Victoria de Stefano: A Presence that Leaves a Work Waiting
Convinced that what is relevant hides within generalities, the twentieth-century author would have begun with some organic version of the corner. Two streets drawing a T: the narrow Avenida Principal that intersects with another avenue, larger in scale but without any attribute besides its name. This wide avenue has a literary identity; it’s called Rómulo Gallegos. We’re talking about Caracas. An elegant space of urbanization with a native name: Sebucán. The Avenida Principal of Sebucán ends at Rómulo Gallegos, which once connected the coffee and cacao plantations toward the east to the urban swell of the city. The Avenida Principal of Sebucán is not long, but since it goes toward the north, toward the mountain, its ascending trajectory, along with the two rows of imposing sandbox trees that flank it, deforming its pavement and concrete, make this a shadowy and strange path toward the depth of the mountain, which, thanks to the nature of urban development, has moved ever further away.
At the intersection of Avenida Principal and Rómulo Gallegos was Pulido, between six in the morning and dawn. At some time in the remote past he had taken on the task of directing traffic there. For the job, he dressed formally in suit and tie, and he used a whistle to rally the cars. It didn’t matter that there were stoplights on the corner, and that the drivers paid no heed to his instructions once the light turned green. Pulido understood his presence as a service. Taking advantage of the red light on Avenida Principal, which lasted longer, he approached the cars, and, leaning toward every driver, he let out a shout that meant inspiration, celebration, greeting, warning, and request for alms: “¡Ánimo!.” He said it at every moment, it was the password to approach him and the farewell when the cars accelerated. And it was the word by which many people called him, because they didn’t know his true name; it was an enigma known only to certain former residents of the area, witnesses to Pulido’s early days. That secret was revealed to me by Victoria de Stefano.
Pulido made bombastic, exaggerated gestures, sometimes shocking, as if of exasperation or impatience; in any case, he always emphasized what the stoplight said. So, if traffic couldn’t advance, he urged the drivers to carry on anyway. He was worried when the traffic flow disobeyed the lights, and he watched them constantly. He was probably aware of the uselessness of his gestures, but he considered it his duty to adhere to the stoplights’ automatism.
Not knowing what to do with a suit jacket and two ties I never wore, I gave them to him. Pulido always wore worn-out clothes. He reacted the same way he did to the coins he received: a brief, agitated exclamation, and then the verbal wink, “¡Ánimo!.” From that day on, seeing if he was wearing one of those old garments became an additional motive of my curiosity. Tununa Mercado spoke of the clothes of the beggars. I was disturbed to see that he only wore my suit jacket for a week; as far as I saw, he never used it again. In any case, I can say that it looked good on him, largely because, unlike myself, he knew how to wear a suit. Whichever it was. The jacket highlighted his elegance—on the other hand, it tended to overwhelm me. My feeling was that, while he was wearing clothes that had been mine, Pulido was closer: he would be a little bit me.
Victoria has quite precise knowledge of the beggars and vagrants in this part of the city. In Venezuela, they call these people “locos,” or lunatics. I always wondered why. Perhaps in part it can be explained by the plausible use of “ser” and “estar,” the two Spanish verbs that mean “to be.” It’s normal to say, for example, “Pero tú estás loco, chico” (“You’re crazy, kid”). A widely-used phrase whose meaning depends on intonation and context. The phrase suggests, in any case, a state of madness that is timely, momentaneous. Nonetheless, “ser loco” (rather than “estar loco”) is entirely consubstantial. It was secondary that Pulido seemed loco, because in basic terms he was a loco.
Another loco who Victoria knows spent his time reading and writing, and, unlike Pulido, he shunned contact with people. So much so that he was completely at peace. Victoria maintains that he was a highly intelligent person, learned in several disciplines, with a degree in chemistry. He always sat on the same doorsteps, generally by the side of the few shops there were around there, along with his books and notebooks.
