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Interview with Antón Arrufat

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 In both cases the prize was retracted almost immediately, the works accused of being ‘ideologically unsound’.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.

 

Q

The White Review

— When did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A

Antón Arrufat

— I never had a clear idea. I started writing when I was at the Jesuit school in Santiago de Cuba. I was in second grade and I would have been about ten years old. In class the priest told us about Christ’s family’s flight to Egypt, wrapped in blankets and on the back of a mule. I must have been bored, and I started writing in my copybook. Like most people, I started with poems. There were no books in my house. I sought them out everywhere, friends who liked Jules Verne or Emilio Salgari lent me copies.

 

I think my family suffered from a unique type of panic. My father was afraid that his child, his only son, would follow in the footsteps of his brother Juan José, a social columnist for the journal Oriente, which used to be published in Santiago. He and my uncle didn’t get along; a healthy contempt existed between them. Despite that attitude, my father knew about a lot of things, he had read a good few books, mainly history, and he liked going to the theatre to see the Spanish zarzuela operettas that were put on around Havana. But he was certain: he didn’t want his only son to be a writer.

 

Q

The White Review

— You got to know various writers at a young age, in Havana at least…

A

Antón Arrufat

— Before I came into contact with other writers I met two people who influenced my training, both formidable readers. One was José Menéndez and the other Ernesto Ríos. Menéndez was always on the move, the typical Cuban without a penny to his name, living off whatever came along, frequenting Chinese bars, pushing a cart. He lived in a room of an old mansion in Revillagigedo, at the bottom of Monte, near Parque de la Fraternidad. He had a family, three small kids and a fat, toothless wife. Next to reading, his other passion was chess. He had taken part in competitions and contests and joined the Capablanca Club, where he played with other chess guys.

 

I went to see him in the afternoons, when I had finished my classes. His house was a typical Havana solar: a beautiful, but ageing nineteenth-century mansion that was converted into a citadel over two floors with an enormous central patio; dozens of families lived there. We used to go outside to sit on the balcony of his room.

 

Suddenly, life was very different. He loved to read aloud and I would listen attentively. On the balcony we were isolated from the rest of the house and the street noise. He kept his books in a wardrobe along with his children’s clothes. His main interest was philosophy, mainly Nietzsche and Sartre. Although he wanted to be a writer, he never managed it. He introduced me to works that left a deep impression: Peer Gynt and Brand by Ibsen, and Goethe’s Faust. The other friend, Ríos, was a Spaniard, a Don Juan with various women on the go, who was a refugee from the Civil War. He earned a living selling books. On the path outside the gates of the Gener cigar factory he would put a board across two wooden trestles where he displayed his books for sale. He used to sit on a cod crate. He had another few crates for the friends who came to buy books and stayed to chat.

 

Ríos didn’t share Menéndez’s taste for reading aloud, but he loved conversation. We could talk for hours. He continued to tend to his customers throughout; he would get up, sell a certain book and then come back to his crate to pick up the conversation again. Opposite his stall there was another little business: a brothel. The whores would often sit on his crates, they also came out to chat, to tell us what they did with their clients, or to take a break from work. Usually the opposite happened, and prospective clients of the brothel were sitting on the crates and they would have a Cabeza de Perro beer to get themselves in the mood before crossing the street.

 

Whenever I had money, one or two pesetas in twenty-cent coins, all my money, I would buy a book from Ríos. In those days editions by an Argentinian company called Tor were doing the rounds. Paperbacks that cost thirty cents. Later, in ‘55, through a literary competition, I began to contribute to the journal Ciclón. That was when I met and became friends with various young writers and poets. The group of young poets we had at Ciclón stood in opposition to the poetics of the more famous, more established Orígenes, which seemed a sacred and uncomfortable place for us.

 

Q

The White Review

— So what was it like in the late fifties? Did you feel a change coming?

A

Antón Arrufat

— In desiring a social change, what usually happens is that the human spirit begins to plan it, and ‘projects’ it onto the future reality, as old man Freud would say. Or the actual reality, degrading and miserable, creates the need for change. Or both desires, both ‘projections’ come at the same time, as polarities that could propagate and exist in harmony. The dual categories disappear in a type of flow, a continuum. You feel it in the air, inside yourself. Strange sounds, vibrations, sudden flashes. It was the last few years of the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista. News of revolutionary activity in the Sierra Maestra got around the city. There was a clandestine movement against the dictatorship, which had made Havana uninhabitable; there were constant raids and bloody arrests, mainly of young people and university students who simply looked suspicious.

