Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Confessions of an Elderly Young Man

Treacherous Memories of Allen Ginsberg’s Days in Havana

Part Six

I was suffocating. It felt as if someone had punched me very hard in the gut, and I couldn’t even open my mouth to breathe, let alone speak. The truth was I’d never been a good runner, lacking what some call “resistance”. My lungs only take me so far. I lose my breath too easily. So after so much running, I just collapsed on the sidewalk.

“You never learn, Manuel, do you?” I heard my pursuer say as he turned the engine key and started the car, then moved the gear lever and stepped on the gas.

The Triumph convertible took off like a rocket, driving us fast away from the labyrinth of old, narrow and filthy streets in the vicinity of Colón, a neighborhood where brothels used to thrive. Manning the steering wheel was Michel, a stocky short character who sported a thick mustache and wore dark glasses, and who was also one of the oldest foreign correspondents reporting out of Havana at the time. A friend of mine too, by the way. And to think I had been running away from him just minutes before, as if in a race, not knowing who he was. He had to pick me up and drag me to the car all by himself.

“Why do you say that?” I asked as soon as I caught my breath.

“You keep meeting with Ginsberg and babbling just about anything without considering the consequences,” Michel said, his eyes fixed on the street called Galiano, on which we were moving now at a more reasonable pace. “If I hadn’t come along, they would have picked you up again, and who knows what would have happened. Did you notice the four guys following you on Prado?”

I shrugged.

“You’re going to need glasses, boy,” Michel said then, taking a peek at the rearview mirror, “and your poet friend too. Jesus, I don’t know why I get mixed up in shit like this.”

“Are they still following us?” I asked.

“Nah,” Michel said. “Looks like the poor devils don’t have a car for that little task. But they will get it, just wait. What did Allen say?”

“Forget it,” I told him. “He won’t speak about anything. He claims your service is a capitalist agency and that it’s going to twist everything around to harm the revolution. So you’re screwed.”

“The fool, he’s the one that’s fucked. He doesn’t have a clue of what they have in store for him,” Michel said.

The latter caught my attention, because Michel, the dwarf with the signature nylon shirts and flashy sports car, never spoke baselessly and had more informants in that damn country than Fidel Castro himself. I didn’t doubt for a second he was sending Ginsberg a warning through me. Perhaps he thought I was the best messenger.

So next day I called the Riviera hotel to tell Allen what had happened and what Michel had said, but no one answered in the room, something rather surprising given the time of day. How strange, I said to myself –unless he’s still asleep.

I called again a couple of hours later and a man answered saying Allen wasn’t there and asked if I had any message for him. He would give it to Allen as soon as he got back, he added, quite solicitously. I thanked him and hung up right away. I was already so alarmed I was thinking of going personally to the hotel. I would have surely done that if the phone in my house hadn’t rung a while after. It was José R. Brene, sounding more mysterious than ever.

“No more mister nice guy, flaco,” he said without bothering to tell me who was talking.

“How so?” I asked.

“They put him on a plane,” he told me, not mentioning, quite wisely on his part, who he was talking about.

I muttered a simple “wow”.

“Very early, at dawn, they didn’t even give him time to brush his teeth,” said Brene.

“You know where to?”

“Not the slightest idea, flaco,” he replied.

A week later, I would learn that Ginsberg had been unceremoniously deported to Prague. When he asked the reason, the cops who took him to the airport told him it was for “violating Cuban laws”, though they did not specify which. They searched his baggage from top to bottom. They also alerted the Czech segurosos, who weeks later would in turn expel Allen from their country.

Truth be told, José Mario seemed relieved when he found out that Allen had been deported and that he would no longer be among us. It was as if a big burden had been lifted from him. I didn’t blame him. He still had no clue of what had happened to the Puente books that had disappeared from the printers, and of course that worried him more. Nicolás Guillén had agreed to meet with him, but he kept putting it off on the pretext that he was too “busy”.

“There’s something fishy going on. Have you heard any gossip?” José said to me. He already knew about some of Fayad Jamís’ ploys, though likely not all of them.

I told him I knew nothing. All the gossip going around then had to do with Ginsberg and “the people of El Puente”. That said, a friend of mine who was a student at the School of Letters had spoken to me about some “weird stuff” going on those days at the top of the Union of Communist Youth, and of the secret chit-chat between the Smelly Commissar and Enrique Nicanor, the president of the UJC at the School of Letters. Also, someone had seen The Crane meeting with the Commissar in her office with no apparent reason, and whispering things to her.

What were we to make of all that?

It was Walterio Carbonell, a brilliant black essayist and former diplomat who was also close to Fidel Castro, who approached us one afternoon at the Writers Union cafeteria and finally broke the silence. He invited us to have a beer with him and then whispered “something serious” was being cooked against us. Shit.

Walterio was an old communist conspirator and he loved to wrap up any small thing in a shroud of deep mystery, even if it wasn’t worth it. This time around, however, it didn’t look like he was exaggerating.

“Very serious?” I inquired.

“Too serious,” he said.

“What could it be?” José Mario asked us and himself.

“Political deviations, I’ve been told”, Walterio replied, in a very low voice but with all certainty. “There’s a rumor going around at the University, according to which there’s a counterrevolutionary book involved. Do you guys have that kind of book?”

Looking quite shocked, José asked me, “You know about this, Manolito?”

“¿Me?” I answered, pretending to be dumb and clueless, something at which I was gradually becoming an expert. I had known from the beginning that my scheme would be uncovered sooner or later, but I needed to buy myself time somehow. My little piece about the soldier-recruit had not gone unnoticed, it seemed.

Also, in those days I became aware of a long black car with a huge snout that remained parked at all times at the feet of my house in la Víbora. It was a vintage Oldsmobile. Its occupants kept their eyes pointing upward, at the home I shared with my grandmother and my mom. As if this were not enough, my mother had told me that Conga, the president of our block’s Vigilance Committee, had knocked on our door to ask where I was employed. Conga had never shown any interest in me before. And in Cuba, nothing ever happens without a reason.

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