Manguito Review, 2010

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s Boring Home: A Brave New Dystopia

Yani Angulo-Cano

After the demise of the Soviet Union, critics speculated about the end of utopian dreams. For Cubans who still live under the conditions originating in the Marxist utopian legacy, this issue still carries a great deal of relevance. A recent text by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is a case in point. Entitled, Boring Home, the book was banned at the last minute from the 2009 Havana International Book Fair. This collection of short stories portrays Cuba’s totalitarian society in ways that are reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dystopia novels. The narrative strategies of Boring Home are not conceived in the realist style of man vis-à-vis his social setting; instead, they seem linked to Julio Cortázar’s subversive language style, or as a kind of postmodern exercise for liberating an oppressed minority. However, it may be that Nicolas Bourriaud’s theoretical pronouncements in favor of an altermodernity offer a firmer support for studying Boring Home. In his book, The Radicant (2009), Bourriaud discusses how globalism has caused rampant standardization of world cultures, which in turn awakens an “ethics of precariousness” (83-85), and a new aesthetic form, the “form of wandering” (116-117).

“The narrative strategies of Boring Home are not conceived in the realist style of man vis-à-vis his social setting.”

When analyzing Boring Home it is rapidly clear that this is a narrative written by a semi autobiographical wanderer, Orlando, who interacts rather infrequently with minor situational characters. Further proof of his marginality is found in the metaphysical aloofness of his girlfriend, Ipatria, also known as Silvie. As the former, she represents the nation, and as the latter she is linked to a character in French Romantic literature. In both cases, she is not much more humanly real than the animated doll that plays a central part in the short story “Un lugar llamado Lilí.” What the reader finds in Boring Home is similar to what is found in a kind of travel book: Orlando’s personal experiences processed through his critical monologue.

Of all the travels undertaken by the wandering protagonist, “Todas las noches la noche” is of particular significance because of its utopian theme. Since utopia narratives have a propensity to be set in the future, this story takes place in Havana on December 31, 2101, at precisely nine o’clock in the evening, as marked by the traditional cannon blast that now is rendered in digital form. The protagonist is riding the metro from the underground station under the Plaza de la Revolución eastward toward Alamar for an encounter with Ipatria. On his way to her apartment, the protagonist purchases some items for the romantic occasion: “an electric flower, obscenely Italian food and a half pixilated bottle of red wine” (4a). Despite the possibly negative implications of half-red wine, the availability of such consumer goods plus other material features—such as rolling stairs and 3-D television—point to a future Cuba that has achieved a certain level of technological and material progress; yet, before long the reader perceives disturbing signs. That is, as the lovers take off their clothes, they avoid physical contact while there is a possibility of being observed by video cameras that peer into dwellings. (5a). The lovers are not shy out of concern for a traditional Judeo-Christian moral code; rather, it hints at socio-political repression as the text quickly makes reference to a touristic slogan, BraveNew Havana, which has been promoted in touristic brochures since the spring of ’84 [that is to say, the year 2084] (5a). The slogan and the date are veiled references to the two well known and previously mentioned dystopia narratives. While it may be that the lovers of “Todas las noches la noche” are not required to engage in the same kind of promiscuous sexual conduct, as the characters of Brave New World (26-27); nonetheless, they fear being monitored in their sexual lives. Another dystopia link appears when the lovers make reference to musical events held at the Asfixeatro, a pun on “asphyxia theater” that recalls the multisensory Community Sing, found in Huxley’s novel (47).

“The fact that buzzers are flying in circles around the monument, where the “maximum leader” has made a reputations as a speech maker, makes this urban scene another topological moment.”

Nicolas Bourriaud links wandering to erre, by which he means the residual speed or momentum that still propels wandering narratives within cities: “The contemporary megacity, as depicted or set in motion by the artists of today, is the effect of political erre, of what remains of the movement of socialization when its own energy has vanished, giving away to an urban chaos” (94). Bourriaud’s assessment is reflected in the social and material chaos of Havana as presented in most of Boring Home’s ambulatory narratives. For example, in “Decálogo del año cero,” the narrative involves travel by bus, as is the case with “Ipatria, Alamar, un cóndor, la noche y yo”, and in “Entre una Browning y la piedra lunar.” In the stories “Lugar llamado Lilí”, “Campos de girasoles para siempre”, and the short story that names de whole collection, “Boring Home”, the means of transportation is by private car. Additionally, locomotion in “Isla a mediodía” is by truck, while in “Imitación de Ipatria” it is carried out in both taxi and rental car; and in “Toda las noches la noche,” the reader even learned about future travel by metro. Finally, in “Historia portátil de la literatura cubana,” there are not only references to travel by rail but also the explicit assertion that fiction is synonymous to traveling, “Ipatria ha coincidido sin saberlo con ciertos teóricos del siglo XX acerca de la ficción como un viaje” (68b).

