Author of the novels La noche del aguafiestas and the experimental Ejercicios para hacer de la esterilidad virtud, Antón Arrufat is considered by many to be Cuba’s greatest living writer; in 2000 he was awarded the National Prize for Literature, the country’s highest honour. The award represents an extraordinary change in fortunes for an author who spent much of his writing life in ostracism, accused of betraying the ideals of the Revolution.
The poet, editor, novelist, essayist and playwright was born in 1935 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second city. He went to a Jesuit school there (the same one attended by the Castro brothers a decade before) before moving to Havana at the age of 11 to continue his studies. He came to know many of the country’s leading artists and writers including José Lezama Lima, editor of the influential arts and literature journal Orígenes and author of the masterwork Paradiso, often mentioned in the same breath as Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Time of the Hero at the vanguard of the so-called ‘Latin American boom’ of the 1960s.
After having spent time in New York in the late fifties, Arrufat returned to Cuba after the triumph of the revolution and worked, alongside writer friends such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Virgilio Piñera, on new publications such as the hugely influential Lunes de Revolución. Although his name was subsequently expunged from the official histories of that institution, Arrufat – along with Fausto Masó – founded the magazine of Casa de las Américas in 1960, working there until 1965 when he was dismissed for publishing a homoerotic poem by José Triana and for issuing the invite to Allen Ginsberg that led to his infamous trip to Havana.
However, in 1968 Arrufat’s life changed when he was implicated in the infamous ‘Padilla Affair’, a scandal which would turn much of the world’s intellectual community against the Castroist regime. Both Heberto Padilla and Arrufat won state-sanctioned prizes that year: Padilla for his poetry collection Out of the Game and Arrufat for his play The Seven Against Thebes. In both cases the prize was retracted almost immediately, the works accused of being ‘ideologically unsound’. Padilla was later arrested and subjected to a public, televised, interrogation during which he was made to confess the ‘error of his ways’ in order to regain his freedom. This act led to public condemnation from the likes of Juan Goytisolo, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz, Jean-Paul Sartre, Federico Fellini, Mario Vargas Llosa, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir and Graham Greene. While Padilla left the island Arrufat chose to stay, but was prevented from publishing for 14 years. His friend Cabrera Infante had already left Cuba; both Virgilio Piñera and Lezama stayed, but were prevented from publishing until their deaths in the late seventies. In 2007, The Seven Against Thebes was finally performed in a small theatre in Havana.
Our conversation took place on a hot, dry day in Arrufat’s study in the top floor of a frayed three-storey early twentieth-century building on Calle Trocadero in Centro Habana, two blocks back from the Malecón (the city’s beloved seafront promenade) and just down from the house where his mentor José Lezama Lima lived in the last years of his life.