Books: Soviet realism and rum punch: Postcard from Havana

Nick Caistor
Friday 24 June 1994 23:02

THE BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO, where Ernest Hemingway used to drink before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, still draws crowds of would-be writers. They come in tourist groups, from Argentina, Spain, Italy, or Canada, and most of them do their writing on the dirty green walls of the bar. There's a Hemingway museum too, though I have never actually managed to find it open. The first time I tried, I was told it was closed because it was raining. The second time, it was because it was Tuesday - though it would probably have been the same if it had been a Wednesday or a Thursday. The port of Cojimar, which provided the setting for Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, is now the place from which desperate Cubans push off in small boats or inner tubes from trucks, in their attempts to reach Florida.

Many Cuban writers have also taken the path into exile. Recently, the poet Maria Elena Cruz was finally given permission to leave the island, after 18 months in prison for 'unlawful assembly and slander against the authorities'. For those who have remained, there has often been hardship and occasional persecution. Increasingly, writers have been wondering what has happened to literature in Cuba: where is the great novel of the Castro revolution? Alejo Carpentier (the man who invented the term magical realism) did his best with The Consecration of Spring, written from the safe refuge of the Cuban embassy in Paris. Unfortunately, Carpentier's foray into revolutionary optimism is not a patch on his earlier great novels.

Other officially encouraged authors have tried to produce the required masterpiece, but with no great success. Since 1959, the fashions in Cuban writing have often mimicked Soviet realism. Over 20 years ago, an official spokesman stated clearly what was required: 'an awareness of the role of the revolutionary intellectual as a contributor to the common cause and not as its critical conscience'.

This often translated into ideology replacing any independent spirit, and writers who followed the appropriate line found themselves in a privileged position. The official Cuban Book Institute guaranteed these authors large print runs. It also, according to one novelist I met, made the great mistake of paying writers according to length. My writer friend had hit on a great wheeze to capitalise on this: on page one of his projected novel, a Cuban spy goes to New York to track down a Polish contact. He can't remember his name, so has to wade through the entire New York telephone book, until he eventually discovers him: Zdzienski] Unfortunately for the writer, the authorities were not fooled. Nowadays, though, the official publishing house has hardly enough paper to publish even normal length novels.

This dearth of conspicuous masterpieces is leading to an often reluctant re-evaluation of the literature of the past. The names of writers previously considered ideologically unsound are now surfacing again. Chief among these is Jose Lezama Lima, whose great novel Paradise was for a long time regarded with suspicion for being too experimental, too pessimistic, and too difficult for mass comprehension. Lima himself was also problematic, being an old-fashioned homosexual rather than a shining example of the revolutionary new machismo.

Homosexuality has, in fact, been brought to the fore recently by the phenomenal success in Cuba of a film, Strawberry and Chocolate, based on a short story by the young Senel Paz. In the film, a young revolutionary is forced to realise that the homosexual intellectual he meets and eventually befriends has just as valid a point of view on life as his own. The lack of a judgmental tone in Strawberry and Chocolate, and the Cuban public's fascination with the topic, suggest that new currents are stirring.

The Castro regime's future as the last bastion of communism in the western hemisphere is increasingly uncertain. In a desperate attempt to gain hard currency, the government is trying to attract more foreign tourists. As well as Hemingway's Bodeguita del Medio, it is pushing to re-open that other old haunt of pre-revolutionary reprobates, Sloppy Joe's bar. Unfortunately, as Hemingway himself was painfully aware, great literature cannot be ordered like a rum punch.

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