A Country Ill from Chronic Laughter

Published, ironically, by a printing house on Calle Amargura (Bitter Street), the sketches in the book are by Conrado Massaguer. (Collage)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, Spain, 18 December 2022 – If oblivion had a physical form, or a symbol, it would be that of a faded photograph. From an original shaky camera shot, or just from the degrading of the resulting photographic paper print itself, a photo that has lost its sharpness doesn’t tell us very much. One is tempted to think that, just as the paper deteriorates with the passage of time or even through the work of termites, so the person depicted in the photo also ends up in the land of abandoned things.

This thought occurred to me yesterday while I was looking at a photo of Gustavo Robreño, the forgotten Cuban republican writer who joined the team at the celebrated Alhambra theatre in Cuba in 1900 and composed El velorio de Pachencho (Pachencho’s Vigil) with his brother Francisco.

I’m looking at Robreño now, in a kind of daguerreotype of image; he has all of that fresh elegance of the nineteenth century — a white hat on his head, suit and walking cane — or at least he appears to have these details from what can be made out from the fading yellowing image. The picture looks as if it’s under water and it’s difficult to tell whether he’s looking genuinely surly or just mocking, whether his face is wrinkled or even if he’s sporting a moustache.

A man scattered across two centuries, stirred by theatre and politics, he was born in 1873 in Pinar del Río and died in 1957 — perhaps anticipating how the good times were about to end. As a young man, in Spain he read and discussed with all the intellectuals of the ’Generation of ’98’. The language of his books is creole, mocking — it’s impossible for him to write a single word without it having an opposite or a calculated crosswise meaning.

In 1915, Robreño undertook a kind of ’settling of scores’ with Cuba’s past, in order to better explain the convulsive beginnings of its early Republic. If I’m not mistaken, he wrote one of the first histories of the Island in the twentieth century, possibly the only one — apart from the comic strips of Vista de amanecer en el trópico (A View of Daybreak in the Tropics) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante — in which Cuba is described as an incoherent, not very serious place, sometimes charming but at the end of the day tragic and irredeemable.

Historia de Cuba: narración humorística (The History of Cuba: a Comic Narrative) is also a rare edition. Published, ironically, by a printing house on Calle Amargura (Bitter Street), the drawings in the book are by Conrado Massaguer, a promising young artist of 26 at the time.

On the book’s cover, Massaguer has drawn an amazed Christopher Columbus holding out a nappy (diaper) to an indigenous baby there in front of him on the ground, crying inconsolably. Behind them some Spaniards peer across at a palm grove from where a nanny goat gazes out suspiciously.

The scene is a forewarning of what’s to come. Robreño launches into a hillarious revision of the Cuban story from the first arrival of this famous Admiral up to the birth of the nation. No one escapes his satire. The prologue, signed by a skeptical ’Attaché’ — a pseudonym that isn’t difficult to attribute to Cabrera Infante himself in a previous life — puts the book into context: “The time of blood and heroism over, now experience Cuba in the time of caricature, in which it governs itself, legislates, and even makes revolutions to the sound of loud guffawing”.

It was the first cautionary note: the Cuban people have a historical compulsion to “sell their soul to the devil…and then live happily, unconcerned…inebriated”, “with a firefly in their hand and a big cigar in their mouth”. Robreño demonstrates this in his book, pointing out the ridicule of a multitude of episodes in which opportunists dress up with much ceremony.

Of the burning of the indian man, Hatuey, romanticised by historiography, Robreño says that it was “an admirable case of civilised savagery…or savage civility”. According to this writer from Pinar:  the artist Velázquez “died of envy” because of Hernán Córtes the Brave — “as one couldn’t give the other up” — and Alejandro de Humbolt was a “German flora-fauna geologist who tried to show the world that Cuba was an almost habitable country and not a tobacco factory”.

In 1762 the Spanish treated the English invaders politely and asked them “if they would like [to take] anything” [meaning: to eat or drink]. The Count Albemarle’s reply was no less polite: “Havana!”. Rather circumspect, governor Juan de Prado then puts a scary warning out to Havana’s residents: “Citizens, the English are five miles away from the capital and according to reports they are all wearing ’pointy shoes’, strong and new. So have your backsides (asses) prepared because I fear it won’t only be on the ground where the invader puts his feet”.

Robreño’s book becomes positively acidic when he talks of the “patriots, traitors and loan sharks” of 1868, who argued against his “little memo” after the ’burning of Bayamo’, and even more when he refers to the first years of the republic, in a magnificent portrait of families who never will pardon neither the living nor the dead.

The history of Cuba — “A country ill from chronic laughter” — should, for Robreño, be evaluated from a higher perspective, that is, “from an aeroplane but with a handkerchief over your nose”. I wonder whether the collective rage of the nation would not have wanted to hide away Robreño’s book, deny his very existence, give him up for lost, or even burnt.

And it’s not surprising. If anyone wanted to undermine or subvert the the ’gravity’, fiction or convenient silence of all the Cuban politicians — and those of today are a grossly inflated version of those from antiquity — you only need to read Robreño’s apocryphal history to the kids.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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