There are writers who speak the same tone as their own narratives, as if they could not escape from them.
Listening to Juan Rulfo is listening to the voice of the narrator of Pedro Paramo, and listening to Daniel Centeno Maldonado is listening to the characters of The happy life (Alfaguara. México, 2020), his first novel.
Like Dalio Guerra, the Nightingale of the Americas, the protagonist of the novel, Centeno swears to refer to funny or uncomfortable situations: as a good Venezuelan, or, rather, as a good Oriental (he was born in Barcelona, Anzoátegui, and lives in Houston, United States).
But it should be noted that this does not mean that Dalio is a kind of alter ego of Centeno. Absolutely.
The Nightingale of the Americas is a bolero singer who after enjoying enormous popularity falls into such oblivion that he has nothing left to do but remember and live off his old hits, including “Caprichosa”, which he obsessively names.
The only help he finds is that of the young Policarpio, or Poli, another unsuccessful musician who has to see from the food place where he ended up working how his rock band, Cosmos, enjoys the success of the songs composed by him after retiring for the insistence of his father.
Two generations and the same profession seen in the mirror of failure, pathos and ridicule, but they are still fascinating. Dalio Guerra is an inveterate optimist and Poli a self-conscious who knows, deep down, that he is involved in a meaningless project: to raise the career of the Nightingale of the Americas again.
The happy life has enjoyed a success that Centeno did not expect. Not only has she been praised by Sergio Ramírez, a more than authoritative voice, she has also been recommended by Rubén Blades.
When Daniel Centeno is asked how he feels about this receptivity, he answers ironically: “Super sad, it’s one of the worst things that has happened to me (he laughs, as he will in most of the interview). How am I going to feel? Happy, it’s a pod that I never expected ”.
Against all odds
The way of The happy life between writing and publishing it was, like history, bumpy. Just as Poli’s house is robbed at one point in the novel, a crisis that ends up pushing him to write several songs in a row, Centeno managed to make the novel known after overcoming several obstacles.
For example, before the edition was ready, the legendary Mexican publisher Ramón Córdoba died, who had been insistent on the publication of The happy life, which made Centeno fear that the book would not come out. “I feel that the publisher had risked a lot because I am a Venezuelan writer who does not live in Mexico and who had not published a novel before, and who was also not presenting the expected book on the tragic Venezuelan reality. They did it in the plan ‘well, Ramón left her and in honor of Ramón we are going to remove this pod.’ That is the story of Cinderella. Against all odds the book came out ”.
Centeno had always wanted to write a novel. The first attempt was when he was in his twenties, an “experimental” work, with chapters jumping from first person to third person. After reaching one hundred pages, he shelved it for a few years, a characteristic of his writing process because he considers it to be very slow. He believes, for this reason, that he will not write much. When he unpacked it, he thought it was text nonsense.
“I said ‘I have to show myself that I can write a novel’, in addition to being able to complain about the novels that I don’t like. Because there are people who keep complaining but, hey, write one, well. Now I can complain, and if they tell me to write a novel, well there it is. “
He then decided to write a simple, linear novel, which was what cost him the most. “It is very easy to write imposts.”
“I wanted it to be a novel with its main characters, with humor, because I feel that humor is sometimes seen as a minor genre. To some extent I was doing the antinovela of a stranger, because the stranger always wants to appear with the most horrendous novel in the world, and I bet on the other.
The idea came to him when he came across The Restless Anacobero, confessions of Daniel Santos by Héctor Mújica, who gave Centeno an anecdote to write the first chapter and was part of the process of creating Dalio Guerra. Rye’s oriental blood not only served to assemble the characters, but many of the stories of The happy life they have to do with his childhood. For this reason, he confesses, the humorous tone and the religious moments that border on the cartoonish (Dalio appears several times a virgin who is accompanied by a tiger).
“They are oriental. Orientals believe in all that. My mother and my grandmother believe a lot in the Virgen del Valle. My grandmother used to tell me about giant landmarks about the Virgen del Valle that I believed myself to be. So at some point I wanted to make a strange wink: that there was a virgin who appeared, but like a crabby thing, that from appearing so much did not help Dalio to do his work ”.
