Sunday, April 5, 2009

What Edmundo Said


For fifty years the revolution has been in power in Cuba.

I returned to the island in 1960 to embrace the dream of a radical new life. At about the same time, Achy Obejas abandoned Cuba with her family and Robert Arellano’s parents left as well. Thirty years later, Achy and Robert returned to a social nightmare. Between the three of us we have experienced the dream and the nightmare of history.

The island of Cuba is both a reality and a myth. Reality is what we are given, what we are born into and myth is what we create as writers. We transform the chaos of experience into narratives, stories that help us see and feel, interpret the world around us, to go on.

Ruins by Achy Obejas and Havana Lunar by Robert Arellano are two novels that give a human face to the agony of the Cuban revolution during the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The startled communist government called it “período especial de paz” -- “a special peacetime period” -- a monstrous and bloodless euphemism for a period these two writers here with us tonight have attempted to define through characters in a landscape of scarcity, of agony, of survival.

Two epiphanies of scarcity are enough to reveal the cruel humor of survival. The first one is from Ruins. “The week before, Rosita had been selling those very sandwiches on the street –she’d even offered him one. But no sooner had Usnavy pulled up the bread and seen the flat layer of pith covered in seasoning, than he recognized its true provenance: These were pieces of a blanket normally used for mopping floors which Rosita had beaten and marinated in spices and a little beef broth. The texture of the wool had been transformed into what they all imagined steak was like, something tender and chewy. The success of her enterprise had come as much from her ingenuity as from the tricks memory plays.”

And this one is from Havana Lunar: “Carlota told me there was a rumor going around Marianao of bread –fluffy white flour rolls, not tough pan integral, and fresh, made the day before. We would keep it a surprise in case the lead turned out false…

“Pablo was ecstatic: bread for his birthday. But it was like a bad movie on El Cine de las Ocho when Tirso rushed in seconds before we could sink our teeth into those beautiful sandwiches. '!No! !Echaron vidrios en la harina!' I slapped Pablo’s hand before the sandwich could get to his lips. Pablo saw real fear in my eyes and began to cry.

“ 'Please, Pablito. There might be glass in the bread. There are bad people out there.’

“Tirso said, “The government did it to sabotage the black market.’

“Biting his lower lip, Pablo proposed, ‘We can try it, and if we feel something in our mouths we can spit it out.’ ”

Both these fragments I have read might seem unnecessarily cruel, but they reveal, in some ways, a return to sanity. After the revolutionary dream of plenty, of abundance and social justice, the attempts to impose socialist realism in literature, Achy and Robert have returned to one of the roots of Spanish literature –the picaresque novel. The struggle for survival in Spanish realism of el siglo de oro. Humor, in Cuba, is an instrument of survival. When situations become very intense and unsustainable only a joke can break the spell.

Both these novels are expressions of our predicament. Ruins is a literary jewel, a novel that turns history into literature, the language at certain moments turns the pedestrian into poetry. Usnavy is a character that incarnates the last fifty years of the Cuban revolution: From the illusion of a better world to the tragedy of failed idealism. Havana Lunar has Julia, an adolescent turned into a jinetera, a prostitute, a murdered pimp and a doctor that talks with Che Guevara. You can’t stop turning the pages towards the ultimate surprise. It is a marginal world, where marginal action reveals the crisis of the revolution. As you follow the characters you discover the urban and rural landscape of the island.

These are Cuban novels written in English. The Spanish language also struggles to enrich the prose of these narratives. Arellano sees the needs to often say it in Spanish to make the situations more real, like “Echaron vidrios en la harina.” Obejas is more selective, she chooses only certain words that have no equivalent in English, that have a weight and a meaning that cannot be translated. She uses sapo to name the onlookers at a domino game, and you can hear the word sapo (frog) flop and rest like a damp passive back seat driver. Or derrumbe to help you feel how the collapse of a building turns into a ruin. The Spanish English Velázquez dictionary cannot give us a single word for the verb: “Derrumbar: to precipitate, to throw down headlong. To precipitate one’s self headlong. To sink down, crumble away, tumble down; said of a building.” And for the noun it has: “Derrumbe: A tumbling down, collapse. A landslide.”

One of the more revealing secretions of these novels is in the language, the clash of English and Spanish and their psychological and cultural implications. Achy through rigorous poetry and Robert through the crunching of prose. Ruins and ruinas; lunar and blemish, birthmark. Lunar is untranslatable. Lunar: “mole, a natural spot or discoloration of the body, note or stain of infamy.” La luna, the moon is black compared to the sun. Lunática, lunatic. “Ese lunar que tienes cielito lindo junto a la boca, no se lo des a nadie, cielito lindo que a mí me toca.”

If there is something that characterizes, in my experience, the Cuban revolution, the word is intensity. Intensity that, as far as I am concerned, is more important than being right or wrong. These books reveal that intensity and whatever political judgment you must certainly make, it must come from the characters and events these novels bring before your eyes.

There is a poem by a Catholic poet, Cintio Vitier, ten years older than I am, who decided never to leave the island and gave us this image of the tragic beauty of living these years in Cuba. It’s called Estamos, that is, "We Are."





chirimbolos de repuesto,




días llenos de propósitos,


Vida con tan pocos materiales.

A veces

se diría

que no puedes llegar hasta mañana,

y de pronto

uno se pregunta y sí,

hay cine,


lámparas que resucitan,

calle mojada por la maravilla,

ojo del alba, Juan

y cielo de regreso.

Hay cielo hacia delante.

Todo va saliendo más o menos

bien o mal. O peor,

pero se llena el hueco,

se salta,




un esfuerzo conmovedor en tu pobreza,

pueblo mío,

y hasta horribles carnavales, y hasta

feas vidrieras, y hasta


Repiten los programas,

no hay perfumes

(adoro esa repetición, ese perfume)

no hay, no hay pero resulta que


Estás, quiero decir,


EDMUNDO DESNOES, Nueva York y 2009

[You are doing things: music, spare parts for the broken down, books, hospitals, bread, days with a purpose, fleets, life with such pathetic materials.

Sometimes you think you’ll never make it, see tomorrow, and suddenly you ask yourself and yes, there are movies, black-outs, lamps that resuscitate, street marvelously wet, the eyes of down and sky on the way back.

There is sky ahead.

Everything is coming along, more or less, right or wrong, or worse, but the hole gets filled, we jump, you go on, you are making such a heart breaking effort in your poverty, people of mine, even horrible carnivals, and even ugly window displays, and even the moon.

They keep repeating the same programs, there are no perfumes (I adore that repetition, that perfume), there isn’t, there isn’t any but it so happens that there is.

You are, I mean, we are here.]

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