Lorna Scott Fox
- Mea Cuba by G. Cabrera Infante, translated by Kenneth Hall
Faber, 497 pp, £17.50, October 1994, ISBN 0 571 17255 5
- Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, translated by Dolores Koch
Viking, 317 pp, £16.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 670 84078 5
Ever since 1956, when Fidel Castro left Veracruz for Santiago de Cuba like a conquistador in reverse, Mexican-Cuban relations have been a sensitive area. Cynical Mexicans might take the view that their government’s attitude is, or rather was, a matter of ‘I’ll support your revolution – and appear to take a stand against the US – if you don’t export it over here.’ At one stage in the early Nineties, therefore, there were dozens of Cuban artists in Mexico, enjoying the Velvet Exile. They could come and go from Cuba, eat their fill, lose money and innocence at capitalist roulette; but they still had to watch what they said. This began to seem like the worst of both worlds, and before long they all leapt off the Mexican trampoline into the great beyond. Until August this year, when Castro threw the frontiers open, it was a painfully irrevocable choice.
Cubans coming to Mexico for the first time were strange beings, highly educated Rip van Winkles who could wield a mean analytical proposition but were stumped by a corkscrew or a CD. Indifferent to the new culture in which they’d landed, they doused the threshold with rum for the santo and talked compulsively about home. Ah, the recipe for floorcloth steaks ... the breast-like cupolas of the Art Institute, in whose grounds the sculptors were chopping down the last trees ... the fine-tuning of the map of power cuts, so that only minutes of a soap opera need be missed in frantic pedalling through an impossibly black urban night! Most of these artists had fallen foul of the regime by turning its very gifts against it: sophistication, arrogant expectation. Fidel had not been amused. Shows were censored, and heads rolled at the Ministry of Culture. The restive Eighties had collapsed along with the Soviet Union. How did they see their father-figure now? In the words of one artist who still can’t bear to leave: ‘He did well by us, but now he’s like an old lady in the attic. He’s failed but he won’t give up. For us it’s over; the Revolution’s a piece of kitsch.’
Guillermo Cabrera Infante uses the term as well, but for him it’s the ‘kitsch of death’, and his obsession with Cuba’s Castro is a lot less ambiguous. Mea Cuba is a compilation of articles written since 1968, three years after Cabrera Infante deserted the island where he had come up against the same contradictions as today’s young artists. Now the master punster, author of the splendid Three Trapped Tigers, reappears as the scourge of the mendacious or gullible Castro-lovers who, in his view, dominate the free world.
It is of course necessary to dispel the crasser myths and the wishful thinking surrounding the Cuban project, and to denounce the closure of minds, the growth of centralised and capricious authoritarianism, and the paranoid process whereby former heroes and comrades first become suspect, then get demoted, eventually jailed and in some cases eliminated. The best account of this process is still Victor Serge’s novel, The Tulayev Affair, about the Moscow trials. More recently Carlos Franqui, Cabrera’s former boss at Lunes de Revolución, told his own story in Family Portrait with Fidel. But for all its essential rectifications, Mea Cuba is so overstated, so patently inflamed by spite and thwarted ambition, that it forfeits its place in the rational, non-polarised debate about Cuba that is needed at this time.