CASANUEVA IN MEMORIAM

6 10 2010

 

THE OLD HOUSE OF THE CUBAN BOOK

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

I knew this was going to happen. His name was Roberto Casanueva and he was a real curmudgeon. I met him in the last years of our lives (there is no future anymore for anyone in the Cuban publishing industry). He was in the little niche with moths or fleas of ExtramuroS editions (and I say almost lovingly: the ones who suffer the crowded and windowless den, we know that it is still literally so). It was August 2000, everything a symbol worn out by the demagoguery of the twentieth century, that we had previously thought we would become as a country.

Casanueva already died, a few years ago. Let’s start with that. With his bread only on the ration book, and his apartment in Centro Habana and his octogenarian. He fell as he lived. A wolf, a state rather than steppe. Touchy and talkative. Laughing republican imp. Rigorous in his work (designer), but outside of all time: his know-how was of the fifties, although never acknowledged. As creator he resisted any disruption. He was faithful to tradition. Besides being a hoary type and very very very typical. Decently courting whomever he had the chance, he was of age to be (I do not think his machismo let him be a great lover-boy). Casanueva remained vital. And I knew I owe him this column. I knew that sooner or later this encounter was going to happen to me.

The magic object had been a book, his book, one of the books made by him: THE BOOK: THE DESIGN, Oriente Publishing in 1990, at the beginning of the Special Period, just as it was assumed that the book in Cuba would disappear (at the end, such a debacle never fully happened).

I came across two Cuban pesos, lying on the floor of a bus stop an Infanta, not far from the building where Casanova lived. The book is, as any work in Cuba, a rehash of many others, but instructive for its summaries of information (Ambrosio Fornet later tried something better). There are almost 300 small format pages, like as picture postcard, illustrated in black and white as he was able to do for the time (1990 sounds like the past of this planet), with a glossary that struck me (and illustrated). But that’s not important. The important thing is the flashback of memories to that close encounter with Casanueva rebuked me.

I remember smoking. The clothes looking like the morning scrapings of Zanja Street (the old P. Fernández and Brothers?). Later almost in the uniform of a custodian that the Provincial Book Center distributed equally among its staff (we editors of the magazine Extramuros put our foot down and refused to use any). He arrived first, on time, with energy left over from his time as a publicist in the middle of last century, more often shaved (a Yankeelover custom), when he made quick money and bought an American car (all cars were), and had a house and married, I think for the first time. He did a lot of work before and the young Casanueva knew how to appreciate the difference of becoming economically strong for yourself. He did not complain. He was an entrepreneur.

I remember him making confessions of women. Of those he loved, with modesty to the point of tears. And those who bought his body for several hours. I remember him telling stories of the bastard owners of the business in which he worked, cheats and bargainers for a few kilos of shit: the true petty class he that justified the initial desire of many who were swept up in history when the Revolution came (my father had similar stories of tycoons who spent thousands between bribes and lawyers, who wouldn’t give 100 pesos to a pauper).

Casanueva already died, a few years ago. Let’s start with that. With his bread only on the ration book, and his apartment in Centro Habana and him an octogenarian. He fell as he lived. A wolf, a state rather than steppe. Touchy and talkative. Laughing republican imp. Rigorous in his work (designer), but outside of all time: his know-how was of the fifties, although never acknowledged. As a creator he resisted any disruption. He was faithful to tradition. Besides being a hoary type and very very very typical. Decently courting whomever he had the chance to, he was of age to be (I do not think his machismo let him be a great lover-boy). Casanueva remained vital. And I knew I owed him this column. I knew that sooner or later this encounter was going to happen to me.

The magic object had been a book, his book, one of the books made by him: THE BOOK: THE DESIGN, Oriente Publishing in 1990, at the beginning of the Special Period, just as it was assumed that the book in Cuba would disappear (at the end, such a debacle never fully happened).

I came across two Cuban pesos, lying on the ground at the bus stop an Infanta, not far from the building where Casanova lived. The book is, as any work in Cuba, a rehash of many others, but instructive for its summaries of information (Ambrosio Fornet later tried something better). There are almost 300 small format pages, like as picture postcard, illustrated in black and white as he was able to do for the time (1990 sounds like the past of this planet), with a glossary that struck me (and illustrated). But that’s not important. The important thing is the flashback of memories to that close encounter with Casanueva rebuked me.

