Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela. Edited by Montague Kobbé, Katie Brown, and Tim Girven. London: Ragpicker Press. 2016. 496 pages.
As Alberto Barrera suggests in the introduction to this book, Venezuela is a country that is written from its wounds, a country that offers more questions than answers and that, nonetheless, continues writing itself and surviving its own tragedies. These words have taken on unexpected relevance since April of this year, while Venezuela has been passing through one of the harshest political crises of its recent history. For this reason, there can be no doubt that this book, which compiles texts by thirty Venezuelan authors in English translation, is entering circulation at the best possible moment.
This is not a retrospective survey attempting to show the history of Venezuelan literature in chronological order. As is announced early in the preface, the editors’ mission is to construct the most complete possible vision of the texts that circulate in contemporary Venezuela. The book seeks to present a relatively wide panorama to readers who are approaching Venezuelan literature in English translation for the first time. It is divided according to five major themes that range from love to the state of the nation, passing through death, exile, and the omnipresent city of Caracas.
The anthology includes texts by great names in contemporary literature. Eduardo Liendo, Federico Vegas, Ednodio Quintero, Leonardo Padrón, Victoria de Stefano, Francisco Suniaga, Gisela Kozak, Miguel Gomes, Héctor Torres, and Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, for example, contribute texts of varying genres. But the most remarkable achievement of this compilation is its incorporation of lesser-known voices, particularly from the field of journalism. The editors recognize the lack of an equitable representation of women writers in the anthology, attributing it to “the demographic distribution” of the texts they received. Nevertheless, some absences are surprising. Among them are women authors of the stature of Ana Teresa Torres, Carmen Vincenti, Elisa Lerner, or Krina Ber, or journalists of the caliber of Milagros Socorro, whose chronicles have become legendary.
The immense labor of translating these thirty texts, including the introduction, fell on the shoulders of the three editors and a group of translators at varying stages of their careers. This plurality allows for the variety of the original texts to be amplified by the diversity of tones and approaches of the different translators. Nonetheless, the book is missing a certain sense of consistency in its translation criteria. This is the case with regards to the preservation of certain idiosyncratic words from the Venezuelan popular register. The word “malandro,” for example, is left in Spanish in one of the texts, while in another it is translated as “reprobate,” a noun that is quite far in meaning from the original word.
But, aside from a few discrepancies between the translations and the original texts, including a few inexplicable omissions of entire sentences or paragraphs, the great achievement of this anthology is the wide range of perspectives, positions, tones, and states of mind it includes. Among the compiled and translated texts are short stories, journalistic reports, chronicles, and excerpts from novels. This combination, which blurs the line between fiction and reality, can be read as a response to the perspectives of the First-World academic scene, in which peripheral literatures are read for reasons that are more anthropological or ethnographic than aesthetic. The image of Venezuela that emerges from this scene, which eliminates the distance between what is lived and what is imagined, becomes valuable precisely because it reveals how reality impregnates fiction. It’s an image in which stories of violence and social disintegration prevail, although humor, irony, desire, and nostalgia are also present.
Among the best texts in the anthology are the chronicles, without a doubt, because that’s where what happens is most successfully fused with what is elaborated fictionally. In the chronicles, we see with the greatest clarity the country in a constant debate between hope and absurdity, between persistent neglect and the hope for a better life. The chronicles by Willy McKey, Albinson Linares, Maye Primera, and Carlos Sandoval are among the best. But the text that might be most useful for readers approaching Venezuela for the first time is the article by Boris Muñoz titled “A Country Poles Apart” (“Un país en las antípodas” in Spanish). This text closes the anthology, and it offers a perspective that is at once analytical and intimate on the last years of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first in Venezuela.
The best works of fiction in the collection also achieve this comprehensive representation of the contradictions of a country that is breaking into pieces, as is the case in the story “Christina Cries at Three O’Clock” by Miguel Gomes, or the text by Jesús Miguel Soto titled “One of Many Potential Shortcuts.” The same thing happens in the stories “Passion” by Gisela Kozak and “The Villagers” by Carolina Lozada. These texts demonstrate the fortitude of Venezuelan short fiction, which simultaneously presents a clear experimental impulse and an evident preoccupation for telling stories and telling them well.
Perhaps the least fortunate aspect of the anthology is the selection of novel excerpts. Even if the chosen section of Historias de la marcha a pie [Stories of the march on foot] by Victoria de Stefano – impressively translated by Christina MacSweeney – could stand for itself, offering a relevant example of the author’s writing, the same cannot be said for the other chosen excerpts. This is the case for the pages taken from the prologue of Liubliana by Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles and the excerpt from Los maletines [The briefcases] by Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez. Both authors are disadvantaged by these texts, not only with respect to the quality of the compilation’s more remarkable short stories, like those of Federico Vegas and Liliana Lara, but also in comparison with their own work, which undeniably includes more representative examples of their important trajectories. In this case, the strategy of asking the authors themselves to select their text was perhaps not the most effective.
The entry of Venezuelan literature into the global scene depends to a large degree on its circulation in other languages, and English is certainly the entrance point to this market. As a whole, the anthology demonstrates not only the indisputable quality of this literature, but also its enormous potential when faced with the international market and future translation projects. Efforts like this will propel this global circulation which, for various reasons, has been denied to the literature of one of the most complex and contradictory countries of the continent. At this moment, when Venezuela urgently needs the world’s solidarity and attention, these “crude words” can help to reveal the diverse faces of a country that is even now in the streets, forging its future.
Raquel Rivas Rojas