Can rebels be happy?
- Self-Portrait of the Other: A Memoir by Heberto Padilla, translated by Alexander Coleman
Farrar, Straus, 247 pp, £11.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 374 26086 9
After the fall of Batista in 1959, the poet Heberto Padilla, then 27 and living in New York, returned elatedly to Havana, joining the staff of the paper Revolucion. Thus helping to create the god who would later fail him. In 1961 the First Congress of Cuban Writers and Artists was held, its motto being ‘To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture’; simultaneously, Padilla says, it became clear that membership of the new Writers’ Union was to depend on approval by the National Board of Culture, a body designed to prevent any repetition of the Pasternak affair.
Yet for intellectuals it was still something of a honeymoon period. Padilla was stationed briefly in London as chief correspondent of Prensa Latina, the lately established Cuban news agency, and then in Moscow, working on a Spanish-language weekly. Later he became director-general of CUBARTIMPEX, described as ‘a subdivision of the Ministry of Foreign Commerce concerned with the exporting and importing of all items related to art and culture’; the post entailed visits to the Soviet bloc and Scandinavia. Back in Havana, Padilla published a literary-critical article, ‘hardly worth reprinting now’, in which both his praise and his dispraise were considered misdirected. In 1970 State Security acquired the manuscript of a novel of his: he was beaten up, and imprisoned for five weeks.
What specifically Cuban moral derives from Padilla’s memoirs is not altogether clear. But what he says about intellectual life in a totalitarian state is nicely documented and of general application. Of his stay in Moscow he writes: ‘The bureaucracy always viewed culture as if it were an opposition party; a poet begins to feel like a cabinet minister representing a hypothetical enemy power.’ There is, he adds, ‘a certain satisfaction in being observed by the powers that be’, having one’s every word listened to and analysed. A related attraction lies in ‘the intensity with which friendships thrive and flourish’ in such surroundings. All very true. How underprivileged are writers who live in countries like Britain where the political climate is temperate. We have our tasty intrigues and squabbles and scandals, but not the keen-edged pleasures of spotting informers (here Padilla ascribes to them a peculiarly stilted brand of spoken Spanish), of witnessing on occasion the downfall of opportunists and the disgrace of favourites. I recall experiencing a measure of schadenfreude in Singapore when an American professor, whose skills in linguistics were about to do the state immense service, turned out to have links with the CIA and vanished soundlessly overnight. I also felt a ‘certain satisfaction’ when tipped off that special branch officers would be among the audience at a poetry reading. This increases one’s conviction, it sharpens one’s delivery. How pleasing to be taken seriously. Up to a point.
There are some similarities between Castro and Lee Kuan Yew – both have ruled since 1959, both possess ‘charisma’ – although the differences are more marked: Lee’s style is Europeanised-Chinese, Confucian, pragmatic, while Castro’s is Latin American, Napoleonic, ideological. Lee has been able to draw on competent planners and practical economists, and Singapore’s success by current standards is a byword, whereas Cuba slid into dependence on the Soviet Union. Cuba, as these memoirs testify, is rich in writers; Singapore has barely a handful. Happy the land that doesn’t need them?
It wasn’t heartening to hear an occasional (and exceptional) expatriate professor inform University Senate, when some crisis arose in relations between academe and government, that ‘we must remember, this is not Oxford or Cambridge.’ Nor was it gratifying to be told by the Prime Minister that he intended to send the élite of Singapore’s youth to Oxford and Cambridge rather than the local institution. What this meant was that Britain was a conveniently remote place for the young to sow their idealistic wild oats, to get politics out of their system. It struck me as comical but also weirdly impressive when a prominent member of the ruling party denounced us expatriates for encourageing ‘Byzantine expectations’ in our students. Wasn’t it a function of literature to show how a man’s reach could exceed his grasp? Should the formula ‘This isn‘t Britain, you know, you’re not at home now’ be invoked to terminate debate on awkward questions, the kind that might lose one one’s job? We knew Singapore wasn’t Britain: it was a new country with considerable potentialities. Look at the man’s phrasing: ‘Byzantine expectations’ – what a tribute to his British education, perhaps, and certainly to the intellectual sophistication already apparent in this small country.
