Front Door to Cuba Front Door to Cuban History

Excerpt from:
Jacobo Timerman's
Cuba: A Journey
1990 Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

A group gathered to chat with me on Friday evening, August 21, at the home of the poet Pablo Armando Fernández, editor in chief of Unión, a quarterly publication of the Writers Union. They had proposed, through the writers Miguel Barnet, receiving me officially at the Union of Writers and Artists headquarters. I suggested that it would be more intimate to chat at a private home, doing so without an agenda and, above all, without speeches. I'd bring the beverages, whiskey and rum, available to me in dollar stores but unavailable to them. Two bottles of whiskey and two of rum were sufficient, I thought, for ten people. Our hostess served coffee.

In this instance, naming those I spoke to represents no significant danger to them. They are al well attuned to the regime and commit no indiscretions. I had just read a novel by one of them, Jesús Díaz, and although it concerns a Cuban Communist, his achievements and weaknesses, and the trial he is subjected to by his party nucleus or cell, the Soviet example still permeates the text, with episodes from the Great Patriotic War. Something the Russians have already forgotten.

We met in an old, spacious, lean house, although the curtains and more than one piece of furniture were in fairly urgent need of repair. Once, there'd been a garden bordering the sidewalk in front of the house, but now it was totally neglected. The care of gardens and sidewalks is often a task undertaken by dissidents dismissed from their jobs.

Miguel Barnet's international prestige provides him with protection, which he utilizes with prudence and discretion. This most important Cuban writer is a charming, cultivated man, master of a prose style that doesn't seek its roots or models in socialist realism. Of the twentieth century's three best stylists of the Spanish novel in Latin America, two, in my opinion, are Cuban: Alejo Carpentier and José Lezama Lima (the Mexican Juan Rulfo is the third).

Before meeting at Pablo Armando Fernandez's home, Miguel Barnet and I had had dinner at my hotel, El Presidente, but I'd interviewed him previously, at the Hotel Riviera.

A member of an old island family, Barnet was eighteen years old in 1959, the year of the Revolution. He doesn't criticize the Revolution, nor does he write about he Cuba that gave birth to it. He reminded me of Dr. Zhivago, who would have been unable to live outside Russia, whether czarist or Communist. Thus he reminded me of Boris Pasternak. I told him that, and tried to learn when he was going to write about the world around him. Not yet. He still hasn't incorporated it in his innermost being. Anthropologically trained, he needed a lot of distance in time for his themes and characters. I mentioned to him that at the Cuban embassy in Buenos Aires he was identified as a folklorist. He burst out laughing and repeated something he was quoted as saying in an article by the Cuban journalist Alejandro Ríos; "Possibly my ethnological background has contributed to providing me with this deeply rooted point of view, I don't want to talk about anything expect Cuba." Sometime later I got a copy of the Rios interview, and this time it ws my turn for ahearty laugh, for the journalist's next question was: "How do you explain political commitment in your writing?" He failed to mention Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural spokesman.

Barnet had remained in Cuba with his family heirlooms, his pets, his memories, and his intimate relationship with the past. Perhaps he had never identified the Revolution with Cuba. In a speech at the publication of his novel La Vida Real, he stated: "What we call our country is nothing but a vast persona embracing us with its trees, mountains, and rivers."

He had managed to slip silently through the cracks he found or invented during the time of the repression of homosexuals, the period when a writer was supposed to be "an engineer of the soul," as Stalinist theology put it. I this country, as recently as 1987, Armando Hart, the minister of culture and a veteran of the Sierra Maestra, quoted a test by Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin's commissar of culture, at a Forum of Literary Criticism and Research, thereby indicating to the group what the Revolution expected of them. As for himself, Hart added: "In art and culture one must move toward processes of greater participation and democracy, but this is guaranteed only when it is based on high social responsibility." The degree of one's "social responsibility"-a pseudoscientific formula invoked to avoid mentioning party discipline or flattery-is what determines who gets published, who has access to newspaper publication, who speaks on radio or television, who travels to congresses abroad, who can return from abroad with a television set or an air conditioner.

In 1967, shortly after Barnet reached the age of twenty-six, his novel Biography of a Runaway Slave was published, and ever since he has been the most important Cuban figure in contemporary Spanish literature.

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