Treacherous Memories of Allen Ginsberg’s Days in Havana
The meeting that suddenly split and transformed El Puente has not been registered in any history book as far as I know, but it was certainly seething. There are surely other versions out there. Mine is the only one I care to tell about. Let others share theirs, if they have one or even remember.
As soon as the Commissar arrived dragging in her unbearable stench and the arguments began, I easily realized the meeting was about two sides in conflict –that of control, and that of freedom. None of the puenteros seemed to realize that. How could they? At the time, none dared to think in terms of freedom. It was a “counterrevolutionary” term, one not to be even mentioned.
The Commissar, who had brought a satchel full of manuscripts of book projects supposedly packed with “irresponsible issues”, “fallacies” and “errors”, had a clear ally in Ana María Simo, who ran to sit by her the minute she got there.
Both immediately started to accuse José Mario of using El Puente as “as a means of personal promotion”. I saw The Crane get up then. He started moving around in circles, very quietly, seemingly undecided about what to say or which side to take. He kept looking at his watch.
Until then, I had a perception of José Mario as someone who didn’t give a shit about what went on in the world around him, and I would not have even imagined that he could muster so much energy, strength and eloquence in the face of such attacks, in order to intellectually –and almost physically– crush his adversaries.
With no qualms, he admitted El Puente served him as a means of personal promotion. “Why not? WHY NOT?” he asked and asked himself at the same time. He didn’t hesitate to say he did it because El Puente was the product of his own work, the result of his money and efforts, when neither the Commissar nor Ana María were to be seen around.
“That stage is already burned behind us, don’t you see?” the Commissar replied, very seriously but not daring to wander any farther. “This new stage demands more responsibility, political acumen, given the historical moment from which we now express ourselves with our new voices.”
“BULLSHIT!” José Mario nearly spit on her face. “How dare you talk to me of history and responsibility? Where were you when I had to plead with Arquimbau to do our printing on credit? Where were you when I had to go and pimp myself out like a whore trying to get the stores to carry our books? Since when did you start dressing in militia uniform, eh? Who’s given you the authority or the power to demand shit from us? Nikitin? Who do you think you are? We are writers, creators, and you are… You know what you are? NOBODY. YOU HEAR? NOTHING!”
Then, in the midst of the graveyard silence that ensued, at the end of that quick succession of lapidary statements, The Crane asked, very soft-spoken, to be allowed to leave, supposedly because he had to get up early next day for a class in college. We all turned and stared at him as if he was someone from another planet, and he, convinced that no one would respond any time soon, left hurriedly, in long strides, to a bus stop that was close by, always propelled by his indispensable handbag.
“I am glad you’re all in agreement”, José Mario said sarcastically, “but we intend to go on doing our books without your advice or anyone’s permission, because we don’t want it. Whoever wants to build another Puente, be my guest, I will not interfere. But this one’s mine, I’ve sweated for it too much and pimped myself out too much for it, to have anyone come now and give us lessons in responsibility and politics.”
Immediately, I realized José Mario had won a crushing victory over those who would have turned El Puente into one of the usual submissive and mediocre publishing venues that were prevalent at the time in Cuba, where the government already controlled all printing businesses. It was the triumph of freedom over the ideological control the other side wished to impose on us.
No one, not even his two foes with their Marxist superstition and Russian manuals, dared to contradict the enraged poet. Something very radical had happened in El Puente that evening of September, 1964. Also at that moment, though I could not know for sure why, I realized that I personally was going to play an important role in the fate of that literary group and its publications. And what would that be? I would soon know.
“Manolo, I want you to take care of selecting all the fiction that El Puente will be publishing from now on,” José Mario said to me several days later.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was not yet 17 years old and someone was putting so much responsibility in my hands. This also presented to me with the opportunity to do something I had wanted for some time –to strike a huge blow against our tyrannical government… with no less than its own resources. But even if I felt happy, I didn’t want to show it too much. I knew quite well that it could only backfire.
Days before, the UNEAC magazine Gaceta de Cuba had published the new list of editors at El Puente, and I appeared in it, together with Fulleda, the playwright José Milián, Lina de Feria and others.
Ana María and the stinky Commissar were not included in the list. The Crane wasn’t in it either, and José explained to me why, using all sorts of mockery and funny gestures.
Just when the names of the new editors was about to go to print, The Crane arrived in the Gaceta newsroom, quite jumpy and agitated, demanding that a note be published specifying that for personal reasons he had renounced any position he’d had in El Puente.
Even if it was explained to him that his name was not included in the list of new editors, he insisted, almost on the verge of tears, that he wanted to be made totally clear that he had broken all ties to the group. And so it was done finally, to prevent him from falling into a deeper nervous crisis. Even so, the poet Nicolás Guillén, the president of the UNEAC, almost had to call an ambulance to come and pick him up. He was demanding absolute assurances that his resignation would be divulged
As soon as José gave me this task –one that actually made me a bit fearful– I wanted to show him I was deserving of his trust, by bringing to El Puente the best of possible books. I remembered then I had an acquaintance who happened to be quite a writer, even if he didn’t realize it yet.
So I rushed to the lower floor of the Biblioteca Nacional, where this acquaintance worked. His name was Reinaldo Arenas and he was a modest employee of the lending library, where he wrote incessantly at any free moment he had.
I explained Reinaldo that I now had the chance to publish a novel he had finished and asked him for the manuscript, which he gave me right away. It was none other than the book that some years later would be the runner up in a national literary contest and which would be published under the title of Celestino antes del alba. It began like this, “Si tú supieras”...
