Nonfiction from NER 42.1 (2021)
translated by George HensonW
hen Paradiso, José Lezama Lima’s great novel, was finally republished in his native Cuba, twenty-five years had passed since this defiant and extraordinary book had appeared in its first edition. Exactly a quarter of a century since Ediciones Unión had published, in 1966, that red-covered brick of more than six hundred pages, which immediately became one of the seminal works of the so-called Latin American Boom, and in the process elevated the name of its author to a dimension beyond what his devotees and enemies had already claimed. What happened at Paradiso’s launch in the auditorium of the Cuban Book Institute on that afternoon in 1991 would have delighted the founder of Orígenes magazine, in which, beginning in the 1940s, he had published extracts of the novel. The horde refused to listen to the book’s presenters and leapt over the table from which the speakers sought to read their texts written for the occasion, and the book was sold through the windows of the institute, amid a tumultuous scuffle in which everyone tried to obtain at least one copy. I was one of the many who wrestled to leave with several copies of Paradiso. Thankfully, I was successful. It was not only a matter of acquiring Paradiso, but of attending an event that confirmed that the rehabilitation of such an extraordinary man for our culture had been achieved.
Lezama’s work, following the initial publication of Paradiso, had international reverberations that almost no one could have imagined. The author of books of obscure, hermetic poetry, composed in Gongoresque and baroque codes and bold metaphors, and of essays that many claimed to read without ever opening their pages, became a symbol of rebelliousness. The novel, which recreates the life of José Cemí, a young Cuban man on his journey of initiation and self-discovery, is inspired by Proust but also by an ace that Lezama held up his sleeve: a uniquely personal voice, a firm understanding of the poetic value of each word, and an ability to manipulate language that allowed him to reinvent a notion of Cuba, and Cubanness, never before achieved in the literature of his country. The homoerotic charge of several passages, the extraordinary strength of the associations, and the syntheses of different worlds and cultures in Paradiso initiated a conversation, transforming the book into an act of liberation that, beyond the surface of its verbal density, continues to challenge its readers. As it also challenged those who, in Cuba at that moment, were already deciding what should and should not remain within view of the reader.
In 1971, this all reached a critical point. Lezama had been published abroad, celebrated by the most respected names in the Spanish language and beyond, and revered by every important visitor to Havana, and yet he found himself on the regime’s Index, following an act of self-repudiation performed by the poet Heberto Padilla at the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. Even after he’d been awarded the Julián de Casal Prize in 1968 for his book Fuera del juego [Out of the game], by a jury presided over by none other than Lezama himself, Padilla continued his provocations until being detained by State Security for several weeks, from which he emerged to appear on a sinister stage. Not only did he accuse himself of being ungrateful for the benefits that the Revolution had showered on him, but he named others who had committed the same sin. Lezama among them. Lezama was not present among those who witnessed this event. In some way, his absence that night heralded the emptiness, the silence, and the invisibility to which he was to be reduced from that moment on. No more of his books, no more articles about his work, no more interviews. While outside Cuba Paradiso’s fame grew, and foreign editions appeared, Lezama, that tall man of robust figure, began to dissolve into the air of Trocadero Street, where he lived until his death in 1976.
Restoring his name, returning him to that moment when Paradiso was republished in Cuba, was a slow process, in which the generation of poets of the ’80s played a fundamental role. After his death, the books he had worked on while still able were hastily published: the book of poems Fragmentos a su imán [Fragments to their magnet] and the unfinished novel Oppiano Licario. In 1985 his Poesía Completa [Complete poetry] was published, while essays, scattered texts, and reference works—of which Carlos Espinosa’s Cercanía de Lezama Lima [The proximity of Lezama Lima] played a foundational role—begin to appear, until 1991, when the aforementioned episode occurred. Lezama became the counterbalance of the flat, grayish image that for so long attempted to impose itself as the ideal of Cuban culture. With him, the poets of the Orígenes group also returned, with other names, other challenges.
Despite all this, what is surprising is that, now that the effects of his restoration have waned, Lezama is still being read little and badly. In Letters to Eloísa, the 2020 documentary film by Cuban American Adriana Bosch, several witnesses reexamine the life of the Havana-born author, transforming this film into not only a discussion of the oblivion in which Lezama spent his last years but also a sort of introduction to his opus, which hopefully will encourage its viewers to discover his writing. If at the end of the 1980s through the mid-1990s one could easily find his works, or those by Virgilio Piñera and even Severo Sarduy, in the forefront of publishing news, today that fervor seems to have been extinguished. Cuban literature published by major outlets can be reduced almost exclusively to Leonardo Padura, Zoé Valdés, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, and Wendy Guerra. Lezama has returned, more or less, to what he always was: an acquired taste. An author who invites readers to embrace the esoteric, to the reading of never-immediate meanings, and who forces his reader to meet him on his terms. This reputation is confirmed by what some of his foremost scholars say, on camera, from Havana and other cities.
