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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last Days of El Comandante

Alberto Barrera Tyszka

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To purchase The Last Days of El Comandante

Title: The Last Days of El Comandante
Author: Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 236 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Last Days of El Comandante - US
Patria o muerte - US
The Last Days of El Comandante - UK
The Last Days of El Comandante - Canada
Les derniers jours du Commandant - France
Die letzten Tage des Comandante - Deutschland
Patria o muerte - España
  • Spanish title: Patria o muerte
  • Translated by Rosalind Harvey and Jessie Mendez Sayer

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting look at Venezuela in Chávez's dying days, but juggles too many ultimately too thin storylines

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 5/4/2018 Etienne de Montety
Le Monde . 2/6/2018 Ariane Singer
NZZ . 21/1/2017 Martina Läubli
El País . 26/11/2015 J.E.Ayala-Dip
TLS . 29/11/2019 David Gallagher
Wall St. Journal . 27/3/2020 Sam Sacks
Die Welt A+ 4/2/2017 Marko Martin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der Roman verknüpft individuelle Erfahrung, Politik und soziologische Analyse zu einer lebendigen Melange. Er zeigt, wie das alltägliche Leben allmählich die Züge des Wahnsinns annimmt und welche sozialen, psychologischen und weltanschaulichen Verwerfungen dem Pop-Status des früheren Machthabers und Populisten Hugo Chávez zugrunde liegen. Die letzten Tage des Comandante ist ein Gesellschaftsroman im besten Sinn. (...) Alberto Barrera Tyszka konstruiert Hugo Chávez als Leerstelle. Die ganze Gesellschaft kreist um dieses leere Zentrum." - Martina Läubli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Patria o muerte es la mejor novela que leí en mucho tiempo sobre el carisma, la sobreactuación personal e ideológica en aras de un proyecto con visos totalitarios. Y también es lo mejor que leí sobre los “carismados”, que es como llama el autor a las víctimas, conscientes o inconscientes, del líder carismático. Claro que Patria o muerte es antes que nada una obra de ficción, con sus leyes estrictas de representación. Y porque lo es con tanto cuidado estético, con tanto poder de persuasión novelística, todo lo que se nos cuenta en ella suena siempre a verdad. El autor venezolano ha escrito una novela, pero también un estudio caracterológico, y no solo de una persona como Hugo Chávez, sino también de una clase, desorientada, cogida a contrapié." - J.Ernesto Ayala-Dip, El País

  • "The Last Days of el Comandante is the more enthralling of these two revelatory novels, with its skilfully wrought atmosphere of suspense and energetic prose, well translated by Rosalind Harvey." - David Gallagher, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Was in der kursorischen Nacherzählung wie eine Telenovela voll karibischen Tohuwabohus klingen könnte, wird im Roman mit psychologischer Glaubwürdigkeit und Präzision erzählt, wobei durch alle Thrillerspannung hinweg die Traurigkeit übermächtig ist (.....) Dieser grandiose Roman, der in keiner Zeile didaktisch ist, taugt gerade deshalb zum Lehrstück: Die innere Leere, die der Aktivismus der Autoritären hinterlässt, kann nur mit neuen Lebenslügen, neuer Niedertracht gefüllt werden. Ein Perpetuum mobile des Schreckens, das aktueller nicht sein könnte." - Marko Martin, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Last Days of El Comandante is a novel of Venezuela during the final months of Hugo Chávez's life -- as the title of the English and most of the other translation's suggest, although the Spanish original is the rallying cry of Patria o muerte ('Fatherland or death'). Chávez himself doesn't really figure in the novel, beyond reports on his (declining) health -- his treatment taking place in Cuba -- but he looms large over the life of the characters and, indeed, all of Venezuela. The uncertainty about his health sends ripple effects throughout Venezuelan life:

