Bites from the Bearded Crocodile
G. Cabrera Infante
The decline of the so-called Cuban cultural renaissance started when Virgilio Pinera came down the ladder of the Czech airplane that brought him back from Brussels via Prague. He deplaned with mincing steps and, fluttering like a tropical butterfly suddenly sprung alive from a collector’s case, stopped briefly and then kneeled and leaned forward to kiss the red Cuban soil – only to smack the tarmac instead. (This gesture proved to be some sort of near-miss-cum-hubris for, you see, the runway had recently been covered with a Russian blacktop.) Though it didn’t really all begin then, but a few months earlier when Lunes, the literary supplement of the newspaper Revolucion, on which Virgilio Pinera was one of the principal collaborators (the word was usually meant in its second sense), was banned and closed down for good. Only it didn’t begin then either, but when they censored and sequestered PM, a documentary sponsored by Lunes that didn’t have any political content to warrant the seizure. That was really the beginning of the end. But let’s start at the very beginning – which was when dictator Batista decided to flee instead of fighting and the 26th of July Movement took over the Government in the name of the Revolution, its martyrs and the poor people of Cuba.
Let’s face it once and for all: it is true that there were more houses of ill repute than publishing houses in Havana before the Revolution – or more properly, Fidel Castro – seized power in 1959. But you can say the same of New York now, where, on a stroll down Broadway, you’ll be able to meet more whores than writers and see more pimps than literary agents – no equation intended. If this happens in the metropolis, imagine the colonies. And Havana was the nearest Latin city to urban America – unless you want to insult Tijuana and call it a city. Before 1960 there were a few private houses but these mostly published textbooks. Other adventurous printers, whom you could equate with gigolos, were engaged in some kind of vanity publishing. Even Jose Lezama Lima, one of the true great poets in the 20th-century Spanish-speaking world, submitted to the extortion willingly, even gladly. It was his rich friends who paid for the publication of such masterpieces as Enemigo Rumor (‘Alien Rumour’, 1941), Aventuras Sigilosas (‘Adventures in Stealth’, 1945) and La Fijeza (‘Transfixed Beauty’, 1949). It didn’t matter that Juan Ramon Jimenez, the fastidious Spanish poet, a Republican refugee and future Nobel winner, had made seemingly extravagant claims about young Lezama’s poetry. If he wanted to see his poems published, Lezama (or his patrons) had to pay for it. It was a flagrant literary mugging: your money or your silence. For Lezama, as for most Cuban writers then, it was a question of perish to publish.
Of course there were real publishing houses then, not just one, as they have in Cuba now, run by the state at the service of party propaganda. The one they have now is the National Printing House where, under the rule of Alejo Carpentier (more later), 100,000 copies of Moby Dick were published – slightly abridged. The Cuban publishers had cleverly rewritten Melville. You had Ishmael, you had Queequeg, you had Captain Ahab, of course, you even had Father Mapple: but you couldn’t find God in the labyrinth of the sea. Before the Revolution, some ci-devant publishing houses worked for the government in power, any government, even foreign ones. They would print Venezuelan authors in costly and garish editions, paid for not by the writers but by Venezuela herself, a country always rich in oil but poor in ink.
But there were other cultural achievements beyond printing de-luxe editions of Cuban classics in the very young Caribbean republic. One must not forget that Cuba was the last colony in America to become independent from Spain. This happened only in 1902, and after that the small island was submitted to some sort of dependence on the United States until 1958. The strong links were only economic and political, though, and the American influence never really amounted to much in Cuban cultural life, which was oriented towards Europe, especially to France and Spain. Most Cuban writers could read and write French fluently, but very few had any English. The only thing American that was truly influential – and this only at a popular level – were Hollywood movies, as pervasive in Cuba then as they are in England now. Those remarkable achievements I mentioned before were in painting, architecture, the theatre and, of course, Cuban popular music: though actually extinct on the island, like the Cuban manatee, its irresistible song can be heard from Paris to Parana.
Believe it or not, the history of Cuban literature is one of the longest in America. It is not as long as the history of literature in England, of course, but there were poets writing and being published in Cuba before they named the American colonies New England. According to lore, the first Cuban poet was a Spaniard settled on the island who had the appropriate name of Silvestre de Balboa – his last name was fit for a conquistador, his first for silvan poetry. But Balboa wrote an epic instead. Published in 1605, Espejo de Paciencia (‘The Looking-Glass of Patience’) is a long poem that lay forgotten for more than two centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1834. It was about that time that Jose Maria de Heredia (cousin to the French Heredia, famous for his Trophée) wrote what is considered the first Romantic poem ever written in Spanish, ‘The Ode to Niagara’, conceived under the influence of Chateaubriand’s prose and composed in exile in the USA. The 19th century gave us Jose Marti’s powerful prose, written in exile in Spain and New York. Marti is perhaps the greatest prose-writer in all of the Spanish 19th century. A spell-binding novel, Cecilia Valdes, was written by Cirilo Villaverde in his exile in the 1880s in New York. Besides many minor poets, the Cuban 19th century produced a great poet, the subtly symbolist Julian del Casal, after Ruben Dario the greatest modernista poet ever. One should never confuse modernismo, with a small m, with Modernism in English, a quite different, later literary mood. The modernista was a strictly poetic movement, initiated in Latin America but taking off from the French Symbolists: ten poems that shook the Spanish-speaking world, mainly through the genius of Ruben Dario, the Indian poet from Nicaragua who sang of swans in Spain. Marti, himself a poet, was a precursor of modernismo without actually having to do with symbolism, French or otherwise. Marti was a true original. Unfortunately, he is only known today as the man who provided Pete Seeger with the lyrics for his apocryphal song ‘Guantanamera’. The gospel according to Vanessa Redgrave is that Jose Marti, who died on a Cuban battlefield in 1895, is a close friend of Comandante Fidel Castro’s. Of course anachronism is Miss Redgrave’s forte, but this time she was dead right to show us how anachronistic it would be for a poet to be friends with Comandante Castro.
During the infamous Cuban Cultural Congress in 1971 (much more later), Fidel Castro said in his closing speech that before the Revolution there was only one theatre in Havana. He was lying, of course. But then the British reader might say that at least the man cared about culture. It would have been better if he didn’t. One bit of learned advice to the British reader: if you hear Margaret Thatcher or her successor Big Benn speaking in the Commons on the state of the box-office in the West End, you’d better brace yourself because an English version of Dr Goebbels is surely limping his way down Whitehall – to take care of the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The truth is that Fidel Castro never cared about the theatre or literature, or even mural painting, for that matter. He only cares about power and its total tool, propaganda. He is known even to have used Beckett’s plays, to have said that Waiting for Godot showed the kind of capitalist-induced misery you’ll never find in Cuba now. Godot forbids.
With all its political infirmities, and there were many, travellers to Cuba were surprised at what they saw. Even in 1958 somebody as alien as Sacheverell Sitwell enthuses over a song about Havana night life. As late as 1959, the British historian Hugh Thomas recognised that Cuba was one of the few tropical countries to have created a modern culture of its own. He also noticed that Fidel Castro owed his power not to guerrilla warfare, as he had believed before visiting Cuba, but to television. The way Castro used the television screen for his seizure of power was very similar to the use Adolf Hitler made of PA systems in Germany in the Thirties. At the time, 1960, Cuba had more TV sets than Italy, statistics that come as a surprise to many. In 1969 I was at a party in Hollywood at the house of a famous and wealthy film-maker, when he began asking me about life in Cuba. Those were the days of the war in Vietnam and Americans were regressing to the late Thirties, the decade when they suffered the vision of the blind in seeing Stalin as a saviour of civilisation as they knew it. Among the guests of this liberal director there was a well-known Austrian philosopher, now deceased. He had been a refugee from Nazi Germany since 1937. Both he and the movie director were Jewish. So was the director’s beautiful wife. After hearing my story of dire needs and disasters the popular philosopher asked me in his still thick German accent: ‘But isn’t it true zat unter Doktor Castro de island has made a great progress in public health and education?’ I’d heard the question before in many languages, with different accents, and I had a bitter double analogy on the tip of my logical, not ideological tongue: ‘Mussolini made the Italian trains arrive on time for the first time since they were invented. Hitler, on the other hand, not only laid out the autobahns’ – he grimaced at my plural – ‘but lifted Germany out of its economic and moral morass. At least, that’s what my favourite great-uncle used to say over and over in my home town in Eastern Cuba. This happened before World War Two. Funnily enough, my great-uncle, a sweet soul, was a Nazi who became a vegetarian when he knew Hitler was one. Even funnier, Fidel Castro was born barely thirty miles away from us about the same time I was born. He could have been indoctrinated by my great-uncle. After the war, my great-uncle used to say over and over that Hitler was not dead. That was American propaganda. Hitler was alive and biding his own time to come back to power. One day he stopped believing Hitler was still alive. I knew it because he dropped the Führer’s name for good. When Fidel Castro came to power my great-uncle became a fidelista, but only after he saw that Castro was the typical tough tyrant. You see, my favourite great-uncle was a die-hard totalitarian. He also was the town’s savant.’ The professor, a survivor of the concentration camps and now a teacher of Marxian dialectics in Hollywood, saw I had a point when I hinted at a Hegelian bon mot: ‘Even if the education programme was a success, which it wasn’t,’ I said, ‘what good is teaching millions to read when only one man decides what you read, in Prussia as in Russia? Or in Cuba.’