One morning, we came close to where he was sitting with his papers, and Victoria, who often chatted with him, asked me if I’d like her to introduce us. I felt shy. The locals often brought him food. Unlike Pulido, although he had no name that I remember, this loco had a literary air about him: he reminded me of Arturo Borda, the Bolivian artist who had lived in La Paz, dedicated throughout his life to writing in the streets after being swindled by a gallery owner in Buenos Aires. They had nicknamed Arturo Borda “el loco” as well.
In reality, these paragraphs are dedicated to Victoria. I believe that, if the hyperkinetic Pulido and his even-tempered colleague are present nonetheless, this is owing to the alert vocation of the streets that I find in the character of this writer, a vocation linked to her condition as a consummate walker.
The first time we spoke was in Mexico City, on a bus that was carrying writers. I had lived for a short time in Caracas. Curiously, the subject of Pulido came up in that first conversation. That is, I could say that I knew of him before I knew him. He came up before any other subject related to writers or writing in general. Faced with these local characters, Victoria has developed a feeling of compassion as much as literary affinity. What’s more, in order to better understand her compassionate attitude toward the locos, shared by many other people in the area, it is important to know that on the Avenida Principal of Sebucán there was a clinic for the mentally ill. Many people in this condition lived there, and from there they went walking through the neighboring streets at any time, alone, in groups, or together with friends and family.
As I said, through Victoria’s comments about Pulido, principally, I could see a projection of the understanding, even the affection, of the community for its own locos, as if they were neighbors who had suffered an unfortunate but somehow benign fortune, sometimes sweet despite its bitterness, which had the effect of rendering ingenuous the suffering of the unfortunate. Perhaps that’s another reason for the word “loco.”
While we were traveling on the bus in Mexico, I mentioned to Victoria that a few months earlier I had found one of her novels in Ludens, the bookstore on Plaza Venezuela. Imprisoned between two thick books, in the “D” section, out poked the light blue spine of El lugar del escritor [The place of the writer]. The title had intrigued me, not for what it said so much as for what it announced: a story of spaces and a vague localization. There are few words vaguer than the word “place.” That indefinition was projected over the word “writer,” which is quite ambiguous in itself, to assign it an even more indecisive value, given that I was also seeing Victoria’s name for the first time. Thanks to that lack of information—I had arrived in the country only a short time before—I rediscovered one of those impressions you get from books only at a young age, when something draws us to them and we know nothing, not even the motive of our curiosity; we don’t know if we’re attracted by their physical characteristics, their title, or the sound of the author’s name, but at any rate, an impatient desire is awoken.
My mixed feeling of strangeness and curiosity upon finding El lugar del escritor was repeated before each of Victoria’s books: those prior to it, still unknown to me, and those that came after, as if they were commands derived from the ambiguous assertiveness of each of their titles. El desolvido [The unforgetting], Cabo de vida [Tail end of life], and Pedir demasiado [Asking for too much] are examples of this incomparable way of promising that which is not possessed, of promising a simulation of life, promises on which only literature can rest and that Victoria formulates in her stories in an exemplary manner. And, in accordance with these promises, each books ends up as a denial and a redemption of her faults. Another novel, La noche llama a la noche [The night calls the night], also belongs to this handful of mysterious titles, somewhere between poetic and elusive, that put forth a hidden plot in their tragic domesticity. It doesn’t matter if it actually comes from a line of Verlaine, the title speaks of an autonomous appetite and an organization taken from human will: the night attracts the night, it creates more night, and the night also denominates the night, it lends it its name.
For years, we lived a few blocks away from each other. The building where I lived had a hidden door onto the street behind it. Going out that way, I was two hundred meters from Victoria’s house. But if I went out the front door, thanks to the area’s capricious design, I had to walk around six hundred meters to her house. It would be fantastic to be able to say that we were separated by a thousand meters, or two thousand or more, because it would graphically explain the irregularity of that web of streets.
In any case, I always had the impression that Victoria lived “toward the backside” of the area whose southern side, meters away from the corner where Pulido directed traffic, was its visible face; a calm neighborhood of everyday life. And I also thought that she had molded that space to her way of writing and accessing her subjects.