Yet how much emphasis should be given to the complaints and demands of writers as compared with the condition of the mass of the populace? Writers have the gift of articulacy, it is part of their business to expose injustice, tyranny, corruption, and to voice needed criticism of ‘the powers that be’; but they can fall in love with opposition (when I left Singapore somebody gave me a small rubber doll bearing a banner inscribed ‘I Won’t Do It’), and feel alive only in opposition. ‘I saw the world around me as a battlefield full of mines that might blow me up,’ Padilla says of his earlier self. ‘I preferred that to the unyielding disease of routine.’ It isn’t easy to distinguish with certitude between a genuine concern for social justice and a love of hearing one’s own voice echoing through the corridors of powerlessness – or between a visit to hell and an ego trip. What answer would Yeats really have wanted to his question:
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
To put it in gentler terms, whatever the truth of the idea that writers constitute the growing point of the race, they are not necessarily representative of the people living in the present, those for whom they reckon to speak. Freedom of expression will mean very little to the large majority of Singaporeans, who want freedom to work, albeit hard and without the benefit of trade unions, and earn decent wages, and lead a comfortable life. Not everybody is cut out for an uncomfortable one. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor put the case well when he told Christ that in the interest of human happiness the Church had at last vanquished freedom: ‘Man was created a rebel – and how can rebels be happy?’ Singapore has grown more and more prosperous and (according to reports) more and more dull. But the quality of life, the inner life, of non-intellectuals is hard to gauge, and we shouldn’t suppose it is null.
While Padilla was in Moscow a performance of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony was cancelled because of a reference in one of Yevtushenko’s incorporated poems: ‘They tried to buy off humour, but humour cannot be bought.’ The title of Padilla’s unpublished novel, Heroes are grazing in my garden, caused offence in that only animals graze, including horses, and Castro’s nickname was ‘Horse’. In Singapore the musical setting of a poem called ‘The Streets of Hanoi’ (bombs falling, death, destruction etc) was performed in public only when the title had been prudently changed to ‘The Streets of Saigon’. (And, you might ask, why not? The title really ought to have been ‘The Streets of Hanoi and Saigon’.) Lee’s petty severities were justified by reference to the threat of Communism, Castro’s despotism was declared a necessity in the face of US hostility. So it goes.
An anecdote of Padilla’s seems to the point. In his early days in power Castro proposed to a group of intellectuals that they too should set up a militia, a militia demonstrating their support of the Revolution, and it should be called after a writer. Someone suggested a name. ‘That’s it,’ said Castro, ‘the man who gave up literature and dedicated his life to the revolutionary struggle.’ Better – but somewhat unrealistic, of course – had they put forward a man who had given up the revolutionary struggle and dedicated his life to literature.
Face to face with a policeman, Padilla says, it is futile to shout out one’s truths. ‘The only weapons against such a bully are guile and cunning. It’s not a question of whether you have balls. Those of the Chief of State are well protected by his repressive apparatus, whereas a jailed writer’s balls are highly vulnerable to a well-aimed kick.’ The condition of Padilla’s release was that he should perform ‘the classic rite of self-degradation’, or self-criticism; this was intended to defuse the protests of American and European writers, but had the opposite effect. In the event, Padilla’s colleagues joined in enthusiastically, acting out a parody of mutual self-castigation at the Writers’ Union, a farce which nevertheless received the blessing of the Security officer in charge.
From 1971 onwards Padilla was under constant surveillance, virtually under house arrest, his professional activities restricted to translating ‘bad novels’ and the like. For a while he was rusticated, not uncomfortably, to one of Castro’s model farms; in China he would have been made to labour on it. In 1980 he was granted permission to join his family in the United States. Castro, who appeared to have retained some respect and even affection for him, told him he could come back whenever he wanted. Fidel also observed: ‘Intellectuals are generally not interested in the social aspect of a revolution; they are interested only in their freedoms.’ There was a nervous moment at the airport, when it looked as if the Security agent responsible for Padilla would inspect his satchel and spot the one remaining manuscript of his novel. A sort of relationship had grown up between the two, as commemorated in Padilla’s poem, ‘Don Gustavo’. When the agent
has taken to the plane
that man with whom he has shared
ten years of torture, impatience, rage –
but also ideas,
perhaps the only recompense for his actions –
he will have to go back to the office,
to write up the last conversations
or the last outbursts ...
Unless already well-informed, the reader may be confused by the account of the crowded Cuban literary scene, with its fervours and feuds, its allegiances and animosities, though the cosmopolitanism and above all the passion for words come through clearly. The most touching passages in the book concern the senior writer, Jose Lezama Lima. Padilla disliked his poetry, hermetic and baroque, but admired him as a man. And with good cause. Lezama rejected the suggestion that Padilla’s arrest had to do simply and exclusively with Padilla and his misdemeanours: ‘No, it’s against all of us.’ And in his confrontation with State Security, his unappreciated complexities and ironies, Lezama brings Socrates to mind. The lesson he taught, Padilla says, was that ‘the world of poetry was obliged to reject the temptations of political conformity posed by those who hate poetry, those who hate us.’ Put like that, a rather narrow lesson, unless one takes literally a remark addressed to Castro by one of his associates: ‘In Cuba, everybody is a writer.’ Another lesson, surely of greater consequence, was the one Padilla learnt during his tribulations, when support came from unexpected quarters: ‘Only then was I able to understand that what was important in life was shared experience that transcended ideology.’