Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Blessed Who Mourn Like Ángel Santiesteban / Ernesto Morales Licea

The Blessed Who Mourn Like Ángel Santiesteban / Ernesto Morales Licea
Ernesto Morales Licea, Translator: Unstated

How can an admired writer be turned into an alleged and persecuted
anti-social? How can one pass from being a creator of stories, a
prize-winner, read, respected, cited, to become part of the social evils
which, according to the all-powerful authority, it is necessary to
mercilessly eradicate?

The answer is very simple: Live in Cuba. And distance yourself from the

When I met Ángel Santiesteban, some seven years ago, I still hadn't read
a single one of his stories. Later I would regret it, on looking over
the most overwhelming volume of stories in recent Cuban literature: The
Children Nobody Wanted, that kind of stinking garbage where a phenomenal
narrator tells stories of convicts, cattle killers, prostitutes, rafters
and crazed war veterans.

Even before the iron friendship that binds us both, a reality about his
work seemed certain to me: with just two books of stories known to the
Cuban public — published against the will of the publishing industry:
The Children Nobody Wanted, winner of the Alego Carpentier Prize, and
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn which brought home the Casa De Las Americas
Prize, turned Angel Santiesteban into an author fiercely pursued by the
Island's readers.

While the works of the cadaverous National Literature Awards gather dust
on the shelves, the books of Santiesteban are undetectable ghosts: there
is not a single one in any bookstore. They have all been bought or
stolen from the libraries.

I think of this now that the name of Angel Santiesteban has become a bad
word in trembling Cuban literary circles, now that he has been stripped
of the social status his voice once earned him. I think of this now that
the anxieties of an author with so much to shout about found freedom in
a personal blog, and who now has a 15-year prison sentence ever more
dangerously hanging over him.

Did he imagine that one day it would come to this, that the unbridgeable
distance between him and the dictatorial government that rules the fates
of his Island would turn him into a cursed writer and citizen?

"Someone warned me, before I started the blog, that it could cause me a
great deal of adversity," he confessed to me. "I thought it would be on
the order of censorship, relegated to the cultural media, which I was
already familiar with. But I never thought they would manipulate people
close to me, that they would invent such a long and perverse script to
discredit me and leave me all alone."

Feeding the grudges of an old marital relationship, State Security
showed signs of an imagination almost as fertile as the writer's: today
Ángel Santiesteban is accused of rape, theft, and attempted murder of
his ex-wife, charges that carry a penalty of more than 50 years in prison.

"They have been lenient with me," Angel says sarcastically, "proposing
that I accept nothing more than 15 years behind bars."

They constructed the story without evidence, without witnesses, without
definitive facts: that's the least of it. In the same country where you
can be shot for your beliefs; where 30-year sentences are handed out for
writing on typewriters, today it is possible for a valuable writer to be
accused of murder, rape and theft without proof. And the worst of it: to
be made to pay for it.

"The last time I was invited to the Book Fair as a valued writer was in
2008," Angel told me, and my memories surge, unavoidable: during those
meetings he was in my city more than once. "When I spent three days in
Moron, Ciego de Avila, on returning to my hotel at night from the
literary activities, I was informed that my reservation had been
cancelled by the organizers of the Fair. That night I slept at the house
of the taxi driver who drove me, and in the morning I went back to Havana."

The worst, however, isn't this. The worst is not going from an idol to a
pariah. The worst is not no longer being called by any institution in
Cuba, interested in having you read your stories at their conferences
about contemporary writing, in their chats with readers. The worst is
not this.

How have they damaged his work? How is it possible to survive in a
hostile country and still maintain a creative rhythm, maintain your
healthy and coherent work?

"In some ways there has been a positive aspect," Angel admits, "because
they've helped me to change my style a little, I have written a book of
stories of the absurd. But on the other hand, sometimes many days pass
when I don't create. They have succeeded, I wouldn't be human if it
didn't affect me, and I accept that without shame. I'm not just
constantly anxious about the defamation, nor even the beating where they
broke my arm. This doesn't even compare to the terrible reality that for
two years they haven't let me see my son. This is my true martyrdom.
Although in the end, inevitably, I end up taking refuge in literature."

Most of his friends have distanced themselves. Forgotten his telephone
number, forgotten his apartment and his street. "They don't want to
commit suicide, culturally speaking," says Angel, and without his
knowing it something like guilt and remorse came over me because I know
that I, like the writers Amir Valle, Alberto Garrido, Jorge Luis Arzola,
like so many others we love and admire, we have also left him a bit
alone, scattered to the United States, the Dominican Republic, Germany,
and search of a happiness and peace that we know we can't find.

I like to think of Ángel Santiesteban like our Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Too many similarities exist between this tropical Havanan and that
Russian dissident who with a couple of books, (A Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) not only won the Nobel Prize and
immortality, but also gained the eternal respect of those who worship

The day when this grey storm comes to an end, and the meetings and
reunions take place; the day when we can start from scratch to build a
better country for our children, the blessed like Ángel Santiesteban who
has written so much and mourned so much, will be our intellectual guides
and our written memory so that we will never again make that mistake.

(Originally published in Martí Noticias)

October 12 2011

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