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Memories of Underdevelopment

In the epilogue to her new memoir, Dancing with Cuba, Alma Guillermoprieto notes that she became a journalist “more or less by accident” in the 1970s, when she was living in Nicaragua, and Sandinista rebels took up arms against the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The discovery of her true vocation is thus dispatched, like one of those sentences that flits by at the end of a movie based on real events, informing us where the characters ended up years later. Guillermoprieto’s distinguished career is a postscript to the adventure she wants to relate here. So she does not mention that a few years after she began reporting “by accident” from Nicaragua, she found herself in El Salvador, stringing for The Washington Post and bravely risking her safety to reveal one of the worst Central American war atrocities of the 1980s. Unlike memoirists who’ve taken every last advantage of the opportunity, she skips over her life at The New Yorker, where she found an audience in the following decade for elegant “Letters” from various Latin American countries. She doesn’t elaborate on her decision in recent years to leave New York and work out of her native Mexico, and she skips over her experience, surely fascinating, as an instructor in the art of literary reportage to students at a foundation in Cartagena, Colombia, created by Gabriel García Márquez.

Yet Dancing with Cuba does begin to explain a certain graceful resolve that runs through Guillermoprieto’s writing. In The New Yorker and more recently in these pages, she has reported from countries in the grip of era-defining crisis. She has observed suspect elections and feudal exploitation, and seen grandiose guerrilla fantasies unfold. All of these she has explained with lucid authority. But she has resisted the pressure to become a mere useful expert, weighing in with timely diagnoses in the “Week in Review.” Words do not pour out of her easily enough for this, one suspects. Her prose bears the mark of unpundit-like perfectionism, which makes it easy to see her as the standard-bearer of a fragile tradition, resisting the pull of modern, dumbed-down journalism.

So much is true. But in another respect, her work is not old-fashioned at all. Because Latin America has not always been hospitable to rigorous journalism, and journalists writing in English have paid less attention than they should to Latin America, Guillermoprieto has often borne the burden of explaining matters in depth to her audience for the first time. One senses in her prose an ongoing ethical struggle to find the right words for the task.

How did Guillermoprieto come by this resolve? Her new book suggests a surprising answer to this question: she tried, and failed, to dance. That dance and not writing was her first love is not news—her debut book, Samba, chronicled a season she spent among dancers preparing for Carnival in Rio de Janeiro—but Dancing with Cuba makes clearer how passionate and exclusive that love used to be. The story begins in the fall of 1969, when Guillermoprieto is twenty, and living out the final days of a childhood that sounds magically stimulating but emotionally deprived. Having started to dance seriously at the age of twelve in Mexico City, she moved to Manhattan at sixteen. Before long she found a spot training with Martha Graham (still the orthodox priestess of the modern scene but, at this late stage, a grumpy drunk), then migrated to the minimalist, Zen-inspired tutelage of Merce Cunningham. On the side, as the book opens, she has joined a pick-up troupe to perform weird, thrilling, open-air pieces by a new choreographer named Twyla Tharp.

Wryly and none too forgivingly, Guillermoprieto portrays her youthful self as riven with unexplored con-flicts. She is a sophisticate, happily existing along the margins of an adventurous bohemia and secretly nursing monomaniacal dreams of greatness: “I wanted to use my body to invent a brutal, mythical theatrical art that would be completely new.” She is also a cloistered novice serving the religion of art. Missing out on the social benefits of normal schooling, she has mixed with brilliant dancers but not boys; she reads fiction and poetry but never the news; she still lives with, and resentfully depends on, her mother. Worse, she has arrived at the age when dancers must soar to the top if they are to survive at all. The time has come to admit to the stage fright, impaired eyesight, and physical quirks—fatally, her inflexible ankles refuse to “turn out”—that limit her promise.

