Wednesday 26 October 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I don't know how many times I walked, cycled or ran past No. 375 on N St., Vedado, Havana, Cuba. Two of my best mates lived around the corner. I used to play baseball in a - then - disused car park nearby. My cousin got married right across the building, in the same mansion-cum-notary where I used to play hide'n'seek week in, week out.

And yet, it never occurred to me that at No. 375, N St., Flat 7, the landscape of Cuban literature was being changed. For the better.

It was at this abode that Virgilio Piñera, one of Cuba's foremost authors (poet, essayist, journalist, playwright and short-story writer) resided for many years after he moved from Guanabo, a borough in the outskirts of Havana. It was here that he penned plays like Dos Viejos Pánicos, a superb meditation on old age.

Considering that I became infatuated with Piñera's literary output in my teens, I would have probably attempted to turn his erstwhile apartment into a shrine if given half the chance. Or who knows, maybe, one day, when I'm filthily rich (there's still hope, not about the "filthy" bit, though) I'll buy the flat and turn it into a museum. I might even be supported in this enterprise by a group of fellow Piñerians.

And all of us, Virgilio enthusiasts, would be in great company. We would join a select group in which we'll find avid Harry Potter fans venerating the home in which JK Rowling lived for many years, blue-plaque stalkers on the lookout for a new sign bearing names of a Conan Doyle or Keats pedigree and Roald Dahl fans contributing some hard cash towards the half million pounds needed to move the shed, in which he wrote many of his best-selling stories, from Buckinghamshire to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.

Sorry, what's that you're saying? Do you want me to run that last item by you again? Don't worry, dear, I shall oblige.

Roald Dahl, he of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox fame, used a little cabin, built in the 1950s, as his writing retreat to pen his world-renowned children's books. The structure was never intended to last, yet, lasted it has and now it's in danger of collapsing. The Dahl family, along with trusts and foundations, are looking to raise around one million pounds for the renovation but the initial press release triggered a public outcry. Most people were of the opinion that the likes of Sophie Dahl and the rest of her clan should be the ones stumping up the full whack, especially when one takes into account how well the author's books still do and the revenue generated by film adaptations like James and the Giant Peach.

The news, however, did make me wonder how far we, as fans (I'm not referring just to Dahl now, though, for his books were never amongst my favourites), are willing to go to achieve the ultimate literary experience and what it really means. I think that nowadays we've gone beyond venerating places of residence and original drafts, the two usual objects of worship, and moved onto the places where the writing supposedly took place, or where some of the author's fictitious characters hung out.

For example the James Joyce Centre includes a walk entitled "In the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom". On its website the blurb states that "This tour explores the background to Joyce’s Ulysses and to Bloom’s thoughts as he crosses the city in search of something to eat in the ‘Lestrygonians’ episode". This is a positive case study as, in my view, this excursion would complement such a sensorial novel. I hope one day to join the jaunt.

However, I think that there might be also an ulterior - and unconscious - motive behind fans' attempt to get a closer look at their favourite writers' digs. I would call it "literary talent by proxy". The person who bought JK Rowling's flat might not just have wanted to breathe in the same air that inspired Rowling to write her Harry Potter series, but also to exhale, in the process, a character in the same mould as Dumbledore. I'm entering the realm of wild speculation here, but he might have thought that living within the same four walls that housed the author might help him produce a novel focusing on a wizard boy whose life is in danger. He might even attempt to write such tale inside a cupboard. Implausible? Yes. But... Well, when it comes to literature, all bets are off.

This situation of readers worshipping - and occasionally buying - the places where their favourite books were written, brings to mind the only time I ever visited Hemingway's old home, La Finca Vigía in Havana. At the time I was in my teens and had yet to read any of his novels. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the light and space in his former residence. This was, after all, the place where Papa Hemingway (who also left his mark in other spots in Havana such as the Ambos Mundos Hotel and the Floridita restaurant) had lived. Fortunately, I didn't feel the urgency to go out and start battling it out with a marlin.

But I still dream of turning Flat 7 at No. 375 on N St. into a museum or exhibition centre where the works by one of Cuba's literary geniuses can finally be acknowledged. Especially as the centenary of his birth (4th August 2012) is fast approaching. So, expect more columns about this key figure of Cuban letters. His name is Virgilio. Virgilio Piñera.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 30th October at 10am (GMT)


  1. I have always been ridiculously attracted to anything associated with the writers I love. I can remember standing in the Morgan Library in New York City and gazing at a manuscript behind glass of Virginia Woolf's -- her writing, her pen. Just wow. I'm a bit of a nerd that way -- I loved this post, Cuban.

  2. sounds a wonderful dream - this is a new writer for me so thanks for the introduction...Greetings from the Riviera...

  3. Sounds like the kind of writing i'd love.

    Peace to you brother, M

  4. Mario, I did not know you were such a great fan of Virgilio's work. I did not discover his books until I was 20 and I went through tha same stage as you trying to grasp what was left of him in the city.
    Count me in for any future rescue efforts.
    A kiss for you,

  5. Thanks to you all for your comments. Zutchill, the first short story by Piñera I ever read was "La Carne" (or was it La Carne de Rene? Can't remember now) I loved the surreal and absurd tone, the humour. That was when you and I were in college. Piñera encapsulates everything I love about literature and I'm getting ready a few posts about his life and work. I have just read and re-read all his plays and I'll be doing the same with his short stories pretty soon. I'm leaving his poetry for next year. In the meantime I just started Lezama Lima's famous columns about Havana, that first appeared in "La Marina" newspaper, in 1949. Thanks for swinging by.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Thx Mario - I am going to look our for Virgilio Piñera's work... I read (Wikipedia!) that he was an influence on Reinaldo Arenas - my eyes popped recently reading the extraordinary, earthy Before Night Falls...

  7. Hi, Helena. He was an influence on so many writers, that it's hard to say who wasn't Virgilio-ed in his/her time. Even in dance, as Marianela Boan will probably attest. There was a superb piece she created for eight dancers (four women and four men) called "EL Pez de la Torre Nada en el Asfalto". The title was taken after a line one of Virgilio's characters says in "Aire Frio".

    Have a great weekend.

  8. All very astute observations, Cubano. I share the same obsessions about my favorite authors and I do think we go overboard sometimes. By the way , I actually live in the town where Hemmingway was born and they have made his some a museum. Although he had a big impact on me as a writer, I've never felt moved enough to visit, I think I'm a little spooked by Papa's noted neuroses and exactly where it stemmed from.



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