Friday, January 7, 2011

What I just finished writing


Pájaro de cuenta, a painting
by the artist Juanita Baró.
 Imagine real characters slipped into an imaginary, outrageous plot. Or just the opposite -fictitious characters with real-life names introduced into an outrageously unrealistic plot. That's exactly what I have attempted to do in the novel I just finished writing. The title: Pájaro de Cuenta.

The title itself was inspired in one of Fidel Castro's many speeches, one given back in 1971, when he described writers whose works and attitudes he disliked as "pájaros de cuenta" or "scoundrels". The subtly homophobic nuance is lost, of course, in translation, since what Cuba's Great Helmsman actually said was "pájaros... de cuenta". A brief pause between "pájaros" and "de cuenta" accomplished just that, "pájaro" being a popular derogatory term in Cuba to describe homosexuals.

Pájaro de Cuenta's main character is none other than Virgilio Piñera, the father of modern Cuban theater (or a version of him), and a notoriously gay writer and poet who died in 1979 after years of political and personal isolation, under what is now called by some critics Cuba's "Gray Quinquennial". Even if he was persecuted by the Castro regime both for political and moral reasons, Piñera was known to have said that "in the end, it would be realized how appropriate my decision to remain in Cuba was." But is this the real Piñera? I would say, no.

The novel follows the fictitious next-to-last days of Piñera and it includes other Cuban writers who were his close friends, such as the playwright Antón Arrufat and the critic José Rodríguez Feo, also Piñera's benefactor for many years. Other Pájaro de Cuenta characters include myself as well as my father's -the poet Emilio Ballagas'- ghost.

But are Piñera, Arrufat, Rodríguez Feo, myself and the other characters in the novel real-life Cuban writers? In truth, they are not, since the whole point of this work is to convey how the cowardice and the indifference of most Cuban intellectuals of the time -including Piñera himself- contributed to the sinister events of the "Gray Quinquennial". So facts are overriden by the goal of fiction.

I am sure the transgression of historic truth I engage in with this novel will prove to be controversial. Piñera has become a martyr on this side of the Florida Straits, while in Havana, the Communist cultural apparatus is increasingly trying to sanitize his memory, in order to dispel the aura of political disgrace in which the father of modern Cuban theater died. Pájaro de Cuenta distorts historical truth, so a higher truth can be revealed.

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