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 …

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