Marcela Valdes is the books editor of The Washington Examiner and a specialist in Latin American literature and culture.
For more than 40 years, the most important book prize in South America has been bankrolled by the region's most famous petro-nation: Venezuela. Yet Venezuelan novelists themselves rank among the least read and translated writers in the entire continent. Over and over again as I worked on this article, I stumped editors and translators with a simple question: Who are Venezuela's best novelists?
"If you were to ask me about Mexico or Nicaragua ..." one translator hedged. A second tried guessing that "there can't be a lot happening in a country that basically represses." A third editor was more frank. "I know zip about the country's literature," she confessed. "How embarrassing."
Yet since 1967, a Venezuelan award, the International Novel Prize Rómulo Gallegos, has been the kingmaker of Spanish-language book prizes. Among the crowned: Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas and Ricardo Piglia. Gerald Martin, whose biography of García Márquez covers more than 70 years of literary history, judges it "the only Latin American prize which does the same for Latin America as the Nobel does for the world."
Rómulo Gallegos himself wrote Venezuela's most influential novel, Doña Barbara. Published in 1929, Doña Barbara is at once a political tract, a national icon, a precursor to magical realism and a pop culture sensation. It has spawned two movies, an opera, three telenovelas and hundreds of YouTube mash-ups.
"Doña Barbara is exactly Gone With the Wind for Latin America," says Brown University professor Julio Ortega. Its action — the power struggle between a sexy, barbaric woman and a young, idealistic technocrat — mirrors the clash between feudalism and modernity that consumed South America in the early 20th century.
It also makes for a great, cleavage-baring script. Here's an early description of the villain: "She's a woman who has pocketed heaps of men, and she never misses when she begins sweet-talking. She gives a man a love potion and ties him to her apron-strings, and then does what she likes with him, because she knows witchcraft." Who could resist filming a soap opera from lines like that?
Gallegos was a politician, and Doña Barbara is, in part, his shot against Gen. Juan Vicente Gómez, the dictator who ruled Venezuela for 27 years. In 1947, Gallegos himself was elected president by a landslide, becoming the country's first civilian leader. Nine months after he took office, he was tossed out by a military coup.
In exile Gallegos asserted that U.S. oil companies had backed his ouster because he'd hit them with a 50 percent tax on profits. Yet if oil subverted his presidency, it also financed the prize that bears his name. Oil profits allowed Venezuela to create three major literary institutions: the Rómulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies, the Ayacucho Library Foundation and the publishing house Monte Ávila.
These institutions published, promoted and salaried Venezuelan writers for decades. Because of them, Venezuelan cultural critic Michelle Roche explains, Venezuelan novelists never looked to multinationals like Anagrama or Alfaguara to sell their books. Nor did they emigrate to seek better fortunes abroad. The government of Venezuela was the only patron they needed. So much so, Roche says, that "writing for the reader was considered superficial."
Everything changed when Caracas erupted in riots and looting in February 1989. After the so-called Caracazo, University of Connecticut professor Miguel Gomes explains, "Everyone opened their eyes. They didn't think they belonged to that kind of Latin American country. And then Chavismo came."
Chávez upended the old state system that fiction writers depended on for income, firing staff and importing intellectuals from Cuba. His monetary policies also made it expensive to import books, which forced booksellers to look for novels closer to home. The upshot: Venezuelan fiction boomed with major new works by authors like Federico Vegas, Francisco Suniaga, Ana Teresa Torres and Slavko Zupcic. These days, says critic and journalist Boris Muñoz, Venezuelan fiction has "opened up to find a bigger audience, through noir novels, historical novels, without renouncing its own Venezuelan idiosyncrasies."
Among the most important writers of this new wave is Alberto Barrera Tyszka. His first novel, The Sickness, is a swift, piercing story about a doctor who must decide whether to tell his own father that he's dying of cancer. In 2006, it became the first Venezuelan work to win Anagrama's coveted Herralde Award for the Novel. Since then, it has been translated into six languages. In England, it was a finalist for The Independent's foreign fiction prize.
