Photo: Clara Rodríguez

Karina Sainz Borgo: ‘I Don’t Believe There's Such a Thing as a National Literature’

Two years after the explosive success of It Would Be Night in Caracas, this journalist and writer from Caracas discusses the complexities of turning the Venezuelan tragedy into a universal story

We have talked more about what happened around Karina Sainz Borgo’s first novel in the publishing industry and the media, than about the book itself. La hija de la española—titled It Would Be Night in Caracas in the English translation by Elizabeth Bryer, published by HarperCollins—was making the headlines months before it reached bookshelves in March 2019, once it was known that the translation rights had been sold for 22 languages. And the interest only grew while the novel won the International Literary Prize, was shortlisted for Sweden’s Kulturhuset Stadsteatern Stockholm prize, and was nominated for the LiBeraturpreis, the Frankfurt book fair’s prize for female authors. Positive reviews rained from NPR, Time, and The New York Times. The French edition, published by the prestigious Gallimard, won the foreign category at the Grand Prix L’Héroïne Madame Figaro 2020. 

In Venezuela and abroad, Venezuelan readers were impressed by the way the global publishing industry was reacting to the first novel by a Venezuelan author under forty. She was a well-known arts journalist in one of the capitals of the Spanish book world, Madrid, which could help understand the exposure she was able to gain; and the context was favorable, given that other authors of her generation like Rodrigo Blanco Calderón were also being awarded and promoted by important European publishers. Even so, the international acclaim of Karina’s novel was new to us. What were people reading in it? It Would Be Night in Caracas is an apocalyptic nightmare, written under the influence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, as Karina has acknowledged. It’s painful, bitter, as one could expect from a novel that digests the trauma many of us experience with several degrees of intensity and understanding: having seen your world burned to ashes. 

Even if we write from personal experience, tyranny and conflict tend to overwhelm individuals and societies. Writers like Nabokov, who lived a sort of continuous exile, found very elaborate mechanisms to talk about the inner workings of their times without delivering a classically detailed account.

However, the interest in this novel transcends Venezuela and its author’s origin, and that’s impressive for any novel coming from any place. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with El Tercer País, published two years later by the same publishing house, Spain’s Lumen, part of the Penguin Random House conglomerate (it’ll be translated into English soon). We’ll see if the book will now get more attention than the surrounding marketing storm.

Written during the frenzy of interviews, book fairs and photo sessions during the press tour for La hija de la española, this new novel had a really good start. It was born in a short story, “Scissors”, that won the venerable O. Henry Prize and was selected by the Nigerian literary star Chimananda Ngozie Adichie for the issue of Granta magazine that gathers the winners. “The Third Country” is the name of the improvised cemetery around which the world of refugees, guerrilleros, smugglers and other survivors is built.  Sainz Borgo threw her two main characters there: the woman who assumed the task of burying those who can’t afford their inhumation (the reverse of the Colombian women who opened rest houses for the Venezuelan walkers) and another one who accepts her services and joins her, trapped in a border turned purgatory (the reverse of the millions of Venezuelans who kept walking until they replaced their first country for a second one).

From Madrid and via email, Karina answered my questions on the challenge many of us will keep talking about for years: how to process what happened to us Venezuelans, from abroad, in order to be understood by others… or at least to understand ourselves.

Narrating a great social commotion means facing a dilemma: telling the story as it is, calling its actors and places by their names, or doing it from another angle, as you did it in your new novel, where the words “Colombia” and “Venezuela” don’t exist. How was it to recount a historical process we are so close to, both in time as in geographical and emotional terms?

I like allegories. I think they have a tremendously evocative and symbolic power. I was trained as a journalist and I tend to think and solve problems as such: I write down dates, places, times; certainties. But novels don’t explain or reconstruct reality, as journalism must do. Novels have their own logic, a world of their own. They are autonomous artifacts. In J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, we don’t need to know where that border town is or what it’s called, or which empire does it belong to, because the plot is what really matters and we only care about whether the tribes are going to attack, and when. Coetzee doesn’t need to say he’s talking about South Africa.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, the point of view is everything: the axis of the story is how the white officer sees the native girl, how his perception evolves. In El Tercer País (and in La hija de la española), the point of view is always that of a woman trying to understand her circumstance and making decisions from what she manages to see. How was your process to get into your characters and see their world through their eyes? 

First-person is one of the registers I like the most: it has strength, it convinces, it moves, it reinforces the idea that the reader and the main character know the same. It’s the kind of voice required in La hija de la española, which is a tense story where anything can happen. In El Tercer País I shouldn’t leave the whole novel in the hands of a first-person narrator because there are several plots in place, so I added a third-person point of view in the character of the mayor. He acts like a camera, shooting the present but able to include flashbacks. I think I made that kind of decision by following my intuition and, of course, my literary influences, from Ovid to Juan Rulfo, to whom I try (with all my common sense and respect) to pay homage. 

