Writer’s Passport: Tom Sweterlitsch Talks with Israel Centeno

By Tom Sweterlitsch

Hundreds of thousands filled the streets of Caracas, a flood tide striking against their president, Hugo Chavez—flags waving, crowds surging behind banners, the Venezuelan flag three bold stripes: yellow, blue, red. The fervor stretched for miles. This was on April 11th, 2002, and was the largest of several strikes called during that week, a general strike organized by labor unions and businesses in solidarity with the oil monopoly PDVSA against Chavez’s purging of the company’s management, replacing anyone who had questioned his policies with loyalists. The crowd marched toward Miraflores palace, where Chavez waited fearing riot or even a possible coup d’état. By mid-afternoon the Presidential Guard and Bolivarian Circles in support of Chavez attempted to disperse the march, first with canisters of tear gas and then by firing directly into the crowd. Police returned fire.

Dozens were injured in the chaos, nineteen were killed. Chavez abandoned the presidency that evening, was taken into custody, and by the following day was replaced by Pedro Carmona, a business leader who dissolved congress and the newly approved Constitution, an attempt to rid Venezuela of all traces of Chavez’s presidency. The suddenness of these changes, however, lacked broad popular support and cohesive military support and soon hundreds of thousands of pro-Chavez supporters flooded the city, seized State TV and demanded Chavez’s return. Carmona went into exile, Chavez returned to power. The coup lasted only two days.      

Later that same year, Israel Centeno published his novel, El Complot—translated in America as “The Conspiracy”—about a failed assassination attempt against an unnamed, charismatic president of Venezuela. Centeno is a major literary figure in Venezuela, a poet, critic and novelist, editor and teacher, he was awarded his country’s National Council of Culture award in 1991. His writing is brilliant, highly literary, psychologically probing and allusive, blending popular genres to create tension-filled works of art. The Conspiracy is a thriller: an assassin flees for his life, a beautiful revolutionary is caught on the wrong side of history, a revolutionary is in thrall to his political philosophy, a brave journalist unravels layers of conspiracy to glimpse the mercurial truth. In Venezuela, however, The Conspiracy was also read as a direct attack against the dictatorial Chavez, and for years afterward Centeno was the victim of harassment from supporters of Chavez.

“From 2003 to 2009, I lived an inner-exile,” Centeno said in an interview with the Pittsburgh City Paper. “I would stay in my apartment, go hiking and teach writing workshops, but not really go out much. I felt like it was a process of becoming divorced from Venezuela.” His books were challenged and removed from high school curricula, he was attacked on the street, stabbed, and “one day, my mother got 80 phone calls saying they were going to cut off my head and put it in a bucket of shit.”

Almost a decade following the publication of El Complot, in 2011, Centeno moved to America. He received a long-term residency from City of Asylum Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that offers persecuted writers a chance to create new, safer lives in exile. Centeno now lives in Pittsburgh’s North Side, a historic neighborhood just a short walk from downtown Pittsburgh across the Allegheny River. He works a demanding shift as support staff at a local hospital. Life in Pittsburgh is much quieter than in Caracas, there are times when the entire North Side can feel devoid of people, but we started our interview in a time of turmoil in America, shortly after a phalanx of white supremacists wearing polo shorts and brandishing lawn torches stormed Charlottesville. A white supremacist murdered activist Heather Heyer when he drove his car through a crowd of protesters.

Thomas Sweterlitsch: I apologize for the delay. I’ve been paralyzed by the news cycle, watching what played out in Charlottesville, and the reactions. I want to ask you about your writing technique, because The Conspiracy is brilliantly written, but I want to ask first about art and politics. I’m not familiar with your other works—I believe The Conspiracy was the first of your fourteen novels translated into English—but in reading about you online, I don’t get the sense that you always write explicitly about politics. What do you feel is a writer’s responsibility when it comes to political engagement? Or, is there no responsibility? And, more specifically to your own work, I’m curious about your intentions while you were writing The Conspiracy. When you started the novel, did you set out to create a work of art that would read as such a pointed criticism of Bolivarianism and Chavez, or was the initial intention to write a commercially successful “political thriller,” the kind of book that might draw on political realism but is essentially meant for entertainment?   