More out of dread at her situation than excitement, she accepts an offer to teach modern dance in Cuba. For a year, she is to join the staff of a government-run school, part of a large complex devoted to the arts, founded in 1964 as a symbol of Castro’s far-sighted commitment to all things new. The school, when she gets there, turns out to be large and physically striking. But after a few years of mismanagement it is already decrepit, an island of ruined potential lacking such basic teaching aids as mirrors and instruments for musical accompaniment, and deaf to the needs of frightened students, who, though underfed (dietary staples include chickpea gruel and a meat paste made from scraps left over after slaughter), are bullied into feeling guilty for the privilege of being there. The school’s supervi-sor is an unlikely apparatchik: an aging American Communist woman who has lived in Cuba since the Revolution, and whose spiritual rigidity and total lack of personal grace makes her the very antithesis of dance. If this spectacle of distorted humanity appeared more often in the book, she would be a villain worthy of Dickens; instead, Guillermoprieto made a healthy practice of avoiding her. But she could not avoid the forlorn and abandoned feeling that saturated the place. On her first night in Cuba, she dreams of a trunkful of severed heads.

It is fair to say that up to this point Guillermoprieto knows almost nothing about politics and history, two subjects in which she has since become wise:

My political attitude toward the world I lived in, if I had one at all, was, I believe, a mixture of sincere elements of antiauthoritarianism, anticlericalism, horror of torture, revulsion at social inequality, defense of animals, terror of any type of violence, and distrust of anything related to big business, especially advertising.

But no one reading this memoir can fail to see how her experience as a dancer—required to observe her body every morning and pry open stubborn emotional blocks, intimately familiar with the slow and mysterious process by which students pick up a new skill—has armed her with a different category of formidable insight. Dancers operate on the most concrete level, and on the most abstract. As they learn to work with desire, fear, spontaneity, and discipline in their own bodies, they become adept at reading these qualities in everyone else’s. Furthermore, in order to achieve fluency in different repertoires, they cultivate interpretive skills that those of us who regard history as a succession of events and ideas don’t take into account. Dancers may not spend much time analyzing history. But they must intuit it, and embody it, in the guise of style.

A dancer’s confidence and expressiveness emanate from a flexible, strong abdomen. How is it possible and what does it mean, Guillermoprieto wonders, for her Cuban students to have toned arms and legs but weak, useless bellies? A dancer like herself, who has trained with Cunningham in New York, has had available to her, but rejected, a theatrical style in which “both the choreographer and the dancer must know what emotions are impelling their character to raise an arm or leap across the stage.” Guillermoprieto realizes she has embraced the modern approach, which rejects the psychological to focus on abstract rhythm and impulse, “guided entirely by my own tastes and instincts.” She has chosen her aesthetically revolutionary path, in other words, in an atmosphere of the purest freedom. Now she’s teaching students raised to be revolutionaries. They regard her with affection and respect, but they can barely comprehend what she’s asking them to do:

How to explain to a teenager raised in the Cuban Revolution that the most important word in Merce’s vocabulary was still? That lone syllable summed up Merce’s attitude toward life and toward dance, and it couldn’t even be translated into Spanish. Stillness is the quiet that things and beings achieve when they have no consciousness of themselves, when they simply are, without intention or aim. Consciousness, however, was Fidel’s key word—self-consciousness, class consciousness, revolutionary consciousness—and in Cuba a human being without aim or intention was inconceivable, unless of course he was a vago—a slacker—who, as Fidel began proposing around that time, deserved to be thrown in jail.

Though it is nonfiction, Dancing with Cuba traces the arc of a Bildungsroman. Guillermoprieto’s second education begins here, with her confounding discovery of the chasm between her and her students. Questions of individual motivation and cultural difference, which she once strove to transcend through dance, begin to fascinate her. At the same time, worsening news from Vietnam rattles her and prods her to examine this strange island she has washed up on. How well, she starts to ask, does the Revolution live up to its claim to know better than America what the world really needs? It is moving to watch a defining characteristic of her later work—a curiosity that is empathetic, yet difficult to fool—spring up as a tool to help her survive.

As it happened, Guillermoprieto picked a bizarre time and place to begin to figure out, on her own, among quiet victims and stridently hopeful ideologues, what she thought was going on in the world. Cuba in 1970 was desolate, but offered enough carefully staged symbolism to persuade an international visitor that she was witnessing important history. The Revolution was still able to put on cosmopolitan airs. The publishing house Casa de las Americas—run by a woman who had fought alongside Castro in his instantly mythologized 1953 attack on the Batista barracks, thus achieving a kind of ideological beatification—provided a vital link between the Revolution’s intellectuals and sympathizers around the world by publishing superstar writers like Julio Cortázar and Italo Calvino in devout praise of the recently martyred Che. When Peru suffered an earthquake, Castro seized the PR opportunity, distracting his people from their own frustration with an ostentatious offer of aid that electrified Latin America’s left.