Nevertheless, I don’t know her house as well as these details might suggest. In the years when we kept up a direct relationship, I went there one or two times, although I passed by the door almost every day. I mean to say that Victoria was a presence—she still is, even when we’re thousands of kilometers apart—that acted not only physically, but mostly spiritually. She was irradiation, something like an imaginary nucleus of inspiration and literature. An obstinate nucleus in her preferences and vocation, worthy, comical, hospitable, incredibly erudite and empathetic.
One could imagine that house of white walls and open windows, infiltrated by the calm sounds of the neighborhood in the constant light of day. But in reality, calm sounds and homogeneous light enter everywhere, as if the walls only seemed to be there. It is a space that hasn’t changed in decades: short, narrow streets without much traffic, with narrow sidewalks where nobody walks, with low, silent houses. The important streets or avenues fence in the area with a constant flow of cars. The neighborhood turns into an unknown center of literary emanations in which I like to imagine Victoria writing, needing nothing else; because she puts forth this place as if it materialized with each new book, this place, from the emptiness of her almost unseen presence.
When you think about it, the same thing probably happens in all houses, spaces, or studies of all artists. They work in an area of a few square meters, more or less, generally places that are closed off or subtracted from the political gaze. Even when a writer or musician writes in a library or at a café table, such that they can’t be identified, we cannot know if they are “creating” or “composing,” because such moments are influenced by circumstances commonly associated with certain, almost anonymous places. (And, for the same reason, when the neighbors saw Victoria’s “loco” friend writing on his favorite doorsteps, they assumed he was “creating” all the time; because nobody who doesn’t feel the uncontainable impulse to express their incipient ideas would settle in on a doorstep to write them down.)
One always succumbs to the “place” from which the work emanates, in the sense of the origin, between profane and moral, of the privileged traits of this art. We might even think that, since it’s now violent to suggest that the mere subjectivity of an individual be the exclusive source of their work—even without strong arguments to discard it absolutely—it is rather the physical place that becomes the substitute for this subjectivity, now transformed into a series of special presences and everyday frequentations. I have traveled for whole hours or days to observe facades and fronts of buildings behind whose walls artists live or work. Places where nothing is preserved, not even a shred of remembrance, but that continue to possess, in my opinion, a sublime energy connected to the former presence of those occupants.
Sometimes we would meet in a bar called Niza. A mix of soda fountain, café, corner store, and fast food spot with two or three high tables inside but a large area and several square tables on the sidewalk. It was on Los Palos Grandes, facing a dead end and therefore quite peaceful. Niza was attended by an immigrant couple—Portuguese, I suppose. The man was a mute; this made him seem unsociable. The woman didn’t talk much either. They were assisted by two sons, identical twins. They were also of few words, they were young men back then. Victoria invariably drank coffee or water. I ordered juice or coffee. I don’t remember us ever eating, with could be owing to the time when we saw each other—or, in her case, to her deep frugality.
It’s easy for me to isolate my conversations with Victoria from the space of those moments, crossed by the sounds of the street, the calm breeze, and the thick light of the afternoon. Before we switched to Niza, for a season we met on the terrace of a bakery called La Vizcondesa. It was on the ground floor of a big building, a little higher than the pavement, and they had placed a load of white plastic chairs and tables there, some with little umbrellas through which the sun filtered as the afternoon came on. It was typical for Victoria to meet there with friends or neighbors, and for them to approach her and talk for a few moments. These interruptions never bothered me; on the contrary, they quickly became something like directive norms of our conversation because, without realizing it, we learned to incorporate them, whenever they might happen, as points around which the conversation changed tone, subject, or speed. It was hard for us to change the subject without the mediation of some interruption, and that might seem logical. But the curious part was the perception we acquired of the imminence of a piece of information, such that it was the rhythm of the dialogue that seemed to attract Victoria’s friends to our table, rather than the other way around.
