Book Fairs in Havana

80 years since the first one in the Cuban capital.

The First Havana Book Fair, a cultural event that is worthwhile reviewing on its 80th anniversary, now that – after the conclusion of its international chapter in La Cabaña – the fair is moving to the capital’s municipalities, was held on Prado and Malecónbetween May 20 and 27, 1937.

Actually, the big press paid little attention to the 1937 Fair. The first news reflected by a daily appeared on the 21st on page 9 of El Mundo. The following was published in a box: “Municipal Book Fair, May 20-27. Grand exhibit and book sale in the former plots of the Havana prison. An extensive and varied assortment of national and foreign books will be on exhibit in our Pavilions.”


During the rest of the week the silence about the fair continued in the principal periodical publications. The magazine Bohemia completely ignored it and Carteles barely included two photos in the edition of May 30. In one of them one could see its stand “in the Book Fair inaugurated recently by initiative of Havana’s mayor.”


The other photo in Carteles included an instant of the inauguration: the city mayor appears accompanied by Spanish philologistRamón Menéndez Pidal, as well as some of the most renowned Cuban intellectuals, among them José MaríaChacón y Calvo, Alfonso Hernández Catá, Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring and José ElíasEntralgo.


Despite the scarce diffusion, of the improvisation – the bookstores were notified by Town Hall three days before the opening -, of the night schedule and of other inconveniences, the result of the fair was positive. In the seven days book presentations were made and concerts were given, which favoured a suitable cultural atmosphere.


Eight decades later


In the last 40 years, dissimilar versions of the Havana book fair took place in diverse parts of the city: Obispo Street, the Parque Central, the Cuba Pavilion, Pabexpo…, until since 2000 it was established – and grew – in La Cabaña Fortress.


In recent editions, the fair has wanted to expand some of its actions to the municipalities and communities. What follows is the chronicle of the Municipal Book and Literature Fair in Arroyo Naranjo.


This Havana municipality has a charm and a history that few of the capital’s localities have. A site for transit since the 18th century in the expansion toward the south of Havana, with time it was home to one of our greatest poets, Eliseo Diego, who lived in its premises and sang to its qualities. In more recent times, the most universal of the living Cuban writers is rooted like a ceiba tree in one of its barrios, Mantilla, and has placed it in the map of the world of the media and literature.


For many years and until his death, the most popular singers of the improvised décima in Cuba, Justo Vega, also lived in its dominions. It was precisely in tribute to the Lord of the décima that the municipal House of Culture bears his name.


With the Justo Vega House of Culture as venue, and the Eléctrico and Los Pinos districts – in addition to the municipal library – as sub-venues, Arroyo Naranjo’s was a special fair in which, from the community standpoint, the essential part of culture was projected.


The actions that took place there reached all the age groups. Among its actors were art instructors, specialists in literature, writers, editors, book sellers, artists, librarians, academicians, and workers from the institutions in the community.


But the most important were the children. Writer and minstrel Reinaldo Alvarez Lemus sang and acted for them, bringing for them his book La blusa de María, and he distributed his verses so they could play, learn and dream with their ludic texts.


Also for the kids there was the contest called The Children Read and Write for the Children, an original contest where all the children won and creativity and interest in reading stood out.


The centennial of Platero y yo, that glorious book by Juan Ramón Jiménez, was celebrated as deserved, an invitationto read it in the new Cuban edition, published by Cubaliteraria and presented in the Manuel Cofiño Library.


With two community creators, Gladys Ruiz and Gladys Lamelas, the repentista poets feted in the final get-together, in the closing of the fair, preceded by a singular day: the projection and debate of the feature length Vientos de La Habana, the first part of the cinema saga Cuatroestaciones en La Habana, based on the tetralogy Las cuatroestaciones, by Leonardo Padura.


The winner of the Princess of Asturias Prize and the 2012 National Prize for Literature, co-scriptwriter of the films, was present during the debate which had as public fundamentally students from the Carlos Pérez Senior High School, in the vicinity of the Justo Vega House of Culture. He was accompanied, in the conversation with the young people, by DoctorMarisela Pereira, professor of the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Havana, Ada Vélez and Ana María de Rojas, all graduates from the La Vibora Senior High.


In his presentation, Padura explained that, because of cinema production needs a decade had been advanced in which the films’ actions take place; and that, in that transplant, of the letter to the image, it was also impossible to reproduce them as they were in the novels’ spaces.


Recalling his student stage in La Vibora Senior High, the centre of the plot in the film version of the novel, the writer told an anecdote that reflects the vocation of humanist and forger of the librarian of the school during those years in which he was discovering the pleasure of literature, when his favourite heroes acted in a baseball field and not in the books.


The evocation of the librarian, who showed him other heroes, who drove him to Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas, perhaps was a pedagogic strategy of the writer with these young people who are now seeking their own paths, as was his case some 40 years ago. Perhaps one of them, when adults, remembers that indescribable evening in which Padura spoke in the House of Culture. And perhaps they will tell it to their children, or to other young people, as something important that happened to them, even though at the time they did not know it.


Neither do many people know that in the Houses of Culture, in the communities, these things can happen. Although of course there are not many writers, or artists, like Padura who with the greatest of naturalness, without the media finding out, go there as someone visiting a lifelong friend.


But neither are there many people like Ana María de Rojas Berestein, a specialist of the Book and Literature project, who has dedicated more than 30 years to working for culture in the community where she was born. She was the driving force and the soul of that fair in Arroyo Naranjo, where so many things happened that the newspapers didn’t mention, as happened 80 years ago. (2017)

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