The Literary Life in Cuba


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.)

STILL, one ought to be thankful that there is a remarkable amount of literary activity in Cuba. Accident or not, Lezama’s novel was published (although there was very little comment on it in the press—an article by Julio Cortázar in Unión was the only serious criticism it got). Cuba does boast two remarkable literary periodicals, Unión and Casa de las Américas. The standard of contributions to both, particularly to Casa de las Américas, has always been impressive—contributors have included many of the best Latin American writers and such distinguished foreigners as Italo Calvino and Juan Goytisolo. There have been many lively inquiries into the role of the writer in Latin America, though there has been at the same time a great deal of vacuous theory about that role, and some of Casa de las Américas‘ polemics, notably against American cultural infiltration in Latin America, have been so turgid and vituperative as to be ineffectual.

Whatever the outcome of the battle between nobly expressed “Words to Intellectuals” and the mechanisms of a bureaucracy already teeming with careerists, one thing at any rate is clear: the most inventive literature published in Cuba since 1959 has little to do with the revolution and would probably have appeared without it. This is true of Alejo Carpentier’s novel El siglo de las luces,2 published in 1962, a work whose revolutionary investigations are tactfully conducted in the eighteenth century, and whose theory of revolution is rather too cyclical and synchronic to fit in neatly with the historical purpose of Cuba today. The fact that a close investigation of that novel reveals a reactionary attitude to revolution does not prevent Carpentier from writing stirring revolutionary journalism, or holding on to his job as Cuban Cultural Attaché in Paris. Carpentier is now writing a novel about the Cuban revolution and one cannot fairly judge the degree of his present commitment or his capacity to produce revolutionary art until it appears. However at the moment the discrepancies between his creative work and his public pronouncements are disturbing.

Another writer of exceptional talent, Severo Sarduy, is conducting, from Paris, a fictional examination of the surfaces of Cuban life. His mentors are Roland Barthes and Philippe Sollers. He shares their verbally hedonistic belief in the predominance of the “signifier,” which has little to do with the events of 1958-59, and after.

Is there, then, any revolutionary literature at all? It is not Cuba’s fault that anyone who wants to find something out about Cuba is faced with monstrous difficulty. When information in the American and European press is as scarce or dubious as it is at present, people will turn to works of literature and, casting aside normal literary standards, search in it for information about what Cubans really think or feel, what they are allowed to say, what they may allude to obliquely. In this sense there is a politically interesting literature which is not necessarily a revolutionary one, and readers of such Cuban novels will discover that Cuban intellectuals are worried about rationing, Americans, the tediousness of Soviet films, sexual freedom, and their own bourgeois origins; they will see that Cuban intellectuals may feel humiliated when they are sent off to cut sugar cane (in a recent story called “Aquí me pongo,” published in Casa de las Américas, Edmundo Desnoes describes how their hands break out in sores and their feet ache); that they are worried generally by the problems that arise when individual emotions and interests must be sacrificed for the collective revolutionary good.

BUT READERS of J. M. Cohen’s anthology Writers in the New Cuba will mostly suspect that when Cuban writers are directly concerned with politics they generally choose to concentrate safely on exorcising and exposing the Batista period. Occasionally themes of political interest are generalized so effectively that it is not easy to pin them down to any specific period at all. Thus in Calvert Casey’s story “The Execution” and in Virgilio Piñera’s story “The Dragée,” where innocent, anonymous individuals are framed by allegorical villains (in the former, Kafkaesque story, the hero is executed arbitrarily), it is anyone’s guess to what system or period they owe their fate. Abstraction (though mercifully, not yet Aesopism) may well be becoming a self-protective form of censorship.

If, in defiance of US propaganda, Mr. Cohen’s anthology reveals that those Cubans who have not emigrated are, after all, human beings no less than Americans are (many of the stories explore such respectably ordinary problems as urban loneliness and sexual frustration), the collection does not reveal any impressive burgeoning of literary talent among them. In fact the anthology should serve as a reminder that the political relevance or interest of literature from a Communist country bears no necessary relation to its literary merit. That a story fascinatingly reveals that Cuba is not living under a reign of terror but is really a workable, if imperfect, society merely shows the effectiveness of anti-Castro propaganda. It is indeed hard at times to understand how Mr. Cohen can make such high literary claims for his writers. He tells us in his Introduction that “the work of Retamar, Jamís and others…has an economy difficult to find in other Latin American countries” which they owe “to the discipline of Lezama and his group.” We turn to page 58, and find in a poem by Jamís:

And evening on the flank of a drowned man
is not the same as on the branches gleaming with all the whiteness in the world.

Or Jamis writing sub-Mayakovskian “revolutionary” poetry (“My poem has no lilacs or sleeping veins”), which combines national-anthem rhetoric (“Spring sings in my land”) with allusions to “the sweat of men,” “workshop and trench,” “my clenched fist”:

you will see only my clenched fist fall and in my verses
life will flower with all its fires.