All of this might sound very Proust, it’s true. And I would dare to say that Victoria is a Proustian incarnation. I would say so from several points of view, or at least two. First is the particular way in which an interlocutor perceives in Victoria the presence of the past and its memories, inhabiting her present; but not like someone who, as the saying goes, “lives in the past” or “lives in memories.” Victoria revives the dimension of memory as a motif in her conversations about the present; a present and a past that are not simply composed of facts and memories, of material and emotional experiences, but also of readings. And here I refer to the second aspect of her Proustian nature. I know no other person with such a complete and all-encompassing knowledge of the nineteenth century. Everything of which Proust is a literary emblem, that he preceded or transcended, that is, practically all that was written, Victoria has read and incorporated into her literary and emotional intelligence.
Other than Pulido, another thing that immediately drew us together on that Mexican bus was our fondness for walks. But she belongs to the group of consummate walkers, much like the other great writers who dedicated themselves to that habit, who really were the greatest writers, always; I’m thinking of a methodical person. The method of walking molds their perception and their relationship with literature itself. And, as we might imagine, walks are always very much present in their stories as instances of learning and introspection.
One of her novels has a title that is enchanting, or hypnotic: Historia de la marcha a pie [Stories of the walk]. I am confident that our wavelength does not obey books or opinions of literature. Rather, it obeys our attitude when faced with everyday or moral reality, derived from our reciprocal condition, we might say, as walkers—a condition openly predisposed to the digressive. In Historias de la marcha a pie, she offers a story that breathes in accordance with the norms of urban walking, precisely through those streets where Victoria lives, contrasted with the observation of the physical and spiritual collapse of a loved one.
Victoria’s books are unfinished stories, astonishing in their definition, distant from any idea of heroism and from a diligent domesticity, that adapts to its chosen vehicle—the story—in order to be transmitted, but whose continuous disaccord with what is said, and whose disappointment with what happens, results in a feeling of placid failure, of useless success that is attained, what’s more, at the wrong time. Her characters put forth one prime objective: to defeat the moral exhaustion in which they are trapped, which promises to sink them completely. Then comes a series of worldly complications, homemade myths and insurmountable feelings—like faults of the past or familiar, ethical commands—that condemn them to inaction or hopelessness.
In Niza or La Vizcondesa, sometimes I was tempted to tell her that she seemed too well read to be a writer. It would have been a joke, of course, a resource to display my clumsy perplexity before the vast library represented in her books.
In her Diarios 1988-1989, Victoria evokes a scene from the past: “...it’s nighttime, I’m in Zurich, I’m reading The Charterhouse of Parma, I spend the night reading. If I hadn’t read The Charterhouse I wouldn’t have known the passion for writing.” This uncertainty has a revelatory ambiguity: the author doesn’t care to clarify if she knew the passion for writing upon seeing it inscribed in the novel, or if, in reality, the novel transmitted to her a passion that the author assumed from then on as her own. The experiences are disordered, evidently not because of their practical organization so much as because of a phrase belonging to the Diaries of Musil: “To live, to live… to desire naught but experiences: with such disposition a novel is invented.”
One always tends to establish hierarchies, but it’s not easy to find a decisive title in the development of Victoria’s writing, or one that draws together, above all others, the principal coordinates of her work. Perhaps this is because she is, more than anything, a presence that leaves a work waiting. Victoria’s intellectual and emotional character—curious and stoic, reluctant to accept the literary life but observant, given to intimacy but often indignant at the public—leads me to find in her the profile of a very rare writer: one who assumes the diction of her books as one of the deepest assumptions of intellectual discretion.
Extracts from the book Teoría del ascensor [Theory of the elevator]. Zaragoza: Jekyll & Jill, 2016. Pages 169-176.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Sergio Chejfec was born in Buenos Aires in 1956. He is an author of fiction and essays. Between 1990 and 2005, he lived in Caracas; since then he has resided in New York, where he teaches courses in the Master's Program of Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University. Among his published works are Últimas noticias de la escritura, La experiencia dramática, Mis dos mundos, and Los incompletos.
Arthur Dixon works as a translator and as Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. His translation of Andrés Felipe Solano’s “The Nameless Saints” (WLT, Sept. 2014) was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize, and his most recent project is a book-length translation of Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza’s Cuidados intensivos (see WLT, Sept. 2016).
LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.