Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba, who escaped Auschwitz and co-authored a report saving 200,000 lives, remains unrecognized in Vancouver despite his significant historical impact. Alan Twigg (l.) seeks to change this.” FULL STORY


#130 Luisa Maria Celis

March 01st, 2016

LOCATION: Plaza Bolivar, Caracas. The cathedral at the intersection of Avenida Sur and Avenida Este 0 marks the spot where Diego de Losada founded the city of Santiago de Leon de Caracas.

Fluently trilingual in German, Spanish and English, Luisa Maria Celis came to Canada in 2000. Her debut novel in English, Arrows (Libros Libertad 2009), is the first novel to be written and published in English by a native of Venezuela. Arrows has been praised as a quintessential conquest novel for all the Americas. It’s the riveting story of a young priest named Salvador Cepeda who accompanies conquistadors to the New World on his brother’s ship in 1567 as part of an expedition led by Diego de Losada.

Salvador loses his innocence and yearns to regain his soul. The naïve and earnest protagonist is beset by misfortune and intense physical privation, including arrow wounds, but his spiritual crisis (witnessing genocide) amounts to his greatest struggle. Hence the Shakespearean quote from Hamlet as a signpost at the outset: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them.”

Halfway through the novel the increasingly disillusioned Franciscan friar falls in love with a down-to-earth Indian woman named Apacuana, mature at approximately fifteen years of age. These two fictional characters play active roles in well-researched historical events. “More of this story is true than most people will want to believe,” the author has said, “which explains why I had to write it.” Celis consulted approximately ninety books over a nine-year period to complete the novel, and made four research trips from Canada.

For her depiction of indigenous peoples, Celis has used two native languages —- Cumanagoto and Panare —- both of which have been extensively studied and are still spoken. “Unfortunately, only a few sentences are recorded from the language spoken by the natives of the valley of Caracas,” she says, “and most of their costumes are also lost. To recreate their way of life I researched the Panare and the Yanomami, though the latter are not Carib.”

Celis also incorporated verbatim records from the Inquisition and used phrases from the tortured and put them into Salvador’s lips. The medicinal uses and methods described in the novel are faithful to the times.

Celis studied St. Francis as a role model for Salvador and researched the Franciscan Order of pious priests known as Observants, while consulting the Vulgata version of the Bible in Spanish.

Most of the conquistadors in Arrows are based on historical figures. Diego de Losada was born in 1511 in the province of Rio Negro in Spain. He came to the New World at age 22 and arrived in Venezuela at age 33, participating in various founding expeditions.

Losada’s expedition to the Caracas valley began in January of 1567. The chieftain Guacaipuro was killed around the outset of 1569 and his final words have been recorded. Battles scenes are embellished accounts, based on records kept by the Spaniards, who impaled of chieftains’ heads on sticks to assert their superiority. There is no set date for the battle of Maracapana, described in the novel, but it is known that it happened shortly after Caracas was founded on July 25, 1567.

The romance angle is secondary in the plot, but gathers momentum as the story slowly builds to its climax. Arrows is not for the prudish. Should Salvador be chiefly loyal to Apacuana, his Spanish comrades, his beloved older brother Bartolomé (a worldly extrovert who has always protected him) or to God?

Celis, Luisa Maria 1 Feb 19 2016

Luisa Maria Celis

Few copies of Arrows reached bookstores when it was published by a small literary press in B.C. It was never marketed east of the Rockies. The story is actually Volume II of a projected trilogy about two brothers during the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean. Nine months after it was printed by a small West Coast press, the author regained publishing rights. She subsequently rewrote the novel in its entirety, then had it republished in Spanish with a new title, Misionero de Neuvo Mundo (Caracas: Editorial Alfa 2012). The novel was well received in Caracas, where it was printed, but marketing beyond Venezuela was minimal.

Mother of two grown sons, Luisa Maria Celis [pronounced “sell-ees”] works as a business development manager in southern Vancouver Island. Her companion novel to Misionero de Nuevo Mundo will tell the life story of Salvador’s bold and less spritual brother Bartolomé.

[Author photo by Laura Sawchuk]

[BCBW 2016] “Spanish” “Fiction”

Arrows by Luisa Maria Celis
Review by Cherie Thiessen

Suffering will be second nature for Salvador by the end of Luisa Maria Celis’ debut historical novel, Arrows.

The missionary will be bashed about in a deadly storm, rescued from falling overboard, taken seriously ill, twice skewered by arrows, attacked by a horde of hungry red ants, stabbed in the chest, punched, battered and finally tortured by the folks at the Spanish Inquisition. In between injuries and mishaps, he engages in self-flagellation.

And that list of woes doesn’t include his broken heart. It’s Spain’s Golden Age in the mid 16th-century and the evangelist has left his monastery in Spain to join an expedition sent to re-conquer territory in the Caracas valley. Two previously vanquished expeditions failed to take revenge on the Carib leader, Guacaipuro, who left the original Spanish settlement in ashes ten years earlier.