Chávez may have indirectly spurred the resurgence of Venezuelan fiction, but his officials have also kneecapped Venezuelan novelists abroad. Translator David Unger told me that at the La Paz International Book Fair in 2006, he was stunned to hear Venezuelan officials announce that they would not sell books at the event because they opposed the commercialization of literature. Venezuela was the fair's featured country; it had brought authors to Bolivia to participate in the fair's panels as well as some 25,000 books. Yet rather than sell those copies to the editors, critics and translators who could help bring attention to Venezuelan authors, officials hauled the books to the streets of La Paz and to the impoverished town of El Alto, where they gave them out for free. Many were snagged by book pirates.
"It just seemed like this typically absurd moment in Chavazean reality," Unger says, "where you think you're giving books away to 'the people' who are mostly native Bolivians who can't read Spanish, and all these sharks went up there and sold them and made a lot of money."
That may be why in the past several years two separate delegations have traveled from Venezuela to Guadalajara, Mexico, where Latin America's most important book fair is held every fall. One delegation is organized by the government of Venezuela. The other is assembled by Venezuela's new clutch of independent publishers. "We finally have a strong literature," Roche says. "This market is very slow, but I'm positive that [the translations] will come." Until then, as Venezuelan critic Antonio Lopez Ortega says, Venezuela's fiction will remain "the Caribbean's best kept secret."
10 Venezuelan Novelists To Know:
In the course of reporting this story, I was told about more than 30 Venezuelan writers who deserve to be better known in the United States. Only a handful of them have been translated into English. Below you find a list of ones who are making their way into my personal library because their novels sound too good to pass up.
- Romulo Gallegos (1884-1969) The former president of Venezuela published nine novels, but Doña Barbara (1929) is the most delicious. Steamy with witchcraft and intrigue, it's also a serious attack on rural despotism.
- Teresa de la Parra (1889-1936) According to Professor Julio Ortega, there's a movement afoot to grant de la Parra her rightful place in Venezuelan letters. Her first book, Iphigenia (1924), ruffled feathers with its fierce portrait of Caracas high society. Her second novel, Mama Blanca's Memoirs (1929), made nice with sweet descriptions of a childhood spent on a sugar plantation.
- José Balza (1939-) An avant-garde stylist, Balza has published eight novels and even more collections of short stories. His dense, poetic novel Percussion (1982) is widely considered his best. In it, an old man's return to his birthplace provokes a hallucinatory trip down memory lane. None of his books has been translated into English.
- Victoria de Stefano (1940-) The Clarice Lispector of Venezuela, de Stefano writes beautiful, difficult fiction. Her novel Histories of the Foot March (1997) was a finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize the same year that Roberto Bolaño won for The Savage Detectives. None of her books has been translated into English.
- Ana Teresa Torres (1945-) "Ana Teresa Torres revolutionized Venezuelan fiction with her work Doña Ines vs. Oblivion," says Caracas bookseller Katyna Henríquez Consalvi. Based on a real Venezuelan court case, this novel traces 300 years of Venezuelan history through one woman's beyond-the-grave quest to recover a lost piece of jungle property.
- Federico Vegas (1950-) Vegas' historical novel Falke (2005) caused a sensation in Caracas with its account of a band of revolutionaries who attempted to overthrow the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez in 1929. Since then, Vegas, who trained as an architect, has published four more novels and several collections of stories. None of his books has been translated into English.
- Francisco Suniaga (1954-) A lawyer, Suniaga once worked for the United Nations in East Timor. His books include a noir novel (The Other Island) and a political thriller (Truman's Passenger). What raises him above genre-writing, says critic Boris Muñoz, is "his acute perception of the pathos that characterizes Venezuelan identity." None of his books has been translated into English.
- Alberto Barrera Tyszka (1960-) Co-author of an influential biography of Hugo Chavez, Barrera Tyszka is also Venezuela's best-known contemporary novelist. "Immediately," says editor Jorge Herralde, "The Sickness seduced me with the elegance and concision of its prose, its depth and fluidity, with its unaffected approach to the subject of a father's death." One critic in Spain compared it to Philip Roth's Patrimony.
- Slavko Zupcic (1970-) One of two Venezuelans to make the prestigious Bogota 39 list — which named 39 exceptional Latin American writers under the age of 39 — Zupic has published three novels: Barbie, Croatian Circle and My Deepest Sympathies, as well as several short-story collections. None of his books has been translated into English.
- Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles (1977-) Named after a pricey brand of Johnnie Walker whisky, Sánchez Rugeles' best-known novel, Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul, is an acidic take on middle-class Venezuelan society. Its protagonist is a young woman whose highest ambition is to become French. Sánchez Rugeles now lives in Spain. None of his books has been translated into English.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All this week, we've been focusing on different aspects of life in Venezuela, where voters are about to elect a successor to the late President Hugo Chavez. For more than four decades, Venezuela has funded South America's most important book award, the Romulo Gallegos prize. But when journalist Marcela Valdes wanted to learn about the country's best novelists, she encountered a whole lot of silence.
It turns out for most English-speaking readers, Venezuelan literature has largely been a mystery. Valdez writes about this in an essay for NPR Books, and she joined us in the studio to talk about it.
Marcela, good morning.
MARCELA VALDES: Good morning.
GREENE: OK, so let me understand this. NPR came to you and said, research a few of Venezuela's best novels. What happened?
VALDES: Well, I found it was really difficult to find any novels translated into English that had been published in the last 10 years. And I thought that was kind of extraordinary. Venezuela is one of the largest and richest countries in South America, and it gives out this incredibly important novel prize. So the fact that it was really hard to think of a major Venezuelan novelist, it just felt like a kind of riddle. It didn't make any sense. And so then I began looking into: How could this be?
GREENE: And what did you find?
VALDES: I found that Venezuela actually had - does have a lot of fabulous writers, but that for a variety of reasons, these writers have stayed out of the international marketplace. Part of it is because Venezuela has been a pretty wealthy country, and they've endowed some very important literary institutions. And because of this, the Venezuelan writers have been able to just stay in Venezuela and make a good living.
The other factor that goes into this is that some of the Venezuelan novels - and many of the Venezuelan novels - were kind of socially critical. And one of the things that they were looking at was the way that the oil profits in Venezuela were creating this stratified society and poverty. And that's not necessarily the kind of thing that a government really wants to be promoting and translating around the world.
GREENE: Chavez doesn't want to exactly get that message out.
VALDES: Well, that's even before Chavez. So in the '70s and '80s, Venezuelan writers were primarily concerned with experiments in form and language. So they're kind of avant-garde writers in the nouveau roman style. And then, in 1989, there was this huge event in Venezuela called Caracazo, which was when - basically, it was the sack of Caracas. There was looting. There were riots. There were massacres. And that event made writers realize that they - in some ways, they didn't understand their own country, and they were very interested in figuring out why is this happening. And that was actually a prelude to Chavez's rise to power.
GREENE: So - they're trying to figure out their country before Chavez comes in. And what happens when Hugo Chavez comes into power?
VALDES: The major thing that he does is he dismantles a lot of the things that these writers are relying on for their income. So he fires all the directors of the cultural institutions. He brings in intellectuals from Cuba. And suddenly, this whole network of writers that had been relying on the state can't rely on the state. And so this leads to people looking more at Venezuelan novelists themselves at the same time that Venezuelan novelists are beginning to look at different kinds of literature that might be more accessible to a wide audience.
GREENE: Well, it sounds like, then, the stage is set. I mean, are we going to see an explosion of these novels and these novelists kind of coming onto the international stage?
VALDES: I think so. And I think that that's already begun to happen, to some extent. In 2006, there's a fantastic Venezuelan writer named Alberto Barrera Tyszka, who became the first Venezuelan to ever win the Herralde prize for the novel. This is a prize that's given out by a Spanish editorial house called Anagrama. It's considered one of the most important book prizes in Spanish-language literature.
GREENE: And I'm curious, this whole thing you're talking about, you provided a list of 10 Venezuelan writers that you think we should know about. Is he one of them? Is he...
VALDES: Yes, he's on the list. His novel, "The Sickness," it's just like a punch to the heart. The novels are there. They're there already. I think what's going to happen, though, is that as his independent publishers enter the marketplace, and as more Venezuelan intellectuals have actually gone into exile or emigrated from the country, we're going to be hearing a lot more about these novelists, and these Venezuelans are entering more and more this kind of international word of mouth that will help bring attention to their work.
GREENE: Marcela Valdes is the books editor of the Washington Examiner and a specialist in Latin American literature. Thanks so much for joining us.
VALDES: Thank you for having me.
GREENE: And you can follow NPR Books on Twitter. Their handle is @NPRBooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.