In Britain, there is an ignorance of Cuba which is of the Right (‘Please tell me,’ I have been asked by a leading Conservative intellectual, ‘is there any freedom of speech in Cuba?’): but British gentlemen of the Left, believe me, also ask stupid questions, full of political naivety signifying ideological ignorance. They often ask me eagerly about samizdat in Havana and how are Cuban dissidents faring. They, of all people, should know very well that samizdat (for a Cuban the very name is alien and it only makes sense in Spanish as an anagram for my cup of coffee) is a typically Soviet phenomenon of the Sixties. It exists now only because the present Soviet Government permits it. The same applies to Soviet dissidents, grandchildren of Khrushchev or sons of Brezhnev, who are expediently allowed to emigrate to Europe and America when Stalin, quite simply, would have sent them straight to Siberia. Who are the dissidents in East Germany or Bulgaria? Nobody, merely because the Communist governments in those countries cannot afford their existence. Writers in Czechoslovakia comply with Communist dicta or go to gaol directly. Where are the dissidents in Albania? Nowhere, of course, Cuba, sad to say, has become a Latin American Albania, a deadly oxymoron. But few foreigners know this. Political hell is paved with the ignorance of strangers. The Holocaust was fully known only after the war. The gulags were publicised only after the death of Stalin. The atrocities of Castro, not all of them literary, will be known in full only after his demise, whenever that may be. Then people not only in England but everywhere, those of the Right as well as those of the Left, will know the true nature of the regime led by a man of infinite cunning and deceit, a beastly power-hungry egomaniac who is the bearded white double of Amin. It’s not for nothing that he is Cuba’s Commander-in-Chief, Secretary-General of the Party and President for Life. He also likes to be called a doctor, when what he really is, again like Amin, is a crude actor playing his version of Macbeth to the largest captive audience in the Americas.
But when Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959 like a larger Christ (as Severo Sarduy wrote from Paris with love), some of us saw him as some kind of younger, bearded version of Magwitch, a tall outlaw emerging from the fog of history to make political Pips of us all. However, the outlaw never became an in-law, only a law unto himself: the Redeemer was always wearing a gun on his hip. When Castro took Batista’s place there were three great older writers in Cuba: two powerful poets and a maverick belletrist. They were all strongly influenced by French literature. This holy, unholy trio were Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976), Nicolas Guillen (1902 –) and Virgilio Pinera (1912-1979). The first two were the poets – one popular, populist even, the other unpopular and hermetic. Later Lezama surprised everybody with the publication, in 1966, of his dense, impenetrable masterpiece Paradiso, a novel that is a confession and a memory and had a succès de scandale in Cuba for its intoxicating scenes of pederasty mixed with poetry in a prose that made Hermann Broch’s look easy in comparison, if not facile. Virgilio Pinera was a short-story writer, a novelist and a playwright – and also a sometime poet. Nicolas Guillen, a mulatto who in the Twenties had written poesia negra (which had to do with Negro poetry what Shirley Bassey has to do with black music), fell under the spell of Lorca when he visited Havana in 1930 and shortly afterwards his Negro poetry was transformed into some kind of tropical flamenco. Later on, in the Thirties, he was writing so-called social poetry and became a member of the Cuban Communist Party – to his undoing. Guillen had a truly poetic gift, though in a minor key. In fact, he is, together with Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, the most widely translated Latin American poet of the century and has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. The musical connection is an apt one, for Guillen was a writer of pop poetry avant la lettre, the composer of soft song lyrics rather than of a powerful verse. His words cried for music and they got it. But it is really a pity that Pete Seeger was not around when Guillen wrote his early sones (a kind of rumba), to compose another ‘Guantanamera’ with Guillen’s lyrics instead of Marti’s verse, for Guillen was the true contemporary of these Cuban folk tunes that don’t have to pay royalties to their real composers.
The fourth horseman of Cuban literature had not been living in Cuba for many years, if he ever lived there at all. Earlier, when he was young, he left Havana for Paris and didn’t come back until the Nazis chased him out of France. His name was Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980). Born in Havana of a French father and a Russian mother, Carpentier was a failed architect, a dabbler in poesia negra (he even wrote a Negro novel dealing aptly with black magic, meaning Afro-Cuban santeria), a fine musicologist and finally a serious writer. But it was only when he moved to Venezuela in 1946 that he started writing his truly important novels, from The Kingdom of this World to The Chase and, perhaps his masterpiece, Explosion in a Cathedral, extravagantly praised by Dame Edith Sitwell (Ah those Sitwell siblings, meddling in things Cuban!) and Graham Greene and Tyrone Power. (Power wanted to write, produce and star in successive film versions of Carpentier’s Kingdom and Lost Steps but he lost the crown to a coronary.) Something peculiar happened with Carpentier and Cuba: he loved the island but the island didn’t love him. In Havana, he was just a journalist, almost a hack in posh magazines. Abroad, he became an all-round author and a true novelist. He even wrote in Paris the libretto for an opera composed by Edgar Varèse. This filled him with Parisian pride in a Varèse vein. Back in Cuba in 1940 meant for Carpentier, a vain man, back to journalism and the radio. But once established in Venezuela in the late Forties and Fifties, he wrote his best books. At the time he was the holder of a Venezuelan passport and was a cultural force to reckon with in Caracas. To his everlasting guilt, he even organised an international music festival sponsored by the Venezuelan version of Batista, Perez Jimenez. When he finally came back to Cuba for good – after the Revolution was safely in power – he became a bureaucrat (as manager of the only printing house in town); and though he was later promoted to France, for services rendered, as a de-luxe diplomat living in the Seiziéme, he never wrote another novel there – though he published at least five books with such a label on the cover.
Carpentier suffered from two lifelong obsessions, somehow interconnected: the art of the novel and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chasing after the latter, he lost his writing steps and the kingdom of this world became a lethal tyranny that has finally done him in. As the Frenchman says: ‘Nothing kills a man more quickly than to be forced to represent a country.’ Carpentier, the poor son of a bitch, represented for twenty years a cause that he never believed in. In the end, ill with terminal cancer, Paris became a painful feat. He had to write in the early morning and later have breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner with important French writers, with the exception of Sartre who despised him for being a civil servant with two masters. His output became meagre and his books grew poorer in style but richer in political content to please Havana and thus stay in Paris. He never got the Nobel Prize, by the way. Death got him first.
Those were the most representative names in Cuban literature when Fidel Castro came down from the mountains armed to his rotten teeth. (Then he wore tattered olive-green fatigues, now he wears a general’s uniform and his teeth have been beautifully capped.) There were other writers, of course. Lino Novas Calvo, for example, one of the best short-story writers in Latin America, Hemingway’s favourite translator and the man who first translated Faulkner and Huxley and Lawrence into Spanish when he was living in Madrid and collaborating with Ortega y Gasset on his Revista de Occidente, a review that changed a culture. And Fernando Ortiz, the anthropologist, the man who coined, among others, the word Afro-Cuban (after which Afro-American and Afro-Brazilian were formed) – a concept more than a word. And Lydia Cabrera, a white girl from a former rich family, the first woman to penetrate the sacred santeria cult and the abakua, originally a secret society for men only, with blood initiation rites which excluded, under threat of death, women and pederasts. Her work in what could be called anthropoetry was pioneering in America, where black cults of the occult, from Haiti to Brazil, are sometimes stronger than in Africa. The black continent didn’t create voodoo: America did.
