Hyperrhiz 16: Essays
E-Lit in Spanish: Voices of Dissent in a Globalized World
United States Naval Academy
Hermeneia Research Group
E-lit narratives in Spanish have been developing at a steady pace with a profound embedded interest in denouncing some of the historical, social and political events which are commonplace in the Spanish speaking world. Their origins can be traced back to iconic works such as Extreme Conditions (1996) and The Wright Brothers’ First Flight (1996) by Juan B. Gutiérrez. Whereas the first e-lit work immerses the reader in a science fiction narrative which portrays the effects of capitalism, the second literary piece takes place in an isolated Latin American town deeply affected by corruption and the typical idiosyncrasies of a small Latin American town. As a follow up to this declamatory gesture portrayed by these narratives, Gabriella infinita (2000) by Colombian writer Jaime Alejandro Rodríguez Ruiz brings to the fore topics that are common in many Spanish speaking countries, such as a civil war, censorship, repression, fear and exile. In turn, Golpe de gracia (2006) also by Jaime Alejandro Rodríguez Ruiz discusses the role of authoritarianism in society, as represented by one of its main characters. Though the topics discussed in these narratives are highly representative of issues that have taken place either in Latin America and/or Spain, they also reflect how these regional idiosyncratic events have transcended their boundaries to become commonplace circumstances in a globalized society. But it is the Peruvian-Venezuelan writer Doménico Chiappe who has transformed his e-lit pieces in declamatory narratives which entice the reader to reflect and act upon historical, political, social and technologically driven events which have drastically altered a region and/or a globalized society in general. In the polyphonic multimedia novel Tierra de extracción (1996-2007) Chiappe incisively depicts the enduring hardship of a small Venezuelan town and its people who have lived under the shadows of exploitation by the oil companies, whereas in Hotel Minotauro (2014), his latest and most declamatory piece, Chiappe addresses issues such as the financial crisis, human trafficking, the role of economic, social and political power as well as the role of social media. Even though the topics developed stem from a Latin American perspective, they are able to transcend to become topics of global significance, since they represent issues of a globalized society. It is very clear that from its inception e-lit in Spanish has been influenced by its own unique voice which echoes its own geography, history and social and political essence. In spite of its rooted regional elements that clearly differentiates e-lit in Spanish from its American counterpart, e-lit in Spanish becomes global from a regional rather than from an English speaking or European hegemony. E-lit in Spanish with its regional perspective has been able to transcend to become global without losing its unique, intriguing and fascinating aspects that differentiates it from its American and European counterparts.
E-lit in Spanish
E-lit narratives in Spanish have been developing at a steady pace, with a profound embedded interest in denouncing some of the historical, social and political events that are commonplace in the Spanish-speaking world. Their origins can be traced back to iconic works such as The Wright Brothers’ First Flight (1996) and Extreme Conditions (1996) by Juan B. Gutiérrez. Whereas the former immerses the reader in the idiosyncrasies of an isolated Latin American town affected by corruption and technology, the latter is a science fiction narrative that portrays the impact of powerful multinationals and capitalism. As a follow-up to these declamatory gestures, Colombian writer Jaime Alejandro Rodríguez Ruiz’s Gabriella infinita (2000) brings to the fore topics germane to many Spanish-speaking countries, such as a civil war, censorship, repression, fear and exile. In turn, Golpe de gracia (2006), also by Rodríguez Ruiz, discusses the role of authoritarianism in society, as represented by one of its main characters. Though the topics discussed in these narratives are representative of issues that have taken place either in Latin America or Spain, they also reflect how regional events have transcended their boundaries to become commonplace in a globalized society.
In this regard, it is the Peruvian-Venezuelan writer Doménico Chiappe who has transformed e-lit pieces into declamatory narratives that entice the reader to reflect and act upon historical, political, social and technologically driven events that have drastically altered both regional and globalized society. In the polyphonic multimedia novel Tierra de extracción (1996-2007), Chiappe incisively depicts the enduring hardship of a small Venezuelan town and its people who have lived under the shadow of exploitation by oil companies. Similarly, in Hotel Minotauro (2014), his latest and most declamatory piece, Chiappe addresses issues such as the financial crisis, human trafficking and the role of economic, social and political power, as well as the role of social media. Even though the topics developed are presented from a Latin American perspective, they represent issues common to a globalized society.