 

Since the end of ‘57 I’d been living in New York. At the end of ‘58, a brutal year in Cuba, I was thrown out by immigration, my visa expired, and I went back to Havana for a few days in December. The end to the tyranny was near and police repression had returned, making life in the city extremely sinister; the police stopped Luis Marré, a poet and Ciclón contributor, and myself. We weren’t doing anything dangerous, but we were young and that alone held a whiff of danger: young guys chatting on a bench in Parque de la India. They drove us to the nearby station, one of the most notorious for torture. We spent hours there. Before they let us out, when they were sure we weren’t involved in anything, they made us clean the station toilets. We could hear the moans and the horrible beatings they were inflicting on people under arrest.

 

At the end of ‘58 I went back to New York and I didn’t return until February ‘59. The dictatorship had been defeated and the Revolution was in power. That was when Lunes de Revolución began to be published. A guy from Ciclón, the novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, edited it. I’d sent him submissions from New York. At some point he wrote to tell me to come back, that I would have the chance to publish and earn a small salary.

 

Q

The White Review

— Was it around this time that you published your first book?

A

Antón Arrufat

— Yes, in ’62: a poetry collection called En claro. It got a few good reviews in periodicals. It was deemed ‘intimate’ poetry, a trend later held in disdain by the official culture of the Revolution. But it placed me, albeit in an obvious way, within the so-called ‘generation of 1950.’ I distributed it myself to the bookshops in Havana. I left a consignment and asked the booksellers to display it in the window. The print run was no more than 200 and each copy cost me one peso to print. They sold slowly and I made half my money back, while the booksellers got the rest.

 

Q

The White Review

— What was cultural life like in the post-Revolution years?

A

Antón Arrufat

— Active, and glorious. Hardly anything like today. I think that such dynamism was influenced by one decisive factor: the existence of diverse artistic trends. The Revolution had not yet shown an inclination to control literary creation, or artistic creation in general; the institutionalisation of culture had barely begun. What would later be termed the ‘artistic movement of the early Revolution years’ had in fact begun to develop in the fifties; that was when the frustrated desires of the previous generation began to be expressed. Revolutions deny as much as they bestow.

 

At the same time, the Cuban Revolution had a creative aspect: establishing literary journals, theatre groups, libraries and museums, art colleges…plus, it did two important things for our cultural history: founding publishing houses and paying copyright fees. Newspapers had always paid their contributors; publishers paid nothing because they didn’t exist. By means of different ministerial decisions, copyright fees were standardised, they were modest, of course, but they existed. During the Republic there were no publishers, only printers and good editors who an author brought their manuscript to, and paid for the publication themselves. It cost 200 or 300 pesos to do a book in the Republic.

 

Q

The White Review

— At what point did things begin to take a turn for the worse for writers and their work?

A

Antón Arrufat

— The first signs came with the banning of P.M. When it was filmed in 1961 the Revolution was less than three years old, and the ban created an upset in Cuban cultural circles. P.M., a short film of fourteen minutes, picks up on the atmosphere of workers’ bars late at night; it’s a film about atmosphere. Dancing, singing, drinking. We see the people in the bars of Regla, a small village north of the city, we see the ferry crossing Havana bay, the camera stops briefly in the bars of Cuatro Caminos and then at the ones on Marianao beach, then back to Regla where the nocturnal journey ends. It’s a good example of Free Cinema: a hidden camera, natural light, no script, the people weren’t told beforehand that they would be filmed.

 

Now, who were those people dancing, singing and getting drunk? Insultingly, they began to be called the ‘lumpenproletariat’ at that time. Such a representation supposedly distorted the Cuban worker, and disturbed and offended a certain revolutionary leader. We never knew which one. We were never sure if the great leaders of our nation even saw the short. But there was an intermediary, Alfredo Guevara, who was very keen to quash any opportunity to make films outside the institution he was in charge of. The ICAIC {Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry} was newly founded and I think it used P.M., accusing it of denigrating the working class, to strengthen its position. It was a surprisingly cheap shoot. And it turned out better than the first films ICAIC tried to make, despite their huge budget and abundant bureaucracy.

