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.
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.