The guardian angel of today is Abilio Estévez. Playwright, storyteller and poet, well-known and a winner of literary awards, this Cuban who lives in Barcelona has published mid-year the novel The Sleeping Navigator, the final part of a trilogy that examines three tragic moments of a family and a city. A family that tries, without success, to remain united. A family that waits, with slow haste, in a city where time doesn’t move forward, or doesn’t move at all, maybe we are the ones trying to slip through a wall of time. The immobility has been our only mobility. A city which is loved or hated with equal need.
They’re hated, the grimy, unpainted walls, the stinking streets, where it’s been days since the garbage was collected and where there is a dull light of lethargy and a shadow of despair. A city where one feels there is nothing to do is hated. The constant need to escape is hated. However, those same walls and those same streets, with a strength that forces you to repudiate it, are loved. And most surprisingly: when you’re away, you want to return, to go on hating it and to go on loving it with equal fervor, with the same need. You want to be rid of it and you don’t want to be rid of it. It’s fatal, like your own body, like your own family. A city is a destiny.
It happened in the early nineties. The Berlin Wall had already fallen, in Moscow thousands of people were lining up in front of McDonald’s and in Havana dozens of uniformed cops out of uniform were lining up in front of the movie theater to see “Alice in Wondertown.” Trying out my twenty-two years of age for the first time, I was going through life with that sensation of omnipotence, the result of hormones, lack of worries and not being well-read. Hemingway used to say that every man always has one drink too few. In my own version of the phrase, I substituted book for drink. So, one of my favorite occupations on arriving in any town or city, was to look for the bookstore, to browse through it without haste and—like a devotee visiting the temple—to make an offering of a little money in exchange for a certain quantity of printed paper. It was on one of these explorations that I found it.
It was a little notebook, small and brief. It fit in the palm of my hand and its scant sixty pages took up a space about the same as that between the thumb and forefinger when we demonstrate the size of a little bit. The cover, delicate and discrete, told about the title: Handbook of Temptations, the author’s name, and specified—as if it were necessary—that the contents were poetry. I remember that while I was looking at it, I thought it peculiar that Abilio did not seem like the name of a poet, but like that of a hick. It could be, perhaps, about a book of décimas—ten line poems. I opened it at random and what I read made me forget my speculations about names and décimas:
One afternoon some man will go past your door. By chance, you will look out over the street. You will look at each other. Your eyes will meet for a second. Only one second. And then nothing will be the same. Never again will you ever see him, nor will he again ever see you. But both he and you will know that everything in the past and in the future was contained in that instant, and the two of you will believe that to live is to prepare yourself for one glance in which everything is said.
My debts to this discrete gem that Abilio wrote for us are several. To verify one more time that poetry is more a question of essence than of form. To discover two indispensable names among many others: Lezama and Virgil. To enjoy a sober and profound style which—I confess shamelessly—I try to imitate and capture ravenously. Understand that the temptations, large and small, are inseparable from our existence and that without them there is no happy ending to the journey.
My gratitude to the angel is twofold today, for his beautiful writings and for allowing them to be published here, for the enjoyment of visitors. Gracias, Abilio.
To choose one door is to leave doors unopened. A pleasure presupposes that many pleasures will not be lived, as each sorrow deals out so many sorrows. The lover you take into your bed is one among all possible lovers. The chosen word prevents the use of an indefinite number of words. You visit a place so that other places will be left waiting for you. Only the day that dawns for your death is any old day, a coincidence.
