Francisco Suniaga and Federico Vegas

Francisco Suniaga Body

Francisco Suniaga. Photo: Efrén Hernández.

Lea la conversación entre Francisco Suniaga y Federico Vegas en español,aquí .

The verb narrate comes from a Latin word meaning current , as in a river’s or ocean’s. Francisco Suniaga, author of the novels La otra isla (The other island) and El pasajero de Truman (Truman’s passenger), is the ideal seafaring companion. He could be the one listening on the ship’s deck, or the one telling the last story to the last watch. The one pointing to what we inadvertently left behind in a distant port, or to what awaits us and we shouldn’t overlook in a new port. On the prow or on the stern, tedium is impossible with Francisco, only the pleasure of being guided and accompanied by words, the substance of the ocean summoning us.

—Federico Vegas

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Frederico Vegas. Photo: Efrén Hernández.

Federico Vegas is one of those contemporary Venezuelan fiction writers who will remain a reference in times to come. For me, no doubt, he’s the most realized of our era. Among many other virtues, he has had the courage to write Venezuelan literature without complexes; he depicts us as we truly are in his stories and novels, of which Falke, Historia de una segunda vez (History of a second time) and Prima lejana (Distant cousin) are his best known. His body of work found that path that our letters had long fallen off of—he blazed the trail for those of use who’ve followed him.

—Francisco Suniaga

Translated by Camino Detorrela

Francisco Suniaga Are writers liars?

Federico Vegas I think so. First, because truth does not exist, and if it does, I don’t know it. The other day I heard a fascinating phrase. Someone was telling a story: “As little as I believe in God….” Someone else chimed in saying, “But when it comes to God, believing in him a little is so much!” That’s how I feel about the truth—believing in it a little is already a lot. Acknowledging that you’re lying when writing makes for a much cleaner game.

FS We’re all somewhat limited by the impossibility of the truth. It’s best to start off with, if not a lie, a fiction.

FV Without the burden of the truth.

FS Especially you and I, since we’ve both written novels dealing with history. I don’t like to say that my novel El pasajero de Truman is a historical one, because it’s seems that nowadays…

FV I don’t have a problem with this. The novel I’m working on, Sumario (Summary), is about the 1950 assassination of Delgado Chalbaud, Venezuela’s President during the Military Junta that overthrew Rómulo Gallegos, the democratically-elected president. Delgado Chalbaud was educated in France, first as an engineer and then as a military. He was a highly cultured man who lived between two worlds without belonging in either: France and Venezuela, a humanist culture and a military one, democracy and dictatorship. The conspiracy behind his murder was so vast it’s impossible to pin the blame on anyone. Perhaps what killed him was his uprootedness, his displacement. So if people ask me about Sumario, I say: “This will be a historic novel!” Plus, they sell more. Do you have a problem with that? (laughter)

FS The Venezuelan public prefers to read historical fiction nowadays, because people want to have a better sense of what’s currently going on by understanding our past.

FV Especially since Chávez.

FS I have nothing against the genre per se. It’s just that I focused much more on my character’s dilemma, which would have been the same regardless of the historical period in which the novel was set.

FV What novel isn’t historical? In Search of Lost Time is historical, but it deals with a myriad of other things besides history. Not to speak of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is a historical treatise focusing on one day in the city of Dublin.

FS You always have to tether the arc of a narrative, otherwise it’s up in the air.

FV Come to think of it, who knows if part of the reason why we both wrote novels that have so much to do with history is something else we have in common: we both were late bloomers. I started at 46.

FS I started writing at 50. Why did you start so late?

FV Architecture fascinated me. I was a happy architect, one of those who gets to do whatever he wants. I had my own clients, would build my own projects. The switch happened because I became a builder when my family inherited some land. Back then there was a big crisis and we couldn’t sell the land: we had to develop something. I ended up in charge of developing, building, and selling 43 houses for 43 clients—all of them luxury homes. I’ve never known how to delegate, which is why I became a writer. Writers surely can’t delegate. At the time I wasn’t able to put together a team that could help me, so my brother and I undertook the project. It was a disaster. Inexplicably we got lucky and did fine, but in the end I was utterly exhausted. I was losing my mind due to the problems we encountered. I couldn’t take it any longer, so I came up with a plan to go to Princeton for a semester as a visiting scholar. It was an excuse to get a visa for my family, as I wasn’t entirely a professor or a scholar. What I’d do was mill about at the library. There I became interested in Christopher Columbus and Dr. Chanca—I hope to write a novel on Dr. Chanca someday. He was the first doctor to come to the New World, and was involved in the discovery of one of the first cures of syphilis: guayacán bark… It’s a saga. That’s where my writing began. After my breakdown as a builder I started looking for a different career path.