Despite the physical hardships—or possibly because of them—our embedded priest/protagonist is initially eager to give spiritual support to his fellow Spaniards and convert the savages, resisting temptations of the flesh and denying himself even such a small comfort as sandals. Salvador has to be persuaded to accept a ride on a donkey.

Burdened by high-minded and puritanical intentions, like Don Quixote, the muddling and meddling priest eventually perceives disillusioning truth. During his prolonged epiphany of reason over a two-year period, he comprehends that his Catholic faith is next-to-meaningless and his Spanish comrades are essentially killers after gold.

Celis, Luisa Maria Spanish book jacketWorse, Salvador discovers he is helpless to change the fate of the so-called New World. Openly opposed to genocide, he tries to intervene on behalf of the Indians long before he witnesses the rape of his love interest, Apacuana—halfway through the novel—by a Spanish colleague.

When Salvador tries to gain the trust of the Indians in Guacaipuro’s village, he is harm’s way. His faithful Mestizo translator Tamanoa is murdered and chopped into pieces; and the Carib chieftain who protects him is blasted away by his Spanish comrades. And that’s NOT giving away the most important part of the story.

There is a surprise ending—involving his brother Bartolomé, the ship captain who brought him to South America on his 400-ton carrack, Isabella—but the reader is most likely to remember Salvador’s jungle love with Apacuana, the late-emerging heroine who saves his skin, leads him beyond temptation, and ultimately skewers his selfishness.

“The Spanish kill with the sword,” she says. “And the Spanish kill with the word.”

Yes, Salvador is a serious liability in the name of God. But it’s Salvador’s relationship with the ‘wild Aphrodite’ Apacuana [“Apa-kwana”] that leads to the heart of the matter. Far from being your classic “princess” or conveniently-placed nymphet, Apacuana reveals the absurdity of preaching self-sacrifice to native women. Like the men around him, Salvador values honour above fidelity.

“I saw my parents die when those first Spaniards came and settled in the place your people live now,” she says. “Men go to war without caring how much pain they leave in a woman’s heart. We could have retreated into the mountains, but, no; men have to fight. And they die, killing with them the women who loved them. Their honour. That’s all men care about.”

Luisa Maria Celis read 90 books over nine years to make Arrows, the first volume of a projected trilogy. Specifically, Arrows follows the chronicles of José de Oviedo y Baños (1671-1738), a colonial historian, who published the History of the Conquest and Population of the Province of Venezuela in 1723.

Along the way she also had to translate her work from Spanish into English. When she understood her manuscript was too long, she took the advice of her editor and separated the work into two novels.

In the second volume, we’ll learn how the extroverted Bartolomé loses his sweetheart Paloma, marries her sister and then discovers he has a ten-year old son with Paloma.

Meanwhile, there’s room for quibbles: The Caribs are touted as formidable foes, but later Salvador argues the Caribs don’t have a ghost of a chance against the horses and technology of the conquistadors.

As well, Salvador proves himself remarkably gifted as a linguist, somehow gaining fluency in a new language after only a few months in Apacuana’s village.

When you do the copious amount of research that this author has sweated over, it’s easy to get overly caught up in the facts, but she manages to balance fact with fiction and achieve readability and credibility.

The religious side of Salvador is highly believable and the battle descriptions are vivid. Arrows is a riveting and informative adventure romance—perhaps ideal for a film—and not without philosophical depth.

“The hardest thing about writing the book was the price I paid for trying to tell the story with complete honesty,” she says. “This book changed me. I started as a devout Catholic and ended up a free-thinker.”

Good for this plucky little publisher for taking chances on new Canadian writers who operate beyond the Anglophonic mainstream.


— review by Cherie Thiessen
[BCBW 2009]

The following interview was recorded prior to the publication of Misionero de Neuvo Mundo (Caracas: Editorial Alfa 2012)
Interview (2009)

1. ¿Cómo definiría usted su novela Arrows? ¿La considera una novela histórica o sólo ficción?

Arrows es un novela histórica que sigue fielmente las crónicas de José de Oviedo y Baños, nuestro primer historiador, quien en 1723 publicó en Madrid su única obra: Historia de la conquista y población de la provincia de Venezuela.

La historia de la fundación de Caracas se cuenta a través de los ojos de Salvador Cepeda, un devoto, y virgen, misionero franciscano, cuyas creencias se estrellan contra la formidable realidad de la conquista. La novela explora, con brutal honestidad, los efectos que la desigualdad de esta guerra y la desnudez de los indígenas tienen sobre los fundamentos de su fe.

