Up Close and Personal with a Homo Ludens

By Alfredo Fernandez


HAVANA TIMES – There have been very few times that a “you have to meet a friend of mine” has worked out so great in my life, like it did that last Friday of April 1997, when I went to this person’s home with our mutual friend Peteco.  

“Alibeit is a mathematician who writes exceptionally well,” was Peteco’s first description of this friend, which sparked my interest in getting to know him. I was twenty-two years old at the time and was keen on meeting people who were writing and had an intelligent view on life and things on this Earth.

Conversation has been flowing between us from our very first meeting up until the present day, so easily that we continue to be great friends twenty-two years later. I have given myself the pleasure of sitting down with him today and asking him a few questions to learn a little bit more about his peculiar relationship with science and literature, which he has never abandoned. 

I was lucky enough to have this friend check over my first writings and I still have a lot of his rigor when it comes to revising.

HT: When did you discover that you wanted to become a mathematician and how did your science background affect your later decision to write fiction?

I have always had a thing for math, ever since 5th grade. I believe I might have (or had) a natural talent for math, but it was my 5th and 6th grade teachers that were the initiators of this pleasure. And I say “pleasure” not because I’m looking for a pretty word, but because this is what I really feel for math and teaching.

I still remember their names, even after 54 years: Ela de las Cuevas y Medina and Sara Labourdere. The first was from my native town of Palma Soriano and the second, from Santiago de Cuba. Sara used to travel to Palma every day. Later, this pleasure was boosted by my teachers Olga Munoz, in junior high school, and Feliz Recio in my pre-university.

My scientific nature has shaped my writing somewhat. And maybe not always for the better. I want to be concise, for there not to be anything extra or missing, and this can limit my storytelling abilities. I want to carry across this mathematical precision to my writing, and then I find it hard to describe things and people. I limit the setting, where my protagonists play out, far too much. Nevertheless, none of my reader friends have ever criticized me for this.

HT: You told me that your passion for math began when you were very young. When did you discover that reading fiction wasn’t enough, that you felt the need to write?

I began reading “good” literature in high school. My best friend at high school was Oscar Casanella and his mother saw me reading “comics” without comic book names, such as Leyendas and Cine and she lent me El juego de Abalorios, by Hermann Hesse. It goes without saying, but I memorized that author and book over the years. I read the book again as an adult and I don’t know what it was that I saw in this book when I was 14 years old. But I liked it.

I believe that I have always been more of a reader than a fan of literature. I say this because I made a mess of notebooks near the end of university. But I only really began to start writing around 1985, 20 years after reading Hesse. That was when I had the need; yes, the need, to start writing. Reading Borges was the push I needed. I read two of Borges’ tales, La Intrusa and Ulrica and I noted a certain misogyny in them and so I read all of his stories to collect words and phrases that I thought he would repeat in his writing.

Why? Because the story would be narrated in the first person and even though the story wasn’t a Borges-style tale, the reader had to be convinced that Borges was speaking. The story began when both characters appear before Borges and tell him that they are upset with the way the writer treats them in each of their respective stories. He replies that there is nothing he can do for them, as they have just been published. From that moment on, I made writing an inseparable companion with my Math classes.

HT: In your unpublished novel Pamela, Havana is the main character, everything that happens to the protagonist is the city’s fault. Pamela wilts at the same pace as the city, let’s say that it ends up being inevitable for her. Are you one of the writers that believes that it is up to literature to tell the stories that escape history books?

A famous writer once said that “literature is a people’s private history”. And that’s what I believe. No historian would count the hours that it takes a housewife in Havana to wait in line for “cheap meat” to finally make it to the bodega store. Nor would they ever write about the times their older neighbors have fallen down walking along Havana’s sidewalks, because they have never been paved in 60 years. Much less what happens on the Malecon at 3 AM, when people wait for the night to cool down because it is summer and the city is without electricity.

HT: Your friends have always said the same thing about your inexplicable reservations to publish your work. Some have even gone so far as saying that you suffer from some kind of disease. Why do you think this is happening to you at a time when so much poor literature is being published?

I don’t know. If I did have a disease it would be this (and I’m making it up): I’m very proud and if I sent off my writing to a competition and I didn’t win, I’d kill myself. I prefer to keep on living so I can continue to write for my closest friends.

If you say that poor literature is being published and you think mine is good, then I’d send it off to a publishing house and it wouldn’t be accepted. And… I’d kill myself again.

HT: Could you give us a hit parade of your favorite mathematicians and writers? Could you please explain why if necessary.

Writers: Borges, Carpentier, Thomas Mann, Javier Marias, Octavio Paz, Dulce Maria Loynaz, Irvin D. Yalom, Cesar Aira: They are all concerned with the structure and language of their stories. They all prioritize the narrative voice in some way or another.

Mathematicians:  Joseph Kruskal, and David G. Luenberger: They are applied mathematicians who are not only concerned about algorithms, but also defend their methods really well.