G. Cabrera Infante
- Legacies: Selected Poems by Heberto Padilla, translated by Alastair Reid and Andrew Hurley
Faber, 179 pp, £8.75, September 1982, ISBN 0 374 18472 0
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.
The other English writer of note to visit Cuba and to write about it is Graham Greene, the man who calls Philby his friend. He was in Havana before but not after Edna O’Brien – I believe. He used to see Castro on his way to visit General Torrijos, the late Panamanian strongman. At all events, he has been in Cuba several times all told: during the Batista regime, but mostly after Castro seized power. Greene chose to be inimical to Batista and amicable with Castro for religious reasons. He sees himself as Castro’s paraclete, whereas he is only the devil’s advocate. Be that as it may, Cuba under Batista proved perhaps not too congenial but it certainly was more fruitful to him than under Castro. He hasn’t yet written Our Man in Havana (Part Two) and he had censorship problems when shooting the movie in Havana early in 1959. I arranged the first meeting Greene had with Castro in Cathedral Square to iron out the difficulties encountered by Carol Reed with the censors. However, Greene has written many articles and given interviews about Cuba, and has published at least one long story on Castro and his revolution. The most important article is the least useful to an understanding by the British of Communist Cuba. This piece is a paean to Castro called ‘The Marxist Heretic’ – something Castro is not and never has been. Witness to this is Castro’s servile support of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979) and Poland (1982). The man is a red puppet in olive-green fatigues. As another writer visiting Havana at the time, the Polish-French Marxist specialist K.S. Karol, wrote: ‘If Castro is a Marxist, then he is the crudest kind of Marxist I’ve ever seen.’
Greene tries to establish a comparison between Castro and Batista that is grossly biased. ‘Cuba is a country now,’ he states flatly, ‘and not merely a pleasure-capital as it was in Batista’s day.’ He chides Cuba (he probably only means Havana) for being a pleasure-capital when Batista ruled the island I wish it had been! I lived there then and I saw suffering enough to furnish, not a phrase, but a volume. And what’s wrong with being a pleasure-capital? Is a capital of pain more desirable? Or a tears-capital? Perhaps it is so to masochists wearing hairshirts in the tropics but not to me. Is a pleasure-capital worse than a Das Kapital capital? If only Batista, a cruel crook, had proved a Kubla Khan and built a pleasure dome in Cuba and named it Xanadu! Greene probably meant to say (I haven’t decided yet if he is a confusing writer or just a confused man) that there were gaming houses in Havana under Batista – and of course long before him, for surely Batista didn’t invent roulette or create the croupier.
But if he meant only gaming houses, Greene himself probably gambled in those pleasure palaces of green felt and red chips. There are more casinos in London now than there ever were in Cuba before 1959 – and that doesn’t make a pleasure palace out of London. If the choice had been between a country and a pleasure-capital, surely one and a half million Cubans would not have fled at their own risk and by any means from an island surrounded by barbed wire and infested with policemen. The rest of the article is Graham Greene chasing Fidel Castro all over Cuba, the way his Holly Martin pursued Harry Lime all over Vienna in The Third Man. He doesn’t know yet that his Caribbean hero is actually the villain of the piece.
Greene writes about Celia Sanchez, a feminine factotum of Castro’s, and Haydée Santamaria, a professional procer of the Revolution. Both women are now deceased. Celia Sanchez died of cancer and was buried with full honours. But Heroine Haydée (whom Greene thinks everybody in Cuba called Haydée when she was called in fact Yeyé, her nickname) blew her brains out recently. Greene dreams what would have happened if Haydée had been killed in the assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, which was led by Fidel Castro. She was one of two women who went with the attackers as nurses. Had she died then, speculates Greene, ‘she would have been buried in the heroes’ pantheon and her funeral would have been a rendezvous they [the Cubans] could be certain Fidel would keep.’ As it happened, before killing herself (on 26 July 1980, an anniversary of the Moncada assault) Yeyé, by way of testament, sent a goodbye letter to Castro. Of course this last letter from a disillusioned revolutionary leader who committed suicide was never made public. (Yeyé was being naive to the last – but so was Greene.) Haydée Santamaria was not buried, either, in the Heroes’ Pantheon, nor was there any public display of mourning from a grieving Castro. She had instead a private wake at a second-rate funeral parlour in Havana. And this was one predicted historic rendezvous which Fidel Castro failed to keep.
Greene claims for Fidel Castro that even his name is an object of veneration – Fidel ‘whom no Cuban except an enemy calls by the name of Castro’. One of the most hideous tyrants in America ever, the Mexican Porfirio Diaz, was always called respectfully by Mexicans Don Porfirio: only enemies called him Porfirio.
Cuba is a Communist country, and a Communist country is a world of deception and deceit. The charlatan’s doubletalk can be instantly transformed into the intellectual’s doublethink and nobody notices. Heberto Padilla’s poems were written, most of them, in the capital of Cuba, Havana. Cuba is the Caribbean island where Fidel Castro, its president for life, a first-generation Cuban whose parents were born in Galicia, Spain, and who was educated by Spanish Jesuits, could shout, at a mass rally, through the PA system: ‘We’re not Latin! We’re more than Latin! We are Afro Latin Americans!’ Nobody asked if this was genetically possible. Nobody asked if Galicia now had a border with Namibia. Nobody questioned his ars combinatoria. Why not Latin Afro American or Afro American Latin or – what the hell! Nobody asked anything: nobody ever does in Cuba and lives to tell it. But what he meant was that his Cuba had the racial right to intervene militarily in Africa.
Fidel Castro, who as a university student was known by his classmates as el Gallego (the Galician), was actually a Spaniard in the works. Or rather, he is part of the Spanish heritage in America. The country that gave you Cortez, Pizarro and Aguirre and the Conquistador now gives you the Caudillo! I give you the Latin American Caudillo. In Spain, Francisco Franco wanted to be called El Caudillo, Por la Gracia de Dios. And Castro is an updated avatar of the Spanish Caudillo. There have been other such avatars, now obsolete. There was Rosas in Argentina, whose hands didn’t smell of roses exactly. There was Francia in Paraguay, who called himself ‘I, the Supreme’. There was Gomez in Venezuela, who ordered his political enemies to be buggered in prison. There was the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua. There was Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, who plucked his eyebrows and pencilled his moustache first thing in the morning and renamed the capital Ciudad Trujillo. There was Perez Jimenez, greedy for pleasure, wearing spectacles to chase naked girls from a motorscooter on his private beach in Venezuela. There was Don Porfirio, and the Perons, and Batista, who always dressed in white and kept taking baths to get rid of his tar. And there was – oh my God, it’s too long a list to suggest coincidence.
When the latest avatar dies in Cuba (and he looks more and more like his own waxwork), English writers and journalists won’t have to go on foot to pay their respects at the mausoleum under the fierce Cuban sun. To pay homage to the Spanish American Caudillo you simply have to go to an old cemetery in Southampton. There you’ll find the tomb of Rosas, who died in that foggy city in 1877. The gaucho general, described by Borges in a poem as like an Argentine Macbeth (‘and more than one thrust of the dagger invoked Juan Manuel Rosas’), went into exile in England. When Peron came back from the dead to snatch the presidency legally, a Marxist Argentine journalist paid me a visit. ‘I’m here on an official mission,’ he confided. ‘I’ve come to take Rosas back with me to Argentina.’ He wanted me to go with him to Southampton. I proposed to go first to a cemetery in London. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You want me to go visit the tomb of Carlos Marx!’ ‘No,’ I told him. ‘I want you to see Mosiey’s tomb.’ ‘Mosley who?’ How could I explain? A throwback, an ancillary avatar, a freak of history – Oswald Mosley, the English Caudillo.
Everything began to turn sour for us Cuban writers when the notorious Meetings with Fidel Castro took place at the National Library in June 1961. But for the Poet wrongness began earlier – in 1959, when he became the chief correspondent in Europe for Prensa Latina (the official Cuban news agency founded by two Peronist exiles from Argentina who were appointed to their job by Che Guevara). He came to London – and made the wrong choice. As headquarters for Prensa Latina he chose a building in Fleet Street where the American news agencies AP and UPI already had their offices. When this spatial coincidence was known in Cuba, the Poet was accused of selling things (secrets? news?), or just selling out to Yankee Imperialism, and was immediately recalled to Havana. Later came the conversations with, or monologue from, Fidel Castro which ended with the banning of the literary magazine I edited, to which the Poet had been a frequent collaborator.
The Poet was arrested and made to confess to newly-minted crimes (still unmentioned today) under the extreme duress that you in England would call torture. His interrogators used a Communist version of the Medieval Ad extirpanda, invented by the Inquisition in the 14th century. It had now been perfected into an Ars extirpanda: the hunt for heretics in the arts and literature had begun in earnest. It was April, always a cruel month for poets. The year was 1971, exactly ten years after the Meetings at the Library, when Fidel Castro concluded his speech (and the meetings) with a dictum which admirers everywhere found felicity itself but which we heard as ominous. Said Fidel Castro, waiting for the applause (which came – from all of us): ‘With the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing!’ The everything he kept to himself, and left us nothing.
Legacies is a selection rather than a collection of Padilla’s poems. Here the British reader will find many fine poems but the enterado will miss a poem or two that was evidence for the prosecution in what was known as ‘the Padilla case’ – which sounds more like something only an Hercule Poirot could crack. It’s understandable that those poems should be missing, and it is the will of the Poet. Or at least his desire.
‘The Travelling Companion’ is History (Padilla’s capital) as seen from a train: steam, wind and speed creating the illusion of a perpetuum mobile. The Poet knows better:
But I only see
road and barbed wire
The ending of this short poem has been translated in masterly fashion, with the Poet seeing his fellow traveller as a girl
beautiful but beyond salvation.
In ‘Calm’ the lyric lines are transformed into a totalitarian warning by the insurgence of the carefree spy who eats this breakfast, not with strong Cuban coffee, but with watery tea in a glass (it was Chesterton, that noble connoiseur, who said that tea, like everything else that comes from the Orient, becomes poisonous if made strong). Cherished daydream turns into nightmare: Morpheus is now amorphous. In ‘The Lovers of the Izmailovo Forest’ the Poet’s only haven in Moscow is to read Blok and Esenin – until he finds them to be just books ‘with new wormholes’. The Poet never says that in the Soviet capital he shared a print shop with Anibal Escalante, a defeated Cuban Hannibal banished to Moscow after a puny Punic War with Fidel Castro. Escalante, once the most powerful Communist leader in America, chose exile instead of poison – unlike the original Hannibal. He was now a galley slave sitting on the bench next to the migratory Poet’s. At length both the Poet and the politician were able to return to Cuba: the Tyrant, you see, forgives though he never forgets. Escalante came back to try once more to snatch Communist power from Castro’s jaws – and to end in gaol; the Poet to try and tame the Beast with poems that were Marxist Carols for a Santa Claws – who had abolished Christmas.
Padilla had to be set free in Cuba sooner or later, and he was. Now he is also Scot-free – working with Alastair Reid, formerly from the East Neuk of Fife. Padilla is from Pinar del Rio, the pinewood by the river, in Western Cuba: tobacco country. In Legacies the kilt matches the Havana wrapper perfectly. Here are some samples. Ladies first.
‘Advice to a Lady’ is a poem in which Padilla, like a Cuban Sexus Propertius, or rather a political Ovid, gives her cue to a lady from the Cuban haute bourgeoisie, reluctant to vanish, on how to behave improperly, according to the new times and mores. That dama must even bed a young becado (a grantee of the Revolution) and let her ‘thighs enact the struggle of the contraries’. Reid has an elegant phrase to sum up this battle of the sexes that begins and ends in a clash of classes: ‘Take a scholar to bed.’ Turning the becado into a scholar is giving the English reader the benefit of a choice. But becado has had a very particular Cuban connotation, especially since 1960, when the Revolution began giving grants to students from the provinces to come to Havana to study. The winners were mostly ignorant peasants, uncouth town-dwellers, and ungracious provincials – and very, very young. Padilla, who hates plays on words (so does Castro – he prefers swords), probably never noticed that becado comes comically close to bocado, a bite and a dish. Bocado also has the sexual connotations of the typical male innuendo feminists despise so much.
Padilla owes a lot to a few English poets: he is an admirer and a translator (one can be both, you know) of Coleridge and Keats and Byron, but he seems to be particularly fond of William Blake, a poet I find crude and clumsy. Poetically Blake is as naive as he is primitive as a draughtsman: an illustrator of Biblical themes who entertains metaphysical pretensions above his station of the cross. ‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ – this to me is worse than Stevenson’s ‘Windy Night’. Rhymes for children who are fond of things that go umpah-umpah in the night!
In ‘A Prayer for the End of the Century’ the Poet claims that
the error exists today
that someone will have to condemn tomorrow.
It was an ironic error on the Tyrant’s part to let the Poet get away, and one he must have regretted ever since – these poems are his memorial. Poems never killed a tyrant – the opposite is true. Tyrants are reported to have killed poets because of a sonnet or two sung offbeat. But they still are, in totalitarian regimes, an irritant that might one day become the spur of political turmoil and even revolt. Otherwise why make Esenin kill himself or kill mild Mandelstam or enforce poet’s block on Blok? Padilla is, as it happens, far from being a political poet by Communist standards.
The Poet calls Cuba ‘Marx’s Dream’ (more like Marx’s pet project, in Spanish), and the dream turned out to be one of St John’s most sinister revelations. Communism itself is Vico’s nightmare: constant Armageddon. For the Poet and me, Cuba is a midnight dream that turned sour the morning after. We even shared the same experiences separately. The Poet is approached in the poem of this name by a Russian teenager who has been stalking him ‘in a huge square’. All he wants is to buy the Poet’s nylon windbreaker, a cheap garment made in the West. Years before I was crossing Moscow’s Red Square one windy autumn morning with Carlos Franqui (the only real revolutionary who did anything for culture in Cuba without using it for personal or political gain – which cost him his job and his country and almost his life too) when Franqui, with his vast clandestine experience, noticed that we were being cautiously followed. We let our follower approach, spy or cop, to confront him and ask him in pidgin Esperanto what the hell he wanted. But all the stalker did was to point to Franqui’s raincoat, a cheap nylon affair made in the West. It was obvious that he badly wanted to buy it. The stranger was risking gaol for this anti-social activity. Recognising one of those ‘poor people of the earth’ singled out in ‘L’Internationale’ as better-off under Communism, Franqui took off his raincoat and gave it to this child of the Soviet system, who was re-enacting Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ one hundred years later. Now to another Russian, still crying for the fundamental freedom to buy a raincoat, Padilla gave his poem, twenty years on.
‘Techniques of Pursuit’, published in America while the Poet was still an inmate of Cuba, is about pursuit as a cure for paranoia. There’s no paranoid delusion where you are really persecuted. To the hunted fox the ghostly hounds running after him in the morning mist look terribly real. The Poet’s pursuers are now two lovely young things and they are shapely real. In Cuba, young girls make the best agents. They can perform cover and uncover jobs. These two young spies are members of an exclusive club: the Cuban KGB, familiarly known by an American code-name taken from Batista’s army – the G2. If you belong to the G2 and are young and female and beautiful, you can become a delectable detector of enemies of the Party, the people and the fatherland. Take your pick, companerita.
In ‘Via Condotti’ one must praise the translation of the Cuban simile ‘y desnudo como un Cristo veloz’ – naked like a speeding Jesus – as a ‘streaking Christ’. This is certainly very close to the irreverent parody of Jarry’s ‘The Passion Considered as a Bike Race in France’ which begins simply: ‘Jesus demarra.’ In another poem Padilla addresses the legendary second king of Rome as ‘my old Numa Pompilius’, perhaps because he always called Dr Castro by the familiar Fidel. But I recognise that quaint familiarity with the Ancients which enabled Cavafy to admire Antony and ogle Octavius. Such familiarity, like any other, breathes contempt.
To my chastising chagrin, one of the best poems is the long ode to ‘The Childhood of William Blake’, a poem so splendid that I felt tempted to quote it in full. The writer as critic must be wilder than Wilde and resist every temptation, including quotation. But I must at least reveal the end:
Night, you somehow know him
For a few hours now,
let poor Blake sleep at last.
Sing to him, tell him a happy story;
let him rest on your waters,
to wake far away,
serene, Mother, in your sanctuary of cold.
It is beautiful in Spanish and in English too. But let me tell you something: it’s not at all in the Spanish grain. Not even in the most recent tradition, that of Lezama Lima, obscure and splendid as he is in his unnatural coupling of Gongora and Mallarmé:sodomy and miscegenation. This is the English tradition in Spanish, of which Borges is both disciple and master. In the next poem, however, ‘Wellington in his garden contemplating a portrait of Byron’, Padilla moves towards Cavafy’s way with the past, which is transformed into a historic present. Cavafy, a Greek among Greeks in a Greek city, didn’t have to conceal that he was slightly different – not bent in bed, but a poet. Padilla had to hide that he was a heretic among believers. Such men are dangerous – and I mean, of course, believers – even if they are faking. Especially when they are faking.
Towards the end (of the book, of his sojourn in gaol) Padilla shows a metaphysical turn, probably after committing the bourgeoisism of translating his English peers and masters for Cuban gaolers and brother inmates. It would have been more profitable to translate Russian poets of the past, and even better, to invite his Soviet contemporaries to a voyage abroad, to the tropics. But these last are no masters – more like slaves, I should say. Not a task for the Poet, then. He had to weave his verses in the dark and walk by night those meaningful streets of Havana like some sleepwalking artist on his high-wire act. In a Communist country, every footstep may be an incriminating footprint.
