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The Literary Life in Cuba

Paradiso

by José Lezama Lima
Unión (Havana), 617 pp.

Explosion in the Cathedral

by Alejo Carpentier
Little, Brown

Writers in the New Cuba

edited by J.M. Cohen
Penguin, 192 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Inconsolable Memories

by Edmundo Desnoes, translated by David Gallagher, with Foreward by Jack Gelber
New American Library, 155 pp., $4.50

A Candle in the Wind

by Juan Arcocha
Lyle Stuart, 187 pp., $4.00

The Twelve

by Carlos Franqui, translated by Albert Teichner
Lyle Stuart, 190 pp., $4.50

We will not forbid anyone from writing on the subject he thinks fit. On the contrary, let everyone express himself in the form he considers relevant, and let everyone feel free to express whatever idea he wishes to express. We will always judge creative works through a prism made of revolutionary glass, but then this is as much a right of the Revolutionary Government, as respectable a right as that of each man to express what he wishes to express.”

These reassuring, if patronizing, words were spoken by Raul Roa, the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, in his opening speech at the international Salón de Mayo held in Havana last year. Raul Roa was, of course, largely echoing Fidel Castro’s famous “Words to the Intellectuals” of 1961, and it seems possible to argue that the Cuban Revolution is still honoring Castro’s promise that no writer, unless he was an “incorrigible” counter-revolutionary, would in any way be harassed in his creative freedom.

On the whole it can be said that Cuba has not repeated the excesses whereby other Communist regimes, notably the Soviet one, have endeavored officially to dictate to the arts. There has certainly been no serious attempt to impose socialist realism on writers, that curious Slav phenomenon having generally been held in amused contempt in Cuba, not least by Che Guevara himself in El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba. On the contrary, whereas an important axiom of socialist realism in the Soviet Union is that art must be made comprehensible to “the people,” the emphasis of official policy in Cuba has tended to be, rather, that the people must be educated so that they can comprehend art. Unlike the Soviet Union, Cuba has had no lack of abstract impressionism, pop and op art, serial and electronic music, and all the other trappings of a society free of what are perhaps just Slav forms of socialist philistinism. Nor has there been a lack of translations of, say, Kafka and Robbe-Grillet. Whether the vast and successful literacy campaigns will ever help to interest the masses in the author of In the Labyrinth is another matter. The main thing is that no one is asking budding Cuban Robbe-Grillets to write like Konstantin Fedin. And certainly, thanks to the literacy campaigns, to mobile libraries driven in trucks from village to village, and to a spectacular increase in local book production, the written word is accessible to a far greater number of people now than before the revolution.

WHAT QUALITY of written word though, and what is its future? If many aspects of Cuban literary life today make it evident that Castro’s and Roa’s and Guevara’s assurances are not just so much hypocritical propaganda, there was nothing in Trotsky’s or even Lenin’s pronouncements on art in the 1920s, nor indeed in the immense variety and complexity of, for instance, the novels written by Babel, Zoshchenko, Olyesha, or even Sholokhov at that time, to suggest the obnoxiously bullying attitude toward the arts adopted by Stalin and Zhdanov in the 1930s. Is there, one is led to wonder, any sign in Cuba that its apparent permissiveness could turn sour as it did in the Soviet Union? The answer, alas, is that there is.

Whenever and wherever an official, institutionalized Writers’ Union is formed, there is a danger that literature will pass into the hands of bureaucrats and careerists. Since the formation of the Writers’ Union in the USSR in 1932, careerists and bureaucrats there have been pernicious far beyond the intentions of most party leaders, owing to the repressive facilities the very mechanisms of bureaucracy provide. Now in Cuba, since the formation of the Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) in August, 1961, the literary bureaucracy has often made nonsense of Fidel Castro’s avowedly noble intentions. UNEAC’S power is immense. All writers are obliged to belong to it. The organization that publishes a vast proportion of Cuban books, Unión, is controlled by it, as is a literary magazine of the same name. The trouble is that such immense power over the literary scene is exceedingly easy to misuse, and can fall into the hands of a very few people who can then exploit it to the advantage of their personal careers. Castro’s decision last year to abandon copyright, though in a way of course idealistic and right in the sense that in abandoning foreign copyright the Third World can take some modest revenge against its cultural exploiters, does mean that Cuban authors now have to rely entirely on bureaucratic jobs and UNEAC’S good will for their bread, since they are no longer paid royalties for their books. It is excellent, ideally, that writers should not have to worry about the sales of their books to pay their rent. But is not one form of dependence being substituted for another?

