Thursday 26 February 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Cuban President and His Brother)

'It's like taking that CD we're listening to now out of this car and playing it in my car instead'.

It was my father who had just spoken. We were listening to the Chucho Valdes' 'Solo: Live In New York' album on our way back to his house from my grandfather's (my dad's dad) in the countryside and my progenitor was answering my wife's question on whether Cuba's situation (political, economic and social) had changed since Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz had come to power last year to replace his elder brother Fidel.

And my father was not the only one having the same thought. Wherever I went in the Cuban capital people just shrugged their shoulders at the same question whilst shooting me (and not my wife) a 'What-do-you-think-bro'er-don't-play-dumb-with-me-now-you-live-abroad- you-know-how-things-work-in-Cuba' look full of defiance and haplessness at the same time.

But there was one shortcoming which my father failed to take into account when he described the current Cuban president and his ruling style.

The power of the spoken word.

Or lack of it thereof.

I had the misfortune to see and hear Raúl speaking in public, a phenomenon that was almost rare when Fidel was still around. Whereas the latter had a knack for oratory on his side Raúl is the opposite. Please, note the use of the past tense in the verb 'to have' in the previous sentence. More on that later.

Like it or not (and the naysayers will be reminding me in no time to give Fidel a wide berth) Cuba's ex-president had the confidence and flair to speak to a congregation for hours on end. Even if a large majority in the crowd would just as soon be somewhere else. Fidel, in his first thirty years at the helm of the Cuban government (1959-1989) displayed the same qualities the ancient Greeks and Romans showed when addressing an audience. His skill as an orator was one of the most important factors in securing support from the Cuban people. This was also helped at the same time by a very effective secret service (G2) and coercion by trade unions, women, children and young people's mass organisations.

Fidel's earlier speeches reminded people, both abroad and in Cuba, of ancient Athens and Rome where orators enjoyed a great deal of popularity. His stand against the US government in the 60s brought to mind Demosthenes' Philippics against Philip II of Macedon. His use of the technique known as 'tricolon', where a speaker uses three elements to emphasise an idea, saw him declaring in 1961 that the Cuban Revolution was 'of the poor, for the poor and by the poor'. That the poor are poorer now remains a moot point, but at the time, 16th April, 1961, they sounded fresh and vibrant, especially in the aftermath of an aerial attack on Cuban soil the day before.

Other techniques used by the ex-lawyer-turned-president were 'antonomasia' and 'call-and-response'. The former refers to the substitution of a phrase for a proper name, i.e., 'those who want Cuba to sink' (the US government in this case, although, who's sunk Cuba more, a bureaucratic, centralised, pseudo-socialist economy, or the embargo, or a combination of both, remains contentious) whereas the latter draws from the African call and response musical pattern (and as an Afro-Cuban dance tutor and performer I should know).

But I have left for the end Fidel's strongest oratorial skill and the one that enabled him to keep a stranglehold on the Cuban population for so many years (hence the past tense of 'to have' above). It was the Aristotelian triumvirate of pathos, logos and ethos: emotion, argument and character respectively. Raúl Castro lacks all three. Fidel hijacked the first one and made it his, closed down the second one and developed the third one to become a blueprint for wannabe dictators (for a bad example, look at Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president).

All in all, this discussion about Fidel's erstwhile adroit political rhetoric can't mask the fact that slogans cannot be eaten and again we turn to a historical figure, Roman politician Cicero, who argued that the true orator is one whose practice of citizenship embodies a civic ideal.

Sadly that is not the case in Cuba today.

© 2009

Wednesday 25 February 2009

A Cuban In Cuba (Photography)

Sunset on Ancón Beach, Sancti Spíritus, southern Cuba.

Copyright 2009

Monday 23 February 2009

A Cuban In Cuba (Music)

Still with the sand from Ancon beach in my ears and the breeze from Havana's so-called 'winter' hugging my sun-kissed skin, I sit at my computer to relate to you my dear fellow bloggers and readers the tales of my sojourn in the largest island in the Caribbean. And of course what better place to begin with than with my latest musical 'discovery'?

Harold Lopez-Nussa is a Cuban pianist who comes from a musical family. His uncle is the renowned musician Ernán Lopez-Nussa whom I first saw in concert many years ago when I was still living in Havana. His mother is a piano teacher and both his father and brother are famous percussionists. No wonder his second album 'Canciones' (Songs) has been playing on a loop on my CD player since I arrived. With material from Jobim, Matamoros, Pablo Milanés and Santiago Feliú this is a record that lifts the listener up and carries him or her around in a maze of wonderful arpeggios and notes. His take on Fito Paez' '11 y 6' is excellent and innovative and the album's coda, Cervantes' 'Los Muñecos' shows off the musician's playing skills to the max. The clip I selected tonight is not included in the record but will give you, my dear bloggy-friends, a good idea of what to expect should you chance upon the album.

This is the first of a few posts related to my stay in Cuba. Expect photos (amateurishly taken, so, please, bear with me) and features on Cuba's current social, cultural, economic and political climate. Many thanks. Enjoy.

Copyright 2009

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Saturday 14 February 2009

Song for a Winter Saturday Night

'Como Fue' - Benny More

Yes, I know, I know, I am still on holidays but how on earth could I leave Valentine's Day out? So, to celebrate this day together, turn the volume of the computer up (the audio in the clip is not very good), proceed down the corridor/up the stairs/into the bathroom/wherever your partner is in the house and whilst listening to this Cuban legend and one of the better singers the world's ever seen, tell your other half: I love you. Have a great Valentine!

