Roberto Bolaño, the late patron saint of Chilean literature, wrote of the young Argentinian novelist Andrés Neuman: “The literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.” How to Travel Without Seeing is Neuman’s first work of nonfiction—the result of winning a literary prize that sent him on a whirlwind trip to every country in Latin America.
In this excerpt, describing Neuman’s time in Venezuela, we get a glimpse inside the surreal operations of that country’s book industry, including the way the government has influenced what one can and cannot say—in print or otherwise.
Various publishers and editors tell me that importing books is tricky in Venezuela. Taxes, laws, and customs all conspire to limit importation. Mysterious customs regulations hold books up for weeks—if, that is, they actually arrive. This means that distributors often end up looking for copies on the black market. They buy them at top American dollar, making them more expensive for the reading public. The idea is that such restrictions, even beyond maintaining ideological control, favor domestic publishing houses. But domestic houses often either can’t undertake large publishing ventures or spend years in the process, because they have incredible difficulties importing paper. We must recognize that, as a circular tale, this literary politics is amazing.
The government has its own printing house. They print books for the Librerías del Sur network, where the entire inventory is cheap, almost free. This state program serves to popularize reading. And it would be completely admirable, if it didn’t also entail an unfair advantage over the rest of the publishing houses and a squeeze on all other bookstores, whose survival is constantly in doubt. It’s as troubling that there are readers who can’t afford books as it is that the publishing funds are determined by the president. Luckily Chávez claims to be a great reader. In fact, he recently stated that he had read Les Miserábles (which is about a thousand pages long) before going to bed.
“The worst part,” says a friend, “is that we can’t even support the opposition. We aren’t chavistas, but here the opposition groups are total fascists.”
In the municipality of Chacao, a ritzy neighborhood, we are afforded the luxury of having breakfast out in the open. This is not a metaphor. They say, “The luxury of having a nice breakfast out in the open.” We sit at one of the outside tables. I instinctively look up, as if expecting bombs. An ironic pigeon defecates on my shoulder.
“We call this zone—Altamira, Chacao, and its environs—the Other City,” they explain. I deduce that They don’t live here.
I browse some of the country’s novels. En la casa del pez que escupe el agua, a historical novel by the deceased writer Francisco Herrera Luque, grabs my attention. I read the beginning and a character named Andrés appears. This doesn’t happen too often, so I continue. The novel narrates the birth of oil-rich Venezuela and the political process that brought Juan Vicente Gómez to power. This same dictator, who governed Venezuela for a third of a century, inspired García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch. Gómez died in power at an extremely old age, between November and the beginning of December 1935. The exact day is a mystery, because the general ordered in his will that the date of his death must coincide with Bolívar’s: December 17. It’s often said in jest that General Gómez is the only Venezuelan president who governed after his death. Until now.
Whoever you are, whatever you do, and however you see things, in Venezuela you cannot not talk about Chávez. That is perhaps his main victory and his greatest act of oppression.
“Public hospitals here,” a friend tells me, “are falling apart. They have nothing. But the government donates ambulances to Bolivia.” Are these the same ambulances that Evo Morales announced over the radio as the great Bolivian investment in health services?
Tomorrow is a national holiday commemorating the birth of the liberator of liberators, Simón Bolívar. It seems that I’m collecting viruses and patriotisms over the course of my journey. If in fact they are two different things.
From my room I can just make out Monte Ávila, which I knew first as a publishing house before I realized it was a mountain. Its nervous greenness surprises me. I suddenly recall a Venezuelan joke about the Argentine ego. Why do Argentineans climb to the top of El Ávila? To see how the city looks without them.
One of the stories in Rodrigo Blanco’s Los invencibles tells of a mountaineer who gets lost on El Ávila. When they finally rescue him, it’s too late: the character has literally lost himself; that is, he has lost a part of his identity. The story ends with an insane act that is in reality an indication of sanity: the mountaineer decides to join the rescue crews with the secret hope “of finding myself again and being able, once and for all, to go back.” The story can be read as a high-altitude variation on the theme of the double. But it’s also a parable of the alienation of the individual in an oppressive environment. “One of the most critical and unavoidable stages of being trapped,” I read, “is when a person begins to blend into his surroundings. When, spurred on by his delirium, he envisions an imaginary flight.” One doesn’t have to be a mountaineer to dream of fleeing beyond the Venezuelan peaks. More and more people have this dream every day.
Reprinted from How to Travel Without Seeing, by Andrés Neuman, with permission from Restless Books.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.