It is clear that from its inception e-lit in Spanish has been influenced by its own unique voice echoing its own geographical, historical, social and political essence. In what follows, I will argue that in spite of its rooted regional elements that clearly differentiate it from its North American and European counterparts, e-lit in Spanish becomes global from a regional rather than from a Euro-centric hegemonic perspective.
It was in 1995 that Colombian writer Juan B. Gutiérrez published in print La Sagrada Geometría, a short story about a machine which would allow the creation of an idyllic virtual world where a character named Rosita and Solin Deunamor could meet. The story foreshadowed and/or imitated some of the virtual games which were being developed at the time, or would be created in the decades to come. In 1996 Gutierrez started working on an experimental hypertext novel which would include remediated versions of some of his published short stories. Gonzalez, archivos and documentos was originally published in the literary edition of El Tiempo, one of the most widely read newspapers in Colombia, later to be included in the e-lit version of El primer vuelo de los hermanos Wright (1996). Thus, the first hypertext version of El primer vuelo de los hermanos Wright would include digital versions of some of those printed stories after having undergone a process of remediation, as defined by Jay Bolter and Richard Gursin in Remediation (45).
A second version of El primer vuelo de los hermanos Wright was developed in 2000, as well as a third in 2006, the main differences being the authorial tools used for their creation and the level of detail reflected in the metanarratives that surround the stories. In spite of these differences there are two common denominators in all versions of this e-lit piece. The first is what Gutiérrez has referred to as the theme of “the eternal vices of Latin America” (2005), vices which even though well-entrenched in Latin American society have also become omnipresent in our global society. The main vices that Gutiérrez refers to are corruption and social and racial discrimination. In El primer vuelo de los hermanos Wright, each member of the town of Villapinta, depending on his or her social status, has a specific social role and rank, which in certain cases leads to abuse or corruption. Villapinta could very well represent any Latin American town or by extension any corrupt society: Gutierrez highlights the well-established division of social classes as well as the prominent role of religion.
Caminatas en Villapinta eran el principal acto social de sus habitantes. Primero estaban las caminatas, luego las invitaciones a tomar chocolate, luego la misa, luego las fiestas del pueblo, luego las fiestas particulares y, por último, los entierros…. Los entierros tenían especial encanto si se llevaban acabo en la parte rica, pues usualmente había cena en la casa del difunto. El cementerio estaba dividido por un muro y cada parte tenía entradas independientes. Pero era el mismo lote, porque el párroco de la época de la fundación se negó a santificar dos terrenos por el precio de uno. (“Los paseantes”)
Walks in Villapinta were the main social event of its inhabitants. First there were the walks, then invitations to have chocolate after mass, then the village festivals, private parties and then, finally, burials. …Burials had a special charm if they took place in the rich part, because usually there was a dinner at the home of the deceased. The cemetery was divided by a wall and each side had separate entrances. But it was the same lot, because the priest at the time of its foundation refused to sanctify two parcels of land for the price of one. (“Los paseantes”)
The second theme developed in the novel is the role of technology. In one of the passages Gutierrez presents a character named Socrates who, by having access to a machine and its files, creates an idyllic setting for a romantic date. In reference to Socrates’ project we are informed:
Preparó un escenario para un encuentro virtual: un río de aguas claras que invitara a tomar un baño de pies durante una estación del año propicia para el descanso, tal vez sentados sobre la hierba a la sombra de un plátano alto y arrullados por el canto de las cigarras…. Rosita aceptó la cita varias horas más tarde. Se conectó al hipnólogo y de inmediato se vio vestida con una túnica al lado de Sócrates. (“La sagrada geometría”)
He prepared a scenario for a virtual meeting: a river of clear water that would invite one to take a foot bath during a season conducive to rest, perhaps while sitting on the grass in the shade of a tall banana tree and lulled by the singing of ... cicadas. Rosita accepted the date several hours later. She connected herself to the hypnotist and suddenly she found herself dressed in a robe and next to Socrates. (“La sagrada geometría”)
In this work Gutiérrez establishes the intimate connection between the imaginary worlds discussed in philosophy, literature and the potential for new technologies to create virtual worlds. In the citation below, he makes the reader aware of the powerful communicative role of technology, not only for Villapinta but for all of humanity.