José Mario did not need to read more than the first six pages to realize that this was a true literary find. Even so, he told me, “It’s excellent, Manolito. Let’s hang on to it, but before we publish it, we need to put yours out. It will represent the beginning of El Puente’s new stage. We are going to make a big noise.”
“It’s my book first then?” I asked.
“Yes,” José replied. “Make a clean copy of it. Don’t forget to number the pages carefully. And please take out that problematic story. We don’t need it.”
He didn’t need to tell me which one but I asked nevertheless. “The one about the military recruit?”
“That’s the one,” he answered. “Why doom a book beforehand on account of one single story? Why doom El Puente, too, and Reinaldo’s great book? We’ll be making enough noise, Manolito.”
I shrugged, suggesting I was totally in agreement. But next week, when I turned in the manuscript of Con temor in a printing operation located in the old part of Havana, the recruit story was still a part of it. In fact, I had improved it, making it more poignant and controversial. I was not going to take it out, over my dead body, over my cojones.
Of course, I was just acting like an immature teenager moved by unstoppable urges, and even if it seemed to me I was merely engaging in mischief by disobeying José Mario’s instructions, the truth was all of that could not have but the worse consequences. But I couldn’t care less, as long as it satisfied the need of revenge I felt toward the oppressive environment in which I was forced to live in.
One time, very late at night, while I waited for a bus after attending a play staged in a small theater in the Vedado neighborhood, a shadow crept out of the trees and approached me menacingly. I immediately realized it wore a uniform –a cop or something like that.
“Show me your papers, citizen,” he ordered.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. Anyone who was young in Cuba at the time will recall similar experiences. At any point, in any place, they were in waiting, ready to ask for your ID. One didn’t know why. They were like hyenas. If you weren’t carrying an ID, you got busted. And even if you had it on you, you could be busted too, depending on their perception.
If you happened to be wearing blue jeans and your hair was kind of long, and on top of that you had sandals on and a small book tucked under your arm, as was often my case in those days, things could get ugly. You could end up in court, and from there be sent to a remote key out in the ocean, to purge your extravagances, or for being what they called at the time “elvyspreslian”.
I didn’t utter a word, but my blood was boiling. That guajiro in uniform was staring at me with visible contempt and I was just fed up with the abuse. I guess I had reached my limit. So I bent over, as if reaching for a wallet stuck in one of my socks –a very common hiding place at the time, even for a pack of cigarettes.
By the time I stood up, however, I didn’t have an ID in my hand exactly but a fat piece of rock I had picked up. The poor bastard was caught by surprise and I crushed his face with one single blow. He didn’t know what hit him, and his body just spun around before collapsing at my feet, bleeding from his nose and forehead.
Not happy with that, I shoved the stone on his head again, this time on the back –very hard, damn it– and again, and again. I don’t know where I drew such strength from. It must have been from the huge anger I felt at all the injustices, because of how much hate I felt for those goons. Luckily, at that time of night, you couldn’t find a soul in the bus stop at the corner of G and Tercera streets.
Once I had finally gratified my impulses, I made sure no one was around and then dragged the limp, bloody body under some bushes that I saw in a small garden nearby. I think at some point I heard the poor guy breathe, so I figured he was alive, something that, even if it may seem strange, made me feel glad. I rested him somewhere in the dark and retreated just when the bus I was waiting for –the last one for the night, known as the confronta– happened to show up around the corner, ready to take me to my home in La Víbora. Thus I escaped, scared even of my shadow.
Barely a month after I had delivered the manuscript of Con temor in the printing press I found out something was going wrong with my book. I learned this from a playwright friend who bumped into in one afternoon in the Writers’ Union.
José R. Brene, the author of the popular play Santa Camila de La Habana Vieja, took me aside very mysteriously and had me walk with him to a remote corner of the UNEAC yard. Brene was much older than any of us, but he was a very nice, supportive guy. Once safely away from any eavesdroppers, he lit up a cigarette and said, “Flaco, there’s a big fuss with one of your books. Don’t ask me which of them or why, because I don’t want to know, you hear? But the typographer in charge of it, who happens to be the party secretary at the printers, was up in arms with it. He says the book is counterrevolutionary, immoral, and he’s not going to work with it until who wrote it and who authorized it is completely investigated.”
I swallowed hard, even if that disaster was something I could have easily anticipated. Anyhow, I pretended I was already aware of the issue, as if he was not telling me something new, and I promised him I would tell José Mario about it as soon as I met him. Of course I wasn’t crazy enough to do that, but I just wanted to calm Brene down so he wouldn’t be the one to apprise José Mario of the problem, thus making him aware of my lying about the book.
“The book is now in Fayita’s hands. He asked the printers to send it to him right away. You know how he is,” Brene told me then.
“Fayita?” I asked.
“Fayad Jamís,” he added, referring to the poet and painter better known in literary circles as El Moro. He was a top banana in the UNEAC, El Puente’s parent organization, and even worse, he was also a well-known extremist who had asked for his own brother to be executed after he was put in jail for conspiring against the government. So now we’re screwed, I thought.
I had no choice but to keep my mouth shut, knowing well that if José Mario heard about it, he would have no idea of what kind of political issue the book could have. He had every reason to believe I had suppressed the “controversial story”.
Of course, I was sure that the crisis would boil up soon, and with a vengeance. We would all crash and burn, so to speak. However, I was trying to figure an elegant way out of the mess, when the American poet Allen Ginsberg landed in Havana, straight from Mexico, as a judge in that year’s Casa de Las Américas Literary Contest.
Things were about to get more complicated.