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Talking Cuba

Mea Cuba

by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. translated by Kenneth Hall with the author
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 503 pp., $23.00

To be Cuban is to be born in Cuba. To be Cuban is to go with Cuba everywhere. To be Cuban is to carry Cuba like a persistent memory. We all carry Cuba within like an unheard music, like a rare vision that we know by heart. Cuba is a paradise from which we flee by trying to return.”

In Mea Cuba, Guillermo Cabrera Infante gathers together all the separate writings on Cuba—articles, essays, memoirs, portraits, reflections, prepared talks—that he has produced since October 3, 1965, the day he left Cuba on a flight to Belgium (where he had been serving as cultural attaché) on the understanding of the authorities that he would not return for two years. His own understanding was different. As the plane passed the point of no return, he says,

I knew then what would be my destiny: to travel without returning to Cuba, to care for my daughters and to occupy myself by/in literature. I don’t know whether or not I pronounced the magic formula—“silence, exile, cunning”—but I can say that it is easier in this time to adopt the literary style than to copy the lifestyle of James Joyce.

Cabrera Infante’s exile has lasted just short of thirty years by now, in the course of which he has become an enduringly original literary presence, unquestionably Cuba’s most important living writer, and one who, more than the other Latin American writers of his generation, has intruded himself into the English language, writing occasionally in an English as startling and original as his Spanish, and masterminding the translations of his own work into English.

Inevitably, since Mea Cuba is as personal as its title suggests, its underlying theme, its underlying reality, is that of exile. When Cabrera Infante left Cuba, he first came to rest in Spain, but, denied permanent residence there, he moved to London, where he has lived steadily since 1966, in about as un-Cuban a setting as can be imagined. In an interview he gave a few years ago, he said: “I inhabit three islands: the British Isles, of which I am now a citizen; Cuba, which is always in my being and my memory, and the top of my desk, which is my active, everyday island.” Most tellingly, however, exile for him meant exile from his language, not just Spanish, but Cuban Spanish, with its quickness of tongue, wryly admired in Spanish America. In the short memoir, “Two Died Together,” in Mea Cuba, Cabrera Infante writes of Cubans talking:

A tasca in old Madrid on a November afternoon in 1976. Two middle-aged men are talking seated at a table. One of them is an imposing black who could easily play Othello, the other is white, short, with protruding eyes that seem to see everything. He could be played by Peter Lorre in Casablanca. Both are Cuban, both exiles and they have been talking louder than the Madrileños around them—and that’s saying a lot…. They are, from right to left, Gastón Baquero and Enrique Labrador Ruiz. They are talking their way downhill. When there is a clearing in their conversation, one hears an unusual thunder: the whole tasca applauds. They are still applauding the two Cubans who talked. They heard them as one hears rain at first, then they listened attentively, then they applauded deafeningly. The Madrileños, who know about tasca talk, recognized the two foreigners for what they were: masters of conversation…. The two friends in the tasca were both exiles and the only thing left to them in life was their art. In which figured, prominently, conversation.

There are many parallels between his situation and that of Vladimir Nabokov—it was in his writing, too, that Cabrera Infante could recover and keep alive the country he had left, with no prospect of returning. Without choosing, he had become, to himself, an outpost of the Cuban language in London, something like a literary embassy, without portfolio. As a consequence, language became his reality. Language, insofar as he could keep it alive, was all he had of Cuba, all that he could take with him.

Born in 1929, three years younger than Fidel Castro, Cabrera Infante, whose parents were founding members of the Cuban Communist Party, came of age with the Revolution. In Mea Cuba, in the long essay “Bites from the Bearded Crocodile,” on the effect of the Revolution on Cuban writers, he recalls its first days:

When Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959 like a larger Christ (as Severo Sarduy wrote from Paris with love), some of us saw him as some kind of younger, bearded version of Magwitch: a tall outlaw emerging from the fog of history to make political Pips of us all. However, the outlaw never became an in-law, only a law unto himself: the Redeemer was always wearing a gun on his hip.

Almost immediately Cabrera Infante was appointed editor of Lunes de Revolución, the literary supplement of the newspaper Revolución that served as the main voice of the new government. As editor, he gave the necessary support to his brother Saba to complete a short documentary film, P.M., an excursion into the night life in the bars and clubs of Havana at the time. Submitted to the official censorship, the film was accused of being counter-revolutionary, and banned. Outraged, Cabrera Infante used Lunes to protest, and brought down on his head something of a show trial, at which Fidel Castro himself addressed the assembled intellectuals on their duties to the Revolution. Soon afterward, Lunes was closed down, and Cabrera Infante found himself in the kind of limbo many Cuban writers of his generation were to inhabit in succeeding years, forbidden to publish. “Within the Revolution, everything! Against the Revolution, nothing!” as Fidel “thundered like a thousand Zeuses.” It was the fate that was to overtake the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971, when he was forced to make a ludicrous public confession of the anti-revolutionary bent of his writing. His case caused many writers throughout Latin America to break openly with the cause of Cuba.

