By Xavier Carbonell (14ymedio)
HAVANA TIMES – Rarely can an exile choose the city in which his/her days will end. Fortune intervenes, rolls the dice, and the cards are shuffled. Wherever we fall, we live, and we try to make sense of the trip. The city that welcomes the exile can be dizzying or peaceful, but one approaches it as one who caresses a cat. It can receive us but also bite us.
Reinaldo Arenas said that, upon leaving Cuba, he felt the same relief as those who escape from a fire. One is happy to have been saved, but then he understands that his house, his people, his island were definitively burned down. And not only because of the impossibility of returning, but also because the exile already abolished a territory from the map and turned it into a memory.
That distance that establishes the memory between you and your country characterizes the emigrant. And if, years later, we return, it is only to prove that the border is firmer than ever.
Like the fragment of [José María] Heredia that we read as children with boredom and reluctance: “What does it matter if the tyrant thunders? Poor, yes, but I find myself free: Only the soul of the soul is the center.” There are few more resentful verses in our literature. Heredia contemplates from afar, from the boat, the homeland denied to him, and his revenge is to affirm that not even the earth matters, but the soul, the personal memory.
“Without a homeland but without a master,” José Martí repeats this decades later. That is why the furthest city is not the one that receives the exile, but the one that he leaves behind.
For me, that city was Santa Clara, compact, provincial, quiet. I spent my early youth between the Central University — isolated like a monastery — and the library of the former Passionist convent that is now the bishopric. I lit my first cigars in its cafes and became fond of smoking on the terraces of Vidal Park, wasting the Creole afternoon.
I was not bohemian nor did I participate in the literary life of the city, populated by vultures and poets. Disguised as an editor, librarian and vagabond student, I wrote novels in silence and let myself be carried away by the pirates, conquerors, ships and creatures of the bestiary.
Although my town was the space of myth and dreaming, in Santa Clara the memory of the Island opened up for me. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to write. In the library — the strangest space in the city — I held the only preserved cylinder of the organ from the Parroquial Mayor church, demolished by Machado in 1923. In that same place I browsed books and autographs of patriots, writers, presidents and illustrious people.
I used to sit in the park, looking at the old Gran Hotel Santa Clara Hilton, to guess in which of its rooms Cabrera Infante had spent his first honeymoon and in which other room the insomniac Lezama had stayed; if he had endured being far from Havana, would have been a professor at the Central University. All those characters met in memory with José Surí, the poet apothecary, the benefactor Marta Abreu and the old mambises troops [insurrectionists], who claimed a drink at the mysterious Café del Muerto.
During my last months in Santa Clara, however, everything shut down, like the country. Restaurants closed, the library stopped receiving visitors, smoking was banned, buildings collapsed. Diseases and violence came after the protests. Like many young people, the island crushed us until we had to leave.
Like Heredia on the ship that dragged him into exile, I last saw the contour of the city last winter. We picked up a few books, my great-grandfather’s pipe, two boxes of cigars, some family relics, and we landed in Madrid, a city that I never managed to fully appreciate.
Then I boarded a train that traveled along the Castilian plain to Salamanca. I arrived sad, and the cold prevented me from smoking. However, a walk through the city was enough for me to understand that, from all over Spain, this was a favorite place for exiles, pilgrims and wanderers, like Miguel de Unamuno. I now live next to the Roman Bridge that crossed the Lazarillo, over the Tormes, in front of the cathedral, the university and the orchard of Callisto, Melibea and the bizarre Celestina.*
Salamanca secretly and endearingly rhymes with Santa Clara, as Cuba does with Spain. It is also small and quiet, ideal for writing and retreat, and when I travel outside it, through the Peninsula, I long to return home. Here, between books and thinking about the Island, at last “the soul of the soul is the center.”
Exile, despite the distance, is also adventure and learning. I don’t know when we will be able to return to the furthest city, but — like the ancient Trojans after the invasion — I carry with me the relics of the Island, memory, cigars and old words: any place is my country.
*Translator’s note: Comedia de Calisto y Melibia, written by Fernando de Rojas and published in 1499, was a medieval novel in the form of a series of dialogues, usually performed as a play and considered the first work of the Spanish Renaissance.
Translated by Regina Anavy for Translating Cuba