In late October 1991 at Brown University, Providence, I met Carmen Ruiz Barrionuevo. We were at the “Venezuela: Culture and Society at the End of the Century” symposium, organized by Julio Ortega. She had just presented her paper “Modernism versus Modernity in José Antonio Ramos Sucre,” whose clarity led me to the author’s shrewd perceptions. And naturally I saw in Carmen an authentic intermediary between the great poet, the university (universal) landscape of those times, and the long-established intellectual house from which she came.
We spoke briefly and I wasted no time in writing to her at her university, in Salamanca. In July 1993, she was invited by the Institute of Literary Research at the Central University of Venezuela to give a lecture on Lezama Lima. And on the night of the twenty-first of that month, walking with her and Armando Navarro in search of a taxi, leaving the headquarters of the Rómulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies in Caracas, after holding a small event about the En HAA journal, the idea came upon us, voiced by Carmen, to create a literary lecture series in Salamanca.
In the words of Barrionuevo herself from the launch of her book Voces y Escrituras de Venezuela, the official process took place as follows:
The Ramos Sucre Lecture Series was founded in 1993 by means of an agreement signed in November of that year in the Rectorate of the University of Salamanca, overseen by the Venezuelan National Council of Culture (CONAC), its Secretary General, Gustavo Arnstein, and the Sectorial Director of Literature, Armando Navarro, and from the University of Salamanca, its Rector, Julio Fermoso.
From that day on, the activities promoted by the lecture series have not stopped, supported, in addition, by the integration of courses in the PhD in Literature programme and in the Masters in Spanish and Hispanic American Literature: Advanced Studies, recently adapted for the European Higher Education Area. The excellent and continued quality of participating professors, together with sustained interest from students, has no doubt enabled its continuity.
It seems almost natural that in a city as Cervantine as Salamanca, an author devoted to the work of Cervantes was chosen as the eponym of our professorship. What is unheard of in a country like Venezuela is that the idea has continued for over twenty years and is cast as a steadfast achievement. A number of factors are able to sustain such a miracle, but at the heart of them is the labor, vigilance, and careful management of Barrionuevo as a professor, researcher, and all-round academic and the use of her network with America and our literature.
She was born in Burgos to Juan Ruiz Peña and Carmen Barrionuevo Ruiz, from Jerez de la Frontera and Málaga respectively. It was perhaps her father, who with great enthusiasm taught Spanish and, where available, Hispano-American authors, who inspired not only Carmen’s initial scholarship, but also her love and fidelity towards these authors. (Alfredo Pérez Alencart held an event in honour of Carmen’s father on the centenary year of his birth at the Meeting of Latin American Writers, which took place in October 2015).
She did not waver when choosing the direction of her studies, beginning with her bachelor’s degree in Romance Philology (1970) and her Doctorate in Hispano-American Literature, ending up as Professor of Hispano-American Literature (1989), all at the University of Salamanca, where she remains today. At the age of twenty-two, she had already begun publishing articles in specialist journals, such as the journal of the University of Puerto Rico in 1973. From 1977 onwards, she began prefacing and editing works by Spanish and Latin American authors.
There is no doubt that Barrionuevo’s writing embodies the virtues of academic writing: precision, perfection, and sobriety. Her sentences and paragraphs flow effortlessly, full of logic and lucidity. She shuns all expressive or conceptual complications. She chooses a nucleus in the text to study and approaches it from different angles. She is not, however, fond of closed conclusions, and when we reach the end of one of her essays, the unexpected touches of her argument come alive with ambiguous attraction. In this way, what seemed like an immutable academic elaboration begins to make way for new relationships, to the point that the calculated expressive severity also resonates in other ways. This is especially the case when Barrionuevo remarks on poetry, or when she addresses baroque or avant-garde writers, or those who use intricate language.