SO NEAR THE 21ST CENTURY
As it has happened since forever, we also must await the night and the ceremony of dream and silence. We must hide -so that they won’t see us, so they won’t hear us–even though we are at the end of the 20th century and the next century threatens to transform us into the most advanced society of those who inhabit the universe. This is one night of all times. I enter your house, unseen, and descend to the bedroom. I have accomplished this like any lover of Cnosos. The prejudices have been left out on the street, and as I mingle myself with you, I feel clean and outside of time. You are there and I wake up. So near to the 21st century your loveliness moves me and I embrace you and am afraid. The silence of your house is a civilization that peeks at the window. Nothing is different in our kiss: it’s the same, simple and lasting, from the first man who could discover your lips. We undress and are in Alexandria or in Havana. I caress your chest, explore your thighs with my mouth, and reach the same pleasure as the young men from Umbria. Nothing makes us different: when we join together it’s possible to prove that time has not passed. Now I know the delight of the artist on having chiseled the torso, pelvis and arms of Hermes. You are the pleasure and so am I, we belong to all time, and if you caress me it is the present, but also the past and the future and there can be nothing shameful. One in another, one on another on the whitest sheet, we become the couple rescued from death. Eternity also has also descended to this damp and dark cellar.
From the book: Manual de Tentaciones, Letras Cubanas, (Handbook of Temptations, Cuban Letters), 1989.
There once was on Earth an island-most-island-of-the-islands. All around it, the horizon was not an imaginary line, but the place where the sky and the sea were truly united.
Perhaps the story he narrated is not true. What story cannot be told from the opposite side? The lie is my only truth. I lie the same way I flee and my biggest lie is the return.
I was not king, however, I could neither drink the river water nor eat the fruit. I wandered around the island and the beauty withdrew from me. I wanted to touch a body and the glare of its violent youth stopped my hand. There was never a body I could touch. At the banquets I was alone, without touching a bite. No one looked at me, no one wanted to look at me, as if serpents were growing from my head. I was alone for years in my house by the sea. I wasn’t born to live but to recount that I lived.
Heaven is in hell and both are on the Island. I slept with the anguish that wine brings, or hashish. So much escaping left me without legs. So much saying goodbye left me without arms. So much hiding they granted me invisibility. Everything and nothing, I slept in the sweet-serene-horror of the island. Pursued. My biography is the book of persecution. I slept without monsters: the most atrocious and inoffensive ones had fled from a land where intoxication leads to fright. There were no monsters, I had to make myself into a monster. I invented the being-awake-in-being-asleep. Thus I could defend myself and build another world in places where the world began to disappear. I slept awake, feigning drunkenness, now the fat giant using word-enigmas, now the basilisk of furies. I possessed the codes to the island. They didn’t see me, I was sleeping, and while sleeping, I fled to injure and blaspheme; I wept for an impossible love, the only possible way to be in love; I recounted the unmovable garden; I returned to seed, I changed a woman into a blackish rabbit, born with the Peace of Basilea, I went out to see on a three mast boat, I was in jail, I lived in Jesus del Monte Road, I was a murderer, an aristocrat, a laborer, a pornographer, a tuberculosis sufferer, gallant poet and ambassador. I was persecuted, condemned. My biography is the book of condemnation. I was locked up in rooms, trunks, barrels, hand tied, gagged, writing on walls while I slept. I would write autumn and the ground of the island would be covered in leaves. I lived, exiled, in Persia and China, in the moors of Yorkshire. I always lived here. They cremated me in Paris and New York, and at the end, my ashes ended up here.
I never abandoned the island in spite so many ships and fake seas. They wanted to make me crazy and I made them crazy. Transforming myself, with each death, being everybody and nobody, returning asleep in appearance, with an unexpected name, my radically changed name, my disguise, made of contradictory disguises and yet strangely the same. Dazzling changing to confuse, deep down, the unique man, apparently asleep, writing raindrops on the walls so that the water would heal the bodies. I got to be the first multiple man on the island and I don’t regret it. I would have liked a different destiny, potter, thief, for example, villain, dancer. Gladly, I would have given my hands to wake in others the spark of desire. I would have given myself with pleasure to the inactivity of the hammock and tasted the nectar of the medlar. But I was born for insomnia and simulation. Happiness is the only word that remains inert on the wall. If others receive its strength, I do not. Nevertheless, Can I speak of bad luck? I am here and that’s enough. Pilgrims come to my grave on a daily basis. They bring flowers, basil leaves, then they take honey and praises to the place where I am to be born. I die and I am reborn on the island. I hate it only because they taught me how to love by hating.
From the book: “Death and Transfiguration,” Holguin Editions, 2002.