‘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 There has been little research on his life or the unpublished texts that are rumoured to exist, and the stories we have are hard to date more precisely than to the ‘early Sixties’ or ‘late Sixties’, in accordance with his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.’
But on the day of his arrival in Cuba, there is unease in the air; there are uniforms in the street, but no bright new friends awaiting the Prodigal Son he fancies himself to be. That evening, as he walks with the aimlessness of so many Casey characters, feeling ‘happy, a little lonely; but that didn’t matter now’, he is bundled into a car by security men. After hours of torture, described in some detail, he is left to die by the shore. ‘The first place where the horde of crabs sank their claws were his nearsighted eyes.’ Then between his ‘delicate lips’, the flawed organs of communication, as though in retribution for his daring to imagine himself in the world as others are. For most of Casey’s characters, furtiveness, spying and disguise are prerequisites to living; yet they wind up as prey themselves, chastised for reasons that are never clear, and surrounded by a diffuse sense of guilt.
When Casey wrote ‘Homecoming’ he was living out the middle stage of the story, as the hopeful returnee; the uniforms, of course, belonged to President Batista’s routed forces. Casey had sent some of his critical writings to Ciclón magazine during the late Fifties. In 1960, he was introduced by Antón Arrufat to Cabrera Infante, the editor of Lunes de Revolución in Havana, and joined the staff. In his memoir, ‘Who Killed Calvert Casey?’, Cabrera recalls the indolent pace of production at Lunes: the paper was saved only by the hurricane of press weekends. In those days you could still write what you liked, and Che Guevara’s ‘New Man’ was to be admired rather than imitated. In an early chronicle, Casey swoons before a young soldier fresh from the Sierra Maestra. Glowing, implacable, slightly androgynous, he is ‘a new human type, an absolutely revolutionary being’, a life-affirming bearer of the ‘message of justice’. Calvino, who met Casey in 1964, said that he was unusual in his readiness to live only on what the ration-book allowed. Yet revolution, solidarity and health are anathema to the stories. Unwilling to reinvent himself after all, Casey wrote about sleazy clerks and morbid fantasies, suffocating family relationships dominated by aunts, visitations from the grave, rotting streets and unknowable hearts, in the manner of Poe, Baudelaire and Kafka.
‘A Little Romance’ is set in a distorted Havana, typical of Casey’s work, a city that seems foreign to itself, in which a dull, precise coldness becomes synonymous with ghastly heat. The narrator, a lonely man, imagines a relationship with a girl so normal as to be angelic. He hangs around a park, going to absurd lengths to bump into a girl he had earlier engaged in conversation at a fair but who does not always keep their brief and innocent appointments. He buys some dark glasses to look cool – and cover an eye irritation – but then finds himself dyeing his hair and eyebrows to match the shades; now, however, he cannot see properly. Obsessed with waiting and watching, he loses his tenuous hold on his house and job and gradually merges with the down-and-outs, who now dominate his shrinking world.
There are many figures like this narrator in Casey’s stories, with offices to which they call in sick and small hot lodgings they are always running from or to, depending on whether their torment, which always verges on boredom, derives from a sense of being enclosed or from the resounding pointlessness of the streets. Their paranoia revolves around fine vanishing-points: in ‘The Execution’, for example, a man in a room listens to a great silence down the telephone. ‘He took out his handkerchief and very, very carefully placed it, still folded, over the mouthpiece. He listened anxiously to see whether his blocking the sounds had had any effect at the other end. But there was no noticeable change in the silence.’ The experience turns into a violation. His privacy has been irrevocably breached, and so when Mayer – the protagonist’s name in this very Central European story – is condemned and garrotted in a bureaucratic frame-up, he doesn’t really care.
Like his subject-matter, Casey’s language resorts to one of two extremes: a close-focus, plain writing that roams, with skilled discontinuities, over gestures, perceptions and objects; or (more rarely) a heightened baroque. The editor of a recent Spanish anthology excluded ‘In San Isidro’, the great piece in Casey’s over-the-top mode: its images of putrescence probably did not square with the nuanced negativity of Casey the Post-Modern. A feverish incantation italicised throughout, it expresses a horrified – colonial? – fascination with the tropics, as well as Casey’s qualms in the face of colonial history and his desire for immolation. ‘Let me have a share in your pain and infamy, let me have a share in your ulcerated wounds, father San Isidro! Make me clean, compassionate old whore, with the pus of your monstrous wrinkled thighs, purify me with your secretions, wash me in the downpour of your urine.’
