The ocean was still, still the ocean was

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To whom shall I offer these teats and this round butt but to you, my large and empty country, for you to get it and make it bounce and score a basket of 3 points? Others have changed their ideal. Their stream flows now through the unnecessary ditch of cold butts. It passed the time when I went to the beach and broke the beads of my necklace shouting at them to come back. Now I dance guaguancó in the empty space of their memories and I make a toast with an old Havana Club, with orishas and their shadows.

I found these notes from 1996 on an old notebook. I was very little, but in the Literature workshop they asked us to write about things that concerned us, very intimate things. These and other questions worried me by that time because I couldn´t understand why Luzbrillante —the tough cheerful guy that helped everybody, that spent every afternoon at my house; the same guy who saved my life in Varadero when I unsuccessfully tried to learn how to float and my sister didn´t realize I was going too far from the shore—, worked so hard on the construction of a plastic raft to leave the country Playita de los Rusos in Alamar. We have never heard from him; I was too little to ask him why, and I have never known anyone like him to ask for his motivations.

The fact is that, although migration as a phenomenon —understood as change, transfer, and movement— has existed since the beginnings of times, in the context of the island it has meant a crisis in the Cuban imaginary that has extended to our days.

Very little is the space to talk about this subject and its relationship with Cuban literature, mainly because it isn’t just about what is written but it also concerns who writes it. There have been many Cuban writers, acknowledged or not, that have left the country forever or have travelled in some period of their lives since the time of Domingo del Monte, Cirilo Villaverde, José María Heredia, Gertudris Gómez de Avellaneda, and etcetera.

The subject has been conveyed in different works; nevertheless, I would like to make a parenthesis to mention two wonderful novels that amaze because of the richness of their language, style, deep featuring of their characters, exquisite plot of their story and the description of daily Havanan life. They are: Prisoner of the water (1998), by Alexis Díaz Pimienta and The novel of my life (2002), by Leonardo Padura.

Prisoner of the water is a wonderful fresco of Havana: Enildo Niebla, its protagonist, suffers the exchanges of houses his grandmother makes around almost every neighbourhood of Havana. Enildo, son a fake martyr, runs away in raft to the United States with some Friends chasing Yindra Eskarmela. The novel is structured on a central axis: moments of fear, uncertainties in the darkness of an open sea where the protagonist remembers the days of his childhood and youth together with his grandma and friends (Pepe Gibara, Lorenzo al Cubo and Gustavo), making his journey of exchanges round the city, and the lustful, romantic and intimate moments he had with some girlfriends (Nilka, Electra, Tania, Karim, Yoana, Kiomi, Rosaura, Virgen). Enildo embarks upon the dangerous adventure of an illegal trip out of the country just to find Yindra Eskarmela, who is the love of his life. On that deed they experience a shipwrecked and died, but we know that Enildo Niebla never wanted to leave, that he loved his city and he missed it till the last second of his life:

Which of his cousins, friends, old girlfriends, neighbours of so many years, would be loving or enjoying a second of love in any place of Havana? (…) What was he, Enildo Niebla Freire, doing on a raft in the middle of the ocean?(…) Farewell Diezmero, Luyano, San Matias, Mantilla, Parraga, Caballo Blanco, San Francisco de Paula; farewell Blue Ocean, Capri Hotel, Itabo Hotel, Habana Libre Hotel; farewell Virgin of the Road, Old Havana bars, pilots of the Harbour, Seafront, Central road (…).

The novel of my life, by Leonardo Padura, is another jewel of Cuban literature that cannot be overlooked. This novel tells the story of Fernando, who left on 1980 when the events of Mariel harbour after being expelled from the Faculty of Arts in the Havana University where he taught Literature. Fernando was accused of knowing the secret plans of a friend to leave the country and not report it as it should be; he also was blamed of writing poems of doubtful character. All doors were closed for him and he had no better option than leaving. However, in this case, the novel doesn’t focus on the leaving but on the coming back to Havana after 20 years of exile when he gets the news that some documents of José María Heredia that are important for his PhD Thesis on Philology appeared, a dream he had abandoned. After this time, he gets together with some friends from college at Álvaro’s house: Conrado, Arcadio, Tomás, Miguel Ángel and they remember those who no longer live, Enrique and Víctor. At the same time, he tells about José María Heredia’s life: his relation with Cuban intellectual elite, his choice of calling and feeling Cuba his homeland. Padura establishes a parallel between these two life betrayed by someone considered as a friend, between the feeling of being uprooted, the pain and suffering because of leaving, between the love for Cuba and for Havana that Heredia and Fernando felt:

Up to that moment Fernando had never thought about living in any other place, and although, due to his juvenile readings, he dreamed of travelling and knowing emblematic places for poetry —the New York of Whitman and Lorca; the Paris of symbolists y surrealists; the Buenos Aires of Borges; the Andalusia of Alberti and the Castile of Machado—, he ended up falling in love with the Havana of Heredia and Casal, of Eliseo Diego, Lezama and Carpentier, that city crowded with metaphors and enigmatic revelations to where he travelled through his harder readings, taking over its scents, lights, dreams and lost loves.

This way I wanted to show how the Cuban Literature, as an artistic manifestation, has trailed the different behaviours of this phenomenon. Through it we know that the resolution of migrating can respond to many factors: political, economic, personal improvement, family gathering, love relationships, etc.; we know that the means can be of different nature; that people’s responses can be unforeseen and those who left the country experience a lot of feelings and worries.

 Joanna Castillo




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