Will it really? But then Mr. Cohen, anxious to include in his anthology only those writers who seem identified with the regime, or whose maturity was reached after 1959, has excluded some of the best writers that Cuba has produced at any time: Lezama Lima, Carpentier, Cintio Vitier, and Severo Sarduy. The inclusion of these and other writers would have given unsuspecting readers some idea of how much Mr. Cohen’s group still has to learn from the old bourgeoisie, or from those supposed gusanos or “worms” like Severo Sarduy who have temporarily deserted them. Readers would also have discovered that, contrary to the view often propounded by intellectual tourists to cultural congresses who do far more speculating than reading, the revolution has not brought about a great Renaissance of writing in Cuba. On the contrary, the revolution has itself thrown up no one to compare with Lezama’s and Carpentier’s generation. It can be said that Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy have emerged in spite of rather than because of the revolution.

For the record it should be noted that Mr. Cohen is wrong to say that, “except for one or two poems, everything in this book has been written since 1959, the year of the Cuban revolution.” Cabrera Infante’s story “A Sparrow’s Nest in the Awning” was first published in 1955. Had Mr. Cohen been more honest or well-informed, he might have thought it relevant to explain in his Introduction that three of his authors have been in prison and forced-labor camps for their sexual habits, and that Abelardo Estorino’s play Cain’s Mangoes, published in the anthology, was banned soon after it opened in Havana in the summer of 1965.

THAT EDMUNDO DESNOES was exoluded from Mr. Cohen’s anthology is surprising, but no tragedy. As a document of political interest Inconsolable Memories is valuable, if only because it should reveal some of the absurdities caused by the irrational blockade of information from Cuba. Its political interest must indeed be the main reason for the extravagant praise that has been lavished upon it, and readers of an imperialist cast of mind will enjoy the sardonic glimpses it offers of rationing and chaotic administration, or be pleased to learn that Havana is no longer the “Paris of the Caribbean,” that it now looks like “one of those dead, underdeveloped cities” in the banana republics of Central America. Liberal readers will wonder cozily, as Jack Gelber does in his Preface, at the amazing fact that “Edmundo is not in jail.” As with many of Mr. Cohen’s stories, however, it is doubtful whether anyone would have bothered to publish this novel on its literary merits alone, if it came from, say, Paraguay or Luxemburg.

The hero is a bourgeois approaching middle age. His family, including his wife, has fled to Miami, but he has no intention of following them there, mostly because he is too lazy to buy the airticket, but also because he is sick of his wife, and of all bourgeois inertia except for his own. Instead he chooses to live peacefully, if not energetically, on an income provided by the institute for urban reform after his flat has been expropriated. For this endearingly urbane Oblomov is certainly not one for revolutionary enthusiasm, and throughout the novel his occasional astonished glimpes of the revolution are interrupted by his prevailing interest in his toenails and paunch, in clearing out his earwax with a hair-pin, or in the “sonorous belch” he lets out after sipping café con leche.

THE TROUBLE with this first-person hero (the novel is constructed as a diary, which serves as a handy excuse for the shapelessness of Desnoes’s prose) is that his (or his author’s) writing is not articulate enough to do justice to the sensitive and intelligent thoughts it is meant to convey. It may have been a good idea—though not, perhaps, difficult—to write about the inertia of the Cuban bourgeoisie. It may also have been a good idea to place a mildly sympathetic bourgeois in friendly opposition to the revolution—politically it was certainly clever because Desnoes can put into his hero’s mouth any amount of negative criticism of the revolution while at the same time he not only disassociates himself from him but also reminds us that the hero is a representative of the past. But a good idea does not make a good novel. There is in Inconsolable Memories such poverty of expression, repetitiousness (particularly of such inert sentiments as “Don’t feel like doing anything. I’m sitting here over my typewriter because so much sleep has given me a headache”), and banality (“Don’t want to run away from the hole I carry inside. Want to feel alone and see how deep I can go into it, see if I can get to the bottom of my emptiness”) that it seems remarkable that anyone could have chosen to promote it as a “revelation” from Cuba.

It is a pity that Desnoes writes so ineptly because his intentions are obviously worthy. Many of the ideas and dilemmas his book poses are of intrinsic interest. But they are better read in a recent volume of essays called Punto de vista (“Point of View”), which he has described as the “conscious expression, in concrete ideas” of the novel (or of what the novel fails to depict fictionally). Of those ideas, concrete or otherwise, the most interesting are on underdevelopment, a condition that constantly preoccupies the hero of the novel and is also the theme of several essays in Punto de vista.