As Bourriaud puts it, wandering throughout the city implies a kind of political inquiry, “It is writing on the move and a critique of the urban, understood as the matrix of the scenarios in which we move. This kind of wandering creates an aesthetic of displacement” (100). En “Todas la noches la noche,” the protagonist, or shall we say, the traveler, tries to take a measure of the city of Havana:

La Habana. Nave fantasma, hangar sintético reflejado en un bolsón de agua o metal… Aberración mnemónica del lenguaje…. Cada noche Ipatria y yo la comparábamos con una ciudad distinta…. Hiroshima, por ejemplo, tiritando en una noche de verano de agosto…. Con Haifa, por ejemplo, y su ristra de supertanques insomnes con el vientre eructando oil. (4a-b)

Another important concept in Radicant theory is the use of topology as a tool for determining what is preserved or lost whenever the properties and/or coordinates of an object are reconfigured; thus, when the lovers go by the Olympic Multi-Stadium, and observe that a liquid screen still advertises the 2091 games, 10 years after the event was supposedly held, the reader is left with a surviving message that lacks relevancy (7b). This is a not too subtle indictment of a society where public announcements do not have to conform to factual reality; furthermore, if someone were to initiate a discourse to set things straight, then this person would run the risk of detention, “ser detenido por los peritos de Linguapol, acusado de practicar alguna variante nueva del vocubalario” (8b). The neologism “vocubalario” clearly ties this newly coined term to the very name of the country, which together with the cost of the electric flowers that the protagonist buys with fictitious currency, in the suspicious amount of 19 américos and fifty-nine centavos (8b) —, establish a direct reference to the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The topological analysis of a public sign now leads to an inquiry into what the Revolution still has to accomplish 142 years since it got underway, a sobering thought given all the speculation about imminent changes in the current Cuban political scene.

“Bourriaud’s ethics of precariousness here surface in Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo as “la estética del desastre.”

In the first short story of the collection, “Decálogo del año cero,” Orlando despairs, is sickened by how much a wilderness Havana has become: “Estoy perfectamente sano, pero día a día La Habana me enferma más. . . . Así se llama esta nueva crisis: Habanada” (0a*). He despairs of the city’s lack of cognitive processing which impacts his craft, “Esa Habanada entre amnésica y anestesiada que él en vano trata de describir” (0a). Because of his difficulty in writing about the city, he opts for photographing its miserable conditions: “las tendederas raquíticas, los tanques mohosos donde se crían los aedes, las palomas entre el robo y el sacrificio ritual” (0b). Bourriaud’s ethics of precariousness here surface in Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo as “la estética del desastre.” That is the tragedy of a little country suffering from a bad case of global utopianism, as Pardo Lazo proposes in an interview in Manguito Review: “Antes fuimos pre-burgueses en fuga existencialista, pero ahora ya todos somos post-proletarios de la debacle: angustias atrapadas en el ajetreo albañileril de una revolucioncita provinciana que se soñó (no sin éxito) planetaria.”

Orlando’s project is not easily carried out. He surveys the city and observes a funeral-like scene, “la punta filosa del monolito de la Plaza de la Revolución: su pararrayos cósmico siempre coronado de auras” (0b). The fact that buzzers are flying in circles around the monument, where the “maximum leader” has made a reputation as a speech maker, makes this urban scene another topological moment. By injecting an element of gloom, a wishful reference to the impending death of the leader, he suggests that the Revolution is old and decaying too. It is not worth the effort. In the style of one of Herman Melville’s characters, Orlando decides not to take any photographs, “Se sintió otra vez Bartleby cansado de tanta ingrávida carga” (0b). He ends with a worn out revolutionary slogan: “Fotos, ¿para qué?” A slogan that originally signified revolutionary vitality in seeking new structures of government, “elecciones, ¿para qué?,” now it is discredited as no more than a collectively accepted “sour grapes” syndrome.

