Salvador, a Seat Occupied in Cuban Literature / Francis Sánchez

Salvador Bueno and the author of this interview

Interview of Salvador Bueno (fragment*)

I met him in 1998. That year, on October 12, he received the “José Vasconcelos” prize in a ceremony at the National Hotel in Havana. The gold medal, conferred by the Hispanic Affirmation Front (HAF) to intellectuals of the Castillian language for lifetime achievement, had already gone to figures of the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and León Felipe. He was added to the select group with no less dignity, like a venerable man of letters whose patient and helpful work had contributed to the appreciation of Cuban literature beyond our shores. Coincidentally, that day the same institution in Mexico gave, with exceptional character, the Young Talent Prize to Ileana Álvarez. In the next few years we would share various times, invited always to activities in which the HAF and its president, Mr. Fredo Arias of la Canal, continued enhancing the knowledge of Cuban literary heritage, influenced especially with its “savior” influence.

It was the next year, in Holguín, where we traveled to pay homage to the poet Lalita Curbelo, that I asked if I would be allowed to turn on a small recorder, in the middle of some chats which he adorned with his rich knowledge and anecdotes of who had been not only a researched, but also a protagonist and exceptional witness to the vicissitudes of literature and Creole society for the better part of the twentieth century. Then, the century was drawing to a close, a good excuse to ask my interlocutor for a brief overview, a review not only of those hundred years but also his own unique look.

At the start I wasn’t excited about anything more than the idea of collecting, as a curiosity, part of the treasure of these conversations, and learning something about someone who had preferred to dedicate his energies to study and the promotion of other authors and tradition, from a university chair, as well as a writer, or — though he sneered at old age, keeping very active — directing the Cuban Academy of Language. I wanted to take advantage of this situation facing a young man who asks, in a classroom, partly because he doesn’t know and partly to be provocative.

When I got home I prepared the transcript and sent it to him with this message: “Here I have made a verbatim copy of the interview I managed to record in those hectic days of our stay at the Pernik Hotel in Holguin. As I promised, I am sending it to you for your review and editing of everything you want to clarify, and then return it to me.”

But time passed and passed … and every time I phoned, he would ask for another extension. Until we met around the table again and I didn’t give him any more cracks at it: I thought perhaps he would loosen his tongue with regards to some simple themes that, looking closely, were still uncomfortable, at least as long as the people involved were living. He asked me to let the water run under the bridge a little more. The truth is, that except for this interview I kept it to myself and since then it has remained unpublished.

When he passed on physically, Salvador Bueno (Havana, 1917-2006) closed an extensive work that he worked on until his final hour, consisting mainly of research, essays, articles and anthologies, which began in 1950 when he published Outline of Modernism in Cuba (Talleres Tipográficos de Editorial Lex, La Habana), a conference he had held at the Universidad del Aire on September 3.

Then in 1953, the National Commission for UNESCO would print A Half-Century of Cuban Literature (1902-1952). His History of Cuban Literature, adapted to the current official program in the institutes of secondary education in Cuba, appeared in 1954 with the Minerva seal and later would be reissued after the triumph of the Revolution.

Among his outstanding monographs was The Negro in the Hispanic American Novel (Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 1986), with which he had obtained, in 1978, the Candidate of Doctor of Sciences in the Literary Academy of Sciences of Hungary. The milestones of poetry also always received the benefit of his attention, from Image by the poet Milanés, a reprint of the Journal of the National Library José Martí (Havana, 1963).

In his later years, he fulfilled the responsibilities of President of the Cuban Academy of Language with the same humility that Dulce Maria Loynaz had left this institution on dying. What then was the main promoter of the collection of Cuban Classics, thanks to funding from the FAH, but with the seal of the Academy, he returned to life and put back into circulation many indispensable books, always with his prefaces and notes.

