Crema Paraíso. Camilo Pino. Madrid: Alianza, 2020. 249 pages.
In moments of revisionism, the Latin American Boom betrays an excess of testosterone and a crude marginalization of women. Think of Clarice Lispector and Silvina Ocampo, who had to wait decades before finding readers beyond the borders of Brazil and Argentina. Unpaid debts hover over Venezuelan literature. This debt, in part, perhaps began to be paid at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The political and social crisis in the country has pushed writers to emigrate to more benign lands (and ones with a market) and led to an interest in understanding when exactly Venezuela screwed itself over. Literature that had been a secret for decades has left ostracism behind. In this prolific library, titles like the best seller It Would Be Night in Caracas (Karina Sainz Borgo) and a lukewarm urban novel like The Night (Rodrigo Blanco Calderón) pile up next to works of artistic quality, whether Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul (Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles), Los días animales [Animal days] (Keila Vall de la Ville), the stories of Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez, or the poetry of Raquel Abend van Dalen.
Now Crema Paraíso [Paradise cream] by Camilo Pino joins this library. Truthfully, the author guaranteed himself a spot with his debut novel, Valle Zamuro, which discusses the 1989 social upheaval known as the Caracazo. Through the young man Alejandro Roca, the writer portrays a sentimental education in the midst of chaos. Venezuelan society did not emerge from this incident unscathed. His new work is also a snapshot of a particular era: it alternates between the beginning of the eighties and the new millennium. The timeframes create a parenthesis where the characters enter and exit the story with their best comedic stylings—it’s worth clarifying: the novel is an infinite South American carnival, so pathos-filled that from its bowels escape ever-bitter but no-less-lucid guffaws.
The plot of Crema Paraíso is simple: one day, Emiliano, who wants to squeeze every last drop out of his youth, receives a strange proposal: twenty thousand euros and a week in Berlin if he appears on a television show alongside his father, the poet Alfonso Dubuc. The mystery is heightened by the presence of some old letters addressed to an individual named Ulrika. Then, in a game of emotional memory, the poet returns to a literary conference in Havana. And he’s not returning to any old place: we’re talking about a time when the city was a diamond whose prestige and shine attracted a slew of intellectuals. They would stay for a few days, engage in cultural (and perhaps sexual) tourism, and then continue on their way talking about the wonders of the Revolution. It’s in this place that the Venezuelan poet, who until recently had been a rising start and is now the kind of guy whose colleagues cross the street when they see him, will end up. But the trip will become a mythical one for Alfonso, a fount of inspiration that will lay the groundwork for what he has privately dreamed of his entire life: becoming the national poet. A marble bust, a legendary tale.
Each conflict allows Pino to disassemble the mechanisms of the Cuban Revolution and emphasize games of literary power. The strategy is an effective one: the pans to Ernesto Cardenal, Mario Benedetti, and even Fidel Castro, along with certain pernicious rumors surrounding Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar, awaken a sarcastic reflection that provides the reader with a complicit gaze. Fiction and nonfiction converge in the narration, an intelligent trick that elegantly heightens the delirium of Crema Paraíso.
The interaction between Dubuc and Fidel lacks an epic exchange of words; there is nothing for posterity nor for a biopic. Simply because he knows that in emotional moments intelligence falters: all creative work is intellectual. And also Alfonso, like any artist, has a thousand different masks:
Fidel me dio un apretón de manos y me agradeció por participar en el congreso. Yo apenas alcancé a verle la barba de pequeños rizos y responderle: ‘De nada’. Eso fue todo lo que dije: ‘De nada’. No le dije: ‘¿Cómo crees, Fidel?, para mí es todo un honor estar en el primer territorio libre de América y poder ayudar, aunque sea con mi humilde poesía a la revolución. Yo, un poeta desconocido, soy quien se debe sentir honrado de tener el privilegio de etcétera, etcétera’. No, lo único que alcancé a decir fue ‘De nada’ cuando el destello de una cámara me encandiló (¡esa maldita foto me ha salido carísima!; los idiotas radicales de la oposición la sacan a cada rato como evidencia de que soy un caballo de Troya chavista). Fidel, con su característica astucia, se dio cuenta de mi insignificancia y siguió su camino tomado de la mano con Benedetti, dejándome como el lastre de un globo que ascendía al cielo de la revolución latinoamericana.
[Fidel shook my hand and thanked me for participating in the conference. I barely managed to get a look at his beard of tiny curls and respond, “You’re welcome.” That was all I said: “You’re welcome.” I didn’t say, “Are you kidding, Fidel? It’s an absolute honor for me to be in the first free country in the Americas and be able to help out, even if just with my humble poetry for the revolution. I, an unknown poet, am the one who should be honored to have the privilege, etcetera, etcetera.” No, the only thing I had managed to say was “You’re welcome” when the flash of a camera blinded me (I’ve paid a high price for that stupid photo! The radical idiots from the opposition constantly pull it out as proof that I’m a Chavist Trojan horse). Fidel, with his characteristic astuteness, realized my insignificance and continued on his way hand in hand with Benedetti, leaving me behind like the ballast on a balloon floating up into the sky of the Latin American revolution.]
This trip to the Havana of the 1980s builds a bridge to the present where father and son, not the closest of enemies, duke it out: resentment builds on European soil and there is a culminating moment in the story where the chance to change fate presents itself. It is sensitive, ironic, and beautiful, like the life of a poet.
Hernán Vera Álvarez
Translated by Fiona Maloney-McCrystle