Cuba, according to Desnoes, has always been something of a zoo where rich foreign tourists have been able to gape admiringly and patronizingly at its charmingly exotic natives. (This is just as true today when excited intellectuals fly in to gape at revolución y pachanga.) Even sophisticated Cuban writers like Carpentier have obligingly extracted “from underdevelopment the turbulent landscape and the absurd history of the New World,” exploiting it, like a Havana brothel owner, I suppose, for the delectation of civilized foreigners. The Russians themselves are no more than “Emissaries of the great world power down visiting the colonies,” pleased to photograph a beautiful Cuban señorita. Desnoes’s bitterness about such humiliations is impressive and, of course, justified, fitting in neatly at the same time with Castro’s crusade on behalf of the underdeveloped world against the great powers—from whatever block, as Anibal Escalante’s “microfaction” knows only too well.

In Inconsolable Memories there is a touching scene which seems to dramatize the plight of underdeveloped countries. The bourgeois hero is in bed with his maid. The radio is broadcasting an American music program, which is interrupted by the now famous statement: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States.” “What are [missiles], love?” the girl asks. Maid and bourgeois are thus humiliated alike because they are both irrelevant citizens of a nation that is nothing but a pawn of the great powers, and they are all the more pathetic for having believed that the missiles were really Cuba’s own. The hero takes another under-class girl-friend to visit Hemingway’s house in Cuba. “So here is where Mr. Way used to live?” she asks. “Big deal. It looks just like the house the Americans had down at the sugar mill in Oriente, the Prestons…just like the house of any old American sugar mill manager!” Hemingway’s assumptions, in short, were as colonialist as those of any other American, and his sole interest in Cuba was its blue Caribbean sea full of fish, or its faithful servants he could chat with as friends. What can honest members of the Third World have in common with a man like that? “No Bolivian writer will ever be visited by his friend Marlene Dietrich in a suite of the Sherry-Netherland hotel.” The best he can hope for is to masturbate at the sight of her photograph.

Whether Marlene Dietrich has ever visited the Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes or not I do not know. But in Inconsolable Memories he mocks his own well-known tendency to slip out of his Third World denims. The diarist hero one day sees his former friend Edmundo Desnoes or “Eddy” at a pompous cultural conference, “seated at a solid mahogany table,” ceremoniously lighting up a cigar—the perfect cultural bureaucrat. The diarist comments: “No writer who has any respect for himself would give a lecture with a cigar in his hand…. People grow old and vile. Never thought he was an opportunist.”

Many people have accused Desnoes of opportunism, for, until 1960, he was working for “that New York news magazine for Spics, Visión.” “He came back because he was a nobody in New York: to show off in underdevelopment.” These quotations come from Inconsolable Memories and they show that no one could accuse Edmundo Desnoes of opportunism as viciously as Edmundo Desnoes himself. This is a salutory attitude in a man who is one of Cuba’s principal cultural bureaucrats, for he holds a high position in the country’s biggest publishing house, Unión. I have no idea how skillful he is as an administrator there, but he is certainly famous as an entertainer (cigars and all) of foreign intellectual tourists. To compare Inconsolable Memories with Punto de vista is to realize that although he probably has no great future as a novelist, he certainly has one as a thoughtful journalist.

THERE IS NO MORE COMPACT example of the sort of politically interesting themes that are dealt with nowadays in Cuban fiction than Juan Arcocha’s A Candle in the Wind. More than any other Cuban novel of its kind that I have read, Arcocha’s bears the stamp of authenticity, if not of verbal or narrative skill. A Candle in the Wind explores the differing attitudes of two (bourgeois) brothers to the facts of revolutionary life. One is a kind but disaffected engineer for whom the revolution is simply the phenomenon which brings chaos and propaganda to his factory: technical skill and imported spare parts are sacrificed for principles which themselves seem often to be exploited merely for personal expediency by those who proclaim and impose them. His brother, on the other hand, accepts the revolution and joins the militia, eventually dying a beautiful death near the Bay of Pigs. This brother might be described as a Communist version of a Graham Greene Catholic. His story admits the existence of all that is worst in a revolutionary state—there are microphones, innocent men are executed, there is careerism, obsessive suspicion, and the sort of repugnant revolutionary primitivism that makes loyal Cubans yearn to “take a sub-machine gun and run through the streets killing the bourgeois and the homosexuals.” Yet the hero, fully aware of it all, never hesitates to die for his faith.

The questions asked in this novel are left honestly unresolved. The courses taken by the two brothers—emigration and intoxicated martyrdom—are based on personal choice. The novel does not strain to persuade us that either one or the other is the correct choice, for the objective circumstances to which they are a reaction are as yet elusive and equivocal. It need only be added that this novel has not been published in Cuba, although it was submitted to Union for consideration. Not that Arcocha is a gusano—he works in an international organization in Paris as a Cuban, and can often be seen at the Cuban embassy there. When this honest account of the dilemmas of a revolutionary state is published in Cuba one will safely be able to say that Cuba is a country that does not excessively restrict freedom of expression. At the moment one cannot, alas, quite say that.

