In 2007, Venezuela descended into political chaos after then-President Hugo Chavez, who had won his third election the previous year, proposed a constitutional referendum that would have initiated the nation’s transformation into a socialist country and installed him as a dictator. Though never mentioned directly, one can deduce this event as a possible backdrop of Karina Sainz Borgo’s explosive debut novel, It Would Be Night in Caracas.

When we first meet the protagonist, Adelaida Falcón, she sits in a “dilapidated chapel” in Caracas, next to her mother who lays “in her wooden box.” This sort of send-off is not what Adelaida had hoped for, but in a city where seemingly everyone is dying, funeral parlors are booked and she has to settle. Barely anyone shows up for the viewing. Adelaida’s aunts, her mother’s sisters and the only family left, live too far away in Ocumare de la Costa to travel to the city and those who do stop by are more often than not checking in on Adelaida rather than paying respects.

Disappointed and exhausted, Adelaida returns home after the burial to the apartment that she and her mother shared to pack up her mother’s possessions: books, chinaware and shoes that bring back memories of a life long gone. Days later, after leaving a bakery empty-handed (food shortages abound in Sainz Borgo’s Caracas), Adelaida comes home to find her apartment has been overtaken by a female gang, supporters of the government, who, in exchange for food provisions, quashes anyone who voices dissent. In reality, they lash out without prejudice and collect government food packets to be resold on the black market. Soon, Adelaida hatches a plan to survive war-torn Caracas by leaving it under the assumed identity of a deceased neighbor.

It Would Be Night in Caracas is an unpredictable novel that moves at breakneck speed. Sprinkled in are coincidences that shouldn’t work. Indeed, there’s an unreal aspect of Sainz Borgo’s work, but in a country where the government exhumes one of its founding fathers to genetically test his race and give him a “new physiognomy” and where news of executions is delivered by a child “so the dark stain of death would arrive in [an] innocent voice”—leaps of logic is not the exception but the rule.

Moments of strange chaos are balanced by flashbacks to a calmer Venezuela when Adelaida is a child when she learned that her country was a haven for those fleeing persecution (like a Chilean teacher who had emigrated to Venezuela seeking refuge from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship) or those who were simply looking to make a better life: “I was born and raised in a country that took in men and women from other lands,” says Adelaida, “Tailors, bakers, builders, plumbers, shopkeepers, traders. Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, and a few Germans.” In another flashback, as Adelaida walks home with her mother from a ballet performance, she notices the beauty of Caracas that is different from the havoc introduced to at the novel’s onset: a “boulevard of a Frenchified park,” and a fountain titled Venezuela with “well-built nymphs” and “Indian women carved in stone.” These moments are a reprieve from the violence that saturates the novel and gives shape and depth not only to Adelaida’s character but also to Venezuela.

A journalist by training, Sainz Borgo knows the value of words and wastes none. Though the directness of Adelaida and the bluntness of violence she describes can at times be exhausting, it is pitch-perfect for this novel. Translator Elizabeth Bryer expertly renders this voice to English readers while avoiding the temptation to explain too much of the story’s context. This decision might disappoint readers looking for a history of Venezuela, though there are moments where Sainz Borgo can lineate the story of her country, as she does when takes deep-dive into the social history of P.A.N. cornmeal, “a product that for decades fed the country.”

Of course, readers are warned against reading this as history or fact. Indeed, Sainz Borgo notes: “This is a work of fiction. Some episodes and characters in this novel are inspired by real events, but are included here for literary purposes, not as testimony.” It Would Be Night in Caracas is not history and does not try to be. Instead, it’s a deft psychological portrait of what happens to the individual when everything that they’ve ever known has collapsed around them. In this way, Sainz Borgo has become a timely voice.

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