Other relevant artists of some international standing who were born in Cuba and remained Cuban are Alicia Alonso, the dancer, and Wilfredo Lam, the painter, and two great musicians, Amadeo Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Caturla, probably better composers than Brazil’s Villalobos and the Mexican Carlos Chavez. Both died too young to be known abroad, except in such recherché musical circles as the coterie around Nadia Boulanger in Paris or by John Cage’s epigoni everywhere. Roldan, also a remarkable conductor, died of a skin cancer in the face in his early thirties. Cruelly deformed, in his last performances he had to climb the podium wearing a silk mask. Caturla, a country judge who used to compose even on the Bench, was killed by a thief on bail whom he had refused to acquit the day before. Ironically, this petty criminal was never pardoned and died in gaol – not because he had killed a judge but because he had assassinated the Great Caturla.
Mme Alonso had been a prima ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre since its inception in the early Forties. When she decided to come back to Cuba and form a ballet company she was sponsored by a local brewery and later by the Batista Government, who thought her international star status was good propaganda for Batista, who hated the ballet. Later she was adopted by the Revolution as our dancing daughter. She has indeed been around a lot and is still shuffling along at 70. Of all the artists mentioned above, she is the only one who was trained in the United States and belonged to the American school of dancing. Today her corps de ballet dances à la Russe – in opposite steps to their prima ballerina assoluta.
You cannot call Francis Picabia or Anaïs Nin Cuban. They merely happened to have been born on the island, but were later formed in France, where they made their reputation – whatever that is. They were as Cuban as Jose Maria de Heredia, who at the turn of the century dreamt of the coral reefs and azure seas and verdant hills he saw in his native Santiago de Cuba – but wrote of them in French Alexandrines in Paris. Or Italo Calvino, born in a village near Havana but raised in Rome. But there have been some important artists born in Cuba who stayed in the country, like those painters who belonged to the Cuban school of painting of the Forties and whose works can be seen in museums all over the world. One of these painters was Fidelio Ponce de Leon. He claimed to have been a descendant of the Spanish conquistador who discovered Florida by chance when he was looking for the Fountain of Youth. He died an old man at the age of 50 – the painter not the discoverer, dreamers both. One of his best paintings hangs for ever on a wall of a smart, make-believe New York apartment, where it dominates the single set of Hitchcock’s famous thriller Rope. Ponce, who was constantly asking friends and foes alike, ‘Do they really know me in Paris?’ never saw the film. He died, destitute and tubercular, before Rope opened in Havana in 1948.
The most famous Cuban artist ever was, of course, Jose Raul Capablanca, also known as the Chess Machine, considered by many to be the greatest chess-player who ever lived. Born in Havana in the late 19th century he has been buried in Cuba since 1941. Can anybody imagine how the Castro regime would have capitalised on the living legend Capablanca was? Fêted and filmed everywhere, the immortal story of his short, successful life is the stuff of which propaganda is made. Even Che Guevara mourned his death – twenty years later. Twelve facsimiles of Alicia Alonso dancing dozens of demented Coppelias wouldn’t have meant so much to Communist Cuba.
I am not forgetting – how could I? – countless minor poets, bad poets, terrible poets and short-story writers by the dozen who thrived in the tropics with their small talents and enormous egos, opportunists all. It was in 1959, when editing Revolucion (which he founded clandestinely in 1956) that Carlos Franqui, then a revolutionary Cabinet-maker (four or five new ministers owed their jobs to him and not to Fidel Castro), decided that the paper needed a literary supplement. That’s how Lunes was born – a goat child, a devil-goat, a scapegoat finally. A journalist since 1949, a movie critic from 1954 onwards and managing editor of Carteles, the second most popular weekly in Cuba and the Caribbean, I was appointed editor of Lunes. It would prove an almost fatal mistake for everyone involved.
Revolucion had been the voice from the underground of the 26th of July Movement, the organisation which did more to put Fidel Castro in power than the puny guerrilla he has made everybody believe did the job. Above ground now, Revolucion became a very powerful newspaper indeed, the first in Cuba and the only one that had access to the innermost recesses of power in the Government and in Cuban political life in general. Moreover, it had, for Cuba – at the time a country of some seven million people – an enormous circulation, Lunes profited from all this and became the first literary magazine in Latin America or Spain to boast of a circulation of almost 200,000 copies. Lunes had a lot of pull – and not merely literary punch.
My first mistake as an editor was to try and clean out the Cuban literary stables by sweeping the house of words with a political broom. That’s called an inquisition, and it can induce writer’s block by terror. The magazine, with the heavy weight of the Revolution and the Government behind it plus the 26th of July Movement’s political prestige, literally blasted many writers into submission – or oblivion. We had the Surrealist credo as our catechism and Trotskyite politics as our aesthetics, mixed like bad metaphors – or heady drinks. From this position of maximum strength, we proceeded to annihilate respected writers of the past, like Lezama Lima, simply because he dared to combine in his poems the anachronistic ideologies of Gongora and Mallarmé, now joined in Havana to produce disjointed verse of a magnificently obscure Catholicism. We actually tried to assassinate Lezama’s character. There were other, older casualties, like the Spanish dentist who wanted to be a Dantist and whose recently published novel was pulled from its Asturian roots, with no laughing-gas. At the same time, the magazine exalted Virgilio Pinera, a man of Lezama’s generation, to the position of a Virgil out of double hell. He who had always been a pariah in his own country, a novelist who was terribly poor, almost destitute, became our favourite father-figure, the house-writer. Another mistake. Besides being an excellent short-story writer anthologised by Borges, a playwright of genius (he penned a play after the fashion of the theatre of the absurd when Ionesco hadn’t yet staged The Bald Prima Donna and long before Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot) and a pleasant poet, Virgilio had a particular fault. As with San Andreas, it was a very visible one. Virgilio, like his Roman counterpart, was a pederast. Perhaps the epitome of the literary queen, a Cuban Cocteau known not for his plays but for his playmates. That was food for gossip in Paris, but this was revolutionary Havana and there was no room left for queens in a revolution. Instead of shouting ‘Off with his head!’, all Cuban queens ended up with no head, not even their own, especially not their own.
Third original sin in a row: there were too many talented people grouped around Lunes, each one supporting the Revolution in their fashion. Baragano, the Surrealist poet who came back from his exile in Paris where he was befriended by André Breton himself, who hated Sunday painters and minor poets, was pet poet and pet pest on the magazine. Heber to Padilla, born in the same town as Baragano (the funnily-named Puerta de Golpe in Cuban tobacco country: Puerta de Golpe literally means, as if Larry Grayson had named it, ‘Shut the Door’), came from exile in the Berlitz Academy in New York, and cultivated an easygoing but mordant style of verse. Padilla was a powerful poet in Lunes. Both Baragano and Padilla, pugnacious poets, were out to get the older generation, many of them civil servants from Batista times and even before, as was the case with Lezama. Calvert Casey, who, in spite of his name and having been born in Baltimore, was not only a Cuban but a true habanero, delicate and precise in the exquisite concealments of his homosexual prose, though he had a mulatto lover, openly a couple. Anton Arrufat was a disciple of Pinera – and not only in playwriting. Pablo Armando Fernandez, a minor poet but an accomplished diplomat capable of extricating the magazine from any critical jam. He was our pint-size Sebastian, a moving target. He is still in Cuba, still a diplomat but no longer a poet, minor or otherwise. He is professionally dedicated to being host to political tourists from the United States, where he lived in a closet in Queens, before returning to Cuba, already married, in 1959. Like Padilla and Hurtado, I convinced Pablo to come back to Cuba from the States. Oscar Hurtado, also an economic exile in New York, a dear giant of a man, like the family elephant, but an incredible shrinking poet, inimical to Lezama and his Origines group, who died not only unrecognised but unrecognising in an asylum, suffering silently and alone from a varicose brain. And, never allowed to leave the boat when it was listing (Lunes was on all the lists of the security service, the counter-espionage service and the police), there was I, who, though an inveterate smoker, couldn’t share the peace pipe because I smoked cigars only then. The magazine, as you can see, was manned by a manic crew of pederasts (wait and you’ll see why this fact of life became crucial to our demise), the happy few, as Che Guevara labelled us, who were not real revolutionaries, with a skipper who, no doubt due to myopia, saw the danger signals very, very late. Too late, in fact. He discovered that we had no true power when we hit what seemed a mere sectarian wave but was the tip of the totalitarian iceberg. Lunes should have been called the Titanic, for very soon we were in deep, cold waters. Before sinking, I saw clearly that we had tried to make the Revolution readable, therefore livable. Both tasks proved utterly impossible.