 

After that first encounter, a difficult period began with divisions between the artists, and constant ideological suspicion. Who is? Who isn’t? Cuban artists were not used to such divisions, these verbal and sterile battles in the order of creation, some struggled to adapt, to form a style that did not belong to their cultural tradition, and others opted to go into exile, if they got the chance.

 

Q

The White Review

— And when did the first problems arise for literature?

A

Antón Arrufat

— For numerous writers, myself included, the fear of what had happened in the Soviet Union began to grow. Heberto Padilla, who collaborated on Lunes de Revolución, had lived in the USSR and knew what had happened. Hearing him talk about his personal experience and reading books by Merleau-Ponty, Adventures of the Dialectic and Humanism and Terror, added to our understanding. The books detailed the Moscow Trials and some of what happened to writers and politicians. Both works, translated into Spanish in Argentina, were sold in Havana’s bookshops before the Revolution.

 

In December 1960 Pablo Neruda arrived, on Lunes de Revolución’s invitation. We did a long interview with him that later appeared in the magazine. That interview is a telling piece regarding our fears. The issues that concerned us came out in the insistent questioning. We hoped that Neruda, with his literary and political authority, would support our bid for the Party’s non-intervention in artistic creation, or for it to at least be undetermined, and for the state to take care of the protection and funding of academic culture.

 

The support we expected from the poet ended in disappointment, his answers were unsatisfactory. A bit evasive, he referred to literary dogmatism with no mention of the fatal consequences for artistic creation of state dogmatism. The interview, ‘Lunes de Revolución talks to Pablo Neruda’, has not been reprinted. At the same time, tensions between the Cuban government and the US were increasing, the necessary relationship with the Soviet Union was being consolidated, and the influence of intellectuals who were members of the old-fashioned Partido Socialista Popular was growing in favour of a Stalinist cultural project with a marked tendency towards control, or ‘supervision’, as they called it back then.

 

Q

The White Review

— And then came the ‘Padilla Affair’, and that of your own play The Seven Against Thebes {Los siete contra tebas}…

A

Antón Arrufat

— That was a few years later, in 1968. Three years after Cabrera Infante left this country for good, Lunes de Revolución closed down and the UNEAC {National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba} was formed, another step towards the institutionalisation of culture. My play was in competition for the UNEAC Literary Prize, alongside Padilla’s book Fuera del juego. The fact that those two works were competing at the same time, although in different categories, one theatre and the other poetry, produced a sort of suspicion, or rather it fuelled the national suspicion of those times. The rumours started, saying we had agreed in advance to work side by side to cause a scandal. In reality we were both surprised to find ourselves in this situation.

 

I should mention that my play was met with suspicion before I entered it for the prize. I read it for Teatro Estudio, a theatre group where I worked as a play consultant, to talk it over, hear opinions and get feedback. I still hadn’t decided what to do with it, nor had I decided to submit it for the prize. The people who heard it, who were members of the group’s management, deemed it too problematic. The one who put her foot down was the actress Raquel Revuelta, sister of Vicente, the general manager of Teatro Estudio. When I finally decided to take part in the competition, something very suspicious happened: Raquel Revuelta was chosen as a member of the jury. She was the most insistent on voting against Los siete. Despite her sermon, she couldn’t convince everyone on the jury: three voted in favour and two against.

 

After that the institution intervened publicly: the prize-giving was called off, as if they weren’t granting it or didn’t respect the opinion of the jury, which they had appointed. There was no official ceremony, they didn’t comply with the guidelines of the competition, there was no trip to Hungary for me, no money, as the rules had stipulated. They never let me see the printed proofs, edit, delete or change a word, see the cover or give my opinion. I knew it had been finished because some impatient people stole copies from the printers and got them to me. It was then, when I had a copy of my work, that I discovered another peculiar fact: the institution had inserted an official declaration, prefacing Los siete and Padilla’s book, stating that they washed their hands of them, denying any responsibility. When copies of the play were due to go on sale, the booksellers woke up to a sign on the door that read ‘closed for stocktaking’. They stayed like that for a few days. It was never sold in any shop. Even today, more than forty years later, I don’t know where all the copies went.

 

Q

The White Review

— And what happened after that?