The Colombia-Venezuela border is a unique place, but you also built a fictional place of it, which made me wonder if your novels, as well as other novels being written, are forming a third country of a literary nature: it’s neither the Venezuela we left behind nor the country that received us, but a country made of memory and emotion, an intangible place where we grieve the country we lost. 

From Joseph Roth to Manuel Chaves Nogales, there’s a literary experience marked by exile or domestic isolation that goes beyond testimony. Even if we write from personal experience, tyranny and conflict tend to overwhelm individuals and societies. Writers like Nabokov, who lived a sort of continuous exile, found very elaborate mechanisms to talk about the inner workings of their times without delivering a classically detailed account. I have always found that in novels like Laughter in the Dark or Ada or Ardor.

A dream I had recently is still in my head: I try to get into my former home and a criminal comes out of the blue, points his gun at me and shoots me in the forehead. I fall and, instead of blood, I bleed guava juice.

In Ada or Ardor, in fact, Nabokov built a landscape that mixes Russia and the U.S. It’s like a long dream, and there’s something oniric in your novels, which could be describing a very stressful dream. Has it happened to you that Venezuela and Spain mix in your dreams? Or that you mix in your dreams the past with an alternative version of it?

The only dreams I remember when I wake up take place in Venezuela. Even when it seems it’s another place, I feel it’s Venezuela. There are some recurring images: a ruined, labyrinthic house, walls where humidity is damaging the paint, a hall covered in hubris, gardens lost under bad weeds and vermin… A dream I had recently is still in my head: I try to get into my former home and a criminal comes out of the blue, points his gun at me and shoots me in the forehead. I fall and, instead of blood, I bleed guava juice. So I can say that, in my dreams, I bleed out over a puddle of guava juice.  

After everything that happened with La hija de la española, I wonder who such an uncommon experience for a writer can impact your relationship with that book. 

Except for some public reading or a workshop, I haven’t reread La hija de la española. I still don’t know which factors worked to cause so much interest in that novel. There seems to be something in Adelaida Falcón (the novel’s main character, who usurps a neighbor’s identity to flee for Spain) that thrills many kinds of readers. From today’s perspective, La hija de la española is a story of loss: of the mother, the country, the certainties, the projects of her life; the loss of individual identity after being bulldozed by a dictatorship and an overwhelming crisis. I think that made even people who were skeptical about the story end up moved by it. Not everyone spent their childhood in Venezuela’s central coast, but everyone, as Adelaida, has lost that paradise of childhood and was left out in the open, unable to recover it.

All labels are problematic, as well as nationalities; you’ve said that, besides feeling Venezuelan, you feel Spanish too. But regarding your novels: do you see them as Spanish novels, as Venezuelan novels, or none of the above? Do you belong to “Spanish literature” or “Venezuelan literature”?

I don’t believe in such a thing as national literature. I think I’m part of a tradition, that of the Spanish language, and I respond to it instinctively. I have read American, British, French, Italian and German literature, but nothing holds me more than the one written in my own language. This is something I understood around ten years ago. I moved to Spain when I was 23 and since then, almost all my reading has been defined by a different relationship with language. When I added those Castilian words that seem coated in gold powder to my Caribbean Spanish, I found that the treasure chest of my language had doubled in size. You can’t come back unscathed from the literature of the Spanish Siglo de Oro, or from the classics. And that permeates into the way you speak and write. 

I don’t believe in such a thing as national literature. I think I’m part of a tradition, that of the Spanish language, and I respond to it instinctively.

Another complicated label is “literature by the diaspora”. Do you think those authors who write from a place different to the one they come from, have a common double sight, the one you get when you are looking at two worlds at once?

Yes, I think so. I feel it when I read authors like Chaves Nogales, Cabrera Infante, Zweig, Thomas Mann, Doris Lessing, Natalia Ginzburg, J.M. Coetzee… all of them have that same painful relationship with their place, and showed me that the perplexity and pain of people who write from a place different to the one they come from are part of a complex history that precedes me. I took a long time to understand this. The 19th and 20th centuries were centuries of exile, which is as universal and ancient as travel. 

For me, and I guess for many of us who write, migration deeply changed my view of the world I left behind. What one writes today couldn’t have been written if one was still back there, for a lot of reasons. How did you live that process?

When I came to Spain I used to write about everything that happened to me. The more I wrote, the more I understood what I felt. With time, I worked on several attempts at completing novels, technically poor but full of anguish. I haven’t been totally conscious of this process but, judging by the results, it seems to be evident I’ve been digging in that direction. It’s something I can’t control. I recently read a letter by Thomas Mann (the Third Reich took his German citizenship from him) where he wrote he took for granted that Germany would exist wherever he was. He wrote a line that impacted me, regarding the return: “I confess I’m terrified by the ruins of Germany.” Some of that electricity goes through the things I write.