“Decálogo del año cero” is, above all, a statement to the social emptiness afflicting wandering writers such as Orlando. Here Orlando rhetorically asks if he could ever again photograph the city, “¿Alguna vez volvería a fotografiar la barbarie desnuda de un planeta llamado Habana?” Could he ever write about it, “Y a escribir en su diario sobre aquel caparazón de concreto,” a neologism perhaps suggesting that Havana is a kind of hard headed entity for emasculating reason. This leads him to an outright satirical commentary on the ever present revolutionary rhetoric: “primer exoesqueleto libre de América” (1a). At the end of the story, though, the wandering protagonist is defeated. He shaves his beard as a sign that he too chooses to join the rest of the brain-dead citizenry (3).

Pardo Lazo takes a somewhat different approach in “Lugar llamado Lilí.” This is the story of a man, who while pushing his 1959 Chevrolet Impala that has broken down at 3:00 AM in a darkened street, undergoes a dream-like encounter with a little girl, who happens to be an animated plastic doll, seven years of age, and already a mother pushing her plastic baby on a stroller. The girl convinces him to leave his car and to follow her to an abandoned doll factory of American origin. The language of this story quickly engages in topological displacement as the wandering protagonist describes their entrance into the old factory, “Así que entramos al lobby como si de verdad regresáramos al hogar después de un largo viaje desde otra época” (14b). He then sees an old revolutionary mural, depicting the now forgotten early moment of euphoria for the upcoming task of building a new society: “Una epopeya de leyendas urbanas y guerrilleras, verdadero memorándum contra la necia amnesia del [siglo] XXI” (14b). The mural’s compositional focus is centered on Marxist myths of the proletariat’s building of Paradise on Earth, “Allí algún obrero del arte había reunido chimeneas ecológicas de humo verde, ríos de leche pasteurizada, pirámides fraguadas con hojas de tabaco y caña.” As the wandering protagonist contrasts the meanings of green smoke, rivers of milk, and pyramids of tobacco and sugar cane, in terms of past and present times, he reconfigures Marxist criticism from socialist realism to “irrealismo social.” He then ends his description with a not too subtle rendition of Cuban communism: “Y, en lugar de sol, vi una estrella con sus cinco puntas afiladas en forma de lápiz labial” (15a).

The reshaping of the red star into a bar of lipstick may be hard to visualize, except that it serves as entry point into a lurid account of violent, sexual aggression against the little girl. Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo has commented explicitly about this matter; that is, social excess may be a result of lack of basic freedoms: “Morbo en las ruinas. Éxtasis en medio de lo estático estatal. El deseo como delirio y deleite al borde del delito. Perversión para paliar el vacío, succión del suicidio. Libertinaje a falta de libertad” (Interview)

“Pardo Lazo has given us a linguistic reworking of the dystopia account in Cuban society.”

One last concept of radicant aesthetics that finds fertile ground in Boring Home is the craft of translation. According to Nicolas Bourriaud, the transfer of information from one linguistic or cultural environment to another represents what he calls “the privileged operation.” This operation struggles against the standardization of the world’s cultures resulting from globalism. He adds that it represents “a mode of resistance against the generalized imposition of formats” (131). In “Historia portátil de la literatura cubana,” the traveler engages in a cultural translation of a well known Cuban film, Strawberry and Chocolate. He sums up the initial conflict between David and Diego, but refuses to accept their eventual reconciliation as friends: “Pero ninguno de los dos toca al otro. No hay corazón para tanto. El abrazo de utilería que se dan es sólo un aceptable montaje de posproducción, casi un efecto especial” (70a). For Pardo Lazo this scene is symptomatic of social chaos: “El diálogo entre consonantes D desembocó en definitiva en un decepcionante desastre, pero es solo por este detalle que el argumento se salva de ser tan fofa ficción” (70a). Pardo Lazo rejects the notion that the film’s bourgeois homosexual and the communist New Man can reach an understanding above the cultural-political abyss. To him the solution cooked up by the co-directors, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, does nothing more than provide a happy ending—well, maybe a sort of happy ending—with which many of the film’s fans have tried to gloss over this very divisive cultural issue.

In conclusion, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo has given us a linguistic reworking of the dystopia account in Cuban society. No one doubts that words can be dangerous to the status quo, but for the critical writer they are generally safer than political action. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo takes his chances in this travelling narrative. The title of the collection, Boring Home, supports a critical objective for to bore conveys a dual purpose: cleaning while perforating. In short, Cuba needs a good cleaning, even if the critic runs a risk:

Y más me hechiza el rol del testigo que da testimonio a priori, que nombra lo que hasta entonces parecía innombrable, que allana el camino para la acción… que fotografía el futuro…. Con el tictac triste de todo el tiempo cubano que Cuba nos escamoteó. Del clarín escuchad el mutismo.

