Caracas muerde / The Relentless City by Héctor Torres, translated by Kolin Jordan
Caracas muerde / The Relentless City. Héctor Torres. Translated by Kolin Jordan. Chicago: 7Vientos, 2021. 135 pages.
Lawrence Weschler, in tune with this Borgesian plane of thought, suggests that the devices of fiction are valid in nonfiction narrative. We have known this ever since In Cold Blood, or a little before, since Rodolfo Walsh’s Operation Massacre. But Weschler goes much further, making a claim that would be disputed by many cronistas bound to a strict concept of nonfiction: one in which invention is prohibited and facts must be verifiable. Weschler gave a lecture at the NYU School of Journalism called “The Fiction of Nonfiction” based on an extraordinary precept: “All narrative voices are fictions. The world of nonfiction writing is divided into those who are aware of this and those who deny it or are unaware.”
When Caracas muerde / The Relentless City reaches the hands of a United States bookseller, he or she may be uncertain whether the book should be shelved in the Fiction or Nonfiction section, so clearly defined in US bookstores, unlike those of Latin America. The dilemma lies in the fact that, despite the transverse thread of fiction that runs through Caracas muerde / The Relentless City, the stories come across as real. Which brings us to the question of which is more effective: a reality told through the closest approximation to verifiable facts or one that employs the device of imagination in order to make it more real? It all depends on the skill of the narrator. Torres himself, in an article on the website Prodavinci, responding to a reader comment in 2010, tells us:
There is no verifiable truth in these texts. They are fictions. And as fictions, they do not attempt to offer tangible realities but rather possible ones, to feed the imaginary with fictional stories.
This imaginative result may be precisely the effect of enjoyment achieved by reading these stories set in a brutal Caracas. True stories. True tales, whatever name you give them. Someone who is from Caracas and knows the city’s misfortunes—even though Torres makes frequent use of an omniscient narrator who enters into the thoughts of the characters, always mentioned by first name—will know he is not exaggerating; he uses his imagination, but he does not exaggerate.
Caracas muerde / The Relentless City is reaching the English-language market thanks to the initiative of an independent publisher with extraordinary spirit. 7Vientos is publishing a bilingual edition, translated by Kolin Jordan, of a book that has maintained a presence in Venezuela for a decade, following its release in Spain in 2019. A dog biting its tail, the chamber of a revolver with a single bullet inside, and a skeleton whose teeth are the buildings of a city link the covers of the editions published in Venezuela, Spain, and the US.
Robberies, assaults, rapes, muggings, and murders take place in Caracas muerde / The Relentless City, sown in turn among literary references such as Carver, Bukowski, Poe, Chekhov, Homer, Adriano González León, Alfredo Armas Alfonso, Borges, Rilke, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Thomas Lynch, Paul Auster, Bolaño, John McNally, and Rómulo Gallegos (in the opening acknowledgments, mention is made of Oscar Marcano, who, as a short story writer, exerted a significant influence on Torres’ narrative).
The language used is purified—what sounds simple is always the hardest to achieve—and frequently draws on Venezuelan vernacular: “Esta vaina tiene una protección muy arrecha, mi pana” [This thing must have some kind of powerful spell on it, dude].1 What’s more, Torres enriches his offering with the use of well-aimed metaphors: “alambrada de reproches” [wire fence of veiled reproaches], “hambre afilada” [razor-sharp hunger], “mirada desterrada de su cuerpo” [gaze divorced from his body], or one, let’s say, that sums up what it has been like to establish a political process in the country: “El striptease más demorado que se conozca en los anales de las dictaduras” [the most delayed striptease known in the annals of dictatorships].
Torres is able to summarize the events occurring in what has long been called, ironically, the “city of red roofs” with sober and exacting prose, bordering on mischief and humor. He is ingenious at inventing wordplays that bring a smile to the reader’s face: “Los cerveceros de mibloque,” alluding to the Milwaukee Brewers, the everyday risk of the “Balaperdida” [Lostbullet] lottery, or mentioning a certain “PoliMatraca,” none other than the Caracas Police.2
You could say that Caracas muerde / The Relentless City serves as a sort of proof of identity from the valley of bullets and shadows (there are, of course, luminous parallel realities that it would not make sense to put at the center of this work). True, some references have changed over the last decade, and not just the Blackberries, which appear in several stories, or the Wii console. The Caracas that it portrays has changed, because everything has worsened, intensified, radicalized, become still more surreal, but its essence is intact in these thirty short stories with their suggestive titles.
