This story takes place in one of the so-called «Peace Zones», which are designated areas that cannot be entered by state security forces as long as the gangs operating there agree not to engage in criminal activities. In the heat of violence, and in an environment where daily life was an increasingly daunting endeavor due to food shortages and precarious public services, Venezuelan storyteller Rubi Guerra was trying to write a novel. It was, perhaps, an attempt to take himself off from reality. One early morning in 2016, some thugs broke into his house and stole the computer on which he had the manuscript. But it was not the only time it happened.
At the end of March 2018, a couple of burglars broke into my house in Cumaná, a city located in eastern Venezuela’s state of Sucre. It happened around 3:00 a.m. It was one of those nights when I could not sleep and had been watching silly stuff on YouTube or listening to Kurt Weill songs for an hour. I had intended to continue the novel I had been writing since 2015, but being awake is not the same as being alert and focused, so I discarded the idea. My wife was also up, so we started chatting.
The younger of our two female dogs was restless, growling and barking at something outside. I glanced out of one of the windows overlooking the porch, but I didn’t notice anything unusual. I peeked out of another window, which was partially obstructed by a bookcase, and nothing caught my eye either. I thought maybe the dog was annoyed by some cat wandering around; it wasn’t the first time, and she was very young and easily excited.
Suddenly, the front door, which was a scant five feet from my desk, was violently slammed open and, before I could even react, I had a gun pointed at my head. I didn’t so much as have time to get up from my chair.
Three years earlier, in March 2015, when I started writing my novel, I was recuperating from heart surgery and my grip on reality was weak. I had been through a heart attack, a catheterization procedure and a visit to the operating room, followed by a long post-operative period. In the course of said process, which began in September 2014, I had made every effort to remain calm and not to panic. It seemed like an optimistic attitude, but in practice it was nothing of the sort. I had grown somewhat indifferent to the idea of my own death, which led, inevitably, to a certain indifference towards my own life.
I had finished my last book, which was published in 2010, and I began to have conflicting feelings about writing. Confronted with the fact that one cannot make a living from literature, which is not less hideous just because it is well known, I wondered if I should be making a more productive use of the time I was investing in writing fiction.
I had no steady job. I taught literature and writing workshops and wrote occasionally for some digital media. And since I was still recovering, I couldn’t do work that required too much effort. Maybe that’s why I decided to go back to writing, without hope and without despair.
I had several things already started such as half-completed short stories and barely drafted novels. But I didn’t feel like continuing any of those projects. I was looking for something new. And as is often the case when I do, I looked into my past, almost 50 years back, to the end of my childhood, a period of my life I didn’t think much about, but one which, in the mood I was in at the time, seemed fitting to revisit.
In those early days of March, I did not write at home. I would accompany my wife Adriana to the university —she is a Literary Theory professor at the Universidad de Oriente— and I would sit for hours at a stretch in the faculty cafeteria from where, half a kilometer away, I could look out over the gulf of Cariaco. I wrote by hand in a white notebook that I had bound myself.
Sometimes, a friend would pass by and sit at my table for a cup of coffee. Such interruptions didn’t bother me; in fact, they were welcome. I could stop writing for 30 or 40 minutes, talk about my recovery, answer questions about the surgery, and then carry on as if nothing had happened, quickly connecting to another era, building a character that was very much like me but that, at the same time, moved away from me.
And what was I writing about? Actually, I had no idea. I had no preset plan. But I knew one thing for sure: my two previous novels had some police-themed elements, and another one that was yet to be published did too, and I didn’t want that. I have nothing against the noir genre, but at that point in my life I needed to create something more personal, something that would remind me why I was still alive. I wanted to lure the unconscious mind. I wanted the novel to be gradually built from small personal anecdotes, as seeds of truth for the novelistic lie, which is, in and by itself, a form of truth.
It is hard to explain how such a violent irruption is perceived. It takes the brain a few seconds to understand what is truly going on. Has the door of your house really jumped at you and two hooded boys, carrying guns, have swooped down on you?
Perhaps only one second, or less, but enough to make you doubt about what is exactly happening.
We had experienced something similar a year and a half earlier, when a couple of burglars broke in through the roof and down through a patio fence we had left open. Innocently, we thought no one would dare enter the house while we were awake. It was 2:00 a.m. We had just finished making homemade soap, one of several trades my wife and I were taking on to make some extra money.
By 2016, the shortage of soap, and of a lot of other items, was a big problem, so we would close the fence a bit later while we finished up. That’s where I saw the first burglar come down before he could get his feet on the ground. I swear that, by the time I could finally grasp my head around the image in front of me, he was already right across me, with a knife in his hand.
We engaged in a dance of sorts. He was left-handed; so, every time he moved the tip of the knife towards my body, I would take half a step back and push his wrist lightly with my right hand; he would then withdraw his arm and I would try to grab his right wrist (I still can’t explain why or to what purpose) and he would dodge my hand. When a second burglar began his descent, we reached a civilized agreement: my wife and I locked ourselves in a bathroom and they took a lot of stuff, including all of our electronic devices. All of them.
And my novel, which by then was about thirty pages long, left on my computer, as I hadn’t been careful enough to save it on a cloud server or a flash drive. That was like a torpedo had severed the thread that kept my spirits.
Three days later, we ransomed the computers back through a middleman whose face we never saw because he himself acted through a middleman. That’s the way things were in the slum where we lived. The thieves, the “soldiers” working for the big drug kingpins, the small dealers, the aguantadores (stashers) and the middlemen, they all coexisted with the few fishermen who had not given up on fishing, with low-ranking administration employees, with teachers of all levels, with the policemen, with the housewives, with the street vendors, and with the Toyota and construction workers. They were all in a conflicting neighborhood relationship and all more or less the members of four or five families.
