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Why the Whale?

Translator’s Note

by Guillermo Parra

“Why the Whale?” was published in Caracas, Venezuela during the summer of 1964 by the poet, novelist and essayist Adriano González León (1931-2008). It is considered the third manifesto by the writers and artists collective El Techo de la Ballena (The Roof of the Whale), which was active from 1961 until 1969.

El Techo de la Ballena were inspired by the early years of the Cuban Revolution, as well as the work of the Beat writers in the United States and the Surrealists in France. However, their publications, performances, readings and exhibitions aimed to create a distinctly Venezuelan aesthetic that was open to avant-garde currents from all over Latin America and the world.

I first heard about El Techo de la Ballena in 1993, when I studied with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University. He had been in correspondence with them and told me he regretted not being able to accept their invitation to visit Caracas. Members of the collective were also in contact with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who sold issues of their magazine, Rayado sobre El Techo, at his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

Aside from Adriano González León, who was considered the group’s theorist, El Techo de la Ballena included writers who eventually had a significant impact on contemporary Venezuelan literature, including the poet and painter Juan Calzadilla (1931), the novelist Salvador Garmendia (1928-2001) and the poet Francisco Pérez Perdomo (1930-2013), among others.

In 1968, González León received the prestigious Seix Barral Premio Biblioteca Breve Prize in Barcelona, Spain for his novel País portátil [Portable Country], which addressed the guerrilla insurrections in Venezuela during the sixties. González León also had a significant influence on several generations of writers in Venezuela through his work as a Professor in the School of Letters at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.




Why the Whale?

by Adriano González León

“Why the whale?” someone asked with that irritating reflexive necessity that’s sometimes shown by the person who, when it comes to himself, can’t even explain what he was born to do. Because there’s a way of justifying the fact of not having any answers, playing pompously and professorially or with false naiveté, in the void, with the actions of others. In our culture’s mental shooting gallery, amid this moldy sauce of a humiliated and submissive country, in this version of a dungheap of the big consortiums, such attitudes are perhaps the very least we can expect. Faced with the revelation of your own impotence, of creative uselessness or the lack of audacity to create a new path, taking shelter in the traditional mechanisms of thought, babbling like a villager who pretends to be universal, spending the bad wishes of the bourgeoisie when you want to be a revolutionary, none of this is even surprising but is rather an arrangement within the general falsity in which we’ve been debating.

This is why any dangerous venture is perceived as imbalanced in the shipyards of a boringly quotidian logic. This is why someone might ask why the whale, a boreal or southern element, and not a caiman, so alive and well known in our tropical paradises. This is true for the theorist, who wants reality to be reality, though he refuses to seek it out in all its dimensions. But also, and with the same spirit of mediation, with the housewife for whom it’s much easier to toss a red snapper into the frying pan than a sperm whale.

We won’t give a clear and simple answer. We have always hated the voraciousness of interrogations, and a test is a test, whether it takes place in the classroom, the café or Police Headquarters. Just like the tortured who are full of courage and strength —there’ve been so many in these years!—, we won’t sing. And just like bad students, facing the malicious poverty of the questionnaire, we’re going to copy the answers: it’s possible to reconstruct yourself, to drink the water from your own fountain. Only the wake we’ve left behind our ROOF during the last three years of difficult and active swimming can provide testimony. If you want to know something, there’s the well-worn path, with the insinuating mystery of St. Elmo’s fire, the solitary instance of killing that provides sustenance for the albatross with the still-shining pieces of any hurricane in Caribbean waters.

On the surface, in the traces of that adventure, we can still see the wick of a polemical device burning, sometimes placed there with terrorist methods, as had never been done before in the peaceful and respectful factory of our art and literature. Because of so much venomous self-assurance, so many tricks and maneuvers, so much stagnant aestheticism that only admits the “finished work,” or the upholstered security of the dogmatic, it was necessary, at a given moment, to implement the strategy of sabotage. This drove the reasonable fishermen crazy. The blow from the fin that disrupted the traditional course of the struggle, dismembered the old frameworks that hadn’t been unmasked with enough ferocity, and disoriented those with a vocation for change, and who in order to attain it used methods that were already made lethargic by the order they were attempting to undermine. Because the task of changing life was really a dialectical matter: for a determined moment and a determined country, the resources for the struggle obey a need.