Cabrera Infante was sent to Brussels as cultural attaché; but when he returned to Cuba in 1965 to attend his mother’s funeral, he was made to realize the precariousness of any continuing Cuban existence under an imposed silence, and he accepted the inevitability of exile. The greatest deprivation of exile for Cabrera Infante turned out to be his isolation from the living, shifting language of everyday Havana; but that very circumstance did much to form his prose from that time on. The work-in-progress he carried with him when he left Cuba, the book later published as Tres tristes tigres in 1967, was written almost exclusively in a spoken language, spoken Cuban.

Cabrera Infante has resisted calling it a novel. It is a vast linguistic flight through the nightlife and night-happenings of a group of young Cubans, as meticulously set in a real Havana as was Joyce’s Ulysses in Dublin, a spontaneous native Havana-by-night that would soon be forced underground. Its antecedents are the Satyricon of Petronius and the Night-town chapter of Ulysses. The events, encounters, characters, conversations, arguments, and musings of five Cubans pass through all manner of linguistic modes, and the characters play throughout with many forms of public language—literature, advertising, popular song, local legend, propaganda, the movies, the comics. The spoken language, with its jokes, puns, antic quotations, and irreverent parody, is also playing with the dire realities behind it—the point is that in the spoken language alone the characters are alive and have their being. Living speech free to run wild, is life-giving; the pathos lies in the inevitable return, at the night’s end to silence.

It had been Cabrera Infante’s intention when he began the book to offset the passages of nighttime extravagance and excess with scenes from Cuba’s new daytime reality, the revolutionary zeal that ran directly counter to the irreverences of the night: he would thus suggest the contradictions he lived through as a writer in Cuba. Once in exile, however, he saw that the life of his book lay in the spoken nighttime exuberances of his characters, although the Revolution is everpresent as backdrop and circumstance; and he finished the book accordingly. None of the very substantial novels that were being published in Latin America at the time came anything close to its originality and verbal agility; and few works in Spanish are as hilariously and irreverently funny. It is literature as performance—it can be read on different levels of attention, although language itself is its constant subject-matter. It is also a book to be heard as well as read.

Tres tristes tigres is Cabrera Infante’s seminal work, and it greatly helped to set for Cabrera Infante the mode and manner of the writing that was to follow, as he faced the blank silence of exile. In many passages like this one from Tres tristes tigres, the Revolution intrudes into reverie:

He made a muffled sound. What does a sound look like in its muffler? Idiocy of the folk. Muffled noises. Empty vessels make muffled sounds. Sounds to all deaf. Deaf words falling on silk purposes. Till deaf do us part. The early bird catches the first post. You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make him think. (Though you can make him sink.) Too many cocks spoil the brothel. We need a revolution among proverbs, for God’s sake. Proverbs a la lanterne. Anyone who says a proverb should be shot. Ten sayings that shook the workers. Marx, Marx-Mao, Mao-Mao. It’s a Mao’s world. Soldiers, from the height of this sentence twenty centuries and Big Brother are watching you. Wiscondom of the folk. A phantom is hunting Europe, it is the phantom of Stalin. Crime, how many liberties have been taken in thy name. One must tend socialist man, as one would tend a tree. Ready. Aim. Timmmmmbeeerrrr! A call of duty is a beast forever. Isn’t it true? Isn’t it true? Isn’t it? True.

The sheer fact that spoken language shifts constantly, makes sudden connections, plays with itself, asks and answers with a rapidity and an immediacy that a written language is at slow pains to match led Cabrera Infante to write from that point on deliberately in a spoken language, a language of sheer nerve, one that was free to play, to pun, to make spontaneous connections, to tease a subject, to go at times where language led, to perform a written language that at every point drew attention to itself as language, deceptive and unreliable as it might be clarifying. As a writer, he chose to become a speaking voice, varying between the reportorial and the wry, as here, in an essay called “Actors and Sinners”:

Fidel Castro is perhaps the best television actor in the world, with a mastery of the medium and an absolute control not only of his voice and his gestures but of his temper. I remember having seen him one day in the waiting room of a television studio about to go on the air. Meanwhile, he killed time joking, strolling around calmly as he slowly smoked his habitual Havana, talking about cows and green pasturage and milk production, smiling satisfied: the agreeable agronomist. But no sooner had they introduced him to the well-lit studio and the camera had focused on him, than he came on the air transformed into a true Zeus thundering terrible traumas against an invisible opposition. He was not the elder Marx but the young Jupiter.

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