Tribulations of an Anti-Plagiarism Censor

A few years ago, I posted this poem by Julio Miranda on Facebook:

"The coherence of history would demand a gunshot, sparing us all from the poet.
The coherence of the poet would demand a gunshot, sparing us all from the poem.
The coherence of the poem would demand a history, sparing us all from the gunshot."

I never credited the author. But I did put the poem in quotations. That was the exercise: guessing who the author was. A few dared insinuate that the poem was mine. That it was just a test meant to gauge the audience’s reaction. I took that as a praise, as I was only known as an anti-plagiarism censor and as someone who once entertained the brief thought of writing novels that reflected Venezuelan reality. Such an absurd idea! The reader of these pages will already have noticed the clumsiness in my style.

The post got half a dozen comments. One got it right. Or almost: “This was written by that dude who says Cadenas is a huge plagiarist lol”.

I was an undergrad student then. And that is how I came up with the subject for my thesis. Or my sentence. Now I’m a slave for the worst government ever, this according to the man who was once my thesis advisor, a history expert. He reiterates the point every time we meet for coffee, with the wisdom of he who knows is lost, and knows that no matter how hard he tries for an exit, he’ll only find doors filled with confusion and dread. Or find me, bloated with confusion, bloated with fear, and with hundreds of thesis and books that I open like tiny doors that hold thousands of plagiarized phrases.

***

The times of military frenzy in Latin America ended as they usually did. During the transition, we were stupid enough to give a writer a chance. And now he rules.

***

We have been coherent with one single mistake. We have been constant in that mistake. Cohesively, we have tried to be. Of course, I also belong to this collective naiveté, this ill-intent that we play down under this cynical moniker of “Latino smarts”. Others, more daring and brazen, have chosen to designate us as a nation marred in childlike innocence, cauterized by rumours, myths and legends we drag along in our genes. Up until a couple decades ago, we thought a strong military man would solve all our problems, erase from our behaviour any trace of idleness, indiscipline, impunctuality. Already sick of everything, we chose to elect, with 74% of the vote, an author who earned his living as an editor and creative writer but who also was, indeed, a candidate with plenty of charisma. He had leadership to spare. An award-winning writer, not just any. We never imagined that his administration would veer towards this sort of authoritarianism, a sort of low-impact State terror.

Why did a writer who punishes literary plagiarism by death come to rule? Why has he decided to severely punish those who don’t read at least 20 books a year? Why does he charge excessive penalties to companies whose ads on TV and print have spelling errors? Moreover: male citizens of legal age with an average of less than 15 books read per year have been rounded up and labeled as illiterate, which deprives them of any civil rights. After these procedures take place, they are taken to different areas of the country to collaborate in the reconstruction of the cracked roads left by the Venezuelan Civil War and to erect libraries, filled with all the books forbidden by the preceding dictators. By enacting these measures, we managed to finish the Nelson Himiob Highway, previously known as the Central Regional Highway. During those months of slavery, misery and forced labour, thousands of men were forced to memorize a full collection of poems and recite them out loud while a blowtorch-like sun drilled into their skulls.

Currently the best paid job is to be a proof-reader. I could spend hours listing the things that happen when a writer gets to the presidency. We were the world champions in naiveté when we thought our leader would continue the ideals of Rómulo Gallegos. We assumed his election as historical payback: finally, the triumph of civilization over barbarism! Once again, history punished us.

This is the environment in which my days transpire. My bleak days. I’m an insignificant being, removed from power but working for it, removed from fame and money but somehow conditioned by two insurmountable axes: finances and total surveillance.

Ever since I became a censor I have known only three modes of existence: rest, follow orders and hunt for plagiarists. Starting last week, I’ve been introducing a new variant to my days. This story revolves around said variant.

My thesis was a catalogue of plagiarists. Authors who, despite being alive at the time, I handed to the jaws of power. The State had assigned me to these tasks. Not fulfilling any of the phases of the project meant death. The history of a country is the history of a series of survivals. I am a survivor that hunts down those who tried to outsmart the rest.

***

A girl I was dating some four or five years ago liked getting high by sniffing my Juan Villoro books. She dumped me the week Palm Trees of the Quick Breeze lost its scent, a book I had bought the afternoon of our first date. The typical three-month span of my casual relationships. For that exact time, the scent lingered there, insistent on its pages.