Now in the last stage of his life he received other awards that came to validate the homage of his Mexican friends. He won the International Fernando Ortiz Prize, in 2000, then on the same date the National Award for Cultural Research, and four years later, the National Social Sciences Award.

When he’d already let more than a little water run under the bridge, I think it’s necessary to deliver to others that part of his words that I picked up one day.

Francis Sanchez: Your love of literature, is it a family inheritance?

Salvador Bueno: I can’t say that in my family there was some ancestor that was dedicated to literature. Although my father was a great reader and also, according to what he told me, when he was very young he wrote some articles. I think that in the stages of Cuban life that I lived, there were those who got me interested in literature, as the necessary expression of a man, that is of the whole society.

I studied at the Havana Institute in a tumultuous era, when there was even an attack by the army and the police. I think on March 3, 1934 they threw tear gas. There is even a chronicle published by Pablo de la Torriente [Cuban writer, 1901-1936], about the terrible things that happened there, in a place where there hundreds of boys and girls.

As the police were already fired up, any gesture of rejection was sufficient motive to set them against us. In that situation we had long periods of truce, most of the time the strikers were the same students, although it was always the government that closed the classrooms.

After the fall of Machado the opened the institutes for what they called lightning courses, but then came the strike of March 1935, and they suspended classes again, and it was the same in other months. All this inclined me, as well, towards reading. In the long periods where there no student obligations I dedicated myself to reading everything that fell into my hands, not just works of pure creation, like novels, stories or poems, but also I read critical essays, histories… I read a lot, both good and bad, from contradictory positions, which I think ultimately opened a very wide spectrum for me.

FS: And in the beginning, as a man of thought, were you marked by the social aspects?

SB: That vocation was born and developed over all the years at the Institute of Havana, then in the Institute of Vibora and finally at the University, because the agitation continued throughout all these years. I entered the University in 1938, and Abel Santamaria in 1942. The situation of unrest that existed in Cuba was very big, especially among students. Among teachers of all types and kinds, they were very good for the students because not only were they very good at their material, but they also maintained a civic position that they drove us to follow. For example, there was Vincentina Antuña who conveyed his concerns to us, so this way they also directed us. I think those years of struggle were invaluable to me in that sense, because I learned from books and beyond the books.

FS: Talking about the matter of your own work, what do you think of Cuban poetry of the twentieth century compared to the nineteenth century? That upward spiral — as Lezama said — which would certainly mean the poetry of the nineteenth century, in relation to what was being written then in the rest of America, do you believe that it had continued during this last century?

SB: I think that in the first fifteen years of the century, the poetry written in Cuba was delayed relative to the rest of Hispanic America. However, from that stage of disillusion rose great powers like Regino Boti, José Manuel Pobeda, Agustín Acosta and others, And in this what, despite what the frustration of the Republic meant, they found better ways to express themselves in taking into account the situation in the country.

Pobeda, for example, demonstrates a poetry and a prose of total skepticism, but also with a great anger … There’s a poem he called “Dirty rag,” dedicated to the flag, where he tells people precisely that, that their flag is a rag. So it was afterward that the other poetry arose, between 1920 and 1930, where we also find notable authors who were reacting against their predecessors without totally separating themselves from them. They are poets like Tallet and Regino Pedroso, who on the one hand leaned greatly toward social concerns and at the some time possessed a skepticism that they were going to try to placate.

Then comes an important event, the revolution against Machado, which means a new frustration for Cubans, because when we expected that the leaders that emerged after the fall of the tyrant would improve the situation of the country, the opposite happened. The most obvious case was that of Grau San Martin, who was elected by a huge majority, and also with tremendously enthusiastic demonstrations, this Cintio Vitier who spoke very well in the novel De peña pobre.[1] There was joy because finally a popular president was elected, and then there was widespread frustration.