Of course, the symbolism was fragile, and often painfully easy to see through. The famous American anthropologist Oscar Lewis had arrived in 1969, after he was given Castro’s permission to conduct one of his signature top-to-bottom studies of Cuban society. A few months into her stay, Guillermoprieto hears firsthand from friends in the know that Lewis’s house has been ransacked and his files of confidential interviews confiscated. (Soon expelled from the country, he died of a heart attack six months later.)

Dancing with Cuba traces the young woman’s confusion over such inspiring and sickening portents, and in the process turns that confusion into something more than hers. She explores the dilemmas of a particular cohort in her generation who were distraught over the US adventure in Asia, and briefly tempted by revolutionary idealism. Yet Guillermoprieto is not—and her avoidance of this pitfall is something of a miracle—one of those presumptuous, righteous baby-boomer rememberers. She indulges in neither nostalgia nor hysterical rejection. What gives the memoir both tension and depth is that Guillermoprieto treats her younger self rather like one of her journalistic subjects. She’s rendered with sympathy, and when necessary, without mercy.

Thirty-four years later, Guillermoprieto recalls the first political event she observed at close range and shaped in her mind in the form of a story. From her students and the propagandist rag Granma, she hears constant talk of La Zafra, the great sugar harvest that Castro had launched four years earlier as the cornerstone of his plan for the nation. Fully half of the country’s workers, whether engineer or illiterate, have been forced to do a month-long shift in the countryside, amid flying cockroaches and beneath a broiling sun. Delegations of Castro-supporting foreigners have participated, and Guillermoprieto herself fears being drafted for duty.

If able to harvest the ten million tons that Castro has set as a goal, Cuba will at last begin to function on its own as a country, and to pay down infantilizing levels of debt to the Soviet Union. But eight days before Guillermoprieto’s twenty-first birthday, Castro takes to the podium to give a televised speech with a disturbing message. The harvest has failed. Poverty and dependency will continue. The Revolution will not be vindicated on schedule. It is part of Castro’s oratorical brilliance to share openly with the nation the fact that astonishing, delusional mistakes were made in the planning. But with his theatrical honesty, he transforms Cuba’s suffering into a story of his own risk-taking and endurance:

His thin voice, like silver paper, the long hands that moved like fish, the Roman profile, his singular stubborn will to share his thoughts, to make his own intellectual processes public, to repeat and repeat an idea until he felt sure that there wasn’t a single Cuban on the whole island who didn’t understand and share it, the high flights of rhetoric and the infinite gaze—it was all spellbinding. And so was his failure. To see Fidel in defeat was to see the hero, naked and unarmed, awaiting the tiger’s mortal assault. For more than three hours I lost myself in a rapture that was produced not so much by the speech as by the sonorous undulation of his words and his expression of pain.

Note how Guillermoprieto is able to nimbly shift points of view. She sees what the speaker is trying to accomplish; she reads the mind of the masochistic crowd; she’s a seasoned journalist looking back, now cynically expert in Latin American power plays; she’s a twenty-year-old who still has much to learn. Her ability to relate these different perspectives is what gives Guillermoprieto’s best reporting the quality of literature.

This is the memoir of a shy person. Though obvious, it bears pointing out because shyness and another of Guillermoprieto’s poignant youthful qualities, shame, are not often encountered in contemporary letters. Memoirs today tend to be valued for their revealing of secrets. Guillermoprieto, writing her first book in Spanish (with a sensitive translation by Esther Allen), keeps many of hers. She refers to a poor body image, a confusingly mixed, part-gringo upbringing, and unresolved grievances against her mother. But she never quite explains a melancholy that rises to nervous-breakdown levels in Cuba, and runs deep enough at one point for her to seriously contemplate suicide. (She even gets ready to jump off a ledge, but just as the aesthete inside wrinkles her nose at dogma, it saves her life: the sight of her splatted body on the sidewalk would be unforgivable.)