De hecho siempre se han creado mundos imaginarios, sólo que ahora podemos realmente virtualmente acceder a un prado perfecto, a un sol impecable, y a un mármol sin vetas. ¿No estamos acaso ahora en un mundo de ideas perfectas? Yo sólo quería dialogar con usted de acuerdo a la mejor usanza que conocemos (“La sagrada geometría”).
In fact imaginary world have always been created, only now we can actually access a virtually perfect meadow, a flawless sun, and a stainless marble. Are we not now perhaps in a world of perfect ideas? I just wanted to talk to you according to the best tradition we know. (“La sagrada geometría”)
It is Gutiérrez’s detailed regional description in tandem with his awareness of world problems and advances that allows El primer vuelo de los hermanos Wright to transcend the frontiers of Latin America in order to present issues that are an intricate part of global phenomena.
As a trip down memory lane, Condiciones extremas also by Gutiérrez, still stands as one of the most outstanding pioneering e-lit pieces in Spanish. It was first written for print in 1998 with a CD Rom, later to evolve into three different versions, demonstrating the evolution of technology and the author’s zest for experimenting with hypertext, hypermedia and adaptive digital narratives as forums for a specific political and social stand. Though the first two versions (1998, 2000) were written in Spanish, the third version (2006), an “adaptive piece in which the information system tries to optimize the reading process” (Gutiérrez, 2002), was written in Spanish and in English. From its inception this piece expresses the author’s intention to address a topic which could be treated as a regional or national issue but that in fact transcends borders. The issues presented in Condiciones Extremas range from the role of capitalism and multinationals to the endangerment and devastation of the environment and the human race.
Condiciones Extremas is a pioneering e-lit piece that moves from print to hypertext and hypermedia to eventually convert itself into an adaptive literary piece based on an a “specialized artificial intelligence engine” which is the foundation of literatronic (Gutiérrez, Extreme Conditions). As stated by the author “an adaptive literary piece reconfigures itself for the reader, always leading to a potentially unique book. In other words, the media acts on the message” (Gutiérrez, “What is adaptive digital narrative?”).
Fiction works in Literatronic are part of an information system that interacts with the reader. Adaptive books cannot be reproduced on paper except, perhaps, as a reading path at a given moment. That is Literatronic: letters that cannot be without digital media. (Gutiérrez)
From a narrative perspective, Gutiérrez relies on the combination of science fiction and e-lit as a means to convey a strong social and political message. This hybrid contributes to the acknowledgement of Condiciones Extremas as an iconic e-lit in Spanish or any other language. According to Pajares Tosca’s reading of version 2 of Condiciones Extremas, Gutiérrez “has positioned himself outside the ‘canonical’ conception of what hypertexts do that print cannot, to paraphrase Jane Yellowlees Douglas…. [Condiciones Extremas] even neglects to make the meta-references that are nearly mandatory in the field” (275).
Condiciones Extremas follows the lives of Indigo Cavalera, Miranda Macedonia and Equinoccio Deunamor in 1998, 2050 and 2090. The characters travel back and forth in time to create and alter the worlds they inhabit. One of the main plots developed in the novel is the power of Industrias Cavalera, a company that creates a mutant race which can only survive in a polluted environment that would be deadly for the human race. Throughout the story each race struggles for survival. The mutants try to survive in the polluted environment, while the human race is aware that unless the mutants disappear they will not be able to survive. In this context Industrias Cavalera stands for the power of the multinationals, which in many instances have bought land rights resulting in polluted landscapes and the rise of deadly diseases. This is not much different from what happens nowadays throughout the world. As stated in the text, “The government protected Cavalera Industries. And vice versa” (“The Tenth Decade”).
Gutiérrez exploits his profound knowledge and understanding of inherent Latin American social and political issues to develop a novel that arises from a regional perspective to project global concerns such as extreme pollution, modern slavery, surveillance, poverty and survival. Condiciones extremas stands as a harsh critique and moral reflection of the world we live in.
