Freedom and heresy*

Speech given on May 28, 2014, in Zaragoza, Spain, during the ceremony to receive the 10th International Prize for Historic Novel “Zaragoza City”.

Though I am going to speak of heretics and heresies, I cannot begin my speech without making several recognitions of gratitude. In the first place to the City Council of Zaragoza and to this city’s Book Standing Commission, the sponsors and organisers of the International Prize for Historic Novel “Zaragoza City”, as well as the jury members who worked in the tenth edition of the contest for having granted my novel Herejes (Heretics) the prize for this year; then to Tusquets Publishers, for having published the winning novel and many of my previous novels ever since the very distant year of 1996 – last century – and for having contributed to my literature being able to transcend the Cuban borders and be published today in 20 languages; and, of course, I want to thank all the colleagues, friends, family members, Cuban readers who throughout these years have given me support, solidarity, fraternity and the confidence so that, from Cuba, while living in Cuba, writing in Cuba and about Cuba, I have been able to write my books and my work in general and, to my utmost venture, that they hold a place in the heart of many my compatriots, thanks to whom I have been able to be, on several occasions, the most read Cuban fiction writer in the country – as vouched for by my Puerta de Espejos Awards, a recognition only conferred by the favour of readers -, for me to have been able to win on seven occasions the National Literary Critic Award to the best works published in Cuba and even having been able to win Cuba’s National Literature Award of 2012, which despite everything I enjoy with artistic pride since it is the result of my work and my effort.

As a Cuban citizen and writer, I have a high sense of the historic. For years Cuba has been living a “historic moment” and perhaps this is why I have developed an obsessive view of the importance of history and its capacity for recognition and expression, not just of past events but also of the consequences and lessons that these “historic” events project toward our present. This is why I don’t think the historic novel must be a naive literary exercise that makes do with looking toward a past that, no matter how much it is documented and rigorously researched, is only satisfied with being an aesthetic investigation capable of recreating that moment, period or process from yesteryears, no matter how interesting and intense it has been. As I understand it, in the novel that is backed by history to carry out its artistic journey, writers must take into account that they only carry out their mission if their effort serves to illuminate the present through the study of the experience already accumulated by human beings in their temporary, that is, historic passage.

It greatly satisfies me that a novel that from a historic past speaks and projects itself toward the future, a text that in effect refers more to the present than to the past, can be distinguished with this City of Zaragoza prize dedicated to historic works. Because, in terms of genre, my book is actually not a historic novel that follows the most resorted canons, and neither is it a detective novel in its most traditional form, and much less an arduous novel of philosophical theses, but rather a book that, heretically, takes advantage of the genres and its codes to express a universal concept: the eternal struggle of individuals to exercise their personal freedom, the self-determination that is the first born son of the human condition.

But freedom, or better said, the hope of enjoying freedom, of thinking with freedom, of believing and creating in freedom, has frequently been – and still is – condemned as a heresy.

Heretics – or considered as such, though at times with other descriptions – are those who from their thinking oppose, refute or simply question a way of being and thinking validated by a religious, political, social power whose representatives or collaborators will always be ready to repress, punish, marginalise – even burn at the stake, it doesn’t matter now whether physically or virtually – whoever dares to put into practice the supreme right to exercise a freely-chosen self-determination. Then persons stigmatised as heretics can be condemned by their own community, frequently with a profound and visceral hatred, as happens to my character Elías Ambrosius Montalvo de Avila in the very free Amsterdam of the not so distant 1647. Or like it happened to his historic contemporary Baruch Spinoza, condemned to being separated for life from his community for rationalising a thinking stagnated and manipulated by a power that refused to give an inch of their preponderance, and much less to accept that they were not working and acting endorsed by divine evidence and, therefore, infallible, but rather by a human work.

Just like the concern about the historic, the subject of heresy and its more or less drastic repressions, have accompanied me for a long time, like an artistic and ethical need. The consequences of social and spiritual heresy already appeared in some of my first novels whose main character was Mario Conde, especially Máscaras, in which I delve into the world of the marginalisation lived by the Cuban artists in the terrible decade of the 1970s, when the sole fact of being a homosexual or considered “uncomfortable” was sufficient reason for the most drastic stigmatisation.

Some years later I dedicated another of my novels, also “heretically historical”, to the character that perhaps we Cubans could call our first heretic: poet José María Heredia, a good man teeming with talent who, because of his ideas and immortal verses, suffered the disdain, attacks, marginalisation of his contemporaries, those who called him “fallen angel” and even denied him their greeting (as happened with Spinoza), leaving him alone, with a wounded heart. Only history, the years and the justice that sometimes time generates – sometimes, not always – allowed the inevitable literary and political recovery of Heredia – and his great defender was another poet, Cuban National Hero José Martí -, the intellectual who had committed the heresy of a superior talent and human sensitivity that allowed him to write the best poetry of the language created in his time, made him feel disappointed  because of a reality in which the meanest, most mediocre and opportunistic horded the wealth, power and even were rewriting history, and for having accepted, before he died, to humiliate himself before the political power just to return to kiss his old mother.

I also dedicated a part of my novel The Man who Loved Dogs to the figure of Trotsky, considered one of the renegades of the ruling thinking of 20th century communism, the thinker who was brave enough to reveal, before anyone else, the perverse manifestations of the system that based on the great utopian dream of a just and better society, was being founded, imposed and exported by Joseph Stalin. And though history has proven Trotsky right in many of his analyses and denunciations of the political, social and economic deformations engendered by Stalinism, today there are still a great deal of Communist Party members who are intolerant, incapable of recognising their old Stalinist mistakes and conducts, who keep Trotsky boxed in the category of revisionist and counterrevolutionary, because of his life and work.

And the fact is that the attitude considered heretical is, in many cases, a source of freedom. Or, by simply inverting the terms, the search for freedom is the father of attitudes described as heresies.

As Vasily Grossman wrote in his monumental novel Life and Fate (in his time censured and confiscated by the Soviet political police: “man’s instinct of freedom is invincible. It had been repressed but it existed. The man condemned to slavery becomes a slave out of necessity, but not by nature…. Man’s hope for freedom is invincible; it can be stamped on but not annihilated… Man does not give up freedom of his own free will. The light of our times, the light of the future, is found in that conclusion.

Unfortunately, that light of the future has not always illuminated the world. Today, like in the times of Giordano Bruno and Galileo, or the age of Rembrandt and Spinoza, the fundamentalisms and orthodoxies continue weighing over societies and the lives of many individuals, restricting their freedoms of choice – or at least attempting to do so. This makes me think about the permanent need for heresy, if it leads to freedom, or at least to the attempt to enjoy it; though we all know that such an exercise can involve paying a price, at times high.

Perhaps this is why I would like my novel to also be read as a tribute to the heretics that in the world have been big and small men, famous characters or unknown by history, but who in their time have been judged, harassed and even crushed by the lack of tolerance and the most diverse orthodoxies, social and even supposedly divine, but practiced by men, frequently even in the name of God, of the common good, of a better future.

But not even God, the common good or the better future – that is to say, the better present – can serve as arguments for intolerance and punishment or the persecution of those who have been described as heretics. On the contrary, the Garden of Eden, the most real utopia of equality among human beings, will only be achieved when each and every one of the individuals and societies are so essentially free that the possibility of being condemned for heresy disappears, when finally there is no space for inquisitors and not even the need for heretics. (2014)

*Speech given on May 28, 2014, in Zaragoza, Spain, during the ceremony to receive the 10th International Prize for Historic Novel “Zaragoza City”, won by the novel Herejes (Heretics; Tusquets Publishers, 2013).

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