In its heyday, however, Lunes expanded quickly. Soon we had branched out into a publishing house (Ediciones Erre), whose first published book was Poesia, Revolucion del Ser (‘Poetry, Being’s Revolution’, though, only a few months earlier, its author, Jose Baragano, still the Paris Surrealist, had titled it Being is Nothingness). This collection of poems was, in 1960, a rehashing of all the Surreal formulas of the preceding twenty years, but now sang a song to the Revolution and to the Heideggerian being for death. Though now, instead of nothingness, it offered everythingness. Opportunism, thy name is poetry. Then we had an hour, at peak time, on television, second channel to the left. We formed a record company, called Sonido Erre, or Sound R, R for Revolution. Our publishing venture – quite successful, by the way – was at the time the only independent publishing house left in Cuba. All the rest had already been nationalised. But it was no privilege, this solitary printing-press under private ownership. It was, in fact, as ominous as a smoke signal in Apache territory. It was then that I committed a mistake which proved to be a blessing in disguise. I helped Saba, my brother, with the completion of a documentary he was making with the cinematographer Orlando Jimenez – at the time the youngest photographer in Cuba, capable of handling a Cinemascope camera when he was 14, quite a film feat. The film was to be called PM, for obvious reasons. As its title suggests, it would be a view of Havana after dark: the camera peeping into the small cafés and bars and dives that were left, patronised by ordinary people, the common Cuban – workers, loafers, dancers of all sexes and races – having a last time before the night closed in. I liked the idea, for the so-called free cinema, invented in England, was the latest thing in movies at the time and practically unknown in Cuba. I gave them the money to edit the documentary, print two or three copies and design the titles. All this was done outside the Film Institute – that is, officialdom – in our TV channel labs, but quite openly. For its money, Lunes got the exclusive rights to show the picture on its programme, as soon as it was ready. We showed it without any problems at all. There was no censorship for us on television. As in the magazine, we were our own boss. After all, we were the offspring of Revolucion, the newspaper of the Revolution, the voice of the people. We were omnipotent, sort of.
But, naturally, a spectacle needs spectators, and the film-makers wanted to show their little night film of music to a live audience. There were still two or three cinema theatres not yet nationalised in Old Havana, and one of them specialised in documentaries. The owner agreed to run the film: the next step was to obtain permission from the Comision Revisora to show the picture in public. The Comision Revisora was the same censorship office as in Batista’s time and further back – from headquarters you could see The Great Train Robbery and Edison’s The Kiss. In the past, what the censorship office did was to cut a bit of bare ass here or tit there in French films which were not even soft porn but were treated then as the hardest core. But, now, the Comision Revisora was under the control of the Film Institute, which is nothing like the British Film Institute but a state monopoly which controls everything that has to do with films, from making pictures to importing, distributing and exhibiting them. The Cuban Film Institute owns all the theatres, drive-ins and movie-houses in Cuba – and you must go to them even to get a roll of film for a snapshot camera. On top of that, they had a longstanding feud with Lunes, which they labelled as decadent, bourgeois, avant-gardist and, the worst epithet in the Communist name-calling catalogue, cosmopolitist. In turn, we saw them as despicable bureaucrats, a bunch of ignoramuses with artistically reactionary ideas and no taste at all. The director of the Film Institute, Alfredo Guevara (no relation to Che Guevara), was the worst Communist commissar to deal with films this side of Stalin’s Shumyatsky. To take PM to the Film Institute for approval was a naive and daring thing to do – like Little Red Riding Hood testing the wolf’s teeth. But, you see, it simply had to be done. Some time later, Revolucion was going to be killed and reborn under the name of Granma – and it has indeed shown big bad teeth since then. Nevertheless, we didn’t expect such a brutal bite. The Comision Revisora not only refused to give any seal of approval to PM, but banned the film, which was accused of being counter-revolutionary and dangerous rubbish and licentious and lewd. Furthermore, they seized the copy sent for censorship.
This was more than we could stomach, even if there was to be a purge at the end of it. We had been expecting a showdown with the Film Institute. It was to become a shoot-out. The banning of PM occurred in June 1961, in what could be termed a period between two wars. In April that year the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. All the invaders had been impressively routed in less than 48 hours and, rather hastily, Fidel Castro had declared Cuba a socialist republic, though the country would be neither. The times were auspicious for the Communist Party (now merged with the remnants of the 26th of July Movement and the ghost of the Revolutionary Directory into one single party called ORI), so much so that its cultural committee had decided to stage a writers’ congress in Havana and to invite a few foreign writers of note, such as Nathalie Sarraute, who were sympathisers of the Revolution but not necessarily Communists. In the meantime, in some kind of political montage (hooves of Klansmen’s horses galloping, then cut to damsel in distress, then cut to threatening blackamoor), Lunes was seen busily collecting signatures to protest about the sequestering of PM, the little night film. This was going to have wider implications, with the Communist congress about to take place.
When they saw us coming and knew we meant business the Cultural Committee of the Party panicked. They asked us please not to turn the statement against the Film Institute into a manifesto by making it public. In turn, they promised to postpone their congress and wash our dirty linen outdoors by orchestrating a meeting of all the factions concerned with Fidel Castro and almost the entire Government. It was a sneaky ambush, the varmints. They invited all the intellectuals involved – and then some. The meetings took place every Friday for three consecutive weeks and were held in the spacious hall of the National Library, a cultural palace built by Batista but claimed by the Revolution. The day of the first meeting came like doom. On the rostrum were Fidel Castro, President Dorticos (since deposed), the Minister of Education, his wife Haydée Santamaria, head of the Casa de las Americas (later a suicide), Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, then an influential Communist leader, now the third man from Moscow in Havana, his former wife Edith Garcia Buchaca (then the head of the Communist cultural apparat, who later lived under house arrest for 15 years), Vicentina Antuna, boss of the Cultural Council under the political spell of Buchaca, Alfredo Guevara, no Che Guevara but a tropical Macchiavelli giving advice not only to the Prince but also to the King. Then came the scapegoats, lambs feeding with lions: Carlos Franqui, editor of Revolucion, and I, as editor of Lunes.
President Dorticos, who thought then he was the president, declared the meetings open. The meetings that were to become proceedings of a trial. He announced, with the voice of the commodore of a yacht club which he had been, that everybody could speak his mind freely. Anybody could have their say now. Speak up comrades. Nobody did. We were all paralysed and gagged by such a panoply of political power. Suddenly, out of the red, a timid man with mousy hair, frightened voice and shy manners, slightly suspect because he looked frankly queer in spite of his efforts to appear manly, said that he wanted to speak. It was Virgilio Pinera. He confessed to being terribly frightened. He didn’t know why or of what, but he was really frightened, almost on the verge of panic. Then he added: ‘I think it has to do with all this.’ It seemed that he included the Revolution in his fear, though apparently he meant only the crowd of so many so-called intellectuals. But perhaps he was alluding to the life of a writer in a Communist country, a fear called Stalin, a fear called Castro. We’ll never know, for Virgilio didn’t say any more and meekly went back to his seat. Nobody was allowed to speak from his own seat: to have your say, as President Dorticos boomed his order, you had to stand in front of a microphone on a proscenium, facing the audience but taking good care that you didn’t turn your back on Castro. Political distortions meant physical contortions. Everybody talked, even those who didn’t know how, like Calvert Casey, a compulsive stammerer.
Suddenly, it became evident to everyone (defendants, prosecutor, jury, judge and witnesses) that this was a show trial held in private: it was not only PM but Lunes (and everything it stood for in Cuban culture) that was in the dock. Kafka in Cuba, Prague in Havana. Most of the people who took the stand were sworn enemies of the magazine – and some had reason to be. Like the fat woman who sent in some sonnets that were published in the magazine with the title: ‘From the Fat Lady of the Sonnets’. The pained dentist who thought he was Dante al dente complained bitterly. And not only complained, but cried and prayed (he was a Catholic convert) and called us chartered murderers who assassinated writers as if they were so many characters. We were the hit-and-run men of culture. The Marxian Mafia? It was an impassioned though toothless speech – and he got what he wanted all along: a job as ambassador to the Vatican as a consolation prize. There were other witnesses, all for the prosecution, and a masked witness took off his mask for everyone to see his face: Baragano, the Surrealist poet who instigated all the attacks against Lezama and his disciples, had turned on us! There was an expected enemy, though: Guevara, by now a guerrilla speaker who couldn’t say his r’s, delivered a blow below the belt at both Revolucion and Lunes. Before I was an Infante terrible, now I was a babe in the wood. Fidel Castro himself talked to us. Characteristically, he had the last word. Getting rid first of the ever-present Browning 9mm fastened to his belt – making true a metaphor by Goebbels: ‘Every time I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol’ – Castro delivered one of his most famous speeches, famous not for being eight hours long, but for being brief and to the point for the first time since he became Cuba’s Prime Minister. His deposition is now called ‘Words to the Intellectuals’, and it ends with a résumé which Castroites everywhere claim to be a model of revolutionary rhetoric but which is really a Stalinist credo: ‘Within the Revolution, everything,’ he thundered like a thousand Zeuses. ‘Against the Revolution, nothing!’ Everybody applauded, some in good faith. Though not I. I had to applaud even when I knew full well what he meant by his slogan. It had been the case of a sentence without a verdict, through-the-looking-glass justice.
