Let's talk Latin America

A Visit From Raquel Rivas Rojas

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Raquel Rivas Rojas visited to talk about her latest book, Muerte en el Guaire. Zara Huband heard her speak.

It is the river Guaire in Caracas that links the stories in Raquel Rivas Rojas’ latest book, Muerte en el Guaire. Through the bodies being washed up on the river’s shore, Rojas connects the people of Venezuela to their brutal history and offers a reminder of the violent issues they continue to face today.

At a talk in Bristol in November, Rivas Rojas opened with the book’s epigraph:

There is a war between the rich and poor, a war between the man and the woman. There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.

It is the opening of a Leonard Cohen song, which perfectly prepares us for the story that follows.

The book is written as a series of letters between two friends, two women, one living in London and the other in Venezuela. The third character, Patricia, is a journalist investigating the bodies. Despite Muerte en el Guaire being a detective story, the book is above all about relationships. Using the form of letters, Rivas Rojas creates the dialogue that is lacking amongst the politicians within her own country. As well as the distinct lack of public spaces for conversation in Venezuela, the author also wants to stress that the society she is describing is not clearly divided—within her own family there is a Chavista and a non-Chavista side. It is in these personal spaces, however, that different opinions are often shared.

The use of the crime genre has various implications for Rivas Rojas. In a country like Venezuela (which has the highest global rate of homicides and unresolved homicides) it is a way of rooting the issues faced by the country in a relevant genre. Unlike your average detective story, however, Rivas Rojas doesn’t pretend to comfort the reader by offering answers to these problems, just like the institutions in Venezuela do not offer resolutions. Besides, such issues would be too complex to tackle in the pages of a single novel.

The escapism that literature can offer doesn’t occur in the crime genre if you are from a country where crime is an everyday reality. But in the common tradition of exiled Latin American writers, self-imposed or otherwise, Rivas Rojas has the opportunity to write from a different perspective. It is important to note the difference between those writing in the country and those writing from abroad: the latter see their own country damage itself, while also being able to observe it more objectively. This offers the opportunity to imagine a different country to the one that has been left behind.

Rivas Rojas is also subverting a typically male-dominated genre on many levels. A woman herself, she creates protagonists that are women and who write in letter style: all of these factors make for a unique crime novel. Her aim was to tell a story about telling stories and about people trying to understand each other. Letters are personal, she makes readers feel like they are a part of the discussion, and every letter is aimed at them.

What Rivas Rojas seems to want to highlight is that only by sharing the different experiences of Venezuelans can any real change happen. She describes Venezuela as a place full of mystery and alternative histories but only by talking can Venezuelans change the course of their history. Latin American stories are unique because they are so rooted in their land, history and language. Rivas Rojas even suggests that some Latin American writers are untranslatable because what makes them so special is the way they use language. This Latin American writer, however, through her combined roles of writer, translator and reader, manages to aptly convey her message and the experiences of Venezuelans for those outside of its borders.