“Your books don’t smell anymore”, she told me during our last Facebook chat before blocking me on all social networks, even Twitter (!), which amounts to virtual murder. Her excuse had a sarcastic aroma to it and percolated reproach.  I was down for a couple days, but the breakup coincided with a long weekend when I went to two birthdays and a send-off party, and enough booze flowed there to give me temporary amnesia.

I didn’t hear from María Alejandra again until a couple of years back. I ran into her favourite cousin while standing in line to vote during the presidential elections The Writer won. I liked this cousin of hers, despite his excessive technocracy when defending socialist ideals. Every time I talked to him about “socialism” he’d get upset as if I’d insulted his mom. A couple times, Mariale, her cousin and I shared a cab after a night of downing beers in the pubs of Eugenio Montejo parish, the area formerly known as Chacao. Truth be told, we always liked each other. However, that time he greeted me quickly and distantly. “Mariale left for the Empire”, he said and walked away, as if he feared he could change his mind about the voting because of some casual phrase.

Mariale had in fact left the country. Mariale lives in Louisiana, USA. I confirmed this via a mutual friend of ours, a psychologist: Mariale saw her for a while hoping for her healing virtues. We bumped into each other in a subway car. The trip was slow and saturated with sweaty arms. Before parting, the psychologist gave me her business card. In her free time, she read the Tarot and made three times as much from it than she did from her practice. I felt suddenly tempted to ask her whether I would ever stop calling Mariale Mariale, or I would start thinking of her again as María Alejandra. For me, abbreviations have always been a sign of attachment.

I recount all of this because Mariale wanted to see me. She wrote me an e-mail in late May. I replied “yes”, just that, because I was a bit busy. Any other time I would’ve been excited by the news. But I was already in another relationship and was doing well enough to give up seeing people on the side. María Alejandra Sanders, that’s her current name, had opened a new Facebook account as a married woman. She contacted me through it. Out of curiosity, through a corporate account of which I was the community manager, I gained access to her old profile. She still kept it, like a sarcophagus that held the remains of her own nuclear crisis, her Chernobyl: the radioactive past standing in contrast to the integrity of her present.

In her current picture, she sported some old-fashioned glasses, a ponytail, a Baywatch-like tan. She was also hugging a nerdy-looking kid. She was close to the kid, as if she wanted to snort him. I understood she had replaced her addiction to book smells with one to the smell of baby lotion. Mariale’s look was representative of a life that had left behind a weekly combo of alcoholic and hallucinogenic excess and exchanged it for homemaking habits, anchored in Louisiana’s wet drowsiness.

In those days, when Mariale talked about children, she stressed emphatically (and somewhat angrily) that she would never have them: “I’ll become your typical crazy-cat-lady aunt” was her line every time she saw a woman pushing a stroller. I stared at her photo, scanning details for several minutes, in the search of some indication that proved a blood bond between the two. However, the boy might have just been a nephew or a godson.

I have spoken about the scent of my books, but not about Mariale’s own characteristic scent. Hers was natural. I never knew for sure if she applied some sort of oyster lotion. During the few weeks we dated, my sense of smell nullified the other four. I was blind and lacked all tact. When she said “We’d better leave things as they are” I didn’t listen; I was focusing on a wave of salty sea air that wafted from her hair.

Mariale had published an artisanal plaquette together with a few girlfriends. It was titled Breaking away, like, totally (poems, stories, essays and reflections). In principle, the collection presented a half-feminist, half-critical examination, half-parody, half-scathing affront with existential pretenses aimed at those who had chosen to emigrate. In the prologue, the authors took pride, forcing a quote by Tomás Straka, in belonging to the first Venezuelan generation to seriously examine the phenomenon of emigration. If we read the index today, in which each text is followed by the name of its author, we can see that only two out of the 16 poets remain in the country. The plaquette was useful in ratifying a constant: Venezuelans’ capacity to contradict themselves. Mariale didn’t want children, and now she has one. Mariale didn’t want to leave the country, and she married Mr. Sanders.