Naturally, the last sentence is taken from the national anthem, but it has been transformed. It should read: “Del clarín escuchad el sonido,” which begs for the inclusion of the next line, “¡a las armas valientes corred!” But to Pardo Lazo, recalling Simon and Garfunkel’s famous song from the 60’s, all he hears is The Sounds of Silence. As a wandering writer who has accepted responsibility for bearing witness and for the safe-keeping of precarious records for the national memory, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo offers his readers a discursive alternative to the outmoded and stifling revolutionary rhetoric.

*Note: Pagination in the online edition of Boring Home starts with number 1 in the second page of the text. Since the first page is not numbered, it can only be described numerically as zero. The printed hardcopy of Boring Home has corrected this problem, but we insist on citing the online text because of its greater availability for most readers. 

Works Cited

Bourriaud, Nicolas. The Radicant. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2009.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Bantam Books, 1960.

Pardo Lazo, Orlando Luis. Boring Home. La Habana: Ediciones Lawtonomar, 2009. [Online edition] http://penultimosdias.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/Boring%20Home%20OLPL.pdf%3E<

Pardo Lazo, Orlando Luis. Boring Home. Prague: Bibliotecas Independientes de Cuba, 2009.

Literary Hub, 2016

The Rise of the Cuban Literati: In Sunshine and In Shadow

Reporting from the Most Important Book Fair in the Country

By Tillman Miller


March 2, 2016

It was a half-hour before sundown and I was wrestling with the profound strangeness of Cuba’s moment in contemporary literature. Depending on whom I talked to on the island, Cuban writers were either admired, despised, or had been forgotten, completely and forever. The men playing dominoes in doorways said they read Leonardo Padura. The teenagers riding horses on the hilltop overlooking the bay said they read nothing. The gringos were content with walking the tourist-trap streets handcuffed with daiquiris and hard-ons for Hemingway. Nobody had heard of the hungry lit kids who were ready to rip the world in half.

Gazing down from the rooftop of a decaying tenement, where an anthology of new Cuban fiction lay bookmarked on a little table, I watched the delinquent cliché of Cuban streets come alive in the dusk. They were streets of survival, streets of destitution and black markets. Watching these restless callejons and calles that crisscrossed Old Havana, I thought of the young Cuban writers compiled in the tabletop anthology—rising talents like Osdany Morales, Jorge Enrique Lage, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo—and wondered where they belonged in the city’s subtropical drama. The anthology, a collection of compellingly modern stories called Generation Zero, suggested that maybe Cuba’s young writers didn’t belong here at all.

This feeling of not belonging is nothing new for Cuban writers, who, since 1959, when the revolutionary socialist state began, have never been certain whether they’ve belonged on the island. What is different, though, is the way in which contemporary Cubans are writing about feeling stateless and not belonging; thus making Generation Zero—and other new anthologies like Cuba in Splinters and Your Impossible Voice #10—the new literary monuments to the failures of the socialist state.

But what did these anthologies mean for Cuba’s literary culture on the island? I wondered. What was it, anyway, that these stories were saying about Cuba’s underground cultural scene? I had arrived in Cuba on the eve of the Havana International Book Fair to find out, and to see if there might be a legion of forgotten writers on the brink of greatness.Video list is empty.

* * *

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a literary pilgrimage to Havana. To begin with, I received an email hinting at danger, claiming that agents of the island’s State Security would most certainly be tracking my movements. Then there was the challenge of becoming familiar with a literary culture that novelist Malena Salazar Maciá told me was difficult to explain to even her own friends and acquaintances within Cuba.

Determined not to be a gringo playing with fire in an unfamiliar literary scene, I spoke to seven Cuban writers via email in the weeks before my arrival. The writers were young and old, celebrated and unpublished, writers who I would meet at the book fair, and writers who were living in exile in Oakland and New York, Iceland and Miami. A few were self-proclaimed representatives of Generation Zero, a few were of an older Hidden Generation, and a few dismissed the idea of Cuban literary generations altogether. Their differences of opinion were sometimes distinct and confounding, yet always thoughtful and entertaining. And above all else, their sense of community was strong: each writer was well aware of his or her peers, and praise was often thoughtfully accorded from one writer to another.

