The New World Replaces the Old World
At seven, she learns to read and write in Caracas, with many difficulties. She believes that she will never learn to read, Ls and Ms torture her. She goes to school, after her first sobs, she chats to friends, she picks up the local speech, but never too local. She regrets not having learned more than one language fully, but the fusion of both worlds burrowed away on its own accord. At nine, she recites in silence, she does not know in which voice or which language, perhaps in the language of the mind that, like a musical score, virtually expands that which is within, behind, and above languages.
One Sunday in 1950, she reads the headlines in the newspaper that her father had sent her to buy from the Viennese bakery, two blocks from their house. War Breaks Out in Korea. (She does not have the slightest memory, however, of the Hiroshima bomb). Terrified, she runs home to share the news. Her mother calms her down, telling her that this war is very far away, that nothing will happen to them. There is an atlas in the house. She enjoys looking at it. The Pacific Ocean, that is where the war is. She reads the names of cities: Tokyo, Hiroshima, Guadalcanal, Madras, Bombay, Shanghai. From the Pacific to the Atlantic: Dakar, Porto Alegre, Bahía, La Asunción. At 12, she keeps a diary, for a short time. While recovering from mumps, she makes herself comfortable in the bed that she is forbidden from leaving, to write, surrounded by books, a verbose epic poem about Emperor Constantine, six stanzas; it does not matter that they barely rhyme, the joy, the creative spasm of the poem is what counts. She has a weakness for words that sound exotic: incólume (unscathed), aldabas (doorknockers), séquito (retinue), cáliz (goblet), plugo al cielo (please the Lord).
Later she increases her vocabulary through nocturnal reading of the ultimate authority: the dictionary. She fills notebooks with these words. She tries to describe the African tulip that she can see from the window of her classroom, the bucare trees of the Santa Lucía hacienda where she spends the holidays, the damage caused when the River Tuy burst, a runaway mare, the skin left in the bath by a sea sponge as if by a ghost, the abandoned mill, the slaughterhouse, the donkey rides, bathing in the river, the cycling trips to Fila de Mariches, the coffee-drying yards, the fireflies in the pitch black of the countryside as the night stretches on—all in her inadequate, childish language. She still believes in the totality of the linguistic system. She still believes that she only needs to get older to master the required register and the proper meaning of all her references. She still believes that she only needs to become an adult to overcome her insecurities and uncertainties. At 13 years old, for the moment, she still trusts that it is only a matter of growing up and buying time. But time, in turn, will soon cut her and her false, rustic, and naïve beliefs down to size.
So time passes
In the end, there will be nine siblings. If it were not for one lost, they would have been ten. Her friends, whose families do not exceed three or four members, envy her. She grows day by day. At 14, she is over five foot five, in a perfectly childlike body.
From 17, she writes. Sometimes she lets her prey loose. Sometimes she has the pleasure of seeing it return. That is how it will be throughout the years, watching her prey leave and return. At 22, resting her head on her hand, she reflects on prose fiction. As a result of this meditation (translated to today’s reflections), she conceives of prose as a prolonged unfurling of various crossroads and their respective discourses: that of the outcome following a work-in-progress, that of the minimal spatial and descriptive units, as functions of the appropriation of qualitative differences in the world, that of the relationship with the present as a moment of subjective lyrical immersion during which the substance of experience is discovered and concealed in inverse relation to its practical ends. The course of the action, the description, the lyrical descent: narration as a contest between a multiplicity of modalities that, in the interest of objectivity, cannot and should not be left aside. Not to mention the syntactic-prosodic modulation, with its connectives, its disjunctives, its adverbs, its emphases, its pauses, its shocks, its jolts, which accompany the waterline below which run the omissions, entire chunks of silenced, transitory material, the constellations, the counterweights. According to Quintilian, the master of rhetoric, the rhythm of prose is more difficult than that of poetry. That may be so, it may not be. But all that Marcus Fabius Quintilianus says is that the rhythm is more difficult, not prose in itself. All living art, all everlasting and shifting art, is complicated.
The fact that the action progresses does not mean that you are any closer to the finish line. You do not arrive any sooner for going quickly. You only have to arrive—how and in how many steps, through how many cunning diversions, will depend on the way in which the individual elements of the experience are stretched or compressed through the words used and by the connective force of the sentences linking expression to meaning. Only these, on the margin of any canon, if there were one, dictate the intervals into which their sequences will settle: temporal sequences, atemporal sequences, and spatial sequences at their ebbs and flows; as if saying, on earth and in heaven, on flat land and rugged terrain.
Prose is like Ulysses’ voyage back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy, told and sung by the aoidos. Homer selects episodes, abstracts, refines, adds, assembles, and chooses intervals of time to transform them into tensions, surprises, enigmas, and adventures. But Ulysses, the man heading towards his fate—a fate which, before it can be heard, read or sung, can only be lived—is not spared one instance (one deprivation) of the journey for which there is a date of departure and the fact, though not yet resolved or even established, of his arrival.
In between, there are years of irreducible needs, hours, days, weeks of tactical movements, crossings without breaks, crossings that do not slip away as instantly and definitively as water through your fingers. Of all its resources—and prose has made full use of every means available to it—the most typical and unavoidable is the delay born from the need to postpone, to prepare and to intensify the climax, the broad and regular development of its temporal conventions, the alternation, for this same end, between modes of exposition and vehicles of expression. These cannot be counted in page numbers, but in the weight and sum of all those accumulated along the path, whose limits—given that every path followed can lead to the start of another, that is how stories are made—both the narrator and the reader, so close to each other that their gasping voices blend together, still do not know.
Caracas, October 2004
Extract from the essay ‘Su vida’ [Her life], which appears in the book La refiguración del viaje [Reimagining the journey], Mérida, Venezuela: Instituto de Investigaciones Literarias Gonzalo Picón Febres, 2005
Translated by Katie Brown
Victoria de Stefano was born in Rimini, Italy in 1940. She emigrated to Venezuela in 1946. In 1962, she earend a degree from the School of Philosophy of the Central University of Venezuela. She taught at the School of Philosophy, then gave courses on Aesthetics and Theory of Dramatic Structures in the School of Art. Her books include El desolvido (Ediciones Bárbara, 1970; Mondadori, 2006), La noche llama a la noche (Monte Ávila, 1985; Mondadori, 2008), El lugar del escritor (Caracas, 1992; Mexico, 1993; Caracas, 2010), Cabo de vida (Caracas, 1994; Caracas, 2017), Historias de la marcha a pie (Todtmann, 1997; Mérida, 2005; Alfaguara, 2013), Lluvia (Candaya, 2006), Pedir demasiado (Bigotecca, 2004), La refiguración del viaje (Mérida, 2005), Paleografías (Alfaguara, 2010), Diarios 1988-1989 (Caracas, 2016), Baudelaire, Poesía y Modernidad (EBUC, 1984; Equinoccio, 2006), Su vida (Bogotá, 2019), and Vamos, venimos (Seix Barral, Bogotá, 2020).
Katie Brown is a Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Exeter. She completed a PhD on "The Contested Values of Literature in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" at King’s College London. With Tim Girven and Montague Kobbe, she co-edited the anthology Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela (Ragpicker Press, 2016), for which she translated stories by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Héctor Concari, Liliana Lara, Carolina Lozada, Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez and Slavko Zupcic.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo