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'What They Least Kill Is Writers' : The silencing of Cuba's artistic and literary community under Castro : MEA CUBA, By Guillermo Cabrera Infante . Translated from Spanish by Kenneth Hall with the author (Farrar, Straus, Giroux: $23; 503 pp.)

November 27, 1994|RICHARD EDER

For the first two years after Fidel Castro's triumphant entry into Havana, Cuba's artistic and literary life bubbled vigorously. It had not really been stagnant under Fulgencio Batista, who took no interest in what artists did unless they engaged in political resistance; nevertheless, the dictator's overthrow released an exuberant energy.

It was an energy of the left, of course, since that was where most writers, painters, musicians and film-makers placed themselves anyway. It was also libertarian, ungovernable and unrestrained. Its voice was found most particularly in "Lunes de Revolucion," the weekly literary supplement of the newspaper Revolucion, whose director, Carlos Franqui, embodied the violent idealism of the revolution's first years.

In its brief life, "Lunes" was a meteor, and by far the most vital literary publication in Latin America. Its editor, a young novelist, critic and hopeless Hollywood buff, thought of himself as an "anarcho-Surrealist." That amounts to cultural gourmandizing; the equivalent to sitting through a triple feature with chocolate peanuts as well as popcorn and butter.

It took less than two years for the chill of repression to be felt in other aspects of the Cuban revolution; for Castro's totalitarian elan to devour his revolutionary elan--allying itself at first with the Communists and then devouring many of them as well. Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes in "Mea Cuba" of the months in early 1961 when the freeze reached the artists and closed down his "Lunes."

His brother and a collaborator had made a short feature, "PM," that toured the smoky bars and dives of Havana in the best bittersweet film-noir manner. The authorities banned it as decadent. "Lunes," with the support of dozens of artists and writers, was about to publish an indignant protest when the government organized a three-day meeting to forestall it. President Osvaldo Dorticos urged the intellectuals to speak their minds without fear; Castro made a speech assuring them that "within the Revolution all things are possible."

Virgilio Pinero, a timid, shrunken, flamboyantly gay writer, made his way hesitantly to the microphone. "I only want to say that I'm very frightened. I don't know why I'm so frightened but that is all I have to say."

As it turned out, there was not much more to say. "Lunes" was shut down, ostensibly for a shortage of newsprint; Revolucion lasted only a little longer. Franqui went to live in Paris, Cabrera Infante was given a diplomatic job in Brussels, and a number of "Lunes" writers found brief employment in the government cultural agency.

It was gradual but relentless removal from the intellectual and artistic life of the country. Except for homosexuals--among whom were a number of the most talented Cuban artists--there were few harsh individual measures (the jailing of the poet Heberto Padilla was a notable exception). The punishment was exile or silence.

"Mea Cuba" gives the silence a clamorous voice: eloquent and powerful at times, and at others wordy, repetitive, strident and eventually hoarse. It is steadily obsessed with the wreckage of Cuba's material, moral and cultural values by one man's will-to-power; whose various manifestations the author refers to with such epithets as "Castro Convertible" and "Castroenterology."

Cabrera Infante, who has lived in London since breaking with Castro and publishing his satirical novel "Three Trapped Tigers" (a favorable review was one of the things that landed Padilla in jail), is addicted to puns and word games. It energizes him, perhaps, but it depletes the reader.

There are more serious weaknesses in "Mea Cuba." It is a collection of some 60 articles written over a quarter-century and printed in a number of different periodicals. Many of them borrow or repeat from each other; no effort has been made to edit the repetitions out. Furthermore the translation, in which the author took a hand, is clumsy; at times ludicrously so.

It is a pity because it makes Cabrera Infante's strengths less accessible. Through the personal recollections, portraits, polemics and accounts of the recent and more remote past, he has put together something of a history of the Cuban imagination and character.

There is an exploration of Cuban suicide, for example. Castro's hopeless attack on the Moncada fortress early in his revolutionary career was virtually a kamikaze action. The author mentions the suicide of an opposition politician as climax to a radio speech (he didn't realize that the station had already switched to a commercial), and of a mayor unable to fulfill a campaign promise. He writes of the suicides of Haydee Santamaria, one of Castro's closest associates, and of Dorticos, whom Castro had deposed. Could 35 years of putting up with Revolutionary decline amount to a national suicidal instinct? Far-fetched, perhaps, but suggestive.

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