A

Antón Arrufat

— A strange, eerie silence. Some influential, astute civil servant must have decreed that nothing should happen. Perhaps that was a sign, not a word was said to either of us. Almost two years passed. Our life continued as before and I went on working at Teatro Estudio. It all seemed forgotten. But suddenly Padilla was arrested by state security, and seemingly the order to brush things under the carpet changed, to make an example of him. We were never sure who gave the orders, good or bad. Padilla was held in the Investigations Department for thirty days. I don’t know if it was because of what he had written or because he was accused of having relations with foreigners, visiting embassies, publicising things… activities that were considered ‘adverse’ to the government.

 

For the first time we knew in advance what was going to happen, we didn’t need to re-read Humanism and Terror or Adventures of the Dialectic: the USSR already held decisive influence. Then came the ‘public confession’ in a UNEAC chamber where, in front of a chosen group of writers Padilla declared himself guilty and gained his freedom. It was almost an ecclesiastical event, a rite of contrition. That quasi-medieval ceremony was filmed; the film cameras recording the event gave it the appearance of modernity. The footage is in the ICAIC archives.

 

Then things took a downward turn, as if they had been thought out and organised in advance, like a governmental project. An army man, Luis Pavón, was made head of the National Advisory for Culture. Measures began: the purges of theatre actors and directors, expulsions of university professors who didn’t have ‘clear ideologies’, expulsions of homosexual and Catholic students… In reality, what were called the ‘Grey Five Years’ lasted longer than five years and were more black than grey. A number of writers were forbidden to publish and many painters could not exhibit again. And this was not just minor or unknown artists, no, it was the big names, those that are now considered the greatest artists of this country. I’m referring to Dulce María Loynaz, Virgilio Piñera, the painter Raúl Martínez, Lezama Lima. The list is long, and surprising; we’ll leave it there…

 

Q

The White Review

— Were you told not to publish, or was it just a given?

A

Antón Arrufat

— They never told us anything. The lack of response was their only response. Evasion, closed doors, unanswered telephone calls.

 

Q

The White Review

— What did publishers do on receiving a manuscript?

A

Antón Arrufat

— If someone wanted to advertise their naivety, needing verification, they’d submit a manuscript and go home and wait. It would never be published (or not for many years, until things changed). But really there was nothing to ask: you just knew. I don’t think anyone went in saying, ‘why won’t you publish this?’

 

Q

The White Review

— Why did the state take issue with Lezama?

A

Antón Arrufat

— Lezama was on the jury that assessed Padilla’s book. One day, the poet Nicolás Guillén, president of UNEAC, turned up at his door and made a surprising request: that he retract his vote in favour. Lezama said no. And from then on he was mistrusted. In addition, he was Catholic at a time of intense conflict between the Revolution and the Church. He conceived of history as based on metaphor, like an instrument of understanding between man and the unknown, something that was far from historical materialism and further from dialectics. Even so his integral Cuban-ness {cubanidad}, like that of Virgilio Piñera or Dulce María Loynaz, enabled him to resist and stay in the country. Like the other two great writers, I dealt with it for a long time and I can testify that he, or even they, approached the revolutionary project with the intention of understanding it and participating as creators.

 

Right now, after so many years and events, the possible reasons, strictly speaking, a group of writers, painters, musicians and theatre practitioners would spend so many years marginalised in a dark corner seem childish, idiotic even. I have two hypotheses, two ways of explaining it: either the high-up civil servants were clumsy or obstinate, making problems where there were none – an urge that endangered the Revolution and they never knew how to resolve – or they wanted to make things so that the USSR would see that what it had achieved years previously was happening here too, so that the petrol tankers would keep coming and the necessary support from the USSR would continue, through this show that culture was building a society similar to the Soviet one.

 

Q

The White Review

— Wasn’t part of the problem with Piñera, Lezama, Reinaldo Arenas and others their sexuality?

A

Antón Arrufat

— The sexuality of Piñera, Lezama or Arenas was one of the possible accusations. It was a slander technique, as if to say ‘they are so repulsive they must be queers.’ It was the state’s way of hurting and defaming them. Today it’s an accusation that carries no weight: sensations, opinions, feelings that are completely historical. A time gone by.

 

Q

The White Review

— From what I’ve seen it seems that today you can publish practically anything here. To take just one example: the work of Jorge Ángel Pérez deals openly with homosexuality, and many other formerly contentious aspects of Havana life…

A

Antón Arrufat

— Right now, literature, painting, theatre, photography and Cuban art in general express, reflect and expose ideas freely. I think that our society has become, or is becoming, more intelligent in accepting differences and understanding that others are not how we would like them to be, and that if you want to live in a society that’s worth anything, you have to admit that everyone is not like you.

