The Good Parasite

Lorna Scott Fox

  • The Collected Stories by Calvert Casey
    Duke, 224 pp, £11.50, May 1998, ISBN 0 8223 2165 3

‘Calvert Casey was born in Baltimore and raised in Havana. Calvert Casey was born in Havana and raised in Baltimore. American or Cuban, it’s the same ... The only certainty is that he was a writer.’ This is how Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who knew him as well as anyone did, got around the vagueness that still surrounds the early life of Calvert Casey, the cult author of 17 stories, a handful of critical articles and a poem. There has been little research on his life or the unpublished texts that are rumoured to exist, and the stories we have are hard to date more precisely than to the ‘early Sixties’ or ‘late Sixties’, in accordance with his three original collections of 1962, 1963 and 1969; but this is likely to be rectified soon. Casey’s mildly tragic life and meagre oeuvre are being rediscovered by a new generation of Latin Americans, who’ve had enough of the magic realist/political masters and their sensual and linguistic excesses. A wholesale ‘structural adjustment’ has taken place within the culture: if Casey was obscured during the age of thick tomes, his economical, almost ecological restraint in dealing with both the gross and the infinitesimal now provides a precedent for younger writers, while the crucial ineptitude for living that he expresses is entirely appropriate for the disabled Nineties.

Casey was stateless by nature. Though the Cuban literati have lately laid claim to him, this seems a futile exercise. By 1969, when he decided to die in Rome at the age of 45, he was no longer either American or Cuban. He went back to live in Cuba just before or perhaps just after the Revolution. He left, barely ahead of disgrace, in 1965; his Cuban passport expired four years later and no embassy was prepared to renew it. Even the Italians wanted him out, but they were forced, in the end, to accommodate him under a stone in Rome which carries this cruel epitaph in English: ‘He was gentle/He was weak/He was destroyed.’

Casey’s literary career began in 1954 when New Mexico Quarterly published ‘The Walk’ (his first known text, like his last, was written in English). Working at the time as a translator for the United Nations, he was widely travelled and rootless; mainly homosexual, intense, shy, with a baby-face like Kevin Spacey in horn-rims and a stammer that some have fastened on as his most telling feature. The first part of his great story ‘Homecoming’, written after the move to revolutionary Cuba, is a summary of his life so far, in a self-portrait that’s not the work of a weak man:

And after every episode – that’s what you had to call them – of travelling, loving, hating, working, talking, he was left inert, indestructible in a way, as though whole and untouched, not consumed, not used, ready once more to be filled with possibilities, like a stubborn virgin whose virginity could be miraculously restored at the end of each night of love, the top of his head shining through the thinning hair, temples a little gray, but his face still young, strangely boyish beneath the scattered lifeless tufts.

The unnamed protagonist – ‘he’ – also has a stammer, which he tries to mask after each fit with ‘a rapid and pointless harangue, peppered with brilliant phrases, jokes, and bursts of inopportune laughter’. He is living an unhatched life in a sordid, artsy quarter of New York City among other misfit souls. But a casual visit to Cuba – ‘his country, in which he hadn’t set foot for years, dismissing it with a vague gesture as something incorrigible and hopeless’ – suddenly suggests the possibility of belonging, a chance to acquire the naturalness and authenticity he lacks; he will attain this by contact with the simple people there, who all seem to be endowed with these qualities. He sells up in New York and makes for home, ‘where nothing had to be explained, where everything had always just been’. He has adopted and discarded so many other countries and cultures it will surely be easy to adopt his own: ‘soon he would be wholly and exclusively himself.’

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