But other elements can pull Barrionuevo’s crystalline delineation towards content that is not always apparent in the authors studied, in such a way that these energies, although subjected to analysis, battle to come to the surface of the essay. I am referring to the connections between a text and the historical period in which it is conceived or to which it alludes; to the personal echo that political events leave in a writer. It is then that Barrionuevo’s sound academic prose, her controlled hyaline style reveals through a second reading the ardour, the passion, the willing positioning towards aspects that escape the syntagma and cross over to the existence of the writer or of us, the readers. Through the elegance and expressive tenderness of the essayist, we see infernal fires, condemnation, humour, and pain.
I do not have the space to dwell any further on the results of her illuminating eloquence, so I chose only those four.
Thus, when she addresses the work of Lezama Lima (a tortuous writer par excellence) Barrionuevo approaches him from the point of view of a paradox: “Because this work is not one singular thing, nor can it be pinned down by one single meaning, this is one of the features that makes it a singular discovery,” she quotes in support of her argument, because by doubting that it be one unique thing or have one unique meaning, she is turning the work studied into something unique to demonstrate its status as a unique discovery. Wouldn’t Lezama have loved this double-edged method?
Method-instrument, which is also transformed when, in one of those rare moments when Barrionuevo seems to deviate from the expected route, she confesses that Lezama’s readers should stop being simply readers in order to remake themselves with the voice (with the skin) of the author:
…but through his discoveries he also revives a reader who almost has to disguise themselves in the author’s skin in order to break through to this unique world, and at the same time enjoy a writing that progresses spirally, making it difficult to directly understand what is occurring. Paradiso spills over the margins of the book, transgresses the limits of the genre with great conviction and efficiency, the author himself aware of the amalgamation of elements, even disparate ones, which he combines and delivers with great ease.
If we have just experienced Barrionuevo’s prose as a spatial ebb, let me now see her writing as a wave that transcends time. In principle, risking her critical, evaluative perspective, starting from an author whom she felt living at the University of Salamanca itself. And through him, assess the literary changes that did not take long to become wide-spread. Thus, she tells us about the writing put forward by Jorge Volpi and his generation: “That this way of working can be, at least, an index of a part of the Latin American novel of the future is perfectly possible, a more intellectualised, more complex novel, which responds to all possible worlds.”
For Barrionuevo, from an analytical point of view, the attitude of Volpi and his companions, despite such lofty achievements and perspectives, produces an almost organic and predictable facet of literary infinity:
Ultimately, the group clearly presented their ideas regarding the narrative approach – born of the need for renewal, or rather a reclamation of the novel, in order to impose demanding rules about profundity and language. Therefore there was no rejection of the great authors of the Boom, quite the opposite in fact; they turned to the best as an example and inspiration for their own works, as was the case for Urroz’s Las Rémoras, a self-confessed tribute to La Casa Verde and La Vida Breve. What had categorically fractured for them was easy literature which, in the years following the Boom, continued the overused recipe of magical realism and risked a huge crisis for the novel through the trivialisation of approaches.
If so far we have observed Barrionuevo examine, from the planes of writing, the lively opposition between one literary style and another, between a formal tradition and new technical demands in the light of the current world, then let us secondly touch on how Barrionuevo, seizing the thought (as I already said: fires, injustices, pain, freedom) leads us to a cosmos that is not only individual and secret, but also political and mystical. This happens when her smooth, easy-going style embraces an author from two hundred years ago (which is not surprising; our writer frequently handles works and creators from different centuries). I’m talking about Juan Germán Roscio, ideologue of the Venezuelan independence movement, an exile and political prisoner but above all a cultured man, a connoisseur of languages and lover of a classic expression, whose twentieth-century match would be seen in the dry clarity of José Antonio Ramos Sucre.
Roscio chooses to turn to Biblical sources to lambast and dismantle the power of the kings. The development of his arguments is meticulous and supported by frequent classical quotations. So similar to Barrionuevo’s style: reasoning, clarity, and fluid transparency. The perfection of the form leads us to conceptual precision. In both Roscio and Barrionuevo, we have to defy the enchantment of precision in order to reveal the confessional, disturbing, or irreverent tone. And then we find this personal appraisal of Roscio:
The central idea that governs his work revolves around an obsessive concern, that of observing how in the American territories, the citizen of his time finds himself “bent under the triple yoke of an absolute monarchy, religious fanaticism, and feudal privilege,” and more specifically, the relationship between political power and religion in the Spain of that time; an alliance that had a notable impact not only on the aims of the emancipation of the American territories, but also on the individual freedom of people, openly undermined by absolute power.
