Jorge Luis Hernández, a man ahead of his times1.

Presentation of a book, evocation of a friend.

When my dear friend and colleague Aida Barh asked me to present the collected short stories of Jorge Luis Hernández I had two revelations: the first was a strong sensation of commitment, of need, of debt not met with the work of Jorge Luis Hernández, which I had not visited again for too many years. The second was slower but at the same time more overwhelming, almost dramatic: I felt a flash of nostalgia since it became evident to me that ever since several years before Jorge Luis had died, treacherously attacked by a tragic fate which he did not deserve, nor much less us for having lost him as a writer, as a person, as a friend, I had not visited Santiago de Cuba again.

And it was painful to know that perhaps I had not returned to that city which I visited so much during my days as a reporter of the newspaper Juventud Rebelde and as a participant in the mythical Narrative Meetings, because for me Santiago has become a city swarming with ghosts: that of the Old Man, as we used to call José Soler Puig when he was still not that old, or Joel James, the fieriest of the brothers of that lineage, of the restless and disquieting José Fernández Pequeño, a colleague of so many endeavours that one day left us, like so many others, to go into exile…. But, above all, the ghost of Jorge Luis Hernández, obscenely reclaimed by death, when it wasn’t his turn to die, when he still had so many things to do, enjoy, write….

For me, Jorge Luis Hernández was also a writer I admired and admire, a generous colleague with whom I used to talk about literature as well as about the cement, bricks and the sand we used to look for to build our respective houses while he let me drive for him in search of the mysteries of the origin of the Bacardí rum, of the presence of the French Haitians in the coffee plantations of the Gran Piedra, of the extraordinary life of Prudencio Casamayor, stories and characters that would become material for some of my most beloved newspaper features.

If memory does not fail me, during my last stay in Santiago de Cuba so many years ago (perhaps 20), my first stop, together with Jorge Luis, was the home of the Old Man, which now was actually very old, so much so that, physically, he was exhibiting in a more than usual way the skeleton he would soon become, a visit from which I left convinced – and I said so to Jorge Luis – that I was seeing for the last time the youngest of spirit and most generous writer of that generation, the one who with the most dignity and best literature had been able to go through the dark years of the 1970s and come out ready to receive my artistic age group without condescension but with enthusiasm and solidarity.

Actually, I must confess that I couldn’t say whether Jorge Luis and I were friends or just colleagues. Better said, I don’t know whether Jorge Luis considered me more than a colleague, a bit younger, of the generation of his dear Aidita, of Arturo Arango, of Fernández Pequeño. However, when I used to meet with him – almost always in Santiago – I had the sensation that I was with a friend, with whom I shared so many complicities that barely had time and place to establish themselves, but which were forged with a sort of chemistry that functioned throughout the years of coinciding.

But when I think about it twice, I believe Jorge Luis always treated me as a friend. Only a friend can be so splendid with his most valuable possessions, and he gave several of them to me with a human and intellectual generosity very rarely found in our milieu. The close relation with the Old Man Soler was one of those belongings, since no one was so near to the Santiago maestro than his Santiago disciple. But there were also his knowledge harvested and matured for years about the eastern Cuban mysteries and stories, about which he gave me information, clues, texts, ideas, witnesses. As an investigative journalist, during each of my stops in Santiago I had Jorge Luis as an excellent guide. And the rest was easy, or at least it depended on my ability to capture and then reflect what I had learned.

Jorge Luis and I of course spoke a great deal about literature during those tours of Santiago. Everything took place in a luminous and strange stage, in which Jorge Luis finally saw two of his works published, El jugador de chicago (1985) and the novel Un tema para el Griego (1987), and after so many years of silent anonymity he had become a writer of reference of the new courses Cuban narrative had started to move through.

As almost all of us know or can know, the published work of Jorge Luis in those times had been written during the previous decade, the terrible dark years of the 1970s. And that information is especially pertinent when facing the reading of those first texts (only because of their order of appearance, not because of their literary quality) by Jorge Luis Hernández, since they reveal the incongruence of a unsettling anachronism: his short stories of El jugador de chicago, but above all the novel Un tema para el Griego, are typical and representative works of what occurred in the times when they were finally published, that is, those final years of the 1980s.

Chronologically Jorge Luis Hernández was a few years older than the majority of the writers who would become known during that period and that would confer their character to the literature of the time. In terms of generation, he would actually be closer to Norberto Fuentes or Luis Rogelio Nogueras than to Senel Paz, Miguel Mejidas, Abel Prieto, López Sacha, to not mention Arturo Arango, Luis Manuel García, Lichi Diego, Abilio Estévez, or even Aida Barh and myself. However, as in the case of another Santiago writer, the ill-fated Rafael Soler, Jorge Luis was ahead of his times, someone who cleared the way, and I suspect that in that process of renovation of the contents, the literary characters and perspectives seen in these two authors had a great deal to do with the teaching of Soler Puig and sought-after distance with respect to the centres of cultural and literary power, where intransigence and mediocrity ruled in their own way.