One of the reasons why virtually no novels in Cuba have depicted the guerrilla war in the sierra may be the often cited one that novelists have been intimidated by the large amount of first-hand, factual reportage that has been published on it. There have been, for instance, Che Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and Enrique Oltuski’s Gente del Ilano (People of the Plain), a self-deprecating account by a party-member of the relationship between the “people of the plain”—the city Communists, the cautiously political non-combatants—and the tough, smelly warriors of the sierra. In Carlos Franqui’s The Twelve, some of the warriors themselves speak out into Carlos Franqui’s tape-recorder, describing with crude, sometimes scarcely articulate, honesty the details of their brutal campaigns. There is not a touch of self-pity in Camilo Cienfuegos’s dead-pan descriptions of how his starving men had to kill one of their mares and eat it “raw and unsalted” on a long forced march, or in José Ponce’s passing reference to “drinking [his own] urine.” One of the most remarkable incidents of the Cuban revolution was the attack on Batista’s palace on March 13, 1957, an attempt to assassinate the dictator which was as brave and cheeky as the Viet Cong’s invasion of the American Embassy in Saigon. This exploit is vividly described in The Twelve by two of the men who took part in it. Who can doubt the heroism and honesty of those people who tell their stories in The Twelve, who devoted nearly six years of their lives to the overthrow of Batista against immeasurable odds and in the face of such monstrous discomfort and personal risk?

The Twelve is not a deliberately portentous title, for it refers quite legitimately to the twelve men (out of eighty-two) who survived the landing of Fidel Castro’s original expedition in December, 1956. (Five of these are among the twelve who actually speak into Franqui’s tape-recorder.) By recalling Blok’s poem about the Red Army, however, its title neatly draws attention to the fact that the Cuban revolution has not inspired as much literature as the Russian revolution did, but relatively more reportage. For however genuine, however important and moving it may be, Carlos Franqui’s book is not, of course, literature, any more than are Enrique Oltuski’s and Che Guevara’s books.

In spite of this, a great deal of theory has been manufactured in Cuba about the “literature of the revolution.” Its most sophisticated spokesman has been Roberto Fernández Retamar, the editor of Casa de las Américas. There have been also the militant Young Communist poets of the Caimán Barbudo group, who often borrow slogans from Fernández Retamar to bolster their manifestoes. I don’t know whether theories about literature ever do work when they are put into practice, but if they are to have half a chance, their executors must have as much talent as they have good will and ambition. It is all very well to assert, as Fernández Retamar does, that Cuba will not reenact that great tragedy of the Soviet Union after the 1920s, the enforced separation of the literary vanguard from the political vanguard. The trouble is that in Cuba the most talented exponents of the literary vanguard, such as Cabrera Infante and Sarduy, have chosen to develop independently of the political vanguard without needing the stimulus of political repression that was lavished on the literary vanguard in Russia. Unlike the Russians, enterprising Cuban writers never really focused on the revolution until remarkably late, many of them largely ignoring Fidel Castro’s exploits in the sierra at the time. His victory took them by surprise because they had all apparently assumed that victory was impossible. This may be one reason why it has not been easy for them to apply much creative exuberance to such topics as the abolition of material incentives or the collectivization of agriculture, the sort of themes for which Fernández Retamar, in the spirit of Mayakovsky, demands exciting new revolutionary forms.

Another reason may be that writers who take literature seriously probably feel that the collectivization of agriculture hasn’t really anything to do with literature at all. Whether or not the autonomy of literature is a bourgeois prejudice, no convincing alternative has been found to it in Cuba in anything except enthusiastic but vacuous theory. Meanwhile, are we really surprised that Guillermo Cabrera Infante appears to be more interested in Lewis Carroll than in Fidel Castro? Or that such a preference has run into difficulties with the regime? It is often held that although Fidel Castro doesn’t waste too much time thinking about intellectuals, he is still anxious to preserve an atmosphere of relative cultural freedom to impress foreign liberals. Basically though, as was shown in Dorticós’s and Castro’s speeches at the Cultural Conference, his government is committed to the sort of notions embodied in Che Guevara’s dictum that “the intellectuals should commit suicide as a class.” The sort of modest, refined sensibility, which doesn’t seek “to unravel a single mystery,” of a man who is “definitely not a poet of the future” will certainly receive less encouragement and encounter greater obstacles than the sensibility of the man who can shout the most loudly optimistic slogan, and hack hardest at the sugar cane.


Literary Life in Cuba November 7, 1968

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Literally, “The Age of Enlightenment.” It was published in the US as Explosion in the Cathedral.