 

Q

The White Review

— From ‘62 to ‘83 you principally published plays and poetry. Your first novel La caja está cerrada came out at the end of ’84. From then on you’ve mostly focused on novels. Why is this?

A

Antón Arrufat

— You have to bear in mind that after The Seven Against Thebes I wasn’t allowed to publish for fourteen years. Hidden in the basement of the Marianao Library, I kept on writing my novel. I say ‘hidden’ because the manager, who was following orders, watched me carefully. She didn’t let me write, have visitors or even answer the phone. Writing was the only thing I cared about and I did it in secret when she wasn’t around or she got tired of watching me. That was how I wrote and made a clean copy of eight hundred pages of the manuscript. I say ‘basement’ because the warehouse of the library where I worked was in a basement. That was where they ‘assigned’ me, as they said then, using one of the hundred euphemisms in the periphrastic language of our society’s civil service. Hundreds of things were not named (nor are they named) in normal terms; they overlap, deflecting from their seriousness or error with allusions. This ‘not saying’ has created some curious terminologies: pleasing at times.

 

My work in the basement consisted of packing journals into boxes with twine for eight hours. I was the only male employee and people who worked in libraries were generally women. My bad reputation preceded me. I was a dangerous guy, ‘ideologically corrupt’, a convinced and infectious dissenter. Naturally, they kept their distance; they literally fled from me. Whatever happened, it was always my fault and I was sent straight to the Workers’ Council, sanctioned, and had my salary docked for a certain period and had to clean the library before it opened.

 

I’ll tell you about two such ‘misdemeanours’. Number one: some boys were playing in the library gardens, flicking lit matches through the air like carnival fireworks; a few landed in a kind of storage space where we kept old newspapers, and started a fire. The boys got scared and started shouting. The librarians came out with buckets of water and put out the fire in a matter of minutes. Hardly any of the newspapers were damaged. The manager appeared, her face in contortions; she was furious and she raised her arms, shouting: ‘It was him! It was him! It’s sabotage, sabotage! Call the police!’ When they heard that, the other librarians took fright and reacted, alarmed, coming out with the truth: I wasn’t in the library and I wasn’t working that day. That was certain. Then the boys confessed they did it, unintentionally, as part of a game. Since it wasn’t me, the matter was let slide and nothing else happened.

 

Now, the second one might sound more outlandish, like all true stories: some neighbours donated an oil painting by an unknown artist to the library. Or rather, a student copy of Goya’s The Nude Maja. The manager accepted it, apparently pleased, but as soon as the neighbours left she had it sent to the basement. It was a bit too pornographic for the walls of the reading rooms. A few days later it was found on the floor. When the librarians went to hang it up, they noticed something strange on the fabric and told the manager; they all leaned in to inspect: without hesitation, what was on the naked body of the Maja was declared a semen stain (although nobody dared to verify it). Somebody had masturbated onto her. The manager was back to her gesturing and exclaimed: ‘It was him! He’s a reprobate.’ A librarian that I got on with and trusted whispered to me, ‘What an idiot. It’s not a male nude,’ and we stifled a smile. Whoever had masturbated was never found out. The mystery gave way to speculation and suspicion. Probably one of the librarians had her husband or boyfriend to visit during a night shift, and they did it on the sly. I paid for their secret, their joint secret, and was sentenced to clean the library for six months.

 

Q

The White Review

— Why did they choose the Marianao Library for you?

A

Antón Arrufat

— It was the furthest from the city centre. I had actually been assigned to the National Library, in Plaza de la Revolución. I was told that the manager said, ‘Him, here? Are you mad? There’ll be a scandal! People will come to gawp…Send him somewhere far, far away!’ It took them a month to decide what library they could send me to that was far, far away.

 

Q

The White Review

— Where did you live at that time?

A

Antón Arrufat

— In Centro Havana, where I’ve always lived since arriving in the city. The important thing was to put me somewhere far away so that readers wouldn’t come to look at me. It wasn’t entirely successful: in Marianao the readers peered into the basement window at me, ‘It’s him, it’s him!’ Amused, I used to wave back.

 

Q

The White Review

— Could you still see your writer friends?

