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 …

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Letters

Literary Life in Cuba November 7, 1968