Early in the book, Guillermoprieto writes that even as a young woman who lived for dance she found urgent, not to mention delicious, spiritual nourishment in literature. Among her favorite writers she includes an expected roundup of Latin American greats like Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, César Vallejo, and Jorge Luis Borges. But it seems significant that along with Borges, who turned his myriad personal inhibitions into a way of performing on the page, she singles out the wordplay of Dr. Seuss, and the work of Nabokov, that warrior against bad rhetoric, and Nancy Mitford, who mocked society by way of elegant comedy. These are satirists, channeling frustration at the world’s stupidity into an insistence on verbal precision, an ethics of truth and pleasure. The depressing backdrop to some of Gui-llermoprieto’s reportage over the years—yet another country being lied to, yet again—has obscured the fact that she, too, has a comic sensibility. More affecting than her writing on depression are the ironic vignettes in which she shows herself starting to identify strongly with the Latin American left, and at the same time storing away impressions that will give her later reporting a layer of necessary skepticism. She gets a crush on a guerrilla-in-training named Luis but ends up sleeping with another named Eduardo—an impatient, off-puttingly pedantic man, who, because he has been tortured, may have something to teach her. The encounter depresses her, but she does learn a useful lesson. To the revolutionaries of the world,

I belonged to the anodyne, undifferentiated, pliable, and entirely dispensable—shit-eating, in a word, comemierda—category of artists, artisans, office clerks; all that petit-bourgeois riffraff who can occasionally be of some use but who arrange things so as not to be on one side or the other of the great struggles and who are destined to wander forever in the limbo of history.

Subtle irony is no small achievement. It’s sometimes true, though (as it is once in a while true in her journalism), that one wants less delicacy from Guillermoprieto and more forthright analysis. In exploring her own evolving relationship to art and politics, after all, she proposes a genuinely original take on history. To the traditional discussion of events and ideologies she adds psychology, rhetorical analysis, and, most provocatively, ideas about how one’s physical body participates in the experience of cultural identity. It may be reductive, but it is natural to want her to lead us in the direction of a grand thesis. She remains true to her temperament, though, and composes an atmospheric sonata instead of a ringing symphony.

One passage in the sonata’s last movement is particularly haunting. Years after leaving Cuba, Guillermoprieto stumbles across a book by the architect Robert Loomis celebrating the complex of buildings that used to house the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte. It turns out that the mysteriously compelling design, by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, and Roberto Gottardi, was an unsung architectural glory: a battle of brick versus jungle that used an explicit, joyous sexual symbolism to evoke an African village. Guillermoprieto looks up Porro, by then living in Paris, and asks him about his experience early on in the project. What she learns helps to explain why the school’s morale had fallen into such misery by the time Guillermoprieto got there.

From the start, the design’s very delight in beauty, and its “egocentric” emphasis on craftsmanship, earned it the suspicious enmity of the very revolutionaries who had commissioned it. More startling: the dance school’s single-minded embrace of modern technique, which young Guillermoprieto had thought so far-sighted, was in part an anxious government’s attempt to protect young male dancers from exposure to ballet, which might turn them gay. Again, Guillermoprieto could offer up a thesis: this is what happened, she could say, at the key turning point when modernist idealism met the strange, secretive miscalculations of political utopia. Instead she simply narrates, writing so as to embody history.

The young woman at the end of Dancing with Cuba has yet to learn how to make us feel in our bones what happened. She has returned to New York in a painful limbo, which the political tumult of the early 1970s makes that much harder to bear. By her own account, she is still awkward and immature. But at least she has quit being a frustrated apprentice to masters, imitating dance genius while stuck three rungs down from it on the ladder. She no longer aspires to incarnate truth in her body, in a single perfect gesture, without resorting to bourgeois storytelling and trivial words. Indeed, she has started on a journey toward stories and words. She has begun to think about a different approach to truth, one that still seeks beauty but now bears responsibility, and risks despair. Giving up on a certain idea of greatness, she has won her freedom. She will become an artist after all.

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