Over the past ten years or so, the literary establishment in Venezuela has profited from a new-found hunger in the population for history and for stories, such that since the turn of the third millennium a crop of new writers (not all of them young, but still new) has emerged with great enthusiasm to record like never before the particular cadence of the country’s lifestyle and the obscure wanderings of its history. This list of writers includes Francisco Suniaga, a lawyer and university lecturer from the island of Margarita, whose El pasajero de Truman (“Truman’s Passenger”) was published in 2008 by Random House Mondadori and sold out a stunning (by local standards) first run of 6,000 copies.
Simple in its structure and lethargic in its tone, El pasajero de Truman astutely combines the very ingredients so badly craved by the contemporary Venezuelan readership: recent history, anecdote and current affairs. Francisco Suniaga makes his novel revolve around the political crisis that developed in Venezuela in 1945, before the days of universal suffrage, when the country was still ruled by the military elite that had emerged as successors to the long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez. However, instead of recreating the events as they unfolded, Suniaga chooses to create two characters, both closely attached to the protagonist of the crisis, who, sixty years later, get together to discuss the details of the events that took place on September 3, 1945.
The facts are fairly simple: the presidential term of Isaías Medina Angarita is coming to an end and, with three strong groups seeking to secure the power for themselves, no candidate is likely to attain the majority of votes in Congress. Sensing the impending crisis, the rival factions get together and agree on a common, compromise candidate: Diógenes Escalante, a career diplomat who has lived abroad for the best part of the past 30 years. At 64 years of age, Escalante finds the strain and responsibility of being the figurehead that will lead Venezuela through its transition to democracy far too taxing, and he slowly loses hold of his mind until, finally, on the eve of September 2, 1945, he goes completely mad. The news breaks out the following morning and his candidacy is immediately overturned. Six weeks later a coup would oust Medina Angarita, and three years after that a new coup would put General Marcos Pérez Jiménez in power, where he would remain for ten years.
In some sense, El pasajero de Truman reads almost diametrically opposite to Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, where the protagonist constantly asks himself “when did Perú go to the dogs?” Conversely, here the characters are almost convinced beyond doubt that Venezuela went to the dogs on the morning of September 3, 1945, concerning themselves instead with dissecting every detail of their respective relationship with Diógenes Escalante and their role in the fatidic day when the future was lost. Given the setting (two old men talking for five days about another old man, who went mad sixty years ago), the novel is slow in its pace, melancholy in its tone and bleak in its outlook. It has touching moments, particularly during the last meeting, although the boring ones greatly outnumber them. Which is a shame, because, to paraphrase one of the characters, the episode is truly unique, and if it had happened in Europe or the United States it would be taught in universities around the world.
Nevertheless, there are incisive aspects of El pasajero de Truman that deserve praise. Primarily, the tactful but poignant way in which Suniaga draws parallel lines between the present and various moments of Venezuela’s past. Without ever making direct mention of Hugo Chávez or the Bolivarian Revolution, Suniaga takes advantage of the meanderings of the conversation between his two narrators to insert intelligent, informed and sober analyses about the political history of his country, from the details of its War of Independence, which he describes as its first civil war, to the extravagancies of Cipriano Castro’s foreign policy towards the beginning of the twentieth century, to the fragility of the democratic institutions in Venezuela in 1945, everything rings with an echo of relevance in the sensitive ears of Venezuelans living through the latest installment of military rule and perpetuation of power.
Suniaga understands the country and its citizens – a feat far from mean, which takes me to the central point of this article. Venezuelans don’t often see themselves as the eminently Caribbean people that they are. There is an air of superiority in Venezuela as a nation that Suniaga traces back to the days of Independence, when the mythical role of Venezuelans as liberators of the continent emerged and took root in the people’s psyche. But Suniaga’s analysis of the behavior of his countrymen both in El pasajero de Truman and in his previous, and first, novel, La otra isla (“The Other Island”) reveal to us that Venezuela shares a lot more with the Caribbean than a long coast.
La otra isla takes the structure of a detective novel and adapts it to the chaotic, unpredictable and generally unsatisfactory way in which things – anything – tend to happen in Venezuela. A German couple visit the island on holiday, fall in love with the place and make arrangements to move permanently. One day, Manfred, the husband, discovers an old warehouse where cocks are raised and trained for fighting. He becomes obsessed with it, loses interest in his business, his wife and, ultimately, even himself. Depressed, Manfred drowns in a dangerous beach, where he and Renate, his wife, have a beach bar. The authorities see nothing out of order but Manfred’s mother in Germany receives an anonymous note claiming there has been foul play. She travels to Margarita and engages a local lawyer to find out what truly happened to her son. An informal investigation begins, but it soon runs out of steam and ends the only way anything of the kind could end in Venezuela: in nothing.
La otra isla is a far livelier, more accomplished novel that El pasajero de Truman, which only engages the reader in the measure that he/she might be interested in the recent political history of the country. One of the challenges of fiction is to intrigue the audience to the point where they will get hooked by a story that only ever took place in the writer’s mind. Despite a slow psychological start, where Suniaga outlines the profile of two of the main characters and transcribes a funny, but ultimately irrelevant, conversation, La otra isla manages just that, by immersing the reader in the peculiar underworld of cock fighting with great detail and patience. Moreover, exploiting the opportunity afforded to him by the presence of foreign characters in what remains a Venezuelan story, Sinuaga convincingly creates a scenario where he can build the profile of the island and its people by contrasting its culture with Germany’s. The result converges beautifully with some of the conclusions reached in the more austere El pasajero de Truman, and makes us understand that while Margarita and Venezuela, might not blend seamlessly into the global stereotype of the Caribbean, the country and its people are defined by a climate, a temperament, a sensibility and even a proneness for the unreal that could only belong to one place. You know which.
Suniaga’s recently published a collection of short stories based in the Margarita of old titled Margarita Infanta (Random House Mondadori, 2010).
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, JANUARY 29, 2011.