Yes, Mariale was a good writer, though her real deal was photography. The truth is that her passions were ephemeral. From vintage fashion design, she had moved on to bodypainting, and from quantum bodypainting to a hybrid practice called eco-yoga-zen-shui. From mysticism, she took a quantum leap to photography, an activity she alternated with writing. In the latter, she earned an Honourable Mention in a national short story competition. When the book that collected the works of winners and finalists was launched at a book store, I thought it was weird not to see her there. The reason finally made sense to me: she had already left “for the Empire”. On behalf of Mariale, her parents attended, whom I recognized from a nude photo shoot she had done of them in Mérida. The vernissage began, and while the waiter offered refills, Mariale’s mother turned around to take a couple looks at me. I felt how her gaze skillfully avoided the cheers! to sink into me like an elegant insect that climbed up my legs, went through my jaw and scratched my eyelids. I downed my glass of wine and left.

I had managed to buy the book despite my abruptness in leaving. Lying in my bed, I teared the plastic wrap that covered Breaking away, like, totally… I went straight to the index. I read the initial paragraph of her story. I discovered she had stolen a phrase from me.

“No wonder she blocked me”, I deducted. She never showed me what she wrote. We barely spoke about what we wrote. We barely talked of anything, we just screwed and smelled each other. Well, I was the one smelling Mariale while she sniffed my books.

In any case, the phrase was nothing great. When I came up with it, I was walking through the city with Mariale and told her I’d like to open a story with that revealing — yet simple — phrase. I was going to write a story around it just so I could get to use it. Mariale began her story with my invention.

***

Mariale wrote to me again. This time around she wasn’t as telegraphic as in her previous e-mail. Mariale has a son. A five-year old son. His name is John Juan M. “I need to see you so you meet my kid, give me a date to meet for coffee”; that’s how she finished her hurried e-mail, in a Spanish devoid of ñ’s or accent marks.

I couldn’t sleep. I spent all night wondering whether I was going to accuse her of plagiarism, but my hypothesis wouldn’t be valid enough. I have never published anything, nor written anything that deserves publication. And, additionally, if my accusation were to be taken seriously, Mariale’s boy could lose his mom. I thought of these things until dawn.

***

I don’t know what to call this kid. I would ask Mariale about her decision to name him that way, ask her whether she wanted to resume in little John Juan some sort of nationalist ambiguity or rather build a bridge, overcome a gap. A reflection of Mariale’s lives here and there.

Mariale’s return to Caracas tested my dignity and patience, my capacity of holding back. She vanished as a stain in an old book and now returned like a chemical explosion. I, however, had learned to know myself and was certain I’d bring the plagiarism up sooner or later. Better yet, I would tell her what I did for a living: “Mariale, as you may have noticed from my jacket, I work for the Writer’s administration. I am an Anti-Plagiarism Censor. In Venezuela, plagiarism is severely punished, did you know?”. After saying that, her reaction would give her away.

We set a date at the fancy restaurant owned by godmother/aunt, Francisca’s Coffee, where I was given free lunches in reward for the corrections I made to the feeble spelling of the advertising agents she hired.

When I arrived, my aunt was gone. Didn’t matter, as the employees all knew me, and as soon as I walked in they offered me a choice table and a mochaccino. At the table next to mine, I witnessed one of the many uncomfortable events that took place since the Anti-Piracy Act passed.

A man dressed as a bank teller sat down, without asking, at the table where a man in his fifties was finishing his pancakes and reading something on his phone. With authority, he said:

—Good day, my friend. May I have the book you just read?

—Here, have it, it’s very good. I’m almost at the end.

The man that looked like a teller went straight to the first pages. He quickly produced a camera and took a picture of the credits page and another of the cover. So far so good. But later, he pointed the camera to the fifty-year old man and the flash made the latter spill his coffee on the tablecloth.

—What is this? First you sit down like that and… What is this about?

—Illegal ISBN… You should be ashamed of reading pirated books in front of your underage children. Anyway, be assured your human rights will be respected although you don’t respect author’s rights. Come with me…

—But, what are you saying? How do you know I have children?

—Don’t play the fool. If you don’t get up at the count of ‘three’ I’ll be forced to call the police. We could also come to an agreement… One…

—How do you know I have underage children?

—That’s why I’m telling you we can negotiate… Two…

Anti-piracy censors are pocketing tons of money, unlike the censors in my field. Corruption is still set in our DNA.

***

Mariale and I were the same age, but she looked like she had just crossed the borders that separate us from the USA on foot, and wearing no sunscreen. Her scent was still immutable, separated from her physique, protected by her skin from an evolutionary catastrophe that had turned her blood into a solution of mineral salts. That afternoon I sniffed her even before I looked at her. She touched my shoulders from behind and instead of saying hi, she smiled, as if you could read her excuse, dilated over many years, on her lips.

