Bites from the Bearded Crocodile
SIR: In the 1950s and early 1960s many Western European and North American observers of the ‘Third World’ based their discussion upon impressionistic and superficial evidence of a kind that would have been regarded as insufficiently rigorous if applied to Western Europe and the United States. This tendency was sometimes imitated by ‘Third World’ writers wishing to ingratiate themselves with the media of the ‘developed’ countries. Since the early 1960s the quality of analysis of ‘Third World’ problems has improved considerably. It was, therefore, with concern that we read the article written by the Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante that was prominently featured in LRB (LRB, 4 June).
The apparent objective of Mr Cabrera Infante is a comprehensive indictment of the Cuban regime. His method is to assemble political and personal details deployed in a fictional manner. There is, indeed, room for intelligent criticism of the regime by an observer with the same regard for evidence that is normal in analysing the French, Soviet or United States Governments. But Mr Cabrera Infante has no such respect. His article is littered with unsupported assertions and is heavily reliant upon gossip and hearsay that would be inadmissible as evidence in the analysis of any political system. Mr Cabrera Infante feels free to condemn his fellow novelists without substantiating his charges (e.g. refusing to recognise that certain novels of Carpentier were novels) and to resort repeatedly to innuendo as a substitute for serious analysis. He tends to confuse fiction with a personal attack on the regime that sinks even to the banalities of describing his opponents as ‘paunchy’ and ‘bald’. Furthermore, Mr Cabrera Infante uses literary devices (like the pun – of which he is a master in Spanish and not in English) as means of pursuing personal vendettas with both the dead and the living. Indeed, the author of the article undermines his own case by trivialising points that he clearly considers important: in his discussion of the treatment of homosexuals by the Cuban Government, Mr Cabrera resorts to facile word-games around the name of the Cuban President and a famous gay street in San Francisco.
There are many Cuban issues that merit serious attention in the LRB: the relationship of Cuba with the super-powers and other ‘Third World’ countries; internal political and administrative organisation; the social welfare programmes; the economy; the military; and not least the cultural policies of the regime. But these all merit the same standards of evaluation that prevail in discussion of ‘developed’ countries – and not merely a catalogue of undisguised prejudices by an idiosyncratic author whose private likes and dislikes are presented as political journalism.
Nissa Torrents, Christopher Abel
Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies, University College, London
Cabrera Infante writes: There are many contradictions in this letter. The main contradiction, of course, is to defend totalitarianism bravely from the haven of a democracy. Try and do the opposite and you’ll see what’s bad for you. Nissa Torrents, a Spaniard who teaches Spanish literature in London, expected me, whom she calls a writer of fiction, to talk about Cuba’s economy, internal political and administrative organisation, social welfare programmes, the military – you name it. (It is curious, though, that she doesn’t flog that old pro-Castro hack, formerly a favourite, called Education and Public Health, but then again that might have led to the subject of Cuban writers in good health.) Obviously when Ms Torrents asked for all this and a haven too it was because she wanted another kind of article, not the piece I set out to write and wrote. She also calls my story a catalogue. I like that. I happen to be a catalogue-lover. I am also very fond of lists, schedules and railway timetables. I read phone books avidly, especially those inscrutable yellow pages, so Oriental. I must confess that I even wrote a short story once about a man who loved little lists.
Ms Torrents goes on to say that I am prejudiced and idiosyncratic. Quite frankly, I don’t know a single writer worth his salt who is not prejudiced and idiosyncratic. Come to think of it, I don’t know a single human being, salt or no salt who is not prejudiced and idiosyncratic. Nor any animal, for that matter. Insects can be very prejudiced, believe me. Take red ants, for instance. If only she would listen, I could tell Ms Torrents that even her letter is prejudiced and idiosyncratic. But my prejudiced and idiosyncratic article’s original title was ‘Culture in Castro’s Cuba’ – and that’s exactly what it is about.