A

Antón Arrufat

— The loyal ones; ones who had also been punished; the ones who didn’t move off or turn away when they saw me. Fear is sometimes more powerful than respect. I went to various cultural events with Virgilio Piñera: plays, exhibitions, and we enjoyed seeing the strategies old friends employed to evade an encounter, a greeting even. Besides, time was passing, as it tends to do. Time is the great leveller. The library staff, as much the librarians as the cleaners, gradually realised that the monster’s bad name was more reputation than truth, and they started to come closer, to chat to me, and they protected me from the manager’s furies which, deep down, were quite theatrical. We had lunch together and they waited for me to catch the bus home. They unanimously put my name forward, at a meeting I was not allowed attend because of the situation, so that I could study at the University of Havana as a library employee. Faced with such unexpected support, the manager was powerless to stop it.

 

Q

The White Review

— Things were starting to change in society while you were working in the library. Fourteen years passed, and you left to work for a journal. When was it that something you’ve termed your ‘slow rehabilitation’ started?

A

Antón Arrufat

— Without knowing when it would end, I was there day in, day out, except Sundays, serving my enigmatic sentence; I didn’t know how long I would be there nor was I informed of my crime. However, the unexpected end to the punishment, let’s call it that, came one day in 1981. Armed with the manuscript of my novel, my tea set, my Vietnamese clay teapot and my Belgian porcelain cup, I said goodbye to my workmates, we kissed and hugged and I went back to my life as a writer. Slowly, of course, intermittently, gradually – in the correct fashion: not causing any scandal (one of the most feared social occurrences of our society).

 

Q

The White Review

— How was change apparent in the eighties?

A

Antón Arrufat

— I’ll give you some indicators. Many writers and artists who had been excluded for being homosexual, which was considered a political aberration at the time, were readmitted and returned to publishing and exhibiting. Padilla decided to leave; I decided to stay. The eighties brought speeches, publications, but the travel ban was one of the most devastating restrictions. Not just the travel, but also the chance to begin publishing abroad, without repercussions. In those grey or black years it was severely punished. It was only possible through UNEAC, with their permission and almost always to socialist countries. Only people like Alejo Carpentier and Soler Puig, who were representatives of the official culture, could work with western publishers without consequences.

 

Q

The White Review

— There are very few translated works on sale in bookshops here. You don’t come across many books in translation generally. Do you think the strong belief in the importance of a Cuban tradition has reinforced this situation?

A

Antón Arrufat

— The literature published now is established literature, and hardly ever translated by Cubans; it’s ‘translation stolen in secret’ so as not to pay publishing rights. I think that our publishing houses feel more comfortable publishing established authors. There was a long period here when certain modern classics hadn’t been published, like Joyce’s Ulysses. When it was published, the translator José María Valverde and the publisher waived their rights, causing a commotion. A fairly large crowd went to the launch, which was a good few years ago. But there is still no Cuban edition of the indispensable Tristram Shandy. The majority of the reading public don’t know it. For example, they know Faulkner pretty well: a few of his novels and short stories. But there are other contemporary authors who are barely known, if at all. Such gaps undoubtedly limit and impoverish the formation of taste. You can educate yourself reading Lost Illusions alongside Ulysses. These dialogues are essential, complementary experiences within culture.

 

Q

The White Review

— In the Casa de las Américas collection of Latin American authors there is a series of slightly more recent works, like good cheap editions of Daimela Eltit and José Revueltas…

A

Antón Arrufat

— There can be moments or opportunities that are exceptional, which certain readers know how to take advantage of. A few months ago, a Venezuelan edition of The Savage Detectives was on sale in a bookshop in Havana for a reasonable price. There were twenty or thirty copies, not thousands, but some readers who didn’t know Bolaño were able to get it. Then it began to be lent to friends, increasing the readership.

 

Q

The White Review

— Officially, no books are banned in Cuba. But in the bookshops and libraries in Havana, and in the provinces, there are many titles that are impossible to find, like those of Cabrera Infante.

A

Antón Arrufat

— Cabrera Infante was bought for the public libraries. There is a series, never sold, that the publisher Alfaguara had in its warehouse. The Instituto del Libro bought it cheaply a few years ago. I don’t know if people stole the copies, a regular occurrence in public libraries, mainly if they were mobile libraries, which no longer exist. Cuban publishers released two books on Cabrera Infante by Elizabeth Mirabal and Carlos Velasco. The former is a study of his life in Havana as a journalist, as head of Lunes, film critic, and about his first years as a fiction writer. The latter, Buscando a Caín, is a collection of interviews with Cabrera Infante’s friends who live here or in Miami, and elsewhere. Do you know who published it? Life can be deliciously ironic: the old timers called posthumous reparations ‘poetic justice’. It was published by the ICAIC: the same institution that viciously persecuted him. Both are a good read.

