368pp, hardback, £14.99
Jasper Gibson’s debut is a comic novel set in South America about which Michael Palin has commented: ‘It’s a viscerally funny book which is quite painful to read.’ In a piece specially written for bookoxygen, Gibson shares the background on his experiences in Venezuela, the setting for Harry Christmas’s escape from the British Rot.
Contrary to popular belief, the best thing to do with a problem is to run away from it. I didn’t know anything about Venezuela, but I picked Caracas out of a list of cities for no other reason than I liked the sound of the word Ca-ra-cas… Crackers. A good craic. Maracas and clappers and crackheads and rappers. What problem was I running away from? Life. I had ruined a relationship with an incredible woman through my drinking and delusions. She was half-Irish, half-Sicilian. The end was explosive. I had also found myself working for the Devil.
The Devil, perhaps unsurprisingly, worked in television. He had floppy hair and soft shoes and called everyone ‘guys’, even if there was only one other person there.
‘Guys,’ he said to me, ‘we’ve been here before haven’t we? I mean haven’t we? What is it now?’ I was working on a clip show called Extreme Portsmouth and it was amongst this footage of drunks bull-charging police vehicles that I came across my moral core, which I had temporarily misplaced.
‘The problem,’ I replied, ‘is that in this clip someone is evidently committing suicide and I’m not comfortable writing jokes about that.’
‘Rubbish,’ said the Devil, making a lunge for my moral core. ‘That’s not a person jumping off the roof. It’s a dummy. Anyway you can’t see it land. How do you know what happened?’
‘It doesn’t matter if you can’t actually see the impact. It’s 40 storeys.’
‘No it’s not.’
‘And if that’s a dummy, where’s the other person?’
‘What other person?’
‘The person that threw the dummy off.’
‘That dummy is jumping off a tower block on its own.’ I stood up and left my desk and the building and my job and my country.
‘Can I have another Bloody Mary please?’ It was 14 June 2008 and Venezuela was coming into view. Just before I got on the plane a friend told me a series of horror stories about Caracas. Taxi drivers would kidnap me from the airport. I would be robbed. I would be killed. He was almost entirely wrong. I was the victim of an attempted mugging once as I wandered into a dodgy part of town – easily done, as that’s most of it – while looking for a guest house. I had a backpack on. I felt like a packhorse surrounded by wolves. They threatened me. I whinnied and fled. As I turned the corner I looked back to see the three of them still standing there, startled, as if I wasn’t playing the game properly.
My friend insisted I seek out the protection of Rex, an Englishman married to a Venezuelan. Rex turned out to be far more dangerous than Caracas. Have you ever seen a man open a bottle of wine and drink the whole thing while driving? ‘So what do you think of Chavez?’ I asked him as he mounted the pavement, drove past some cars he didn’t approve of, and then re-entered the traffic. ‘There’s only one honest position as far as Chavez is concerned. To the chavistas I am anti-Chavez. To the anti-Chavez people I am chavista!’ Which sums up the common view of Venezuela: polarity. For and against Chavez, extremes of rich and poor, beauty versus deprivation. But that is Caracas. There is another Venezuela.
Follow the northern coast east until you get to the Paria peninsula and there, on its very tip, is the Caribbean village I made my home: Macuro. When Columbus arrived there, the only place where he set foot on the mainland, he thought he had found the literal garden of Eden. I too was faced with a biblical vision: a dirty, bearded man who looked like he had been struck by lightning. I turned on the taps. It was time to shave, to clean up my act, and this village took me in.
I found work in a cacao plantation, and board with Senora Luisa who ran the sweet shop. She said she wanted payment in English lessons. We made almost no progress.
The peculiarities of this village are a widespread stutter, streets paved with grass and the warmest, most raucous people I have ever met. Fishermen, and cacao farmers, they are also singers, engineers, boxers, poets, revolutionaries, entrepreneurs, smugglers, cock-fighters and evangelical Christians. There is a great deal of spitting when you talk and an inability to dance salsa is only a slightly less heinous sin than an unwillingness to try. The village greeting is ‘Epalay!’, cried out as if you hadn’t seen the person in years with open palms and an expression of surprise. As there are only six streets everyone greets each other like this continuously, perhaps only minutes passing since their last meeting, perhaps their twentieth that day. ‘Epalay!’ – it’s like a huge family of amnesiacs.
As soon as I arrived, I started writing A Bright Moon For Fools. My central character, Harry Christmas – part Jim Royle, part Oliver Reed – arrives there in a state of spiritual crisis. The characters, rivalries, love affairs, fights, gossip and miracles that electrify this village all provided inspiration for the trouble Harry causes as he attempts a shaky path to redemption. So, far from the horror stories, the Venezuela I found was a welcoming place, though certainly with its wild moments. From the Andes to the Amazon, the country is covered in communities like Macuro. Yes, you have to keep your eyes open – like everywhere else – but from what this traveller has seen, it’s considerably less frightening thanPortsmouth.