Faced with a desire to easily classify these seven literary figures, I decided a brief oral history would be best. So here are the seven Cuban writers who corresponded with me through email, reflecting on whether there is, in fact, literary culture in modern Havana:

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (novelist, blogger, photographer, and an ICORN guest writer in Iceland): “There is literature and there is culture in Havana today, but there is no literary culture.” [1]

Yoss (novelist and lead singer in the heavy metal band Tenaz in Havana): “Of course there is literary culture in Havana . . . but [Orlando’s] phrase is so good I will say no more.”

Pardo Lazo: “I regret my words. I should have said: ‘There is literary culture in Havana today, but there is no literature and no culture at all.’”

Gina Picart (novelist and literary critic in Havana): “I never understand what Orlando says.”

Achy Obejas (novelist, translator, and the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College in Oakland): “There’s no *independent* literary culture in the way we imagine in the U.S. and Europe. There’s the official literary culture, which is sanctioned by the authorities with its attendant periodicals and prizes and gigs. Then there’s whatever anybody can make happen with absolutely zero support.”

Osdany Morales (novelist, poet, and Ph.D. candidate in NYU’s Latin American Literature program): “In Havana, behind every book presentation there is a large state institution, and along the way literature ends up becoming a solemn issue.”

Picart: “The overall atmosphere of Havana today is not favorable for the culture to ferment.”

Obejas: “It’s all very scattered and ill-connected.”

Picart: “On the one hand there is the culture of the writers, and on the other the public. But both depend on the literature supply available in the country, which is very poor.”

Daína Chaviano (novelist in Miami, author of the most widely translated Cuban novel of all time): “There is no way to produce a literarily cultured nation if its inhabitants can’t select, compare, and freely choose their favorite books and authors because they have to wait for a small group to decide what they should buy and read.”

Morales: “The lack of spaces in which literary criticism is practiced makes it hard to find any readings in a national context.”

Granma (the official state-run newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, February 12, 2016): “In some countries, [books] are too expensive, and in others, scarce. In Cuba, where these two problems don’t exist, books are often appreciated from afar.”

Chaviano: “It is difficult for Cubans living abroad to buy books published on the island.”

Picart: “The lack of diversity in the supply of reading [materials means that the reading public] has become a tame animal that swallows what is put in its mouth.”

Malena Salazar Maciá (novelist in Havana): “Cuban publishing houses have their published plans very tight. They rarely accept manuscripts of unpublished writers. There is no publishing market. It is tortuous.”

Obejas: “There are writers, such as Leonardo Padura, Yoss, and, to a lesser degree, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, who swim in the giant overlap [between official and unofficial culture], mostly because the government can’t deny them and they’re not interested in picking a fight.”

Picart: “Many Cuban readers only read Leonardo Padura, and when you ask people on the street about Cuban writers, they can hardly think of another name than [Padura]…”

Pardo Lazo: “The Cuban reader is a mediocre figure, it needs to be annihilated with a tender touch of text-rrorism. Only the State Security agents know everything about aesthetics and the theories and tensions of the Cuban cultural field.”

Morales: “I do believe there is a great deal of literature circulating in the peripheral of official culture.”

Maciá: “Cubans have always had good reading habits. Sometimes it may be decreased for different reasons, but in recent years I have noticed a growing interest in reading. It’s not much, it’s small, but I can sense it.”

Picart: “My personal impression is that Habaneros read less now than decades ago because Habaneros are involved in other activities related to the physical survival of the culture.”

Obejas: “Orlando’s flight from Havana has actually left quite a hole in the non-official cultural world, and Abel Prieto . . . stepping down as Minister of Culture has actually had an effect too. His successor isn’t a writer and clearly doesn’t value literature nearly as much.”

Yoss: “Havana abounds in meeting places for writers… but it is most normal to meet in people’s homes.”

Maciá: “Normally, literary gatherings are held in the homes of artists and writers.”

Morales: “I remember being outside a movie theater a few years ago, sitting on the steps and talking about books with some friends, or talking about books on a crowded bus, or while walking on a sunny sidewalk or through a tunnel breathing carbon monoxide, or on an uncomfortable bench in a park, or a bus stop at midnight.”

Obejas: “For me it’s all about private homes. There are just people whose homes are magical in terms of gatherings and conversations.”