Even when in several of the short stories that make up El jugador de chicago their author resorts to matters related to the time period and anecdotes typical of his kind – bandits, the changes that followed the year of 1959, the revolutionary violence, etc. – in them there is a literary treatment that separates them from the authors of his historic generation and turns them into a calling sign, or perhaps bridges, for what will come with the following generation, which he joined because of spiritual and literary confluence. The short stories of this volume are not stories of heroes and antiheroes, they are not epic, they are not explicit as many of the texts of his contemporaries: Jorge Luis’ aesthetics has more to do with the human essential, is more interwoven with the dramatic quality of personal decisions and fates, and with the wasting away of the lives swept by the whirlwind of a social transformation. Neither did Jorge Luis hide stylistic limitations with verbal or structural frivolities (with which, especially throughout the black decade of the 1970s it was aimed to give a contemporary air to stories plagued by political and human simplifications), and this is why he is more classic, between the styles of Hemingway and Rulfo, for my perspective as a reader. And, lastly, Jorge Luis never aimed to be a teacher of lessons: as an artist he carried out an aesthetic work and not an act of political and social reaffirmation…. And was this not what, in some way (or several ways), we the authors who were appearing in the 1980s were aiming to do (consciously or unconsciously)? Was it by chance or fate that Jorge Luis Hernández had to wait several years to see his books come to light, in greater or lesser harmony with the atmosphere of their historic times of publication, a moment already different from the historic time of their conception?

Though it is not the objective – or shouldn’t be – of a presentation of the collected short stories of Jorge Luis Hernández, it is impossible jump from his initial texts of El jugador de chicago to his short stories of El relumbre de oro (2003), without dedicating some words to what is undoubtedly this writer’s major work and one of the essential novels in the conformation of the literary image of the 1980s: Un tema para el Griego.

I can still recall – and perhaps could evoke years later, and you already know facing what… -, the turmoil it was for me to enter the world that Jorge Luis creates in his novel, an aesthetic and existential universe that sounded close but at the same time distant because it was different, especially not very travelled by Cuban narrative and at the same time so necessary for it…. Above all because in his novel Jorge Luis Hernández had the ability to “create” a world…with which we related and in which we participated, where we submerged ourselves to the bottom while we read. But that turmoil of 1987, that remained intact some 10 years later when I revisited the novel, had to do with something much more complicated, perhaps twisted, but which I can confess without shame: I felt the desire to have written that novel. Or a novel like that one, which in the end is the same thing.

What is significant, however, does not lie in that personal effect, but rather in the social and literary transcendence that Un tema para el Griego had and would have: with a novel written in the 1970s, but published 10 years later, Jorge Luis Hernández was contributing to giving character to the novel of the 1980s (together with Las iniciales de la tierra, by Jesús Díaz; Un rey en el jardín, by Senel Paz; and, among others, works unknown to us that at that time Reinaldo Arenas had started publishing in his agonising and final exile). But what is most unsettling, as we found out later, is that with that novel written in the 1970s, Jorge Luis Hernández also pointed – precisely with Arenas, though in another aspect – what would be the road through which the Cuban novel of the 1990s would pass.

How is it possible – we asked ourselves then – that precisely starting with that flash of inspiration that a writer, who with his two first books closed the doors of the past while crossing those of the present and to top it off leaving them open for the future, could disappear from the Cuban publishing panorama for more than 15 years? Was he again writing in the 1990s with the aim of surprising us years later?

A man with Jorge Luis Hernández’ artistic vocation, who was a writer, scriptwriter, film and radio director, editor, editor-in-chief of publications, researcher of ethnology and/or anthropology (I’m not sure), an intellectual who needed to see and express the world through culture, was at the same time a man capable of making the most arduous material sacrifices to make the life of human beings more dignified and better. And the time of words, images, researches, was replaced by the disastrous obsession of the cement, bricks and sand which almost all we Cubans suffered in a country where some live as they like but the majority lives as they can…. And Jorge Luis dedicated himself in body and soul for many years to the material work that, at the cost of his possible spiritual legacy, would be his physical legacy: the house he built for his wife and children.

The short stories of El relumbre del oro, published in 2003, was the expected return of Jorge Luis Hernández to the dynamics of Cuban narrative, after those 15 years of absence, suffering and cement. Five short stories free from no other commitment than that of aesthetics and the citizen are collected in this volume in which, among the lost, transmuted, disoriented, exhausted, absent-minded characters there is a glimpse of the wisdom with which Jorge Luis always approached the reality of his time, to hand it over as literary reality: taking a step forward with respect to what was being done in Cuban narrative, which for that period had been populated by rafters and jineteras (among other diverse and new characters), of shortages and darkness, of revelations, turbulences and marginalisation, elements that in these short stories are not assumed as discoveries or explorations, but rather as the essence of a reality already established, full of conflicts and painful, the reality in which we Cubans have been living for a quarter of a century…which one of his characters calls “the situation,” and another speaks of his interpretation of it as “the syndrome of the times,” of these times….

I believe that…for the act of justice and remembrance of a friend, which in addition is the writer Jorge Luis Hernández, I have been frugal and suspicious and even schematic. Because speaking about the imprint left by Jorge Luis in our narrative can be a complex matter, but recalling the imprint he was leaving in each of his published works he had been writing can be even more so: because his books were not only the work we read today, but also the warning sign, at each moment, of the one we could be or had to write. Among all of us who accompanied him during these years of life and shared literary endeavours, the man from Santiago was, as I said before, ahead of his times, a conquistador of virgin territories, a seeker of El Dorado that he, with his special intuition and sensitivity, knew how to find before others, to then present us with that golden brightness that emanates from all his literary work, from all his life, from all his artistic and daily sacrifices, from the ethical position that accompanied him until his death intervened and snatched our generous man ahead of his times, my friend, our friend, Jorge Luis Hernández. (2014)

1 Excerpts of the text read on November 21, 2014 in the Salón de Mayo of the Cuba Pavilion, Havana, during the presentation of Todos los cuentos, by Jorge Luis Hernández, Unión Publishers, 2014.

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