Interview with Prolific Cuban Author

Osmel Almaguer

Alberto Garrandes

HAVANA TIMES, April 19 — Alberto Garrandes (Havana, 1960) is a renowned writer, essayist and editor who has published close to a score of books in Cuba and abroad.

Among his more important awards have been the National Essay Prize from the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), in 1990 and 1998; the National Critic’s Award, in 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2003; and the Short Story Award from the La Gaceta de Cuba, in 1996.

You are known as a lucid and astute critic as well as a prolific narrator and essayist. Likewise, your anthologies of stories are tremendously popular.  What new publications can we expect to see added to your already extensive body of literary work?

Among my most recent work is the novel Días invisibles (Invisible Days), published by Editorial Oriente in 2009, as well as an anthology titled Cuentos maravillosos y escalofriantes (Marvelous and Horrifying Tales), which Editorial Gente Nueva published that same year.  Both titles were presented in the recently concluded Cuba Book Fair, though the launching of the novel took place a little earlier.

What is Días invisibles about?

This is a Cuban novel, a Havana novel.  If you keep in mind that Havana is a baroque city, for being so stratified, you’ll understand its abundance of very diverse types of characters.  There are many types of voices, and the city is full of them.  Thus, life doesn’t take place here like in some European cities, where people go down the street looking in a kind of lateral way.  Here it’s just the opposite; looks bounce off each other, and very interesting visual encounters take place.  Sensuality is in the air.

From here emerges a part of my fiction.  If you plan to frame an imaginary plot in a city like this and use it narratively as background, you have to make it participate in what’s happening at a certain level of structure. In this novel, the city has the particularity of being the background and the participant and of narrating an uncommon story.

Since everything here is so very stratified, there are some characters that are not dealt with. But in fortuitous and extraordinary situations, two people belonging to separate worlds can suddenly enter in contact and coincide due to some exceptional circumstance, which in this case has to do with the world of pornography and the sex trade.

A painter, who exists at a level of reality while thinking of his art, and a hustling peanut vendor who inhabits another level, are suddenly wrapped up in a plot between the real and the surreal. A tragic, sensual, restrictive exchange takes place full of tremendous secrets…

Why can the Havana of Días invisibles be defined as chimerical?

For its baroque tendency… When you work and play with many characters, and you have many voices that come and go, suddenly reality begins to become distorted, but that distortion is like a digital distortion; the image doesn’t end up disappearing completely, it returns again to the synchrony between the voice, sound, color and smell.  It might seem chimerical, but it’s not.  The chimeras are baroque; they are constructions that are difficult to accept…

Can we take this novel as a reflection on “Cubanness”?

I’d say it’s not only reflective of Cubanness —since it’s immersed in daily life, with some places that are more “Havana” than others, and with points that are more representative of Cubans— but at the same time it does this in another more submerged Havana. This is because calle Obispo, for example, is a very Cuban street, yet simultaneously cosmopolitan.  If you stray onto calle Teniente Rey, where the sun is to your back, like with someone walking away from the Capitolio building toward the sea, you’ll see tenements and you’ll be in contact with that other Havana, so baroque, multiplied and stratified like the other one but very different.  It’s more submerged and probably more authentic.  Cubans hardly ever talk about this Havana, but people also live here, things happen, there are passions and characters that emerge.

And Cuentos maravillosos y escalofriantes

In that anthology I assembled a group of stories with literary weight similar to those in Mundos extraños (Strange Worlds), published by Editorial Arte y Literatura and presented at the Havana Book Fair in 2009. Though it is a smaller collection, it’s equally significant because they’re classics within the literary genre of terror or fear.

Here I’ve included authors like Edgar Alan Poe, who opens the anthology with a tale that hasn’t been published in Cuba for a long time, “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  And I concluded it with a very strange story by H.G. Wells (the author of The War of the Worlds), titled Los depredadores del mar (Predators of the Sea), which appears like an article written in the 19th century for National Geographic.  However, it has the peculiarity of gradually delving into a world that is natural and at the same time terrifying.  Also included are classics such as John Polidori´s  “The Vampyre Byron”; Mary Elizabeth Bradon with “The Cold Embrace”, and Frederick Marryat with “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains.”

Why this theme for an anthology?

This type of literature is highly demanded, and in Cuba it’s rare for writers to have the opportunity to access this phase of work that is more socially indebted, to put it in a way I don’t like… When a writer ceases their daily work and dedicates themself to producing anthologies, they’re already thinking concretely of one segment of the public, and I think a great deal about the Cuban public, especially the youth.  I always ask myself, why aren’t youth more in touch with the classics of international literature?  That’s why anthologies like this should be created. Since they’re popular and at the same time written by classic authors, you’re pleasing the reader doubly.

And what criteria do you use to select the authors?

I seek to gather a select group within a certain thematic framework and offer a range of literary possibilities in various places and times.  This particular anthology is euro-centric, at least in the sense I’m referring to.

Do you believe there is a lack of the spirit of the fantastic in literature written by Cubans?

Of course.  It’s very difficult to write terror literature.  You have to consider that this is very sensitive and complex. This literature was born with Romanticism, or with that in its origins, although there was always terror literature, and its cultural inheritance was very strong among writers who were educated during the age of Romanticism and later during that of Symbolism…

On the other hand, I’d have to say that one of the imperatives is found in how to prepare yourself from a series of cultural references that are not only in the literature but also in the visual arts, and that later pass along into the cinema.  That is what must be done if you’re thinking about writing seriously within that genre, because it isn’t worth the trouble to do it in a superficial way with two or three basic references.

