Coup de Grace at the Havana Book Fair

Volumes with the face of Fidel Castro and others praising the Communist Party at the 2020 Book Fair, the last one held. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 30 January 2022 — There was a time when I would leave school and walk as fast as I could until I reached several used book stores that were on my way home. After completing the journey, it was not uncommon to have in my hands a volume of Victor Hugo, some compendium of science fiction stories, or a tome on the French Revolution. That anxiety became more intense during the days of the Havana Book Fair, when many Cubans hoped to find something new to read.

This year, the main publishing party on the Island has been postponed as a result of covid-19, but the event has been languishing for years. The moments of greatest dynamism and influx of international authors that were experienced at the beginning of this century are a thing of the past. Those days ,when I was lucky enough to experience the Fair from within as an employee of the Gente Nueva [New People] publishing house, remain in my memory. That immersion in its inner workings allowed me to know the deep problems that would end up accelerating its death throes.

Censorship marked the Fair from its beginning. It wasn’t uncommon for a title to be put back in its boxes on the very day it was released and for some justification to be invented to prevent it from reaching readers. I had to see beautiful stories dedicated to children that were never sold because their author has just gone into exile and made critical statements about the regime. More than once, directors panicked when they noticed that a text by Mario Vargas Llosa or a novel by Milan Kundera had slipped in among the foreign books.

But it was not only a matter of censorship. All of us who worked on the fairs held each February dedicated more than 16 hours a day to making the event happen. The conditions in which we worked were terrible. Many times there was no water to drink, lunch arrived late and we were subject to the annoyance of readers who did not understand the delays and the absence of certain authors. We were the targets of anger and exploitation.

The invited authors did not have a very good time either. While some internationally renowned figures were treated like royalty, most locals saw bureaucracy and extremism take the shine off their literary moment. It was not infrequent for releases initially announced with hundreds of copies, to appear with barely a dozen for sale. Copyright payments were as meager as they were convoluted to collect.

The Fair has also been killed by the inability to acquire the right to distribute the great works that have been written in the last quarter century. The mania for pirating books and not paying a penny for their massive printing, that characterized the “revolutionary impetus” of the 1960s and 1970s, left the Island as a predator in the eyes of the planet’s big publishing houses.

Little by little, the meeting at La Cabaña fortress – a place with dark connotations for freedom – became the fanfare of an inaugural speech, the naming of a guest of honor country granted more for political convenience than for literary merit, and a space to shop for knitted purses, woodcut horoscopes, hot dogs and football stickers. Good titles became increasingly scarce and difficult to acquire due to their prices.

Last Sunday, when I learned of the postponement of the Havana Book Fair, I did not feel sorry for that teenager who hastened her pace to climb the hill that separates the bay tunnel from the first moat of the colonial fortress. Rather, I had a moment of relief knowing that the corpse of what was a good time for reading will be able to rest in peace for a few more weeks, without so much manipulation.


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