We know Havana mainly through photographs. Its great exile Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in his memories of the city in Guilty of Dancing the Chachachá, uses the kind of images that photographers love: crusted, Pompeian, the city’s Technicolor faded to black and white, its poetry diminished to documentary propaganda, its graffiti to Socialist slogans, while its forlorn palms have waved the same banner to Death or the Fatherland for nearly half a century. But Havana’s music can still be heard through peeling columns, and its folk dancers still wear the frilled costumes from old movies when its style was designed by Hollywood. The city’s features are raddled with nostalgia like Gloria Swanson’s in Sunset Boulevard, its black and white urchins run in a blur like the begging children in Odd Man Out, its shadows parallel those of East Berlin, its sadness scored not by a zither as in The Third Man but by the plangent lament of a guitar.
Havana, for the novelist, journalist, critic, and screenwriter Gabriel Ca-brera Infante, is like a thriller freeze-framed in the Forties with guitar arpeggios dissolving the stasis and releasing memories like pigeons rising to ecstatic and infectious drumming in praise of exiled deities, in rhumba, shango, and Santería. Mea Cuba, Ca-brera Infante’s collection of essays and reviews, published in Madrid in 1992 and in this country in 1994, is dedicated to a fellow exile, the great cinematographer Néstor Almendros.
To the exile, the music of his country must bring the most pain. Imagine then, Cabrera Infante surprised by a bright burst of Cuban music, from a sun-lanced lane in London. He will never return to Havana, a city he has described with such acrid affection in his previous works: the novels Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers), Infante’s Inferno, and View of Dawn in the Tropics; the monolithic monograph on cigars, Holy Smoke; and the collected prose, Mea Cuba. The theme that no exile, however prolonged, can banish is a Habanera, a lament without reconciliation that contains the deaths of friends, many by their own hand, the treacheries inherent in every revolution, and the sordid banality that, Cabrera Infante thinks, has been made of Cuban life.
In a dictatorship there is only one authorized autobiography, the dictator’s. But exile produces what was conceptually forbidden, the “I” that is more important than the surveillance “eye.” Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical collection is called Mea Cuba except Cuba is not his but Fidel Castro’s.
Cabrera Infante left Cuba on October 3, 1965, his flight being a real flight (by plane for Belgium) and a very moving one. His journalism is solid in recounting the horror and the pain of Castro’s Cuba. In the longer pieces he writes with the conviction of a novelist:
Now, outside the funeral home, after the condolences, [the writer Carlos] Franqui came up, conversed and continued then towards the wake. Gustavo [Arcos, the Cuban ambassador to Belgium] assured me that Franqui was crazy. I …