Castroniria / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Posted on November 14, 2014
Castroneirics: Is there Cuban literature after the Revolution?
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
This story started long before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, on
January 1st1959. In the beginning it was not the Word, but the War. And
in the war Fidelity is the utmost value, its betrayal usually paid with
death, whether civil or political, from culture to corpses without much
In March 1956, Alberto Bayo, who soon was to become a Cuban
revolutionary commander, while training Castro's little army in Mexico,
wrote the first traceable record of Fideliterature, where Castro is
compared with a "lighthouse than gleams airs of freedom", and as one of
our "great locos that pursue Glory to sow a beautiful fruit in History."
Indeed, many charismatic leaders have been called "locos" by our
national tradition, which despises common sense and praises maddened
social actors, as much as it disregards conventionalism in order to
Months later, Ernesto Ché Guevara himself depicted Fidel as a "blazing
prophet of the dawn." And then an avalanche of verses came pouring upon
his epical guerrilla, from the Ecuadorian Elías Cedeño Jerves, who sees
him as an eagle-in-chief flying over the mountains of Sierra Maestra
(although those birds are inexistent on the Island), to Cuban Carilda
Oliver Labra, who focuses her gratefulness to the "male groin" under
Castro's green-olive uniform (thus settling the basis for Latin American
Local Nicolas Guillen and Chilean Pablo Neruda, Pura del Prado (that was
to become one of the most emblematic poets of Miami), Argentinean Julio
Cortazar, and, of course, the rapport-reporter Herbert Matthews from the
New York Times, who, as Anthony DePalma has revealed in a recent book,
was "the man who invented Fidel" as a Western literary hero in a
continent prone to Robin Hoods that could expiate the guilt of
superiority of the United States.
The "farmer´s morning almond", a "sun in every corner", the "purest rose
of the Caribbean" with his "warm forehead", "thriving arms" and "sweet
smile", were among the miraculous metaphors of a time when kitsch was
considered correct as long as the people could repeat it.
The Cuban troubadour Carlos Puebla sang contagiously that "fun is over,
'cause commander is here to put a stop", equating chaos and capitalism,
while order and austerity were the new undeniable values. Puerto Rican
singer Daniel Santos reached the climax with his guaracha: if Fidel is
to be a communist, put my name on that list, for I do agree with him
(just before fleeing from Cuba in the 1959 itself, as did many ephemeral
enthusiastic whose artworks remained behind as incessant icons.
In the summer of 1961, with his Browning pistol resting like a
peace-pipe on a table of the Cuban National Library, Fidel Castro
himself had to frame the limits of our intellectual illusions: "Within
the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing".
While abolishing fundamental freedoms, Fidel declared himself to be
enemy of any cult to his own personality. Soviet-like monuments were
carefully avoided, so we have little to say about fidelistics in Cuban
statuary. But the cultural politics imposed socialist realism as the
best approach to beauty. Many artists were censored for life, erased
from dictionaries and catalogs. Castro as a literary character showed up
here and there, in pamphlet paragraphs where he could be heard in the
Revolution Square applauded by workers, or raising his machete in a
One exemption is the deconstructive documentary "Coffea Arábiga", filmed
in 1968 by Nicolas Guillen Landrian, nephew of the Nicolas Guillen that
was President of the Union of Writers. There, the image of an
over-acting Fidel during a speech in Havana University Hill is followed
by a soundtrack of the then forbidden Beatles: The Fool on the Hill,
with captions emphasizing that he "sees the sun going down and the world
The bufo theatre was abolished very early, to assure no impersonations
of a funny Fidel on stage, whose solemnness was consecrated by Article
144 of Cuban Criminal Law, which punishes with up to 3 years in jail the
crime of "aggravated contempt" to his public figure.
Skipping over the seventies of obscene ostracism for all artists
considered conflictive, and also over the centralized eighties and the
balkanization of the nineties, we can concentrate in the Cuban
representations of Fidel in the so-called years zero or 2000's.
