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Literary Life in Cuba

In response to:

The Literary Life in Cuba from the May 23, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to comment on David Gallagher’s article “The Literary Life in Cuba” in your May 23 issue. (Note: An original and well-documented five-page answer of mine was judged too long, and this is a condensation.)

Mr. Gallagher says: “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.” Mr. Gallagher is forgetting that almost every writer in Cuba is earning his living in fields related to literature or other individual interests, thereby “making revolution” while free to create. And there are writers who have been retained on continuing salaries, at their own request, in order to write a novel for six months or a year (e.g., the case of Jaime Sarusky), as well as those who have been excused from revolutionary duties at home to travel around Europe in search of foreign translations and publications of particularly successful and important books (e.g., the case of Miguel Barnet, with his Cimarron).

Mr. Gallagher gives half-facts regarding the suspension and republication of the Cuban literary sheet, El Caimán Barbudo in an attempt to show further “Stalinist” methodology, El Caimán Barbudo was a Sunday-supplement type literary section dependent on a city newspaper and, as such, liable to the attitudes and policies of that newspaper. The editorial board, composed of young writers coming into their own, needed a literary outlet less “official.” El Caimán Barbudo is now appearing with a new editorial board (writers not yet as established or mature as the first group) and is dedicated primarily as an outlet for literary efforts from the provinces. The members of the old editorship have gone on to positions far more influential in the Cuban literary world. Some of them form the board of directors of the new magazine RC. Orlando Alomá, for example, is not simply “working for Casa de las Américas” as Gallagher says, but is the managing editor of the Casa literary magazine agreed by almost every Latin American intellectual, no matter what his politics, to be one of the finest literary magazines in the Spanish language. Poet and philosopher Roberto Fernandez Retamar is its editor.

Heberto Padilla did not change jobs in connection with the publication of his poem, “He Was Not a Poet of the Future.” I did not notice anyone reluctant to talk to him when I was in Havana in January (during the Cultural Congress), and it is significant that he was one of the few Cuban intellectuals who were official representatives to that congress. In terms of Mr. Gallagher’s ideas of literary freedom, publication of the poem in a leading Cuban literary magazine (Unión) should have been proof enough of literary freedom there. And in the March 1968 Caimán Barbudo (No. 19 of that publication) the issue opens with a long letter written by Padilla, expressing his side of a much more complex socio-literary problem.

There was a hold-up of a few hours (according to editor Fayad Jamis, with whom I spoke in Havana) in the publication of Lezama Lima’s great novel Paradiso, then an edition of 4,000 was not only released immediately but sold out in several days. As for the only serious criticism being that of Cortazar—it depends on what one calls serious. Paradiso received comment from hundreds of critics, Cuban and foreign alike. What should disturb one interested in literary fairness, though, is not Cuba’s reaction to her own books but the world’s reaction to them. No Cuban books may be sold in the United States and, because of United States control and the effects of the cultural blockade, few Cuban books are distributed in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. It is a general feeling, at least in Latin America, that Lezama would have been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature—that high is the regard for his work—had it not been for the fact that he is Cuban. Yet he lives and works in contemporary Cuba, apparently at ease in the revolutionary framework, though his writing has little apparent relationship with it. As for Mr. Gallagher’s affirmation that “UNEAC’s power is immense. All writers are obliged to belong to it,” this is simply another distortion of fact. Yes, many writers do voluntarily join together under the banner of UNEAC to cut sugar cane and participate in other agricultural projects throughout the year, something obviously distasteful to your reviewer. The UNEAC also sees to it, in a country blockaded from the material commodities the elite of most other nations enjoy (paper, pens, carbon paper, typewriter ribbons, etc.) that writers get the material supplies they need with which to work. Not all Cuban writers belong, however. Cintio Vitier, for example, invited twice, has never joined.

The collectivization of agriculture has everything to do with literature; everything has everything to do with literature when literature reflects (i.e., becomes, is) life in a truly integrated society. The position of a thoughtful individual in such a society is one of increasing awareness of the inter-relatedness of all things, and this awareness carries its own sense of responsibility to reflect such fullness, and doesn’t require direct or indirect governmental coercion. The point is, in a revolutionary context there is a natural dynamics of life, of life/art, of art/life, of art.

The intellectuals should commit suicide as a class,” is a metaphor with more validity and truth for these times than Mr. Gallagher will ever suspect. Men like Fidel, Che, Dorticos, and Roa call for the “death” of alienated intellectuals at the same time as they point to the birth of “intellectual workers,” intellectuals who are integrated with the forces about which they write and are, we must suppose, concerned—with no loss whatsoever to their freedom of creativity and/or experimentation. Mr. Gallagher’s facetiousness in remarking “that those Cubans who have not emigrated, are, after all, human beings no less than Americans are” merits no comment. But his assertion that the only respectable and ordinary problems are those such as loneliness and sexual frustration, points up again his unawareness of the many other “ordinary” problems in this “universal” world; problems such as hunger, morality, sacrifice, comprehension, etc. And if a universal problem exists, surely it is alienation, the problem from which all others stem. And the only kind of society dedicated to coping with this problem is a socialist society—and the only socialist society so far where the resolution of this problem seems to be compatible with creative freedom is Cuba.

That in nine years of revolution—with problems and obstacles often much more urgent than the temporary situation of the individual intellectuals—a nation of only seven million has not yet produced a writer Gallagher would compare with Joyce or Rilke, is not of extreme importance. Give them time. From the looks of things, Cuba will be producing its great writers when Mr. Gallagher, old and alienated, will still be mulling over his “acceptable” human problems, sex and loneliness.