“This is John Juan Mario Sanders Romero, your son”. Mariale’s excuse had the body of a five-year old boy, 4.9 myopia and an IQ of 194.

***

“A carrot, beet and orange juice would do you good”, she said, and remarked my paleness.

We ordered breakfast. At the table next to ours, the fifty-year old and the corrupt censor negotiated.

***

That day went by amid conversations from here and there, about life in Louisiana and life in Caracas. Assorted memories. Uncomfortable silences. Astonishing discussions. Plenty of uncomfortable silences. I took John Juan Mario home.

I talked to my five-year old son until midnight. I drank a few beers and he just asked for water. It’s not like I had a variety of age-appropriate drinks to offer him. He confessed he was a special child. And that gifted children required special treatment and education. He told me he hated that. “As soon as I open my mouth people look at me weird”, he said, and asked for more ice-cold water. After drinking it bottoms up he stared at me as if he didn’t have anything else to say, as if his words had frozen. He read aloud the Alfredo Armas Alfonzo short story printed on the water bottle label. “Bottles in my country never have stories”, he said. Taking advantage of his meditative state, I asked him about his projects. “I finished high school, but I haven’t decided yet what university to attend”, he stated with an erudite tone. I told him I found him very wise for his age, even wiser than myself. He thanked me for not comparing him to indigo children or millennials. Anyhow, I added, he had the rest of his childhood and almost all his teenage years to decide. To change the subject, he told me his mom also wrote short stories, “ficción, fiction”.

—Why did your mom name you like that? — I interrupted him. He shrugged his shoulders.

—Truth be told I’ve never asked her. Where I live they generally call me Little Hawk.

—Is that your pet name?

—My what…?

—Your sobriquet…

—I preferred what they used to call me: “Axe that cuts the wind”. My classmates call me many different names, and they are all far removed from what we understand by affection. That is what they called me in the village where we live.

I understood Mariale had ended up in a hippie commune. A conducive place for her dissolute lifestyle.

—And what do you do there? — I asked, pretending I didn’t care.

—Well, the same things anywhere else in the world: live. Only we are connected in a way that is more…

—Deep?

—Yes, we are deeply and strongly connected to the natural world, as the leader says…

We talked a little longer. It was more likely that the kid was making things up. However, I felt an uncomfortable echo in the word leader. I didn’t pursue it further. There were leaders everywhere. There was a global pandemic of prophets and leaders and the USA was not the exception. I saved the question “What does a leader mean to you?” for another day. Sleep was beating me. It had been a hectic day. A day I hadn’t fully processed yet. One of those days I would remember forever. While Mariale smelled like the sea, I felt submerged in deep waters, down below, where light refracts less and less. Things were undefined. I felt like an exile from my own routine. I felt embedded inside a new density.

I put the kid in my bed. I slept on the couch. I had already begun — despite the surprise — to bond with him, so there was the possibility that I’d call him by his initials: JJM, or little Johnny. Before falling asleep, the kid told me his mom had charged him with giving me a letter, tucked inside a Venezuelan geography textbook. I found it odd that the boy carried a hefty volume of our geography in his suitcase, and one written in English, no less.

The letter sealed my night with an unexpected shock. Mariale told me about her strange pulmonary disease and her unmovable decision not to undergo any treatment. She had returned to Venezuela to die. Among other clinical details, she warned me not to look for her, that by the time I read the letter she’d certainly be on the road somewhere, travelling to Mérida, going to her parents’ house. She wouldn’t tell them anything, she would just let herself go peacefully, surely as The Leader preached.

Now everything points to me not seeing Mariale again. And I want to call her that forever. Her two names joined like two contradicting territories. Mariale had returned to die in Venezuela and brought her son along, my son, whose existence I didn’t suspect at all. Now I understand her cousin’s distance, the indecipherable and uncomfortable looks by her parents during the book launch. Lately, Venezuela was associated more with a country where you could get murdered, not one to which you’d return to die, especially with the precedent of having fled from it. Mariale was a minuscule, yet telling statistic; she moved us and made us aware of the territory we were in: a theme park for crime that not even a totalitarian and literary government could conquer.