With the permission of Cuba’s Vice Minister of Culture, Adriana Bosch entered Lezama’s small, damp home on Trocadero Street in Central Havana. She interviewed Reynaldo González, Enrique Saínz, Roberto Méndez, Maggie Mateo, and the recently deceased César López. Elsewhere in the world, she spoke with César Salgado, Emilio Bejel, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jesús J. Barquet, Antonio José Ponte, José Prats Sariol, Enrico Mario Santi, and more. Bosch said that it took her fourteen years to make Letters to Eloísa, during which she researched not only Lezama’s work and the letters he wrote to his sister (the structural axis of the documentary), but also the causes of the ostracism to which the creator of Muerte de Narciso [Death of Narcissus] and La fijeza [Fixedness] was reduced. Lezama—marginalized by his writing, by his aestheticizing vision, by his dangerously autonomous voice, by elusive metaphors, a Catholic and homosexual whose grand exit from the closet was, precisely, Paradiso—had become a nuisance. Not only to the apparatchiks of a revolutionary government, but also to the commissars of the National Council of Culture. He had been a nuisance even before. But it was the cultural commissars who ultimately robbed him of the fame he deserved, who denied him the ability to travel abroad and the prominence that travel would have brought him. Those who believed—foolishly—that his physical death would remove the weight of his importance from their shoulders.
The figure who scarcely appears on screen, curiously, is the woman without whom this documentary would not exist: Eloísa Lezama Lima. When the family scatters in the aftermath of the triumph of the revolution, Lezama remains in his Havana home with his mother and Baldomera, the domestic servant whom he had transformed into a character in Paradiso and whose hand, precisely, opens the book’s pages. The familial upheaval is the first of many successive episodes of the author’s life that gave rise to the correspondence on which the documentary is based. Before her death, Rosa Lima, the poet’s mother, convinces María Luisa Bautista, a professor of literature, to marry her son. Together they will endure the severe ostracism of the 1970s. And during this period of estrangements, of editorial success and separations, and of the final silence, Lezama writes the letters, increasingly desperate, pleading for news of his relatives, but also for paper, food, medicine, a pair of shoes . . . letters that Eloísa receives in exile, and that today are preserved in the Cuban Heritage Collection of the University of Miami.
That epistolary has never been published in Cuba, although there are two other editions of Lezama’s letters (the most recent from the Spanish publisher Verbum, 2013). For years I thought of Eloísa Lezama as little more than the poet’s sister. But then I asked Abilio Estévez (that other acquired taste, for the benefit of Cuban letters), if I could borrow a copy of Paradiso, with the promise of reading it as it should be read. The edition he put in my hands was the one I continue to recommend to this day: the critical edition that Eloísa herself prepared for Cátedra’s Letras Hispánicas imprint. The 100-page prologue revealed to me that she was more than just a woman who appears in family photos. In addition to the myriad footnotes that serve as a guide to the novel, in this text the recipient of those missives—fragments of which can be heard throughout the documentary—reveals family secrets, information essential to arriving at the very heart of Paradiso, going so far as to speak of a “Lezama religion.” As priestess of this cult, Eloísa demonstrated that the filial bond that united them was also a thread of thought, of clear and useful insights into the greatness of her brother’s work. In Puerto Rico, where she lived for an extended time, those who knew her speak of her with respect and kindness. Perhaps this is why I regret that Eloísa is seen only in the final minutes of Bosch’s work, through archival images taken from La otra Cuba [The other Cuba] (Orlando Jiménez Leal, 1985). One cannot help but question the absence of her testimony, which would have been undeniably crucial, more so knowing that she was still alive during the early stages of the documentary’s development. By way of consolation, I recommend consulting her appearance in another documentary, from 2003, Lezama Lima, la cultura como resistencia [Lezama Lima, culture as resistance], by Iván González Cruz; and in an interview she gave Julio Estorino in 2009 for the Cuban Heritage Collection a year before her death.