 

Q

The White Review

— Did you not feel, with your history, a similar sense of irony when you were awarded the Premio Nacional, this country’s highest literary honour?

A

Antón Arrufat

— It was my turn, as they say. They couldn’t go on not giving me the Premio Nacional any longer. I was nominated three or four times in a row. I appreciated it; I was happy they gave it to me and thought it a good thing for those who gave it to me too. I think I was careful not to take the prize too seriously, such a weakness could have affected me and put me in danger as a writer, thinking I had arrived, that I was so important that people came up to me on the street, asking me to sign books.

 

As a living writer, one needs a few knocks and a few kicks up the arse to know that the relationship between writing and the state is not easy, and we must encourage it never to be so. Because if it isn’t, you end up doing nothing. Writing takes time, solitude, a mood, a space, living the majority of your time not as other human beings do, running numerous risks; and if you don’t want to continue with these rigours because you’ve been given a prize, it’s better to stay at home with your stipend and not put yourself through the horrible sacrifice of writing. You have to accept that writing is a horrible sacrifice and something you choose, that voluntarily becomes destiny, the only destiny one chooses in life: obey your gift.

 

Q

The White Review

— Speaking of continuing to write, when I first met you two years ago you told me you were writing a historical novel, are you still working on it?

A

Antón Arrufat

— Yes, I’ve continued with that novel which is very difficult for me because I want to do a historical novel that is different to other historical novels.

 

Q

The White Review

— How? What is it about?

A

Antón Arrufat

— It’s about a nineteenth-century Cuban slave who is pursued by ranchers that hunt black slaves who have fled the sugar mills or their masters’ houses. What really attracts me to this subject is the writer’s journey from the twenty-first to the nineteenth-century. What does he do to make it happen, how does he prepare mentally and sensually? You must have noticed that historical novels begin with the journey complete. The journey is over when you open Robert Graves’ admirable I, Claudius: we are in imperial Rome. He doesn’t tell us about it, nor does any other narrator. What isn’t said is precisely what I want to narrate in my novel: the training, the experience of arriving at a historical moment. When I started to write the book, with the provisional title Los pies en la tierra {‘Feet on the Ground’} I asked myself obsessively, what would it be like to shave in the eighteenth-century? I went around the areas frequented by street salesmen looking for an old razor and started to shave like the slave hunter I am writing about.

 

Q

The White Review

— Does the publication of Sergio Pitol’s El viaje {‘The Journey’} show that things are opening up? You told me earlier that a while back you’d tried to persuade one of the state’s leading houses to publish the book, but its criticisms of Soviet Russia were deemed problematic. Recently, you heard that it’s soon to come out with that same publishing house.
A

Antón Arrufat

— I think that Cuban society is moving away from the socialism that Pitol refers to in that book, this Slavic socialism. It’s clear what Stalin’s government was, and that real socialism was a distortion, the mistaken realisation of utopia. I think that democratic utopia hasn’t come out of it well either, although, until now, it has lasted longer. What is certain is that the human subject has not managed to create and bring about a perfect social system in which you can live in justice and equity. Perhaps we’ll never manage it; maybe we’ll find it tomorrow.

 

The feeling of a lost paradise and the need to live in it is a hope (and an idea) that humans are rooted to, something relentless inside us. Perhaps it comes from Christianity, or in Greek culture, long before then, there was also the idea of a lost paradise, and if you think about Hindu culture, the teachings of Buddha, you find a similar idea and the same longing. This idea flowers in human beings: the hope for a better place, a golden city, a blissful future that we can arrive at after struggling every day, somewhere on earth or in the heavens. It’s one of the myths, the daydreams, the desires, the nightmares of man. It’s consubstantial to us, and therefore, consubstantial to the literature that the human subject writes. We travel from the hell we live in to the paradise we dream of.

 

The full Spanish-language version of this interview was published by the Mexican journal Crítica the following month.

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Jennie Rothwell is a translator from Spanish.

J.S. Tennant works for PEN International. Previously he worked as a ghost writer, in publishing, and was poetry editor of The White Review. ‘From a Cuban Notebook’ is part of a longer, ongoing, project.


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