Authors: Reinaldo Arenas
Table of Contents
My thanks to Margarita and Jorge Camacho, Juan Abreu, Dr. Olivier Ameisen, Thomas Colchie, and the many other people who made Arenas's life and work possible. And thanks to Lee Paradise for his support and valuable suggestions, which helped make this translation possible.
Reinaldo had a tremendous ability to create very loyal friends as well as enemies. To all of them, this translation is dedicated.
ESSAY The Joyful Sixties in Latin American Literature
I HAD TO PREPARE a paper to be read at a university conference. It was going to be about one of the most important moments in Spanish American literature: the novels of the sixties. I was writing it on the train while on my way there. The train crossed faceless town after faceless town in the United States, no doubt through one of the most boring landscapes on earth. That landscape should have incited me to write, since there was nothing to distract me from delving into my paper on the joyful sixties. “The Joyful Sixties,” that would be the title of my presentation. And the topic, the reasons that during an eight-year period, from 1962 to 1970, Latin America produced more than ten extraordinary novels. This has always amazed me, knowing that it would perhaps take centuries for an event so unique to be repeated.
Let me try to enumerate quickly, at the speed of the train, these already classic works. In 1962,
Explosion in a Cathedral
(El siglo de las luces),
by Alejo Carpentier, appears in Mexico and in France. It is an imposing linguistic structure, orchestrated like a piece of music, which offers an epic vision of the failure of the French Revolution, under the guise of which lurks, sometimes overtly and sometimes allegorically, the failure of the Cuban revolution. This is, without any doubt, Carpentier's masterpiece. It is published first in French, and then in Spanish in Mexico, before appearing in Cuba in 1963. In that same year Julio CortÃ¡zar publishes
and Mario Vargas Llosa,
The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros).
The former is the novel
of alienation and cross-acculturation, the novel of the big city and of the intellectual who feels lost in it and tries to find his Latin American identity in Paris, in the midst of an absurd and quite often unwelcoming world; we watch the daily adventures of a new Ulysses who will never make it to Ithaca. And
The Time of the
introduces a young writer who at twenty-five wrote a masterpiece about violence, machismo, and Latin American militarism, using quite an innovative technique and a kind of language that seemed to break new ground with its fists.
In 1966 a monumental work,
by JosÃ© Lezama Lima, appears in Havana. Open to infinite interpretations, it is not a novel but a compendium of all novels (and of antinovels as well). Its text ranges from the sacred to the erotic. Moreover,
is the most portentous verbal monument in the literature of Latin America. Its publication caused a commotion that perplexed most of its readers and angered the Cuban government bureaucracy to the extent that no more editions were published in Cuba, even though it was out of print in just one week.
In the following year, 1967, Latin American literature is again enriched by at least a couple of one-of-a-kind works:
Three Trapped Tigers (Tres tristes tigres),
by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien aÃ±os de
by Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez.
Three Trapped Tigers
plays not only with the possibilities of the Spanish language, and of Cuban expressions and Havana's street voices, particularly of its nightlife then, but also with witticisms and puns, and even new words of the author's invention: language as a tool at the writer's disposal, not as sacred dogma.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
is the work of a genius of the divertissement, following the tradition of authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Juan Rulfo, and, of course, William Faulkner, and fusing them in a burst of inventiveness that he illuminated with incessant fireworks. A great roundabout, ingenious joyride through that world that is Latin America, always about to collapse, all stupor and chaos . . . But the total collapse, and even the nostalgia of that collapse, climaxes in
The Obscene Bird of Night (El obsceno pÃ¡jaro de la noche),
by JosÃ© Donoso, a novel published in 1970. With this perfect work on the crumbling of a family that symbolizes the whole human race, the cycle of masterpieces published within an eight-year period came to an end.
The fact that during the sixties Latin America produced at least eight (my enumeration has been minimal) extraordinary novels that transformed and enriched not only Spanish American literature, but that of the Western world, up to then deep into the lethargic nouveau roman, continues to be for me a source of wonder, and I feel I can only offer a tentative interpretation. . . . While I was writing these notes and trying to find a reasonable explanation for this synchronized eclosion of lasting works, my train continued moving through the same essentially boring landscape: identical trees, one after the other, the same gas stations, another (or the same?) Burger King, the same prescribed nothingness, the same programmed boredom for hundreds and hundreds of miles. . . . Unquestionably, it was better to delve into the joyful sixties and to attempt to determine what triggered such literary splendor.
The joyful sixties! That might be precisely the key to the conditions that enabled Latin American writers (with three Cuban authors among them) to produce novels of true distinction. Joy is a state of grace, a time of hope, faith, enthusiasm, abandon, desire, playfulness, invention, rebellion, incessant exploration. Joy, great joy, is an illusive state, a collective euphoria. These were the joyful sixties because the world had been shaken by a sexual revolution and, one way or another, prejudices had been swept away. The joyful sixties because young men were then proud of their beautiful and rebellious long hair, and young women did not blush anymore at the idea, and practice, of free love. The joyful sixties because a musical revolution had also taken over the world, and the Beatles with their unique songs had broken all barriers of common incommunication. All curtains drew openâwhether political ones or those of prudishness or bad tasteâand made way for poetry; nothing could stop the avalanche of joyousness and vitality.