Margaret Randall

Mexico City

David Gallagher replies:

Miss Randall’s article is a jumble of bad faith, assertion, and inaccuracy that should be answered paragraph by paragraph.

(1)I was far from “forgetting [when discussing copyright] that almost every writer in Cuba is earning his living in fields related to literature,” because this fact was the whole point of my argument. If (not being able to receive royalties for their books) writers have to rely entirely on jobs related to literature for their living, it is all the more easy for the literary bosses who hand out the jobs to exert pressures on them, and to leave them without a job at all if they are disobedient.

(2)(a) In her euphemistic paragraph on El Caimán Barbudo (the editors were sacked because they “needed a literary outlet less ‘official’ “), Miss Randall doesn’t attempt even to touch on the reason I gave for their dismissal: that they dared to publish Heberto Padilla’s opinions on the relative merits of (cultural boss) Lisandro Otero’s La Pasión de Urbino and (emigré) Guillermo Cabrero Infante’s Tres tristes tigres. Padilla had questioned the wisdom of giving lavish prominence to so mediocre a novel as Otero’s when Tres tristes tigres, certainly the finest novel written by a Cuban since the revolution and one of the finest novels ever written in Spanish, remained unpublished and unmentioned.

(b) Orlando Alomá is described on the jacket of Casa de las Américas as its “Secretario.” Of the magazine itself I wrote with qualified enthusiasm in my article. However, I didn’t, as it happens, mention the well-known fact, which might interest Miss Randall, that if it is indeed “one of the finest literary magazines in the Spanish language” this is thanks to the work of its former editor, Antón Arrufat, who more than anyone else was responsible for the high standard of contributors in it. The “poet and philosopher” Roberto Fernández Retamar (the “Cuban representative” of a magazine of which Miss Randall is an editor) took over when Arrufat was sacked, in 1965, for inviting Allen Ginsberg to Cuba. (Ginsberg himself was, incidentally, arrested on that trip for defending the Cuban homosexual writers, held incommunicado in his hotel for twenty-four hours, and then dispatched by plane to Prague.)

(3)”Heberto Padilla did not change [sic] jobs in connection with the publication of his poem, ‘He was Not a Poet of the Future,”’ Who ever said he did? My only sentence on the subject went as follows: “As for Heberto Padilla, he was sacked from his job with the official party newspaper, Granma, for defending Tres tristes tigres.” Since the publication of his “long letter” in El Caimán Barbudo Padilla has (a) had his passport confiscated while attempting to visit Italy on the invitation of his Italian publishers, Feltrinelli; (b) been sacked from his last remaining job and forced to live off his wife and friends; (c) been the subject of what almost amounts to a special “kick Padilla” number of El Caimán Barbudo (No. 21) sinisterly introduced by the editors as marking the “end of the bout.” It includes a vicious, slanderous attack on Padilla (in heavyweight boxer’s prose) by Lisandro Otero that reads like a bad parody of Sholokhov on Sinyavsky or Solzhenitsyn.

(4)(a) If Paradiso was so popular that 4,000 copies “sold out in several days,” why have more not been printed in Cuba?

(b) Miss Randall’s sentiments about the cultural blockade of Cuba coincide exactly with those expressed in my article. Why repeat them as a fresh idea of her own?

(c) The reason why no well-informed person in their right mind ever dreamt of Lezama Lima as a Nobel Prize Winner is that the Cuban Government was frantically lobbying on behalf of Alejo Carpentier, their official candidate for that award. As for Lezama Lima not getting it because he is Cuban, well, really! Miss Randall. Look at your list of Nobel Prize Winners.

(d) Miss Randall speaks of “voluntary” cutting of sugar cane under the UNEAC banner. Does she believe that writers would be supplied with “paper, pens, carbon paper, typewriter ribbons, etc.” if they didn’t embark on it? Cintio Vitier is a venerable long-established writer of Lezama Lima’s generation, and what he can get away with no younger writer could.

(5) I am not competent to discuss the “natural dynamics of life, of life/art, of art/life, of art.”

(6)(a) My remarks about human beings, loneliness, and sexual frustration were an (I thought) somewhat transparent irony at the expense of American prejudice. Not transparent enough, alas, for Miss Randall.

(b) Either Miss Randall believes that “alienation” will be proved extinguished from Cuba by asserting that it has been over and over again; or she really does believe that Cuba has eliminated “the problem from which all others stem.” Why then doesn’t she go and live there?

(7) I have never gone in for the Olympic Games approach to literature and have consequently never compared the merits of any writer to Miss Randall’s champions, Joyce and Rilke. Of Cuban writers Miss Randall says “Give them time.” How patronizing can you get? Rejoice and be patient, writers of Cuba! Margaret Randall has given you time! My own view of the merits of Cuban writers is that (a) there are many writers in Cuba whom no one would ever read or publish were it not for the glamour surrounding the Cuban revolution in certain circles, i.e., if they came from Paraguay or Luxemburg; and (b) Cuba today boasts a remarkable number of writers of international importance comparable to anyone Miss Randall may care to mention. I am thinking particularly of Lezama Lima, Carpentier, Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy. It cannot however be said that the best work of any of them has been inspired or even affected by the revolution, and the latter two have emigrated anyway.

(8) It may be that when Miss Randall is old (and, presumably, alienated, unless she settles in Cuba) she and others like her will be remembered with the contempt with which young Russians today remember those professional western travelers to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s who were so desperate to praise Soviet achievements that they never spoke up for great writers like Babel, Pilnyak, or Tabidze (to mention but three) whom Stalin shot.

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