Monday 21 April 2008

Havana Graffiti (Symphony for Chamber Orchestra, Chinese Trumpet and Conga Drum)

Maybe he's got no one who can tell him right from wrong
Maybe he's hungry, like the rest of the throng
He never really did have anything and in his noble soul,
Dollars and dreams run close together whilst corruption digs a hole
The Wolves Get Together
Gerardo Alfonso

The Cuban playwright Antón Arrufat tells us in 'Virgilio Piñera in the Flesh', the unofficial biography written by Carlos Espinosa, that when he met the famous 'Matancero' writer, poet, essayist and playwright 'I had just come out of an exhibition by Wilfredo Lam at Havana University (...) I was descending the stairs of the institution, still with my eyes lit up by Lam's paintings. Rodríguez Feo had just parked his car nearby (...) I went into his car straight away and in there sat this person quietly in the front seat looking ahead without returning my gaze. "This is Virgilio Piñera", said Rodríguez Feo. He remained impassible, however (...) Suddenly Virgilio turned around and asked me: "Do you do anything with shit?".
Save the time, distance and status, this could be the same question I could ask el Yoyo and I am sure that his answer would be: 'Well, yes, I could write a novel'.

Because there should not be any doubt that el Yoyo has written a novel about shit. Please, do not confuse this with being a shitty writer. Two different things where the former is the analysis of a certain phenomenon, sometimes in a passive way, sometimes more actively. The latter is to aspire without qualifications. And there are qualifications aplenty in el Yoyo's writing.

And let's be clear, too, that the shit el Yoyo writes about is not the benign one that cleanses our intestines or serves as manure for soils. No, this shit is about the never-ending crisis, which in the words of the main character 'it was just one more within a long journey, so long it was that our life became an endless succession of crises and the crises became our lives'. For this is not mere stench that forewarns the appearance of shit. Rather, this shit works from inside out, gnawing at the insides until we are doped, peaceful and robotised with no intention to rebel or argue back.

'Havana Graffiti' leads us through three stages that are so close to each other that they could be taken as one, but luckily the novel is nuanced enough to explain the complex issues that surround the contemporary Cuban situation.

The book opens with the big crisis (and there's that word again!) of '94, when thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Cubans threw themselves into the open seas looking for a way out of the dire political and economic situation in their own country. The first image that came to me as I read through the description of this event was loads of rafts and homemade artifacts, moving in the high seas aimlessly running away from the scarcity of verbs, comparatives and superlatives that had kept them grounded in home soil.

In the middle of this brouhaha, Carmelo decides to stay and this decision is based on his inability to swim and his godfather's premonition that somethiing good will come his way, if he only can wait. Unfortunately his foresight cannot save his wife, who, pregnant with the couple's first child, perishes in the choppy waters of the Florida Straits, alongside the rest of her family. Although tinted with reality, these first pages still left me bruised and downtrodden. And this is yet another one of the author's achievements: to present his fiction as a documentary in a way that the reader feels they are witnessing a historical event and not just a made-up story. Throughout the novel I felt as if Carmelo was carrying a Digicam with him that enabled me to scrutinise his innermost thoughts, which I felt as mine, too. If this was a classical piece for orchestra, the strings section would have the main role at this point in the narration, thus, bringing the first stage of the novel to a close.

