“I always wanted to learn how to cook. It really fascinated me, cooking. Knitting too…needle work in general. I would tell my mother to teach me, but as you can imagine, in those days, well, it was just out of the question. ‘That’s women’s work,’ she would tell me, ‘you’re supposed to be out on horseback, carrying a gun, getting into machete fights.’ Imagine, that’s what was expected of boys back then!”
It was with a mix of trepidation and bravado that I’d gone out to meet José Manuel Briceño Guerrero at his daughter’s apartment in this immigrant-heavy corner of the 20eme Arrondissement, on a street named – impossible to omit this bit – Rue Lesage. He’d emailed me to say he would be spending a bit of his summer vacation there and, well, it’s just a 3 hour train ride from Maastricht, so…
As I made my way there, I was terribly self-conscious of how little I really knew about the man. A journalist would get fired for turning up to an assignment this unprepared. But what can I say? There just isn’t that much about him online. Worse, I’ve only read a couple of his books, and both of which were written decades ago. (As for the newer ones, I simply have no idea how to get them in Europe.)
The reason I wanted to – no, not “wanted to”. The reason I felt I had to meet him was his 1981 magnum opus, The Labyrinth of the Three Minotaurs.
It’s a book that shook me to the core. It split my understanding of my culture into two periods: before and after reading it. I’ve developed a deeply personal relationship with the book, coming to see it as a kind of road map to my own identity, a Rosetta with the power to decode the Venezuelan psyche. And now, here I am, clutching a glass of orange juice and sitting across from its author as he paints a portrait in words of his impossibly unlikely origins.
“This was all out in Apure,” he goes on, “in a really tiny village called Palmarito. My mother was from there. My dad was an Andino, from Trujillo. Gómez had sent him out there as part of his drive to ‘pacify the plains.’ He was Civil Chief of the village even, and well, he met my mother there so that’s where I was born. They wouldn’t let me cook, or knit, but it was clear enough all along that I wasn’t cut out to be out fighting other boys with machetes or carrying guns on horseback. The one place where I felt comfortable and where they didn’t mind me spending time was my father’s library. My father was a big reader, you see: he had a lot of books, so I spent my childhood surrounded by them. I loved it, really, and I’ve always treasured those memories.
“But it’s also true that I got pigeonholed as the bookish one from very early on. In a way, I wish I’d learned more practical things. If somebody had to run an errand around the house, I was always excused because, you know, ‘José Manuel está estudiando.’ So I was never the one they sent out and round up the cows, or to ride to the pharmacy or whatever. ‘Studying.’ That was my role. I loved it, but at the same time, well, there’s so much I never learned how to do.”
I chuckle at this. Venezuela’s leading classicist rues not being a better cook. A man who has memorized most of The Iliad, deep down, only wishes he’d been taught to crochet.
“It was another world back then, really. I always lived in small places in the llanos, it was only much later I first visited a city. Until I was a teenager, I’d never seen an automobile, or a telephone, even. We just didn’t have them out there. But I never felt deprived because for not having those things. On the contrary, I see kids these days tapping away on cel phone keyboards and I always feel a little sad for them. I didn’t have any of that, but I never felt that as a deprivation, because I had something else, something they don’t have: time.
“Many years later I went back to Palmarito. They’d called saying they wanted to have a little ceremony to honor me as an Illustrious Son of the town. I went out there and the mayor welcomed me, but then apologized profusely, saying he felt terrible that they couldn’t name the one street in town after me. He explained that, unfortumately, they’d already named it, and you know after whom? After el Carrao de Palmarito, you know, that folk singer? Picture that, he’s also from there, and he’d already had the only street in town named after him! He was there that day, I even met him, and he stepped in to tell the mayor there was no problem, that they could name one side of the street after him and the other side after me!”
It’s a good story, and suddenly I feel ridiculous remembering how hard it had been to work up the gumption to contact him. I’m not the easily intellectually-intimidated type, but the idea of meeting Briceño Guerrero had filled me with dread me for years.
I had been expecting…well, I don’t know what, exactly. But not this, certainly. Not folksy charm. His books had dripped with erudition, even his emails were liberally sprinkled with latinazos: nothing about his work was straightforward, everything about it was challenging, difficult. So I’d been expecting…well, a difficult man I suppose.
But here he was, bantering and cracking jokes: as easy-going and avuncular as could be. As our conversation hit its stride, as we both overcame that initial period of reticence, I realized that his prodigious talent is no longer news to him, that he long ago stopped trying to impress it on people. However complex his oeuvre may be, however daring and iconoclastic his thought, the man himself struck me as the last thing you might expect: deep down, he is a simple man.
“It was always the ancients that drew me,” he says, when I ask him how a boy from Palmarito ended up leading a life like his. “I really loved studying Greek and Latin – and later Hebrew – and I’ve always loved teaching them. I’ve been blessed with generation after generation of great students in Mérida. It’s really the most rewarding thing I’ve done, teaching them. So, by now I’ve been eligible to retire from the Universidad de Los Andes for the last 26 years, but no way, I’m not going to stop. I love this work.”
