Saturday, June 19, 2010

Farewell to Carlos Monsiváis

Carlos Monsiváis, one of the funniest and most caustic writers in the world, passed away today. I met Monsi back in the days. It must have been in '67 as far as I can remember. He was giving a lecture in Havana's Casa de las Américas, and I had never actually read any of his things. The lecture was about what was "in" and "out" in the Mexican arts and literature scene, and it made everyone laugh to tears. It was also very self-centered, and quite self-deprecating as well -something at which we Cubans are not very good at.

But the most surprising thing for me that night was that, as soon as the lecture ended, and I was about to take the bus home, Monsi himself ran out the building after me.

"Are you Manuel Ballagas?" He asked me, still running after me.

Someone had spoken to him about me, and all the political complications and had been going through and he told me he wanted to hear more about it from me. So we agreed to meet next morning in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional.

It was a frank, down to earth talk about all the repression and censorship going on in Cuba at the time, and I could tell it was all a revelation to him. He was incensed by an interview with the writer Jesús Díaz -at the time the political rising star in Cuban letters- in an official Cuban literary magazine, in which Díaz accused the group El Puente, to which I had links, of being "the most dissolute and negative fraction" of the younger Cuban writers.

"'Dissolute' is the word of an inquisitor, not of a writer," he said to me.

We met again, a year later, during a Cultural Congress he attended in Havana. He brought me some books -collected works of De Sade and a novel by Ring Lardner, Jr, I think they were. And we spoke at length, for about two or three hours, he and I and several other young poets and narrators, this time at a table in Coppelia ice cream parlor.

I wouldn't meet Monsi for years. In fact, for many years. I was already living in the United States and residing in New York, where he went to give a lecture in the Cervantes Institute. It must have been in 2000. He was as funny as ever, but older, as I was.

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