When we were having a bite at Francisca’s Coffee, Mariale took a few minutes while John Juan Mario was in the washroom to hold my hands like that time when, before we started dating, we planned a poetic-photographic exhibition. Her hands had slow, determined fingers, possessing the innate ability to manipulate the minds of others:

—I have to ask you for a favour. Keep the kid for a couple nights, tops. I’ll talk to my parents about something very important and I don’t want him present. I promise I won’t bother you anymore with this. The day after tomorrow we’ll talk and you can give him back to me.

***

When JJM snored — and in that he was just like any other normal child — I browsed the folders in my laptop for the pictures Mariale and I took from the roof of the El Silencio towers for that exhibition we never managed to put on. We met during a photography workshop at the sociology school of the Universidad Central. The workshop helped me focus my gaze, understand certain shots from movies, and know what a diaphragm and an obturator were for. Mariale discovered that photography was a therapeutic occupation; it kept her from biting the skin around her nails so insistently.

***

During breakfast, I discussed several issues with my genius son. He told me he came from a territory ravaged by devastating hurricanes and terrorist children. We concluded that the world had never stopped being a dangerous place.

John Juan Mario had been a victim of bullying. A variant of what we know in Venezuela as “chalequeo”. But our ways are nothing compared to bullying. It’d be like comparing a friendly game of street baseball to the MLB. But that was not the reason Mariale had brought him along. There were others, stronger and more sensitive. In the hippie commune where he lived, his dad or adoptive dad, Mr. Sanders, had run into problems with the government: in the backyard of the house granted to him by the mayor of Louisiana, he tended to his own botanical gardens, devoted to the production of a new plant, the product of a strange crossbreeding of different varieties. It was a 100% natural process, the boy assured me, that resulted in a psychotropic salad. The recipe had caught fire in the state. This confession made things crystal clear. Mariale fled punishment that could drag her to prison. After breakfast, I discovered yet another reason: a classmate of John Juan Mario’s had brought her dad’s firearm to school, and started mowing down the girls in her grade while shouting “Bitches, I’m Katrina! I’m Katrina, pleased to meet you!”.

***

I spent the day thinking what to do. I cancelled a date with my girlfriend. My excuse was that I’d gotten a report from the Universidad del Zulia regarding a grad school professor who, after marking her students’ work, forced them to publish it in peer reviewed magazines including her as a co-author. “Yes dear, and we’re evaluating whether it’s plagiarism or blackmail. I think we’ll be here late”, I told her. It was already a fact: my life was going to change significantly. I also cancelled a meeting with the man who was my undergrad thesis advisor, Carlos Talavera Marcano.

After lunch, John Juan Mario told me he was going to spend a few minutes exercising with eco-yoga movements to guarantee a favourable digestion. I told him I was going to check Twitter and do some work, but that we’d go for a walk later. The kid’s eyes followed me as a I went to my study, as if he needed to be completely alone to begin his routine.

Before closing the door, I added:

—Things are not ok in this country.

—What? Is there a hurricane coming?

—No, nothing like that. There’s no hurricanes here.

—What could be wrong, then?

The territory John Juan Mario was abandoning was as contradictory as his mother.

***

—What are you writing? — he interrupted me. The boy was drenched in sweat. I told him I wasn’t really writing, that I was researching and reading material so I could, months or years later, write a novel about a lunatic who recruits an army of beggars and lowlifes to retake the Essequibo Disputed Zone. But at the same time, I told him, it’d be a novel that touched on the most important and least recognized necessity of the human soul: having roots.

—Hey! Hold on a minute! My mother published a novel called Zone. In English, of course.

—I had no idea your mom had published something new, let alone in English. Did you read it?

—Yes, of course; in fact, it has the same plot as yours. I proofread it in Spanish and translated it. — I don’t think I ever got used to these genius statements of his. He added: — My mother is obsessed with Edward Said. As of late, everyone in my village is obsessed with the subject of exile. Whether they should go, stay, come back, never return. I think my mother, at least psychically, never left this country. It worries me she has forgotten human beings are nomadic animals who, although don’t travel north in summer or south in winter, every so often migrate in waves; immigrants, displaced persons, the banished and the exiled, all due to different reasons, but all following this genetic burden of leaving their place of birth. That is why wars, fascist ideologies, and persecutions are nothing but excuses; it’s a mechanism dating back millennia that forces these displacements, which may appear whimsical at first but are not: they are part of our nomadic nature, part of a secret system whose laws course though our veins. Deep down we know why we must flee. Or, on the other hand, why we must dominate: human beings are instinctually totalitarian.

