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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.

At the same time, however, Cabrera Infante was living in English, entering the language, writing (in English) the screenplay for the film Vanishing Point, and supervising the enormous task of turning the untranslatable flights of Tres tristes tigres into English, becoming in fact a bilingual being. As happened in Nabokov’s case, exile had the effect of intensifying and heightening language for him, and the books he wrote from now on were all destined to have an English existence, masterminded by him. He wore both languages easily, and they cross-fertilized each other. In England especially, his command of the language has brought him both respect and attention.

In 1981, he published in the London Review of Books his long essay on Cuban writers, “Bites from the Bearded Crocodile,” his first deliberate writing in English (he had later to translate it for the Spanish edition of Mea Cuba, as he did the hilarious memoir, Holy Smoke, which he wrote soon after in English). He did not, however, follow Conrad and Nabokov in becoming an English writer, although he was already wittily present as one. Cuba was still what he was composed of, and he determinedly remained a “writer of Cuban.” All his work, consequently, skirts on autobiography, but while it feeds freely on past realities, it also sends them up, burlesquing them, peering at them from new and startling sides. In Infante’s Inferno, the picaresque erotic memoir he wrote of his earlier years in Havana, puns abound, ever more energetically, each one a tugging reminder that we are at the mercy of language and the surprise turns it takes.

Mea Cuba gathers together pieces written irregularly over twenty-four years, close to seventy in all, some of them long, free-ranging essays, some of them short and pithy retorts to critics, some of them written addresses, some of them short reflections. The cast of characters is vast and recurring—friends and colleagues dead or exiled or silent, or caught up in the mechanism of the Revolution. Since Cabrera Infante was bent on preserving his Havana in writing, the detail is sharp, although the ironies are never far away, the tone increasingly sardonic as the book progresses. As opposed to its gleeful predecessors, Mea Cuba is in a sense a reluctant book, one that he would hardly have chosen to write had it not more or less accrued through time.

When he first settled in England, Cabrera Infante kept silent on matters Cuban for some time (silence, exile, cunning). In August of 1968 he was officially expelled from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, as a traitor to the revolutionary cause, and he simultaneously broke his silence on Cuba, in articles and interviews in the press, in Spain and Latin America, and also in occasional lectures. He asks in his preface.

What’s a man like me doing in a book like this? Nobody considers me a political writer nor do I consider myself a politician. But it happens that there are occasions when politics is intensely transformed into an ethical activity.

The voice throughout these pieces is an essentially ethical one, withering and sardonic in its denouncing of human wrongs, bitter in its ironies, fierce in its dismissals. At the same time, however, he chronicles his time and situation in Cuba with enlivening recall, and peoples it with the lost friends and enemies who defined him then, particularly the writers who inevitably found themselves in the same stifling position that had forced him into exile, wondering whether anyone in Cuba would see their work. In an address he delivered in Madrid in 1990, reprinted in Mea Cuba, Cabrera Infante makes the observation:

According to an English writer who visited Havana last year my books were the object of a strange cult among the ruins. Smuggled into the country, they were sold under the counter for the price of—ten tins of condensed milk! La Habana Para un Infante Difunto was then on the list of the best milked books. In the first slot, uncomfortably placed, was a book about perestroika (which in Havana is pronounced “la espera estoica“—the stoic wait), its author called, he is still called, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was the first time that in Communist Cuba a Soviet author collected his officially taxexempt royalties not in pesos but in barter.

Asides on the ambiguous state of exile are threaded throughout the book.

Cuba is the country that has produced the most exiles during more than a century and a half of American history….for us Cubans this is the century of exile…. A million and a half Cubans have already taken the landless road.

Such a diaspora has made inevitable an outpouring of writing on Cuba over the last thirty years, a whole literature of frustration. It seems to me that Cabrera Infante stands quite obstinately apart from that writing, in his stoical acceptance of “the violation of geography by history,” and in his sardonic independence of mind and manner. It is the island of his desk that is his true territory. His fierce exercise of his freedom to write more than compensates for the pain of exile, and the accompanying running guilt at being “here rather than there.”

Most of the essays in Mea Cuba re-create the characters and lived circumstances during the years of descending limbo in Cuba, between 1959 and 1965, and the two people who figure most prominently in these chronicles are José Lezama Lima, the poet of Gongoresque density who was acknowledged as master of Cuban letters at the time of the Revolution, and Virgilio Piñera, the Cuban playwright, both of who served as mentors to Cabrera Infante. Both were homosexual; neither of them was at all adept at reading the changing political climate of the Revolution. They were doomed to be its victims, driven to a kind of internal emigration, to an enforced silence.

Cabrera Infante’s re-creation of them, affectionate in detail and abundant in anecdote, dramatizes painfully and compassionately their inevitable suffocation. When the hearings against Lunes were being held, attended by Castro himself, Lezama Lima, who had himself been attacked in Lunes, nevertheless made a speech invoking the eternity of art and the permanence of culture. This was a characteristic imprudence, since Castro followed by denouncing all cultural divergence in the name of art (which applied even to long hair), by excoriating homosexuals in particular, and eventually persecuting them actively. Anything at all that smacked of the “degenerate” Cuba of Batista, any vestige of the nightworld Cuba Cabrera Infante was at such pains to document and preserve in Tres tristes tigres, had to be obliterated, cleansed, rehabilitated by the Revolution, and writers and artists, dangerously unreliable in such a light, had no choice but to surrender their lives, in one sense or the other.