The introduction of the main character happens with no forewarning. I admit that I was getting used to the anonimity that el Yoyo had shrouded his leading characted in. That would have put him on a par with Ralph Ellison, an Afro-American author who used the same procedure in his masterpiece 'Invisible Man', thus rendering his leading man a universality upon which migrants the world have been able to reflect themselves. This universality is particularly useful in those cases of people, who forced by circumstances beyond their control, have to depart to alien cities where they can't speak the local lingo and face the double whammy of being seen as a burden and being victims of xenophobia and racism.Yet, el Yoyo eschews this universality and surprises the reader with a curveball when what was expected was a fastball. The umpire takes no time to call out strike. Thus, on page 30 we learn the main character's name: Carmelo. And with him, we also learn about his family. And it's worth stopping here for a moment since el Yoyo uses this typical Cuban family to illustrate the way their psyches operated in the 90s. In Carmelo's father we see the traditional 'true-believer', the dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary for whom nothing else is more important than to build the society dreamt up after 1959, house and family notwithstanding. The mother symbolises the fence-sitter. She loves her husband, but despairs for her son and the slow death he is dying. All around her the devaluation of the national currency results in the devaluation of the soul and she can't bear it, what's more, there's nothing she can do to save her offspring. Carmelo, on the other hand, represents what is new and fresh, an anti-Faustian young man who questions everything and gets no answers in return. There are echoes here of that masterpiece by the now deceased Cuban playwright, Alberto Pedro. In 'Manteca' (Lard), Alberto used three members of a Cuban family to depict a similar situation in early 90s Cuba. Jorge Cao, playing Celestino, was a hardcore revolutionary, who had just returned from the Soviet Union after spending some years there and was reluctant to any changes. His sister Dulce was candid, kind-hearted, but impartial. Pucho completed the trio displaying an intellectual prowess which was thirsty for answers and refused to conform to the miasma the society around was sinking in. El Yoyo keeps the tension running until the dénouement of the novel.
The second stage in the book introduces another character: a Dutch woman called Janet who works in Cuba. Through her relationship with her Carmelo enters a world where opulence and material wealth are on display everywhere, away from the prying eyes of his fellow countrymen and women who can barely survive. El Yoyo approaches the contradiction that arises within Carmelo, that of staying true to himself or joining the rest of the 'wolves pack', with sensitivity and accuracy. Janet and Carmelo's conversation attest to the futility of the construction of the 'socialist dream', a panacea that has resulted rather in a bureaucratic opportunism, epitomised by the myriad managers and foreign entrepeneurs Carmelo comes across. If there's a point this chapter proves is that in the equation that contemporary Cuban life stands for, mathematics is superfluous.
It is in Holland whilst staying with Janet that Carmelo finally awakens to the reality around him. The fact that he's being exploited sexually by the woman he chooses to spend his life with makes him run away to Spain. On the seat next to him his sits a corpse: it is his moral values.
I mentioned before the Afro-American writer Ralph Ellison and it's worth bringing him back to the fore. When Carmelo describes his vicissitudes that include living as an illegal immigrant in Spain, returning to Cuba to straighten out his papers and endure the penury that befalls those who want to leave the island for good, his description of what awaits him in Berlin goes beyond the street, the museum or the café that most tourists normally enjoy reminiscing upon. His description of his situation in the German capital satistifies a philosophical need to explain the unexplainable. Let's read first what the main character of 'The Invisible Man' tells us on the first page of the novel:
'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus side-shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me.'
And let's read now Carmelo's thoughts as he wanders around the streets of Berlin:
'I soon got used to walking around without asking for permission or seeking approval. I was careful not to disturb anyone with my presence and that's why I mistakenly accepted this silence as freedom. Us, Johnny-come-latelys, usually distort this concept; my supposed liberty was nothing but a mirage. It wasn't that they did not respect me, it was rather that they did not see me. I had become transparent, a person to ignore. I was turned into a ghost, an ethereal being drifting aimlessly around the city sharing only the same air with the rest of the citizens of this city.'
'The Invisible Man' es a book first published in 1952. 'Havana Graffiti' first saw the light in 2007. The former is a novel written by an Afro-American author. The latter was written by a Cuban man. The former depicts a society where the achievements of the civil war were undermined by the failure to grant basic human rights to a particular ethnic group. The latter is a description of a man's second-class-citizen status both in his homeland and abroad.
There are fatal consequences that result from Carmelo's invisibility and these arise from his mental and spiritual impotence. He lashes out against this society that won't allow him to prove his worth. That's his vendetta. Thus, he sheds what is left of his lamb's wool, baring the woolf's armour underneath. Yet, at this precise moment, el Yoyo, with an accurate dexterity normally found in a chef d'orchestre, silences the rest of the musical ensemble and allows the solo violinist to take centre stage, grab our hand and guide us with his instrument through Carmelo's quasi human recovery. After his internet massacre, in which he takes advantage of those poor souls searching for cheap thrills, he is moved by the tears of a young woman he sees apparently arguing with his boyfriend in a park. The result makes him 'go to my computer before putting the shopping away and wiping out all my victims' addresses and thus terminating my vengeance'.
With Carmelo's return to Cuba the third stage in the novel gets underway. His German passport acts as a shield with which to defend himself against the racial prejudices he faces daily when he goes into hotels or places for tourists.
El Yoyo does not shy away from describing Carmelo's sexual encounters, especially during his time in Holland and Spain. The reader might or might not be put off by this and this carnal element could well re-inforce existing prejudices about Cubans. To me Carmelo's foray into the lower echelons of the sexual world in Europe makes him an object of exploitation, satisfaction notwithstanding. This is a situation that repeats itself frequently both in North America and Europe nowadays and which is normally more debated in relation to women than men. However, in the UK, this issue has been discussed recently in television programmes, articles in the media and plays. The Rastas' case in Jamaica is a good example and Gambia has a hig percentage of male prostitutes.
In a separate e-mail el Yoyo asked me kindly to review his novel, even if I did not like and thought it crap. I replied to him in private and it's up to him whether he wants to make that letter public or not. I don't think that there should be any doubt left as to whether I liked the novel or not. Yet, there are two reasons why I refuse to comment negatively about 'Havana Graffiti'.
The first one is straightforward. I am not a critic. To quote el Yoyo, 'I am a normal Cuban, the one amongst you, the one you see every day, the one sitting next you in the bar, the illegal one with "no papers"; the one carrying the cross of watching his land die from a distance'.
The second reason is that books like 'Havana Graffiti' with its quasi-biographical subject matter are necessary to understand the intricacies of the situation in Cuba. 'Havana Graffiti' is not a dissident book, or a book for dissidents, or a book written by a dissident, though I don't know the author personally. It is a novel that points at a reality that, although surreal, is still reality. And what hurts more is that we can't stop living it, no matter how far we live.
There's a comment that I have left for the end because it has to do with a character in the book that although conspicuous does not attract the same attention as the others: the sea. The novel begins in a beach in Havana and winds up in Cadiz, another city by the sea. The sea robs Carmelo of his wife and brings him Janet. The sea welcomes him to Spain and signs off the book. To quote Alejo Carpentier in 'The Rite of Spring': 'La mer, la mer/ toujours recommencée'. This natural element is our Yemayá and it is a fundamental component in a novel that deals with isolation, alienation and disappointment.
That is why, Yoyo, I thank you for letting me read your novel about shit because the excrement that surrounds Carmelo must be explained until hopefully in the near future it can be annihilated.
Copyright 2008


  1. Thanks a lot for commenting Havana Graffiti



  2. No hay por qué, bro.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  3. he llegado demasiado tarde por aquí Cuban, pero me asombra at first sight como puedes generar tanto!!! Mañana estaré de vuelta a digerir con más calma tu particular approach sobre Havana Graffiti...
    Mientras tanto te digo que abrí hoy mi blog personal así que pásate cuando quieras
    un abrazo madrugador desde AH

  4. Los caminos se cruzan, de Londres a Barcelona. ¡Gracias por visitar!



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