Talking Location with author Tim Ewins – Goa
A story around the death of Hugo Chávez – Caracas
15th September 2019
The Last Days of El Comandante by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a story around the death of Hugo Chávez – translated (from the Spanish) by Rosalind Harvey and Jessie Mendez Sayer. Set in Caracas.
Alberto Barrera Tyszka has written an award winning biography of Chávez, so he clearly knows his subject. Chávez was a very divisive figure in Venezuela’s recent history. Half the country loved him, and the other half hated him. Did he redistribute the country’s vast oil wealth to the poor, or was it syphoned off by his cronies into offshore funds? Did he die, as some say, on 28th December 2012 although the death was not announced until 5th March 2013? Why was there so much secrecy surrounding his treatment for cancer in Cuba?
Although the background to The Last Days of El Comandante is very much based on the facts with which Alberto Barrera Tyszka is so familiar, it is a work of fiction. The book is a novel featuring the interlocking stories of a number of Venezuelans (and an American journalist). The events are not connected to the impending death, but the impending death is very much the canvas against which they are painted – and each gives insights into everyday life into Venezuela at the time… a devastated economy, shortages of food and medicine, violence on the streets, and enormous problems in finding affordable accommodation. There are middle aged brothers – Miguel and Antonio – on opposite sides of the Chávez ‘love him or hate him’ divide, constantly trying to avoid the elephant in the room. There are Fredy, Tatiana and their son Rodrigo who live in an apartment in the same building as Miguel – rented from Andrenia who has returned from the States and is looking to evict Fredy and Tatiana. Fredy and Tatiana have nowhere in Caracas they can afford to move to… Fredy (an ex journalist and now embryonic author) heads to Cuba to research and write a book on what is happening to Chávez and his treatment. Their almost adolescent son, Rodrigo, is having an online ‘affair’ with a young lady of the same age called Maria. Maria and her mother live in self-inflicted virtual imprisonment in their apartment – because the mother is is scared (not entirely unreasonably) of venturing out onto the dangerous streets. And finally there is American journalist, Madeleine, who has left home in California to pursue her fascination with Chávez – and to write about him. Their lives are all intertwined.
The characters are well drawn and believable. And the reader gets a clear impression of how difficult life was in Caracas of the time. Reading the book is a great way of learning about what was happening. And, of course, life has arguably only got worse since the death of Chávez. His then deputy, and now president, Nicolás Maduro has hardly made life any easier or smoother.
The Last Days of El Comandante is recommended. A history lesson, well disguised as fiction.
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