So, I think that with those relapses will there will always arise the spirit of the Cuban rebel who stands in front of those gaps and faces the same skepticism that comes from such experiences. So we have the case of Chibas who is, I would say, a reformer, but around him there is a series of guys who later will be the starting point of the generation of the century. And besides, in poetry (it seemed as if we were not already talking about poetry) there were the great teachers who were born early in the century, Nicolas Guillen in 1902, Lezama in 1910… These important figures will manage to be heard. Guillen for his particular expression, for his own communicability, which he managed, perhaps, more easily than others.

FS: Do you think it’s an exaggeration to refer to Origins as a movement.

SB: No because without a doubt it was a movement. It had to do with Lezama, and the youngest, Eliseo, Cintio, Fina, were the ones who gave it vitality. So much so that when the Revolution came that required taking positions, and Lezama and they were left in Cuba. Although they say he tried to leave but the truth is he stayed in Cuba when his sister left. He was a man who lived very immersed in his own environment. I remember once at his house he confessed to me that he couldn’t live without the dampness that left stains you could see on the walls, although, in the end, with his asthma, it was precisely those water stains that killed him.

FS: With the Revolution, what significance did Lezama continue to have for you?

SB: I will tell you something that is certainly going to amaze you, many people no longer remember that Lezama Lima was vice president of UNEAC (Cuban Artists and Writers Union). I have a card with his signature. The UNEAC ID card had be to renewed from time to time, but I kept mine, I save it like a treasure, a UNEAC card with Lezama Lima’s signature as vice president, that is acting vice president, because when Guillen went abroad he stopped fulfilling the functions as one of the first vice presidents.

FS: When was that?

SB: UNEAC was founded in 1961 and this was in the first ten years. Also, in 1959 they offered a series of conferences on the steps of the University, they would invite there the most distinguished poets and writers, contributors included Tallet, Regino Pedroso, and also Lezama, but his contribution is almost unknown although it was published, because Ciro Bianchi included it in a boo where he brought together a lot of the works of those who were dispersed and little known. [2] The initiative of offering this conference on the steps, his contribution, his thinking, was very good. That is, some have wanted to accentuate Lezama’s withdrawn personality, or his anti-Revolutionary character, but you have to read his work carefully.

FS: In the second half of the twentieth century, we have the poetry that is already within the Revolutionary process.

SB: There’s even a debate about what has been called “First generation poetry of the Revolution,” some who had been publishing before the Revolution, as is the case with Robert Fernandez Retamar, and even those who began to publish in the first years. Then, in 1959, those Cuban Book Fairs started, and there we find a selection of poetry from the young, prepared by Retamar and Fayad Jamis [3]. You have to pay attention to what they say in the prologue, and the authors that are included there, is something fabulous. They increasingly emphasize the desire to identify with the priorities of identity, but also the desire to penetrate their own personalities, and in this way I think they they achieved the best results of this first stage of the poetry of the Revolution, that is, that which comes with full force from the young people who founded El Caimán Barbudo (The Bearded Cayman) in 1966, Luis Rogelio Nogueras, Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera, Víctor Casaus…

FS: Do you think that in this 20th century we have some intellectual that is head and shoulders above that we will be able to recognize as the most significant figure?

SB: I think without a doubt that the intellectual figure most important in this century in Cuba is Fernando Ortiz, and I think that in the new century new generations should know him completely and follow his direction. His works should be republished, and we must always insist on the fundamental messages of his work.


* “Salvador, un sillón ocupado en las letras cubanas” (Salvado, a Chair Occupied in Cuban Letters) won the Orlando Castellanos Interview Prize in the cultural magazine Videncia (Clairvoyance), 2010. Jury: Gina Picart, David Leyva and Juventina Soler. This is only a fragment.

1 Cintio Vitier published the first part of his novel De peña pobre in México, in 1978.

2 Aludes to a text compiled by Ciro Bianchi in Imagen y posibilidad, Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 1981.

3 Refers to the selection, Poesía joven de Cuba, Ediciones del Festival del Libro Cubano, La Habana, 1959.

Translated by: J.E.L., and others.

March 17 2011