To a certain extent, what worries me about Letters to Eloísa is that the letters seem at times to be a pretext for approaching certain aspects of Lezama’s biography about which we learn almost nothing new. His status as a discomfiting figure, and the oblivion he suffered until his death in particular, are elements that are recycled time and again and, all too often, create montages that serve merely to contrast the image of Lezama with that of Fidel Castro. Bosch herself has confessed that her first motivation in undertaking this production was political and that literary motivations came into play only later, which is evident in the documentary’s omission, for example, that Lezama was also attacked in the journal Lunes de Revolución by a new generation of writers who saw him as a king to be dethroned. Antonio José Ponte, in one of his appearances in the documentary, goes beyond a mere echo of anecdotes and Manichaeism to point out something much more provocative: the mistrust unleashed among those who saw a writer’s autonomy as a mythological and uncontrollable animal that Lezama embodied. Today, in fact, we know that he was being surveilled, that the texts he attempted to smuggle out of the country through friends were intercepted, and that there was also an operation to silence him carried out by Cuban publishing houses, the proof of which was revealed in an exhibition inaugurated in 1974, as mentioned in the documentary. Having survived all this while continuing to write is his triumph and lesson in greatness.
In this regard, he is equal to his great rival, Virgilio Piñera, who is also the author of an epistolary (Piñera Corresponsal: una vida en cartas [Piñera Correspondent: a life in letters], edited by Thomas F. Anderson, 2013), which is also yet to be published on the island, and from which a documentary that is no less important and necessary could emerge. To understand the anguish these two writers—and there were others—endured, awaiting a rehabilitation that came only after death, requires that we understand that some debts are still unpaid and that certain apologies should still be offered, allowing the cycles of restitution and exorcism to be fulfilled and closed once and for all.
Letters to Eloísa seeks to be at once a revelation of the existence of a great poet, an introduction in a certain didactic sense of his life and work to an audience who may not know him, and a political rather than literary analysis of the poet. This political aspect disrupts the documentary’s other intentions, imposing certain nuances in the dialogue in which we are invited to participate. This dialogue courses through fleeting scenes that attempt to evoke the familial atmosphere of Paradiso, the domestic life of its author, in the form of vignettes that intersect with images of photographs and newsreels, which rescues the few remaining stills of Lezama, whose voice can also be heard reading some of his poems. The original music by Arturo Sandoval evokes airs of the late Cuban composers Saumell, Cervantes, and Lecuona, against a narration provided by Alfred Molina.
The documentary leaves some questions hanging, specifically how Lezama and his work have returned to the island’s visible canon of national culture. His books have finally been republished, colloquia on his work have been held, homage was paid him in a scene from the film Strawberry and Chocolate, and Tomás Piard dared to make a film, El viajero inmóvil [The immobile traveler], based on passages from his most well-known novel. Perhaps others who were contacted during the research process (Rafael Rojas, Antón Arrufat, Abel Sierra Madero, Senel Paz, Roberto González Echevarría . . .) discussed aspects that I hope will also become public someday in interviews. Perhaps, I say. (As long as I’ve mentioned Arrufat, I would like to point out a mistake: the book cover that appears in the documentary as Arrufat’s version of Aeschylus’s work, Seven Against Thebes, along with that of other controversial books of the time, is incorrect.)
Other important questions linger: How is Lezama read today in his country? Who seeks him out in the house that is now a museum? Who among the new generation of authors reads him with the courage to repeat his challenges or to discuss him? All of these questions are left out of Letters to Eloísa. I offer all this as an invitation to continue thinking about Lezama Lima, beyond his role as martyr, victim, or rare maestro. His canonization has come about in an equally complex way. Moreover, if access to his verbal world continues to be difficult, that canonization, which allows us to read him today, absent the force that transformed the release of his book into a riot, may have also removed him today from the center of magnetism that, for writers of the 1980s and those who in the 1960s were dazzled by Paradiso, was as powerful as it was blinding. Does this deny his greatness? Surely not. Does it alert us to his vitality or fading as a leading figure in the face of new generations? Perhaps. Lezama, understood as a question, will always be a good provocation.
While the appearance of these letters, which are of great importance for the broader understanding of the biography of an indispensable author, has been delayed in Havana, Letters to Eloísa reimagines the capital city through Lezama’s voice. I hope that Letters to Eloísa will serve as an invitation to tour our city, and that it will one day be shown there. Not in the Havana of tourists and deafening music, but rather as a guide for those who look into this mirror to find, in that predictable landscape, that other landscape that Lezama revealed as a mystery. In a letter dated June 1978, his widow, María Luisa Bautista, told José Agustín Goytisolo: “You can imagine how his death has left me. I feel like a ghost walking in circles in a house so full of him, where I see and feel him in every book, in every painting, in every object. It is like feeling a nonexistent breath. . . .” Whoever searches in Havana can be carried away by that breath, by that asthmatic rhythm that Lezama revealed in the recording of his poems, in his conversation, in his writing. They will have to read him in the air, in the very breath of Havana, to keep him as a companion, like a hand that traces new letters in the air of that city. Written for his sister. And as the documentary suggests, also for us. ■