Real life and survivor's guilt inspire former Venezuelan journalist Karina Sainz Borgo's novel set against the country's political upheavals.
Still, since Karina Sainz Borgo has said elsewhere that she was motivated by a form of survivor guilt and since her main character is a journalist who flees the lawless nightmare of Caracas for Spain, it is tempting to see her accomplished and absorbing fiction at least partly as the work of someone seeking the catharsis of bearing witness. It may not be admissible testimony, but it is an allegory with a damning accusatory power.
The novel’s journalist is Adelaida, but her work takes a back seat to survival in a city beset by marauding bands of looting revolutionaries and hyperinflation that makes banknotes more valuable burnt than spent. The book opens with Adelaida burying her namesake mother, failed by a health system that administers no medicine except what patients’ families can buy on the black market.
When her apartment is occupied by a group of guerrilla thugs who are using it as a warehouse from which to distribute their stolen supplies, she seeks refuge in her Spanish neighbour’s flat, but finds that woman dead and discovers documents that offer a chance of escape. Sainz Borgo’s own story and the novel’s original title, which means “The daughter of the Spanish woman” are, taken together, a good enough hint as to what that will be.
She does not play this out entirely as a straight thriller procedural, instead casting back to her protagonist’s childhood and venturing into provincial areas, a tactic that lends the book a dreamy, elegiac tone – this is a novel soaked in much more sorrow than anger – that has seen her compared, perhaps a little speciously, to Argentine great Jorge Luis Borges.
Still, she manages to inflect her narrative with some sobering general truths: hunger causes people to regard each other as adversaries, “[fighting] tooth and claw for the leftovers, fighting for a place to die in a city devoid of resolutions”. And she conjures up some striking imagery, too: when Adelaida disposes of her neighbour’s body by pushing it through a narrow window, it is imagined, grotesquely but aptly, as a kind of birth. It’s a monstrous, jarring moment and utterly in tune with the mad surreality of the world she so strikingly evokes.
IT WOULD BE NIGHT IN CARACAS, by Karina Sainz Borgo (HarperCollins, $35)
This article was first published in the February 22, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.