Few names feature more prominently in the pantheon of Venezuelan literature than Vicente Gerbasi, one of the most deliberately local portrayers of the tropical splendor of the continental Caribbean. Born in 1913 in the small town of Canoabo, halfway between nothingness and the void, Gerbasi occupies a privileged place in the admittedly little-known universe of Venezuelan poetry. Known or not, the Venezuelan is no different to other, more celebrated, literary establishments in its capacity to enshrine and simultaneously ossify some of its most recognized artists. Gerbasi is no exception to the rule—one of those authors, like Andrew Salkey in the Caribbean, or Theodore Dreyser in the US, who everyone knows by name but very few people actually read. Given the current state of affairs in Venezuela I wish to reassess Gerbasi’s work, not least in an effort to raise awareness about a more positive side to the country than hunger, scarcity, thuggery, oil-rich diplomacy and state-sponsored brutality.
The son of an immigrant couple from Vibonati, province of Salerno, southern Italy, Gerbasi grew up in poverty in Canoabo, amidst cacao beans and tamarind trees, until he was sent to Italy at the age of ten. After spending a year in Campora, about 50 miles north of his parents’ place of origin, he moved to Florence to complete his secondary education. There he witnessed the erosion of constitutional rule in the country as Mussolini consolidated his position in power and lay the foundations of a militaristic state. But if Gerbasi developed his lifelong commitment to democratic institutions through these early political experiences, it was the deep impression caused in him by the dramatic Italian countryside which would most drastically inform his poetry over the course of his life. Yet before getting that far, fate would deal him a tough card as his father passed away in Canoabo in 1928, one year before he could return to his homeland with a high school certificate.
Back in Venezuela Gerbasi moved first to Valencia, the country’s third largest city, roughly 50 miles east of his hometown, and then to Caracas, where he frequented the capital’s literary scene. In 1937 the young Gerbasi resolved to turn to writing full time, joining the news desk of the daily Ahora and becoming one of the founding members of the literary group “Viernes,” which convened on a weekly basis on Fridays and would go on to become one of the most influential groups in the country. That same year Gerbasi also published his first collection of poems, Vigilia del naúfrago [The castaway’s vigil], an ethereal and rather sentimental book which nevertheless reflects in his “song to a militiaman,” a tribute to a fallen Venezuelan fighter among the ranks of the Republican army in the Spanish Civil War, the political activism that would shape much of his life (though not so much of his poetry). Indeed, politics became a central tenet of life in Venezuela in the years immediately after the death of long-time dictator Juan Vicente Gómez in December 1935. Gerbasi, far from immune to the trend, founded in 1937 together with fellow poet Andrés Eloy Blanco and future president Rómulo Betancourt the PDV [Democratic Party of Venezuela], which sought to dismantle the autocratic edifice built by Gómez over 27 years in power and replace it with a democratic system. It was a move that would define Gerbasi’s life forever, even if he likely wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Another notable poem from his first collection is the six-part elegy “Silencio para la soledad de Luis Fernando Álvarez” [Silence for Luis Fernando Álvarez’s solitude], a tribute to his departed friend which strikes a good balance between praise and melancholy. In some sense, this relatively long poem provides the blueprint for Gerbasi’s best known work, his book-length composition Mi padre, el inmigrante [My father the immigrant] which was published in 1945. His fifth collection, Mi padre, el inmigrante succeeds in reining in the romantic influences that often rendered his earlier poetry excessively idealistic, vague, even airy-fairy, bringing his ideas back to earth by means of associating them to the very concrete if absent figure of his father. But if this group of 35 poems profits from being grounded by the presence of a tangible subject, what makes the series outstanding is the poet’s ability to add sentimental value to a number of scattered and seemingly arbitrary recollections which give meaning to more abstract notions such as time, and death, and fate, and heritage.
