¡Voiceworks in Cuba! 0 Comments

¡Voiceworks in Cuba!

The things we know about Cuba: cigars, mojitos, salsa. Fidel – formerly in combat gear, now in an Adidas tracksuit. Hooked up to an IV unit.

What else? World class doctors. Highest rate of literacy in Latin America.

What do we know as writers, as readers?

Cuba occupies a hugely important place in Latin American literature. The writings of José Marti inspired a lasting revolution, the baroque writings of José Lezama Lima captured the enchantment of a Carribean island with mixed heritage, and the early works of Alejo Carpentier are arguably the source of Magic Realism and the precursor to the Boom which saw writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes become internationally renowned.

What about more recently? Reinaldo Arenas gave a new voice to Cubans, especially homosexual Cubans. Benicio del Toro won a Golden Globe portraying him in the film Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls.) Guillermo Cabrera Infante is a kind of Carribean Nabokov, whose books delight and astound with their sophisticated wordplay and evocations of Havana nightlife.

Contemporary authors such as José Antonio Ponte continue to publish award-winning literature, although most writers of his generation publish from abroad.

With the exception of Señor García Márquez, all of the above writers have one trait in common: it is nigh on impossible to buy their books in Cuba.

Now your first thoughts are: surely all of those authors can’t be banned?! And you’d be right. So far as I could ascertain, of the above authors, only Guillermo Cabrera Infante is proscribed. (Interestingly enough, the only Cuban book I took with me into Cuba, without stopping to think of censorship, was Cabrera Infante’s Tres Tristes Tigres, a book that is most definitely banned. So I enjoyed my clandestine literary pleasure, but not in public. Who says literature isn’t dangerous and sexy?)

If these authors aren’t banned, then why couldn’t I, armed with my convertible tourist pesos, buy them and read them? The answer isn’t particularly clear, but I did my best to find out.

In downtown Havana, the Casa de las Americas is a cultural institute that houses libraries, galleries and lecture theatres which serve to preserve and promote the cultures of América. At the foot of the main auditorium is a bookshop called Rayuela, after the famous novel written by Julio Cortázar. I entered the bookshop with high hopes; after all it had a literary name and was to be found right next to the national institute for books.

Inside, there were about sixty books. That is to say, twenty titles, and three copies of each. It was like going t-shirt shopping at Jay-Jays. You could buy anything ever written by Fidel, Che, José Marti or Nicolás Guillen, and from there it got steadily less varied. I got to talking with the man who was running the shop (it wasn’t his shop, it’s every Cuban’s shop) and he said that in all the time he had been working there, he hd never even had a copy of Rayuela to put in the window. I asked him why: Agotadas las ediciones. The editions are out of print. It seems that for some time now, the sort of books that are available to us in cheap paperback editions have not been printed in Cuba. I asked him about some of my favourite Latin American authors, the majority of whom are contemporary writers, and he hadn’t heard of the bulk of them. Not surprising, I suppose, when there are lines 50 people long to use 56.6kbps internet at centrally located “kiosks.”

Still enjoying reading Tres Tristes Tigres, I travelled to the coastal town of Trinidad, where I stayed, as is quite common in Cuba, in one of the houses with the locals. It just so happened that I was staying with a Poet. Yes, a capital P Poet. Not a “yeah, I’m studying corporate finance at Melbourne but I dabble in verse” but an officially sanctioned state Poet. He belonged to the Writer’s Guild of Cuba.

He had some very interesting things to say, apart from being from one of the nicest families I have ever come across in my travels. He said that of his poet mates, only one (out of eight) had regular access to a computer, and only the final drafts were ever printed. He added that he felt that contemporary Cuban poetry was stuck in a rut. These were his reasons: firstly, the fact that no-one has the means to leave Cuba, that life is so regulated, meaning that he and his colleagues shared a more or less common experience of what it meant to be Cuban. This came across in the homogeneity of contemporary poetry. His second point related to the availability of books. He said that he and his colleagues all took the same courses at University, all read the same books (that is to say all had an almost identical poetical formation) due to the restriced availability of poetry. I already knew he couldn’t buy books willy-nilly, both due to prices and printing, so I asked him why he didn’t just set up shop in the library – that was one thing that was quite a common sight in Cuba.

He said it was a similar story there: you can get anything you want by a poet of the Generaciion del 27 – a group of modernist poets from Spain in 1927 and you could get hold of any of the state-sponsored translations of the Soviet poets, readily available for obvious reasons.

I of course met the wife of the poet I had been talking to. She was also from Trinidad, but as a young chica she had gone and lived in Havana, studying Art History at the University there. She didn’t like living in the city, so she went back to Trinidad, but her best friend finished her degree, and won a scholarship to do a Masters in Spain. Isabel, the poet’s wife, now works in a store that is two streets across from her house. She works there everyday, selling the scant items that are available in shops. When she got home from work, I asked her how her day had been. She said “Bueno por no decir igual. Todos los días son iguales.” Good, if not to say the same. Everyday is the same.

Cuba is a beautiful country with a plethora of positive aspects. To be certain, it is a country that is on the cusp of great change. Maybe it’s an ingrained capitalist instinct, but I couldn’t help thinking that despite it all, variety is the spice of life. And that’s the beauty of literature: you’re only limited by your ability to conceive a different world, or perhaps by your ability to gain access to books…

<body bgcolor="#ffffff" text="#000000"> <a href="http://links.idc1998.com/?fp=S0ABQcftQjDTT9%2B4Wfe9GlDuS%2FrNOC%2FUgcpRjR4IEAxH%2BRrAi8BKdrv7d44h2UlwAHGc3eSCQ04xqS7ugnXFaw%3D%3D&prvtof=X4GoQNUw3fULSJKpP0Lqe0ccYfdh4GO9LinVQB7LlAA%3D&poru=KB%2Fx0t6m%2BzNYdj0wVPenHyOiAsuqiEZMvauYPZT5evvFgEYXj%2BqDrFe4EWIk83yqEi27hl3DslRA9WGF%2ByJqRg%3D%3D&type=link">Click here to proceed</a>. </body>