I remember smoking. The clothes looking like the morning scrapings of Zanja Street (the old P. Fernández and Brothers?). Later almost in the uniform of a custodian that the Provincial Book Center distributed equally among its staff (we editors of the magazine ExtramuroS put our foot down and refused to use any). He arrived first, on time, with energy left over from his time as a publicist in the middle of last century, more often shaved (a Yankeelover custom), when he made quick money and bought an American car (all cars were), and had a house and married, I think for the first time. He did a lot of work before and the young Casanueva knew how to appreciate the difference of becoming economically strong for yourself. He did not complain. He was an entrepreneur.

I remember him making confessions of women. Of those he loved, with modesty to the point of tears. And those who bought his body for several hours. I remember him telling stories of the bastard owners of the business in which he worked, cheats and bargainers for a few kilos of shit: the true petty class he that justified the initial desire of many who were swept up in history when the Revolution came (my father had similar stories of tycoons who spent thousands between bribes and lawyers, who wouldn’t give 100 pesos to a pauper).

I remember putting in their place the old communist from the forties, who already required hours of volunteer work for the cause (Che was a plagiarist), including one very famous later, who accepted a medal from the hands of Fulgencio Batista, because then there was an alliance between the party and the future dictator.

I remember denigrating the mediocrity that grew like weeds around them. Economists who could not count in the air, giving their offspring tantrums by the office. Booksellers who had not read even half a book. Vendors without charisma. Men of intrigue who called themselves researchers. Finally, a post-proletarian fauna that did not want to make a living in the wheeling and dealing; simply to subsist on the meager wages of misery (well under ten dollars a month, I spent twice that on taxis to and from the publisher). Maybe he too was mediocre from the practical effects of his age, but I was more alert and more willing to do the ridiculous that we young people who started there did, including of course me (laziness is a symptom of the zero years in Cuba).

From 2000 to 2005 Roberto Casanueva told me, without my knowing it, the rudiments of THE BOOK: HIS DESIGN. And more. How to mix colors by hand, as a photocompositor, how to demand a right from the brazen (he was paid by contract, but usually very late), among other et ceteras that have already disappeared with the advent of computing: indeed, he did not get too close to a keyboard or monitor.

I remember him telling me the story of his dog. A Cuban dog from the thirties, he was killed and was buried in the middle of a courtyard of what is now the Parque de Curita, at Reina and Galiano. “His bones should be there bones yet,” he said, and I knew that he spoke to me of him. Roberto Casanueva. Indeed, before me there were still bones, as a lesson of strength against adversity. “Sometimes I think I have lived countless years,” he would repeat this slogan apparently not realizing that I already knew: “Sometimes I think I was born yesterday,” (at thirty-odd years I suffered the same delusion: now I think at times I will never live longer, at times I just think I’m still unborn).

He was a little bit of a despot in his approach, of course, like all of his generation (from a leper catering to the Premier himself). In the era of fanaticism, he made posters to stigmatize imperialism (badly printed in the socialism of the seventies). Once he criticized us, with pretensions to ideological censorship, the cover of ExtramuroS where René de la Nuez put “demon eyes” on José Martí. That struck me very badly and we drifted apart a bit. Devil’s eyes were there, of course (Martí as a curse), but I never understood what he was up to trying to corner us when those opinions were meandering through the Department (he had known that labor repression in the flesh and that of authors such as the ingenious Moreno Fraginals). His frustration, perhaps, was about to make him an accomplice (another symptom of this town so statistical nationalized).

He quit as editor of ExtramuroS and I went to dig my own grave at the cost of prizes and kicks in the Cuban literary field. I did it. Here I am. The freest writer in American. I read of his death in the newspaper Granma. I did not go to the wake. Wejust hadn’t maintained our rhythm of conversations (I knew that with me he “could talk). Looking now the cover of the book found in a grimy sidewalk in Infanta, I think that perhaps this issue came out of his personal library, or maybe one of his family (he had very few) or a neighbor decided to finish it off in exchange for space (or to get rid of moths and fleas).

In fact, the grizzled wizard on the cover looks impressive. I’m staying, then, with this portrait of Roberto Casanueva at home (he was never photographed). His biography remains hanging, like Cucho’s, like my political uncle, like my father, like a stranger on the street, as an alternative blogger who I assume is an informant of power, as all of Cuba in the end, once he asked me I will help him write (Roberto Casanueva in his thousand and one books designed never realized that real writers are unable to write).

Although I feel that it was never easy to cope with family, THE BOOK: ITS DESIGN is dedicated with an early epitaph “To Teresa, my children, the best I can provide you, the result of the work: this book.” And here I can also, if I may, end for the moment in peace.

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