crude Words is a labor of love, and has a DIY feel, warts and all, that only adds to its charm. The occasional typos and mistranslations (sacrificar, in the context of putting an animal to sleep, ought not be rendered as sacrifice in English) as well as one or two incomprehensible phrases (what on earth might “that entailed an altogether different anathema” mean?) speak less to clumsiness or lack of professionalism than to the inevitable difficulties of putting together a project this ambitious with volunteer editors and translators for a small, independent press.

The editors’ note that opens the volume describes the thirty texts it contains as “hopelessly insufficient.” In a sense, that is correct: after perusing its five hundred pages, one has the feeling that much has been left out, and that the authors anthologized have a great deal more to offer. And yet, by creating that impression, the book must be thought a success.

The writing in Crude Words is almost uniformly good, and the translations range from competent to exceptional. Particularly admirable is the translators’ success at achieving a colloquial, even slangy tone without lapsing into corniness. Better still, one never feels that the colloquialisms have been forced; the language manages to remain natural and universal without being bland.

Crude Words is divided into five chapters with several stories each, dealing with sex, death, travel, Caracas, and the state of the country. An early treasure is “The Princess of Escurufiní” by Ednodio Quintero. A noted Japanologist and translator of Tanizaki and Dazai into Spanish, Quintero combines a refined sensibility for natural detail and sardonic humor in his tale of a young man attracted to his beautiful cousin and his tormented and very funny attempts to avoid consummating his longings.

In “Christina Cries at Three O’Clock,” Miguel Gomes portrays a man in a doomed marriage, in a dead-end job, with a dying dog, trying to sidestep the consequences of desperation. More than once, I laughed aloud at the narrator’s despondency as his wife showers him with insults; but the story also has moments of tenderness, as when the protagonist faces the choice of whether to put down his pet:

Of course, it’s not that easy; as soon as I contemplate the idea of expediting his death, I start putting myself in his place, asking myself whether my kids will be wondering the same when the time comes when I, too, have lost control of my bodily functions and I’m deaf and blind and so old I can’t go on anymore, which is like being dead but without having taken your final breath.

The portrait of Venezuela, and particularly the capital, that emerges in these stories is not of raw poverty and destitution, but of a tenuous connection to wealth and dignity gutted by forces from without. There are cellphones, internet access, and mass media, but scant food, little money, no credit, and no development. Lawyers open pizza shops in desperation; university lecturers take up side jobs baking bread or selling lingerie by mail. The editors have stated their intention to disdain from political or ideological grandstanding; nonetheless, contemporary Venezuela eschews neutrality, and politics comes to the forefront in “The State of the Nation (And How It Got There),” the book’s final chapter. Maye Primera’s brutal “I Want my Son’s Bones” describes a mother’s quest to find her son, whether alive or dead, in the wake of a 1992 prison riot; rumors state that the guards had offered the prisoners liberty for a price, then shot in the head those unable to pay. In “Any Old S” by Carlos Sandoval, police break a young man’s leg during a raid on a group of neighbors talking to a journalist; lost in a procedural labyrinth, cursed as an enemy of the people by those charged with taking care of him, he finally meets a public defender who advises him, “If you say A, you have to stick with A. If they hit you, don’t say B or C, always A, A, A .  .  .  This is the voice of experience speaking, the judges are after contradictions.” In the end, the young man is lucky to be freed during his trial on recognizance, accused of only five of the seven charges he could have faced.

The book ends with “A Country Poles Apart,” in which Boris Muñoz, a fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism and opinion editor for The New York Times en Español, summarizes as thoroughly as one might in a brief essay the turmoil that brought what was once the most wealthy and developed country in Latin America to the current chaos of bread lines, blackouts, and street crime. Muñoz considers the country’s oil reserves, which sustained it through the conflicts that rocked the rest of Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s, less as a blessing than a curse, responsible for a fragile stability and consumer culture that “produced—perhaps too soon—a positive self-image of Venezuelan society as a garden of harmony, which in turn made its political system seem like an exemplary project, the democratic ideal of the region.”

The invoice would come—literally, in the form of foreign debt, depleted currency reserves, and a steady collapse in oil revenues—on February 28, 1983, with the devaluation of the bolivar. Price controls, debt restructuring, and further devaluations followed, accompanied by staggering levels of corruption that would set the stage for Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 1998. Muñoz shows Chávez to be vain and self-obsessed, though savvy enough to capitalize on “a system that had entered into complete moral and political decadence.” To Chávez’s benefit, crude oil prices began to climb drastically when he came to power, from $16.84 a barrel in 1998 to a peak of $142.76 in 2008. Rather than renewing infrastructure or diversifying the market, Chávez spent billions to curry favor and status with likeminded regimes and bought off the support of the poor with housing, social programs, and subsidies—though as Doménico Chiappe points out elsewhere in the book, only 5.4 percent of funds went to the poorest segment of society, while 45.2 percent were reserved for the most affluent.

When prices fell, particularly around 2008, Chávez blamed stalled progress on internal enemies and the United States. In 2011, the first signs appeared of the cancer that would take his life, and the drama of his numerous surgeries, his chemotherapy, and his frequent alleged recoveries distracted from the country’s precipitous decline. Since his death in 2013, oil prices have routinely hit lows not seen in a decade, crime has exploded, and the inept and uncharismatic leadership of Nicolás Maduro has led many to refer to Venezuela as a failed state. Muñoz remarks:

In order to hold onto power without Chávez, the group that was left in charge of the country after his death has been forced to commit the most flagrant violations of the constitution. Venezuela is today in the hands of a mob of mediocre sidekicks who, ostensibly, are in charge of keeping the revolutionary values from being corrupted but whose true goal is to stay together in order to keep a close eye on one another, to keep the lid on the enormously shady dealings that have taken place under their command, and to avoid being punished for them.

While reading Crude Words, I began thinking of the perennially prophesied “death of the novel,” most articulately presaged in recent years by Will Self. The reaction to the alleged insufficiency of the traditional narrative idiom has been, among many self-conscious writers in Europe and the United States, a retreat into more or less nugatory formal hijinks that distract from a poverty of narrative interest. Crude Words, though not in the least experimental, was gripping from beginning to end. On finishing it, one cannot help but reflect that many writers despairing of the powers of straight prose may simply have run out of interesting things to say. One can imagine worse fates for literature than for those bemoaning its demise to clear the stage and make way for writers from countries we have ignored up to now to have a go.