—Where did you get that from?

—Books!

—Would you like some cake?

—I already met my daily glucoside rate. I’d rather have something healthier. Water, for instance. But mineral water, in a bottle, the one that comes with stories. You don’t want to keep talking about this, Mario? You know, we know exile because everything is exile.   

—Then why did you say last night that “it’d be good to have a country”?

—Because it’d be good to have a country when nothing was exile.

***

We went out for a walk on the Salvador Garmendia boulevard. I remembered this other project I had mentioned to María Alejandra. I’ll call her that again. If she is a plagiarist it’s possible she lied about her illness. Or even about my alleged paternity. If she is a plagiarist and I prove her guilt, both her physical and psychological well-being will be at risk. On the other hand, if I had published my book without knowing a novel titled Zone was available at indie bookstores in the USA, it would have been me in danger.

As we walked, I thought about my undergrad thesis for a good while. In principle, my project veered more towards creation: a novel in which a librarianship major creates a record of plagiarisms. The novel stars at an end-of-semester party. The semester when my character finished his credits. The DJ, standing on his stage in the middle of that huge square in our university, plays “El gorrión”. Everyone in the audience boos him. “We’re sick of Coldplay!”, screams a clearly intoxicated girl. The DJ, instead of changing the song, turns up the volume. Seconds later, Gualberto Ibarreto’s voice is heard. The crowd was convinced it was “Clocks”, the British band’s smash hit, whose intro is almost identical to Gualberto’s song. I changed my mind before even finishing the first chapter.

Later, after I had graduated and The Great Writer ruled, a professor from the faculty’s studies commission read my research project by chance, titled Crimes on Paper. History of Literary Plagiarism in Venezuela, and told a friend of his who worked at the presidential press office. After a few calls they got my phone number, and I began working for the government, aiding in the creation of a new ministerial department.

The first big plagiarism I detected once I took the job was in a book that my tutor, Prof. Talavera Marcano, had lent me. I suspected he had left an And®ea bookmark in the exact chapter where the crime began. I’m talking about the voluminous To Fix a Face (Notes on Current Venezuelan Novel Writing), which was heavily quoted during the late 20th and early 21st century. José Napoleón Oropeza presented this study while taking postgraduate courses at King’s College, University of London, under the supervision of Jason Wilson. Back then, he titled his thesis An Approach to the Analysis of the Structural and Thematic Problems in the Venezuelan Contemporary Novel, and defended it on December 8th 1981, in time to eat some British Christmas turkey feeling relieved from academic stress. Oropeza, without regrets and changing just a word here or there, plagiarized Raúl Agudo Freites; Oropeza’s chapter titled “Teresa de la Parra: writing and its different faces” is a faithful copy of the chapter “Teresa de la Parra, or subjective realism” by Agudo Freites, included in From Romantic to Oneiric Realism (An Essay on Venezuelan Narrative) published in 1975, six years before Oropeza defended his thesis. Oropeza plagiarizes this essay beginning to end, changing only a few phrases. Oropeza has already been captured by our agents and, bureaucracy willing, we expect a sentence on this matter in the upcoming years.

At a later date, I founded Asocopla (Association Against Plagiarism) with a group of anti-plagiarism censors, an organism that makes work easier for all my colleagues. Once we created it, accusations started pouring in. In Mérida, one of our most important agents detected a case a few days ago. The plagiarist was identified. He happened to be Alberto Rodríguez Carucci, who did something similar to what José Napoleón Oropeza had done. Carucci, a renowned and respected professor, a collaborator in the emblematic and now vanished book Nation and Literature, plagiarized a chapter from a student from his thesis on Miliani.

My ascent in the job as an anti-plagiarism censor was frantic, yet I could never have imagined that I had been villainously plagiarized.

María Alejandra’s plagiarism must have happened as follows, during an afternoon of study and sex. One of the many ex-caudillos had little time left in power and people were nervous, hormonally overexcited, because rumour had it things would end badly.

