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Memories of Underdevelopment

CUBANA.\o7 Edited by Mirta Yan~ez\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster and Cindy Schuster (Beacon Press: 214 pp., $26, $12.50 paper)\f7 ; THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE. \o7 Edited by Peter Bush (Grove / Atlantic: 400 pp., $14 paper)\f7

October 18, 1998|ANN LOUISE BARDACH | Ann Louise Bardach, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, co-wrote a five-part investigative series on Cuba in the New York Times this year

In 1961, thunderstruck by the notion of vanquishing a 25% illiteracy rate, Fidel Castro ordered thousands of educated urbanites into the countryside to teach the ABCs to any peasant they happened upon. The success of the Literacy Brigades (Cuba not only leads Latin America in literacy; it surpasses the United States), is the most significant (and arguably sole surviving) triumph of the revolution. But it is one of the richer ironies of Castro's island fiefdom that Cubans have nothing to read. Owing to decades of catastrophic economic mismanagement, a large segment of its hyper-educated population has no books, no paper, no pens.

Hence, in 1996, when a rare printing of a book appeared--10,000 copies of an anthology of short stories by women writers titled "Estatuas de Sal" ("Pillars Of Salt")--it sold out in less than two weeks. A second edition of 10,000 sold out even faster. One visitor to the island reported that black market vendors were asking $10--two months' wages for the average Cuban--per copy for the book and getting it. Now condensed, translated and reprinted in English, under the title "Cubana," it's fair to say the readers got their money's worth. Notwithstanding a self-conscious foreword by Ruth Behar (not part of the original and disavowed in a footnote by the book's editor and contributors), the voices of these 16 women writers are as refreshing and welcome as a chilled mojito on a steamy Santiago day. Its contributors include women living in Havana, Oriente and the United States, dissidents and boosters, gay and straight, black and white, young and old, introduced nicely by editor and contributor Mirta Yan~ez and ably translated by Dick Cluster and Cindy Schuster.

Most striking about this collection--in view of its original publication in Cuba--is its tart criticism of the government. Consider it the literary equivalent of "Strawberry and Chocolate," the 1994 Academy Award-nominated Cuban film that savaged the government's repression of gays. Some of the stories are overtly dissident, others gently mocking, but almost all are layered with the battle fatigue of life in Cuba today. In "The Egyptians," Adelaida Fernandez de Juan offers a hilarious spoof of the government's internal spy system. Set abroad, presumably in Africa, the story tells of a group of Cuban medical aid workers. Trained to be suspicious of all foreigners, they find themselves disarmed and bewildered by their friendly Egyptian counterparts. "When Habib asked me for the first time what life was like in our country, it spurred a series of meetings which our brigade chief deemed very necessary. . . . Meanwhile the Egyptians waited with Pharaonic patience, not comprehending why it took two or three cups of tea to find out whether it was easy to grow black beans or whether Cuban winters are very long."

One of the most compelling stories is Rosa Ileana Boudet's "Potosi II: Address Unknown," in which a 40-year-old intellectual looks back on the glory days of the revolution and lovers who have fled. Her emotion-choked reminiscences include an intriguing and insolent reverie on Guillermo Cabrera Infante, author of the celebrated novel "Three Trapped Tigers," who went into exile in 1965. In contrast to the exuberance of her past, her present life seems as bereft and empty as the shelves in a Havana market.

In dramatic opposition to Boudet's cosmopolitanism are the characters and diction of Aida Bahr's "The Scent of Limes." Set in Oriente and narrated by a 12-year-old girl, it is an aching drama of mother-daughter alienation, an interracial love story and one man's midnight flight from Cuba. "The weeping and trembling are letting up. . . . The sea was the loser, and Anibal with it," writes Bahr of one more would-be escapee swallowed into the graveyard of the Florida Straits and the shattered hopes and devastation left in his wake.

Some stories have no politics, such as "Anhedonia" by Mylene Fernandez Pintado, which crisscrosses the parallel tracks of two friends who envy each other, and Marilyn Bobes' moody story "Somebody Has to Cry," which tells of four friends whose lives drift apart but whose influence over each other is locked in memory. Among the most haunting stories is the devastating portrait in Uva de Aragon's "I Just Can't Take It Anymore" of an elderly couple broken by illness, the pain of living, the costs of dying and indifferent children.

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