The outcome of the trial was that the Film Institute gave back the seized copy of PM to the directors, but the film remained censored. Lunes was banned, too, and barely three months later ceased appearing. There was an official explanation for the stay of execution: an acute shortage of newsprint – a likely story. Three more literary publications saw daylight after the meetings: Union Review, a monthly from the Writers’ Union, dedicated to high Communist culture; Gaceta de Cuba, a weekly published by the Writers’ Union that resembled Lunes like Cain resembled Abel; and an illustrated magazine issued by the Council for Culture that looked like a tattered Tatler. Three red reviews alt in a row. The Communists had their congress (why do they need congresses so much? Is it a fixation or a fix?) with foreign writers as guests. In a typical gambit I was made one of the seven vice-presidents of the newly-formed Writers’ Union, so I wouldn’t complain. I didn’t. I never intended to. You see, I had been in the Soviet Union the year before and found out what happened to all the writers who dared displease Stalin, even sotto voce. A tropical version of Stalin, even behind beards, could be tropically lethal.
It was then that Virgilio Pinera came back from Brussels via Prague and missed kissing Cuban soil by about three feet. Some hubris, Early one morning, on militia duty at the gates of Revolucion, I had a phone call from him. I was surprised at first, then I was astounded. Virgilio was calling me from the local gaol at the beach where he lived. He told me he had been arrested on charges of being a passive P. ‘But a capital P, you know.’ I understood: Virgilio meant P, not for Pinera or for poet, but for Pederast. The night before there had been some sort of carnal Kristalnacht in Havana. A special branch of the police, called the Social Scum Squad, arrested on sight everybody walking the streets at night in Old Havana who looked to the naked eye like a prostitute, a pimp or a pederast. This police operation was called the Night of the Three Ps. But at the time Virgilio was miles away, in bed (he believed it was healthy to go to bed early and to rise early), in the shack he christened his big bungalow on the beach. How in hell was Virgilio in gaol?
The explanation lies in an infamous collective illness. The Government had and still has an obsession with queers, queens and kinks – in a word, all kinds of pederast. Five years later, they even built concentration camps for homosexuals, especially those with a cultural bent. In the Congress for Culture and Education of 1971 one of the main resolutions, which sounded more like a resolve, was not to allow homosexuals (now called ‘infirms of a social pathology’) to occupy positions from which they could pervert Cuban youth. (What about Cuban children?) They should have no prominent place in cultural circles or artistic activities, nor represent the Revolution abroad. (That was when Alicia Alonso’s male corps de ballet took a step, a grand jeté from Prague to Paris.) It was Fidel Castro himself who closed the Congress with those words.
Why this ‘pathological’ aberration? Fidel Castro is, as gays in the United States like to say with terrible grammar, mucho macho. On the other hand, Che Guevara considered homosexuals to be sick people who must give way to the politically healthy ‘new man’ made by Communist Cuba. There are multiple levels of irony here. The other Guevara, Alfredo, was a notorious fag, protected by Fidel’s own brother, Raul Castro. Che Guevara ended up as the name of a boutique in Kensington that folded years later. New Man is a brand of jeans made for boys and girls alike, while narrow trousers were prohibited wear in public in Cuba. A Castro convertible in New York is not a sofa-bed as advertised, but a man who goes either way – what Gore Vidal now calls a bisexual. A final irony is that the heart of the homosexual world is in San Francisco and is called Castro Street. Gay, yes, but with a vengeance.
Pinera the Pederast got out of gaol, thanks to the intervention of Edith Buchaca, not out of pity but from political considerations. She knew the trouble a homosexual writer in gaol can make. She had read Oscar Wilde and she remembered the lines:
In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame.
She mispronounced ‘Reading’, but knew the ballad by heart. After the closure of Lunes, ‘that pit of shame’, most of the homosexuals on its payroll (Calvert Casey, Anton Arrufat and Pablo Armando Fernandez, my managing editor) went to work for Casa de Las Americas under Haydée Santamaria. This curiously contrary woman (whose personal and political contradictions led her to commit suicide last year) was a true fidelista. She was the only woman to take part in the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, where both her brother and his fiancée died after being tortured. She was forced to witness the torture. She had been with Castro’s guerrillas in the mountains since 1956. But she had a ‘weakness for culture’, as she explained, while admitting that she was just an ignorant peasant woman. The first claim, being ignorant, was true, but not the second. She was a girl from a well-to-do family of the provincial bourgeoisie, which was not richer but more influential locally than its Havana counterpart. The rich in Cuban provinces elected mayors, selected high-society members and ran the local high schools. In tobacco country they were even more powerful – but they could be illiterate. Once she told me, not in the strictest confidence: ‘What a coarse peasant ignorant woman I am! I always thought that Marx and Engels were a single philosopher. You know, like Ortega y Gasset.’ More relevant, however, were Haydée Santamaria’s revelations when she came back from her first trip to Russia and confided radiantly: ‘I met Ekaterina Furtseva in Moscow. You know, the Minister for Culture. A beautiful woman!’ – which she was – ‘and so kind’, which she wasn’t, Old Steelsmile. ‘You know what she did? Minister Furtseva explained to me, woman to woman or, rather, comrade to comrade, what happened to those writers and artists who died under Stalin – and why they simply had to die. They were not killed because they were hermetic poets, bourgeois novelists and abstract painters. Actually, they had to be shot because they were Nazi spies, not artists. Would you believe it? Hitler’s agents all of them! They had to be exterminated. Do you understand?’ I understood. Ah, what a naive and dangerous revolutionary woman she was! A gust of Russian cold crept up my spine.
Nevertheless, she allowed Arrufat to transform the Revista Casa into the best literary review in Latin America since Sur, edited by Victoria Ocampo and Borges. Until Anton ran into trouble for publishing a pederast poem by Jose Triana, a young playwright who has recently taken up exile in France incognito. The poem spoke obscurely of some innocent, not indecent, homosexual practices, like daubing themselves with KY, an emollient used for love-making, and asking naively how many flavours you could get abroad and which is the Flavour of the Month? Haydée Santamaria didn’t know a thing about homosexual love – for her, heterosexuality and the missionary position were what the Revolution ordered. But she had to dismiss Arrufat on the spot because an envious poetaster, Roberto Retamar, formerly cultural attaché in Paris, personally informed President Dorticos of Arrufat’s heinous crime against nature and the revolutionary people of Cuba. Arrufat was sacked and Retamar rewarded, as in any Soviet socialist realist novel, with the editorship of Revista Casa. Arrufat was even accused of the grave mistake of inviting Allen Ginsberg to Cuba. Ginsberg was a Communist from New York, but, being an Ur-gay, he was seen as less than pink in Havana. Further-more, while in Cuba, he made some scandalous statements, such as claiming that Fidel Castro, that stallion (Castro’s nickname in Cuba is El Caballo, the horse), that stalwart revolutionary hero, must, like most men, have been a homosexual some time in his long life. But the worst he did was to say in public that he found Che Guevara such a dish that he would like to go to bed with him, the sooner the better. Enough is more than enough in Castro’s Cuba, and Ginsberg was held incommunicado in his hotel. Next morning he was put on a plane and sent packing to Prague, where he could find himself a Czech mate.
Meanwhile, in another consolation prize-giving (the closure of Lunes had left me without a job, vice-president of the Writer’s Union or not), I was appointed cultural attaché in Brussels, just on the other side of the moon as seen from Havana, that dark secluded place Virgilio had come from. It was there that I found out all about the shenanigans of Retamar and the expelling of Arrufat from his haven by Haydée. I knew of the existence of UMAP, concentration camps behind their camouflaging acronyms: Units for Military Help to Agricultural Production. Apparently, the final solution for the homosexual population explosion was the sugar-cane plantation. As Joseph Tura would have put it: Concentration camps for queers: we do the concentrating and they do the camping.’ Even poor, peaceful Calvert Casey got into trouble when he dared tell a Mexican writer of the Left, just one more political tourist, that there were camps for homosexuals all over Cuba, and they were not exactly summer camps. This was a carefully guarded secret which Calvert knew about through the gay grapevine. Next morning, as in a guilty hangover, the Mexican tipped off Haydée Santamaria that she had counter-revolutionaries in her house, who told tales, very dangerous lies for Casa de las Americas. He whispered a gringo name, Casey. Calvert was severely reprimanded and demoted, but never sacked.
