By Maykel Paneque
HAVANA TIMES — I still can’t believe it: Novelist Pedro Juan Gutierrez reading excerpts from La linea oscura (“The Dark Line”), a poetry anthology recently published by Ediciones Verbum. I wasn’t surprised by the possibility – increasingly slimmer, to be sure – of meeting him face to face. What I find hard to believe is that a mere eleven people (including one or two undercover security agents, no doubt) gathered at the Ruben Martinez Villena hall, at the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC), with a capacity for eighty or more people, for the occasion.
Before reading from his book, Gutierrez told his audience they should not be surprised to learn that “censorship is a worldwide phenomenon. Traditional publishing houses don’t like my poetry, which is why I admire those that have taken the risk of editing my works.” Sometimes, we think that famous writers have it easy, but, as Chilean poet, mathematician and physicist Nicanor Parra used to say, no sooner have you stuck a page into the typewriter than you’ve made yourself an enemy. What we never know is when that enemy is to bear their face, if they do at all.
Gutierrez looked a bit unnerved as he read. Did he think he was punishing us by forcing us to listen to him? I wanted to say to him: make this twenty-minute presentation an hour long and go into detail about the rumors of your current, monastic lifestyle, tell us whether it’s true or whether you’re still hitting the tobacco, alcohol and women as hard now that you’re 66. I wanted to say more than that, in fact, but I keep quiet.
We had to let him read, which is what he came to do, leaving his apartment in Centro Habana, where he has created a devastating type of literature. Though he seems to enjoy recalling the itinerary behind his poems, to mention the dates these were written on, there was frustration in his eyes. As though the shortage of publishing houses willing to publish his poems weren’t enough, now he has to deal with a dwindling audience, yet another thing to discourage the least published of writers.
Calmly, with relief, he finished reading. The moderator encouraged those present to ask questions and a troubled silence got hold of the place. Asking questions, saying what one thinks, has become an uncomfortable ritual, as though raising one’s hand to ask for the floor means making more than one enemy and looking for trouble – as though the most naïve question could land us in front of a firing squad. We’ve been the choir for so long that we’ve become mute.
I wanted to think that those of us there had no need to ask questions because we’d all read his Dialogos con mi sombra (“Conversations With My Shadow”), published in Cuba some months ago, where Gutierrez reflects about his life, novels and the creative act in general. It is an exploration of memory that leads him to affirm that a writer must take on the risk of saying what they think, overcome fear and dare write about the dark side of people and society.
Pushing back the frontiers of silence some, he calls it, writing about the economic crisis, hunger, poverty, despair, frustration and disillusionment, that which has marked his life in Cuba, as though it were a war. Cuban newspapers and magazines will not be useful to future historians interested in studying these past decades. They would ask themselves what we complained about, given the fact we lived in paradise.
As no one had any questions, the session ended. People got up. Two or three approached Gutierrez and stood around him. They must have whispered a joke in his ear, because I saw him smiling.
I asked the moderator why so few people showed up. It must be the heat, the apathy, public transportation, he said to me. “People aren’t interested in buying books or going to poetry readings, particularly when they’re worried about what to put on the table. There’s also a lack of publicity. Did any newspaper announce that Gutierrez would be there that day? How did you find out”? “A friend who works at UNEAC told me,” I replied, realizing that the official webpage hadn’t announced the reading and that neither Granma nor Juventud Rebelde had either.
I want to think the heat, the apathy, public transportation and worries over basic things like food is what kept people from going to listen to Gutierrez, and not State silence about this, which is another way of imposing censorship and ostracism on us.
I don’t want to think they’re still settling accounts with him for the publication of his “Dirty Havana Triology”, which led to him being fired from his position at Bohemia magazine, where he’d worked for 26 years, without an explanation or the right to appeal, as though he were a pariah.
I won’t be surprised if, in the future, Leonardo Padura had to read for an audience of five persons, and I’m afraid he wouldn’t be surprised either. At any rate, we must continue to break the silence because, as Pedro Juan Gutierrez says, when you simply regret something, you open the door to failure and defeat.