The slum was one of the so-called «peace zones,» a euphemism adopted by the government to disguise the fact that it had left security in the hands of the criminals. It was expected, at least as it appears from the official political discourse, that the gangs would self-regulate and maintain the security of their communities in exchange for the police not intervening. Needless to say, that was far from happening.
I had gotten my computer and my novel back, but I had lost a great deal of my initial motivation. I was only strong enough to carry out the tasks of everyday life and little else. The feeling of insecurity that comes with the realization of your state of vulnerability was compounded by the conditions of life in the city: there was a lack of cash, the supply of gas for home use was inefficient, power outages were a frequent occurrence, people experienced cuts to their water supply, and, much worse, there was a shortage of food. It all made life an uphill and increasingly distressing journey.
In June of 2016, protests erupted at the doors of a Mercal store that is part of a government-funded food distribution network. People demanded food. And that legitimate demand turned into vandalism: more than one hundred stores were looted and four hundred jobs were lost. With the municipal market, bakeries, and many grocery stores closed, food shortage intensified. The adrenaline rush from fear of from the simple excitement of taking part of mass and disorderly acts had worn off, and wandering the city’s main streets trying to buy some food was heartbreaking.
It should have come as no surprise that the individual accused of organizing the looting was a former law-enforcement officer who had performed as the director of the Crime Prevention Unit and coordinator of the peace zones in the city.
He was detained, I do not know for how long.
Since I had to make my living somehow, that year and the following year I gave storytelling and writing workshops. I organized cultural events. I performed as a juror for the Ramos Sucre Biennial. I wrote for a small digital magazine dedicated to the state of Sucre. I did reviews for Colofón, Revista de Literatura. I was a juror in the Latin American Screenplay Contest organized by the French Embassy. I attended the International Caribbean Book Fair in Margarita.
Some of these activities earned me nothing, but they kept me in the «literary and cultural circuit» that has been the environment in which, after all, I have lived all my adult life. The republication of my novel El discreto enemigo with Madera Fina publishing house, thanks to Carlos Sandoval, Luis Yslas, and Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, was of great importance. It was their enthusiasm and the contact with some readers that brought me back to my being a writer. Without this second edition of El discreto enemigo, I would not have dared to continue writing.
I resumed the novel, which progressed relatively quickly and confidently, diversifying its themes and explorations amidst the precariousness of daily existence
When confronted by armed robbers, there is no rational choice but to keep calm and try to remain alive. It was only my wife and I at the house. Our daughter, fortunately, was studying west of the country.
They took us to our room as they asked us where we kept our dollars. At first, they didn’t believe that we had neither dollars nor euros, but eventually they did. They forced us to lie down on our double bed, then tied our hands behind our backs, our ankles with my boots’ leather laces, and blindfolded us with t-shirts.
So there we were, a middle-aged couple, immobilized and blinded, at the mercy of a pair of nervous but emboldened twentysomethings. The worst part was when they tried to stuff my mouth with a cloth rag as a gag. I pleaded with the offender not to. I knew I could choke. If it came down to it, I’d rather he shot me. But he wouldn’t budge and told me to open my mouth. I refused. He tried to make me swallow the cloth. I bit the cloth. He started hitting me in the face so that I would open my mouth, but I kept my teeth clenched. After a few seconds, he got tired or thought it better and left the room.
I asked my wife, in a whisper, how she was feeling. She told me that she was fine and calm. We didn’t exchange another word. For about 40 minutes, we listened to the burglars flit around the house. They did not enter the room again. When there was silence for about 10 minutes, we started to move and began to free ourselves from the restraints. We then went through the wreck and made an inventory of what they had stolen from us.
Once again, we had been left with no computers or phones or tablets or many other things.
But at least this time, the novel was safe online.
And we were alive.
A few days later, I wrote to a friend who had left for Bogotá: «We haven’t moved yet. We can’t seem to find where to go. We need a house with a yard, which is complicated to find. And, as you already know, we own two female dogs and three cats. For the time being, we are staying at my father-in-law’s. The dogs are with us, and I go every day to our house in San Luis to feed the cats and change their water. It kills me every time. It makes me sad to see my cats left behind; to see the condition of our house; to be, as my honest neighbors are, living around thieves and murderers and their pimps. We are just coming to terms with the fact that we could have been killed in more than a gruesome form. We were blindfolded, gagged, bound hand and foot. We were helpless in a way we had never been. I am filled with rage, sometimes with sadness, when I recall that experience.»
I finished the novel at the end of that year. At one point, it was almost two hundred pages long, but it ended up being only ninety-nine in its final version. I cannot say that my life, or that of the city where I live, or that of the country, was peaceful during those three and a half years. We went from hardship to violence, back and forth, and the situation wreaked havoc on my emotional state.
But not everything was bad: I had the love, solidarity and company of my family and some friends.
None of the unfortunate parts are directly referred to in the novel. Perhaps none of the good either. If anything of what we lived through were to be found there, it would be in some of its deep layers and in the empty spaces between the anecdotes and its language… and I am certainly not in the best position to figure it out.
Soy nacido en San Tomé, pero residente en Cumaná por más de 50 años. He sido promotor cultural en las áreas de literatura y cine, en organismos regionales y nacionales. He publicado seis libros de cuentos y dos novelas.