When I came back to Cuba for my mother’s funeral, Havana seemed like the wrong side of hell. Virgilio, more than a guide to Avernus, looked as if he was playing the shivering old maid in one of his plays of the absurd, a queen playing canasta all the time. Lezama was secretly embroidering his Paradiso in the dark every night, telling nobody, not even his wife, in the morning: always cunning, being both Ulysses and Penelope. Huge Hurtado was now more shrunk than small Virgilio with his fear of breathing. Only Arrufat, impelled to follow in the wake of an alien, an Allen Ginsberg he never really met, wanted to take a band of gay desperados with buntings and streamers and screamers to shout out slogans before the Presidential Palace, the place where Dorticos lived. This was as suicidal as the kamikaze attack on the Palace, where Batista hid in 1957. To dissuade him from such follies, Virgilio had to tell him stories about what it was like to be a pederast writer, formerly from Revolucion, now in gaol: ‘Counter-revolutionary thugs would simply tear you apart, child. They’ll have you drawn and quartered for a cause that has ceased to exist years ago.’ Arrufat finally saw the light (Virgilio was his master) and, instead of parading in front of the Palace, shut himself up in his room to write a play. It was based on The Seven against Thebes, with a Zeus who wore a black beard and thundered from Mount Olympus, in Spanish, for hours on end. Still eager to provoke, he wanted to call the play ‘Death to the Infidel’. Virgilio then quoted the other Virgil: ‘Facilis descensus Averni.’ With crocodile tears, I decided to leave Cuba. I had seen and been heard long enough and had made my mind up. I didn’t tell anybody I was leaving for good, but I did.
Enter Padilla laughing. My novel Three Trapped Tigers had won Spain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Biblioteca Breve Award, in 1965. The runner-up was The Passion of Urbino, by Lisandro Otero, who had been my classmate at the School of Journalism then: he was a staunch anti-Communist but he had become a paunchy bureaucrat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Otero was a sometime friend of Padilla’s, who used to call him La Belle Otero and other names and was always pretending that he lusted after Otero’s wife, a Cuban ivory beauty, who had belonged to Havana high society and was now Haydée Santamaria’s right arm at the Casa, but still a beauty. She knew how to spell Engels and could tell Karl from Groucho, gesturing amiably with her long white hands and even longer nails. She had exquisite manners too. We could all see what Lisandro saw in her: but what could she see in Ugly Otero? asked Padilla. Pasion de Urbino was published in Havana in 1967, and as Otero was such a big shot now at El Caiman Barbudo, Cuba’s echo to the Russian Krokodil, they asked for reviews, or rather favourable opinions, from all and sundry. Padilla sent his – which was a vicious panning of Otero’s novel and a paean to mine, just published in Spain after having a spot of bother with the Spanish censors. ‘Scandal!’ ‘Slander’ they cried at El Caiman Barbudo, which literally means ‘The Bearded Crocodile’. Daggers flew from the bushy beard of the Communist cayman. Padilla had dared to praise a bad book by a counter-revolutionary living in exile in London, while failing to see the enormous merits of the excellent novel by Comrade Otero, a revolutionary living in Cuba – as he did when Batista was in power (my comment). The Padilla Affair had its roots in Communist dialectics: he who does not praise a Party member is an enemy of the Party. But Padilla, though not a Surrealist, sees the poet as a literary agent provocateur, his words a concealed weapon, wearing cloak and dagger. He never recanted. His enemies never relented, and in a Communist country, which lives and dies by the book, a war of words is considered warfare by other means. Silence is the last refuge of the class enemy and scepticism a dangerous deviation to the Right. Silence, rather than acquiescence, was what saved Boris Pasternak. Being outspoken or indiscreet, more than being relevant, was what lost Osip Mandelstam. Padilla, who had lived in Moscow, chose to be both poets at the same time. He could write a poem deriding Fidel Castro and keep it quiet, playing a safe Mandelstam, and, like Pasternak with Stalin, he would talk with Fidel Castro on the phone as I’enfant prodigue of Cuban letters, a wayward child of the Revolution who could always be chastised and mend his ways – the Prime Minister playing the role of Cuban Sugar Daddy.
Padilla was not Pasternak and Fidel Castro was not Stalin: the poet became a case – known in Cuba and all over the Spanish-speaking world and beyond as the ‘Padilla Case’. But Padilla was not going to be arrested by Scotland Yard and tried at the Old Bailey. The totalitarian mind never bothers with what it calls bourgeois justice: Fidel Castro was a lawyer by training, and so was Dr Goebbels. In 1968 Padilla won a prize for poetry in a contest sponsored by the Writers’ Union in Havana and awarded by an international jury. Among the jurors was J.M. Cohen, a British critic, translator and anthologist of Spanish literature, then vaguely connected with the Cuban cultural milieu. The title of Padilla’s book was Out of the Game, and this very name was anathema to some members of the Writers’ Union, especially its president, the old Communist poet Nicolas Guillen, who tried to put pressure on the jury to reverse their judgment. According to the dicta of the Writers’ Union, Padilla’s poems were flagrantly counter-revolutionary. But were they? The poem that gave the collection its title was dedicated to Yannis Ritsos, a Greek Communist poet, and began like this:
Dismiss the poet!
He has nothing to do.
He doesn’t play the game.
He isn’t enthusiastic.
His message is muddled.
Doesn’t even think about miracles,
He meditates all day.
He always finds something to complain about.
Innocent enough lyrics, and the music was always by Theodorakis. On top of that, Ritsos had been imprisoned in 1967 by the Greek military junta. Obviously, this couldn’t happen here. Other poems were even less critical (if you can call the preceding lines critical). Perhaps the most daring poem was ‘To Write in the Scrapbook of a Tyrant’:
Protect yourself from those who vacillate,
because one day they will know what they don’t want
Protect yourself from those who mumble,
because one day they shall find their strong voice.
Protect yourself from the timid and the frightened,
because one day they will not rise when you enter.
Is this the poetry that will launch an American invasion? Not bloody likely. At the time, in the frightful Spanish-speaking world of juntas and generals, in Franco’s Spain, Blas de Otero was writing and publishing openly Communist poetry and getting away with it. He died in Spain. Nicanor Parra, in Pinochet’s Chile, had been cryptically critical and nothing ever happened to him. He still lives in Chile. In Mexico, Octavio Paz, a strong voice for strong words, had resigned as ambassador to India as a gesture against the Tlatelolco Square massacre ordered by his President, but it was his own conscience that forced him to quit. He has always lived in Mexico. Meanwhile, in Communist Cuba in April 1971, Heberto Padilla was arrested à la Russe: in his house, early in the morning, stealthily but, a Cuban touch, having been given a quiet alarum by members of his block’s Committee for the Defence of the Revolution.[*] Padilla remained barely a month in gaol, but this time, as didn’t happen with the closure of Lunes, which was very cleverly staged, there was an international uproar. The mail carried private communiqués for discreet official eyes only and an open letter was sent to Fidel Castro himself. The missive from former friends was considered by the Cuban PM as an enemy missile. It was signed, surprisingly enough, by such leftist writers and sponsors of the Revolution as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, ltalo Calvino, Marguerite Duras, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Juan Goytisolo, André Pierre de Mandiargues, Alain Jouffroy, Joyce Mansour, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz and some others who couldn’t even pronounce the name of Padilla correctly, much less read his poems. It was a case of tit for tat. The European and Latin American intellectuals had been disillusioned with the Cuban Revolution for quite a while, and Fidel Castro was fed up with what he considered an intrusion into his personal domain. The truth is that the foreign writers and the Cuban dictator were no longer useful to each other.
For a moment, though, it looked as if the poet’s head was about to roll. But Fidel Castro is a cunning version of Stalin, and Padilla, who wrote a poem about the tongue of the poet being requisitioned by the state, recanted and was released, though not before he had made a viva voce confession at the Writers’ Union main lecture-hall. The trial of Lunes had been in camera and its verdict private. Now we had, not a quiet show trial, but a public confession that was quite a show. Padilla, not reading from any script but obviously following a scenario, in a very Orthodox Russian and un-Cuban Catholic way, confessed to all kinds of literary and political crimes, and even crimes against the state and the people of Cuba. He also named a few accomplices, among them the august, orotund figure of Lezama Lima, conspicuous that evening not only because he was publicly called a subversive poet but also because he was the second Cuban literary figure to be absent from the nicely set-up cultural soirée, obviously staged by State Security. The other absentee was also significant, It was the President of the Writers’ Union, Nicolas Guillen, who conveniently pleaded illness.
