SMALL TALK

16 06 2010

OF BIOTECHNOLOGY APPLIED TO LITERATURE LIMIT

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

I once thought I would be able to be something like a scientist and I graduated, and with a Gold Diploma, from the Biology Department. It was during the Special Period, and starting out as a Biochemist, with my head crammed between ground soy “meat,” the semi-trucks disguised as buses that we called “camels,” and my theoretical dreams of winning the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, crashed head to head with the rugged reality of 1994 where we barely had distilled water in the laboratories of the University of Havana.

I swallowed dry, literally dry. Perhaps also literarily dry. I took refuge in this bunker of budget priority that is the Center for Genetic and Biotechnology Engineering (CIBG), and just in that time of more waiting than hoping, I decided to be something of a writer.

After working there, in the elitist heart of the Western Scientific Center, among micro-pipettes and genes marked with imported radioactivity, among high-resolution chromatography and the thousand and one carcinogenic substances with which we experimented daily, between 100 degree rooms and -100 degree freezers, between workdays that lasted more than 24 hours a day and more than 7 days a week, with the mini-wage of Scientific reserve and without even the right to a “stimulus” in CUCs (please, no one can accuse me of practicing scientific materialism), involved in projects of confidential vaccines and in passing discovering before the rest of Cuba how to use Windows and the internet (contrary to what we think today, Windows and the internet do not predate humans) stimulated by a First World competitive climate where the library received magazines the same month they came out (while in the Biology Department we called bibliographic revisions from the time of perestroika “up-to-date documents); surrounded, in the end, like Allen Ginsberg said in his poem Howl, by the most beautiful minds of my generation, I almost forgot my literary vocation.

In fact, I stopped writing, probably the best thing that could have happened to the reading public. So it was for a long time, until it was time to publish the results of my vaccine project against dengue fever (don’t worry, it’s not longer a State Council secret). It was then I rediscovered the last art forgotten on getting out of college.

I soon realized that the author Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo didn’t mind so much the exactitude of the Materials and Methods, but rather cared about an Introduction and a Discussion worthy of a science fiction best-seller. When I finished with my own articles and published them, I jumped up salivating about the research of my colleagues, and with the pretext of helping them with their style, until I processed their statistical data. I became in essence what the publishing world calls a “ghost writer”: someone who does all the torturous keyboard work and composition, the one who lives trapped more by the power of words than by actual historic facts. More than a symptom, it was definitely a recurrence than hasn’t been cured even today.

So, I began to publish and review essays. So, after five years and hours of dedication, I was on the street, contracted with open hours, as the editor of a cultural magazine called Extramuros, from the Havana Provincial Center of the Book and Literature (the CIGB to CPLLCH, we say in the century of acronyms). So, I sent my first works to national contests and to make matters worse I won, which has involved publishing five books to day, as well as critical reviews of the books of my contemporaries, and the occasional encounter with official censorship.

So, I always recommend to my former colleagues in science, and I repeat to you now before you get bored with me, that you should be very careful about anything you publish, even a small poster on a wall. Because, if you compulsively change things as you edit, to achieve the perfect puzzle; if you feel that the word shines in your hands as much for its significance as for its phonics; if you dream of having infinite readers not only in the scientific community but also in mass media programs (interviews included, of course); then, whether you’re a student or a graduate or a master or a doctor, you are in my risk group for contracting this infection.

And, finally I warn you, that there is no effective therapy against the retrovirus of writing if it incubated within you, waiting for its opportunity to express itself by leaving the nucleus of the cytoplasm, from the tissues to the torrent of emotions, and the direct memory of the aesthetic muscle that stretches to our hearts. Perhaps the majority can reconcile both paths with rigor, recombining the beauty of science with that of art. I could not, or didn’t know how, or didn’t want to, and I succumbed to the spontaneous mutation of finding my truth by means less rational, betting heavily on the imagination, through the madness of a profession which, according to Gabriel García Márquez, is the “most solitary in the world,” and where the most healthy many time is not logic but delirium.

Every time my mother passed a dust cloth across the Gold Diploma when I finally managed to pick up my room. As I am the only child of her old age, she looks at it with a certain reproach from a venerable age which could well make her my grandmother. At times I think that my mother things I’ve wasted the chance to be the first Cuban Nobel Prize winner and Physiology and Medicine. At times I caress her smiling, confident that there are other categories of the same award. With a little patience, if she makes it to the 120 Year Club, I joke with her now, the Literature Nobel would not trouble me were it to hang in the middle of the room, so that our entire Lawton neighborhood could see it (although it is only another illusion of the cosmonaut, of the many to which my generation has aspired, and even for which they have expired).

It’s that I suspect that man does not live by bread alone. But also by paragraphs.

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