In reference to the polluted environment we are informed that:
La ciudad presentaba un aspecto sucio. El término había evolucionado para conjugar en una sola palabra su carácter urbano y de porquería: Suidad. En el terreno y en la cúpula de los edificios, cientos de metros sobre él, la contaminación gaseosa era la misma; pero más cerca del suelo las partículas se pegaban a la superficie exterior de los edificios como a una costra marrón de constante crecimiento (CE).
The city exhibited filthiness. The term had evolved so as to conjugate in one word its garbage and urbane character: Cirty. On the ground and on the tops of buildings hundreds of meters above it, the noxious contamination was the same, yet, closer to the ground, particles stuck to the exterior surface of buildings like a constantly growing brown scar (EC).
Another issue that stands out in the novel are the conditions faced by the “avatars” in their daily lives. The avatars represent those who are victims of labor slavery, an atrocious practice that affects large numbers of the world’s population. According to the International Labor Organization, “[n]early 21 million people - three out of every 1,000 people worldwide - are victims of forced labour across the world, trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave” (ILO). In Extreme Conditions, the avatars have been created to live and survive in subhuman conditions. Gutiérrez provides a moral insight into the situation through his character Miranda’s exchange with an avatar.
Miranda is twenty-two years old and almost fully aware of the atrocities that abound in the city. She is deeply interested in its well-being and its people. When confronted with the avatar in the service unit on her way to the Center for Special Research, she is remorseful and ashamed of the conditions that surround her.
Ella encendió el altavoz, pero le quitó el foto-blindaje a su ventanilla. Quería mostrarle su rostro al avatar. Vio a través del cristal la luz agónica y constante en el cielo. El rostro asombrado del avatar tenía surcos de hollín causados por las gotas de sudor que resbalaban desde su frente. Miranda sintió repugnancia e inmediatamente se avergonzó por ello. (CE)
She switched on the intercom but removed the window’s photo-blinds. She wanted the avatar to see her face. Through the window she could see an agonizing light that constantly veiled the sky. The avatar’s puzzled face had furrows of droplets caused by the sweat that slid from his forehead. Miranda was repulsed by him and immediately felt guilty. (EC)
Miranda is also aware of the state of vigilance in the city. She approaches the Center for Special Research with special caution “not to save time, but rather because of the extreme condition of security that reigned that day.” (EC)
Though Gutiérrez locates us in a science-fiction world, the scene described below does not seem far from a world where conflicts between the authorities and the citizenry arise daily in some region of the world.
Las torres externas estaban atestadas de guardias. Los dispositivos de defensa estaban listos. Miranda sabía que si alguien intencionalmente o por error entraba a esa zona demasiado rápido, lo vaporizaría un chorro de plasma de millones de grados centígrados. Inmediatamente la guardia pondría una bomba incendiaria en la superficie de latón de alguno de los edificios del Centro, filmaría el escandaloso agujero del cual saldrían llamas, y lo presentaría como prueba del fallido ataque terrorista.
Legions of guards were deployed to the external towers. Miranda knew that if anyone intentionally or by mistake entered that zone too quickly, a stream of high-temperature plasma would vaporize them. Immediately a guard would place an incendiary bomb on the brass surface of one of the buildings, film the horrific hole from which flames would erupt, and would present this as evidence of a failed terrorist attack. (EC)
Throughout the novel technology plays a double role. On the one hand, Gutiérrez approaches technology as the means whereby his novel can reach vast audiences in a variety of modes, call it hypertext, hypermedia or the literatronic system. On the other hand, technology is presented as a focal point of the novel itself. Technological development and its unfortunate consequences when in the hands of those with selfish objectives is a clear message of Extreme Conditions.