Ms Torrents wants me to be objective about the Castro regime. I’m sorry I can’t oblige. Devious steers wouldn’t lead me into the arena to be objective about such a historical monstrosity, the bearded minotaur. That Revolution is a perennial catastrophe willed by one man. It’s a Castrophe. But no matter how many disasters occur periodically in Cuba, there will always be people like Ms Torrents who will try to explain the phenomenon as simply natural, and they’ll beg you to give good Grendel just one more chance to recover and eat more men. If only one would be patient, they plead, and try to understand the poor, harassed man-eater. Come on, give beasts a chance! Those awful groans you hear are actually growing pains. Or only borborygms from eating pygmies. Ms Torrents and the likes of her remind me of those incredibly naive or stupid (or both), and therefore dangerous, scientists assigned to some ill-fated Martian project, who usually ask their terrified colleagues to allow some margin of terror to the obviously hideous monster who has so far devoured only six crewmen. ‘Please don’t kill it!’ whispers the persuasive professor. ‘We must try and communicate with him – I mean, It – at all costs. Can’t you see it is perfectly harmless? It’s a monster only in shape and manners: deep down you can see the future and it works. Let me assuage him/it. Mr Monster? Mr Monster, are you still there? Are you all right, Mr Monster?’
But I lived with the man-made monster once and I know its devious ways: harmless when weak, homicidal if made strong. But I’ve survived to tell it like it is. I told it like it was for the first time in 1968, fighting a war of words with mockery and puns. You have to do it this way to confront the Sphinx, all myth and mystery. After I told my story for the first time, some people, just like today, were worried about my humour not being apt enough, but they were never even remotely concerned with what was implied. The question is not whether this pun is fun, but whether what I say is true or just three dangerous packs of lies a day, with a Cuban government warning that it might be hazardous to your health? Some other experts on Cubanology chose to dismiss it all as facetiae. (They didn’t know that I would prefer to be facetious all my life than a Fascist for a day.) But there were yet others who were more dangerous and knew best: they went straight for my jugular, forfeiting my humorous vein. Having been born in a Communist family and taken part in the Revolution from the very beginning until it became a horrid Hydra from Soviet space, I had some inside knowledge. So I knew what was coming to me even before I wrote that fading article in 1968. Due punishment was meted out to me. I knew too much and had spilled the red beans. Marxmen from the literary Mafia hit me and hit me hard. I didn’t want to complain too loudly, but it hurt. Silently I became the writer most persecuted by his fellow writers in the Spanish-speaking world – and this means from the Basque country to Patagonia. Lots of land for the outlaw. Was I being punished for my puns in Spanish? I don’t think so. But if this ordeal by silence was a way of ingratiating myself with the media, developed or not, it was a peculiar way of making love, like masturbating with a hara-kiri knife. With hindsight, though, I can say that I prefer signing a compact with the devil to ingratiating myself with a tyranny, red, yellow or black. Being asked to be objective about Castro is like asking a Jew to be objective about Hitler. You cannot be objective with evil, and it was true evil that tried to make me into an object by calling me a gusano, a crushable worm. (It was no coincidence that Goebbels called the Jews Umgeziefer, vermin, a pest.) I was a victim of the Castro regime, like so many million Cubans, though I can call that hangman by his first name.
I never tried to indict anybody with my ‘Bites from a Bearded Crocodile’. This was merely an article – remember? – not a court of law. It is Ms Torrents and her pen-pal Mr Abel who in their letter use lawyers’ language, peppering their pages with words like ‘indictment’, ‘evidence’ and even ‘inadmissible evidence’. For a moment I believed that the letter had been written by Mr Rumpole of the Bailey, under two coy pseudonyms. But after reading this courtroom letter which so relentlessly asks for the truth and nothing but the truth, with a hand on Castro’s copy of Das Kapital, it is I who demand a truth for a truth. I categorically affirm that there is not a single item in my article that is fictional (I only wish I could have invented Virgilio Pinera’s funeral, for instance. That’s truly Gogol rewritten by Beria!). Alas, they are all facts, witnessed and documented facts. (That Rumpole lingo is really catching.) Correction: there is one fact that proved to be a wild canard. I closed down the Che Guevara boutique too early. It is still open and doing very well in High Street, Kensington – fashion lasting longer than the memory of fashionable heroes.
