Díptico de la frontera. Luis Mora-Ballesteros. La Castalia: Mérida, Venezuela. 2020. 205 pages.
Literature today is experiencing a difficult moment. On the one hand, it might seem obligated to represent the deep crises that are rocking the world on all fronts, while, on the other hand, it finds itself influenced by a certain need for escape that would allow a respite from so much happening at once. Writers debate between confronting the signs of the crisis or avoiding it completely, even if this choice is just an illusion. In Venezuela, for example, literature seems to be split into two large groups: one external and the other internal. While both are technically expressions of the same political, economic, and social disaster, the first group is characterized by a heterodiegetic view; the second, by an intradiegetic one. Or, to put it another way, the first tends to represent looking in from the outside, while the second one represents from within. Some prefer rising above the chaos and meditating on the tragedy, while others involve themselves as one more character within it. This latter perspective is of course illusory, but that doesn’t mean the intention is meaningless. Díptico de la frontera [Diptych of the border], by Luis Mora-Ballesteros, aspires to be in both groups.
Divided into two books that function as parts of the same story, Díptico de la frontera is a debut novel that combines memoir, crónica, and prose poetry, in order to portray, at the crossroad of fiction and autobiography, events trapped in oblivion and indifference. In that sense, the novel is a journey that begins from the outside and proceeds toward the interior of a territory, a sensibility, and a family history, in which the connections are so close that the reader doesn’t know when one ends and the other begins. The book is a mosaic of characters, situations, events, and sentiments, which oblige us to accept the narrator as guide if we wish to discover them.
Strictly speaking, the plot of Díptico de la frontera is the story of a man. A graduate of journalism, he returns to his homeland, a small town on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, to report on a gang of paramilitaries who control the cross-border traffic of contraband and who have managed to take control of the region by means of a rural war, in which an acquaintance of the journalist has died. At the same time, this journey will help the main character clear up some fundamental facts in his family history. Out of this confluence of events will emerge a portrait of a human space: the border between Colombia and Venezuela, simmering with social dynamics both terribly cruel and remarkably beautiful. Dynamics, it should be added, that are reflection and result of a state of political, economic, and social chaos that has been developing for many years, although in the last two decades it has crystalized into a perverse and disjointed picture of everyday customs.
This makes Díptico de la frontera both a novel about strangers and, at the same time, people who are very familiar. It is a return to the representation of what is human, without prejudice or concessions. The narrative voice thrusts us into a terrain that seemed to be conquered, invisible—after the urban world, in its decadent splendor, had devoured the stories from the land of the boom. A realism emerges here, without magic or marvels, characterized by the painful remnants of a failed modernity, a strictly commercial capitalism, and a deformed and monstrous democracy. The people who have put down roots on this side of the border are those displaced by the war; they are ex-paramilitary soldiers who now serve as caudillos in gangs on the front lines of contraband and drug trafficking; they are the sons and daughters of the second or third-generation Colombian immigrants trapped in the Venezuelan economic disaster, social decline, and the dead-end street of politics, trying to survive without completely sinking into utter barbarism.
Díptico de la frontera is written in a melancholic register, in which voices sing or lament without dramatic excesses. Human beauty, nobility of spirit, and hope as the last resource in the face of horror—these are the driving forces that spring forth like a hymn to a lost past, which, for all its darkness, never ceases to be a paradise. A paradise in which memory, love, and death commingle, giving rise to a crónica of a land where it is impossible to understand something human without land to sustain it:
This is a bygone era, a bitter moment in time, sweetened by the shadow of forgetfulness, which spreads from this side of the Umuquena river or pours its waters over the Jabillo, Arenosa, and Escalante rivers, on the banks and villages of the northern region of Táchira State. Around here it’s still said that Andés Luis Ballesteros walked toward the ledge with a firm step and, after making the sign of the cross, let himself drop. It’s thought that along the way Andrés Luis must have drawn in his mind the last smile of Alba sitting on the beach at daybreak in Taganga; out there in Magdalena, in Colombia (29).
This register also ensures that we know Díptico de la frontera is a novel about small beings, and the intrahistory that keeps the larger historical machinery running. This isn’t a glorification of antiheros; instead, it’s a necessary look at that part of the map where human life seems to lack value and importance. That’s why the story doesn’t linger too much on the details of life, but it does pause on the transcendence of its resonance. One could say the author Luis Mora-Ballesteros has assembled a chorus of lives, as if painting a fresco of the human comedy.
And perhaps what the novel really gets right rests on that formula. First, in an era in which the great themes are immigration, historic characters, emerging identities, and the challenges humanity faces with regard to the future and technology, Díptico de la frontera invites us to look at the anchors of a past that can’t be resolved through negation or repudiation. Second, the author shows us the contrast between those who, from the watchtower of their refinement or moral superiority, escape their origins in order to represent beings who are alien to them, and those who, despite their evolution and identity, are able to retrace the steps of their legacy and speak as equals face-to-face with the voices of their past and present, constructing the story of a reality negated or ignored on purpose.
Simply put, Díptico de la frontera is a novel that straddles the line between tradition and avant-garde to create a vital literature, in which narration and representation are vehicles of self-searching, as much for one’s own identity as for the places and subjects that populate the blank space with which they seek to fill this borderland of infinite richness.
Bernardo Navarro Villarreal
Simón Bolívar University
Translated by Alex Halatsis