This message of self-indulgence and power in hands of a few, resulting in protests and struggles for freedom is also one of the topics pursued by Colombian writer Jaime Alejandro Rodríguez Ruiz in his masterful Gabriella infinita. Though originally published in print in 1994, this novel evolved from a hypertext version in 1998-1999 to its final hypermedia version in 2000. This final version has been included in the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 3, published in 2016. Although a novel, Gabriella infinita immerses the reader in a series of events that relate to historical, social and political incidents that took place during the last half of the twentieth century in Colombia. In spite of its fictional nature Gabriella infinita contains what Rodríguez Ruiz has termed “autobiographical resonances” (2014). Following the criteria established by Thea Pitman in her essay “Hypertext in Context: Space and Time in Latin American Hypertext and Hypermedia Fictions,” it is possible to see how the representation of space, time, social and political events are “embedded” in Gabriella infinita, which in spite of referring to very concrete historical events that took place in Colombia, also allude to problems which are commonplace in our global society.
Gabriella infinita takes the reader back in time to the scandalous Bogotazo, which affected the lives of so many Colombians. On April 9, 1949 the influential socialist politician Jorge Elicer Gaitán was fatally shot, leading to one of the most devastating events in Colombian history. Violent crowds took to the streets of Bogotá like a “wave of popular fury” which ended up with thousands of people dead, not only in the capital but also in other Colombian cities and towns (Palacios 141). While the followers of Gaitán blamed the Bogotazo on “criminals who distorted the authentic grief of the people” (Palacios 142) the truth is that it marked the beginning of a period known as the Violencia, “the outgrowth of hostility between Liberals and Conservatives” (Palacios 157).
Gabriella infinita starts with an image evocative of the famous painting La Violencia (1962) by the Colombian artist Alejandro Obregón. In this painting Obregón depicts all the horror of the period between 1945 and 1964 which “justified a permanent state of siege, the constitutional weapon by the state to neutralize the mobilization of the urban masses whom the liberals had made their base” (Palacios 135). It was a period when repression escalated to silence those against the regime.
As it had been happening for more than three months, the attack was unpredictable and short, but devastating. Actually there was no way to prepare, because the bombings could affect any sector of the city and they did not respect time… But apparently the attackers wanted to undermine all resistance before attempting the final annihilation (“Gabriella ve con dolor la destrucción de la ciudad”).
There is no doubt that Gabriella infinita represents not simply the main character’s search for her lover, Federico, but a parallel search for justice amidst the debris of a city under attack. Metaphorically, it also signals the instability of a powerful force trying to keep itself in power. According to Pitman in her article “From Macondo to Macon.doc: Contemporary Latin American Hyperfiction,” “the destruction of the city, therefore, represents the dissolution of social space under extreme neoliberal policies and privatizations, and the concomitant dispersal of control through the social fabric of this society” (93).
Throughout Gabriella infinita the reader also finds cultural and political references to the United States of the 1960s: the Monterey and Woodstock rock festivals, the Black Panthers, the Age of Aquarius, Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, Flower Power, drug consumption, etc. All of these had some impact on Colombian society, urging young people like the character Federico to rebel against the status quo. While Gabriella infinita was written to represent and acknowledge the struggle of those who idealistically fought for a better society, its message resonates today in the movements which are voices for the disenfranchised all over the world.
While at the narrative level Gabriella infinita challenges the reader to assemble all the pieces of its hypermedia puzzle to find some closure and a message, it also presupposes a moral call for reflection on the injustice of today’s world. What can we learn from the past which could lead to a more peaceful, less violent, more humanitarian society? In a world where millions of people are displaced, cities are bombarded with lethal chemicals and the voice of the subaltern is silenced by the power of the State (as defined by Deleuze and Guattari), Gabriella infinita steps out from its national, regional positioning to instill serious reflection on global conditions. As Gabriella gives birth to a child amid the rubble, she brings a message of hope to a world where chaos and destruction seem to abound.
