In The Relentless City, Caracas itself becomes one of the characters alongside those who make their home in this city “[lacking] a disposition that would make it understandable.” Yet in tale after tale the author tries to do just that, make the city understandable. A screenwriter as well as the author of two books, Héctor Torres often sees his city’s vicissitudes in cinematic terms, all the while reminding himself that Caracas is “not a movie set,” that real lives are at stake. Those lives are what animate the book, individual human beings living out their daily routines despite the daily risk of violence, and it is in their service that the book was written. The stories call us to see how unacceptable it is to require people to live with such brutality: “You can’t wave it away with a simple ‘it’s always been this way.’”
The brutality is generated by the “tiny emperor” who rules this country and encourages the exploitation of its citizens by anyone who holds a gun and a badge, wearing the blue of the city police or the green of a soldier: “People are resigned to the fact that in Venezuela a uniform isn’t a service, it’s authority. That’s what they teach you in the military academy.” In story after story, a man in uniform extorts someone’s small earnings so the cop can buy lunch, or rams into a vehicle because he can get away with it, or shoots someone for the same reason. Sometimes those petty tyrants are thieves holding up a bar owner—it’s hard to tell the difference between official violence and the common criminal violence that the authorities are supposed to prevent. Even young children and abandoned dogs are at risk, the girls whose mother has to leave them alone while she works in order to feed and shelter them, the dog run over by a truck that brings itself back from its injuries, learning to walk again in a gesture of heroic dignity.
Yet there are also moments of grace. Those girls waiting alone, who called their mother at work as thieves tried to break into their locked apartment, were apparently saved by an old man on the train,
a thin dry man with a penetrating and caustic odor that suited his overall appearance….He wore a kind of long white shirt with blue embroidery, sandals, and a little hat. A mat of long grey hair acted as a beard and made his sharp cheekbones and nose barely visible. He walked slowly, with a gaze divorced from his body….
After he took his seat beside the mother who was racing home to save her daughters, “he started to intone some chants that sounded like long-dead languages, letting his hands float into the air….” Meanwhile, the thieves, unable to get through the lock no matter what they tried, concluded that “This thing must have some kind of powerful spell on it.” Elsewhere it’s a taxi driver who drives to the hospital, no charge, with a child who has, like the dog, been run over in the street, or a taxi driver whose last customer on his last day of driving is a criminal who leaves him an envelope stuffed with cash as he gets out of the car. The thieves—though not the authorities—are occasionally capable of generosity and empathy.
The citizens of Caracas still strive to find their happiness, an apartment in Altavista glowing with the love of a young couple, or a pair of kids singing funny songs in the Metro.
In Caracas you can feel the surprise of a first kiss, of a farewell concert, of your first bed, of an unexpected rekindled flame of your last love. Just like in any other city.
But the last word in this collection of chronicles is given to the fear that taints the residents’ happiness in the best of times, and destroys it in more common times. Let us hope that telling these stories will help the world see what lives beneath and through the articles in our morning papers, and that while we work for a better day in our own country, we can also support the people of Caracas in finding their way to happiness within their city.
Susanna Lang’s chapbook, Self-Portraits, has recently been released from Blue Lyra Press. Her third full-length collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was published in 2017 by Terrapin Books. A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems and translations have appeared in such publications as Little Star, The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, American Life in Poetry and The Slowdown. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.