Obituary: Gaston Baquero

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The Independent Online
Gaston Baquero, one of Cuba's most important poets, spent nearly 40 years in exile in Spain, and only in recent years did his native country begin to accord him timid recognition, after decades of disapproving silence.

Baquero, a reserved man, was a distinguished representative of a group of Cuban intellectuals that grew up in the 1940s around the literary review Origenes. But he left Cuba following the 1959 revolution and was henceforth airbrushed from history by supporters of Fidel Castro. His work was expunged from Havana University's literature syllabus and from the island's literary anthologies and dictionaries.

Ernesto Che Guevara commented acidly: "He saw clearly what the revolution was going to be like and fled to Franco's tranquil beaches." But rather than loll in the sun, Baquero led a secluded life in a smart quarter of Madrid, in an apartment crammed with books from floor to ceiling, barely known outside a small circle of Spanish poets and poetry aficionados.

Ten days before he died, a group of Spanish poets held a round table discussion in his honour at the Fine Arts Club in Madrid at which the poet Francisco Brines said: "the poetry of Baquero reinvents the astonished and innocent gaze of a child, in which unexpected images and his sensory abundance produce constant happy surprises."

Not until 1995 was a two- volume collection of Baquero's work published in Spain. A year earlier, the University of Salamanca devoted a special issue of its literary review to him. This coincided with the appearance of a few of his poems in a journal in Havana, the first feeble rays of light to penetrate the oblivion into which he had been cast.

The critic Roger Salas, a friend of the poet and himself a Cuban exile, wrote yesterday in El Pais: "Baquero navigated all his life in a deep and agitated sea of images, those that clothed his exquisite poetic work. In his Madrid home it was difficult to walk amidst such narrow passages and mountains of the written word. Seated in his armchair, as if on a throne, the poet, the best kind of Cuban, could spin a conversation from any subject . . . with reserved humour and irony."

Born into a poor family in Banes, Oriente province, Baquero studied agronomy at Havana University, but swiftly decided to devote his life to poetry and journalism. He said years later he had been inspired by a chance reading, in 1939, of a poem by Jose Lezama Lima, whom he greatly admired.

He and a clutch of like- minded poets, including Lima, were associated with the review Origines, the flagship of Cuban culture in the 1940s. Baquero's first book, Poemas, was published in 1942 followed by Saul sobre la espada ("Saul on the Sword"), a few months later. His standing as a poet became established with his long verses and rich aquatic images in works like "Testamento del pez" ("The fish's testament").

Between 1947 and 1959 he was an intellectual grandee of Havana, tall, dark-skinned and elegant, an influential columnist and editor on the conservative daily Diario de la Marina. He became powerful and rich, owned a splendid house filled with books and paintings, and won many prizes. He was also Catholic, sybaritic and homosexual. He feared detention the moment Castro's forces came to power and, protected by four ambassadors who escorted him to the airport, flew into exile.

Overnight he swapped popular celebrity for virtual anonymity. In 1960, when he was working shamefacedly in Radio Exterior de Espana, he published "Poems written in Spain", and in 1961 a little collection of essays "Hispanic American writers today" in which he praised a promising unknown young Colombian, Gabriel Garca Mrquez.

In 1966 he published his best and most original book of poems Memorial de un testigo ("Memorial of a witness"), full of singing, disturbing language, imaginary legends and confessions of his secret heart. Spanish poets who admired him published his collected work in 1985 under the title Magias e invenciones ("Magics and inventions").

There followed Poemas Invisibles and two volumes of essays, Indios, blancos y negros en el caldero de America ("Indians, whites and blacks in the cauldron of America") in 1991 and, in 1995, La fuente inagotable ("The inexhaustable source").Gaston Banquero, poet and essayist: born Banes, Cuba 4 May 1918; died Madrid 15 May 1997.