A kind of mischievous grin flashes through his face. Down to the outlandish personal appearance he’s crafted, Briceño Guerrero clearly relishes the anachronistic-misfit-intellectual niche he’s carved out for himself. Nobody but nobody in Venezuelan academia keeps working for a quarter of a century past retirement age. This is not normal behavior. Obviously, though, he couldn’t care less.
It doesn’t take you long to realize what underpins his achievements is simply a prodigious, photographic memory. It’s an attribute that has yet to fail him. “Somebody once asked me what book I would take with me to a desert island, and I told him ‘none’: the books I love I have right here,” he says, tapping his forehead.
I found our meeting impossibly entertaining, but slightly awkward as well. The books that made me an instant groupie – his cultural analysis of what he calls “the Latin American failure” – are books he wrote a very long time ago indeed. It soon becomes clear that, for most of the time I’ve been alive, his attention has been decisively elsewhere: on poetry, on philosophy and on the classics. At times, when I try to steer the conversation towards social topics, I have the odd feeling that his own writing from the 60s and 70s is considerably fresher on my mind than it is on his. I find myself laying out arguments for him that I plainly just picked out of his books.
It’s not that he’s forgotten them, it’s that, these days – as he’s the first to admit – his feelings about politics are something like a considered boredom, an annoyance at how superficial our political debates are. He accuses Chávez of “emotional vampirism” – of monopolizing the nation’s attention, its emotive energy, to such an extent that he makes it nearly impossible to take a step back and consider the country’s problems at a deeper level.
“Not that that’s new: I remember, in previous decades, how the debates between Marxists and non-Marxists at ULA, or between Adecos and Copeyanos, were similar in many ways: terribly shallow, and centered on the sense of belonging to a group more than on a genuine give-and-take of ideas.”
“At ULA, the faculty, which was always mostly marxist, didn’t know what to make of me at all. All they noticed is that I wasn’t a marxist and, as far as they could tell, that could only mean I was a reactionary. Personally, I never had any interest in these kinds of debates – which I always found basically sterile. My instinct, faced with confrontation, has always been to withdraw…and it still is.”
I tell him one of my blog readers (here’s lookin’ at you, Escualidus Arrechus) had commented recently that the measure of how screwed up our public debate is is that 80% of what Chávez says the opposition would accept, if an opposition spokesmen had said it, and that most of what the opposition argues chavistas would accept, if it came from their guy. He stops, delighted with the thought, and instructs me: “please, send that reader my congratulations: I’ve often had that sense myself, and he managed to express it very well, very succinctly.”
For all his writing on the Latin American failure, he still seems genuinely mystified about why it is that our public discourse can’t seem to get out of the rut, generation after generation after generation. He looks me earnestly, right in the eye, and asks “¿por qué será, chico?”
And then he remembers the famous quote from Guzmán Blanco, when he was asked why he had become a conservative, and replied “we called ourselves conservatives because we saw that the others called themselves liberals. But if they had called themselves conservatives, then we would have called ourselves liberals.”
“It’s been over 100 years,” he notes, “and that’s still where we are. You have to be on one side or the other.”
Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that Briceño Guerrero chose to turn his talents to other fields. Literature, and especially poetry, is what really gets his juices flowing these days. To read the ancient masters, he taught himself first ancient Greek and Latin, then Hebrew and finally, within the last couple of years, classical Chinese.
He mentions this last morsel all casual like, as though learning classical Chinese from scratch was a perfectly reasonable hobby for a septuagenarian, like canasta. I find it simply staggering. “But, but, but… why?!” I stammer, groping toward a suitably euphemistic way of hinting at the obvious: that he’s far too old for that sort of thing.
“Why? The Tang Dynasty poets!” he says, “the verse they wrote, it’s tremendously beautiful! It’s like no other kind of poetry I’ve encountered. I was hooked instantly. Actually I spent half of last year in China, learning the classical language. I’ve only learned about 1,500 characters at this point. It’s a slow process: you have to learn a character and forget it and learn it again many times before it finally sticks. But even now I’ve managed to translate a few poems, and my chinese teachers liked them very much.”
As our meeting draws to an end I realize that, if anything, my intellectual infatuation has only grown. As I get ready to part, I feel this instinctive need to ask him for guidance, for counsel, this drive to get him to tell me what is and what is not worth doing with one’s life.
“The challenge in Venezuela,” he says “has always been the same: to find the space needed to reflect on a deeper level. The petty, little day to day quarrel in the front page of the newspapers always draws all the attention, all the energy. And these days it’s worse than ever. The pleitico sucks away all the intellectual oxygen it takes to look deeper. But if you can find a small group of, I don’t know, five or six young researchers, people competent enough and smart enough to think independently, with their own heads, and to look past the day-to-day quarrel at the forces that lay beneat the surface and drive the changes in our country…that, Francisco, is worth doing.”