There is no doubt that Rodríguez Ruiz is a pioneer and forerunner of e-lit in Spanish. His zest for innovation as well as his interest in literature as an instrument for reflection has led him to be acknowledged by the international e-lit community. Golpe de gracia is Rodríguez Ruiz’s second e-lit piece. It was awarded the Literatures in Spanish: From Text to Hypermedia prize by the Universidad Complutense of Madrid in 2007. It was also included in the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2 published in 2011. Though there are several themes developed in this hypermedia novel, it is the issue of authoritarianism that will be discussed in this essay. In the essay “Narrative, Game and Knowledge in Golpe de Gracia,” Rodríguez Ruiz states that it was the “animadversion” to an important character, specifically a cleric, which led to the various stories developed in his hypermedia novel. Authoritarianism is also in Rodríguez Ruiz’s words “the key figure in Golpe de gracia” (2006). In this text, it is represented by Father Amaury, who “has created the conditions to cause his own death” (2006). Rodríguez Ruiz states that “Amaury is a victim of the world (of his aggressor), but above all he is a victim of what he has made of the world (an arbitrary game of power) and of himself (with his naive attitude, rigidity, negligence and denial)” (2006).
In their chapter “Micropolitics and Segmentarity,” Deleuze and Guattari assert that “[w]e are segmented from all around and in every direction. The human being is a segmented animal” (208). In Father Amaury’s case, his existence has been segmented into at least four different realms: priest, boss, teacher and father. The main trait of his behavior is that he incarnates some of the features prevalent in an authoritarian State.
According to Deleuze and Guattari “[not] only does the State exercise power over the segments it sustains or permits to survive, but it possesses and imposes, its own segmentarity” (210). This is reflected in all the different roles Amaury plays throughout his life. Deleuze and Guattari claim that “modern life has not done away with segmentarity but on the contrary made it exceptionally rigid” (210). In his four authoritarian roles, Amaury has remained constantly attached to his own obsession to exercise his power. He represents the center of power within his entourage. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, “the centers of power in State societies behave as apparatus of resonance, they organize resonance where the supple segmentarity inhibits it” (211). In Golpe de Gracia, resonance is embedded in the institutions or social groups that Amaury has been a part of.
As a priest, boss, teacher and father Amaury acts as if he was God. As a cleric he is able to impose his will and the laws of the Church regardless of the tools used to achieve those goals. He represents the Church, yet he does not behave as the caring and leading figure he is supposed to be. This reasoning can be inferred from the words of a member of his congregation who reproaches the comatose Amaury for his words and actions during a visit to the intensive care unit:
Su vida, cura, ha estado llena de falsedades y mentiras. Su vida no ha sido sino un gran pecado. Sé que ahora vive en su infierno, que los caminos que se despliegan en su mente están inundados de mierda y que cada vez que intenta avanzar resbala y cae sobre ella” (Golpe de gracia, “Cadáver exquisite”).
Your life, priest, has been full of falsehoods and lies. Your life has been nothing but a great sin. I know that you are now living in hell, the roads that unfold in your mind are flooded with shit and that every time you try to advance you slip and fall on it (Golpe de gracia, “Cadáver exquisite”).
Amaury’s former employees who visit him at the hospital represent what Deleuze and Guattari call “the supple fabric without which [the] rigid segments would not hold. Both segments supple and rigid are entangled and inseparable” (213). Furthermore, “everything is political, but every politics is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micropolitics … Micropolitics are represented by the multiple voices where the macropolitics propagates one voice” (213).
In his role as a teacher and father, Amaury is recriminated by some of his students and his daughter for having imposed on them the image of a hopeless world where cynicism, corruption and lies abound. Amaury represents power based on fear and oppression, a concept also elaborated on by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, where they state that “[t]he microtextures — not masochism — are what explain how the oppressed can take an active role in oppression” (225). In Golpe de gracia, Amaury is portrayed as one who feels alienated from society and by way of compensation turns to abusive power. His victims have also felt their own alienation, and in their last visit to his deathbed, they verbally torment him for all the pain he inflicted upon them.
Like many Latin American dictators and dictators in other regions of the world, Amaury represents the old regime unwilling to admit its sinful acts. He dies a victim of his own cruelty and avarice. On the other hand, the people who surround him, almost to his last breath, represent all the voices who are finally able to openly express all the oppression they have endured. Although they may be speaking to a man in a coma, their voices are an outcry for justice and independence from the ties to an authoritarian regime.
If Latin American literature and e-lit have been characterized by their call for justice in a region greatly influenced by the power of authoritarian regimes and capitalism, then Tierra de extracción by Domenico Chiappe stands out as one of the main examples where literature openly speaks about the destructive power of multinationals. In 2011, Tierra de extracción was selected by the Electronic Literary Organization to be included in Volume 2 of the Electronic Literary Collection.