I invite my detractors, wherever they are (I already know who they are), to prove that I invented one single torment or tormentor in my Cuban Commedia. Those hellish circles are not smoke rings from a havana. Why, I could then be called Dante instead of Infante. Unfortunately the nightmares of the exile are mere facts on the isle. As for my presentation of those facts from Fidel’s Hell, it doesn’t matter if they have the shape of good or bad puns. What matters is that whenever I made a pun a pain was hidden. The persecution of homosexuals is for me as abhorrent as the persecution of Jews by Hitler or the persecution of the Tatars and other Russian minorities by Stalin. Cuba is a small island, I know, but a tiny tyrant is not less a tyrant for that. But it did strike me as funny that such a macho (old usage) as Fidel Castro happened to have the name of an American sofa-bed, the Castro Convertible, used as a tag by fags. It was no less funny that the gayest street in the world is called Castro too. I’m sorry to disappoint my fans but I didn’t invent those purposeful puns. I simply couldn’t help laughing when I knew of them. I laughed because they were there, like inverted Everests. I laughed as Chaplin laughed when he noticed that the Führer wore a Chaplin moustache. Tyrants can be very funny, believe me. Fidel Castro simply kills me! (He kills other people too, of course.) But such finds, I admit, are poetic justice with a perverse wink in her blindfolded eye. It comes from a twisted sense of humour, I know, but I had at least to giggle, and then I tried to make you see the joke and laugh with me. Those two Castroite free associations, by the way, were ready-made puns, an art in which life excels in quite a few foreign tongues. If that’s trivialising terror, then trivia must be the most powerful medicine to exorcise tyrants since the invention of laughter.
Finally, I didn’t call Carpentier’s last novels what they actually were out of pity for a former great writer and an abject man.
SIR: In his discussion of literary life in Castro’s Cuba Cabrera Infante attributes to Joseph Goebbels the quotation ‘Every time I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol.’ It is a remark normally credited to Hermann Goering, but he apparently took it from Hanns Johst’s 1934 play Schlageter.
SIR: In his review of Lucy and The Making of Mankind (LRB, 21 May), J.Z. Young comments that ‘Richard Leakey’s book costs exactly the same as Johanson’s but is worth many times more,’ and expresses concern about the emphasis placed in Lucy on one set of discoveries, and the reliability of the verbatim accounts reported therein. Jeremy Cherfas has taken up the latter point in your columns (Letters, 18 June): but what neither Young nor Cherfas has remarked on is the extent to which Lucy is an American book, white The Making of Mankind follows a strong British tradition. I suspect that the calm, authoritative tone of Leakey’s book will be as baffling to an American audience as the shrill excitement of Lucy is to a British reader, and this suspicion is strengthened by the news that the excellent TV series accompanying Leakey’s text has yet to be scheduled for screening in the US.
This echoes the difficulties Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has encountered crossing the Atlantic the other way: as disappointing as Lucy (to British eyes) in book form, Cosmos, although much acclaimed as television ‘over there’, is regarded as nothing much out of the ordinary by the BBC and has been held back for editing to suit the tastes of a British audience, even though the book has been available for several weeks. Hysterical breathlessness seems to be the vogue for ‘selling’ science in the US: happily, in spite of the parlous state of publishing in the UK, this is not the case here. Apart from any other implication of this dichotomy, it does emphasise the need for a London review of books; more seriously, it makes the point yet again that, in spite of the accident of a shared language, America, and American books, are really part of a culture as different from ours as, say, the French. Reviewers might find it worthwhile to approach books from over the water with this in mind.
Morecambe and Conrad
SIR: John Sutherland misquotes Conrad in his review of Eric Morecambe’s Mr Lonely (LRB, 4 June). Conrad does not observe, ‘we die as we dream, alone,’ but: ‘we live as we dream – alone …’ These words are actually spoken by Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness. It may be a small point, but the misquotation, in its bathetic obviousness, is unfair to Conrad, and indeed Morecambe, considering the favourable review of his novel.
University of York