Time, in a mind-boggling geological, rather than historical, sense, often interrupts the characters’ absorption in ephemera. Having a coffee in the Ten-Cen, a sort of Cuban Woolworths teeming with objects and shoppers, one narrator starts thinking of how ‘we live surrounded by the dead, on top of the dead, vast numbers of the dead who are quietly waiting for us in the cemeteries of the world, at the bottom of the sea, in countless layers of the earth.’ Another story, ‘The Sun’, begins: ‘Two hours and fifteen minutes before the fall of the first hydrogen bomb ... the old man recounted the small sum of money on hand for his needs.’ Casey was a writer in love with disappointment, but he was also a bit of a boffin, with a boy’s excitement about science – infinity being so much more liberating than revolution.
Several stories deal with ghosts and spiritualism. For most of his six years in revolutionary Cuba Casey had a boyfriend who was a santero, a practitioner of the Afro-Cuban religion, and he is thought to have dabbled in it too. On the page he whitens it, so to speak, into something eerily Victorian. ‘The Visitors’, a mysterious piece full of antique Caribbean decorum, deals with the punitive negotiations between the living and the dead in a way that blurs the boundaries between them. But it’s the boundary itself that Casey is drawn to in his very funny and frightening novella ‘Notas de un simulador’, translated here as ‘The Master of Life and Death’.
This is the tale of a man whose passion is to observe people dying at very close quarters. Wrongly accused of having done away with one of the subjects of his amateur research, the simulator tries to persuade us that his obsession lies not with death but with life, ‘that humble and magnificent treasure, always threatened, always lost’. His self-justification, delivered from a prison cell, does nothing to mitigate a more fundamental sin: that of hovering around the sick and infirm in a variety of social disguises. What interests him is the moment of death itself – a pursuit of knowledge too transgressive for society to conceive of, but one which lends itself to high comedy. Here the narrator appraises the condition of the office manager who is finally sacking him: ‘I looked at his lips, which were an anaemic pink. The indications from the fingernails were no better ... still, I’d thought of him as a healthy man. I decided we should stay in touch.’ The narrator’s best bets in his morbid pursuit are the homeless people he regularly checks on and the old folk in a hospital, where his front is to offer a circulating library service (though reading tends to give the moribund a new lease of life). He is constantly thwarted, but his life doesn’t lack purpose, and he is driven to repeat the experience again and again, because each dying is different, yet the same:
Still I must confess that the use of the mirror has one advantage. Often the breath has ceased to befog the glass, and then, when we think that the drastic sharpening of the features that signals the end is going to begin, just then a surreptitious movement of the face – which always occurs in the eyelids – brings us a marvellous surprise: life has not ended. How richly we are rewarded at this point! Every possibility had seemed exhausted, and now we find ourselves obliged to renew our vigilance, because the process may continue.
The simulator’s mock-academic investigation of the ‘meaning of life’ has effectively bypassed the more problematic, overworked ‘meaning of living’.
Casey’s own interest in a materialist form of transcendence eventually led him to India, where he found and adapted the ecstatic visions of Tantrism. ‘Will we see each other again? In fact we have never ceased to see each other, and if we accept that matter is eternal then we were always one,’ he wrote to Arrufat in 1967. This materialism, like his feeling for instability, is part of what makes him seem so contemporary, his preoccupation with the body anticipating a powerful strand in the visual arts of the Nineties. But this concern can also be seen as a version of the outsider’s curiosity about the real, or in the case of ‘The Master of Life and Death’, the apparent. How does it work? What sense is there behind the movements and reactions I observe?
