Our old friend Jeff Waxman of University of Chicago Press and Seminary Co-op up in Chicago turned our attention to this little gem of an article the other day from Publishing Perspectives written by Maggie Hivnor, the Paperback Editor at “U. of Chicago Press, about how Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos, which had been out of print for decades, came to her attention via her foreign rights manager, Inés ter Horst. Inspired in part by a telenovela ad on the side of a bus, Venezuelan political history, and a lot of helpful folks in Cuba and Venezuela, Hivnor recounts the arduous process she and Ines went through to see Gallegos’ masterwork, the “national book of Venezuela,” see the light of day again after years and years of being out of print, forgotten in English.
Of the Latin American writers I most admire—Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Roberto Bolaño—all were recipients of an award named after Rómulo Gallegos. A teacher, writer, and one of the founders of Acción Democrática—an important political party in the early years of Venezuelan democracy—Gallegos became the first democratically elected president of Venezuela in 1947. But in 1929, he was forced to flee the country after publishing a novel critical of the regime of Juan Vicente Gómez. That novel was Doña Barbara.
. . . The story pits an educated, principled land-owner against a beautiful and tyrannical cattle-rustler, Doña Barbara, rumored to be a witch. One of the first examples of “magical realism,” it is an epic, a love poem to Venezuela: the land, its peoples and their legends. It’s also a romance, a political parable, a story of cowboys, spirits and hustlers, and the strange magic of history.
From the first page, I was wowed by Robert Malloy’s beautiful, poetic translation of Gallegos’s language: an eerie description of the river and the sense of danger hovering over the young Santos Luzardo. By the time I’d gotten through visions of dawn on the prairie, with “the smell of mint and cattle” and encountered Pajarote’s stories of vampires and ghosts, and the legal/political shenanigans of the gringo bully “Sr. Danger,” I was ready to gallop out onto the Venezuelan llanos myself and lasso the rights. But we still had no leads on whom to contact.
So it was Inés who ventured to Venezuela, via the Guadalajara book fair, where she left a hand-written note inquiring after the English language rights at the Cuban-Venezuelan stand. A month later, an e-mail from the Cuban Ministry of Culture landed in Inés’s inbox, suggesting she get in touch with the CELARG, in Caracas, Venezuela (Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos). After several days of phone calls, she finally reached the head of Publications, who referred her to Rómulo Gallegos’s daughter. (He had a daughter! We had a phone number!) Encouraged, Inés kept phoning and writing Venezuela until she managed to negotiate the rights. She even recruited relatives to help us resurrect this Venezuelan masterpiece: her father hand-delivered the license agreement to Rómulo Gallegos’s daughter, and Ines’s uncle, who happened to be in Venezuela at the time for business, transported the signed agreement back to The University of Chicago Press for its countersignature. After almost six months, we had a deal.”
Of course, the book being Venezuelan, the political plays an integral part of this story, as Ines relates to Maggie:
“When your country struggles for democracy and you watch it sink from afar, your only hope is to raise consciousness in the people around you about what is really happening. I think it’s essential that English-speaking readers discover this literary gem now, so they can draw parallels between the conflicts described by Gallegos and Venezuela’s current situation—where frequent clashes between civilization and barbarism are experienced on a daily basis. Doña Barbara is a parable of how Venezuela could be saved from a corrupt and backward-thinking regime. Venezuelans saw that in 1929; that’s why the book caused such a sensation and made them want to elect Gallegos as their president. If the book could do that then, maybe it can help, in some way, now.”
Like Jeff so rightly told us, this is the type of backstory we all love to hear, both as readers and as people in the business of books. It’s a lot of work, but sometimes the payoff is so rewarding we can get a little misty-eyed…even cowboys cry.
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