On Baroni: un viaje
Baroni carves figures in wood. These are, in general, religious figures, of the Virgin or of angels. Baroni’s art is quite personal and very eloquent; she regards it with a sort of mystical devotion, as she does almost all of her activities. Indeed, Baroni took up wood carving, decades earlier, when a Virgin restored her sight, which she had lost after a nervous breakdown. Baroni’s sight was restored over the course of two dreams, and she began carving wood to express gratitude to this Virgin and to obey a command, because in a third dream the Virgin asked Baroni to “make” her, that is, to carve a figure of her, so as to spread her cult. Baroni has been an important person in Venezuelan culture these last decades, largely because she updates and alters a perennial myth, that of the self-made artist through whose work meanings are negotiated between the rural world and the so-called modern world. Another point worth noting is the mystical relationship she has with death. Baroni has suffered several cataleptic fits, and on two occasions a vigil was held after she was mistaken for dead. She has built her own coffin, which she keeps on her property, and every Good Friday she lies in it. I should make clear, however, that the novel doesn’t seek to dispel the ignorance or the mystery surrounding Baroni; it proposes, instead, to present her.
The novel deals with other things as well: a journey, obviously, as the title announces, or more exactly the idea of a journey. The journey as disappointment with any conceivable lesson, or at any rate as a neutral zone, adding up to almost zero. It is, let’s say, a series of journeys that have no purpose, other than forming part of the story. If I had to outline it, I’d say that the novel has a dramatic frame—the journey—and three main characters.
Of these three the first is a real, living person (Rafaela Baroni herself); the second, the artistic representation of a miracle-working doctor from the turn of the twentieth century (José Gregorio Hernández); and the third character is a wooden figure that has no explicit human referent. Though one and the same, this last character has two names: the crucified woman (the name Baroni prefers) or the woman on the cross (the name I prefer). There is a fourth person, the narrator; but since this is an entity who appears in all stories, we can take his presence for granted.
The novel is based on a series of events and on associations that are presented in a fairly arbitrary and partial way, much as this description is. During the journey, the narrator meets up with the woman on the cross, which he interprets as an extension of Baroni herself: through the woman on the cross, Baroni reveals part of her past—perhaps one of her possible lives thwarted by adversity. That’s the first scene. But the woman on the cross has a delayed, not immediate, effect on me. It’s only the day after having contemplated it in the simple room where Baroni shows her work that I feel attracted to the figure and would like to have it for my own as a collector. So I call Baroni from a now somewhat distant city, since I’ve already begun my return trip, to agree on a purchase price and ask her to hold the piece for me.
The narrator’s interest in Baroni, and the high esteem in which he holds her work, leads him months later to commission a new piece: I now ask for a saintly doctor. This is the saintly doctor you can see in the image. It has become damaged over time. The novel opens with a description of the crack that runs down it from top to bottom, along with a second one on its side which turns into a mysterious cavity at the same height as that other cavity—a natural one, let’s say—the ear, here concealed. A cavity, as it were, that makes one think. The commissioning of this saintly doctor opens the third scene.
The novel believes in the existence of these three main characters. They have distinct lives. The life of one character is real, to call it something (that would be Baroni’s case); the others have lives that are, for lack of any better word, assigned. Of the woman on the cross only one body exists. She’s like a real person, because she has one sole physical manifestation.
But the saintly doctor, José Gregorio Hernández, is multifaceted. His must be the most reproduced and altered image in Venezuela.
Because of his power to cure and protect against illness, he is venerated by a great number of families, and his fame has spread beyond the country’s borders. Countless picture cards and figurines and statues of him can be seen throughout the land and on altars both public and private.
He is also a frequent subject for artists as well as artisans, who modify his figure according to their own imagination, or according to the interest of the client who has commissioned the work.
The most widespread image of the saintly doctor—the model for plastic statues imported from China in a range of sizes, and for pasteboard or laminate cards with a prayer on the back—is based on a photo taken in New York City, on Fifty-seventh Street I believe, some ninety years ago.
The novel I’m talking about dwells on appearances. Clothing, accoutrements, style, are indicative of the past and of the future; they are superficial at first glance, since they reveal no interiority. This tendency toward outward appearance is intrinsic to Baroni’s art, which relies on what is visible and on what’s right on the surface. Just like actual religious images, whose power lies in their capacity for radiance. It’s as if the character Baroni were saying: an individual can have countless manifestations, and each of them will be autonomous. It’s the logic, again, of religious figures; and the novel cannot help but go on asking what sort of life this is that populates the world with nonautonomous but independent characters, like zombies immobilized by some inner obstacle that probably lies in their will.
This retelling or incomplete fable isn’t intended to recount the novel. It’s a way of circumscribing it by means of another story. We’re talking about a fiction that still doesn’t exist and that can therefore adopt any form. I won’t say the narrator will feel trapped by that web of image-makers or by those figures with an apparent life of their own. In the novel I’ll experience bewilderment, a bit of curiosity, and an ambivalent enthusiasm.
Something else I won’t say is that I’d be willing to sacrifice everything I’m saying to adopt, if only for a moment, the life of one of these beings, real or inanimate. Why don’t I admit it? Because it would mean the end of the novel. I’ll close my summary on that note; the story is about to turn into a new fiction. I don’t believe in fictions that seek to discover the truth; rather, I’m interested in those with two or more faces. Novels that invent a truth not to refute it, but to present it as made for the occasion.
Baroni: un viaje was published in 2007 (Alfaguara, Buenos Aires) and 2010 by Candaya (Barcelona)
Translated by Margaret Carson.