He confesses, warning that he does not want to sound pretentious, that the humor comes from his family, where the mockery is constant. He says that sometimes he calls home and his wife tells him that his mother is more “bullying” than him. “And I also respect humor a lot, and well Sergio Ramírez talks about Quixote and of The conjuing of the ceciuos, which are books that I really like. And I too, as a journalist, in many cases I have used humor because I like it a lot, and I have nothing against what is not humorous. “
Other peculiarities of The happy life are the names of the characters. Dalio’s real name is Sandalio Segundo Guerrero Guaita, and Poli is always getting teased because his name is Policarpio. There are other elements such as a jockey called Nintendo González or songs with titles such as “They stole my coppers” or “Reporter of my heartbeats.”
Centeno explains that Dalio’s name was difficult for him to find, and it was important to him because without it he could not write: “I wanted the name to sound like a bolero player, that they are like engolados, and also have an oriental essence. Once, by a miracle, I came across the name Sandalio, which I didn’t know existed. And I thought that if I took away the San it would sound like Dalio, which is a name like a lover. He needed a native surname, which would also serve him for that alter ego. It is not the same that you take out the book as Sandalio Guerrero than as Dalio Guerra ”.
While Poli’s was perhaps simpler. He took it from a friend named Polycarp, who hates being called that way. “It was a perfect fit for the personality I was looking for: with complexes and insecurities that came from the same name.”
A little rocker who fell into the bolero
The happy life It’s about second chances, failure, optimism in the worst of circumstances. It is also a tribute to great figures of Latin American popular music (names such as Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe, Daniel Santos and La Lupe appear at the end).
But that wasn’t the music Centeno liked as a teenager. He used to be a “rocker,” he confesses, with heavier tastes. He listened to Megadeth, although he warns that his favorites are between the 60s and 70s: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin.
In his house, what was heard instead was Toña la Negra or Billo’s Caracas Boys and salsa was forbidden. Centeno grew up learning those songs, but hating them viscerally. “Until I went to Caracas and got together with people who showed me that salsa is brutal and I split up. Over time you get older and you realize that life has no absolutes and that sometimes you are foolish and you get crazy about things that are deep down in your DNA. “
He also understood that it is impossible to have a spite listening to Megadeth, that the genre par excellence for heartbreak is the bolero and with a bottle of rum on the table. “Also, I understood that the sauce sucked from there. Then little by little I began to realize that I was silently idolizing Daniel Santos, La Sonora Matancera, the Conjunto Santiaguero, the Orquesta Aragón, all that bit of pods. And when I wrote the novel I decided to pay tribute to these people. Because, well, it’s true, Poli is a rocker, but there is not much talk about rock ”.
Other influences that can be found in the novel are the cinema, melodrama and soap operas. “I consume a lot of pop culture, I like the classics. When I was very young I read some of the works of the Frankfurt School and Daniel Bell on the culture industry, when it was divided into three parts, low, medium and high culture. So, of course, one has to have culture to know if you are with your guilty pleasures or if you are being screwed over. I really love rock, I love salsa brava, movies, I like series. I consume a lot of those things ”.
Journalism and literature
Daniel Centeno Maldonado currently teaches film and literature at the University of Houston, where he has lived since 2018. Before, since 2009, he was in El Paso.
He is also editor of the magazine Cover by Sergio Ramírez, where he started this year, and also dedicates himself, he confesses, to the worst “possible journalism because I decide when I write, who to interview and how to do it. If I go with those demands to a medium they give me a kick ”.
His previous titles include journalistic books Spoken portraits (Debate, Random House, 2010) and Exemplary ogres (Common Place, 2015), as well as Journalism flush with the boom (Autonomous University of Nuevo León / University of Los Andes, 2007).
He responds that he wanted to be contrary when asked why he chose Social Communication and not Literature as an undergraduate career: “It has always interested me, I don’t know if I’m wrong or not, that in Venezuela there is a climate in which to study Letters legitimizes you more to write than to study journalism. Because all journalists are rough and ill-trained and such, and I didn’t think that was like that. So I decided to study journalism ”.
Your doctoral thesis, Journalism flush with the boom, also aims to show that “all the Boom writers had debts with journalism, either because they started from there, as in the case of García Márquez, or when they were at the zenith of their career they dedicated themselves to article writing. And in fact Borges, who is prior to them, would not have written Universal history of infamy if I had not been director of the magazine Multicolor”.
Centeno shows in his doctoral thesis that Alejo Carpentier used almost journalistic research tools to assemble the corpus of The kingdom of this world. “There I was dismantling all that. In the end, the foundations of New Journalism, somehow the germ, the embryo, were in the Diary of the year of the plague by Daniel Defoe. So making those divisions that the journalist is not a writer seems silly to me ”.