Israel Centro: Hi Tom, I can understand the feeling. I have been through it, fighting against the paralysis for more than two decades, and since I am here the struggle has been getting worse. Then you realize, from your stupor you get perspective, a new strength to move on. What happened last week touched me too. I must tell you that my first novel, Calletnia, a novel that was warmly received by the critics in my country, was highly political. It was a thriller about the first link between the far left wing and the narcos. In my point of view, everything, even the most subtle expression, has political engagement. People commonly say, “Everything is political in the human experience,” but since the very beginning, I made a distinction between being political and being militant. Art is about putting yourself in dilemmas, challenging yourself with the freedom of your creatures. You should let your characters act without interference, as if you were a benevolent and liberal god, a god with only aesthetics responsibilities. If your characters are human, they will have political views. But I cannot use my writing as propaganda. Art always should be questioning, should be always doubting. When I started The Conspiracy, I had a plot, an image of the plot, something I wanted to write. It was there in front of me. I didn’t ask if it was an anti-Bolivarian statement or not, I let the circumstances of the plot move me. If you write listening to the world, everything starts to scream at you. “Noise and fury” will want to be a piece of story.

I didn’t think about commercials success, it does not work that way in Venezuela. In Venezuela a novel is considered a bestseller if it sells 2,000 copies, or if it has a couple of reissues. In Venezuela no one becomes rich from a novel. 

I consider my work to be similar to David Lynch films, psychological thrillers. Most of my novels and short stories have been in that delusional direction. I don’t care about how to solve a mystery; I care about the ambiguities of the mystery.  

Here is something written and translated into English for Words Without Borders: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/a-pornomilitary-romanza

TS: I like how you describe art as needing to be questioning. I think that is easy to forget. When I’m enraged I sometimes feel my writing should be polemical, rather than questioning, but when I think of what I read, the books I cherish are always asking questions rather than trying to present answers. They are unsettling, indeterminate. Israel, I have to tell you that I truly loved The Conspiracy. The novel is tense, psychologically complex, and so very artful. I’d like to ask you about your writing style. And thanks for the link to A Pornomilitary Romanza (great title). You do something in the first part of this story that is similar to a technique you use in The Conspiracy: an almost collage-like intercutting of sex and violence playing out in a character’s mind, whether Eleazar’s thoughts of Silvana as airplanes bomb Caracas, or Sergio thinking of Lourdes as he’s preparing his sniper shot. The Conspiracy has several passages like this, almost stream-of-consciousness portraits of a character’s mental state, where disparate thoughts and images combine, like Surrealism. And the sentences themselves are very rhythmic, they’re like waves, where images repeat, echo. How did you create this style? You mention David Lynch—are there other influences?

IC: The art of questioning. Questioning always annoys power. Questioning is a torpedo to a unique truth, unique thought. Writing is not a religion, it is not about ideologies—it is about people in their worlds, their contradictions. Can you imagine if you had to write a character that is a torturer? How many thoughts could you take from that character? It would be a challenge to work in a racist character nowadays, a new Ignatius Reilly. Serial killers and losers, detectives with few basic morals, and cynics are compelling for writers.

 My influences—I cannot say all of them. I love Macbeth. I was a good reader of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I Love Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and Onetti’s Juntacadaveres, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Shakespeare, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. Sheridan, Carmilla, Sade, and liberal pornography from 1900s, Bataille: The History of the Eye. Jorge Luis Borges, all of his creations. And so on.

 The entire corpus of my work is about telling stories through stream of consciousness. My characters show and tell through their thoughts. I was taught that every thought should produce an image, should show the reader more than tell a history. And yes, Eros and Thanatos, interchanging which is more powerful, are the demons of my characters.

TS: Since the site we’re writing this interview for is about thriller writing, I’d like to ask you your thoughts on building tension in your work. For all its artistry, The Conspiracy is a page-turner. Most authors aren’t able to balance artistry and excitement like you’re able to. Here is a beautifully written passage that traces the main character’s psychological state, the fear as he is hunted, the questioning of the attempted assassination, the uncertainty of his life and his life to come:

“The clearing sky was passing, the last stars, the first clouds were passing, the final nocturnal birds, the third cries of the roosters and the drops of a paltry dew. The noise that was starting from a few of the doors of the port’s colonial houses was passing; the remote siren, an isolated scream, the burnt green, the nonexistent green was passing. I was falling into the hole. I remembered the pit of the church. That running made no sense, unless I was dead, unless they had killed me twenty-four hours ago along with Silvestre, unless I myself had taken the gun he had used to kill himself and had blown my face off, or the commandos of the presidential guard had opened hundreds of holes in me. It was death. It was the well. The place. The inhospitable land and the dawn that never became daytime.”