“Oh, Mario, I’m sorry, I wanted to listen to Charles Trenet. Didn’t you add the songs I sent you over Gmail to your iTunes?”, she said, removing her USB drive from my laptop. “Why didn’t you eject it first?”, I protested. “That won’t damage it, grumpy face. Come, let’s do it here on the puff”. Submerged and fully surrendered, she slapped the piece of furniture a couple times. She got her nose close to the leather. “Oh, God, yes! It smells like a new book”.

María Alejandra had exiled my words, my history, my DNA. She finished her task in a few minutes: she extracted information on literary projects which, ironically, referenced theft (the Essequibo Disputed Zone, the acts of plagiarism!) in addition to the genetic information required. Both results would be born in a different country, with a different language and nationality. My book and my son had been exiles before being written and born.

***

—Why are you so quiet? — John Juan Mario interrupted me after crossing a street on the boulevard. I didn’t answer. I remembered over and over that afternoon María Alejandra had plagiarized me twice. The afternoon when we made John Juan Mario.

When we passed by the recently opened Radio City theatre, a cop stopped us and asked me about the book I was currently reading. I showed him the documents that accredited me as an anti-plagiarism agent, which meant I was reading several books at once but couldn’t finish any of them due to the workload. He apologized and offered, somewhat embarrassed, to give us a ride to the end of the boulevard on his bike. I refused. We weren’t yet six feet away from him when he stopped a surfer looking guy. He answered The Metamorphosis. The cop quickly went through his records. He had a device, similar to a tablet, which held the data of the reader citizens. “Mr. José Gabriel, it says here you’ve been reading The Metamorphosis for four months. Don’t you think that book is brief and entertaining enough? Why are you taking this long?” The man argued he had liked it so much, he had re-read it three times. He smiled nervously. “Please come with me. The experts will perform a reading check”, the cop said to the reader citizen. The surfer, despairing a bit already, stammered: “Officer, wait, I’ve read many more books, but they’re poetry volumes. By Guillermo Sucre, The Writer’s favourite poet.” The officer stared at him with contempt. “Sir, you know very well that poetry volumes don’t count as books, that’d be too easy…”

***

—Mario, you know, the US are always sticking their nose everywhere. And we suffer when it comes to getting medication. We’re neglected in Louisiana.   

—This is hell. What were you thinking?

—Violence can be stopped through good security policies and an honest police force. How do you stop a hurricane? We don’t have a mountain like yours in Louisiana.

I’ve noticed during our walk we’ve seen or stumbled upon half a dozen blind people. — He continued — People don’t respect the blind here. There aren’t even lines on the sidewalks so they walk to and from. A country that forgets those who cannot see is a country that goes towards the dark.

—The blind don’t read.

Suddenly, a few questions sprung in my mind: do I belong to what I long for, or to the place I’m in? Susan, another aunt of mine, said that for as long as we exist, we’ll always be somewhere. She said time and time again that feet are always either planted or running. Aunt Susan thought that minds, either because of a lack of vitality or because of the deepest strength, can be in the past and the present at once, or in the present and the future. Or simply here and there. But, what happens when these changes are reproduced in the city you’ve grown up with? When these changes manifest themselves in that foreign city that has become the headquarters of memories, coming from a space of estrangement, like it’s starting to happen to this genius foreign kid who is supposedly mine.   

María Alejandra had exiled me in my own country with her wretched plan. She had removed me from my order and my routine using the products which she had, willfully and maliciously, stolen from me years ago.

That night I got another e-mail from Mariale. She informed me that her lungs were getting worse, but she was happy. Although they didn’t function well anymore, she was still capable of seizing the wide array of smells she thought she wouldn’t feel again inside her body, and which penetrated her as tiny ghosts. Among other things, she told me some cousins of hers had informed her of the mystical and healing powers of a shaman in La Azulita, but the man wasn’t immune to the national crisis and needed certain ingredients to make the broth that would heal her. You couldn’t find them in Mérida.  A plague (I thought I’d read a plagiarism), some sort of insect hurricane, had decimated the fruits in the region. I replied, asking her what those fruits were, exactly. I’m still waiting for her answer.

The kid threw a tantrum as I was making my bed for him because he missed mommy. Despite his precocious genius, he was just an odd kid who wanted her mom to rub Vick VaporRub on his chest and smell him.

