Treacherous Memories of Allen Ginsberg’s Days in Havana
In that country, all or most people idolized the Comandante. They flocked to his public appearances and applauded him fervently. They sang his slogans like parrots and hung his pictures all over the place. But secretly, when no one was looking, I despised him with all my heart and there wasn’t a day I didn’t make plans to kill him.
I’d often dream I slipped into his house and sprayed him with bullets, or that passing myself as his butler, I would put a teaspoon of a potent poison in his morning café con leche. Once, when I found out he was going to visit my high school, I even armed myself with the sharpest blade, with the intention to plant it smack in the middle of his chest as soon as he got close enough to me. I hated him so much... But he and his entourage only passed fleetingly through, and too far away from me to serve my purpose –too bad.
Meanwhile, I did all I could to escape that hellish island. I put in applications, joined a host of endless waiting lists. I dreamed. One night, I even set to sea with a small group on a frail raft, but we soon saw ourselves sinking in the dark waters of the Caribbean. I was the sole survivor. My faith and cunning were my salvation then, as I clung to wooden boards with my bare hands, but for the moment I had to resign myself to living in that cesspool.
Thus, I put all my assassination plans on hold and hid all my loathing of Communism under a mask of smiling and youthful acquiescence. I immersed myself in learning as the most studious child. I participated in “voluntary” work, practiced silence. By night, hidden away, I listened to the Beatles on foreign radio. I realized, however, that even as I waited for the best moment to deal my final blow, I could at least cause a certain measure of harm to my favorite enemy.
Quietly, I engaged in small daily acts of sabotage, like busting doors in my school or other public facilities, lighting matches and throwing them in trash cans to provoke fires that would look like accidents, or dropping mud and stones in the gas tanks of official vehicles or of those horrible buses that were being imported at the time from “friendly countries”.
This was lots of fun for me. I saw myself in one of those movies about World War II and the anti-Nazi resistance. Given that these were the random acts of a troublesome child, the repressive organs were never able to detect me. Most likely, they blamed some innocent guy out there and sentenced him to death. But even with these frequent acts of relief, I was unable to placate the rancor I harbored in my soul toward that inhuman political system and its repulsive leader.
It was precisely at that time that I made the acquaintance of the people from El Puente. Poor fellows, they could not imagine what was in store for them. I was, as you would say in English, bad news.
One of those afternoons, back in ’64, I believe that while reading the newspaper Revolución, a small headline caught my attention right away: “Flaming hearts at the One-Eyed Cat”. It was a part of an entertainment column that a character named Orlando Quiroga wrote at the time. Those days, Quiroga was friends with all the sexy showgirls and was also an apparent czar of Havana night life. I don’t know what became of him. By now, I suppose he-s simply dead and buried. But he was extremely popular then.
The tiny piece announced for next evening a poetry reading laced with filin music under the sponsorship of Ediciones El Puente in that night club, and it quoted the poet José Mario several times. José was apparently the leader of the small literary group called El Puente and the head of its publishing house, of which I had already read some books. The singers César Portillo, Ela O’Farrill, José Antonio Méndez, Elena Burke and others would perform at the One-Eyed Cat.
I didn’t actually know José Mario personally –that is, José Mario Rodríguez Pérez, as was his full name- but I had read his book of poetry Torcida raíz de tanto daño, as well as the books of fiction of Guillermo Cuevas Carrión and Ana María Simo; also the books of poems by Gerardo Fulleda León and Ana Justina. I had spoken with José Mario only once over the phone, just after Casa de las Américas literary magazine published the first short story I have ever written. We agreed to meet sometime, but never actually got to do that.
The truth is I was not very enthusiastic about what El Puente published. I saw it as too obscure and subjective, as well as distanced from the horrible realities we were already living in, something I expected to find reflected in literature.
I found Cuevas Carrión’s work, a book of short stories titled Ni un sí ni un no, being of true value; also, a book by a not so young poet named Georgina Herrera, whose verse held a mystery both simple and extraordinary. The rest, I thought, was totally dispensable. That said, the mere existence of such a group intrigued me and attracted me at the same time, compared to the generalized mediocrity that prevailed in the cultural environment bred by the Castro regime. At least, they seemed to be nice human beings.
