10 04 2010


Jorge Edwards

The Antennas of Destiny” was the title of a book of Violeta Quevedo, a pseudonym behind which hid two scribbling sisters, naifs, somewhat alien to this world, but good observers of the Chilean reality in the fifties and sixties. I seem to remember them, thin, bony, with their berets and thick wool socks, filling modest bankbooks in the office of a bank in central Santiago. “Violet for humility, said one of them to the press of the time, Quevedo for what I see.”

I remembered the ineffable sisters after reading “Cuba Libre,” the compilation of the last three years of the Cuban Yoani Sanchez, who, of course, has nothing of naivete, and perhaps is not humble either, but is a formidably sharp observer of the Cuba of these times. Yoani Sanchez, who is becoming known in the world as “the Cuban blogger,” born in Havana thirty-five years ago, daughter of a worker on the railroads which were Soviet property then.

There is nothing more literary than trains. One could write an interesting essay on trains in the literature of the nineteenth century, and in the last century, not forgetting the trainman father of Neruda and the story of the “tren lastrero.” But Yoani Sanchez, as much a writer as anyone, doesn’t write, like the author of “Machu Picchu,” with excessive rhetoric, Gongora litanies, verbal torrents. Her experience in contemporary Cuba, in particular, takes refuge in the miniature, the vignette, light humor, hidden, the stories of the everyday, the neighborhood, devoid of any emphasis, but always thought-provoking, instructive, revealing.

In her country, the torrential word is the official word, the abusive manipulation of language practiced from power for interminable decades, with overwhelming monotony. Some, even in Chile,still believe in the formula, in its spent magic, its vulgarity, and the answer of Yoani Sanchez could not be more convincing: concise writing, recognizing the wisdom of the street, discrete voices, expressive gestures, a powerful undertow. One of her posts, for example, refers to the old bread recipes, the “combination of millennia,” as she says, “of flour, water, yeast and fire.”

Real Socialism, which began to spread across the planet in 1917, eventually became an expert in miracles in reverse, the dis-multiplication of loaves, fishes and wine. The blogger, in a few words, speaks to us of the bread of her childhood, now disappeared, transformed into a substance of fable, whose mass could be formed to make dolls and even balls. In the name of revolutionary theory, they dismantled the private bakeries — neighborhood bakeries, with their particular specialties, their personal touch — and they now produce the most completely insipid bureaucratic and statist bread: white, weightless, harmful to gums and giving off a clothes-staining grit.

It seems like an exaggeration but it’s something else: a tiny and revealing truth that no one dares say, with the exception of Yoani Sanchez. The blogger has the eye of a miniaturist, of the writer committed to small things, who does not shy away from her commitment to proceed in this way of making, like one who doesn’t care for it, little time bombs.

It would be strange of wordy dictators, vociferous, drunk on rhetoric, could be threatened, perhaps destroyed, by a lesser word, deliberately modest, but it would also be a notable lesson in mental hygiene, a phenomenon that could turn us into optimists about the slow processes of history. Because the reading of the blogger’s texts, among other things, communicates to us an air of truth and makes us understand that phrase that seems to have been exhausted by overuse: Only the truth will set us free.

I suppose we could analyze Yoani Sanchez’s texts using the system discovered by the French theorists and baptized “deconstruction,” but I’m a man who can enjoy himself with theories but who resists, by temperament, or by whatever, to take it seriously. In one of her vignettes, which almost never have the least bit of wastefulness, the author quotes a phrase from Julio Antonio Mella, founder of the Cuban Communist Party in 1925. “All future time must be better,” announced Mella, in a fit of revolutionary optimism, and the blogger has inevitable questions, inevitably corrosive, which I had already heard many times in Cuba before she was born, in the remote late 1970 and early 1971. Because the street where she was born and where once there was asphalt, is now, “A rough surface with potholes, dust and stones,” and on the rusty hooks in the butcher shop on the corner not a single piece of meat has hung “for a long time.”

Here I venture to outline, I don’t know if it’s a theory, but at least it’s a point of view, broadened by repeated experience. There are writers and philosophers from the past, even in classical antiquity, who developed a vision of the present, of the moment, of the beauty of life in its inevitably passing fullness. Were they reactionaries, indifferent, selfish?

The XIX century, on the other hand, was an era of the builders of great systems of anticipation. Karl Marx is the best known and most influential, but there were many others. And the denial of the theory, the great counter-proof, came with the introduction of Real Socialism.

The ambassador in Havana of the former Yugoslavia, at the end of the seventies, told me that they (the Cuban leaders), did not know that there is no philosophy that lasts more than a hundred years. Julio Antonio Mella, long before the Castro regime, did not know that. Yoani Sanchez, for her part, without the need for philosophies, knows in her pores, through her daily experience, perhaps in her feminine sensibility, of the need to find healthy food for her son, a need that she thinks about every morning when she wakes up.

Her book led me to an interesting conclusion: the tired, weighty, now militarized way of the Castro Revolution is falling further and further behind with regards to technology. One of the most successful vignettes has a title that is somewhat enigmatic to people of my era: “Dish.” It seems that in Havana today, for families, there is a passionate interest in having a clandestine antenna that can bring in TV from Mexico or Miami. Instead of the government programs, gray and full of endless political speeches, there are American movies everywhere, dance shows, popular music, soap operas.

I read her lines and I reconcile myself to the TV series, soap operas, rock of all kinds.  Long live entertainment, I say, and I smile. The families pay up to a full month’s salary for black market technicians to install these mysterious satellite dishes in hidden places on the roof, with underground pipes, under threat of heavy fines and forfeiture. It is the daily story, small, slight, the internal story that makes a mockery of the political theories, once again. And the blogger’s precise words make it most perfectly obvious. She hits the bull’s eye.




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