The following night I took the wunderkind to catch a bus at the Travelling Companion eastern terminal, named after Orlando Araujo’s opus. There, Mariale’s hippy cousin would be waiting for us, the same one who ignored me in the voter line. He didn’t say much to me. He greeted me succinctly and started hugging JJM. Before turning around, the child in his arms, he looked at me as if I were a coward that wasn’t responsibly assuming his role as a father.

The kid would make his first trip in his new country. A little exile of I don’t know how many days. His separation would make me think better about the new situation entering my life.

I saw him leave. It was a double decker bus, and the name of the bus company didn’t inspire confidence: Danger Express. The first thing that popped in my head was danger at 300 km/h. Anyway, JJM was used to fighting those speeds. He’d have the chance to move at a hurricane’s pace.

As I left the terminal, I heard deafening music. A beat I could only describe as hard-vallenato-prog. It came from the bar where I got drunk for the first time. Nowadays, the place was besieged by hard times and hookers that encouraged machete fights.

I entered the place and drank a beer. A woman in her early fifties came to me. Her clothes made her look like a cracked-out version of techno-merengue diva Natusha. “Buy me a drink”, she said. I asked for another beer. “C’mon, don’t be so cheap, get me a real drink”, and moved on to another client who had been boozing for hours, judging from the curvature of his spine. The diva’s perfume could be described as aromatic terrorism. I sneezed on the bar.

***

I collapsed on my bed. I had lived some very hectic days. Two days as the father of a son who I never called a son, and who I treated more like a drunk, heartbroken friend I plied with water and took walking for a few miles so he’d sweat off the hangover; in this case, the hangover of a genius’ apprehensions.

I placed a pillow under my head and a book, coming from God knows where, hit my forehead.

It was the English language Venezuelan geography textbook, Venezuelan Geographic. It had a porous salinity to it; that feeling in my hands took me back to when time when, before I even knew what “monarchy” meant, I built sand castles at the beach. I felt I could grab its texture midair, turn it into a castle of microscopic minerals. Finally, I opened the book and browsed it as you would with a Sudoku magazine.

Inside of it there was a fold-out map of the whole world. “The world and its leaders, pandemics, plagiarisms and plagues”, I thought. On the map, several countries were surrounded by a red circle: Argentina, Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada, Spain and Venezuela, which was surrounded by a denser red circle, as if the marker had spun over the country like a hurricane. Next to it, you could see something written. A checkmark made with a blue marker. Inside each red circle sealing these countries, an alphanumerical word was repeated: Dad1, Dad2, Dad3, Dad4, Dad5, Dad6, Dad7, and so on, successively, on the rest of the world.

 

GLOSSARY

Alfredo Armas Alfonzo (1921-1990): Venezuelan narrator, historian and essay writer. Forerunner of Magical Realism in Latin America.

Rómulo Gallegos (1884-1969): The highest representative of Venezuelan narrative, he was the first president in the history of the country to be elected by popular vote. He was only in power for 8 months when he was ousted by a coup. He was a candidate for the Nobel Literature Prize.

Nelson Himiob (1908-1963): Venezuelan narrator. He fought the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez, for which he was incarcerated and sentenced to hard labour building roads.

Julio Miranda (1945-1998): Cuban-Venezuelan short story writer and poet. In «Tribulations of an Anti-Plagiarism Censor» there is a phrase from his book El poeta invisible.

Eugenio Montejo (1938-2008): Well-known Venezuelan poet. Just like Fernando Pessoa, Eugenio Montejo had dozens of heteronyms.

Tomás Straka (1972-): Currently a history professor and academic researcher at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). He has devoted time to the study of current Venezuelan phenomena.

Winner of the 71st El Nacional Annual Short Story Competition.

Valencia, Vadell Hermanos Editores, 1984.

The Great Writer ordered this edition to be burned since no collaborator in the volume quotes any of his books. This frenzied act, considered a political mistake by many analysts, didn’t surprise any those of us in the know. We also weren’t surprised when The Great Wise Man decreed, via his ministers ascribed to the education system, the mandatory reading of his full works, equally distributed among the curricula of the nation’s middle and high schools, colleges and universities, public and private. “This will end crime”, he said, and signed the order.

Hours before these pages were published, Congress approved re-readings with a value of ¼ of a book, so long at least three months elapse since the first reading, and five different books are read in between.

Translated by Daniel Narváez

Languages

LALT No. 4
Number 4

The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.

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