So I showed up for the “flaming hearts” occasion feeling both curious and apprehensive. First, I anticipated I would be dealing with the usual kind of elitist mentality, but the only obstacle I actually found in my way was a small crowd that blocked the entrance to the iconic night club founded by the poet Nicolás Guillén and photo artist Felito Ayón.
There were just too many people at the door, all trying to crash the Puente recital. Donning a suit and tie, I had disguised myself as an adult, since I was little more than 16 years old. I was standing at the One-Eyed Cat’s doors, in the midst of the crowd, realizing now how difficult it was going to be for me to get inside. There was literally no room in the place for a single person more, and an employee was standing at the entrance telling everyone only those with invitations would be allowed in.
It occurred to me to say then, in an accent that sounded vaguely Latin American that I had been personally invited by José Mario and I would not leave the place until I was allowed to see him, because I absolutely had to interview him for a Mexican magazine. The employee hesitated briefly and then turned to a long-haired guy with seemingly Oriental features and a pointy nose who had come to peek out of the club’s doors with a glass of liquor in one hand.
“José,” he told him, “this gentleman–“
José Mario didn’t let him finish.
“How many times will I have to tell you there’s no more room?” he said sharply, as if he were about to turn around and leave.
“He’s a Mexican journalist,” the employee muttered apologetically.
José looked me over with eyes of absolute disdain, from head to toes. He came out the door completely, and pushed back the black lock of hair that kept falling on his forehead.
“Mexican?” he said then, not sounding too convinced.
“Manolo Ballagas,” I replied.
“Ballagas!”, he exclaimed. “Ballagas’ son! A Mexican?”
“Yes,” I answered. He burst out laughing.
“I wanted to invite you, my friend, but I lost your phone number,” José said then. And right away, with a quick gesture, he invited me to go in the club, where not one more person would be allowed that night.
Inside, I ordered Carta Blanca rum with ginger ale, and since there wasn’t a single seat available, I stood by to watch the show. José Mario was sweeping from one side to another of the club’s small stage, as he recited one of his poems, moving and gesticulating as if someone had slipped a firecracker up his ass or he was suffering some sort of seizure:
“You died inside me and the barrenness of this crime has made me both avid and terrible...
We agreed to meet next week at the Writer’s Union headquarters. I got there in the afternoon, one of those days, carrying a folder that held my first book of short stories, which I had titled, who knows why, Con temor (With Fear). The book included the story previously published in the Casa magazine and others I had been accumulating.
Among those adolescent stories there was a very risky one titled El recluta (The Recruit), in which I described a young soldier’s anguished maladjustment to a battalion forced march, sarcastically narrated by his own superior officer. The recent enactment of the draft –one of the many burdens placed on the Cuban youth of the time by the Communist regime– had inspired me to write it.
José Mario was a cultivated person who could at times be good-natured as well. When he was sober and did not act driven by malice, he could be quite keen and accurate in his literary judgment, too. He was equally generous with his time and even his money.
He read my whole book that very afternoon, as we both had some beers in the Writer Union’s cafeteria, and told me afterwards that Con temor was clearly the sort of youthful release of which I would feel sorry about later in life. However, in despite of that, he said, it deserved to be published.
I had never dreamed a publishing house run by that despicable government would divulge the texts I had conceived from the deepest sense of rebellion against it, and for that reason, I have to admit I felt very happy.
However, I soon realized El Puente was a highly contradictory group. I could hardly believe that such an enlightened bunch of young people, so skeptical of everything, could stand behind such a cruel and bloody regime. Their only real point of contention with the Castro dictatorship seemed to be its repressive policies against homosexuals. That was the only issue I heard them criticize openly.
The puenteros apparently had a political commissar who visited them from time to time, both to lecture them and to share her opinions about their writing. She was a grumpy lesbian, whose voice was hoarse and her manners clumsy, by the name of Josefina, Cristina o something like it. She wore the militia uniform at all times, and her poor hygiene habits were very obvious. Wherever she went, the stench of dirty genitalia followed.
Among the huge tomes this commissar had on her at all times were a Soviet Marxism manual, written by someone by the name of Nikitin, as well as pamphlets authored by two ladies called Isabel Monal and Edith García Buchaca, whom she often mentioned as if they were the last word in terms of esthetics and ideology.
That good lady spoke as if she were in possession of the absolute truth. Superstructure, infrastructure, ideological lag, philistinism, antagonistic contradictions, classist concepts –these were formulas she kept using all the time. The Puente crowd listened to her inexplicably entranced. I felt like throwing up.
