By Sheyla Hirshon
HAVANA TIMES – “Lezama was elitist in a mass revolution, Catholic in a Marxist country, and homosexual in a homophobic regime. He was also a writer who deeply believed in freedom as a necessity to art, poetry and truth.” That’s how filmmaker Adriana Bosch describes renowned Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima (1910 – 1976), the protagonist of her new documentary Letters to Eloisa that premieres on PBS on October 15th.
In 60 minutes, the film takes us through the life of this towering literary figure, caught in the turbulent events of six decades in Cuba. Lezama was celebrated in Cuba, then ostracized, then revered again after his death. He was never allowed to experience first-hand the international prestige he earned, yet today he’s one of Cuba’s most famous literary figures. The house he lived in for 47 years, and was essentially imprisoned in for five of them, is today a Havana museum.
In Letters to Eloisa, we hear Lezama’s voice mostly through the letters he wrote to a younger sister, who left the island in 1961. There are also brief passages from his poetry and his acclaimed novel Paradiso. The tone of these segments is warm and intimate, contrasting with harsh news clips of the events that engulfed Lezama’s beloved country and eventually his life.
Jose Lezama grew up in an impoverished formerly upper-class family, with a widowed mother and three siblings. Asthma dogged him all his life. Although he attended law school, his true passion was literature and the life of the mind. “Lezama was interested in exquisite, very refined literature, that in a very profound way was the antithesis of the culture the revolution wanted to create,” states Peruvian author Mario Vargas-Llosa, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature.
“My generation searched incessantly for the roots of Cuban identity in its celestial and telluric manifestations,” Lezama is quoted as saying. He founded the literary and arts review Origenes in the forties, and by the time the revolution came to power in 1959, he had made a name for himself as a poet, thinker and essayist.
Lezama was initially enthusiastic about the Cuban revolution which he saw as “the triumph of Cuba’s finest aspirations.” Although generally averse to politics, he collaborated with the government, and was named Director of Literature and Publications. His presence served to enhance Cuba’s reputation as a new kind of socialism, where culture and diversity could flourish.
However, as the Revolution hardened its stance, things began to change. The leaders’ vision of Socialist life centered on forming, heterosexual, physically fit, disciplined youth, ready to serve and defend the Revolution at all costs. Art and literature were expected to reflect and advance this model. Homosexuality was considered a deviation, and those practicing it in need of forced rehabilitation.
Lezama came into direct conflict with all these values when his novel Paradiso – hailed as an extraordinary and complex literary achievement – rocked Cuban society with explicit homoerotic descriptions. The book was taken off the shelves in Cuba and further publication was halted. Shielded by his growing international prestige, Lezama himself continued to be influential in decisions involving literary prizes and publications. Despite tensions, he celebrated his 60th birthday triumphantly in 1970, surrounded by friends and with a number of his poetry and essay collections slated for publication.
Within a few short months, his world collapsed. He was betrayed by a friend, who publicly accused him of “being ungrateful to the revolution and making private jokes against it.”
It was the culmination of a series of other small clashes, but the allegation was his final undoing. Lezama was officially ostracized – his books banned, his home and communications under incessant watch, essentially a prisoner in his own home. Friends deserted him. He was denied an exit visa to enjoy the international prestige his work had earned.
Silenced and deprived of the human contact he craved, his pain and desolation filled the pages of his letters. When Lezama died in 1976. Granma marked his death only with the short phrase: “a regrettable loss to Cuban letters.”
“Letters to Eloisa” focuses on Lezama’s clash with the Revolution. It can be viewed as a simple indictment of government control over art, and a case for artistic autonomy. Yet at other moments, it tantalizes us with hints of many other stories that remained untold.
First, are the images of Lezama himself. In photo after photo, he sits slumped in a chair, his clothing mussed, his expression somewhere between serious and morose, often smoking a huge cigar. Even when smiling, he rarely looks happy. Depressed? Frustrated? Merely trying to appear serious? No answers are offered.
Then there’s the obvious fact that he was 47 when the main events of the documentary took place. We are given only the quickest of glimpses into his adult life prior to the revolution. Although he’s referred to repeatedly as a homosexual, it’s unclear whether he ever actually had clandestine love affairs, or remained forever in the closet. The role of his Catholicism, equally condemning of homosexuality, is unexplored.
Equally unexplored are the lives of the three women so central to his life: his mother, his sister Eloisa, and the loyal secretary he eventually marries. What of their lives? The sister he writes letters to is a ghost: we never find out why she left, or where she went, or what she thought, although she has the briefest of cameos at the end. At the age of 53, Lezama marries his devoted secretary who remains with him for the rest of his life, but we have no insight whatsoever into her motives and history.
Meanwhile, the implied question hangs in the air. What should be the role of a writer interested in the classical purity of language within a social revolution?
These aren’t really criticisms of the film. Rather it’s to the documentary’s credit that it so piques our interest in a literary figure largely unknown in the English-speaking world. “We hope this film will lead to a rediscovery of his work and remind us of the importance of creative and personal freedom and the plight of present-day artists who are working under oppressive regimes.” says Sandie Viquez Pedlow, Executive Producer of VOCES. “Letters to Eloisa” accomplishes this very well.
Meanwhile, Cuba is once again being shaken by crises of artistic censorship, this time involving the San Isidro group. It’s truly hard to imagine neo-baroque Jose Lezama, with his pursuit of stylistic perfection, in the same room with formerly jailed hip-hop artist Denis Solis or imprisoned performance artist Luis Manuel Otero. Yet they’re joined by a shared belief in “freedom as a necessity to art, poetry and truth.”
The film by Adriana Bosch, “Letters to Eloisa” features Alfred Molina as the voice of Lezama and music by Arturo Sandoval. It premieres as part of Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES on Friday, October 15, 2021, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, pbs.org and the PBS Video app. Below we post the trailer.