The Book Fair and Cubans

Erasmo Calzadilla
Erasmo Calzadilla

Over the years, the Havana Book Fair has become one of the most eagerly awaited events by the inhabitants of this city. I don’t think there is any other cultural event where more people participate.

So many people attend each day that finding the book you’re looking for can become something of a quest if it is one of the more popular ones.

The event can be seen as a mirror of today’s Cuban society, although the reflection isn’t exact.

An example of the non-exactness is that, although Cuba has an aging population, in recent years the book fair is always full of teenagers and children. Although reading would seem more a pastime for adults, these young people have made the fair theirs, giving it a dynamic typical of their age.

This isn’t bad if it can be taken advantage of to encourage intelligent reading and not just to sell more.

If the average age at the fair isn’t an accurate reflection of Cuban society, a better mirror image is the interplay of two currencies. I imagine that many of you are left with your mouths open when you hear about this subject, and I don’t blame you for not understanding. It isn’t a matter that responds easily to logic.

Reading over Havana Bay, photo by Caridad
Reading over Havana Bay, photo by Caridad

The situation is that in our country there are two currencies circulating: one called Moneda Nacional (MN), the money in which most people’s salaries are paid; and the other called the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) often needed to purchase goods. When I change from the first to the second I lose money.

The book fair is divided into a zone for books sold in CUC and another for those you can buy with MN. In the CUC pavilions the books even smell good, and make you want to lick them and roll around with them before reading them.

Well divided from these with railings and guards is the area in Moneda Nacional: the currency with which workers are paid. There the books, almost all published in Cuba, are rougher editions with yellow pages, although their content is not necessarily any lower in quality.

This separation into well divided areas is similar to the distinction that is being reborn in today’s Cuban society between those privileged sectors that receive pay in CUC or receive remittances and those that live off a salary in Moneda Nacional.

I believe that the government truly wants to lessen the differences that sprung up mainly as a consequence of Cuba’s insertion into a complex world. In the case of the books in MN, I know that behind the yellow and ecological pages is an effort to keep literature affordable for those that only receive our depressed Moneda Nacional.

Another common element of our current society that is very well represented at the fair is the “massiveness.” In terms of literature, this translates into many books and little thought. We are a comparatively well-educated people, and it’s noticeable. However, without criticizing anyone or any policy, I only observe that the euphoria of buying books that flourishes during the book fair isn’t accompanied by a similar wish to think better.

In my view, the typical Cuban way of looking at the world usually proscribes the act of doubting, which is a step towards all reflection. It may be because doubt is poorly received in the educational system, where the belief is that all truths were spoken a long time ago.

Following the “indications” of this majority sentiment, people line up at the bus stops to go to the fair and then to buy books, as if it was a sale on potatoes at an agro-market and not the possibility of becoming a better person. And I don’t believe it’s just a matter of time.

For my part, when January comes around each year I begin to think about the book fair in February and start saving my pesos hoping that the book I’m looking for doesn’t cost 10 CUC, which is a little less than half my monthly salary; although the truth is, since my friends gave me a computer I rarely buy books.

3 thoughts on “<em>The Book Fair and Cubans</em>

  • As you point out here, there is the typical problem with your society — being under what amounts to a 50-year siege — that its educational and social system are under far too much top-down control. The irony is, of course — not often overlooked by the imperialist enemy and their propagandists — that this situation is the very antithesis of dialectical-materialist praxis, let alone the functioning of a healthy and developing socialist democracy.

    You’re certainly on the right track, compa. The thing is to tough it out in the face of the arbitrary use and abuse of essentially unaccountable power. As is hinted at above, at the very least the famous Havana Book Fair should be a scene of wide-ranging debate with people who come from all over the world to share their work and their ideas. And their solidarity and friendship. Are there discussions on TV during the Feria, for instance..? Wide-ranging ones?

    As for ebooks vs. old books: we can all appreciate the fine lines and craftsmanship of a well-made horse-carriage, not to mention the aroma of its leather and polish; but we no longer build our society around this fine old technology, do we now?

  • Thank you very much for sending me this article, because it helps me to understand some of the problems that are faced in Cuba.

    Robert Cowdery

  • “So many books…so little time!” Besides the displaying and hawking of new and recently-published books, what else goes on at the Havana Book Fair? Authors answering questions from the peanut gallery? Round-tables of critics giving their assessments of what is worth reading–and what isn’t? It would seem that among the most important functions of any book fair would be to alert the widest audience of readers to works which are worthy of their time and attention.
    I agree that it is the content of the book, rather than the quality of the paper it is printed on, that really matters. Still, books are part of our patrimony, and the best ones we hope to hand down to our children and their children. If the paper is too acidic, we will only be giving them dust.
    As computers evolve, though, it is becoming as easy to read a (“virtual”) book on a notebook computer (in bed, lying on the grass, propped up against a wall or tree, etc.) as it is to read an “actual” book in hand. Still, this “Luddite” prefers the latter! Perhaps we are in a transitory phase between the two types of book, and when all books are downloaded onto our computer that will essentially end the dichotomy between “CUC” and “CUP” books . Still, if all books eventually become “virtual,” aren’t we in danger of loosing everything when (not if) there is some sort of catastrophic system-wide crash? Then again, this can happen–and has–even when the books are “hard copy.” All that remains of classical Roman novels are some few chapters of the Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter, critical chapters are lost from The Annals by Tacitus, and criticisms from classical times tell of (subsequently lost) dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides!
    We can only hope that this damnable dichotomy between the CUC and CUP economy ends soon, but in the process of ending it, that the Revolution is able to retain as much of its original egalitarian goals as possible.

Comments are closed.