The first drafts of Tierra de extracción can be traced back to 1996, when Chiappe was in Caracas working as a journalist. His zest for adventure took him to the town of Mene Grande in the Maracaibo basin, a region which would serve as an inspiration for his acclaimed multimedia novel.
According to Anibal Martinez in his book Chronology of Venezuelan Oil, “[i]n early pre-discovery days the Indians were well aware of the conspicuous natural surface of hydrocarbons which exist in Venezuela. Of course, they could not realize that one day the substance they used for their medicines and illuminations was to become known as oil and could swing the balance of world economics and politics” (19).
In Tierra de extracción, Chiappe merges past and present to illustrate how the lives of the inhabitants of Mene Grande have been affected by the development of the oil industry. The stories situate the reader in an era marked by the beginnings of the oil industry and by the changes brought about by extraction of oil in the Maracaibo basin.
As the Venezuelan oil industry celebrates its centenary, the voices of those who lived in the Mene Grande region as illustrated in Tierra de extracción bring back memories of the industry’s beginnings and its lasting effects.
Even though the discovery of oil could have led to prosperity for the region’s inhabitants, reality has proved otherwise. The exploitation of oil, sometimes referred to as “black gold,” turned out to be a constant struggle for survival for many of the workers and families who lived in Mene Grande, and also for those who still reside in the region. This gives the lie to the concept promoted thirty years ago by the economist Úslar Pietri, who coined the phrase “to cultivate oil” as a term referring to the positive contributions of the oil industry to a community in the areas of education, health and housing for those inhabitants of the Maracaibo basin.
For a hundred years the land and the people of Mene Grande have paid a high price for the success of an industry that has benefited many outside of Mene Grande, and even outside of Venezuela. Ligia Berbesi elaborates: “We Venezuelans were perhaps the least favored with oil exploitation.”
At times when the oil industry was glorified by its positive impact on society, many ignored the fact that a “significant portion of the Venezuelan population existed on the margins of the oil company” (Salas 6). It is this ignored aspect that Chiappe highlights throughout his work. According to Chiappe’s article, “Enveloping Literature and Other Challenges to the Multimedia Author,” “(f)ive plots coexist in the multimedia novel Tierra de extracción, all dripping with a technology that has drastically affected humanity: petroleum and its derivatives. It is a technology that has revolutionized standards of living without altering modes of narration” (41).
One of the shortest plots in the hypertext novel refers to Carmencito Villegas, a victim of existential apathy who in his own words would like “to be a statue,” to see the passing of life without being pulled into it. It is possible that the synergy of rapid change and greed is what pushes Carmencito Villegas to wish he were a statue, i.e, to stop, see and meditate upon where unstoppable greed might lead Mene Grande and its people. “Do you know what I want? Used to say Carmencito Villegas ‘become a statue to see motionless in the middle of the town square how life, people pass, without dragging me’” (“Statue”).
Freedom is not real freedom in Mene Grande. Young girls and women see their flirting, sexualized dances and movements as the most sacred secret in Mene Grande. What happens in the “Grand House” stays in the Grand House. Girls in high school learn their subjects and the fact that they are the charm of the Mene Grande region. The survival of the town depends on them: “women of Mene Grande would discover the disco, the Grand House, as soon as they started just wearing the high school flannel. Along with the school subjects they learned they were the enchantment of the mene. The survival of the mene depended on them” (“Regla”).
From the moment that the ranch owner Rafael Bastidor arrives in town he is obsessed with Lucelena. When Lucelena becomes a woman her mother warns her that she could belong to Bastidor at any moment, yet she has to be careful not to become expendable. She firmly tells her daughter: “Now you can belong to him? anytime. Just make sure you never outwit him.”
Freedom is far from a reality in a town chained to an obscure reality by obsession, greed and oppression. Those at the top of the economic and social ladder enjoy a life which leads to subjugation, a subjugation which most of the time is not even questioned, except in the case of the young woman who takes revenge on the man who sees her as easy prey.