These were the joyful sixties because while youth proclaimed that the center of power was the ability to imagine, hippies were decorating the cars of bureaucrats with flowers. The joyful sixties because we found more exultation in a canto than in a hymn, and because new hymns were invented, and because after so many years of repression, of self-inhibition and hypocrisy, true freedom had been discovered. The joyful sixties because then film masterpieces flooded the movie screens, instead of the commercial inanities now overflowing everywhere. The joyful sixties because young people, even in Cuba, would brazenly jump into the ocean wearing their best clothes, or the sounds of a guitar strumming would burst forth in an evening full of promises. The joyful sixties because the distant scents of spring in Prague would reach us at La Rampa in Havana . . . No, it wasn't only that Latin America was going through a most powerful romantic movement, or that Cuba had been recognized as the cradle of literary modernism, or that during the thirties some outstanding books had been written. The fact was that a new creative vitality, sustained no doubt by those traditions, needed to forge ahead because the conditions were auspicious and the public somehow demanded it. The moment of liberation had finally come, the beginning of a new age, and we were eager for adventure, feeling at least in possession of our outsized dreams, or of the late-night air, while we were still able to enjoy it. Another kind of revolution had also started in Cuba, and it had toppled years of tyranny.
It was natural then, in such an environment saturated by the energy in the air crossing over all boundaries, that a series of unique works would spring forth. The moment called for boldness, and therefore for creativity (and here again, another gas station, another Burger King, the uniform darkness of another stand of pine trees, of the flat and infinite horizon where the train moved along as through an interminable tunnel). This vitality, which had been gestating for a very long time but exploded in the sixties, also impregnated the creative talents of many writers. And it must be recognized that many of these writers had then made exclusive commitments to freedom and creativity. Even Alejo Carpentier was a quasi-dissident, writing in Paris or in La Guadalupe, and getting his works published in Mexico before Cuba. Cabrera Infante was already installed in what would later be his notorious London basement flat. And his neighbor was Vargas Llosa. CortÃ¡zar roamed Paris, not yet an unconditional militant of a dogmatic ideology. Lezama Lima subverted with his laughter and audacity his old house at Trocadero 162, and in an act of provocation, made an appearance at the revolutionary UNEAC [Cuban Writers and Artists Union] with an enormous Christian silver cross dangling from his front pants pocket. Lezama looked like an oversize hippie with an enormous medallion. Even GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez was then an elusive journalist who escaped from Prensa Latina, a news agency, and was writing feverishly in his modest Mexico City apartment.
The Latin American novel of the sixties, one of the most important events of this century, was not the product of a movement, nor of a group of writers working out of their comfortable offices (as it was for the new French novel), but was rather the product of a group of adventurers and pariahs who had made the whole world into their own homeland, and creativity into their only faith. Even Lezama Lima, a recluse in Old Havana, was more cosmopolitan than Marco Polo.
After this apologia or disquisition, call it what you will, I needed only to sink myself into those joyful sixties, and go back to the times when we still felt alive because we had dreams, and great literature could be written because we had not yet lost our innocence. . . . But now, suddenly, the train is passing by a sports arena. In the twilight I see a few young men, athletic and carefree, jumping and throwing a ball into the basket. And this image inevitably blasts me into the present. And I see myself just as I am, a product of the sixties, already in the shadow of the somber nineties. Someone who cannot identify, belong, blend in with those carefree youths throwing the ball into the air, no matter how much he wants to (and I do want to). Those young men can be totally involved in their activity because they do not carry around in their souls the obsession of a truncated dream, of a past that promised a vital future and ended up in a revolutionary concentration camp. In our lifetimes, neither I nor any Cubans of my generation in exile now, those of us who came from the future, those of us who have suffered and still suffer an unbroken chain of infamies or misfortunes, none of us shall ever again be able to throw a ball in the air with such carefree abandon, no matter how much we want to, no matter how desperately we try.
A weight that cannot be lifted hangs over each of our gestures, over each of our words, for having gone through an experience that cannot be properly expressed: the frustration of having been witnesses and actors during the glorious sixties, of having dreamed of a revolution that in every sense turned into a killing field, of having dreamed of a future that, instead of bringing us forward, had a regressive nature that devoured us and then spit us out (those of us who were not completely crushed) on this intolerable and feverish sand-pit, or on the frozen plains whipped by all sorts of winds, including that of our own discontent.
The others, those who did not come from Cuba, those who have not gone through this experience, could perhaps live in the United States in a kind of limbo at least, where the curse of memory and of disappointment would not keep battering them. But for us, who possess the overwhelming lucidity of having come out of an inferno, no illusions are possible. We have suffered and endured successive degradations. The degradation of absolute poverty during the so-called period of the republic and under Fulgencio Batista's tyranny; the degradation of power under Castro's dictatorship; and the degradation brought by the need for American dollars under the current system. We lead double and even triple lives at the same time, whether we want to or not, which actually means we do not really live in any of them.
Our condition as ghosts is perfect and permanent. An enormous circus tent has fallen over our ideals. An angry frustration is our source of energy and pushes us forward. We live on fury, indignation, rage, alienation, and the desperation of trying to hold on to a world that exists only in our hopes. We are nourished by the memory of an ocean at sunset, of a unique book that understood us, read in a park under a tree, of the scent exuded by our houseplants when we came into a home that no longer exists, of a street that we shall never cross again, and a starry sky that vanishes up above, and we with it.
Somehow, out of all of this, someone might be able to create good literature in the United States, in Spanish. After all, our tradition is that of a bereft child. . . . But the one thing of which I am completely certain is that we shall never again be able to throw a ball in the air with the same ease, with that joyful abandon, with the innocence of those young men I saw briefly while my train continued its implacable rush toward the place where I had to read my presentation.
Delivered at the award ceremony for the Letras de Oro literary prizes