Literary Afterlives of the Cuban and Angolan Revolutions


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC.>>Ted Widmer: Good
afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming. It’s an exciting day in Washington,
and here in the Kluge Center, this morning we had a
delegation of Congressmen come in for a really fascinating
conversation about the great difficulty
of doing their work. And they cited today in particular. And tonight, we’re going to
see, I think it’s likely, a vote on health care with
long-term ramification. Oh, really? See, I’ve been doing too
much academic work today. I haven’t been checking the news. Well, some kind of vote is coming,
because it’s, it’s been proposed. And I think the nearness of our
work to the work of Congress is one of the many things that makes
the Kluge Center so exciting. And I’m delighted to
introduce Lanie Millar today, who will explain her work
in the literary interstices of the Cold War, and in particularly
the, the aspect of the Cold War that eluded most of us growing up
in the United States in the 1970s. But Cuba’s very deep involvement
with Angola, in Africa, of different kinds of
trans-Atlantic partnership. And the literary results
of that Cold War alignment. There are a few Kluge Scholars
whose work I know in more detail than Lanie’s, because I, I
was a guinea pig for her, instead of the other way around. I offered to do an interview with
her that we put up on our Web site, and it was incredibly fun and
interesting, and brought me back into my own complex
memories as a kid, the 70s, growing up in the shadow of a Cold
War whose full complexity most of us never understood. And we’re still working
it out, years afterwards. So, she will speak to us
today on literary after lives of the Cuban and Angolan
revolutions. It’s from a book manuscript
that she’s working on, entitled The Poetics
of Disappointment: Cuban and Angolan Narratives
after Revolution. Lanie’s an assistant
professor of Romance languages at the University of Oregon. She attended Baylor
University as an undergraduate, and received a Master’s
at Middlebury. Her research focuses on contemporary
Caribbean and African literature in Spanish and Portuguese. And before calling her to the
stage, I want to remind you that Fraulka Saxa is
speaking on April 4th. Songs of Faith and Devotion:
Discovery of the Quiiche Couplas in Kislak Manuscript 1015, and Aroun
Soud [assumed spelling] is speaking on the cultural memory
of Robert Burns in 19th Century America
on April 6th at four. Both of those talks
are here in LJ 119. And on April 13th, Wayne Weegan
[assumed spelling] is speaking on the History of School
Librarianship. So, without further — oh, and
please turn off your cell phones, because this is being recorded. Without further ado,
please welcome Lanie Millar. Lanie? [ Applause ]>>Lanie Millar: Thanks so
much, Ted, for the introduction. I couldn’t be happier to be here. And I have to start by thanking the
wonderful staff of the Kluge Center. Those of you who are here, the
librarians in the collections that I’ve been able to consult
here, especially Laverne Page in the African and Middle
Eastern Reading Room. And thanks to the colleagues, and
for the many wonderful conversations that we’ve been able to have over the last six months
while I’ve been here. So, as Ted mentioned, what I’ll
be talking about today are parts of the research that I’ve been able
to complete here, that are drawn from chapters in my book manuscript. I’ll start with an overview of
the project, talking a little bit about the theoretical and
historical justification. And then I’m going to discuss
two novels as examples. One Cuban novel and
one Angolan novel. And then a quick vocabulary note. When I use Lush as a prefix, it
refers to the Portuguese language. Okay. Cuba and Angola share a long
history of Iberian colonization, dating from the 15th century. And are also two poles of the
trans-Atlantic slave trade that continued into the 19th. More recently, they
shared the histories of 20th century leftist revolutions. Cuba’s, of course,
triumphed in 1959, while Angola won its
independence from Portugal in 1975. In both places, the link between
the colonial past and the threat of a neo-colonial present provided
an on-going rhetorical basis for seeing Cuba and
Angola as involved in similar ideological battles. Battles that became
literal ones when Cuba began to send troops to Angola in 1975. A 1976 speech by Fidel Castro
commemorates the anniversaries of the Cuban victory over US
invaders in 1961 at Playa Giron, known in the US as the Bay of
Pigs, and Angola’s independence from Portugal, laying out the
rhetorical underpinnings of the long and tangled geo politics
links the two nations. In Giron, quote, in Giron,
African blood was spilled. That of the selfless
descendants of an enslaved people. And in Africa, together with
the heroic combatants of Angola, Cuban blood was also spilled. Those who one day enslaved
men and send them to America perhaps never
imagined that one of those nations that received slaves
would send its combatants to fight for liberty in Africa. The victory of Angola was the twin
sister of the victory at Giron. End quote. Angolan and other Luzo-African
intellectuals shared Castro’s rhetoric of placing together two
moments of national revolution against colonial and neo-colonial
forces, as parallel events in a worldwide fight against
colonialism and imperialism. 10 years prior, at the first
Tri- Continental Congress, that took place in Havana in 1966, Pisau Guinean revolutionary Amielka
Cabral [assumed spelling] had used almost the same language as
Castro, of retracing the roots of the slave trade in the shared
interest of decolonization. In his speech, after lauding the
accomplishments of the Cuban miracle of the early revolutionary years,
he declares, quote, we are prepared to send to Cuba as many men and
women as may be needed to compensate for the departure of those who
have interests or attitudes that are incompatible with the
interests of the Cuban people. Taking once again the formerly hard
and tragic path of our ancestors, mainly from Guinea and Angola,
who were taken to Cuba as slaves, we would come now as free men, to
strengthen the bonds of history, blood, and culture which unite
