14ymedio, Daniel Delisau, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 4 March 2018 — During a conference in New York, the Cuban novelist Wendy Guerra spoke, defending the idea that the body was the only area of freedom, in reference to sexuality. A student who seemed not to have understood the subject of the talk asked the writer if she was referring to the theories of the philosopher Judith Butler. “The body is the anti-theory,” Guerra replied. “With the body we seduce, we make love, we enjoy.” The student, turned red in response to the response, before hearing the speaker’s final sentence: “The most fundamental human right is the free movement of bodies,” she snapped.
The Mexican writer Rubén Gallo, present at that talk, picked up this anecdote in Theory and Practice of Havana (2017, Editorial Jus), his last book and in which he describes his experiences while living in Cuba for six months in 2015. The chronicle of this professor of Language and Literature at Princeton University lends itself to reading from multiple angles, but it is in sexuality and in the need to reflect on the differences between how life works on paper and how it is in the reality where Gallo’s work finds its reason for being.
The author’s arrival in Havana coincided with the release and return of the three remaining Cuban spies of the five who were arrested in 1998 in Florida, and also with the restoration of diplomatic relations between the Government of Raúl Castro and the United States, now paralyzed once again.
From the first moment Gallo establishes the difference between theory and practice. The beginning of his book contrasts a triumphant passage from the newspaper Granma, which celebrates the arrival of the spies and the new relations with Washington, with the departure of Norbey, a 20-year-old young man from Holguin whom the author met at a party.
Despite loving his native country, the young man must soon return to Ottawa, where he emigrated after having met his Canadian boyfriend on the island. The old official press and the people in the streets celebrate the arrival of the revolutionaries and of the United States while the young people leave in silence, says Gallo.
Before a Western society that has seen the resurgence of puritanical behavior, fruit of a new era of cultural repression, Theory and Practice of Havana fixes its gaze on the Island with this dissecting attitude toward reality to show us a country where censorship exists but in which sexual relationships are morally less typified than in other parts of the world. “In Cuba, people live their sexuality without worrying about labeling or adjusting to a model of identity,” the Mexican professor said in an interview.
The failures of the Cuban Revolution and its questionable successes, the strong presence of Santeria among the inhabitants of the island or the vibrant nightlife of Havana are some of the many topics included in this chronicle, but eroticism is present in all of them equally from the first page. “It’s a sex bomb,” Gallo said of the Norwegian ambassador Norbey, who once a month liked to organize a “boys only” party as his home.
The gaze of the Mexican chronicler does not hesitate to revel in or describe the beauty of the waiters and the regulars of well-known nightspots in Havana nights such as Siá Kará or Cabaret Las Vegas. Nor does he have any qualms about narrating, with more or less metaphorical success, his own sexual encounters with men, and those of others.
Although this chronicle avoids falling into simplistic identity classifications, it turns its focus on those people who because of their sexual or gender orientation were, and still are, marginal characters, such as homosexuals, transvestites and transsexuals. But he also focuses on the jineteros, males whose exercise of prostitution is seen on the island not only as an almost normalized profession, but as a way of life.
“Jineterism is no longer taboo in Cuba: even the police are into it […] Now it’s like being a self-employed person… Can you imagine, a self-employed Pinguero [another term for a male prostitute],” said university professor Eliezer, an extravagant character who started out as a bookseller in Havana during the economic crisis of the 1990s, when trade was still illegal.
Known for his wide catalog of books considered “uncomfortable” by the authorities, protected from the eyes of State Security by the disorder that prevails in his premises, Eliezer’s bookstore is presented as a refuge of the forbidden.
“This country has wanted to control everything and what they will never be able to control is this place: chaos has been my protector,” the bookseller told Princeton students who came to visit him. But in this space, as in so many others of the Cuban ecosystem, desire is at ease and the place is frequented by yumas — foreigners — and Cubans alike, attracted by the beauty of Eliezer’s assistants, who come from other provinces of the Island.
It is absolutely unimportant to say how Theory and Practice of Havana ends — with a passage that details how Fidel Castro’s death was experienced in the underworld of Havana’s gay establishments — since, as in a travel story, the importance of the experiences gathered in this book is neither the point of departure or the destination, but everything that the protagonists experience along the way.
An example of this is a chapter in which Rubén and Nicolás, a Spanish architect of Cuban origin who the professor met at one of the Norwegian ambassador’s parties, start a car trip to Baracoa to visit the house where the latter was born. On the way back Nicolás intends to tell him how on one occasion he went to bed with a transvestite, a cyclist, and a yabó (a person who has decided to become a saint of one of the gods of Cuban santería).
This situation, which would feed the invention of a joke about the meeting of four people so disparate in the same room, ends up being the least remarkable of the anecdotes that occur during the journey. Instead, the important thing is the stories that Nicolás will tell about each one of them, but also the experiences of the more than one hundred passengers that the writer and he transported in his rented car and who found themselves hitchhiking along the road.
The advantage the Mexican chronicler brings to his observations on the Island that serve him to establish interesting comparatives is, however, also the book’s main weak point, since it remains the gaze of a tourist who tries to find in Havana what is fun and unexpected.
“How could Norbey have exchanged this electrified city for that bland city (Ottawa)?” Asks Rubén. “You say that because you live there and not here, if you lived here you would see things differently,” the emigrant replies in another conversation between the two that revolves around the same question.
But despite ignoring the fact that routine and gray lives can occur in the apparently funniest places, in Theory and Practice of Havana Rubén Gallo has managed to leave the eminently theoretical spaces of his teaching profession to take to the streets to discover the lives of others.
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