Offshore

On February 14, 1898 in Sagua la Grande, a former province of Las Villas, Jorge Mañach y Robato was born.

Philosopher, essayist, journalist, prolific and controversial intellectual, his vast work covers philosophy, academics, essays, and critiques of art and local customs.  Concerned about national culture, its state and destiny, he prepared himself through studies at universities in the United States, France and Cuba; and he does not hesitate to investigate both the deep waters of philosophy and culture as well as the tiny and seemingly insignificant aspects.  And all of this is presented in careful and harmonic prose, free of banalities, in a unique style that earns it the right to be considered one of the great literary achievements of the Spanish tongue.

Conscious of not having managed to outline even the figure of Mañach, to close this brief reminder of his 110th anniversary, I want to  provoke the reader with these questions that often plague me.

What would our Jorge write on observing the current horse carts we use for transport?  Would he continue calling the old Ford autos “insolent and barbaric”?  What would he say of the new Mitsubishis and Hyundais?

What essay would he dedicate, not to the state of our high culture, nor even to the average or mass culture, but to our lack of education, the most basic, the formal one, moral and civic?

What would he conclude on discovering that many Cubans, most of them young, have, for decades, followed a path means they will die outside their country, albeit only a few miles offshore?

Where are we going, Eliécer?

One day in January, the young man Eliécer Ávila, a student at the University of Computer Science, attends a meeting to present a set of questions to Señor Ricardo Alarcon, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Cuba and President of the National Assembly of People’s Power.  A little nervous and with a bullet-proof honesty—according to my intuition as a peasant—he asked for reasons that he didn’t have, “to reject certain claims, to defend certain ideas” and “to have a perspective on the immediate future of what will happen with that which one is defending.”  Questions that, with few variations, many Cubans have been asking and are asking while I write these lines.  Questions that, so I inferred, were responded to briefly in some instances, and in others avoided, and in general in a way that gave little satisfaction.

And I say I infer because I haven’t seen the recording by anonymous hands that made it to the BBC and that since then has spread across the internet.  Fifty-two minutes long, it has been the source from which the answers of the President of the National Assembly are quoted.  Quotes that speak of his perfect ignorance about the dual monetary system and the ban on Yahoo, that don’t speak to the ban on citizens staying in hotels, and that offer numbers showing that many more Cubans stay in hotels than in 1959.  And finally, it’s very significant that in response to the question about why the people of Cuba can’t travel to certain places in the world, Alarcón argued that travel cannot be seen as a right, that if all the world, all the inhabitants on the planet wanted to travel, there would be tremendous aerial congestion.  If the quotes are true, it would be good if Alarcón would move the chronological surveyor’s pole a few years ahead–I’d be happy with the ’70s, let’s goand the geographical one down a little, nearer Cuba.

Saving the necessary distance, this mess of materials leaked to the press reminds me of the mysterious “Deep Throat” who informed the journalists during the investigations of President Richard Nixon.  Our own “deep throat” has managed to start the year off in a lively way, a point of overlap with what happened at the beginning of 2007, which was dubbed, among other things, with the name Pavongate.

And while the video broadcast by the BBC to the world and various media has echoed in the news, inside the country another, briefer, recording is beginning to circulate (one of 16 minutes and 44 seconds to be exact), with the curious overprint saying “Live,” as if it were a television broadcast, that contains only Eliécer’s side of the discussion without the answers from Ricardo Alarcón.

On February 8th, our well-known Yohandry Fontana Guethón published an article on the site KAOSENLARED.NET, with the unmistakable haphazard and incoherent prose to which we’ve become accustomed.  He assures us that there is a “media show” mounted behind the video of the University, brings to light new conclusions that are reaffirmed in the material, in spite of which he repeatedly doubts their authenticity, and says that one could draw a thousand more.  And one can also draw several commas, superlatives and adjectives left over, I say.  And his idea that the video is manipulated, to appear incomplete, confirms the existence of a longer version with answers: “because until they put him in [the Spanish newspaper] El País, Alarcón does not finish expounding on his ideas.”

As a national accompaniment, two days later an article by Pablo Valiente appeared in [the Cuban newspaper] “Rebel Youth” where, as is also the custom, he refers to the misrepresentation of the debate about the Cuban reality on the part of various world media, without mentioning the word “video,” “UCI,” or the names of Eliécer and Alarcón, much less the questions from the former and the answers from the latter.

And, as expected, they started rumors about the possible detention of Eliécer Ávila and  spread unconfirmed news in which they mixed up the families of Eliécer, human rights activists, Counsel of State agents (this is new, but those of State Security are permanent and no longer impress), and even a son of Carlos Lage.  I confess I was beginning to be a little worried about the fate of the young man but, for my peace of mind, he has already appeared on the national news, alive and kicking.  A few dark circles, it’s true, but that’s not abnormal for a student.

Eliécer, who seems to have read Yohandry, assures us that it’s all been a media campaign, pure opportunism to sow chaos and disunity.   He tells us that they neither burned the mattress nor made an act of repudiation and that he was working in order “to contribute in a conscious way to the project.”  The same project that “we are sure it exists, we would like to know what it is.”  I’m happy for him, because I feel that he has managed to overcome his doubts and to continue defending the ideas he’s ready to kill or die for.  Or it could be that they have already explained to him what the project consists of.  If so, please, tell me, where are we going, Eliécer?

The fire is bright and clean

Ray Bradbury is my favorite science fiction writer.  Sometimes I doubt whether what he’s written really deserves this classification.  He has declared himself to be a fantasy writer and said that his only work of science fiction is Fahrenheit 451.  This novel is a good case in point that science fiction is not a subgenre or lesser art, but a different form of addressing human problems in literature, as can be the literature/romance novel or noir.  It’s been a long time since I re-read Fahrenheit 451, which I read for the first time in adolescence, and I imagine the new readings and associations that emerge from a current re-issue.    In the preface to the 1993 edition the author said:

“What caused my inspiration?  There had to be a root system of influence, yes, that propelled me to dive headfirst into my typewriter and come up dripping with hyperbole, metaphor, and similes about fire, print, papyrus.

“Of course. There was Hitler  torching books in Germany in 1934; rumors of Stalin and his match people and tinderboxes.  Plus, long ago, the witch hunts in Salem in 1680, where my ten-times-great-grandmother Mary Bradbury was tried but escaped the burning.”

I remember my amazement at seeing the firefighters in this story fan the flames instead of extinguish them, using the fire to destroy houses and books, and even people.  The whole argument about the harmfulness of books and the reflexive thinking was accepted then as a justification to structure an hallucinatory world where people lived who didn’t remember the dew on the grass or when they’d last looked at the moon.  In a country that was projecting a future in the hands of men of science, that would belong entirely to socialism, this novel, published in the same year that the creator* of a mechanism of domination as hard and cold as the steel of his nickname, a mechanism that later arrived, crossing the world, until my city could not be read but as a fantastic adventure.

In the Cuba of the 21st century, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the creation of the Internet, and globalization; after so many years of blockading and reducing the creative impulse and an individual and fierce survival , of so many freedoms and rights taken away, and the persecution of independent libraries, to read Fahrenheit 451 calls forth experiences much closer to reality.  Clarisse is the rebellious youth who catalyzes change in Montag.  Mildred, the wife, a disoriented suicide who only talks to the television and refuses to share her worries with Montag, whom she denounces for possessing books, to save herself.  Captain Beatty is a clever man who has dedicated his life to his work as a firefighter and from his death you deduce he doesn’t like what he does.  The mechanical bloodhound is an instrument of repression who identifies his victim by smell and tenaciously pursues him.

Here I quote, extensively, a few fragments of the Montag-Beatty dialogue.  Guy Montag is the firefighter protagonist who, after witnessing the suicide of an owner of banned books, who prefers to burn along with his home, begins to question his role and destiny given to him by books.  He says to his wife:

“It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life and then I come along in two minutes and boom! It’s all over.”

He has hidden a book that pertains to suicide and he decides to say he’s sick so he won’t have to work that night, when he receives a visit from Captain Beatty, his boss, who comes to evaluate his state of mind and to slip in a not very subtle warning, meanwhile he gives him the official version about the abandonment of reading and thinking, replaced by images and entertainment.  As the dialog progresses, Montag, who feels the house falling in, speaks less and less, only repeating Beatty’s last phrase, until it ceases to be a dialog and turns into a monologue.  It ends like this:

Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo.   Burn it.  White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Burn it.  Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book. […] Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust.  Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams.  Forget them.  Burn all, burn everything.  Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

[…]

“Clarisse McClellan?  We’ve a record on her family. We’ve watched them carefully.  Heredity and environment are funny things. You can’t rid yourself of all the odd ducks in just a few years.  The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school.  That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle. […] The family had been feeding her subconscious, I’m sure, from what I saw of her school record.  She didn’t want to know how a thing was done, but why.  That can be embarrassing.  You ask Why to a lot of things you end up very unhappy, indeed, if you keep at it.  The poor girl’s better off dead.”

[…]

“If you don’t want a man to feel unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.  Better yet, give him none.  Let him forget there is such a thing as war.  If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those things than that people worry over it.  Peace, Montag.  Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitols or how much corn Iowa grew last year.  Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damn full of  ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.  And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.  Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.  That way lies melancholy.”

[…]

“I hope I have clarified things.  The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others.  We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought.  We have our fingers in the dike.  Hold steady.  Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and dreary philosophy drown our world.  We depend on you.  I don’t think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now.”

Fragments taken from: Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. Ballantine edition of 1981, translation 1993.

Translator’s notes:
*Josef Stalin
Fahrenheit 451 was originally published in 1953.
The excerpts here are taken from the 1993 English language edition, rather than translated “back” from the Spanish of this blog post.

Discoveries in fragments…

1.

Discovery comes accompanied by emotion. Those who have felt it know that, under its effects, people can go beyond any limits – we remember Archimedes jumping out of his bath. Revealing the hidden, getting it out into the light, making the limits of ignorance, even your own, retreat, heighten the discoverer’s pride, and encourage him to reach out for new inquiries. It doesn’t really matter how simple the finding is. Only the small and immediate is what makes up our world, what constitutes our circumstances, our surroundings, that which has touched our existence.  If the perception is shared with others, when there is a agreement in the association or the criterion, a collective reading, there is greater intensity in the feedback and one can achieve impressive emotional heights.

2.

There are unforgettable feminine voices.  Two of my favorite singers have something else in common. The first one I came across, chronologically speaking, was the Colombian Shakira.  The way she sings and her uniqueness among her contemporaries, give her a special place in my musical preferences. More than a decade later, when I heard Dolly sing–not the sheep but Dolores O’Riordan–it was like everything started. I will not try to compare them, much less describe them, their voices, I mean. The first doesn’t interest me, and the second, I don’t think I’m capable of it.  One thing I’m sure of, those who have heard them will understand. Besides the emotional effect I get from listening to their voices, they have this mysterious ability to evoke each other. One calls to mind the other, makes me want to listen to her, to look for her, to alternate their songs in an endless dialog of associations.

3.

Night in Lisbon, February 2001. The Convento do Beato welcomes the Scorpions in an acoustic concert. To close the night, they play Winds of Change, which is heavily applauded by the audience. Klaus Meine is at the center of the stage; Chris Kolonovits, in charge of the musical arrangements for the acoustic format, starts a melody on the piano. The notes are suggestive, they incite memory, but before we can start to remember, he sings “love of my life, you’ve hurt me,” and now everybody knows. It doesn’t come as a surprise; halfway into the concert, they’d already presented an excellent version of the Kansas classic, Dust in the Wind.  It doesn’t matter that this tune was written a quarter of a century ago, when a big part of this audience wasn’t even born yet, or that it was written by a musician and a band that don’t exist anymore. None of that matters, now that the discovery has occurred. Ever since the third verse, “love of my life, can’t you see,” audience and performer sing together. The song and emotion shared in these brief minutes are a tribute to Freddie Mercury, that unique genius, who more than a decade ago broke our hearts and left, without ever knowing what his leaving has meant to us.

4.

We humans need the past. This need has allowed us to develop our memory, writing, and graphic representations.

If the loss of memory brings about tragic consequences for an individual (see the movie Memento), when it happens to large groups it could reach catastrophic dimensions. The obsession for shedding light on our origins, takes us, through material things, to archeology; through the spiritual it takes us to mythology and religion. Take Blade Runner’s replicants, for instance. These artificial creatures, product of genetic engineering, need photos and souvenirs in order to answer questions related to the origin of their own consciousness and their possible significance.

Much of this dependence on the past is also found in the visual universe – beautiful and decadent – created by Ridley Scott to depict a utopian Los Angeles in the year 2019. In order to get answers, the Nexos look for their creator, who lives on the top of a pyramid, like a pharaoh of the future. J. F. Sebastian, the scientist employed like an access method to this creator, lives in an apartment in the Bradbury building, dating from the late 19th century.  The office of Bryant, the police captain, was filmed in Union Station, built in the decade of the ‘30s in the last century.  Deckard’s apartment is located in a house that was designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924. This house, known as the Ennis Residence and inspired by the art and architecture of the Mayans, serves as a location where Deckard explains to Rachel that she is not human, based on his knowledge about the implanted remembrances on Rachel’s brain. The emotional destruction of this character is presented in the combination of textures of the ornate blocks, the light screened by a curtain that throws diagonal shadows on the surfaces and atmospheric objects, creating one of the most enduring scenes of the movie. This atmosphere is majestically accompanied by the music of Vangelis, a composer who uses random electronic sounds, over it the piano plays a suggestive melody, minimalist and romantic, entitled Memories of Green.

5.

With her novel Interview with the Vampire, the writer Anne Rice adds new dimensions to the stories of vampire. New myths and a sharp depiction of the existential drama of the main character, deeply troubled about his need to live and the necessity to end human lives in order to do so, as well as his search for identity through meeting others of his species, constitute some of the ingredients that make this work a great influence on literature and other artistic manifestations.

British musician Sting made his debut as a soloist in 1985 – after a successful career with the band The Police – with his album The Dream of the Blue Turtles. It includes a song entitled Moon Over Bourbon Street, which is a small gem that he creates with lyrics, music and atmosphere.  Inspired by Rice’s novel, the song convincingly sums up the main character’s drama in a brief verse:

“I have stood many times outside her window at night
To struggle with my instinct in the pale moon light
How could I be this way when I pray to God above
I must love what I destroy and destroy the thing I love”

This song has a dark blue color that turns to violet, the color of the nocturnal shades of the light of the full moon slightly hidden by clouds—just like in the werewolf movies—shining over Bourbon Street where the horror begins.  The full moon with its chilly nocturnal light, unlike the warm light of the sun, cold dark funereal, that envelops you like like the bass chords, in circular anguish.

The full moon over Bourbon Street, shining, opening all the horrors and closing all the stanzas.

In 1994, the Irish director Neil Jordan adapted Rice’s novel for a movie. Jordan, who has directed such memorable movies as Mona Lisa and We’re No Angels, based his adaptation on Rice’s own script, and chose for the film an all-star cast that included Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater, and the astonishing twelve-year-old Kirsten Dunst, to create a vision of the world of Anne Rice that has been described as hypnotic, fascinating, hair-raising, and sexy.

My personal chronology is this:

First I listened to the song, around the time the disc was released at the end of the ‘80s. Many years later, already in this 21st century that still wears short pants, I read the novel in its original language.  Shortly after that, I saw the movie.

I can not say how I would have felt had I accessed these works in their natural sequence, but remembering the song while reading the novel, and then watching a visual interpretation of a world provocative of so much horror and seduction, has given me an unforgettable aesthetic satisfaction.

6.

The boys of Porno Para Ricardo, whom people talk a lot about (and, hopefully, will for a long time to come), also give me an opportunity to feel like I’m a discoverer.  Their song El Delegado, said to be edgy and, if we take it literally, advocating a use of violence I don’t agree with, has a delectable segment inspired by the classic cancan.

Me? At the end of the day I’m a peasant, so I don’t know much about music. Nevertheless, for over 20 years I have tried to educate my ear, and I believe by now my “shit detector” for both music and literature should be quite fine-tuned. And these kids know how to make good music; they have depth and an hilarious sense of humor. As we say in good Cuban, they have a good time and are a good time.

The good stuff starts with the title of the disc I don’t like politics, but politics likes me, compañeros, an allusion to a certain celebrity, whose name I cannot recall, and who said something like “I don’t support drugs, but drugs support me.” In the bass players’ song, a delicious mockery of the band’s ups and downs, they surprise us with some hectic phrases from “William Tell,” and on top of that they throw these words at you: “Listen, how beautiful, the sampled bass.”  And finally, my favorite: in the song La libertad [Freedom] the vocalist continually distorts the verse “all in the same cell,” which touches on a similar passage in Nirvana’s classic, Territorial Pissings.

7.

The journey continues. New searches push the boundaries of the unknown, increase the potential to make new references, to complexify the readings. The perception is widened towards others and acquired knowledge deepens.

Kundera and La Jiribilla

When I was in primary school I liked to write (the famous compositions) and reading and writing came easy to me.  Later, in pre-university, I was seduced by technology, the electronics, the telex (telecommunications) and thus I entered into the world of computers and I’ve never left it.  I believe that, like we all carry a Nicanor inside (Frank Delgado dixit),* I carry a writer inside (OK, maybe a scribbler, no?). The world changed for me after reading Kundera, and has never been the same.   And I owe it all to La Jiribilla.*  I don’t recall the details now, but some two/three years ago I read an article where, in passing, the author was wondering whether Kundera was really that good a writer, or if he only knew how to take advantage of the 20th anniversary of ‘68 or something like that.  Then, provoked, I decided to read him, I found him and I read him.  I can say convincingly that Kundera is a GREAT writer and that many of the things they write in La Jiribilla don’t deserve to be given much credit.  I, at least, know it.

Translator’s notes:

Nicanor, the personification of the ‘grey bureaucrat/company man,’ is the title character of a song by Frank Delgado; the lyrics can be found on line.  [‘Dixit’ is Latin for ‘he said’, which I clarify here not to insult the reader’s intelligence, but because when reading works in translation it can be confusing which words are Spanish, which are English and which are something else.]

La Jiribilla is a weekly magazine of Cuban culture.

Green license plates and black berets

I remember a story a friend of mine told me, worried about the differentiation between the students at the primary school her daughter attends.  A group of selected children are designated, “Followers of Che,” or something like that, and wear the black beret with the classic star and wear a different badge, whose worth they already know…

I don’t remember the details of the other activities undertaken in a differentiated way, but what drew my attention (normally I’m a very distracted person) was what I could see with my own eyes, weeks later, while riding in a car with a co-worker who told me that he was going to go by the school and pick up his daughter before we continued to our destination, and we arrived at the aforementioned school of my friend.  In the time I waited for my colleague to collect his boy it caught my attention that several of the children with black berets who were leaving the school, were riding in cars and motorcycles, many of them with a green license plate.  A picture is worth a thousand words…

Translator’s note:
Green license plates are issued to members of the army (light green) and Ministry of the Interior (dark green).

Aterciopelados

The other day I was at the home of a neighbor sharing a cafecito and helping to catch up on the housework and care for a sick family member—very stressful tasks for a first-timer. The neighbor woman lives alone and is accustomed to having the television on to “kill the silence” and she didn’t turn it off during our entire visit, so our tasting of the black nectar passed pleasantly, brightened by the sound of the Cubavision channel (the style and phrases are totally intentional). In the midst of our trivial conversation, hearing familiar music, I went to the television to see if I was hearing what didn’t seem possible, and to my surprise it was true, pictures and sound of Gema Corredera and Pável Urquiza* singing, “I would like to stop smoking.” I don’t remember precisely how many years it’s been since such a fun song “stuck” and was played to the point of boredom on the radio and TV. Nor do I remember the exact moment, later, when they were “lost” like Lucas and Lucía and moved on to form part of that legion, silent and invisible, of “gone,” “left” or “aterciopelados” that are so common these days.

Translator’s note:
Gema Corredera and Pável Urquiza are a Cuban duet that started singing together in Havana the 1980s.  They moved to Spain in 1993 and are still together.  YouTube has a video of them singing “
Yo quisiera para de fumar.” Lucas and Lucía is a song by another artist about two young people who steal an airplane…

On youth and change

Maybe I’m turning into an old man and I believe that (as a generation) I am the most qualified for the race and these youngsters have a lot to learn… Maybe at the time for fixing the disaster we have to say as we said at the beginning (and said later, and continue saying): “with these oxen we must plough” and begin a new round of development weighed down, and so, ad infinitum. This thought, that in others provokes dread of the change that lies ahead, only worries me, because I am convinced that, come what may, the change will come.

Memories of glasnost via Sputnik

I have vague memories of the articles about Glasnost in those incredible Sputnik magazines, before it was banned by the government in August 1989.  With this act of censorship against those they considered the “murderers” of socialism, began, for me, the last chapter in the saga of the Cuban government, which began with a wandering journey to nowhere, very visible in the sector of the economy, the diaspora, the sterile “cultural rescues” and the restrengthening of nationalism through small appliances made in China.

A Russian satirist wrote something like this:

In my city people who lived the arts dedicated themselves to the stuffy and perfection of their skills and came to be honored artists.  Those with a talent for the sciences strongly dedicated themselves to science to deepen their knowledge and came to be renowned scientists.  Those with no interest in science and no talent for art dedicated themselves to direct others and came to infect everyone with their mediocrity and incompetence.

And with regards to his immediate environment he said:

My small apartment is the same as my neighbor’s and those of many of my friends.  The same can be said of the building where it is located. The hard-working builders completed buildings and left quickly to construct others somewhere, forgetting to complete the sidewalks and parks. Opposite the entrance to my building there is a huge puddle full of mud, determined to soil our shoes…

Today, as I observe the deterioration of the neighborhood, the garbage watered by dogs, the ‘lions’ and the ‘divers’ and I avoid a huge mud puddle every time I enter and leave my prefabricated Soviet-era building, with minimal apartments where it is simply impossible to place a three-door cabinet or a game with four chairs without utilizing the famous fourth dimension or the devil’s magic in The Master and Margarita, I can only smile with irony and sadness, remembering those Sputniks of Glasnost, the breath of hope that they brought to our debased atmosphere and hear the recurring echoes of the sound of a door being violently slammed in our faces.

Ghosts from the past

During the long weeks prior to general elections which concluded recently, we have been the target of a media campaign in favor of the united vote.  In its various stages of development we have seen frequent messages, exhortations and appeals which have involved public figures, artists, sportsmen and Cubans on the street.  The image of the electoral ballot has been repeated past the point of exhaustion, with the names of the candidates supplanted by words full of symbolism, such as United, Fatherland, Revolution and Socialism.  Taking all of this together, it’s interesting to highlight like something novel the use of an animated cartoon that presents a character unknown to the great majority of young Cubans, and even to many of a more mature age.  Wearing a guayabera and dark glasses, this figure who asks “unusual” questions can be identified as a petty politician or political sergeant of the pre-Revolutionary period.  This anachronism is too obvious, having been drawn in the typical way used to represent ghosts in cartoons and, just in case there are any doubts, it is called ‘ghost’ by another character.

If it’s true that the traditions of dead generations oppress the brains of the living, in this case it’s evident that the generation in power only reflects on and engages in discussions with its own obessions.