Venezuela's nightmare lost in novel of historical fiction
The gravity of the crisis in Venezuela belies its low profile in English-language media, perhaps because it’s beyond the acute concerns and easy grasp of people in the developed world. This lack of investigation and coverage is tragic because the lessons of a tyrant’s quest for power and "21st-century socialism" are falling by the wayside.
Enter Joel Hirst, a U.S. aid worker and political activist who lived in Venezuela for seven years. Also married to a Venezuelan, Hirst is well-qualified to bridge the gap and convey the suffering of his wife's compatriots to an international audience. His novel, The Lieutenant of San Porfirio, seeks to do just that, and overcome the censorship cloud that hangs over the country.
Hirst offers a combination of historical fiction and magical realism—set during the reign of the late President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), simply referred to as El Comandante throughout. The story follows four characters as their independent narratives come into contact, including a naive gringo who is spellbound with Venezuela's revolution and takes a trip down to support it.
Therein, however, lies the downfall of this important book and its otherwise elegant prose: Hirst adds magical or fantasy plot elements to an already grandiose and complicated task, perhaps in an attempt to boost its literary value. That includes "translucent" albino characters and plenty of references to the Pachamama goddess of the Andes.
The problem is that the situation in Venezuela, which has only worsened since Chávez's departure, is surreal enough and has no need for embellishment. When it comes to the country without toilet paper, fact really is stranger than fiction, and unacquainted readers will have a hard time distinguishing the two and knowing what to believe.
The extra padding also extends the book to an unnecessarily long 336 pages, while a more concise version would let the reader get to the juice of the final 80 pages. For those who don't give up, the latter part of the story is a page-turner and worth the wait.
In particular, it addresses the rhetoric used for and against the socialist revolution, and the blind spots of the adherents. At the same time, Hirst is intellectually honest and acknowledges the crony positions of the old oligarchs, which are not to be confused with the poor and young protesting for civil liberties and an economic future.
Another unfortunate outcome of the story's complexity is that it narrows the field of likely readers, appealing primarily to bilingual individuals and Latin American exiles. The scattered use of Spanish terms—vieja, muchacho, and esclavo, for example—will be confusing and awkward to educated laymen of the Anglosphere. Even bilingual readers will get distracted by the inconsistent application of accents and tildes on Spanish terms, such is the difficulty of mixing two languages into one story.
For those who enjoy historical fiction, The Lieutenant of San Porfirio still serves as a handy introduction to Venezuela of the Chavista era. However, such are its shortcomings that it has no hope of garnering mass-market appeal, at least not in its current form. A glaring void remains, therefore, of a painful story still lost on the outside world.
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