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the complete review - fiction
Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles
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- Spanish title: Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul
- Translated by Paul Filev
- With an Afterword by Alberto Barrera Tyszka
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B : busy, somewhat underdeveloped novel of youngsters struggling with life, the past, and the future at the cusp of adulthood
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The narrator of Blue Label is Eugenia Blanc.
She's already in her thirties when she writes this, but that is only made clear well into her account; the time she is writing about, for almost the whole novel, is her last year of high school, as she (re-)immerses herself fully in her seventeen-year-old self.
It's a time when she was a frustrated student who had barely ventured beyond her own neighborhood, much less outside Caracas, whose parents are divorced and whose brother had killed himself.
Desperate to escape her stifled life, she apparently already long harbored a dream: her paternal grandfather, Laurent, was French, and if she can get the paperwork from him proving it she can get herself French citizenship -- and in that way: "I might be able to save myself".
But Laurent hasn't been a presence in her life -- "I'd never seen the old man before" (except as a baby, which she has no memory of) -- and even her estranged father can't offer more than a possible general location for him.
It doesn't seem to have ever been much more than a vague plan -- but when an opportunity arises to at least go in search of her grandfather she takes it.
The opportunity arises after Eugenia befriends a new boy in school, Luis Tévez -- "sort of a dropout", who had gone to Brussels for a while and was now back at her school.
As she notes: "At our school, Luis was something more than different", and this difference, and an air of sophisticated mystery around him, draw her to him; the fact that her boyfriend, Jorge, is kind of a creepy dud, presumably helps.
When the Easter vacation approaches, Luis says that he's headed in the general direction of the place her grandfather might be found (Altamira de Cáceres) and invites her to come along.
Blue Label is something of a road-trip novel -- essentially beginning before they really hit the road, with the first night that Eugenia tags along with Luis, doing the late-night-early morning rounds of parties, get-togethers and 'happenings' he is involved in orchestrating, an introduction to a somewhat different world in which Eugenia quickly finds herself quite at ease.
For the actual trip, they graduate from the motorcycle they use to get around that night to "a shit box: a white, 1988 Fiat Fiorino" which they then head out in.
An early stop at some of Luis' relatives ends up with a very hasty exit -- and with Luis having helped himself to twenty-four bottles of the Blue Label of the title.
These come in handy as a bribe for when they're stopped by the police, handouts for the helpful, personal consumption -- and a pseudo-nuptial sort of baptism.
Unsurprisingly, the whisky occasionally flows too liberally -- including incidentally throwing a whole group off the wagon -- but the trip and the novel aren't entirely alcohol-soaked.
Eugenia gets to know some people from Luis' circle better, including Luis' close friend and sometime-casual-sex-partner Titina; Floyd, with whom Luis had traveled in Europe; as well as the laid-back Vadier, who joins Luis and Eugenia for much of their road trip (and who clues Eugenia in on some of Luis backstory).
Eugenia opens up a bit about her family life -- including some traumatic events her father involved her in, and a bit more about her dead brother.
Luis, too, has some secrets that Eugenia only later learns about -- a more troubled past than she had imagined, and one which it turns out he hasn't entirely put behind him.
Among the first disputes Luis and Eugenia have is about the playlist for the trip.
Luis is horrified by what she has on her iPod -- he hangs up one her when she lists the artists, and when she finally reaches him again complains: "I've been throwing up for half an hour. How do you expect me to listen to that shit ?" -- while she quickly tires of the one cassette he brings along, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde.
The music they listen to -- especially Dylan's 'Visions of Johanna', but also a variety extending to Venezuelan pop -- plays a prominent role in the story, background sound-color (and lyrics) giving the story a scored, cinematic feel.
Both Eugenia and Luis come from problematic families: Eugenia doesn't get along particularly well with her mother (who: "worships and defends a family that doesn't exist"), while despising her weak and now long-absent father, breaking with him completely after one particularly horrific episode.
Her father worked in the fringes of the television business -- "He was never an actor. He was a kind of extra -- and extra extra" -- whose limited on-screen appearances were more an embarrassment than anything else.