After the Soviet-style confession – ‘I know that my experience, comrades, is going to be an example. It must serve as an example for others’ – there was an even more vehement and indignant letter to Castro, signed by yet more writers on the Left, like Nathalie Sarraute and Susan Sontag. The signatories were ashamed and angry at the outrage of a poet confessing to imaginary political crimes. They talked of the despicable indignity meted out to Padilla. They didn’t, of course, say how many unknown workers and anonymous peasants had been forced to do the same all over Cuba in the past (since the inception of the Revolution, in fact) and how many more will one day find, in corpore, that Padilla’s public recanting was no cruel and unusual punishment but a confession devoutly to be wished.
In Communist countries you have, as Milozc once said, the captive mind. But what about the captive body? Let me speak now of sadder, wiser men, like Valladares and Cuadra, poets in prison, captive minds in captive bodies. Armando Valladares, the poet in a wheelchair as he has been called in France, was condemned to 30 years in gaol in the early Sixties, when he was barely 20. In prison, as a result of ill-treatment and his various hunger strikes in protest against ill-treatment, he became an invalid. (By the way, many political prisoners have died in prison in Cuba, after suicidal hunger strikes directed at atrocious prison conditions. Not a single one of those who have died is known to the outside world, not even Jose Luis Boitel, the former Castroite student leader. International press agencies and the big newspapers of the Western world have not printed a single news item about those men: it is a lot easier to write interminably about Bobby Sands.) Angel Cuadra was sent to prison in 1960 as a convicted counter-revolutionary. He was released in 1976 and arrested again in 1977, without ever being allowed to leave the country. The second time round his crime was to have written poems about his miserable life and sent them abroad to be published. In England, nobody, except those in Amnesty, knows about these exotic people and their pathetic rather than poetic plight. They have suffered in Cuban gaols and in the process have learnt how to write poetry in silence. Their minds are not captive any more, only their voices.
After Padilla confessed crimes that were as ludicrous as confessing to setting the Reichstag on fire, blowing up the battleship Maine in Havana harbour and masterminding the Gunpowder Plot, a season of calm came over the island. All was quiet on the Cuban cultural front – for a while. Lezama Lima, who couldn’t publish anything after being implicated by Padilla, died. Death came to him as a Gatholic. He died in obscurity, unrecognised in a public ward at the old hospital which before the Revolution was only for the destitute. The ward was curiously named Sala Borges. After Lezama’s death, nothing was said about him for a while. Later, the state-owned National Printing Press published a prose poem by him about a dead poet called Licario, I’Icare, Icarus, the enraptured flyer who is killed by his own poetic flight. It was full circle for Jose Lezama Lima: from vanity publishing to vanishing print.
Then came Reinaldo Arenas, who looked a little bit like Lezama and a little bit like Padilla with a red head. He has read enough books to be able to spell trouble. Arenas (whose name means sands) was the only Cuban novelist who could be called a child of the Revolution: a poor peasant from Oriente province, now living in Havana. It was there that he published his first novel, with too much Faulkner in it but a truly remarkable first novel. Being a peasant (remember, this was supposed to be a peasant guerrilla revolution), he was adopted by the Writers’ Union as the great red hope of the revolutionary novel. Not for him the Catholic erudition of Lezama or the degenerate decadence of Pinera’s cadences or the cosmopolitan vices of a novelist exiled in Paris like Severo Sarduy, also young, also brilliant. But Arenas had, as they say in Cuba, un defecto, which sounds almost exactly like ‘disaffect’ in Spanish. He was a homosexual – and a very obvious one, like a Havana loca, a mad girl. He didn’t do anything to suppress or even to hide it. He belonged to the younger generation of homosexuals which produced the gay movement. Not that the Writers’ Union didn’t try to reform Arenas. They even proposed to him that he should marry, settle down into a Revolutionary household – and he would be left alone. They had successfully experimented with several actors who only liked to play the queen. This was a form of therapy closer to Pavlov than to Freud, more Russian than Viennese: a cure by marriage. But Arenas was a peasant and, like peasants everywhere, a stubborn man. He refused to comply, and went on with his gay ways. But then he wrote a second novel, the brilliant, original and successful Hallucination.
Suddenly, Arenas was gay but hot. Not in donkey’s years had a young Cuban novelist still living on the island had such an international success, for him a succès de folle. It was, of course, the golden ass again. After his novel had been rejected by the Writers’ Union, incompetent literarily but very competent politically, Arenas had sent the manuscript abroad – without consulting the Writers’ Union, a publisher who, even when rejecting a book for ever, wants to know what happens next. Above all, after rejecting a book. Especially a book about a priest persecuted by tyranny. The priest was Mexican, tyranny universal. What came next to Arenas was not success but sudden recognition, disguised as a hideous nightmare. He lost his job at the National Library, a very minor post, he couldn’t receive guests from abroad any more and he was carefully surveyed by State Security, a very literary bunch of cops. Finally, he was thrown in gaol, accused of corrupting a minor. At his trial, the corpus delicti was a hefty man of 25 with a fully grown beard and much taller than Arenas. (Arenas insists to this day that his partner was a Castro look-alike.) Be that as it may. Arenas was found guilty and sentenced to four years in gaol, for crimes against nature and against man. He served only one year, but in the Morro dungeons, a fortress that had not been in use as a prison since the English seized Havana in 1762! He survived his imprisonment for the same reason that he was in prison: he was a stubborn peasant.
When he was finally freed, 40 pounds thinner, he tried to leave Cuba come hell and high water. A pen pal from Paris sent him a rubber boat in the diplomatic pouch of a daring diplomat. They all belonged to the gay network – except the rubber boat. The inflatable raft worked perfectly on the beach when Arenas tried it one night – but once in the ocean its Mediterranean manufacture couldn’t cope with the pull of the Gulf Stream and split open. Arenas had to swim all the way back from the Stream through the shark-infested sea. Then he tried to swim (I could never find out how a peasant boy from the sticks became such an excellent swimmer in high water) across the Guantanamo Bay to reach the American Naval base at Caimanera, two miles away, a sanctuary for many lucky Cubans. Death or cruel punishment met those who couldn’t make it: the whole no-man’s-land, like the border between East Germany and West Germany, is jammed with self-manned machine-guns, touch-mines and electric traps, all triggered by electronic devices. Luckily, his escape intent was a non-event. Arenas was able to leave the lethal zone and steal himself back to Cuban soil – and the prospect of gaol again. Being fearful of coming back to Havana, he hid in Lenin Park, which is a wooded area outside the city limits. He stayed there for months, hidden in the heavily-guarded woods, Lenin a lenitive and a threat at the same time. Fortunately, he had a couple of faithful friends: twins so queenly and gentle that he called them the Bronté Sisters – Bronté with an accent aigu over the ‘e’. It was thanks to them that he was able to survive at all and, a greater feat, to return to his flat undetected. His flat was actually a small room in an ancient and crumbling colonial hotel in Old Havana. He was there writing (and hiding what he wrote from the State Security’s avid readers) when the assault on the Peruvian Embassy began. Some desperate Cubans took refuge there one day, including Arenas’s missing lover. Three days later there were 11,000 people seeking asylum in the embassy compound, a feat without precedent in the history of diplomacy – not even the 55 days in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion could be compared with this. Arenas thought of seeking sanctuary too, but he told himself that his streak of bad luck would abort his mission before he attempted it.
