Book Review: It Would Be Night In Caracas

“Death takes place in language first, in that act of wrenching subjects from the present and planting them in the past.”

It Would Be Night In Caracus, by Karina Sainz Borgo (translated by Elizabeth Bryer), opens with the narrator burying her mother. The two women had lived together in an apartment in Caracus, a city being torn apart by competing revolutionaries intent on consolidating their power. Followers of the various factions vie to instil fear through deadly violence while others amass personal wealth through black market control of vital supplies. The local currency has become worthless. The streets are battlegrounds.

The mother had two sisters who still live in the old family home in the seaside town of Ocumare de la Costa. The mother chose to leave this place to attend university. She raised her daughter to appreciate the arts, especially literature. Although understanding that family meant just the two of them, the narrator recalls summertime visits to her aunts and a spacious house that functioned with different priorities. Nevertheless, she was content in her mother’s company.

“We were made to endure. Our world was sustained by the two of us keeping it in balance. Everything outside our family of two was the exception: supplementary, and for that reason expendable.”

With her mother’s death the narrator’s foundations are fractured but worse is to come. Revolutionaries decide to commandeer her apartment, trashing the possessions her mother had valued. This brings into sharp relief what their country has become. She must somehow find a way to move on.

From the window of a neighbour’s apartment the narrator watches as people are beaten and killed in the streets below, tear gas wafting upwards making the simple act of breathing difficult. The descriptions are fearsome and vivid, evoking reader sympathy which is then tempered as comparisons are made with bullfighting.

“Paying for a seat to watch death play out.”

Men kill animals for sport – there should be no surprise when they turn on each other in times of heightened tension and lawlessness.

The narrator must make a terrible choice. As she enacts what is still a fledgling response to her need to survive, she encounters another survivor. Santiago is the brother of a good friend who seeks shelter when the narrator foils his attempts to help her. He describes in detail what happens when citizens protest against the actions of the revolutionaries. Santiago’s experience as a prisoner was intense and at times his testimony is difficult to read due to its searing, graphic content. When the thugs take over, the intelligent and talented are regarded as of little value, pleasure taken in their degredation.

It is terrifying to consider how a country in which it is possible to live a full and rounded life can degenerate so quickly into one where lives are shrivelled and fear filled amidst the violence of self seekers spouting their false mantras of sharing wealth which they work to horde for themselves. This is the reality of war and revolution.

The narrator sees that she has a potential way out. To take it she must give up everything, including herself.

The writing is stunning, evoking a city in chaos with piercing clarity. Its citizens’ anger and impotence are powerfully portrayed alongside the searing consequences of open attempts to protest, to stop the carnage.

I took minor issue with just one point in the text. Song lyrics are included but not translated meaning they add little of value. I also found the description from the narrator’s childhood of the preparation of a tortoise for consumption distressing – a hypocritical reaction perhaps, typical of those of us removed from the realities of food production.

This is a compelling and potent story of a woman who loses both her beloved mother and motherland yet determines to find a way to live despite the hand fate has dealt. The eloquent prose ensures that the difficult subjects explored remain gratifying to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Harper Via.


Book Review: Black Sugar

Black Sugar, by Miguel Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Boyce), is a story of pirates, buried treasure and rum. Set in the forests of Venezuela it charts the country’s development through the twentieth century alongside that of residents of a remote sugar plantation. The elegant, often humorous prose is fable like. There is desire, intrigue, greed and the unstoppable rhythms of life.

The story opens with a shipwreck. Marooned inland, surrounded by swampy forest, Captain Henry Morgan is dying atop his lifetime’s hoard of treasure. As the weeks go by his marooned ship and valuable supplies rot, or are consumed by the land and his hungry crew. There follows a storm, a mutiny, and the captain and his treasure disappear.

Three centuries later the land has been drained and cultivated. A village has been built, the tale of an English pirate and his lost hoard become legend. On the Otero family farm, Ezequiel and his wife Candelaria live modestly with their late born daughter, Serena. The child has developed an interest in botany, observing her surroundings whilst dreaming of new horizons.

Their quiet life is enlivened by the arrival of a stranger. Severo Bracamonte, a young man in his twenties, has purchased documents from a travelling merchant purporting to reveal the location of the English captain’s buried treasure. He asks for permission to stay on the farm while he conducts a meticulous and methodical search. In exchange he offers a share of the booty he is convinced he will find.

Serena is unimpressed by this slight, pale faced man. As the weeks go by with no success she becomes annoyed at her parents’ tolerance of Severo’s continued presence. All this changes when he finally brings back an artifact. Serena’s reaction causes him to rethink his ambitions.

With Severo’s help the farm grows in size and wealth. He branches out, creating a mill and distillery. Serena works alongside him, keeping the farm books but yearning for a child. The arrival of another stranger, an Andalusian treasure seeker, changes their prospects once again.

Treasure comes in many forms, what use it is put to determining its value. Each of the characters achieves, but not necessarily what they thought they desired. Greed is shown to be a disease, wealth an entanglement. This is a deft and gratifying evocation of the cycle of life in an ever evolving land.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.