Book Review: Cuentos del Arañero

When a person garners such a large amount of attention as the symbol of a movement much greater than himself, it is easy to forget the individual experience that has been lived behind the face that is plastered on walls and hung from lamp-posts across Venezuela.  Hugo Chavez is the first to remind people that, above all, he is a human being, but it is without doubt that he has captured the spirit of a nation, and amplified the voices of millions of Venezuelans who were ignored by the political elites of the country for so long.  The recent publication of Cuentos del aranero, a selection from speeches of the current President, compiled for the book by Orlando Oramas and Jorge Leganoa, comes at a prescient moment.  As Hugo Chavez’ government approaches the finale of their re-election campaign, and the possibility of yet another democratic extension of their mandate, it is difficult to find an example from modern times that has achieved more progress within a period of time than the Bolivarian Process has in Venezuela during the last fourteen years.  But Cuentos del aranero takes us back further, much further, than that.  It is within the first chapter, his family stories, that we see the true basis of Chavez’ thinking.  I have always believed that, although there are exceptions, it is often through a person’s family, even more-so than their political convictions, that you can glimpse their true nature.  After all, it is your family that shape your first experiences, and that teach you how to make your way in the world.  From there, we are taken to the ‘Cronicas de Pelota’, when Chavez was still Huguito, budding baseball player with home-made bat and ball in hand.  It is difficult to imagine Chavez as ‘little Hugo’ today.  Perhaps some people would consider these anecdotes as irrelevant; stories from history that have no bearing on political events of today.  But, on the contrary, as well as the actions and policies of his government, it is Chavez’ past that has strengthened his bond with the majority of Venezuelans.
The publication of Cuentos del aranero has meant much more than the 230 pages it contains.  Taking a stroll through a small festival in the Parque de los museosin Caracas on Saturday, I saw the book being given out in the form of a newspaper, as public readings were being conducted in the tranquil surroundings.  Copies of the book were also given out for free outside Metro stations when it was first published two weeks ago.
As the text is taken from spoken words, the stories are written in a personal and conversational style, and the free-flowing narrative is enjoyable to follow, even for someone still learning the language.  Each chapter is broken down into sections, some of which only consist of a paragraph or two, and they appear as moments of thought or memory, tied together by themes or periods of Chavez’ life.  In some places, the language is very colloquial, and even the compilers of the book recognise that there are many words that you will not be able to look up in a dictionary.  Again, this is a part of Chavez’ appeal and his connection with the people here; he speaks in their language, both metaphorically and literally.It is the style of the language which also adds to the book’s appeal.  We hear bites of information – for example, that Chavez has never been a fan of alcohol – alongside humorous accounts, from selling his grandmother’s sweets on his bicycles in the llanos [the countryside], to baseball matches with Fidel Castro.  Chavez is surprisingly forgiving towards those who once supported his political project but have now turned towards the right, often saying that he ‘remembers them with fondness’.  This contrasts with moments of seriousness, such as when Chavez draws a picture of women living in some parts of the continent of Africa having to walk many miles to find clean water every day, and, comparing this to the amount of water wasted in other parts of the planet, denounces how the ideology of capitalism has allowed this to happen.  We are drawn into events as they are happening, with accounts not only of the incidents themselves, but the emotions he felt, and we feel as if we are there on February 4th, 1992, during the coup which Chavez participated in, failing at the time, but only ‘por ahora‘ [as Chavez famously described in a  subsequent 90 second television interview before being imprisoned, in which he took full responsibility], and setting the seeds for his Presidential electoral victory six years later.  We feel as if we are there in April 2002, during the reversed coup against his government, when he repeatedly states that he thought he would be killed.  Even then, however, the emotions are not told in the language of fear, and Chavez says, early on in the book:

No le tengo miedo al qué dirán, ni al qué harán. Dios me cuide los hijos y los hijos de todos nosotros.  I have no fear of what people will say, or what they will do.  God takes care of the children, and all of our children.”

At a time when oppositions smears are increasing, and worries grow about their potential unwillingness to accept another six years of the current government without a violent reaction, these will serve as inspiring words to the millions of Venezuelans who continue to support the Bolivarian Process; in a practical way through their participation at a grassroots level, and with their vote at the ballot box.  By the end of the book, it becomes clear that the flame inside Hugo Chavez’ heart is still very much alive.  Once you understand the suffering the Venezuelan people have experienced, something that Chavez surely comprehends to a far greater extent than any of us, you begin to understand why they are so determined for this revolutionary process to continue.  Chavez promises that the country will never return to the hands of political elites, and the days of rampant, unchecked corruption and inequality:

Imaginense que ese gente regresara a gobernar el pais, seria el caos mas grande.  Por esa mas nunca volveran.  Volvera Rintintin, volvera Superman, volvera Tarzan y puede ser que vuelva Kaliman. Pero, esa gente, no volvera. ¡No!  Imagine that these people return to govern the country, it would be the biggest chaos.  For this, moreover, they will never return.  Rintintin will return, Superman will return, Tarzan will return and Kaliman could be able to return.  But, these people, will not return.  No!”

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