Oh, before I forget. The lyrics. The lyrics? What do you mean? Do you want me to translate the lyrics? Ne-ne. Here they are, in the original Spanish and boy, are they beautiful!

Como fue, no se decirte como fue
No sé explicarme que pasó
Pero de ti me enamoré
Fue una luz, que iluminó todo mi ser
Tu brisa como un manantial
Llenó mi vida de inquietud
Fueron tus ojos o tu boca
Fueron tus labios o tu voz
Fue a lo mejor la impaciencia
De tanto esperar, tu llegada
Mas no sé, no se decirte como fue
Ni sé explicarme que pasó
Pero de ti me enamoré

Fueron tus ojos o tu boca
Fueron tus labios o tu voz
Fue a lo mejor la impaciencia
De tanto esperar, tu llegada
Mas no sé, no se decirte como fue
Ni se explicarme que pasó
Pero de ti me enamoré

Sunday 8 February 2009

Automatic Vacation Response

Hello, everyone, you probably came down here today for our weekly song for a winter Sunday morning section. Well, you're in for a surprise. I will be hibernating for a fortnight (in Cuba, actually). In the meantime, I leave you with this little compilation that I made for you and that functions as my mental iPod (I have not got a real one yet). Think of it as 'Being a Cuban In London' with a little help from Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. The comments moderator has been activated for obvious reasons. I will be visiting your blogs on my return and posting pictures and comments from my trip to my homeland. Many thanks.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (Review)

Milan Kundera is a man on a mission. And his mission is simple yet arduous: to preserve his country’s collective memory.

In 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to quell the uprising led by progressive forces against the totalitarian, Moscow-backed Czech regime. The aftermath of this invasion saw Czechoslovakia remain occupied until 1990. ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ deals with what one of the characters in the novel calls ‘the struggle of man against power’.

At the time of the Prague Spring (as this period became known) Kundera’s first novel ‘The Joke’ and his collection of stories ‘Laughable Loves’ were being published in editions of 150,000. After the Soviet invasion the Czech writer was dismissed from his teaching post at the Prague Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies and his books banned. He has lived in France since 1975.

In ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ Kundera's targets were not just the Stalinist regime that was imposed in Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1989 (minus that brief period of January to August 1968) but also the people who forgot the feeling of untruth they were being told. These were the people who enthusiastically joined the orgy of betrayal and self-betrayal, and became staunch defenders of the new system. Should a critic of the regime have pointed out an irregularity here or there, these cheerleaders of the totalitarian dictatorship would have shrugged their shoulders and claimed it was always supposed to be thus.

To the seasoned Kundera’s reader (and I count myself as one), ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ offers yet another spin on the same theme of Stalinist totalitarianism. Milan had already touched upon it in ‘The Joke’ and delved into more thoroughly in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. But far from being repetitive, in ‘The Book…’ Kundera focuses on the existence and loss of humour, on the various ways in which laughter manifests itself – the Devil’s laugh vs the angels’ laugh- and man’s metaphysical attitude to laughter. Above all, Milan resorts to what I have come to label ‘positive negativity’ (I’m sure there’s a technical term for it in literature) where by means of a series of positive phrases, sentences and expressions the opposite is implied. His allegory of Stalinism as the dream of paradise is spot on. Here’s a world where everybody could finally live in harmony, united by a common belief. And it is through this archetype that totalitarianism attracts so many followers, especially during the early years of its existence (Cuban Revolution anyone?). Once the dreams of paradise starts to turn into reality however, those who oppose this golden dream end up in a prison/concentration camp in the outskirts of Eden.

It is hard to define the plot of this novel as in Kundera's own words 'this book is a novel in the form of variations.'

Mirek travels to the countryside to meet Zdena, a woman he once had a fling with. Marketa and Karel have constant run-ins with the latter's mother and so decide to move out. Gabrielle and Michelle are two American girls who are doing an analysis on a play by Ionesco. Tamina, the main character in the novel, is a waitress in a small café which belongs to a married couple in some provincial town in the west of Europe. However, Kundera states that 'this is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. Tamina dies in Part Six of the book. In the meantime there's also an explanation of the word 'litost' in Czech, which, to a linguist like me, was a wonder to enjoy and behold. And as in many books by Kundera there's sex, a lot of it, uncompromised, unbridled and taboo-less.

How to read this novel, then? As an allegory? Nein, Herr Kundera seems to be saying. In an interview with the American author Philip Roth that appears at the end of the book, almost like an epilogue, Kundera states what constitutes a novel for him and what to me would serve as a good guide for first-time readers of this important, contemporary Czech writer's oeuvre:

'A novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits. By the term synthetic I have in mind the novelist's desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy. The synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of the book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book, there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting.'

Copyright 2009

Tuesday 3 February 2009

London, My London (The Day the Snow Came)

Monday 2nd February 2009. The heaviest snowfall in 18 years has covered London in white. And on the street, children play together, chucking snowballs at each other, or at passing cars (the few daredevils who venture out in this weather) or instead the children take good aim at a bobby on the beat who smiles and returns the favour, outnumbered as he/she is, notwithstanding. On days like these my adopted city looks regal and my imagination soars away. Many thanks, winter, many thanks, snow and many thanks, London, my London.

The Thought-Fox

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:

Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;

Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

By Ted Hughes

Monday 2 February 2009

Luz en el Alma (Light in the Soul) Award

I have just been awarded the 'Luz en el Alma (Light in the Soul)' Prize by Amanecer en la Habana and I'm chuffed to bits. Many thanks, Zurama.


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