‘Reality has a habit of ruining convictions’. A review of It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer

It’s funny how things work out. If I’d known what was going to happen this month, I might not have chosen to read Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas – a blistering portrayal of life in a society that has gone beyond the brink. Reading about hoarding, looting, indiscriminate violence and the indignities visited upon ordinary people even in death, I often found myself feeling more anxious than I did before I started. Perhaps, though, it made the book resonate with me more than it might have done. Perhaps it really did help put things in perspective, or at least made me view these first mad few months of 2020 in a different light. Because It Would Be Night in Caracas may be fiction, but the events it is based on are all too real.

For much of this decade, Venezuela has been hitting headlines for hyperinflation, extreme economic depression, urban riots and mass migration. It is, however, one of those stories that remain relatively low down in the daily news feed – a bubbling-under kind of issue, a country too far away from Europe for it to have much impact on our daily lives. Having read this novel, I see how wrong I was to ignore it, and I only hope more people find their way to Borgo’s brilliant writing.

Relatively short at just over two hundred pages, Karina Sainz Borgo’s debut novel is a potent piece of literature that paints a terrifying portrait of real life in Venezuela. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades the novel, which skips between the present-day action and a sequence of childhood memories belonging to Adelaida Falcón, a young woman who has recently lost her mother, also called Adelaida. This sharing of names allows for a few heavily symbolic scenes in which Adelaida the daughter visits a grave bearing her own name, but the novel’s real power lies in Borgo’s more nuanced passages. Some, such as the description of an open head wound being sewn up by a seamstress, or Adelaida’s aunts making tortoise pie, were almost too vivid for me to cope with. Others – the lack of mourners at a funeral, the lengthy searches conducted at an airport – are excruciating in their everyday authenticity.

With any novel like this, much lies in the translation, and Elizabeth Bryer seems to have done a masterful job. Occasional words, such as nicknames, lyrics or particularly Venezuelan foods, are left in the original Spanish, which I always appreciate as a technique to transport a sense of place. I can imagine that Borgo’s prose will have been a challenge, written as it is in a voice that wavers increasingly the more Adelaida sees her life unravelling. Voice is essential to any novel and a particularly important aspect of translation, and the uncertainty embedded in this one makes for a powerfully unsettling reading – and, I suspect, translating – experience.

This is a novel about politics, society and women, about mothers and motherlands, about what happens when life moves so far beyond the ordinary that we no longer recognise what it was before. It is about escape and fear and the breakdown of decency, and about the hard decisions people make in order to survive. Moments of unusual lyrical beauty pepper the text – ‘The kind of crying that resembles a burning field’ – but on the whole Borgo makes use of a pared-back style to hammer her story home.

It Would Be Night in Caracas is by no means a comfortable read. Surrealism seeps into almost every page, much of the action takes place in the dark, the narrator frequently reaches for words such as ‘widowed’ or ‘dead’ to describe herself, and there is a sense that life no longer makes sense to live. At the same time, there is a buried urgency – the all-too-human need to survive – which drives the sparse plot of the novel and is responsible for its redeeming glimmer of hope.

If this was dystopian fiction it might be chilling, but the fact that there is truth behind it veers into the territory of the downright distressing. I’m not sure I would recommend it to read in these end times, but it is without doubt a novel that needs to be paid attention. Borgo is a young woman with a powerful voice and I hope she continues to be unafraid to raise it.

My rating: 3.5/5

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