Morales: “Readers are accessing pirated digital books that are not sold in Cuba, and this is a literary culture, perhaps undetectable for now. For the future (and obviously the present), we do need new and diverse independent press houses, with their own editors and visions, translators, designers, and distributors. And I believe all those professionals, as well as lots of readers, are out there ready to interact with the options contemporary literature is proposing.”

Chaviano: “There is a huge wave of emigrant writers [now] that didn’t exist in the 80s. This literary exodus is leaving niches that can’t be fulfilled at the same speed. If a country can’t make its most prominent young writers stay at home, its literary ranks will face a permanent lack of growing, or at least a difficult time to progress.”

Morales: “Hopefully, with the spread of the Internet, new initiatives dedicated to literature will appear: blogs, magazines, commentaries arising from readers and not only professional critics. Then we will know how (or if) Cubans are reading.”

Pardo Lazo: “[For Havana to become a hotbed of literary culture] it would take Europe or America to be there again to, please, re-rediscover us. Our colonialized culture is congenital. A hotbed depends on euros and dollars to be really hot. It’s called prostitution and we are prone to it. Don’t be late: it takes two for a tango.”

Maciá: “There are now emerging very talented Cuban authors. I think they will boost Cuban literature to unimaginable heights.”

Pardo Lazo: “The [posthumous novel of the Revolution] is about to be finished. I must finish it before Fidel Castro dies, so he can read it and officially order my assassination. It will be our book of truth.”

The commentary of the seven writers was, I had to admit, glorious. Hallmarked by wisdom and regret while flaunting forward-thinking speech and a playful camaraderie, the Cuban literati clearly didn’t fit with the socialist groove. And to my surprise, throughout my thread of emails with the seven writers, they all seemed to agree on one sentiment: the Havana International Book Fair was the most important literary event in the country.

* * *

I recalled an email Yoss had sent to me in which he said, “La Feria is a party.” And while I was initially suspicious of a book fair that claimed to be a party, la Feria felt like a pleasant slice of lesser-known Havana. As I roamed around, though, I remained fairly suspicious that books were proving so hard to find. Especially when considering Granma, the agitprop newspaper named for the yacht that hauled Fidel Castro and 81 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba, claimed there should have been precisely 3,360,000 books on display. I ran that preposterous number through my mind another time, then passed through thick crowds until the road finally arrived at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, where in 1959 Che Guevara oversaw the executions of suspected war criminals. And it was here, in the third-largest fortress in the Americas, that I found a few thousand books on display in vaulted dungeon-like rooms built into the walls of the fort, as if at any moment doors could be bolted shut, imprisoning the writers and readers for dissent.

In one of the vaulted rooms I met Yoss and Malena Salazar Maciá, who were milling around after a presentation commemorating the release of a book written by novelist Elaine Vilar. I introduced myself to Yoss, one of the island’s preeminent literary figures. He had a relaxed aura of cool—wearing a red bandana, punk-studded wristbands, and camo-print pants—and he couldn’t walk a block at la Feria without running into people he knew. Maciá, a rising talent in Havana’s science fiction scene, was fresh off a win in one of Cuba’s top literary contests for young writers. She had a cheerful affability and we quickly eased into conversation. In an email Maciá wrote me, she mentioned how thousands of people flocked to la Feria each day, and as we spoke in person she asked if I had seen all the people. “,” I replied, “Thousands. But where are the millions of books?”

“They are all around,” she said as if the books were ghosts.

Around us in the vault was a mere cardboard box filled with the book Vilar had just presented. A woman with handfuls of Cuban pesos sat next to the box and when I tried to purchase a copy with tourist pesos she said it was impossible. Despite the illogical economics of a country whose inhabitants use a different currency than visitors, we managed to strike a deal. When I completed my purchase I returned to Maciá who introduced me to several writers, each of whom asked how I had managed to hear about them. I said the Internet and everyone smiled with a quiet warmth. I made my way to congratulate Vilar and asked her questions about her book, which was a graphic novel version of the opera Carmen. The next presentation was held for Michel Encinosa Fú, a novelist Achy Obejas told me was “amazing,” and I watched him speak with graciousness about the release of his novel, La Guerra de Bianca, which had won the 2014 Premio La Edad de Oro.

