From Feb 11-22, Havana is the center of the 19th International Book Fair. Then, the Book Fair will tour the major Cuban cities for a month.
The Book Fair will take place at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña. This is a building in the form of a polygon, composed of numerous bulwarks, moats, barracks, and warehouses. Its construction was started in 1763, and finished 11 years later in 1774. Of the military buildings Spain constructed in America, it is the largest. As well as lodging for the best units of the Spanish Army in Cuba, it served to protect Havana from pirate attacks.
By order of Fidel Castro on January 3, 1959, Ernesto Che Guevara occupied La Cabaña and established his command headquarters there. From that date, it was transformed into a military unit for the guerilla fighters. And also into a giant prison. In its humid cells, the same ones where they happily sell literary titles, hundreds of political and common criminals used to be crowded together.
Serial executions took place in the yards where now the fascinated children run and play hide-and-seek behind the solidly built canons of the 18th century. Stories are told that in the first days of the revolution, Che personally supervised the executions of the Batista party members accused of crimes. In those same pits, the opponents of Castro were executed. In 1991, after various years of remodeling, the old fortress was converted to the Military Morro-Cabaña Historical Park.
The 19th edition of the Book Fair is devoted to Russia. In various pavilions, a heap of books by authors like Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, and Pushkin are sold. I didn’t see books from Solzhenitsyn, Pasternack, or Nabokov. If there is one whose books should have been sold, it is Yevgeny Yevtushenko, symbol of the post-Stalinist thawing, because the controversial poet is one of the more than 200 Russian intellectuals, writers, and artists, among them the Bolshoi Ballet, that traveled to the Island like special guests, purposely for the Fair.
Eighteen Years ago, Russia said goodbye to the communist ideology, but in Cuba, such a trustyworthy ally of Moscow that in 1976 a paragraph was included in the Constitution highlighting the “indestructible relations between both nations,” certain Russian literature, music, and movies are still considered dissident.
Having been dedicated to Russia, this Fair has brought loads of nostalgia to supporters of the Castro brothers. Opened by the president, who has never hidden his veneration for the Soviet feat during World War II. According to professor Jaime Suchlicki, from the University of Miami, “the Soviet army seemed to have always fascinated Raul, who exhibits photos and statues of soviet generals in his office in Havana.”
Together with the Russian Chancelor Sergei Lavrov, the general Raul Castro presided over the inauguration on Thursday, the 11th. In subsequent days, people turned out en masse to the different areas of The Cabaña.
Havana – Book Fair 2010
With an impressive and unique view of Havana, and a multitude of books and kiosks with an ample gastronomic offering in the two currencies that circulate on the Island (the Cuban Peso and the Convertible Cuban Peso), thousands of people crowded the pavilions in search of literary novelties.
In pesos, the national currency, they sold a few tattered books. More of the same. At the entrance, they gave out the title Niños del Milagro (Children of the Miracle) published April 2004, about the eye operations of Venezuelan children, written by the Cuban journalists Katiuska Blanco, Alina Perera, and Alberto Ñúñez. By means of a human wall and with a little luck, you could acquire novels from universal pens or police procedurals from the Spaniard Juan Madrid.
There were ample offerings in strong currency. Above all, for children. Ricardo Rojas, 43 years old, seated with his back to the sea and with his daughter, under a bright sun and an irritating wind commented: “I spent 54 Cuban Convertible Pesos (some 50 dollars) in books for my daughter. When I got back home, I will have to put up with the argument from my wife, for the money wasted only on books. But they are didactic works that will serve in her education.”
At least Rojas can give himself this luxury. The majority think about it twice when it comes time to open the wallet. The books are expensive, even the ones sold in pesos, as well as those sold in convertible currency. Nora Diaz, spent five hours with her 3 kids spinning like tops by all of the pavillions. In her purse she had 120 pesos (4 dollars) and 6 convertible pesos (5 dollars) to spend between books and something to eat.
At the end she bought a pair of infant stories from a Russian author, a cookbook, and 4 apples that she and her kids ate seated on the heights of the Fortress of the Cabaña, looking at the still intense blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and scant anchored boats, waiting to enter the Havana port. Nora does not believe that it was a lost day. “It is an oasis of tranquility to see from the city from here. We will go back with few books, but hopeful,” she said captivated by the splendid scenery.
In spite of its shady past, the vision offered from the grounds of La Cabaña offers is fabulous. If only to look at Havana from the other side of the bay it is worthwhile to challenge the lines, the empty wallets, the daily disgust, and the deficient public transport. Book Fair or no Book Fair.
Photos: CalQBN, Flickr and Iván García
Translated by BW