FS We both left something behind in order to become writers. I was a lawyer and also a professor at the university. I specialized in international law. When I found myself living in East Timor as an official of the United Nations, I realized that if I got killed there I wouldn’t be able to explain to anyone why I had gone there. It made no sense, so I refused to go on living like that. I had always wanted to write.

FV You had written as an aficionado.

FS Yes, as a college student I wrote stories. I was too embarrassed to show them to other people, so only my small group of friends read them. Later I wrote a lot of journalism and nonfiction, but it was a coincidence, really, that I ended up writing a novel.

FV In the online journal Prodavinci you had a great explanation for what led you to Diógenes Escalante and the novel El pasajero de Truman.

FS It’s true. The novel I had always wanted to write was about Diógenes Escalante, whose story, in itself, is great. Imagine, in the midst of the severe political crisis of 1945, Escalante, then ambassador of Venezuela to the United States, is brought back to the country as rescuer. Three weeks later the man goes crazy and leaves such a power vacuum that in a month’s time there was a coup d’état.

FV Your family had something to do with it.

FS Yes, my father was a chronic political loser, a sort of Aureliano Buendía out of García Márquez’s fiction. He lost all battles. Politically, he was a member of the URD party [Republican Democratic Union]. He was loyal to Jóvito Villalba, whose presidential ambitions—despite his having founded Venezuela’s democratic system— always failed. My father accompanied Jóvito to the grave, and, consequently, inherited all of Jóvito’s defeats.

FV Which were intense.

FS And numerous. (laughter)

FV Jóvito was going to be president of Venezuela.

FS It was very painful. And all my father’s explanations for his political defeats were centered on this character Diógenes Escalante, who, had he not gone mad, would have changed history. His story always transfixed me, so I started working on a novel about him, which I didn’t know would be called El pasajero de Truman. I was doing the research when I heard about the incidents that inspired my first novel La otra isla.

FV And for those who don’t know, the story is…

FS It’s about a German who drowns, or turns up dead, on the Playa del Agua beach on Margarita Island. The Venezuelan state produces no explanation for the family of the German man; that’s how our society operates. The German’s mother utters a phrase that came out of who knows where (from one of those inexplicable flashes of inspiration perhaps). She’s looking for a lawyer to help her investigate the case, but she ends up frustrated and says: “Look, I better leave now because I firmly believe in God and if I stay here, I’ll stop believing in him.” So, as I said, I heard about this incident and started retelling it as a story, but I soon realized I had lots to say and began developing a lengthier narrative…

FV Of course, it’s Margarita Island!

FS I thought it’d be easy, since all my life experiences in Margarita were there for me to draw upon. There had been no outlet for them before. I guess that my complete estrangement from the island’s reality, after my having lived there all throughout my childhood and adolescence, had left me with a deep nostalgia that was there for me to tap into when writing the novel.

FV So you’d done research on Diógenes Escalante for El pasajero de Truman before starting La otra isla.

FS Yes, and I’m glad to have done it, since I was able to speak with people who later died—for instance Hugo Orozco, who had been Escalante’s minister, and María Teresa Escalante, his daughter, who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

FV So you spoke with her over the phone then?

FS She would also email even though she was 85 years old! I still have some of her emails on my computer. So that was the process, more or less, but there was some magic involved as well. I can’t really explain the act of actually sitting down to write.

FV Literature must be the closest thing to spiritism. (laughter) I’ve had spooky things happen to me—spirits are their only explanation. For the novel I’m writing on Delgado Chalbaud, the main protagonist is the secretary of the tribunal compiling the indictment of his assassination. He’s a fictional character who’s 23 at the time and whose name, like yours, is Francisco: Francisco Rueda. In any case, Francisco Rueda is retelling the case when he’s in his seventies, and he’s doing so at the request of his daughter, Emiliana. She’s worried that her father might be bored and on the verge of depression, so a doctor advises her to ask him to write his memoirs of the indictment. Francisco lives in Macuto, in one of the six or seven homes that are still standing there after the horrible landslide of 1999. Emiliana visits every Saturday to record his comments on some of the archival material she brings him and to see how the memoir is going.

So one day, for the radio program I do with William Niño, “La Ciudad Deseada” (The Desired City), we interview the architect Mónica Silva, who is an expert on houses in Macuto and had drawn sketches and floor plans of the façades of some of the most important houses in the area in the 1890s and 1900s.