Last year, the Young Communists’ periodical El Caimán Barbudo (“The Bearded Alligator”) published an inquest in which several prominent Cuban writers were asked to comment on a recent best-selling novel called Pasión de Urbino by a man, Lisandro Otero, who, apart from being a somewhat mediocre novelist, also happened to be the most powerful literary boss in the country at the time. All the replies to El Caimán Barbudo were predictably adulatory, with one exception. A talented poet called Heberto Padilla took it upon himself to inquire why it was that so much fuss was being made of Pasión de Urbino when even the publication had not yet been contemplated in Cuba of a far superior novel called Tres tristes tigres by another writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

Tres tristes tigres is a remarkable book. One of its many (scarcely counter-revolutionary) aims is to explore the several different kinds of Spanish employed in Havana, a city in which, after generations of American infiltration, the Spanish language has often come near to disintegration (in Edmundo Desnoes’s Inconsolable Memories there is the eloquent case of a “civilized” Cuban who reads Ortega y Gasset in English). Apart from being a brilliant exhibition of Cuban Spanish, Tres tristes tigres is an exuberantly funny description of the “American brothel,” Havana, by night during the Batista dictatorship, but it virtually never alludes to the political situation, nor does it even refer to the Americans much either. Cabrera Infante does not condone Batista: he just ignores him because Batista does not happen to fall within the scope of his novel. Cabrera Infante is more concerned to display his impressive linguistic virtuosity, applying it not only to the nocturnal world of Cuban sex, song, and dance, but also to the explosion of just about every dreary shibboleth of Latin American culture.

Cabrera Infante has long been out of favor with the literary bureaucrats in Cuba, ever since Lunes de revolución, a periodical he edited which was closely identified with the Revolution, attempted to run a campaign against film censorship, and as a result was closed, owing to “shortage of paper.” Worse, in 1965, he chose to emigrate (after having been sacked without explanation from a diplomatic mission to Belgium), a terrible insolence in a country which still primitively confuses political dissent, and sometimes even foreign travel, with treason. To make matters worse, Tres tristes tigres won a prestigious Spanish literary prize, the Premio Biblioteca Breve, for which Pasión de Urbino had also, unsuccessfully, competed. Thus envy and bureaucratic displeasure with a person rather than with his work, have made it possible that a book which is not only politically innocuous but also one of the most inventively humorous novels in the Spanish language remains unpublished in a country that might well be proud of it. And a vastly inferior novel has been given far more attention than it deserves because of the bureaucratic rank of its author.

As for Heberto Padilla, he was sacked from his job with the official party newspaper, Granma, for defending Tres tristes tigres. Since then, he has been put into Coventry: until recently few dared even speak to him. In a country where authors can no longer receive royalties for their books, to be fired is a serious matter. El Caimán Barbudo itself was suspended for four months, particularly because its (Young Communist) editors were insisting on publishing another letter from Padilla in answer to El Caimán‘s own reply to Padilla’s initial challenge. The paper has now reappeared with a new editorial board. The official reason given for the change is a typical case of justification by inversion that is so common in the Soviet Union. The former editors were apparently too “biased” in their approach. The new editors, we can be sure, will not commit the same crime—of bias in favor of independence of spirit.

Not that we have heard the last of the old editors of El Caimán Barbudo. Since the formation of their paper two years ago they have been proclaiming themselves noisily as the exponents of the revolution’s “second generation,” and, although they have concentrated more on slogans about what literature should be than on actually writing anything of merit themselves, no one can doubt their revolutionary fervor and good will. Many of them had jobs elsewhere and will probably not feel discouraged by their exclusion from El Caimán. Unión and Casa de las Américas have already published some of their works since then. Indeed, Orlando Aloma is now working for Casa de las Américas, Victor Casaus has a job on television, and Jesús Diaz teaches at Havana University. Perhaps a clue to why someone like Heberto Padilla cannot be expected to surface as enthusiastically as did the Caimán group can be found in his poem called “He Was not a Poet of the Future,” recently published in Unión.1

He was definitely not a poet of the future
He spoke a great deal of these hard times
and he analyzed the ruins
but he could never write it down
He walked around always with ashes on his shoulders
He didn’t unravel even a single mystery.

The fact that Unión is publishing Padilla again is, however, encouraging.

Many of the difficulties suffered by liberal intellectuals in Cuba have been caused by similar bureaucratic or personal vendettas which Fidel Castro may well have been too busy to bother about or put right. Castro is said to feel that there are more important things to do in Cuba than to worry about the problems of a few intellectuals. One encouraging sign was the publication in 1966 of José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso, a complex, thickly metaphorical novel written, like Tres tristes tigres, with no concern whatever with the revolution which, if we were to judge from what is expressed by Lezama Lima’s mannered, Gongoristic syntax, might never have happened. But even this was a bureaucratic accident: it seems that no one was able to wade through this intricate verbal labyrinth purposefully enough to reach a chapter which is now notorious for its homosexuality, until it was too late to prevent its publication. (The witch-hunt of homosexuals, which seems now to have abated, has of course been the cause of much anguish for many of Cuba’s leading writers.)

  1. 1

    No fue un poeta del porvenir,” Unión, 4.67, p. 222

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