Then came the boats from Miami, the Freedom Flotilla, to the rescue in the last reel, and with them the boat people trying to leave Cuba on anything that floated. Is this the island that Columbus once called Paradise Green? The Government, to justify their contention that only Social scum’ had sought asylum at the Peruvian Embassy, forcibly filled the privately-hired boats from Florida with all kinds of criminals, taken out of gaol, picked up on the streets of Havana and released from insane asylums. One day a delegate from the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution on the street where Arenas lived came to knock on his door, which was open anyway to exorcise the heat and snoopers alike. He was officially informed that he had to leave the country immediately, for he had been skimmed as scum – as it were, la crème de la crème of socialist degeneracy. For Arenas, it was a heaven-sent insult. He got dressed in a jiffy, ready to leave his room and ride down to Mariel, the port of departure for decadence, a Dunkirk for Cubans. Arenas had to wait for 48 long hours at the beach, come shine or come more shine. When his boat finally left, they were lost for two days on the dangerous Gulf Stream waters before they reached Key West, where he was locked in an American internment camp for undesirable aliens. But all this was paradise found for Arenas. Hell was left behind in Mariel, while he waited for his boat to come, fearing the Writers’ Union Reading Committee might know he was leaving, for the vigilante Defence Committee had taken a decision at local level. On the beach, bleached white by the scorching white heat from a torrid sun, there were olive specks. This was not vegetation, but men: out of Doré or Dante, army personnel carrying enormous books in which every man or woman or child about to leave the island was carefully annotated – name, occupation, former address sounding like name, rank and serial number. To Arenas, this monstrous red ledger became a nightmare version of the Doomsday Book. Is this the reward for a writer? It seems to me like the wages of an unnamable sin. But I saw Reinaldo Arenas in New York in January, and he seemed the happiest man alive. A Happy Ending. Arenas reunited with his lover in Miami, both rescued by Arenas’s uncle, a mean menace in mien but a lovable man in spite of being a Cuban city policeman. In New York, it was freezing outdoors. Not the kind of weather for a boy from the sticks in Cuba, but he took his shoes off and danced barefoot down those mean night streets. ‘Look at me!’ he shouted. ‘Like Geene Kellee.’ He was humming ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.
At the same time, almost to the day, Heber-to Padilla left Cuba for good. American admirers had approached Senator Edward Kennedy to intercede in his favour with Fidel Castro. Senator Kennedy called Castro collect, and 24 hours later Padilla had an exit permit, two plane tickets and a lukewarm farewell from Fidel himself – as Padilla told everybody later. The story belongs in the universal history of infamous fathers. Padilla was summoned to one of Castro’s many palaces hidden in Havana. After shaking hands, Castro told Padilla that he had heard the rumour that he, Padilla, wanted to leave Cuba. A sly look in his eyes, he asked: ‘Is this true?’ Then added: ‘You know that this is your country and it will be yours until the day you die. The Cuban people is your people. You can go now and you can come back whenever you want. Your house will remain intact. Neither a brick nor a book will be touched. I want you to know that.’ Then the dictator dismissed the poet and sent him out of the game.
The Viennese philosopher and the Conservative thinker and the Hollywood director I’m sure will sing in a chorus: ‘Ah but you see, the man really cares about poets.’ So did Augustus with Ovid – and Stalin with too many poets to put in a ledger-book. Padilla did the right thing: he left the house and the city quickly and silently. In 1933, Joseph Goebbels saw a film by Fritz Lang. He thought it was Wagner in images. Knowing that Lang was one of the few great German directors still living in Germany who was not a Jew, he summoned him. In his enormous office, Goebbels told Lang that he wanted him to assume immediate care of the German film industry in the name of the Führer. Fritz Lang screwed his monocle, said that he wanted to think about it overnight, if Herr Doktor didn’t mind, and begged to leave, not forgetting to click his heels before exiting. Next morning, Lang left secretly on the first train to Paris. Like Lang, Padilla had learned the axiom of the plague years. It was formulated by Francesco Guicciardini, friend to Macchiavelli, and it says: ‘A tyrant, like the plague, has only one remedy: to fly away as fast as one can – and as far away as possible.’
An American editor wanted to publish an anthology of Cuban writing and he came to me for advice. I mentioned several names in secret and added that he should include the writers left in Cuba. There were about five, I believe I told him. That was last year. Early this year he came back to me again: ‘How many writers for my review are there left now?’ I felt like a bookie but I had to tell him the truth: ‘Well, Virgilio Pinera and Alejo Carpentier died. Edmundo Desnoes, Reinaldo Arenas and Benitez Rojas (who was Haydée Santamaria’s answer to Carpentier) exiled themselves in the United States. Jose Triana, in some kind of larvatus prodeo, did the same in France. I reckon there’s only one writer of international standing left in Cuba, Nicolas Guillen, and about five minor poets with unpronounceable names.’ ‘Not much, eh?’ he said grimacing or perhaps grinning. I had to agree. No, not much, really. Not bloody much.
Alejo Carpentier died, as he wanted, in Paris, but not the way he wanted. Instead of the merciful heart attack in his sleep, he had a throat cancer and awoke in the dead of night. He had suffered a haemorrhage. Then he choked in his own unwise blood. Embalmed, he was sent back to Cuba to have a state funeral and a personal wreath from Fidel Castro: ‘To the great writer of the people,’ said the funeral inscription, and it lied. The only true writer of the people left in Cuba, Virgilio Pinera, died a different death.
The death of Virgilio didn’t come swiftly or easily either. He was in his small flat in Havana and he felt ill. Somehow he managed to phone for an ambulance, but it took three hours for the ambulance to come. Paperwork. A police state is primarily made of forms to be filled in and out. When the ambulance arrived, they found him downstairs, lying in the street, already dead. Alejo Carpentier, who wanted a heart attack, was almost eighty when he died. Virgilio Pinera, who didn’t want any heart attacks, was 68. Carpentier’s funeral was stately, pompous. Virgilio’s funeral was another play of the absurd by himself. Rumour spread (in socialist countries, rumour runs, Party news crawls – and a running rumour is always trustworthy) that Virgilio had died. He was to lie in state in a humble funeraria. There was a small group of writers, his old friends and a bevy of young writers who looked queer – and queer they were. Virgilio had been their only true teacher, their mentor, their master in the gai savoir. There were fast-fading flowers and there was even a wreath from the Writers’ Union, with no inscription.
There was everything you need for a funeral – except the body. Some people remembered having seen it very late the previous night. It had disappeared, though, taken away in the early morning. The explanation for sneaking Virgilio’s body out was that he needed a second autopsy. Virgilio needed a second autopsy like he needed a hole in the head. He had died of cardiac arrest, everybody knew that. The real reason why the body disappeared as in a cheap thriller by Agatha Christie was that the Government (or the Writers’ Union) feared a crowded funeral parlour, followed by a wake, finished with a riotous funeral procession. The body was bought back from the cold half an hour before the time the funeral procession was to take place – though the funeral procession never took place. Instead of driving the hearse at a walking place (the custom in Havana, where funeral homes are never very far from the cemetery), as befits a decent funeral procession, the driver, following orders from the Writers’ Union (or from the Government), sped away, as if he were racing in Le Mans, to elude any camp followers. But the disciples, a new school of Cuban queers, even newer than the school of Arenas, chased the hearse in cars, on bicycles and even on foot, running and grieving: ‘Ay, Maestro, alas! You are being spirited away now but your spirit will remain with us! Virgilio vive!’
But Virgilio Pinera was dead as a doornail, and his body is still in his tomb (or must be) at the Colon Cemetery, one of the most sumptuous graveyards in the Americas, even bigger than the famous Recoleta in Buenos Aires, where Borges longs to be buried to dream that he is dead. Knowing the regime, I’m sure that Virgilio has been buried not in the Patriots’ Pantheon but in what you could call a pauper’s grave – though there are not supposed to be any pauper’s graves in the land of socialism. All socialist dead are buried equally, but some are buried deeper. This doesn’t pain me at all, because it wouldn’t have bothered Virgilio in the least where his body lay to rest.
It is Pinera’s writings that will live, twist and giggle for ever. I am truly worried about what happens to his body of work. I know that he will soon be out of print in Cuba and never be printed again. What was left unpublished remained for a while in his furnished flat, its door sealed by State Security, illiterate agents so strangely concerned with writers and their writings. His old flat will have new, anxious tenants ready to move in, eager to clean out, All the papers found there – Virgilio’s last literary will and theatrical testament – will be put in a cardboard box and buried in one of the secret sections in the basement of the State Security building. That place, where Reinaldo Arenas’s unpublished novels ended, is known by the State Security men who deal with Cubans of a literary leaning and a subversive bent (political, aesthetical, sexual) as Siberia. This long, rambling article is an effort to show it all – the cellar, the State Security building, Havana and the island – as Siberia-in-the-tropics.
But I often wonder. Why was Virgilio so eager to kiss Cuban soil that he missed?
[*] These Committees are para-police groups that operate in every large building, in every town or city, supposedly to protect the Revolution from its enemy within – the most powerful army in Latin America will take care of the enemy without. The members of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution are some two million Cubans, who engage in these activities willingly or not – though the Committees, like the People’s Militia, are supposed to be strictly voluntary.