These are Barrionuevo’s words on Roscio, which not only make the experience of that individual in his time come alive but also go beyond history and, in a slightly horrifying way, can well be applied to contemporary Venezuela with only slight adaptation. As Barrionuevo says:
Everything leads its author to rule that there is no “government more arbitrary and infernal than that of Spain” because it is an “absolute monarchy, without laws, without constitution, without religion,” in which everything “depends on the whim and will of a single, usually foolish, anxious, and evil individual,” a ruler who also hypocritically exhibits respect for the law yet throws himself into the hands of the religious and devout. It is at this moment, perhaps due to his first-hand experience of imprisonment in Spain, when the Venezuelan broadly displays some information on the great importance of the printing press in the dissemination of the doctrines of this servile and reactionary thought.
At least half a dozen critical essays have been dedicated by Carmen Ruiz Barrionuevo to Ramos Sucre. For example, she studies, with translucent humour, a text (“Un sophista,” 1926) that the poet excluded from his works and that almost always goes unnoticed. I wanted to highlight this because it allows me to add two features, if not to the method suggested above, to the author’s trademark lucidity, whose effects, as I have also already indicated, are indirectly extended to the reader. The theme of Ramos Sucre is a terrible attack on the glory—immense at that time—of Leopoldo Lugones.
As much or more ruthless than Ramos Sucre’s is the tone with which Barrionuevo goes through each of Ramos Sucre’s critiques of Lugones:
These beliefs also led to another serious consequence: the rejection of compassion, also rejected by Nietzschean philosophy. It is not surprising that this and the aforementioned ideas fill Ramos Sucre’s reviews with indignation and he ends up accusing Lugones of disavowing democracy, the aim of which is to “suppress artificial inequality” and achieve “individual aristocracy, as a result of open and honest competition.” And in concordance with these concepts, he also highlights Lugones’ archaic mechanistic biologism by putting him on the same level as Spencer’s outdated theories—because Lugones sees life as a mere mechanism—just as he would also come close to Darwin by accepting the theory of survival of the fittest. For Ramos Sucre, the values of compassion are also fundamental within society, or “sympathy,” as he says, taking the word as its original meaning in Greek. That is why he emphasizes that Lugones forgets that “the primitive notion of justice is born of sympathy,” that is to say of “compassion.” Hence: “We feel threatened when we witness pain inflicted on our brother.” All concepts in which, as well as Ramos Sucre’s fervent idealism, it is possible to capture the Christian meaning of life that Lugonian theory had completely eliminated in recent years.
Barrionuevo’s analysis comes to one of Ramos Sucre’s recurrent themes:
For Ramos Sucre, however, the medieval knight could not be understood without the components of idealism and Christian beliefs, in whose structure devotion to the Virgin Mary played a large part. Before the reader’s very eyes, Lugones reduced this devotion to the realm of pagan female deities and believed it related to the worship of the classical Pallas Athene. It is in this context that the beginning of the final paragraph of the text of “Un Sofista” must be understood: “He childishly battles with Christianity and calls it Nazarene barbarism, usurping Heinrich Heine’s famous adjective.” This sentence reflects the most outraged pinnacle of the poet from Cumaná. Further still, Ramos Sucre’s rebuke entailed a double perspective: on the one hand he was repulsed by the fact that the Argentine poet had rejected the Christian religion as one of the foundations of Western culture, and on the other, he was infuriated by his lack of originality in choosing the adjective “Nazarene” to describe the very essence of Christianity understood as “barbarism” in the face of the “civilized” Hellenic world.