Do you think our reality distances us from writing about this theme?

It’s quite probable.  The Cuban writer, who in a country like ours is just another citizen, is constantly in turmoil.  They participate directly in social life, practically in all aspects; I’d say that they’re unable to avoid that.  We live in an atomized city, and that means it’s very baroque, very plural, and that here reality is dizzying, things change very frequently.

I always say that in our more immediate reality, when it seems like something is going to straighten itself out, it does in fact straighten itself out – but then it get tangled up… It’s like those perfumes that smell so nice, they are good intentions in their primary scent (I’ll use that image), but they lack good fixers.

This literature you mentioned goes back to a series of references that have certain contact with the supernatural, with the marvelous, sometimes very strong others more tempered. It’s difficult for Cubans to connect and disconnect with a world that’s not tangible…that’s not on the front page of existence.

You have to submerge yourself in travel to fantastic worlds, places of the imagination, which are hardly those that coexist with you in terms of relating to your “real” life, as some might say.

Someone might tell me that the imagination and its capacities are excellent starter motors, but reality in Cuba is designed for social realism in its wider and richer forms.  What escapes from that mainstream is constituted in aberrations, morphological or physiological abnormalities of writing in a given moment.

In terms of your work in the exercise of opinion, one of the principal controversies in current Cuban literature revolves around the form of criticism that’s being practiced.  Do you think, as many affirm, we lack effective literary criticism in our country?

The matter is more complex, it seems to me.  There’s criticism, yes.  But it’s not systematic.  I would say that there is some criticism with respect to some books.  Generally, systemization doesn’t exist, like in many other areas of Cuban socio-cultural life today.  The hypothetical enthusiasm of the critic is put to the test time and time again.  But there’s that same lack of a fixer!

In fact, it is almost a miracle that a critic can live as such.  Why?  Because critics are poorly paid.  You have to write a lot —and I mean a lot— to make a living as a critic.  And if you add to that the elements of insecurity, instability and the stopgap character of many aspects — payment through checks, for example, is aberrant— only the work of a few critics and a few magazines would remain as examples of tenacity and rigor.

But hey, to say that critics are poorly paid is a minor point.  What happens is that criticism tends not to be worth anything in relation to the daily cost of living.  In our country many people who are readers and go to Sábado del Libro (a weekly book discussion forum), but they have to choose —courageously— between buying cucumbers or tomatoes and buying a book or two (depending on their prices, of course).  I’m changing the issue, but all of this is related to criticism, and especially to the desire to write criticism.  I’d like to write systematically.  I’ve written a great deal, that’s true, and that saves me a little.

What do you think are the causes of the lack of rigor and negative criticism?

There are few critics who take on the job of saying a book is bad and then explain that opinion. Can you imagine how annoying that can be in comparison to critical disdain?  If, as I believe, literary criticism in Cuba tends to be contemptuous and mean-spirited, what are you leaving for those who have the intention of speaking about a bad book and saying why it’s bad?

I have seen and read good and very good books that go by unnoticed under the noses of critics, only to end up on the shelf of apathy.  A few days ago I asked a writer, whose more recent novel I wrote an essay on and about which other criticisms had appeared, and he only responded to mine.  I was astonished, but I recovered immediately.

One cannot be constantly surprised.  It’s not worth the trouble. The ultimate causes of the lack of rigor are socioeconomic.  It seems like a Marxist postulate and it is.  Well, I suppose that I’m a Marxist, and also a Greek orthodox, and a mystic, and neo-Platonist.  I say that jokingly and seriously.  I insist that those are the ultimate causes.  In our country the lack of rigor is a persistent epidemic.

You’ve recognized yourself as critical essayist, and not as a critic.  To exercise opinion in these times implies certain conflicts and ethical positions to which you’ve referred.  Do you avoid them by taking this path?

The panorama of criticism in Cuba is not encouraging, and though I can make honest, academic, functional, useful, and didactical critiques, I’ve given up on all that.  Why?  Because I distrust the utilitarian nature of that kind of criticism outside of academia.  Within academia, all those adjectives make more or less sense and are not dysfunctional.

They are didactic and educational.  But outside academia I’m not sure if this type of criticism doesn’t constitute anything more than a boring waste of time.  So I increasingly move away from it.  I prefer to try other things, to write critical essays, which in terms of unstable territory doesn’t cease to look attractive and audacious as subsidiary explanation.  At the same time, it is appearing as a field of creation that is returning due to its open structure, it’s one of the original forms of cultural thought (what now come to mind are two disparate texts, set far apart in time, but appropriate: Las noches áticas (Attic Nights), by Aulio Gelio, and El sepulcro sin sosiego (The Sepulcher without Serenity), by Cyril Connolly.

When your creative enthusiasm, activated by different horizons of the art, comes to an agreement with the need to describe and interpret textual phenomena of fiction, you inevitably arrive in that territory.  And, of course, I avoid facing those conflicts you’ve mentioned.  Though I fear in fact they don’t interest me.  Ethical positions are at the base of all this, naturally.  But my ethical positions refer to two or three crucial circumstances in my personal life, and they also allude to certain topics in my creative life that give form to my identity, to what I am as a writer.