I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how to build tension. Some of the tension is a function of plot: an attempted assassination, the assassins on the run. But if you were talking to beginning writers about how to build tension in a novel, what are some techniques that you use?

IC: I want to use an image that is sort of Buddhist: acción, suspend your actions in the bowstring, the narrator should shoot each action with the right tension, each action should stretch and bend in a specific way to hit its target. It is vital to handle the bow, handle the bow with the voice, handle the voice with style. I do not know if there is a dance with a bow, but there is a dance with a sword, the writer should dance fully aware in an act of meditation, always committed to the loosening and tightening of his or her bowstring, sword or the body with whom he or she is dancing. To use another image, a writer has to know how to take off, cruise and find bumps and turbulences and how to land among all those elements. In the Spanish we know this as “peripecias.”

TS: From the opening pages, and throughout The Conspiracy, you describe the ash and smoke that hangs over Caracas, it’s a persistent atmosphere the characters move through. You describe this smoke as coming from trees burning on the nearby mountains:

“In Buenos Aires it’s called mist. In Mexico City they call it smog. When the wind from the Sahara blows and covers Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the islanders know it as haze. In Caracas there was soot, and I was moving through smoke and ashes on the day I went out to kill the president.” –Opening lines of The Conspiracy.

The image lends an apocalyptic intensity to the entire book, but I have to ask, is the smoke an invented image, a symbol, or is this a description of the actual air of the city? It reminded me of stories of old Pittsburgh, where the smoke from the mills was so thick you could stare directly at the sun.

IC: No. Caracas is a blue and green valley and the city has a breeze corridor, from West to East, from Barlovento to Sotavento. I wanted to create an atmosphere, an atmosphere that has been prevailing in most of my novels. I like gothic, real gothic, lands of shadowy atmospheres, but to confront them with a candy beauty. It’s scary. The lights, sounds and shadows that pervade the small town of fishermen in The Conspiracy; there are plenty of ghosts and premonitions as the tragic events of history unfold.

 TS: I am very curious about the practical side of your writing life. You mentioned that you’re stuck in the first chapter of a novel at the moment. What are you working on now? Has living in America influenced your writing? And then when you have a completed novel, are you looking to still publish in Venezuela, other foreign countries, or would you work with an American publisher? Also, is it up to you to find a translator to work with, if you wanted to publish in America, or would the translation be the publisher’s responsibility? And, do you have an agent in the States?

IC: I’m working now on a novel and a book of short stories. The novel is a sort of psychological and political thriller. I am trying to put together Pittsburgh, the hospital, Pablo Escobar’s Medellín and Caracas. It is something delusional, will be narrated in some points, in some scenes, in a bad English—on purpose—and Spanish. It won’t be “Spanglish,” what I want to do, but rather an English with all the mistakes that we the people who are struggling with the language make while we talk or write. For a few years, I have been writing one big novel in different books, this one I am writing now will be a part of the same artefacto. The short stories would be like a few detectives stories. Living in American has given me new perspectives, I can see the whole cake now, I can use new techniques and explore new approaches with some American literature and a genuine approach to the real America. In the middle of the Venezuelan disaster I had a proposition, I did publish Jinete a pie with a small publishing house and was asked for another project of resistance. Yes, it is more like an act of resistance and stubbornness to keep my voice in a situation where it is not always welcome. Here it seems impossible to find a publishing house without an agent, and an agent without a publishing house. The market can be overwhelming and is like a pineapple, you do not know how to pick it up. I’m more invisible now than ever. But I’m free to create whatever I want.

Tom Sweterlitsch is the author of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and the forthcoming novel, The Gone World.  He lives in Pittsburgh.

To learn more about The Gone World, click on the cover below: