Leaves and Grass

Sean Connery as William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose.

14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 5 November 2023 — Only two types of objects travel, almost covertly, from my old country to my current home: books and tobacco. I spent years collecting first editions, haggling over prices with booksellers, wandering around every day — what else was there to do? – perusing open-air markets, abandoned houses, collections of exiled relatives, estate sales and dead people’s trunks. When I managed to score something, I celebrated with a smoke. Thus the page and the puro would, together, always bring forth life and memory.

The business of recovery has always been arduous and for several reasons. The first is technical. It has become increasingly difficult to find a contact on the island willing to handle these two problematic commodities. A more or less old edition – something published in the latter part of the 19th century or before 1959 – can have problems getting through customs if the inspector understands books (I know I am assuming a lot here), while cigars, especially those that are loose and not in shiny sealed boxes, have always been at risk of confiscation or rationing.

That’s why when I tear open the packaging my books come in and light a fresh cigar, I thank the gods and the impish spirits who populate the airport scanners for the benefit of travelers. They passed, they flew, they landed. Now, I read or smoke them as if nothing in Cuba had been lost.

Rescuing a library is a lot like managing a refugee camp. The Schindler of the tropics cannot save them all

Nevertheless, rescuing a library is a lot like running a refugee camp. The Schindler of the tropics cannot save them all. And only from time to time is the courier also a friend or family member. This makes the audacity of it – shall we say — tolerable. The audacity of asking  someone to carry in his or her luggage a few kilograms of — to paraphrase Walt Withman — leaves and grass.

That is why the second obstacle that rescuers face is sentimental in nature. We leave something behind, it crosses the ocean and, by the time we lay our hands on it again, it is a relic. As the bolero tune goes, “Today, I represent the past.” The object is also an émigré, a survivor. In some sad, sweet way it represents us. We are also that dusty cover, that binding, that dedication that was salvaged.

A long time ago, I was presented with a solution but I rejected it: Don’t accumulate books and smoke the tobacco quickly. Don’t save, don’t preserve, don’t make friends or fall in love, or buy a house, or adopt a cat, because everything here is uncertain and tomorrow you will almost certainly leave. Except for not buying a house – where would I have gotten the money? – I ignored all this advice. Not doing so would have meant admitting that life in Cuba was not life. Or that the decades I lived there were a sub-life, a non-life, or in any case merely survival. That no one who exists on the island should believe they belong to the realm of the living but rather that they are ghosts. And that is unjust.

As I unpacked a small shipment of readable and smokeable material, I felt a fondness for what now seems like a former life, in the Buddhist sense of the word

Despite the fact that every piece of news from my country – my old country – portrays it as tired and haggard, I think I enjoyed each of my expeditions in search of books, my meals with friends, the spent cigars and the words spoken. So this morning, as I unpacked a small shipment of readable and smokeable material, I felt a real fondness for what now seems like a former life, in the Buddhist sense of the word. And it was not just any old thing but the legendary first edition of Paradiso. There was also first edition of The American Expression, Lezama’s 1957 lectures that begin with his famous line, “Only that which is difficult is stimulating.” Lastly, there was In Peace as in War by a young, myopic Cabrera Infante. Among the many books, there were also cigarillos as thin as pencils.

When I left Cuba, I found a quote by Sergio Ramírez that captivated me: “A library is a forest. I have lived within that forest and I can only find my orientation when I am inside it. Only I know where every book is, and I can go straight to it and find it. Right now, from Madrid, I can walk through it blindly. Everything in that forest is silent now. The shelves in the shadows, in the closed area, waiting for the hand that brings them back to life. My life, which I have lived among them, happy in their company. They are exiled too, in their own solitude.”

The quote, which once gave me comfort, now depresses and challenges me. The truth is that I no longer want to go to my abandoned library. Instead, I want to extend my hand –  like Ramírez’ resurrecting hand – to dismantle my old shelves and enrich the new ones. Without remorse, with the spirit of a rescuer or a privateer but for my own benefit. In any case, when it comes to resupplying ourselves with leaves and grass, or souvenirs for that matter, you stop caring about plunder. As the Romanian philospher Emil Cioran said, “The country that was ours no longer belongs to anyone.”


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.