After the presentation, Maciá told me she planned to take a break from la Feria the following day to write at her apartment, and Yoss said I could find him at the Pabellón Cuba, another la Feria venue in Vedado. I said I would. Then we all said goodbye and I went on my way, taking a bicycle taxi up La Cabaña hill to see the sculpture of Jesus Christ. At the hilltop I felt relieved to be in the open air. Free from the crowds at la Feria, I looked southward into the panorama of Havana: the city from where millions of stories had never been told.

* * *

A few days passed like this, where I was transported around Havana, going from the fortress on the slopes of La Cabaña to readings at the Pabellón Cuba, to meals at the prerevolutionary homes of writers, and to book releases at the Centro Cultural Dulce Maria Loynaz. I had lunch with Maciá’s family in a beach town on the outskirts of Havana, eating spaghetti and cubes of candied papaya before we walked across town discussing the similarities of our creative lives as writers, and the vast differences of our actual lives as casualties of diplomacy. I was invited to the home of Gina Picart for coffee and chocolate with her partner, the journalist and political scientist Oscar Ferrer Carbonell, and her amusing daughter Cynthia. Late into the afternoon I listened to Picart, one of Cuba’s transcendent writers, tell me about her career as a novelist. Talk eventually fell to the state of young writers in Cuba, and Picart suggested the island teemed with too many new, inexperienced writers, coupled with too few publishing houses.

On my last day at la Feria, I attended an awards ceremony for the 2015 winners of the Premio Calendario, an award given to unpublished writers by the state-sponsored Asociación Hermanos Saíz. I had spent the morning with Maciá and Alejandro Rojas, an unpublished novelist who received his breakthrough last year when his manuscript was selected for a Calendario in science fiction. Maciá, who experienced a similar path to publishing success by winning a Premio David last year, told me that it was difficult for unpublished writers to become published in Cuba. “The only viable option is to participate in contests that are held,” she explained. Osdany Morales, however, emailing from New York, issued caution regarding the acclaim surrounding literary awards in Cuba. Morales, a winner of both the Premio David and Premio Alejo Carpentier, agreed that the most effective way for young authors to become published was through literary contests, but warned that, “at the same time, it is risky to promote a literary scene based on these limited opportunities.”

I took a seat in the back corner of the crowded conference hall, awaiting the Calendario ceremony. Having settled into the fortress life of la Feria following the initial rush of energy on my first day, I was surprised by the mundanity of what I experienced as a few considerably ordinary afternoons at a book fair: the exchanges of strange pleasantries, the small talk with other writers about books they were purchasing or presenting, the hushed anticipations, the detached presentations, the kind applauses, the waiting in line for half-hours to eat slices of unpleasant pizza. My failure to be wholly impressed was, of course, an entirely American experience, informed by the excess of behemoth book fairs on offer in the United States every year, from Miami to Brooklyn to Jaipur-at-Boulder. In a sense, it was impossible for me to genuinely feel the paramount importance of la Feria. How could I have felt the same urgency and fervor for an event that was, in essence, the only moment of the year in Cuba when new books were released and when new literary awards were presented?

Later that day, an accomplished writer with an impressive array of awards—who wished to remain nameless—handed me a novel that had never left the shores of Cuba. And it wasn’t until the writer asked for my help in finding an American publisher that I finally felt the power of la Feria and my week in Havana. Holding the novel and hearing the writer’s plea, I understood that for Cuban writers there was a true necessity to la Feria, one no American writer could ever fathom feeling from any stateside fair. I understood that the life of a Cuban writer—one of enduring the struggle for physical survival and “deeply rationalized self-censorship”—was one that few American writers could identify with.

A brief history of Cuba could be seen as a history where people have continuously endured, and all year Cuban writers had endured unreasonable and labyrinthine publishing practices waiting for la Feria, waiting for the day when their books would be released, waiting for the chance to purchase the books of their peers, and, who knew, perhaps waiting for a chance encounter with a gringo who might not know how to expel all of their tragedies, but who was certainly willing to help. Later that evening, over rum and coffee, I told the writer I would be glad to help, and I could see the writer’s heart warm.

That night, as I took my last walk through the city, I felt a fundamental connection and sympathy with the writers I had corresponded with and met, yet I knew there was an indelible distance between us, and I feared there would always be that distance until someone repaired their world. This isn’t a story about Cuba no one has ever heard before, but it is one that constantly deserves reexamination in the face of our modern world. So when I came to the Malecón and once again saw all of Havana’s faded glory, I was reminded of a few final lines in Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s short story, “Sunflower Fields Forever,” which tells the story of two bored, suicidal lovers in Havana:

“The following midnight, after another long and narrow day’s journey of reading rather decadent things, they were consequently convinced that they lived in ‘an absurd era, of little or no action, as often happens after great revolutions or little catastrophes.’”