FS I remember a little street lined by almond trees in Macuto.

FV There were five magnificent homes there. Some were prefabricated; they had these wooden pieces that were shipped by boat and which homeowners could assemble. So I say to Mónica, “What a coincidence, I’m writing a novel that takes place in Macuto, and I’d love to see some photos of these homes so I have a better idea of them.” She says, “Take a look at the only home that’s still in one piece after the landslide.” I hadn’t mentioned any details about the plot of my novel to her. “A lawyer lives in this house.” My protagonist was a lawyer. “He’s going blind.” My protagonist had dryness in his eyes, and his condition was worsening. “His daughter visits him on weekends.” I couldn’t believe it! She even showed me photos of the lawyer. I was convinced that I had taken possession of this man’s spirit! There was no reason for my novel to be set in Macuto, really. You must have gone through something similar.

FS I’m often awestruck. A friend of mine says that there’s something magical about telling a story, in the construction of a novel or any other writing project you undertake. A lot of different things start to connect, and weird coincidences start happening. When I was about to begin writing El pasajero de Truman, I understood the story as most Venezuelans understand it given that Ramón J. Velásquez, Diógenes Escalante’s right arm, had written so much about that chapter of our history. It turns out that Escalante had had another assistant, Hugo Orozco, if only for a few weeks. One day someone told me I had to speak with Escalante’s assistant. “I’ve spoken to Velásquez,” I said. “No, not him. You must speak to this other man, Hugo Orozco.” He gave me his number. Orozco had never spoken publicly about Escalante’s madness. Had I not interviewed him, my book would have been entirely different.

FV Or it wouldn’t have been.

FS True, it wouldn’t have been. A lot of things started coming together. It’s easy to think of them as coincidences, but it’s almost as if the process of beginning to tell a story depends on whether the story itself wants to be told. This is my favorite part about writing. Sometimes I read what I’ve written and wonder if I could write it if I sat down to write it today.

FV Same here. But I also sometimes read myself and wonder, When did I write this?

It’s as if I had written it in a state of trance.

FS In a state of grace.

FV I don’t recognize myself; I’m like a medium.

FS That happens to me too. Do you surprise yourself sometimes?

FV Sure. Isn’t that what creating is all about? Surprising oneself? If you read the writings of Carlos Cruz-Diez or Jesús Rafael Soto, you see they’re talking about tests and experiments with color, but not about making art. When you try to make art you end up with a dud. And if you sit down to write a novel most likely you’ll end up with a flop.

FS Often all I’m interested in is telling a story. I share with people from Margarita Island this story-telling compulsion. I don’t see myself as an exceptional character; I’ve got the baggage of all the stories I’ve spent my life hearing. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household without a television, listening to the tales told by my grandmother and other elder ladies, and also by my father, who was a great storyteller. But, myself, I’ve never thought I had a gift for this.

FV Why do you think that people on the island are such great storytellers? Is it because they’re islanders?

FS I’m not sure all islanders are like this, what I do know is that all people from Margarita have a narrative compulsion. If they actually wrote stories we would have a very rich literary tradition, I’d say, but that’s not the case. It’s all about orality.

You know I can’t write stories for the life of me. I just don’t feel comfortable writing them. I tried my hand at an urban story about Caracas, and it turned out disastrous.

FV Are you working on a new novel?

FS There’s always something in the works. I’d like to go back to Margarita and write about some of the people there. But I have to say I’m taking a break because I don’t want to be writing right now.

FV You want to recharge.

FS I want to wait for a year.

FV You gave yourself a year…

FS Yes, a year without writing. I like to write when my compulsion to tell a story turns me into an insomniac and telling it is the only way for me to regain my sanity.

FV How do you go about writing when you do write?

FS When I’m writing I wake up at four in the morning and work until seven. I can only handle writing for three hours a day, no more. Plus, before I was teaching at the university and also directing the magazine Éxito. I did that from 2004 to 2008. So, every day I would revise and continue writing, but always in the mornings, because I’m easily distracted.

FV There’s a moment in the process of writing in which I can’t write for more than three hours. That’s when a project is like a birth—I’m inventing something from scratch. Once I have a manuscript to work on, I can work for up to 12 hours.

FS Of course, there’s already a path for you to follow. Writing a novel occupies my mind entirely; I think of it incessantly. You must go through the same thing.

FV I can’t even speak about anything else.

FS Ideas pop up that I keep until the next day, so that when I sit down I have something to work on. Often the ideas are not even about how to continue the narrative, they’re more about how to solve a particular technical problem.

FV Do you ever toss out what you’ve written?

