DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All this week, we've been focusing on different aspects of life in Venezuela, where voters are about to elect a successor to the late President Hugo Chavez. For more than four decades, Venezuela has funded South America's most important book award, the Romulo Gallegos prize. But when journalist Marcela Valdes wanted to learn about the country's best novelists, she encountered a whole lot of silence.
It turns out for most English-speaking readers, Venezuelan literature has largely been a mystery. Valdez writes about this in an essay for NPR Books, and she joined us in the studio to talk about it.
Marcela, good morning.
MARCELA VALDES: Good morning.
GREENE: OK, so let me understand this. NPR came to you and said, research a few of Venezuela's best novels. What happened?
VALDES: Well, I found it was really difficult to find any novels translated into English that had been published in the last 10 years. And I thought that was kind of extraordinary. Venezuela is one of the largest and richest countries in South America, and it gives out this incredibly important novel prize. So the fact that it was really hard to think of a major Venezuelan novelist, it just felt like a kind of riddle. It didn't make any sense. And so then I began looking into: How could this be?
GREENE: And what did you find?
VALDES: I found that Venezuela actually had - does have a lot of fabulous writers, but that for a variety of reasons, these writers have stayed out of the international marketplace. Part of it is because Venezuela has been a pretty wealthy country, and they've endowed some very important literary institutions. And because of this, the Venezuelan writers have been able to just stay in Venezuela and make a good living.
The other factor that goes into this is that some of the Venezuelan novels - and many of the Venezuelan novels - were kind of socially critical. And one of the things that they were looking at was the way that the oil profits in Venezuela were creating this stratified society and poverty. And that's not necessarily the kind of thing that a government really wants to be promoting and translating around the world.
GREENE: Chavez doesn't want to exactly get that message out.
VALDES: Well, that's even before Chavez. So in the '70s and '80s, Venezuelan writers were primarily concerned with experiments in form and language. So they're kind of avant-garde writers in the nouveau roman style. And then, in 1989, there was this huge event in Venezuela called Caracazo, which was when - basically, it was the sack of Caracas. There was looting. There were riots. There were massacres. And that event made writers realize that they - in some ways, they didn't understand their own country, and they were very interested in figuring out why is this happening. And that was actually a prelude to Chavez's rise to power.
GREENE: So - they're trying to figure out their country before Chavez comes in. And what happens when Hugo Chavez comes into power?
VALDES: The major thing that he does is he dismantles a lot of the things that these writers are relying on for their income. So he fires all the directors of the cultural institutions. He brings in intellectuals from Cuba. And suddenly, this whole network of writers that had been relying on the state can't rely on the state. And so this leads to people looking more at Venezuelan novelists themselves at the same time that Venezuelan novelists are beginning to look at different kinds of literature that might be more accessible to a wide audience.
GREENE: Well, it sounds like, then, the stage is set. I mean, are we going to see an explosion of these novels and these novelists kind of coming onto the international stage?
VALDES: I think so. And I think that that's already begun to happen, to some extent. In 2006, there's a fantastic Venezuelan writer named Alberto Barrera Tyszka, who became the first Venezuelan to ever win the Herralde prize for the novel. This is a prize that's given out by a Spanish editorial house called Anagrama. It's considered one of the most important book prizes in Spanish-language literature.
GREENE: And I'm curious, this whole thing you're talking about, you provided a list of 10 Venezuelan writers that you think we should know about. Is he one of them? Is he...
VALDES: Yes, he's on the list. His novel, "The Sickness," it's just like a punch to the heart. The novels are there. They're there already. I think what's going to happen, though, is that as his independent publishers enter the marketplace, and as more Venezuelan intellectuals have actually gone into exile or emigrated from the country, we're going to be hearing a lot more about these novelists, and these Venezuelans are entering more and more this kind of international word of mouth that will help bring attention to their work.
GREENE: Marcela Valdes is the books editor of the Washington Examiner and a specialist in Latin American literature. Thanks so much for joining us.
VALDES: Thank you for having me.
GREENE: And you can follow NPR Books on Twitter. Their handle is @NPRBooks.