Ten books over my head

The truly important books are those we don’t dare to quote.

A short time ago a young journalist from a digital site asked me for a list of the 10 Cuban books that have had most influenced me. This is not the first time I have been asked for such a list, but that does not prevent me usually having a sensation of perplexity when, let’s say, taking an empty sheet of paper, listing on it 10 spaces and trying to fill them out, just to cross out once and gain each line, while the doubts boil in my head and the task becomes anguishing for me if I try to give coherence to the list, or turn it into a small canon containing the works that the majority would accept as most relevant.


In the present case, since they have not referred to the relevance of the texts, to their literary merits or the obligation to formulate a panorama, I feel free to ask myself why those texts written by authors from the island that today I still can remember had a significant presence in my life.


It is not difficult for me to record the first title: Versos sencillos by José Martí because, way before I could read my father used to read chosen verses from a school edition with a baby blue cover that I still conserve in my library. Thus I found out about the wounded eagle that flies to the “serene blue,” of the white rose cultivated for the sincere friend and even of the unreachable hill made of foam. It was the voice of Martí entering my life not like letter but rather as a gust. Later I have frequently returned to that book, but those early readings communicated to me a mystery that makes that book almost holy for me.


The second title is also by Martí: it is La Edad de Oro. I had just started kindergarten when my father gave me an edition with the colourful illustrations that had just been brought out by the National Print Shop. I already knew how to read, but I had never had in my hands a volume with so many pages. Today I can still recall that night at my grandfather’s home, way after the light in my room had been put out, taking out the book under my pillow and using the light that entered through the large iron grille that faced the gallery, being fascinated by the adventures of the wise Meñique until the early morning hours.


I don’t remember having noticed the instructive first pages of each issue, nor do I believe I was much or little moved by the morals of Bebé y el señor Don Pomposoand La muñequenegra, but my impression was very strong when I discovered the Homeric world, to the point that I had to buy a complete edition of The Iliad, although, unfortunately, it was precisely the one translated by Hermosilla, which Martí rejected because of its rhetoric coldness. The reading of Treshéroes made me an accomplice of the epic of America’s independence. A few years ago, on a visit to the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato I was shaken when recalling that passage in which we are told how the head of the priest Hidalgo was placed there in an iron cage as a lesson.


A bit closer in time, when I was in high school, I made an important discovery: the figure of Lezama Lima, first associated to his novel Paradiso and only a bit later to his poetry and essays, thanks to the selection made by Armando Alvarez Bravo for the Orbita prepared by Unión publishers. The novel, a reddish volume that almost everyone declared illegible, opened an idea for me of literature that I did not get in the texts chosen by the school manuals. I found out about the learning of Cemí, about the death of Uncle Alberto, about the supper in the home of the grandmother, about the accident that led to the death of young violinist Andresito and even about the erotic ups and downs of Farraluque. Many things escaped me, but a sort of adhesion to Lezama stayed with me and it has only grown with the years. Writing the prologue of an edition of this book, preparing a Multiple Assessment, writing an essay on his sharp writing have not allowed me to pay the debt contracted in those days and which only grew when I approached poems like “Un puente, un gran puente” or “Juan de Patmos ante la Puerta Latina.”


Parallel to this, I who was a voracious reader, while I was writing my initial poetic exercises I tried to read as many verses that fell into my hands. I remember two very strong and rather lasting impressions, one was the encounter with Julián del Casal and although it was an old and fragile edition of his supposedly complete poems, the pages of Nieve were the ones that trapped me because of their capacity to paint and sculpt with the words. The abduction of Europe by Jupiter, as well as Salome’s dance before the head of the Baptist, became mysteries that challenged me to try something as difficult. The other impact came from Saboreterno by my countryman Emilio Ballagas, and although his texts of the Cuaderno de poesíanegra seemed amusing to me and I was moved by some sonnets from Cielo en rehenes, my greatest fascination was in the elegies of the cited volume. I don’t know how many times I read “Elegía sin nombre” trying to appreciate that secret and accomplice tone that cut through the poem, with a freedom and fluidness that I believe the very author never surpassed.