The 1940s was a particularly turbulent decade in the history of Venezuela, which saw the struggle between the ruling class of Andean members of the Armed Forces and the burgeoning group of democrat civilians come to a head in 1946 when the progressive General Medina Angarita was ousted from power and replaced with Rómulo Betancourt, a civilian. During Betancourt’s provisional government Gerbasi joined the diplomatic corps, working in Colombia, Cuba and Switzerland. In 1948 Venezuela’s first democratic presidential elections were won by Rómulo Gallegos, a tremendously respected intellectual backed by Betancourt. Gallegos’ inexperience in the political game together with his unwillingness to make concessions to the military resulted, however, in serious unrest among the country’s political elite. Before the end of 1948 Betancourt had lost the struggle and his man, Gallegos, had been ousted. Gallegos went on exile, Gerbasi quit the diplomatic service, and General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the most prominent among the young generation of officers in the army, lay the foundations that would allow him to take control of the country for the following decade.
It was a decade of hardship and clandestine activism for Gerbasi but it was also the decade that saw him produce his best work. In 1952 he published the collection Los espacios cálidos [The warm spaces], a book in which his deep affection for the landscape of his childhood isn’t simply expressly put into words (one of the best known poems of this collection, for instance, is titled “I love you, childhood”) but also feeds the need to record such space in detail. This is where Gerbasi, enthralled by his memory, drafts a love letter to the place of his birth in the shape of a catalogue of the colors and smells, flora and fauna, rituals and legends that define his patch of the world, a distant corner of the Venezuelan landscape, both geographically and literarily, to which no one had ever before devoted a single line. Gerbasi sings to the orange trees and soursops, to the tamarind and the palm trees; he describes the blinding light of the continental tropics which burns beyond distinction the full color chart and yet is obsessed by the red headscarves worn by the women of Canaobo; he pays tribute to the insects of the land, to the flight of the butterflies, to the aroma of homemade coffee, and “the blue taste of fresh vanilla.” Above all, though, he returns to the magical atmosphere of those nights, laden with folk stories of scourges past and the fear of elusive shadows highlighted rather than broken by the occasional outburst of clarity from a fleeting lightning.
Los espacios cálidos is a book that belongs squarely in the canon of Caribbean literature for its texture, for its subject, but also for its special sensibility. Meanwhile, in 1955 Gerbasi wrote on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the city of Valencia a book-length poem on the rogue Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre, who among other references is the protagonist of Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The structure of Gerbasi’s poem mimics his earlier homage to his father, though this series is infused with a mock epic style. The swift movement in the opening sections through the major events that forged the myth of Aguirre—his repudiation of Spanish rule in the New World, his legendary cruelty against the local population, the rage that eventually led to the death of his daughter by his own hand—immediately foretell that the subject of the series isn’t really the tyrant’s life but his death, or rather the penury to which his soul is subjected after his physical disappearance. And yet, the way Gerbasi approaches the issue makes his poem more telling of the idiosyncrasies of the people of Venezuela, especially in the countryside, than of anything else.
In 1958 the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez was brought to an end by mass demonstrations. New elections finally made of Rómulo Betancourt the first elected—rather than appointed—president of the so-called democratic era, and Gerbasi returned to his position in the diplomatic service. He acted as the Venezuelan ambassador to Haiti, Israel, Denmark, Norway and Poland between 1959 and 1971. His work over these years was marked by his travels and the new experiences they brought to him. Observational, sometimes reflective, and often introspective, there is a lighter mood to his work from the 1960s, the most interesting of which is the 1968 collection Poesía de viajes [Travel poetry], which earned him the country’s highest award, the National Literature Prize.
Born in exile to an Italian couple just before the break of the First World War, Vicente Gerbasi, lived through the rise to power of Mussolini in Italy and the death of Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela, he saw the advent of democracy in his country be stifled, like his own career as a diplomat, by the emergence of yet another military dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, and then he lived through the establishment of a democratic system in his country. He experienced firsthand Venezuela’s candidacy to the ranks of the First World in the 1970s, and was extolled as the greatest of poets from this new Promised Land. Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence but Gerbasi passed away in 1992, a hugely symbolic year in the recent history of Venezuela, as it marked the arrival of Hugo Chávez into the Venezuelan political scene with an attempted coup which failed pathetically yet sent shock waves through the country’s social fabric which are still being felt today. That might be the reason why Gerbasi is more known than read these days, because his art belongs to a different time, to an altogether different reality. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reassessing.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday June 30, 2017.