Meanwhile, Luis' father Armando fled abroad "because he was caught allegedly financing an 'attempt'" (as Chavista Venezuela was already increasingly paranoid and militant by that time, something largely in the background in the novel, but still made quite apparent), while his mother proves to be all too blind to deeper issues that should have been addressed more clearly and forcefully.
Eugenia's father turns out to want to be helpful.
The search for Laurent doesn't go quite as hoped for, but Eugenia gets most of what she needs, and her father is willing and able to support and facilitate her escape.
If the road-trip with Luis was just an (eventful) escapade, it also put her on a course for a more lasting life-journey, geographic and otherwise (though the companionship she briefly found in Luis' circle is lost along the way: "I've always been a solitary woman", the thirty-something-year-old narrator admits, the lone life one of the transitions that came with adulthood and her departure from her homeland (to a place she liked no better)).
Blue Label is something of a love-story too, Eugenia falling for Luis -- and he for her -- in her first more complicated and involved relationship.
(Boyfriend Jorge really wasn't much of a prize, and it's a wonder she put up with him as long as she did.)
But it's also a more-or-less teen romance -- over-heated and with what amounts to little more than vacuous profundity.
It is also, as it turns out, little more than a flash in the pan -- devastatingly to Eugenia, who was still bearing the scars of the loss of her brother.
Sánchez Rugeles piles a lot on Luis and Eugenia -- more than their relationship, or they, can bear, as it turns out.
It feels like overkill -- right down to the close friend whose cancer comes roaring back ... --, and the novel does creak some under its heavy, heavy burdens.
Most striking about the novel is the narrative split, so much of it told very much through an inexperienced seventeen-year-old's mind, but then the story turning out to be a mature woman's look back.
It feels odd that Eugenia doesn't rely more on her mature insight in describing the events of back then -- almost as if Sánchez Rugeles only wanted to allow her the mature perspective in the final near summing-up (but not quite committing fully to that approach either).
As is, the older Eugenia, when she then briefly comes to the fore, makes for an odd counterpart to her teen self -- the leap to her too great, the attempts to sum up the interim in quick, broad brushstrokes inadequate.
At its best, Blue Label does capture teenage self-awareness (and its limitation) well -- often in the mix with pop culture references that so often serve as marker and point of comparison, as when Eugenia describes herself and Luis, essentially posing (though of course they're at that age where pretty much every movement and action is a (self-conscious) pose):
We looked like two characters in a movie poster for a bad film, an eighties melodrama with Tom Cruise and some wooden actress who, years later, would end up as an extra on Lost or Desperate Housewives.
The characters and their tragedies are ultimately a bit too thin, but there's a lot that's well-done along the way.
The plot feels almost too YA -- but there's more maturity and range to it (even as part of the problem is that it doesn't really settle down into any one kind of story).
An interesting glimpse of Venezuelan life around 2000, Blue Label is, however, mainly scattershot-glimpses.
It's a bit short-attention-span -- appropriate enough, given its teen-focus (with the young Eugenia often jumping back and forth in filling in details of what happened, recently and longer ago) -- and the societal strains of Chavismo, while omnipresent, remain largely in the background.
Blue Label tries to capture a time in life -- late-teenagedom -- in a particular place and time, and does that reasonably well.
Eugenia's voyage of discovery -- her eyes opened to different people and activities (including a bit of history) --, her really falling in love for the first time, and her fall-back on music are all quite well-handled, if a bit fast and easy, soundtrack substituting for substance -- but Sánchez Rugeles does weigh down the novel too melodramatically, too.
Some heavy things come down, and there really needs to be more -- explanation, and to the characters -- to justify all that.
Blue Label moves along quickly, and there's a lot going on, so it reads quite well -- but those are also its main weaknesses, as it feels somewhat underdeveloped and unsettled, trying to do and be way too much.
- M.A.Orthofer, 11 November 2018
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Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles:
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About the Author:
Venezuelan author Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles was born in 1977.
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