In “There Are No Specialists in Venezuela,” Viviano describes his first experience visiting Venezuela. The opening is just spectacular, full of observations and details that avoid all the tired, ordinary descriptions that appear so frequently in travel writing and which have lost their power:
After lunch, Hermann and I went off to meet his cousin Joey. He had shoulders and biceps the size of a California governor’s, and looked like someone who ate a dozen Hotel Avila hamburgers daily. It was obvious, if unspoken, that Joey was to provide muscle during a walk through downtown Caracas. When I asked what he did for a living, Hermann said, “You know, a little of this and a little of that. Right now he sells toys….”
The city center, a capital of the global oil industry, was a combination of Berlin in 1945 and Berlin in 2009. On alternating blocks, new skyscrapers rose alongside shambolic work sites where other, unfinished skyscrapers, some of them no more than ranks of iron girders, had been completely abandoned. It was unsettling, as though Caracas itself had been mugged….”
Viviano goes on to talk about the “todero,” a concept that he describes as quintessentially Venezuelan, and which is best explained by Hermann’s wife, who says: “We call it todero, a mixture of the words torero and todos, like a guy who is a bullfighter, but also does everything else: todos. All Venezuelans are toderos.”
I love the word, I love the image.
But I really don’t love how Viviano goes on to force the rest of the article to wrap neatly around this notion of the todero. Everything he sees- a Virgin Mary that doubles as an object of honor for Catholics and adherents of Santeria–is a todera. The landscape is todero. The people’s ethnicity is todero. And so on. At the end of the article, Viviano says he is still “puzzling over the logic of toderismo.” For me, at least, I wasn’t puzzling over the logic of toderismo; I got that concept, and really liked it, right away. Instead, I was puzzling over the fact that this piece, which started so impressively, ultimately failed to deliver.
This is what happens, though, when we discover a powerful image or metaphor and push it too far.