Es una historia en la que los personajes ficticios se tejen con los reales, tomando roles inventados en el desenlace los hechos históricos. Pero, Arrows, es también una historia de amor en la que Salvador descubre un nuevo mundo a través de Apacuana, una joven nativa que simboliza la fortaleza y lealtad de la mujer indígena.

2. ¿Cómo realizó la investigación histórica para Arrows? ¿Cuánto tiempo estuvo desarrollando ese trabajo de investigación y en qué fuentes se basó fundamentalmente?

La visión que tengo abarca una trilogía. La primera novela de esta trilogía es Arrows, pero hay una segunda novela casi lista que cuenta la historia del hermano de Salvador, un capitán de la Flota del Tesoro. La tercera novela contará la final pacificación del valle de Caracas.
Escribir estas dos novelas me tomó nueve años. Leí aproximadamente noventa libros en inglés, español y alemán, de los cuales utilicé unos cincuenta y seis. Sería muy largo enumerar y calificar los valiosos libros que aportaron tanto a este trabajo. Sin embargo, aquellos a los que sin duda recurrí más frecuentemente fueron la Enciclopedia de Venezuela publicada por la Editorial Bello, S.A. en 1976 y el Diccionario de Historia de Venezuela de la Fundación Polar en su edición de 1997, Shori, Camië Ya Jama (Amigo, quiero visitarte) de Dino J. Grossa, publicado por Ernesto Armitano y Yoroko, Confidencias de un Chaman Panare de Marie Claude Mattéi Muller, de Armitano Editores y muchos otros como Esta Tierra de Gracia de Isaac Pardo, Los Aborígenes de la Región Centro-Norte de Vzla (1550-1600) Una poderación etnográfica de la Obra de José de Oviedo y Baños publicado por la Universidad Católica Andrés Bello y muchos otros que me ayudaron a crear una sociedad indígena convincente. A éstos se suman los muchos que consulté acerca del costumbrismo, armamento, barcos y condiciones de vida en el siglo XVI y los de Graziano Gasparini que aportaron la veracidad arquitectónica y urbana a la novela.

3. ¿Por qué escogió el tema histórico para estrenarse como escritora? ¿Piensa continuar su carrera literaria en estos temas?

En realidad, me estrené con una novela romántica que publiqué por demanda en español en Venezuela hace unos diez años. Fue escribiendo esa novela que descubrí mi pasión por revelar al lector contemporáneo los detalles olvidados de nuestro pasado común.

4.¿Es usted la primera escritora venezolana en publicar una novela escrita originalmente en inglés? Aparte del dominio del idioma ¿qué la motivó a ello?

¿Le fue difícil encontrar las palabras exactas que quería expresar en un idioma que no es su lengua materna? ¿cuál es la diferencia (literariamente hablando) entre el inglés y el español?
Hasta donde sé, soy la primera escritora venezolana en escribir en inglés y ser publicada por una editorial extranjera. Las novelas de Rómulo Gallegos fueron traducidas al inglés. Mi motivación principal fue la de llevar una historia, que considero debía ser contada, al vasto mercado anglosajón. Son muy pocos los libros escritos en español que logran ser traducidos al inglés.

Asistía a la Conferencia anual para escritores en Surrey, Vancouver, cuando decidí intentar traducir la novela al inglés, sin sentirme en absoluto confiada de que podía lograrlo. Inicialmente, queriendo dar una imagen de la época, había escrito en español dos novelas intercaladas, en tercera persona. La historia de dos hermanos. Uno, un misionero franciscano; el otro, un capitán de la Flota del Tesoro. Al contemplar la idea de la traducción, me convencí de que la historia sería mucho más eficiente si Salvador, el misionero, la narraba. Fue así como tuve que reescribir las novelas por completo, ya que su individualidad y su visión del mundo fueron los que determinaron su enfoque de los hechos. La segunda novela, la historia del capitán de la Flota, estará lista este año.

Escribirlas fue un gran ejercicio de perseverancia. Tenía que consultar cada tercera palabra. A mi alrededor siempre habían abiertos cuatro grandes libros: un diccionario en español, uno en inglés, uno español-inglés y un tesauro en inglés. Aunque suene mal que lo diga, el inglés es un idioma mucho más rico en vocabulario que el español. Hay verbos precisos para la mayoría de las acciones que, en español, tienen por fuerza que ser descritas con adjetivos y frases descriptivas. De modo que encontar esos verbos exactos para evitar narrativas llenas de palabras innecesarias fue para mí el reto más grande. Una novela siempre será más corta en inglés que en español.

5. ¿Dónde está disponible para la venta la novela? (aquí me cuentas sobre amazon, me das el link o la manera de encontrarlo, y si se vende en otros lugares)

La novela está a la venta en y a través de la editorial También está a la venta en múltiples librerías en Canadá. Estoy trabajando actualmente en la traducción al español de Arrows y es mi esperanza encontrar una editorial en español que quiera tomarla.

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