Arguably the best poem in the book is ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wizard’. There’s a catch in the Spanish title: duende means perhaps a magician, like De Falla’s brujo, and surely also an elf, but I’d rather have imp here and make the connection between Poe and Poet. The poem is free of history, free of politics, free of Cavafy, free of Kant and Marx’s cant and the rest of the gang. It should have been written on the green campus of Princeton, where Padilla now lives, with his dark lady who writes sonnets, his young son, and their mad English dog who barks at all the trees, right or wrong.
‘Note’ – ‘For those on the trail of the marvelous’ – is the best translated of the poems. The marvel-trackers are the followers of Alejo Carpentier, deceased, therefore Castro’s favourite Cuban writer. These camp-followers believed that the fiddler on the roof is the emblem of a new aesthetic credo and not a fauxnaif painting by Chagall, good enough to entitle a Broadway musical where only the fiddler feels as fit as his fiddle. In some South American novels people take off at will to fly up and away. This is supposed to be the most marvellous feat. Why, that’s what the novice did all the time in the Flying Nun TV series! No wonder such writers believe that magic realism was invented in South America by a French author born in Cuba who spoke Spanish with gargling Gallic R’s. If you can believe that, you can believe that not only nuns but nannies can fly.
A strange bond of poetry unites Borges and Lezama with Padilla (though there was no love lost between the two Cubans). This bond is called Quevedo, the Baroque Spanish wordsman and swordsman. But Padilla would rather be shot at dawn than be called baroque point-blank. There it is, though, his ‘Monologue of Quevedo’ and, going for Baroque, this is followed by ‘The Apparition of Gongora’, the man who invented the Spanish brand of bubbling champagne called El Barroco, a heady wine of a style which, according to Borges, carries its own parody within. But Padilla never parodies anybody’s style, not even his own.
In ‘Relief, where
Every time a generation
comes in or goes out, slamming doors,
the old poet tightens his belt
and tunes up his cornet like a little rooster,
we hear the challenge of the once cocky young poet as he snarls at this bantamweight opponent: ‘Come on, punk – sing!’ But immediately after, in ‘Occasional Wicked Thoughts’, the Poet speaks about a very personal problem that concerns, or should concern, every Communist or would-be Communist poet, and of course every poet. Yet one cannot help wondering. Was this man – a literary, not a political animal – was he really ever a Communist? The only possible answer is in ‘According to the Old Bard’ – which would be the final poem of the book, since it has to do with poets and the Poet:
Don’t you forget it, poet.
In whatever place or time
you make, or suffer, History,
some dangerous poem is always stalking you.
The last episode of the continuing story of the Poet and the Tyrant (the pecking order is now a Peking order) took place in Barcelona this summer. Padilla came to Spain with wife and son for a holiday in the sun, to hear the language and to see his Spanish publishers. He planned to show them how far he had got in his memoirs and instead of going to a hotel he went to stay with his friend Mauricio Wacquez, an exiled Chilean writer (this is the morning of the Age of Exile, not Aquarius). One afternoon they all went for a walk in the Ramblas and to have lunch at an al-fresco fonda. When they came back they found the door of Wacquez’s apartment ajar: it had been pried open. Inside, everything seemed to be in order. Only minor household appliances were missing and apparently the thieves had failed to steal even a new electric typewriter. But something else was missing: the manuscript of Padilla’s memoirs.
Padilla phoned me and told me that the purloined manuscript was only a copy. ‘Do you think that I was going to leave my original script lying around just like that?’ he chortled. ‘Mi amigo, I’ve lived in Castro’s Cuba long enough to know that a careless mind can become a stiff body in a jiffy!’ He laughed now. ‘They knew I must have had a copy or kept the original somewhere else.’ He became more serious: ‘This is simply a warning, like the alarm that rings before the burglary. They wanted me to know they can reach me anywhere whenever they want. This is just a signal in their Morse code.’ I interrupted: ‘A Marx code then? I’m sorry, old boy. I couldn’t help it. Do go on.’ Padilla was deadly serious: ‘Castro doesn’t want me to disclose all I know about Fidel. He must know by now that I’m not telling all. I am a poet and I know that poetic justice has nothing to do with poetry.’