For more than ten years, Chávez had reestablished the state and the country as a system that only functioned with him at its center, pronouncing his name. The possibility that this center might fail, disappear all of a sudden, evaporate or vanish, kidnapped by the night, by the routine natural chaos that is the night, triggered a state of sheer bewilderment in everyone. People's nerves were increasingly frayed.
       Barrera Tyszka switches between several storylines that are loosely connected, the story weaving back and forth from chapter to chapter. There is retired oncologist Miguel Sanabria, whose nephew, Victor, asks him to hold onto a cell phone with a video recording on it, taken by one of Chávez's personal security guards, of the ailing El Commandante. Vladimir is a loyal government official -- though among those who had begun to be: "pushed aside, left out in the cold"; his father, Antonio -- Miguel's older brother -- is a former Communist and now dedicated Chavista. In the same building that Miguel lives in -- and where he is head of the residents' association -- journalist Fredy Lecuna has sublet an apartment from Andreína Mijares, where he lives with his common-law wife Tatiana and their son Rodrigo; Andreína is now returning to Venezuela and wants her apartment back, but Fredy and Tatiana refuse to move out. Rodrigo befriends Miguel, as well as -- online -- a girl his age, nine year old María. María lives with her overprotective mother, who is so concerned for the child's safety that she takes her out of school and home-schools her. And there is American journalist Madeleine Butler, who had lived in South America for a few years as a child and comes to Venezuela hoping to write about, and possibly even interview, Chávez.
       Fredy's career has been floundering, but he also thinks that the times provide a great opportunity, and he signs a contract to write a book about Chávez as well -- hoping, specifically, to dig up the dirt on his actual condition. The publishers are understandably worried about the timing, wanting the book on the market before events overtake it, but Fredy makes very slow progress. The possibility of getting inside information leads him also to a desperate deal, a marriage to the Cuban Aylín: she desperately wants a way off the island, and marriage to a Venezuelan could be her ticket; in return, she says she can get him access to someone with inside information about Chávez's condition. Eventually, they travel as husband and wife to Cuba, with Fredy closer to the information he needs, but still finding it mostly out of reach.
       Meanwhile, Tatiana and Rodrigo are subject to Andreína's clever campaign to chase them out of the apartment, as she hires three dedicated Chavista's to move into it with her and drive Tatiana out by making life as hard as possible for her.
       Maria's life takes a turn when her mother's darkest fears are realized, but the girl makes the best of the complicated situation she finds herself in -- still pretty much shut in at home -- and does have her online-boyfriend Rodrigo as someone to communicate with (though she's slow in revealing much about herself and then her circumstances). She does have other adults who occasionally check up on her, but, reflecting, the Venezuelan conditions of the times, it takes a considerable amount of time for them or the authorities to realize just how wrong things have gone. Similarly, the domestic madness in Andreína's apartment results from circumstances which can not be fixed through 'normal' channels: neither government authorities not police can be counted on, while the circumstances themselves -- including the near-impossibility for Tatiana and Fredy to find alternative housing -- also reflect the broken society they live in.
       The Last Days of El Comandante doesn't place all the blame for how broken the country is on Chávez; indeed, there are even characters whose lives have certainly been bettered by the regime's actions in at least righting some gross social inequities (though arguably at a high -- and ultimately unaffordable -- cost); the country is correctly presented as one which had already (if differently) not been a well-functioning or administered, much less fair nation-state. It's noteworthy that, while there are several pro-Chávez characters -- opportunistic or self-serving as some of them might be -- what opposition there is (and there is quite a lot) offers no meaningful alternatives; indeed, The Last Days of El Comandante ultimately isn't particularly political, certainly not as far as embracing specific political programs: the only possibilities here are the vacuous (Chávez) or the vacuum (of non-Chávez). That's part of Barrera Tyszka's point, too: that Chávez and the phenomenon of Chavism transcend the merely political (much like American president Trump and his absurd following do). So also he has Chávez revel in at least part of his illness:
Chávez was once again getting what he most desired and almost always accomplished. To be the absolute center of attention. This was perhaps his true concern, his most secret and not necessarily conscious passion. He wanted to be the axis, the point around which everything revolved. The nation, history, his citizens' public and private lives. And he was achieving it. From the start, he had become everybody's patient. His illness was an enigma that spread throughout the whole country.
       His illness is not just an enigma, of course; it is cancer -- rot, and it is a similar deep, deep rot, equally difficult to counter, much less treat, that pervades the country too, through and through.
Chávez's health was not a medical but a religious matter. The government's high command began speaking like priests. The state began to look like a church.
       The stories Barrera Tyszka presents offer a solid slice of the uncertainty of Venezuelan life of the time, the basic plot-lines of each offering a great deal of potential: the retired oncologist with the (presumably) compromising video; the tenant-battle over an apartment; the writer trying to dig up something sensational (and getting entangled in a Cuban angle he hadn't counted on); the young girl forced to be self-reliant in a world where adults can't be counted on. But it's a lot to juggle in a relatively short space, and most of the storylines feel rather thin, Barrera Tyszka eliding over periods of time and only sketching many of the characters, or allowing them to slip from view too often and for too long. There are times, when he takes his time, that the narrative impresses, but almost each of these storylines also gets short shrift some (or much) of the time; admirably, Barrera Tyszka mostly avoids sheer shock value -- but given the (realistic) almost anticlimactic resolutions to much that happens (including Chávez's death, which readers of course knew was coming) these stories need more elaboration; as is, they feel slighter, less attended to than they should.
       The Last Days of El Comandante does offer an interesting glimpse of Venezuela at the time of Chávez's death, and hints of the odd (but, sadly, hardly uncommon) phenomenon of a personality -- rather than substance -- dominating a nation's politics (and, predictably, running the country into the ground). Barrera Tyszka is particularly good on the everyday -- and also on the odd Cuban connection and the complex interplay between Cuban (national and personal) interests and Venezuelan ones at the time. But one wishes this were presented as a much bigger saga -- or that Barrera Tyszka had focused more tightly one or another of his (too-)many storylines.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 January 2020

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The Last Days of El Comandante: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Venezuelan author Alberto Barrera Tyszka was born in 1960.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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