Casey’s sexual guilt must have intensified this preoccupation, along with the radical inner estrangement he so painfully analysed in ‘Homecoming’. Erotic ambivalence was his undoing in Cuba, as neighbours and colleagues, rather than uniformed brutes, fulfilled the story’s prophecy of defeat. Yet his unrevolutionary fiction had somehow passed muster: a first collection was published in Havana in 1962 and expanded the following year. When the moral crackdown began, he was viewed with growing suspicion. He confided his misgivings about the secret reform camps for gays and other renegades to a visiting Mexican intellectual, who promptly passed them on to the authorities. Soon afterwards he engineered his escape via Hungary, and returned to his translator’s post with the United Nations in Geneva. It was 1965. So far so good.
However, it was his destiny to become, in a phrase from Ilan Stavans’s excellent introduction to these stories, a ‘Cold War monstrosity’. He became paranoid, fearful for the lover he left behind in Cuba and for himself. Cabrera recalls him nervously glancing all around the open forecourt of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona before whispering his dread of being kidnapped and flown back to Havana as a parcel. Later he capers about in santero fashion to exorcise the evil vibes from Cabrera’s Earls Court living-room; later still, after the voyage to India, he regales Cabrera with a ‘grotesque’ Hindu dance, a red spot of lipstick on his forehead. ‘The truth is,’ Stavans writes, ‘that he wanted to vanish altogether, to cease being Calvert Casey, to be reborn under another identity.’
And that is precisely what he did, in one of the most extraordinary love-fantasies ever. That we are able to read it – as it must surely have been written, in one glorious sitting – is thanks to an encounter reported by Rafael Martínez Nadal, a fellow translator who happened to have dinner with Casey in Geneva. It all sounds most unlikely, and so is probably true. Nadal pontificates about the food: ‘Eating frogs’ legs is the most innocent way of satisfying the secret anthropophagist we all have inside.’ ‘Quite so,’ replies Casey, blushing, ‘but one’s most intimate desire is not to eat or be eaten, but to live inside the person one loves.’ This starts him talking about his novel on the subject. Those who have read it (where are they now?) agree that it’s unpublishable; he has destroyed all but one chapter. He pulls this very chapter out of his bag, and hands it over to Nadal with instructions to say nothing to anyone, but find a good magazine that will publish it. Nadal didn’t read it until two weeks later, when he heard about Casey’s suicide in his flat in Rome.
The lost novel was called Gianni, Gianni, after the young man Casey had been living with, if not yet in, for the last few years: a gigolo, Cabrera thought (‘nothing more vulgar than a vulgar Italian’). Gianni had left him, and some Cubans have told me that this alone was the reason for his suicide. But when we read the rescued chapter, ‘Piazza Morgana’, we can only think that he died content. The English overflows with Latin exuberance. This last fictional incarnation has cracked the puzzle of living with incomparably greater success than the ‘simulator’: he simply takes up residence in the body of the beloved. ‘How come I had never thought of this? This is happiness. There is no other word.’ The pallid lurker becomes an explorer of fabulous anatomical realms. The ghoulishness remains, but it is shameless now, as the indestructible parasite on an indestructible host gloatingly prepares to ‘uncap the knees and drink patiently and carefully (lest one drop should flow out) from the rich lubricants cupped up in the joints, dislodge the thigh, slit the bone and feed on the marrow for a whole season of delight, gulp down the eyes as one gulps down an egg, look into the empty sockets for nights on end’. The exile finds a home, the paranoiac is safe at last, the outsider becomes the ultimate insider, and the ailing body mutates into an omnipotent virus.
No exit permit, no entry permit, no passport, no borders, no visa, no carta d’identità, no nothing! I can choose to settle on the right nipple where the vein ends and nerve ends blossom into a delicate tender pink tip. There I can wait indefinitely. I’m in no particular hurry. Time has been obliterated. You are Time. It was only last century that I held on like mad to the slimy walls of your bladder to avoid being flushed out. So I can wait, typewriter and all, cuddle myself to sleep under the marvellous soft hairy hill on your chest and wait until some idiot wakes me up and makes me tingle with it. I can climb up your tongue and lick and squeeze myself into someone else’s mouth.
The death-wish had been fulfilled: all that remained was for the author to swallow the pills.