Stephen Smith goes to Cuba and tries to get his books out of the library

In a library on Paseo de Marti in Havana – a single strip light, a stopped clock, a thrashed fan – I ask if they have anything by G. Cabrera Infante. The Cuban novelist was expelled from his country’s writers’ union in 1968, by which time he had already spent three years in exile. He has vehemently rehearsed exactly how underground his books are in his native land in a new collection of vindicatory essays, Mea Cuba, which I have boldly taken into Havana as hand luggage.

The librarian says she will go and have a look. Hooked into her cleavage is a pair of red spectacles. One of the lenses is cracked. At her heels is a frizzy-haired poodle. Cabrera Infante says that his novel, Three Trapped Tigers, was placed on a black list, ‘the Castroist Index’. Those who championed the book lost their jobs. He concedes that Cubans might be able to find his work, but if they let on they want to read it as well, they might wish they hadn’t.

When the librarian returns, she’s wearing the spectacles, and carrying four hardbacks. There’s something called Tap Roots by James Sweet about the American Civil War, published in 1942; a pair of liver-spotted Somerset Maughams – ‘the revolver was not there: his heart thumped violently against his ribs’ – and A Tale of Two Cities.

The librarian says: ‘I’m sorry, we have the books of Cabrera Infante but I’m afraid I cannot give them to you. We’re doing a lot of work here. Perhaps you can read these instead?’

‘Excuse me, you have his books but I can’t see them? Why not exactly?’

‘Because they are being reclassified,’ says the librarian.

‘Will I be able to see them next week?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Have you read him?’

‘No. But I would like to. Many people have asked for his books and recommended them.’

I open the Dickens, and I’m reflecting on that introduction, when a scrap of paper appears on the table by my hand. It’s the name and address of the librarian, whose initial is L. ‘If you come to my house, I have a friend who has Cabrera Infante’s books,’ she says.

From the unglazed window of her apartment overlooking Havana’s seafront, the Malecon, L. watched los balseros, the rafters, scrambling for Miami during the summer, she tells me. I’ve already seen some rafters myself – forlorn-looking figures dangling their legs over the sides of inner tubes off Havana’s shimmering east beaches. These turned out to be fishermen – mariners of a sort, then, presumably going down to the sea in the best boats their money could buy – and yet they all looked likely to capsize at any moment in the torpid swell. It was a head-clearing thought that los balseros were even less well-prepared than this. As I write, there have been no reported attempts on the Gulf of Florida for six weeks. The Cuban Government and the United States are in talks over allowing some 20,000 Cubans to emigrate legally to America, easing the crush of balseros at the US base at Guantánamo, eastern Cuba. Sources in the capital are expecting the permits to be divided between Cubans considered to have refugee status; those with families in the United States; and the lucky winners of a visa-lottery.

L., who is in her early forties, is wearing a mildly ribald T-shirt and short blue skirt. Somehow she has procured tea for her English guest. In Cuba’s apparently indefinite ‘special period’ of economic austerity, which was just beginning the last time I was here four years ago, the ration provides for a bun every day, 5 lbs of rice and 3 lbs of sugar a month, and 2 lbs of salt a month for every family. However, there is more salad, fruit and pork in the markets. Since October, farmers have been allowed to sell whatever they have left after they have fulfilled their output norms, for prices above ration-book rates. ‘Some people in the government have decided that ideology isn’t as important as putting food in people’s mouths,’ according to one Western diplomat.

L. strains the contents of a saucepan through a cloth into a tin mug and divides it between two smeared glasses, which she tops up from the tap. ‘So tell me,’ she says lightly, handing me my tea, ‘is London really as rainy as they say?’

Her husband slouches down wooden stairs from the family’s sleeping quarters overhead. He wears pumps with the laces missing, like a man in police custody. He offers to sell me two foil sheets of tablets for five dollars. They’re labelled PPG and issued by the Cuban authorities, he claims. L. says, ‘They are good for the heart, they help you after an accident.’ Her husband leers at me and cocks a terrible forearm. ‘They also make you potent,’ she adds.

Five bucks seems a snip for such a panacea, and you wonder that the authorities aren’t lacing the drinking water with it. But the truth is that the country’s admired health provisions are under great strain: a two-tier system in medicine is well-established. I went into a pharmacy with a Cuban woman who had briefly returned from her job overseas to visit her family. With her dollars, she was able to shop in what resembled a Duty Free of drugs – there were pyramids of skin cream, refrigerated shelves of pills and tonics. She bought medicines which her sister needed. Her sister had to wait outside.

I thank L.’s husband for his proposition, but say I am anxious to meet the person who has Cabrera Infante’s books. L. plumps up her hair in front of a speckled mirror. She says: ‘My friend is a sculptor. He is very good but his place is not so nice.’

She takes me to a blackened stew of a building. An old boy is leaning woozily against a bare wooden stave or prop. A dark-skinned man wheels his bicycle past two young girls playing on a landing. The floor of the landing is covered with tiles in a floral design – except where it has fallen through, and the tiles have been replaced by a footbridge of four-by-two. The roof of the building is also half fallen-in. What must once have been a beautiful spiral staircase now finishes ten feet off the ground in a whorl of rusty hoops. The balustrade is rotten and looks as if it would give way to a good firm cough. L. knocks on a door but the sculptor who has the Cabrera Infantes is out, it seems.

I’m dining in my hotel that evening when I am wordlessly joined by L. I look up in some alarm. She reminds me of my plans to make a trip out of the city the following day, to visit a Cuban writer of independent views. L. thinks she might be able to help me with my travel arrangements. She is a little tipsy. ‘I have just left my husband for a few hours,’ she confides. ‘He is my second husband. You know, I loved my first husband very much.’

‘Oh?’ The food has the tang of a house clearance sale so I don’t begrudge pushing my plate aside. ‘What happened?’

‘It was another woman.’ L. helps herself to one of my cigarettes. ‘You know, my husband – my new husband – is very jealous.’

Sure enough, next morning I find that L. has organised a pillar-box red 1952 Chevrolet – ‘the year I was born!’ Its owner, René acquired it a month earlier from a man who was last seen making for Florida. I am to give René 10 dollars for (black market) gasoline. Supplies of fuel, already limited by an American embargo now well into its fourth decade, have further dwindled with the drying up of cheap oil from Moscow.

René says that in the event of the police stopping us, I should tell them that I’m a hitch-hiker. Foreigners are expected to keep themselves to themselves in air-conditioned ‘turistaxis’. ‘What will happen if they find out about us?’ I ask him.

‘I think they will fine us,’ he says. ‘They may also want to talk to you.’

The Chevy cruises – promenades – at 50 kilometres an hour. She returns relatively uncompetitive fuel economy numbers of eight km to the litre. L. cranes over the bench-seat and asks me what sort of dishes we Britons enjoy. As I’m giving her my recipe for toad-in-the-hole, I ask myself again whether I’m doing the right thing by bringing her along. It’s bad enough going to meet a writer with whom the regime doesn’t entirely see eye to eye, in a car I’m not supposed to be in, without risking the wrath of a jealous husband who has access to wonder drugs. On the other hand, L. speaks good English (better than my Spanish) and she is very willing.

About an hour out of Havana, we’re flagged down by a patrolman of the National Revolutionary Police. René takes his papers from the dashboard and gets out of the car. I turn to L. and she looks at me. ‘So you eat a lot of roast food in England?’ she says dreamily.

The writer I have come to see isn’t on the phone but fortunately we find him at home. The journey has taken three-and-a-half hours, with two police stops. Our host, who asks not to be identified but whom we might call A., is sitting in football shorts and singlet, long legs tucked underneath him on a cane chair. Anyone managing a writers’ XI would want to sign him on the spot – a sly, last-minute ringer for Melvyn Bragg or Martin Amis.

A. is in his early thirties and is presently contributing to magazines in South America. A short story of his appeared in a Cuban anthology published last year. ‘We had help from Spain and the USA,’ he explains. ‘We would like to publish the book in English but we don’t have the means.’ He makes me a present of a copy. I have doubts about my swap; Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A.’s story deals with the dominance of the man of the house – a not un-Latin theme – and the punishment a father dishes out to his child.

‘This is an allegory?’ I ask him.

‘Of course, an allegory for a society with a man who wants to rule everyone and doesn’t hear anyone, and wants everyone to do what he says because he thinks what he says is the best.’

I’m interested to know how hard it is for writers to write in Cuba. Western embassy sources in Havana note that while the Cuban media are still expected to support rather than inform, as one put it, criticism is tolerated provided it promotes efficiency. State radio has been running sceptical pieces on issues such as transport, for instance.

A week before meeting A., I spent an afternoon in an attic with a theatre troupe. They said drama was being used to change things. The play Manteca (‘Cooking Oil’), for example, about a man illegally keeping a pig in Havana – a kind of Cuban Private Function – had emphasised food shortages, and contributed to pressure for the farm reforms. But the members of the company seemed consternated at the idea of satirising the leadership.

‘You ask about Fidel,’ said one. ‘Fidel in Cuba is something like an idol and it’s not accustomed to make jokes about him.’ I mentioned Boris Yeltsin’s tired and emotional non-appearance at Dublin airport. That was sent up in Moscow as well as in the West, I said. Could a similar thing happen here? The actor looked at me gravely. ‘We are not aware of a situation like that with Fidel,’ he said.

Diplomats I’ve spoken to say that dissident – better say, critical – voices are not at liberty to say what they want. ‘But as long as the authorities don’t perceive them as an immediate threat, they’re not taken in,’ one said. ‘However, if you’re going to meet them, you may find that the film is taken out of your camera and your notebooks are confiscated. I’d leave it to the end of your trip. Of course, I can’t advise you one way or the other.’

Pitching gently back and forward in his chair, A. says: ‘Lately a lot of writers haven’t been producing much. Five years ago they were working harder, but now there are problems with food, electricity, buses. There isn’t much time to write. People are depressed and upset and writers are just the same. If you had two years of living like we do in England, I’m sure a lot of people would die!

‘We’ve seen a lot of changes since the troubles with los balseros in August, including economic changes, and in a general sense they have been for the better. But the main, important thing that we need to be changed has not been changed.’

‘Are you talking about a thing or a person?’

‘It could be a person, yes,’ A. replies. We share an eggcup-sized ashtray on a low table which neither of us can reach very well – we tiddly-wink our ash towards it.

A.’s generation of writers is the first to have grown up since the revolution. ‘Everyone expected something and this something hasn’t arrived. We went to school and heard a lot of great things, but what Cubans expected turned out to be dreams. There are a lot of contradictions. For example, many people went to jail for holding dollars. Now they say it’s up to you if you have dollars or not.

‘When I began to write, there was a lot of dogma. There were a lot of matters you could not write about, a lot of books that weren’t written. Some writers can breathe again now. There’s a certain freedom. If somebody tells me to write about something I don’t believe in, I won’t do it.’

An editor wanted A. to cut a passage about a suicide from one of his stories, suicide being frowned on as a ‘non-revolutionary position’. A. withdrew the story instead. It is a certain freedom, I suppose, but it doesn’t sound like very much of one. I ask A. if he can understand why some of his countrymen braved waves and sharks to reach Miami.

He says: ‘You would understand if you lived here with us for two or three years.’

‘Have you considered it?’

He laughs: ‘I’m not crazy. Besides, even when I’m being strangled I’m still Cuban. What would our national identity be if all the Cubans leave Cuba?’

‘So it’s wrong of writers to leave?’

‘Yes, because if everyone leaves the country it will never be a real country.’

Including Cabrera Infante? I ask, remembering the copy of Mea Cuba in my bag.

A. nods. ‘He’s an excellent writer. Of course, you know he’s banned here.’

I give L. the librarian a meaning look but she just smiles back at me good-naturedly.