Since this realization set clearly and implacably in Cabrera Infante’s mind, his position on Cuba has never wavered. Cuba has been since the Sixties a tyranny, the Revolution long since perverted and betrayed. Illusions about the regime and justifications for it are to be revealed and exploded. He has also kept strenuously clear of the factionalism of Cuban exiles. His own stern and sardonic eye has been enough for him. Literature, the act of writing, has been for him life-giving, life-sustaining.

Cabrera Infante’s writings stand out sharply from other writings on Cuba from the outside. They are fiercely personal and they have no particular case to make, no cause to argue. The numerous lives they summon up are anything but case studies—they are real people, rounded out and intricately remembered. Scorn there is in abundance, most of the rampant ridicule reserved for Fidel Castro, whom Cabrera Infante knew and observed in adolescence. In Mea Cuba, he is mostly referred to, for simplicity’s sake, as The Tyrant. He is variously to Cabrera Infante a figure become prehistoric by now, an actor who has totally consumed the stage, but who has survived in power only through creating a web of informers so vast as to sow distrust into the texture of everyday life in Cuba. In a long review-essay on Robert E. Quirk’s biography of Fidel Castro, Cabrera Infante writes:

Nevertheless Fidel Castro went on swamping the land with slogans concocted by this Maximum Publicist. See some samples: “Join the War Against All Weeds,” “Land or Death!” To bigger billboards urging all Cubans to the joys of “Artificial Insemination—Not One Cow Left Barren!” It was a campaign that lasted two generations of Cubans. Not two years ago he exhorted all good men and true to do battle for the potato. “This is a battle we must win,” he said on the May Day parade. “We will win the battle for the potato.” It was more Groucho than Karl: “Potatoes of the country, unite! You have nothing to lose but your roots!” Potatory.

One of the studies in the book that show Cabrera Infante at his very best as a chronicler is his account of the life and times of Capablanca, the Cuban chess master, which begins with a three-year-old Cabrera Infante being taken by his mother to see the catafalque of the Great Cuban. The unwinding of Capablanca’s character, career, and chess prowess through anecdote and aside, the range of reference and analogy Cabrera Infante sneaks into the text, the relish in the prose, give the whole essay the quality and completeness of a film.

Could Fischer have defeated Capablanca? Fischer sought always to demolish his opponent, physically and mentally. The only way that Fischer would have been able to finish off Capablanca would have been to take advantage when Capa pressed the button of his timer to have, behind Fischer’s back, a parade of chorus-girls, models and stripteasers to distract the naked eye of the Cuban.

There is a richly funny essay, “Actors and Sinners,” on politicians-as-actorsas politicians. There is also a moving essay of farewell to Néstor Almendros, the Spanish cinematographer who had become an “honorary Cuban” in Cabrera Infante’s eyes, and who remained a constant friend in all Cabrera Infante’s close ties with cinema. The pieces in Mea Cuba can so often shift in mood, go grave or antic by stages, turn a subject on its ear, reduce a gravity to absurdity, that the reader has to remain on his toes.

In bringing his work into English, Cabrera Infante has had the collaboration of a variety of translators, the most notable and durable of them being Suzanne Jill Levine, who translated Three Trapped Tigers, View of Dawn in the Tropics, and Infante’s Inferno. She elaborates on the experience in her own book, The Subversive Scribe,* a careful and exuberant account of the meticulous exchanges with the author in bringing certain complex passages, certain treacherous titles, into a satisfactory English equivalence. The translator of Mea Cuba, Kenneth Hall, has also performed valiantly. Comparing the English and Spanish versions, I find many small instances where a figure in the text, generally a pun, apparently untranslatable, has been neither lamely rendered nor dropped entirely, but has been recast so as to produce an almost equivalent effect in English. The ability to do so is the stamp of the master, and that stamp is everywhere recognizable in the pages of Mea Cuba.

Whatever the deprivations and invisibilities of exile, and quite apart from the remarkable literature he has produced, Cabrera Infante has by now earned for himself an unusual position, that of a small and ferociously independent outclave of Cuba, something of a conscience to Cubans, particularly those in exile. His view of Cuba is as clear as it is relentless, and he has Cuba at heart. His writings reveal that he is a Cuban to be trusted. It is not every Cuba-in-the-making these days that will be able to look a book like Mea Cuba in the eye.

After scientific analysis only prophecy, it seems to me, is left,” he writes in the essay “And of My Cuba, What?”

When tyrannies succumb they leave behind the enormous weight of the past and no visible, foreseeable future—only the present can be creative. Thus one will have to extend the present of all Cubans to the immediate future, tomorrow, to wonder, and of my Cuba, what? To hear the echo that answers as if a sonorous mirror, “What Cuba?”

  1. *

    The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Graywolf, 1991).

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