It has even less to do with poets, not even with dead ones. Some people in Spain refused to believe that the burglary ever took place and put it about that it was all a clumsy scenario for a cheap publicity stunt. It is a moot point whether the thievery really happened or not. What’s pertinent is that if it didn’t happen, it could have. How many people of good will would have said, before the fact, that a Bulgarian writer in exile in England could have been killed in broad daylight near the Strand with an everyday English article concealing a most uncommon weapon loaded with the deadliest poison known to man? And what about the recent episode of the Rumanian writer marked down to be killed over cocktails in Paris! Bizarre murders don’t necessarily have bizarre motives. For friends of the plausible (who sometimes are also friends of progressive causes), the latest development in Heberto Padilla’s open case is not the long arm of the Tyrant trying to test its reach, but just another move by a shrewd poet who is his own PR man. Perhaps. But then when was Pound really true? When he broadcast garrulously on Mussolini’s behalf or when he was put in a cage by his American captors and chose silence for ever? On the other hand, the left one, was Lorca really shot by the Fascists, or was it all some publicity stunt that backfired at dawn? The life of the poet sometimes resembles the death of the poet so uncannily.
After I had written the foregoing came the news that the poet Armando Valladares was about to be set free by Fidel Castro in consequence of a private démarche from the French President. Immediately, the European Left unanimously congratulated Castro on his gesture; Valladares was flown from Havana to Paris via Madrid. At Barajas airport he was treated like a defecting spy and hastily smuggled from the Cuban commercial plane into a waiting French Army plane. Friends in Madrid and newsmen in Paris noticed that he limped, but could walk all the way to meet his wife Marta, who had married him in gaol when he was not yet an invalid but only an inmate in a high-security prison. In France he is staying with Fernando Arrabal, the Spanish playwright, who has been one of his staunchest supporters. I phoned Arrabal but couldn’t speak to Valladares: he had given his word to the French Minister for Culture that he wouldn’t talk to anybody until they had secured the exit from Cuba of the poet’s mother and sister. Arrabal, with the discretion only a Spanish anarchist could have about these things, told me that the poet and his beautiful young wife were sleeping in separate bedrooms ‘until they marry in church in Miami. As you know, they were forbidden to do this in Cuba.’ Such vows of celibacy disclosed that another European ruler had had to do with Valladares’s release. This was the Pope himself, who sees both Marta and Armando as exemplary Catholics suffering for their faith. But others were equally decisive in securing the poet’s freedom: the Times, for instance, the English branch of Amnesty, and, last but not least, the British Parliament. The historian Hugh Thomas had put forward to the House of Lords a motion asking the Cuban Government that Valladares be set free. This is the same Lord Thomas who in his history of Cuba wrote that the New York Times – specifically, an article written by the late Herbert Matthews in February 1957, after interviewing the Cuban guerrilla leader in his hide-out in the Sierras – ‘created for North Americans the legend of Castro’ and made it possible for Fidel Castro to become ‘an American hero’. Twenty-five years later, here is the New York Times on the subject of its hero:
Cuba has at last ended the shameful imprisonment of Armando Valladares, who has wasted in jail for 22 years for disagreeing with Fidel Castro. Mr Valladares has nonetheless become known abroad through his poetry. But he has been partially disabled, apparently by polyneuritis, the legacy of a starvation diet by which he was punished six years ago. His book of poems is entitled From My Wheelchair
Three years ago Mr Valladares was informed that he and his family could leave Cuba, at this price, in his words: ‘I have to draft a letter denying my friends among intellectuals and poets abroad; I have to forbid everyone, including newspapers and organisations, to speak or write about me and my literary works.... I must even disavow and deny every truth they have spoken in defending my situation.’ He did not bow. It took the intervention of France’s President Mitterrand to end the 45-year-old poet’s or-deal.
Ponder that: Despite a monopoly of state power, Mr Castro has felt threatened by a caged poet. A regime that boasts of teaching Cubans to read will not let them write.
I would like to add, though, that another Cuban poet, Angel Cuadra, a former Castroite, spent 14 years in gaol and then, as a Cuban parole, was transferred to a farm to do menial labour. But he committed the crime of sending the manuscript of his new book of poems abroad. When the book was published in the US, he was forced to complete his 20 years sentence in Boniato, one of the cruellest prisons in Cuba. Cuadra finished his time earlier this year. But he is still in Cuba, longing for freedom and trying to leave the island – to no avail. He is a prisoner out of prison.
As we all know, here in England, next to the Parliament, there is a Poets’ Corner, to honour poets and writers. In Cuba, as in every Communist country, they have a different sense of literary honours. They put poets in dungeons and wheelchairs and in hard-labour farms. Thus they, too, keep their poets cornered.