To draw a conclusion, based on Barrionuevo’s paragraphs, I am able to propose the two features of her writing that, in my opinion, contribute to the strong emotional effect that it leaves resonating in the mind of the reader. Firstly—and this might seem like a must or a common trope for critical work—it should be noted how from the quotes, references, or veiled allusions made by an author (because Barrionuevo’s method extends to all the topics and writers on which she sets her sights) are investigated, compared, and taken apart to give them an unexpected value when brought into friction with the text of the author studied.
With this multifaceted interpretation, Barrionuevo confirms the clarity of her academic tone, but also voluntarily and voluptuously moves away from it.
Secondly, it is remarkable how, while locating the object of her critique chronologically and aesthetically, she does not omit the causes, implications, and possible consequences of the behaviour of the author and the pivotal historical events in the author’s life. Thus, the essayist seems impartial towards her subject, allowing the work in question and the events that surround it to speak for themselves. A certain expository coldness tends to objectify the recipient (her) and places us in a rare space of asepsis.
And yet, as we have already said, Barrionuevo’s work forces us to return to it time and time again, because it is an intellectual assessment but especially because it has awoken an emotional place within us that we did not predict. The absence of connections and psychological explanations of works and authors in Barrionuevo’s work, paradoxically, leads us to these bleakly transparent places—as we have seen with Lezama Lima, Roscio, and Ramos Sucre—where the profound light or ambiguity of the spiritual or human experience explodes. She practices a method of negative illumination that jumps up and flows out of the pages to take over the reader.
For twenty-five years, in Caracas, Salamanca, and other cities, I have had the privilege of meeting with Carmen Ruiz Barrionuevo, and rarer still, of having her friendship. I know that goddesses like Hestia and Thalia direct her path, although it is possible that it is Carmen, these days, who guides theirs. It is seldom possible to feel the restrained or passionate intellectual fire that grows in someone like her when she mounts an academic defence of her analytic point of view. For this reason, as well as having read and continuing to read her work (no one could possibly imagine the reluctance with which she has responded to the idea of collecting and publishing her essays), I value our conversations in a truly unique way, the fact that she has given me the opportunity to meet other professors and researchers close to her sensibility, and of course, those few emails, in which, according to her, “she opened the floodgates,” to allow me some snapshots of her life.
Barrionuevo is, for me and, I think, for everyone, a personification of the golden and demanding city, Salamanca; the centre of writing, reflection, and beauty, whose rocky flesh is fed by a sweet river, whose splendour comes down from heaven itself. Without her, the city (and its blood: intelligence) would be incomplete.
But I want to conclude by returning to her, to her words, to the origin of her personality: to the moment and the early years in which her parents offer her to reality and where a literary understanding is forged that, for me, is dazzling.
On the most personal level, I remember the gray Burgos of the long postwar period, still so beautiful with the large rows of trees on the banks of the Arlanzón that reached beyond the Cartuja de Miraflores, where we walked very frequently. My father was very sensitive to nature and the seasons of the year, so distinct in that area of Castilla, with a lot of cold and snow in winter and pleasant springs and summers. And of course, the Cathedral that was visible from far away and that announced the presence of the city from above when we travelled.
My parents met in Jerez shortly after the end of the war, my mother lost her father very young, and the family, her mother and the two children, had to go out looking for some protection from close relatives. On that journey that went from Malaga to Puente Genil and then to Jerez, she met my father.
They both come from simple families without any pretensions, my paternal grandfather was a shoemaker, something highly valued at the time, and my other grandfather, who was a native of Torremolinos, died early as a result of the ills brought by the war in Cuba; he was a caretaker at the Normal School of Malaga.
Although I’m Castilian, my heritage is one hundred percent Andalusian.
I have opened the floodgates and I have written a lot, perhaps too much.
Translated by Libby Jones
This essay was originally published in Spanish in Prodavinci (Caracas) on April 3, 2021.
Libby Jones recently graduated with a First Class degree in Spanish and Portuguese from the University of Exeter. She is now starting an MA in Hispanic and Lusophone Studies at University College London.