The need for action: for an action poetry and painting. To populate, depopulate, declare yourself on strike, sanctify the firebombs, throw everything onto the street. An adventure where the risk of the artist’s consumption is itself valid as an aesthetic and human endeavor. A burning activity and passion, because the patient work and the call to good judgment have only served as conduits to academia, to becoming a dean, to administration or the enjoyment of a good head of family. We wouldn’t affirm, however, that on the path we’ve walked so far we have reached the whole truth. That would be precisely to negate the initial goals of El Techo de la Ballena. No one can coldly and coarsely manipulate the patrimony of the truth. But to begin the search with a fear of jellyfish, without feeling tempted by the weight of the discoveries and new riches offered by wandering, is to move with the protection of a life vest and the desire to only partially apprehend things.

A simple navigation through the rejected water or the waste left by the Whale means, at least for us, an encounter with uncertainty: painting and poetry in our country cannot continue to be a docile hierarchy of honors, obtained with impunity, since there are no peaceful means that allow for the so-called enjoyment of consecration. All the titles, documents, surnames, influences, secret meetings, prizes, whether they’re produced in the universities, in the museums or in the homes of patrons, don’t attain their unique solvency because of that and they undergo a vigilant line of fire. From this disturbing blow introduced in a pious and conformist medium, because there are no other realizations, El Techo de la Ballena extracts its vital pride. And that gives rise to the possibility of an approach to a wider world such as Latin America’s. Equally conquered by fraud, robbery and alienation, harassed by the infantry of the Marines and the oil and banana companies, in all the countries of Latin America we see the reality of a process of reduction to imbecility and entrapment of culture, for which we can blame the appeasers and the servile, for plenty of reasons, and those who have believed in the untouchable force of dogmas.

Attentive to the ideological transformations taking place in the world, simultaneously attacking the traditionalists and the sectarians. El Techo de la Ballena has focused on a more attentive activity of man: the activity that even when it’s produced in the capitalist or the underdeveloped world, implies an open blow of rejection, a demand for transformation. El Techo de la Ballena recognizes the bases of the load it carries, frequent and aggressive marine animals borrowed from Dada and Surrealism. Just as in its rafters there are signs of that accusatory avalanche of the poets from California. Or how in the beams of its framework lives a thoughtful material of the dialectical postulates to propel change. This is precisely the reason to stand tall, chasing after the gale winds.

But likewise it warns us that within the entire structure and scaffolding there’s a Venezuelan circumstance, reckless, maybe imprecise, but sustained by the courage required for the necessity of self-affirmation. Here, for special reasons, as in all of Latin America, nothing that has emerged in new arts and letters can be foreign to us. The work methods, the opening of borders, the vigorous enterprises accomplished in other latitudes, these provide us, as in science or politics, with an ample landscape for research, in which affirmations or rejections are given according to our evidence. To turn our backs is purely and simply to bury our heads in the sand. To enter with our own robes, in order to invigorate ourselves, in the great universal wave, is to anoint our condition as artists and writers with the only seam that can provoke transcendence: knowing that we are the cultivators of a new earth, with poisonous and unheard of leaves and fruit, but no longer a servile product by imitators of Europe’s well-tended orchards… or poor vegetable delivery men whom the plagues, the folkloric disinfectants or the plowing of oxen have stabbed with underdevelopment in the soul.

Why the whale? Precisely for that reason. Because it would have been easy to choose the caiman. Or because it would have been typical of aesthete gentlemen to choose the hippocampus. And also because the whale exists amid kindness and horror, subject to all the solicitations of the world and the sky, with its quite dignified belly that laughs at Jonah and gulps down an oil tanker, extending from one end of the Earth to the other, a being that is almost the Earth itself or is the minuscule bird that picks at its decayed tooth in which the fish swim. That oceanic amplitude, its frenetic sliding, that allows us to refuse to answer from the start, and conclude responding, because, despite the hatred against the inquisitor, we had enough answers to annul his contemptible question. The push toward the unknown that can widen our reasons for living and contaminate the instruments with a corrosive substance that might change life and transform society.

Originally published in Rayado sobre El Techo, no. 3 (Caracas: Ediciones de El Techo de la Ballena, 27 August 1964). This translation is based on the version included in the anthology El Techo de la Ballena: Antología 1961-1969, edited by Juan Calzadilla, Israel Ortega Oropeza and Daniel González (Caracas: Monte ávila Editores, 2008).


Guillermo Parra

Poet and translator Guillermo Parra was born in Cambridge, MA in 1970 and lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His most recent translation is the novel The Conspiracy (Pittsburgh: Sampsonia Way, 2014) by the Venezuelan writer Israel Centeno.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

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