FS Oh yes.

FV That’s the hardest thing for me.

FS It’s hard for everyone! It’s materialized work. (laughter_) From La otra isla I tossed out like 40 pages in which I developed the character of the German consul, on whom the entire novel hinges. That is, he’s the hinge between the Germans and the people from Margarita. In those 40 pages I wrote about why he was on Margarita Island, his personality, his origin. He had met a woman from Margarita who’d been imprisoned in Germany, which, by the way, happens a lot to Venezuelan mules, both men and women, smuggling drugs to Germany. They’re often imprisoned, but the Germans have a witness protection system where they’ll let you get a job in Germany in exchange for information. So this happens to this woman from Margarita, and she ends up meeting the consul. When she decides to return to the island, he follows her there. In the end, for no reason at all, I got rid of this part of the novel! I think about it now and think, What a waste! (_laughter)

FV There’s a golden rule: it’s a bad sign to have a round story, with a beginning and end, within a novel. It’s suspicious if it has too much autonomy. The pieces of a novel must have roots described beforehand and fruits that flourish later.

FS Also, as the author you don’t necessarily know in advance what course the story will follow.

FV The other challenge with some historical novels, which I’m suffering from right now, is when they’re set only 50 years ago. It’s one thing to write about your grandparents, as in my first novel Falke, and another to write about my parents, as I’m doing now in Sumario.

FS A lot of them are alive still.

FV Yes, some of them are very old, but they’re alive. María Isabel Urbina—the daughter of Rafael Simón Urbina, the main conspirator behind the assassination of Delgado Chalbaud—is alive, and is beautiful and smart.

I think you inherit your grandfathers, not your father, because with your father there’s an antagonism that generates a law of compensation. Everything you receive from your father you analyze, balance, or even oppose, because you’re afraid not to mirror him, but with your grandfather this is not the case. It’s much easier to write about the territory of your grandparents than that of your parents… Though in the specific case of Sumario, I’m also writing about my grandparents, since someone who was 23 years old in the year 1950 wouldn’t be my father… Wait, yes! I did the math wrong. The character, actually, is my father.

FS I was born in ’54, and my father was 29.

FV Now that I think of it, I gave my character my father’s age—he was exactly 23 years old in 1950. In any case, this illustrates what I’m trying to explain. It’s harder to have your father as a character than to have your grandfather as a character. What is more, Falke doesn’t only take place in my grandparent’s era—the narrator speaks to the reader from that era. But in Sumario, I don’t just speak about my father, my father speaks in my own era. Because of that, I had to resort to a few tricks, since I needed the novel to end in 1998. I found it very challenging to speak about Chávez, and it’d be impossible for my character not to comment on Chavismo…

FS It’d ruin everything! (laughter)

FV It’d be the end of the novel! Chávez is too present; he’s trying to abolish history.

FS One of the Urbinas seems straight out of a novel: Caraquita Urbina.

FV I don’t know him.

FS Caraquita was the secretary of the Communist Youth during the guerilla years. He’s Rafael Simón Urbina’s nephew. What about that story about Domingo Urbina’s death?

FV I spoke to Teodoro Petkoff in the offices of the newspaper he directs, Tal Cual. As you know, as a young man he was one the most educated guerrillas, in terms of his knowledge of politics and economy. After battling in the sierra and the city, after having fled prison spectacularly, he joined the movement for peace and founded the Movement for Socialism. He told me that he used to give the guerillas, including Domingo Urbina, history lessons when they were putting together the guerrilla front in the Falcon Sierra. One day he sat them down so he could teach them contemporary history. He followed Simón Bolívar’s method, and therefore started in the present and moved backward, toward the past. So he told them about the conflicts between the members of the military junta in 1950 and how they led to the murder of Delgado Chalbaud that same year. This is all taking place in 1960, by the way. He says he suddenly noticed that Domingo Urbina was glaring at him. At the end of the class Urbina came up to Teodoro and said, “You’ve got a problem with me?” (laughter)

FS He must have been stunned.

FV Teodoro had forgotten that the very Domingo Urbina sitting before him had been one of Delgado Chalbaud’s murderers! “Of course, forgive me, I wasn’t thinking of you,” he said. It had to be shocking for Domingo Urbina to realize, for the first time, that he was a historical figure. Up until then he was not aware of his place in history. You could say that no one had turned his own reality into fiction, which is inherent in any well-told story. Teodoro’s lesson made Domingo feel the vertigo of becoming a character.

FS Of having intervened in history.

FV That’s the novelist’s mindset—to generate that vertigo in the readers who never participated in the events he retells.

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