Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles is the small, nervy new kid on the block of Venezuelan literature, who, all of a sudden, is shaking the foundations of the old establishment. He is standard in many ways: neither too tall, nor too short; reasonably good looking, although by no means beautiful; thin, if not svelte, and yet, in the context of his scrawny limbs, his frame seems to grow sturdier. As a matter of fact, Sánchez Rugeles’ physical aspect is almost utterly forgettable, until you reach the intense gaze emanating from his deep, myopic eyes, sheltered behind his scholarly glasses. There, in full view, lies the controlled angst/anger/anxiety that sets him far apart from the rest, and that has taken the Venezuelan intellectual community by storm.
At 32, Eduardo is still a relative youngling, but his defiance and his composure have already merited him as many accolades as his first novel, Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul, which was awarded the I Latin American Literary Prize (Premio Iberoamericano de Literatura) Arturo Uslar Pietri on May 18, 2010. The prize is organized by the Foundation Arturo Uslar Pietri in Venezuela, as a tribute to the country’s most influential intellectual of the XX century, as an effort to uphold his legacy and as a means to promote the creation of new literature in the region.
In this sense, Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul falls squarely within the great storyteller’s exploration of the psychological profile of his characters, and his knack for faithfully reproducing colloquial speech. If, other than this, Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul inhabits an altogether different universe to, say, “Lluvia”, Uslar Pietri’s most celebrated short story, that is no less than an accurate reflection of the extent to which the Venezuelan reality has drastically changed in the past fifty years – or even in the last ten.
The plot of Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul is hardly its most original trait: the tried and tested boy-meets-girl formula is here set in modern day Caracas, adorned with the juvenile intensity of adolescent love and garnished with a touch of candid extremism from a non-conformist couple who have found each other by the capricious hand of destiny. At war with the world around them, Romeo and Juliet (their actual names are Luis and Eugenia) immediately hit the right note and fall for each other. He is more experienced than she, has lived abroad and hangs out with a motley crew of outcasts who are all, deep inside, truly valuable people. She is both mesmerized and intimidated by Luis & co, in whose company she learns to question the parameters by which she rules friendship, love and other such transcendental concepts in the life of a teenager. Suddenly, with the Easter break looming large, a spontaneous road trip is organized and the young couple embarks on a four-day, 700-kilometer journey from Caracas to Mérida in an old banged-up Fiat. This is the setting where a troubled, and seemingly endless, courtship goes through its highs and lows, until the final night of the trip, when the young love is finally consummated. The twist finally comes once the two have arrived back in Caracas, and things look set to fall back to normal. Thus, the novel truly reaches its most compelling stage in its closing thirty or so pages, where the melancholy undertow that can be sensed throughout the narrative finally is allowed to blossom in all its splendor.
Moreover, beyond the triteness of the two protagonists, Sánchez Rugeles’ choice of supporting characters is not only impeccable, it is, actually, a total joy. From the inventive portrayal of Vadier, the manic depressive companion who intrudes in the adventure and embellishes it all the way, to the Maestro, Luis’s mother’s guru-like boyfriend, to Alfonso Blanc, Eugenia’s father, a failed soap opera actor and a pusillanimous human being, Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul depicts a less-than-flattering cross section of Venezuelan society that remains incisive at all levels, without falling into the petty politicization which has characterized life in the country for the past decade, or so.
Sánchez Rugeles is ruthless in his representation of supporters of the Chavez regime, but so is he with the middle-class adults who, presumably, are against government. More importantly, despite the fact that at times it feels like Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul is the result of a fantasy-turned-to-nightmare by the author, certain aspects of the novel demand from the reader that it be taken seriously. I refer here to more than the anthropomorphic preoccupation to record the speech of the young generation of students in Caracas, or the almost fetishistic desire to bring up all things iconic in everyday life in Venezuela over the past three decades, from ice cream companies, to fashionable insults, to the most popular TV shows.
Indeed, I refer to the formal explorations carried out by Sánchez Rugeles in, for instance, his efforts to simultaneously unravel the same anecdote through parallel, though unsynchronized, accounts that meet at the climax of the action to fully answer all of the reader’s questions; or his recurrent use of musical lyrics to describe, complement and even define specific moments throughout the book. Even though these efforts might not always be successful, they reveal a degree of concern for the formal aspect of the novel which places it, artistically, a notch above a simply anecdotal document that attests to the existence of a given portion of the population about which, to be sure, little had been written before.
Yet, for all its negative rhetoric and its apathetic pose, I would refer to this as an optimistic novel. Optimistic in that, Sánchez Rugeles, who taught at high school level for four years in Venezuela prior to emigrating to Spain, truly believes the new generation of Venezuelan teenagers shows the independence of thought, the intellectual concern, the unhindered initiative and, crucially, the moral judgment displayed by the protagonists of Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul – and if the future of Venezuela, indeed, of any country, is in such instinctively capable hands, then everything will be all right.
It is a shame that the topic of Blue Label / Etiqueta Azul is so trivial that it fails to engage the reader even through the mere 200 pages of the novel, because Sánchez Rugeles’ singular way to tell things leaves you wanting, really badly, to read more – just about something else. His second novel, Transilvania Unplugged, was also entered into the competition, and selected as one of its finalists. This, no doubt, will hit the bookshops sometime in the near future. On the evidence of what I have read of Sánchez Rugeles so far, I am likely to get a hardcover edition of the book, as soon as it is available. On the way to the checkout counter, however, I will be praying that he found a more compelling story to grace with his eloquent talent!
Published by The WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday June 20, 2011.