Undoubtedly, most members of El Puente were talented authors. Ana Justina was one of them. I liked her very much for the intimate nature of her well-crafted poetry, and because she lacked the penchant for poison and gossip the other puenteros seemed to have.
Gerardo Fulleda was the most conventional of them. Tall and black, you saw him most of the time wearing a suit, trying to be some sort of a tropical version of T. S. Eliot, his texts packed with subtleties as well as glimpses of his life experiences. He also wrote plays he never shared with anyone.
I understood very little of Ana María Simo. We spoke a number of times, but only of light topics. I liked her book of short stories Las fábulas, but I always asked myself what kind of literature she aspired to write, whether simple divertimentos in the style of Julio Cortázar or something much deeper or original. By the way, she performed guard duty in complete militia uniform, at the UNEAC, until the day she departed for France, years later.
And speaking of France, I never got to meet Guillermo Cuevas, because by the time I got together with José Mario that afternoon in 1964, at the UNEAC, he was already living in Paris, thanks to a Uruguayan lady who for a time was Castro’s lover and put in a good word on his behalf.
I was told that one evening, the Comandante was getting ready to screw the Uruguayan woman, naked and with his boots still on, when from behind some nearby curtains Cuevas came out, swinging his hips and sporting peacock feathers on his head, and then asked him bluntly:
“Fidel, do you think someone like me can go on living in Cuba?”
The dictator looked him over with clear disgust and contempt, and next day he ordered Guillermo be given green light to leave the country. He was, I believe, the most fortunate of El Puente, even if he didn’t know it.
Someone I also remember from the group was José Mario’s lover, a punk by the name of Heberto Norman. I don’t know where he came from. I hesitate to call him a writer. One day he told me he lived close to Ayestarán Street in Havana, and that his dad beat him. It seems that, being in the company of so many poets and not to look out of place, he felt in the need to write his own verse. So one day he came up with a poem that began like this:
“I’m not sure if you’re the night or a huge ass that annihilates us...”
The reaction to it was such that he never thought of sharing his lyrical works again. José Mario, particularly, used to repeat those verses any time he wanted to see him infuriated, and he easily succeeded. Someone told me recently that Norman now works for the Communist Party Central Committee’s History Department, for which he has penned at least a couple of little books. What a happy ending.
However, the most ridiculous member of El Puente was one whose name for some reason I don’t recall now. It may just be that I’m getting old or perhaps the information isn’t really that important. Pale, tall and skinny like a long-legged bird he was always carrying a small handbag and quoting St. John Perse as he propelled himself forward with the hand that carried bag.
The Crane’s walk seemed a comical ballet exercise that José Mario often imitated, jumping and taking long strides on the sidewalks, much to our amusement. “Look, look at The Crane!” he shouted, leaping and leaping.
One night, José Mario asked me to join him in an important meeting. Since I would have rather gone to see a movie, I asked him what it was about. Rocco e i suoi fratelli had just opened, I think. But he insisted I should go. “You’ll see,” he said.
The small gathering took place in an area of marble sittings, almost at the feet of a statue of Tomás Estrada Palma, Cuba’s first president that still stood at the northern end of G Street, with the Presidente Hotel on one side and the building that houses the Ministry of Foreign Relations on the other. Little by little, they all started arriving.
Ana María was there; Gerardo as well. Ana Justina arrived and sat apart, reading quietly. A little later, The Crane got there, with his small handbag in tow. He sat somewhere, and every once in a while he took a look at his watch, obviously restless.
I think it was Lilliam who showed up after a while. She wrote brief, polished poems, and looked very beautiful, with a shining countenance that would remind you, from afar, of a young Rimbaud. I also happened to meet Lina de Feria there, another poet who at the time looked very sweet and shy, having recently arrived from Santiago de Cuba with the book Las quejas tucked in one armpit; Nancy Morejón came too. She was the most Francophile of the group and apparently a good friend of Lina’s. I don’t recall who else was there.
Tension hung over us, but I couldn’t fathom why. It seemed like all were bristling. I soon learned we were waiting for the commissar’s arrival so the fight could start. Apparently, no one would have dared to begin the meeting without her approval. What I couldn’t imagine then was that in that mid-September meeting decisions would be made that would mark my literary career, as well as that of others, and even my life, almost forever. And oh, so much…