My encounter a bit later with some poets who formed part of the Orígenes group is another story. I read them, sometimes with fervour, at others carefully. I could cite many titles, but two of them impose themselves on me for different reasons, the first is Lo cubano en la poesía by CintoVitier, an imposing architecture that seeks to present and explain what he considers vital in Cuban poetry. At present I disagree with many of the opinions of this author and I have said so in several of my books, but the magnitude of his effort, the memorable pages he dedicated to Heredia, Martí, Lezama led me to still consider it memorable. The second is Visitaciones by FinaGarcíaMarruz. It is not exactly a book of poetry, but rather a cycle that gathers successive notebooks, with varied and formal themes which at first glance offer a chaotic appearance. The author, with her aesthetic Franciscanism, did not want to reject minor texts to facilitate the appreciation of the most achieved. I believe I have never read in an orderly way that volume, but for decades I have returned to it and I always find something beautiful and vital in its already yellowish pages. I believe I will never finish reading it as it merits. More than a book it is a fountain that frequently quenches thirst.


Although when I was in senior high I read some of the articles published by Father Félix Valera in El Habanero, it was only a few decades later that I was able to find his Cartas a Elpidio. Thanksto them the priest wearing his eyeglasses who looked at me from the history books became a fundamental figure for me about 19th century Cuban spiritual life. Still written in a style that already by that time was considered old, the capacity of persuasion of the priest, committed to challenging the ambitions of the sugar landowners and educating Cuba’s youth for the future independence, since then has been deeply moving for me.


Throughout my life I have read a great deal of the fundamental pieces of Cuban narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries, but I have my great doubts about placing one of them among the mentioned 10 books. I have read more than once Cecilia Valdés. I greatly appreciate it in what it has of the historic and customs reconstruction. I am more interested in the polyphonic fashion it uses to translate the Havana life than its bad way of telling the central plot. I always emphasize to my students its value in 19th century culture, but I do not believe it has had a tangible influence in my life. This is also the case of Mitío el empleado by Ramón Meza, despite that modernist prose that contributes sumptuous descriptions, and something similar occurs to me with other pieces by Miguel de Carrión, Enrique Serpa, Enrique Labrador Ruiz and even Carlos Enríquez.

I would only make an exception with the great novels by AlejoCarpentier and although I appreciate the great edifications of Los pasosperdidos and El siglo de las luces, I have doubts about including on my list El reino de estemundo which I continue considering a master work for which a conserve almost the same dazzling effect of when I read it for the first time when I was very young, and Conciertobarroco, that divertimento about which I have written several times, whose mixture of grace, eruditeness and humour has been one of the most important lessons to write my own novels, very especially to write another divertimento: Músicanocturnapara un hereje. Without the adventures in the Venice carnival of Vivaldi, Handel and Scarlatti, it would have been difficult for me to dialogue the Tristan of Jesús Medina and Søren Kierkegaard during the premier of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.


At this point I would only have a space left on the imaginary page and it would be fair to place on it some investigative work. My admiration for Fernando Ortiz is alive and stable, although I do not continuously quote him. I don’t admire him so much for his accumulation of data, or for the long-established positivist method he followed in his origins, but rather because he has a culture that can link many things and reconstruct a whole environment, an epoch. There are pages in his Contrapunteocubanodeltabaco y el azúcar which show him as a wise but also elegant prose writer.


Paradoxically, I want to close my list not with that volume but rather with a late production: Historia de unapeleacubana contra los demonios. Based on some legendary events that occurred in the township of Remedios in the 17th century, the writer ponders with wisdom about such diverse matters like demonology, witchcraft, the Inquisition on the island, the exploitation of the indigenous people and the Africans, the culture of tobacco and the profusion of references does not smother the reader, amazed by the mastery with which the topics are presented, in a way that makes one think of Michelet or Frazer.


My possibilities have run out and other many texts remain dispersed, let’s say a book of poetry as indispensable as En la Calzada de Jesús del MontebyEliseo Diego, ortheCuentosfríosbyVirgilioPiñera or certain essays by Jorge Mañach, plus a long etcetera. In short, why must they be exactly 10 books that have influencedme? It’s not worthwhile pondering on the matter, perhaps the truly important books for us are those we don’t dare to mention. (2017)

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