That following midnight in America, after a long and narrow day’s journey through Miami and a few Midwestern cities, I thought of all the little catastrophes still swarming around Cuba, and I, too, was consequently convinced.

All photos by the author.

[1] From an interview with Restless Books on January 21, 2015.

Tillman Miller
Tillman Miller

Tillman Miller is a frequent contributor to Roads & Kingdoms. A former lawyer in Myanmar, he has filed stories from Yangon, Istanbul, and the Grenadines. He is currently at work on a novel.

NPR, 2014

INTERNATIONAL

6 Things You Should Know About Cuban Cigars

December 18, 2014

DAVAR ARDALAN

American actor Groucho Marx, with his trademark mustache, glasses and cigar. We can’t be sure that this cigar was Cuban.John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Cuban cigars are wrapped in mystique. Soon travelers will be able to bring back $100 worth of the famed cigars. Here are some facts you should know.

1. Cuban cigars are expensive, even in Cuba.

As NPR’s Tom Gjelten tweeted, the new permission to bring back $100 worth of tobacco (or alcohol) allows you at the most four good cigars. Tom says he hasn’t been back to Cuba for six years, but the last time he was there, a single Cohiba or Uppman “set you back at least $25.”

2. Cuban cigar companies have readers.

Cuba expert Ada Ferrer says cigar factories were known for having “lectores,” or readers, who would read aloud as the workers rolled the cigars.

She’s curious to know if the factories still have these readers, and she is especially curious to know what exactly they read aloud.

Havana-based blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo tells us today that, yes, they still have readers.

“They read the official press, yes, so boring,” he says, “but then also some books of popular fiction. And most of the time the workers just listen to Cuban radio stations, mainly stories told through ‘radio-novelas.’ “

3. Cuban cigars may not be the best anymore.

At least according to Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, who says:

“Cuba no longer makes the best cigars. Within Latin America, cigar smokers surveyed say that cigars made in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua are much better. It’s not so much that the quality of Cuban cigars has deteriorated; it’s more that cigar making in these three countries and elsewhere in the world has significantly improved.”

4. Fidel Castro’s favorite Cuban cigars were Cohibas, but he quit smoking decades ago.

In 1997, The New York Times reported:

“In fact, Cohibas were initially produced seven years after the 1959 Cuban revolution brought Mr. Castro to power. According to a history published by the company early this year, a cigarmaker-turned-soldier began rolling cigars for a friend who was one of Mr. Castro’s bodyguards. The bodyguard soon began sharing the cigars with his boss, who loved their flavor and asked for more.

“At first, Mr. Castro reserved them for his own use and that of close associates, but eventually he began handing out Cohibas as gifts to heads of state and other foreign visitors, giving the brand international renown.”

5. Groucho Marx’s Cuban cigar was “generally unlit” when he was acting.

Groucho Marx was often seen with a Cuban cigar in his mouth when acting, but his son Arthur Marx wrote in Cigar Aficionado that the cigar was “generally unlit.”

“He just used the unlit cigar as a prop, something to stick in his mouth, or to keep his hands busy when he wasn’t talking,” he wrote. “He did this for two reasons: one, he didn’t want to smoke all day when he was shooting a film, and two, it would have been too difficult for the director to match the length the cigar had burned down between shots when it was time for another take. But if Groucho kept his cigar unlit, it was always the same length.”

6. You can identify a fake Cuban cigar by the packaging.

Cigar Aficionado says pay close attention:

“The bottom of a Cuban cigar box tells a more complete story. There you’ll see the words Habanos S.A., Hecho En Cuba, and (if the cigar is handmade, as Cuba’s best are) Totalmente a Mano. Below that will be a code for the factory in which the cigars were made, and a date stamp showing when the cigars were put in the box. Counterfeits are often missing some of these details. We’ve seen typos, bogus fonts, missing stamps, and various other discrepancies. All the markings should be on a real smoke—be cautious of any missing (or misspelled markings).”

We’ll leave you with a sobering fact: Most new cigar users in the U.S. are teens and young adults. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012, “about 17 percent of male and 8 percent of female high school students had smoked a cigar within the last month, compared to the average of 5 percent from all ages. In all, about 13.4 million people age 12 and older smoke cigars.”