One of those locations that is more of a jungle than ever is the metro. In Caracas muerde / The Relentless City there are many scenes on the metro, among the favorite places of the narrator. Its characters come and go on the metro, get up to no good on the metro; one might say that the metro muerde.3 A nocturnal quality is another thread running through the stories, creating an interconnected portrait of the city. Nearly all the acts of violence occur at night or in the hours before dawn. It seems by no coincidence, but rather by deliberate creative design, that several of the cinematic references we encounter are Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Secuestro Express, The Matrix, and even a quote from Emir Kusturica. Celluloid fictions entangle with the telling of Caraquenian reality. And while it doesn’t appear in the book—having come into being later—it is no accident that an episode of the series Homeland recreates the Tower of David (a Caracas skyscraper turned home for low-income people who occupied its premises). Caracas, in this series and in other recent television references, is turning into the epicenter of representations of misfortune.
The narrative structures of the stories in this book almost always contain a first part with one tale and then a second part with another, a technique used by Jerry Seinfeld, or, extended into novel form, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka in The Sickness. The two narratives later connect and give meaning to the story’s title, to then arrive at a final scene, the action elapsed, that depicts moments of Caracas’s reality. They are stories told in parallel of the city’s miscreant fauna contrasted with those of everyday citizens trying to carve out a life while surrounded by persistent threats; the latter are victims of the former.
In addition to opening the stories with phrases that mirror aphorisms and induce a reflexive state, and to the use of metaphors and a mastery of the mechanisms of short stories, Torres frequently employs two more devices, which give the feeling that we are in the presence of a literary artifact that may seem simple, given its digestible writing, but is in fact sophisticated. On the one hand, we have frequent use of footnotes, in the style of an essay or a Borgesian (or, more recently, Vilamatian) game: some supply factual information, while others are observations that could have well remained in the body of the text but are part of the proposed literary play. The second technique is that, faced with a given scenario, hypotheses A, B, and C are posed as to what given situations could mean. It all joins together to form the soundtrack of Caracas muerde / The Relentless City, a soundtrack full of musical references such as Roger Waters, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Yordano, Desorden Público, Juan Luis Guerra, Joaquín Sabina, and Fito Páez.
Readers of Latin America and the United States have in their hands a book that will give them a portrait of what has come to be considered, by various internationally recognized statistical measures, the most violent city in the world. And so, by way of a sample, it is difficult to choose between so many good stories, but if forced to select a truly memorable one that at times is worthy of standing on its own as a book or forming part of an anthology, it would undoubtedly be “Como en un Aleph de pesadilla”:
Al hacerlo, como en un Aleph de pesadilla, Juan Ernesto vio (descubrió) calles oscuras, infinitos recovecos invariablemente sucios, sexo escondido y sexo forzado, algo detrás de un árbol que no se ve bien pero que asusta, medio perrocaliente en un pipote, unas ratas robustas comiéndose vivo a un cachorrito de gato, una cartera vacía tirada en la cuneta, caras tensas que evaden proximidades, los escondites que guardan los tesoros robados a los transeúntes, dedos que amenazan, patadas sobre la cara, un palo haciendo swing, tipos de azul acercándose con caras de risas torvas, tipos llamando detrás de un rincón con caras ávidas, un tambor retumbando en los oídos queriendo decir no vayas, manos hurgando entre bolsillos, batidas a puñal que no siempre se ganaron… Y los curiosos dibujos que hace la sangre sobre la acera.
[In that moment, like an aleph of nightmares, Juan Ernesto saw (discovered) dark streets, infinite hidden corners that were invariably filthy, hidden sex and forced sex, something behind a tree that you can’t quite see but scares you anyway, mountains of garbage, a drunk on the floor begging for help, half a hot dog in a garbage can, some fat rats eating a kitten alive, an empty purse thrown in the gutter, tense faces that evade proximity to others, the hiding places where they keep the treasures stolen from passersby, fingers that threaten, kicks to the face, a stick in a swinging arc, men in blue approaching with baleful smiling faces, guys eagerly calling around the corner, a drum beating in your ears saying “don’t go,” hands rummaging through pockets, fights with knives that aren’t always won… And the curious drawings that blood makes on the pavement.]
Caracas is ferocious and leaves the marks of a wild animal’s teeth on the skin and the soul of its inhabitants. To open the pages of Caracas muerde / The Relentless City is to travel, from the safety of the place where one reads, to a world of perils where only by their instinct and sixth sense will its denizens see the dawning of a new day.
Pedro Plaza Salvati
Translated by Audrey Meshulam
1 Translations in brackets are those of Kolin Jordan.
2 A play on the common nickname for the Caracas Police, Policaracas, and matraca, Venezuelan slang for “bribe.”
3 “Bites,” as does the Caracas of the title in Spanish.