We know that the Mene Grande has been maimed. The plant which lent its name to the famous Zumaque 1 is scarce in the region. The land and its people have been subjugated to either capitalistic and/or nationalistic motives in the same way that the land and its people in many regions of the world have been oppressed by interest that do not protect the environment and/or its people: call them gold mines, copper mines, gas lines that interfere with the habitats of indigenous peoples and thus threaten their survival, not to mention the rudimentary standard of living for those who work for the big corporations.
It is clear that that through his polyphony of texts and sounds in Tierra de extracción, Chiappe intends to raise awareness about facts that affected Venezuela in the past, and their repercussions in the present, without losing sight of the many similar situations that are commonplace in today’s world. This incisiveness is also present in his latest work Hotel Minotauro (2014), in which Chiappe addresses the financial crisis, human trafficking, and the modes of power, as well as the role of social media.
In linear fashion the story unravels the story of a Minotaur and its victims. Chiappe’s remediates the ancient myth of the Minotaur by incorporating a perspective and technical language intimately related to the digital media of today. In a recent interview he notes:
I wanted both the plot and the form – literary and artistic – to demonstrate the rhetoric of our time. The minotaur fits into a plot that deals with the camera-in-hand aesthetic of the Internet, which has a big niche in the pornographic world, where the lover that records is acephalous (Chiappe 2014, 1).
From the point of view of the reader, this e-lit immerses her in a video game simulacrum where she moves along the hotel hallways as she unveils the secrets behind the hotel doors. Music, text and images supplement each other to convey messages about authoritarianism, corruption, the role of social media, and human trafficking. A song entitled “Títeres” provides a poetic yet realistic depiction of what the political, social and economic situation has been in many Spanish speaking countries. The lyrics of the song inform us of the power of dictators and the role of the masses, as well as the state of corruption in many societies. Chiappe’s objective is not to limit the reflection on the issues to one region, but to present his work as representative of the voices which are usually unheard, as an instrument that can lead to action for the benefit of humanity.
In his novel, Chiappe also introduces a thread related to the death of a woman in order to address issues pertaining to privacy and social media. The photos of the woman have icons which resemble the “Like” and “Do not like” features of social media. The pictures depict the destiny of someone whose image is transformed from an attractive woman to an abandoned corpse. The pictures give the idea of someone who has been used, abused and abandoned. The fact that the icons with the “Like” feature increase their numbers rapidly in the photo that shows the dead body of the woman, creates the idea of a society whose sensitivity to death has diminished, or whose interest in morbidity has increased. The author highlights not only the suffering of the victim, but also a kind of numbing that exists today.
Even though the e-lit pieces analyzed in this essay stem from events that have taken place in Spanish-speaking countries, or are inspired by socio- political situations in a specific Latin American country, their impact goes beyond regional borders to open up spaces for reflection on topics of global significance. I absolutely concur with Hoyos Ayala, who asserts that “particular traits of contemporary Latin American literature, especially its unique ways of imagining the world, illuminate general reflections about globalization and the novel” (29). It is in this respect that e-lit in Spanish has been able to decry, from its inception, global issues from a regional perspective, issues which represent the complex reality of our world. I have no doubt that as writers continue to explore new ways of expression in future e-lit pieces in Spanish, their works will continue to illuminate and challenge us to ponder, be critical and take a stand on the problems we face as a globalized society.
Beresi, Ligia, Interviewed by Fernando Travieso. “Visión Estratégica Programa Especial 100 años Pozo Zumaque I,” Televisora de la Asamblea Nacional Venezuela, 11 August 2014.
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Pitman, Thea. “From Macondo to Macon.doc: Contemporary Latin American Hyperfiction.” Latin American Identity in Online Cultural Production. Routledge Studies in New Media and Cyberculture. Claire Taylor and Thea Pitman. New York: Routledge, 2013. 84-114.
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—. “Narrativa, juego y conocimiento en Golpe de gracia.” Cuadernos de Literatura [En línea], 12.23 (2007): 103-114, http://revistas.javeriana.edu.co/index.php/cualit/article/view/6558.
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- All translations are mine.
Direct link: https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/016.e02