For example, Bernardo Navarro Tomás, now residing in New York,
appropriates pop and retro banner design to re-narrate Fidel's
biographical milestones, where terror seems just a commercial masquerade.
Street artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, El Sexto, in Havana, bets on
bad-painting with explosive collages and nightmarish splashes, including
slogans in the lips of a Castro that reminds us of a Minotaur in his
labyrinth. These dialogue boxes are his citizen response to decades of
monologue with the trademark of Fidel. Just as his own skin is used now
as a dissident canvas tattooed with two recent martyrs of Cuban civil
society: Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá.
Yanoski Mora became famous when he was arrested for selling to tourists
a portrait of Fidel crowned with feathers like a Native American chief,
a reproduction of a photo of Castro in 1959 with Oklahoma Creek Indians.
He later refused to be interviewed or show his oil original. He had
learned this esthetics lesson from the political police: the
international left is allowed to depict Castro's decadence (for example,
Ecuadorian Oswaldo Guayasamín), but Cubans should not cope with His Holy
Image, unless it is to portray the virtues of the retired leader.
A painter awarded the National Visual Arts Prize, Pedro Pablo Oliva,
created oneiric landscapes where "Big Grandpa" leads smiling crowds that
question themselves through text-boxes. Despite his international
prestige, this exhibition of Oliva was doomed to take place only in his
private studio in Pinar del Rio province, under the close surveillance
of the authorities.
Anyway, during the 10th Biennial for Visual Arts 2009, the exhibit State
of Exception included the installation of a carnival machine designed by
Nancy Martínez: "A sequence of one," which offered to winning players a
series of plush dolls of Fidel Castro, from the young warrior to the
convalescent old man.
The hinge between visual arts and writing came in the extreme style of
Juan Abreu, exiled in Barcelona, who is updating in his website the
evolution of a mural called "El super-ensartaje" (super-threading),
where the historic alpha-males of Cuban Revolution are exposed in a
homo-pornographic orgy. The complementary literary aggression is a
trilogy, where the mummy of LoverCommander, toppled by a Coup de Etat,
is exhibited in a cage, kept alive by drugs and condemned to listen for
eternity the marathon of his own speeches, being fornicated by a
character that travels from the future only to satisfy his Fidelist fantasy.
Not far from the Revolution Square, where he lives, Jorge Enrique Lage,
as part of the fiction writers of Generation Year Zero, has turned Fidel
into a Superhero with many Hollywood tics, in his short-story for the
anthology "Cuba in Splinters" by O/R Books, New York 2014. Fidel, as a
character by Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, discovers the power of
freezing time. He can now wander free of security and wonder what kind
of country he has really created, in intense instants for reflection
upon his long-lasting loneliness in power.
In the independent digital magazine The Revolution Evening Post, episode
4, in a list of 21 points to approach a 21st-century literature on the
Island, the first provocation deals with the figure of Fidel, or rather
with his abnormal absence in a context with a well-established genre of
the Latin American Dictator Novel, from the times of "Facundo" in 1845,
to "Mister President" and "The Great Burundún Burundá is Dead", to "I,
the Supreme" and "The Autumn of the Patriarch", to "The Perón Novel" and
"The Feast of the Goat" a decade ago. The Cuban exemption could be
"Reasons of State" by Alejo Carpentier in 1974, where he prefers to
caricature a collage of foreign dictators, to avoid suspicions from the
active readers of Castro's State Security.
At least three other writers of Generation Year Zero push the limits of
Castro's world as will and representation.
Jorge Alberto Aguiar Diaz in "Fefita and the Berlin Wall," explores two
desperate lovers that cloister themselves out of a country devoured by
crisis. Fidel follows their acts as an unavoidable voice in every TV set
of a city in ruins, inhabited ruins that in his novel "The Surveilled
Party" Antonio Jose Ponte believes resemble the body of the premier, and
moreover, that they were artificially imposed by him to resemble in turn
the promised US invasion that never was.
In my novel in progress "Alaska", on which I work as a Visiting Fellow
of the International Writers Project, fiction is understood as filling
in the gaps of crucial pacts where Fidel Castro and other political,
entrepreneurial, exiled and religious elites become criminal complicit
of contemporary historical deeds.
Ahmel Echevarría in his censored novel "Training Days", later published
in Prague, uses a Fidel-like homeless person as witness of a funeral
procession at Revolution Square. This old and shrewd urban prowler has
wanted all of his life to be a writer, and even dares to give a lot of
advice to the narrator named after Ahmel, denoting a Lucifer-like
lucidity: Fidel as a fatuous Faust. It was Gabriel Garcia Marquez who
stated that his friend Fidel was an extraordinary writer, but without
the chance ever to write, given his many official duties. Dreams are the
remaining realm of former revolutionaries. Guillermo Rosales, a 1993
suicide that destroyed most of his novels, in "Boarding Home" boasts of
being an "absolute exile", only to succumb every night to the nightmares
of Castroism. His self-referential protagonist cannot get rid of the
oneiric omniscient omnipresence of Fidel. The author himself is a kind
of schizoid Fidel. His mental disease has literally and literarily
immortalized Fidel, to the point that the director of the Cuban Book
Institute recognized in private that "as long as those dreams remain in
the book, it can never be published while Fidel lives".
In the late 80's, Heberto Padilla and Reinaldo Arenas came upon the same
image in their novels "Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden" and "The Color
of Summer", respectively: to contemplate their lost homeland from the
air, flying in a helicopter with Fidel Castro, who keeps describing the
reality below only to please himself.
Arenas' trip is a sarcastic series of bloody events that barely hide
Castro's homosexuality: as in Juan Abreu's Super-Threading. On the
contrary, the flight of Padilla embodies the Oedipus complex that Cuban
intellectuals suffer since 1961, when a despotic pistol incriminated
them for being so complaining and so little committed to the social process.
A similar edipic syndrome drove Norberto Fuentes, a former militiaman
and secret agent of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, now exiled in
USA, to write in advance "The Autobiography of Fidel Castro", in an
interpretation of the personality of a man "much more intelligent" than
his auto-biographer and former ex collaborator, and to whom the author
renders his bitter-sweet admiration, verging in an unconfessed
homoerotism towards the patriarch.
In this trend we can classify most books of Fidel's defectors, although
they are not fiction in principle, but it's obvious their efforts
—generally failed— to restore a certain human condition to the myth: a
hitman like Jorge Masetti in "Furor and delirium", a foreign diplomat
like Jorge Edwards in "Persona non grata", Cuban scientists like Hilda
Molina in "My Truth" (2010) and Armando Rodríguez in "The robots of
Fidel Castro" (2011), and even his personal bodyguards like Juan
Reinaldo Sánchez in "The hidden life of Fidel Castro" (2014).
And this remits to the women that loved Fidel and decades later decided
to tell it, as in "Havana Dreams: A Story of a Cuban Family," by the
actress Naty Revuelta, who was his adulterous lover and mother of a girl
named not Castro but Fernández who, when grown-up, fled disguised from
Cuba only to predictably write "Castro's Daughter". Just as his exiled
sister Juanita Castro released "Fidel and Raul, my brothers," in a
delayed 2009. The most passionate of the —let's say— bed-sellers is
"Dear Fidel" by German-American Marita Lorenz, who claims to have been
drugged and forced to abort by Cuban State Security, and yet she
returned as a CIA agent to poison Fidel, only for him to discover the
plot and fetch her his Browning with this challenge: it's loaded, shoot
me, I won't die, no one can kill me, I'm immortal (a startling spell
that has lasted for over 55 years now).
Cuban novelist Zoé Valdés, sent to Paris in diplomatic mission, where
she defected in the early 90s, deals in a prosaic way with Castro,
making a cartoon out of his character and calling him Super-XL Size,
according to the dimensions of his —you guess what— testicles.
Furthermore, her compilation of political articles could not avoid a
Castrocentric vision, even to criticize his communist dictatorship to
its last foundations: so "The Fiction Fidel" was her choice for a title.
In fact, pornopolitics seems to be our artistic reaction to the
sequestering of the Cuban body within the homogeneous masses in front of
the uniformed unique leader. No places for pleasure are legal on the
Island since 1959. And while many were being stigmatized and even
expelled from their jobs for hiding a lascivious paper or a hot hard
drive, Fidel could afford a 1-week 7-page interview with Playboy, and
return reinforced in his convictions to persecute capitalist degradation
in our people.
Wendy Guerra, in her novel "I Was Never A First Lady" appeals to the
nostalgia of her demented mother to recover the merciful monstrosity of
the Number One Man in the golden years of the Revolution, a system
devoid of first ladies since the revolution itself was the eternally
virgin bride. Then, she also explores the first days without Fidel, when
an emergency surgery almost kills him in July 2006. Wendy Guerra seizes
the sinister silence or the deadly deafness of those meaningful minutes
that opened the post-Castrozoic Era in Havana, while Miami yelled with
In many ways Fidel seemed shielded by women's wombs. The poet Reina
María Rodríguez, in her now disregarded unconfessed crush on Castro,
made it clear: "There is only one way to care about him. We have grown
up beside him as if he were a tall tree". No wonder why the official
propaganda compares him to a centenary Caguairán tree, as his health
looks more and more deteriorated in each sporadic appearance —or
apparition— in national TV.
About his magnicide on the Island (quite common in a number of foreign
best-sellers and videogames) the dystopia in progress "Alter Cuba" by
Raul Aguiar is so far the best effort to reshape a Planet Cuba where
Castro vanishes from our history before leaving a noticeable trace.
About filming a fictitious Fidel, only in 2008 the local movie
"Kangamba" timidly showed his shoulders with their emblematic epaulet.
And then in "Memories of Overdevelopment" by Miguel Coyula, we have him
all over as pop reference and reincarnated in a stout walking stick
called Fiddle, which is humble enough as to dialogue after half a
century of monologue.
When Soviet communism collapsed, the Cuban troubadour Pedro Luis Ferrer
released a series of songs full of good humor that provoked the anger of
the censors. One of them reminds of the "Big Grandpa" paintings of Pedro
Pablo Oliva, since it's called precisely "Grandpa Paco": "grandpa built
our house with lots of sacrifice, but the least move now needs his
approval, as grandpa still keeps his old weapons ready to make himself
obeyed". The apotheosis was the underground punk band from Havana, Porno
Para Ricardo. Paying the price of going to jail more than once, their
front man Gorky composed the paroxysmal provocation called "Commander",
where he offensively mocks Grandpa —again from politics to pornophilia—
whose official newspaper by the way has been called Granma from the
Once the fear of fictionalizing Fidel is over, I'm afraid that it will
be too late for a fiction to be fully meaningful about him. Besides,
it's more than likely that Cuban literature as such will find itself in
difficulties to be appreciated beyond the straitjackets of socialism or
its symbolic undermining. Both market avidity abroad and the lack of
local readers will pose a formidable barrier to avoid any experimental
estrangements and thus to remain stuck to the stereotypes of what Cuban
writing and arts in general should look like.
As politics was too important to be left in the hands of politicians,
literature was too important to be left in the hands of intellectuals.
Fidel Castro managed to impose himself for too long as a
non-fictionalizable figure. Being an incontinent narrator himself,
competence was considered contempt. It might be time to turn the F
chapter of Cuban literature and delicately recognize our defeat. Unless,
of course, some authors are willing to grab that Browning back from the
summer of 1961 in the National Library, and make a statement that
escapes the reactionary rationale of within/against/outside the Revolution.
13 November 2014
Source: Castroniria / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo | Translating Cuba -