Infante’s Inferno

G. Cabrera Infante

Sebastian Venable, the poet as pervert in Suddenly Last Summer, claimed as new and personal an old and decadent dictum now rephrased to suit the stage: ‘The life of the poet is the work of the poet and the work of the poet is the life of the poet.’ This is Oscar Wilde as rewritten by Tennessee Williams. The author of that gruesome playlet must have had in mind the notorious Algerian meeting near the fin de siecle in which Wilde, holding Bosie’s hand, boasted before a timid André Gide of having put all his genius into his life (looking at Bosie) but only his talent (looking at Gide) into his writing – and in the same bad breath told Gide, a prim and puritanical pederast, that there was an Arab boy he shouldn’t miss au poil for all the mint tea in Araby! Williams made his poet pervert die cannibalised on a Mediterranean beach. A film of the same summerish title and along similar lines, but in which the star was a Venus flytrap, was shot in Mexico and exhibited in the late Fifties but is now screened only in the late late shows. Unnaturally, the Mediterranean youth became riotous hungry children – of Sanchez perhaps? – eager to devour the pederast poet. As with so much of the propaganda posing as art which is made by American libbers with lots of reactionary American money (see Reds – or rather don’t), the spectator never knows, in two dimensions, if he is watching a battle of attrition in the Third World, or an act of contrition for (not against) Plutocracy. But Pluto is a monster of such frightful mien that only Dickens could look it in the face and not vomit sweet and sour curses like ‘imperialists’, ‘exploiters’.

This frantic fable is merely a grand-guignol with delusions of a grander guignol, and is apposite only because you cannot understand Heberto Padilla’s poems unless you know about Padilla’s hard times in Cuba. With him, as Sebastian Venable pretended, the life of the poet is really the work of the poet, and Padilla has spent half his life (and most of his oeuvre) hostage to a tyrant. Therefore to know Padilla’s life and work you must first know the tyrant – at least what’s left of him. What’s left and what’s right too. This tyrant, as you might have guessed (what with Padilla being a Cuban poet in exile), is called Fidel Castro, or, as the Times insists on calling him, Dr Castro.

If they ever erect a statue to Fidel Castro in Britain (why not – after all, he rules in the name of Marx and this German machine of hatred has his statue here, when neither Nietzsche nor D’Annunzio have one), this will be a monument to the unknown tyrant. In fact, the British know less about Cuba now than they did about Argentina before the Falklands fiasco. Then all they knew was that that country, where the gaucho roams free on the pampas, invented the tango and was ruled by a fake blonde actress called Evita. She sang ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina’ at every crisis, political or personal, or at curtain calls – whichever came first. (Usually the curtain call came first.) Of course, it’s easier to know about an inept military dictatorship than to find out about a successful totalitarian tyranny. This can be clearly seen in opaque Spain under Franco, as opposed to Ceausescu’s shadow fiefdom in Rumania or Enver Hoxha’s total black-out over Albania – of which all one knows for sure is that its capital is aptly named Tirana.

I’ve already told readers of the London Review of Books (in the 4-17 June 1981 issue) all about those brave encounters with Fidel Castro (hereinafter called the Tyrant) that Heberto Padilla (the Poet) has had in the past. We left the Tyrant saying goodbye to the Poet, in his fashion, from the door of one of his many dens in Havana. The Tyrant has no fixed abode: the whole of Cuba is his maze and he is central to it, but his hell is a spiral with no centre. When the Poet, with a desire called Theseus (Deseo in Spanish), left the labyrinth, it was with the help of an unlikely Ariadne whose name on the ballot for President of the USA in 1980 was Senator Edward Kennedy. When Kennedy blandly welcomed the Poet at the airport in Naxos or Nassau, all he said was ‘Hello! Goodbye! I must be going!’ – and he then disappeared. The Poet was now on his own, with the dangerous knowledge that he had not really slain the monster but only wounded his pride, thick as his hide. Once more he had to live by his wits.

In his new country the Poet heard threats from the Tyrant’s henchmen but never from the Beast himself, a proud monster. His pursuers were worried (agents are a worried lot) about the Poet’s singing. Not that they feared he would compose lyrics for songs and sing them too: they were fretted by the possibility that he might write about the maze that some visitors had called a magnificent building – some even said that it had the shape of things to come! The Poet knew it was a spydrome.

He wrote poems, gave lectures, and even published a novel he had cunningly smuggled out of the island. This book showed that nightmares are the dream History is made of. of. Just like Goya, only worse. Just like Shakespeare in Macbeth, though not happening in Scotland in the remote past, but now, today, in the murky waters of present-day politics where the ceremony of innocence – a baptism in fetid fonts – is drowned in obscene shouts: Heil Hitler! Evviva Il Duce! Viva Fidel! The Beast is full of passionate intensity – while the best not only lack the right convictions but sometimes also entertain the Above all, while the best are the guests, like King Duncan, of the Beast.

Two English writers went to Cuba. One went after Fidel Castro became lord and master of the island or rather archipelago. The other went before and after that unholy second coming. Edna O’Brien, poor girl, visited Cuba the way Alice travelled to the other side of the looking-glass – darkly but gladly. England can be so boring on a wet afternoon! Besides she had never tasted looking-glass milk. That’s what they call the daiquiri in Havana. She was given a guided tour of the island (left side only), and talked to some minor leaders who quickly assured her that they were major leaders. Her photographer took colour pictures everywhere it was allowed – weather permitting. She brought back, a trophy from the other world, a pitiful portrait of a shirtless and shoeless peasant with his wife (they looked like the Arnolfini couple in the mirror), whose misery, like everything that’s rotten in Cuba today, was made in the USA – before the Revolution. She had got what she took for the lot – plus the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine and a vast spread inside. Unfortunately, she had been had.

In Cuba, any national who comes in close contact with a foreigner (especially if he is a journalist or a writer, professions valued by totalitarian regimes, who know their worth in propaganda) belongs to the State Security or the G2, or must obtain clearance to entertain any alien visitors. Foreign Affairs officials, functionaries from the Tourist Commission and the junior executives of the Writers Union who bid you welcome at the airport, and bid you goodbye as well, all wear crocodile smiles. But so do guides, interpreters and even that nice old gentleman you meet everywhere you go. Yes, that one who sports the kind smile of a crocodile with dentures: he works for the G2 too. In Cuba not only Big Brother is watching you. So is his Little Brother, Raul Castro.

Ms O’Brien talked in her article about the infamos (her italics), who looked to her – how should she put it? – well, weird. You know, different. Those infamos must have looked the way late hippies look to any pink punk of today. But beatniks, hippies and even pallid punks are all equally forbidden in Cuba, according to a law against ‘extravagant and antisocial behaviour’. Such behaviour includes the social crimes of wearing jeans and/or sneakers, failing to cut your hair short and even sporting a beard – unless your name is Fidel Castro or you are one of the happy few old-time comandantes from the Sierra guerrillas. What Edna O’Brien misheard was the word enfermos (literally the sick ones, socially sick), and that’s how those poor purple people were known before they were labelled escoria (scum) and expelled from Cuba to the United States as undesirables via the port of Mariel in 1980. Those that were lucky enough to classify as pederasts, lesbians and bums left Mariel as escoria to become gusanos (worms) on landing in Miami. All these labels were concocted by Dr Castro, a linguist as imaginative as Dr Goebbels.

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