our peoples with the Cuban people. End quote. Angola was the site of Cuba’s
largest internationalist military and humanitarian mission. During the first 15 years
of Angola’s civil war, which lasted until 2002,
Cuba also sponsored thousands of African students on the island,
and send teacher, engineers, and doctors to Angola to
fill the technical voids left when Portuguese personnel
abandoned the country. Angola’s politicians and intellectuals expressed
their gratitude publicly, and the two writers’
unions signed an agreement of mutual publication in 1976. The public rhetoric in national
and international publishing venues around South Atlantic emphasized a
process of mutual self-recognition, articulated, as we see in those
two speeches, through notions of Africa diasporic sibling-hood, as well as through
anti-imperialist solidarity. However, as much as this
period produced similar works of revolutionary solidarity, there
is a parallel stream in literature in both hemispheres that derails
the utopian imagined futures that develops among tightening
political and cultural policies, the death and mutilation of
thousands of soldiers in Africa, and the increasing distance
between political posturing and social disintegration as the
civil war escalated in Angola. This presentation will
discuss characteristics of this alternative phase of
Cuban and Angolan narratives from the late 20th century, analyzing Angolan author
Pepetela’s 2001 novel Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent, and Cuban Eliseo
Alberto’s 1998 novel Caracol Beach, through the lens of what I’m
calling a poetics of disappointment. I define disappointment as an
effective and formal response to revolutionary enthusiasm. In his article titled
Anatomy of Enthusiasm, Cuban historian Rafael Rojas
argues that the early years of the revolution represented
a spectacle of ideas, in which public debates
centered on the shape and future of the new utopian
revolutionary era. To describe the newness
of the feeling associated with this spectacle, Rojas draws on French theorist Jean Francois
Leotard’s 1986 essay Enthusiasm: A Kantian Critique of History. In which Leotard proposes
an analogic relationship between an experience with
unprecedented political events, like revolution, and the Kantian
experience with the sublime. In Leotard’s analysis, enthusiasm
offers a glimpse of the potential for social betterment that
provokes the observers of the revolutionary event
into a political commitment. While for Kant, the
French revolution serves as the foundational
event in modernity that inspires this feeling,
Leotard argues that different times and social conditions will
produce different events that produce widespread enthusiasm. He uses as his example
May of 1968 in Europe, while Rojas offers
the Cuban revolution as another possible event. This feeling of enthusiasm
for the possibility of a more radically just society
produced particular types of culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Angolan and Cuban literature and
film focus, for example, on revising or correcting the
Colonially-inflected historical record. On privileging subaltern
points of view. And on placing history and art
making into the metaphorical and literal hands of the masses. Artistic styles were concerned with
the new, with breaking past molds, in order to find a new visual and
verbal language, forms and styles that would adequately reflect
the new social conditions. The Cuban revolution in the 1960s,
therefore, had at least two, certainly more than two,
possible intellectual narratives. One as the inheritor of the
liberal tradition founded in 1789, but a second one that privileged its
links to the anti-Colonial struggles across Latin America,
Africa and Asia. The second history is
theorized thoroughly in Cuban essayist Roberto Fernandez
Retamar’s seminal essay Caliban, published in 1971. Which Rojas reads as a pivot
away from the possibilities of the liberal tradition toward
an ideology of third-worldism, in the essay’s argument for using
the figure of Shakespeare’s slave in the Tempest for a symbol
for Cuba’s identification with and allegiance for the
formerly colonized world. Cuba’s turn away from the
global North to embrace African and Latin American
liberation movements in the late 1960s precipitates,
among some of its theorists, a new genealogy of revolution. Founded in a radically anti-Colonial
interpretation of the enslaved and the oppressed taking charge
of their historical future. It’s no accident, for example,
that the Haitian revolution and its leadership appear in
literary and historical works as an alternate sign of
the age of revolutions, in novels and works of history. And works discussing slavery focus
on acts of rebellion and resistance, rather than romantic
depictions of suffering. To Saint Lobeteur [assumed
spelling], among other black revolutionary
historical figures like the Brazilian Zumbidos
Palmaris [assumed spelling] and the Angolan Queen Inzinga
[assumed spelling] appear in Angolan literature as
historical predecessors and founders of a tradition of resistance. However, a series of events,
starting in the late 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, altered the artistic
and political landscape. Precipitating Cuba’s break
with the Euro-American left. On the Cuban side, first, the series of high profile censorship
cases in the late 1960s. Especially the imprisonment
and forced confession of crimes against the revolution by
poet Heberto Padilla in 1971, and the silencing of playwright
Anton Arrufat after 1968. Second, the establishment of
the Cuban Cultural Ministry to centrally regulate cultural
production, initiating the period that essayist Ambrosio Fornet
calls the gray five years in the early 1970s, for
its top-down implementation of strict esthetic models and
the threat of ostracization, imprisonment or censure for
those who did not comply. In Angola, after the leftist
MPLA party won the government in the months after
independence from Portugal, the anti-colonial conflict escalated
into an international conflict, when South Africa invaded
its southern borders. And then progressed to
a full-out civil war. 1977’s failed coup
d’etat, led by Nito Alves against then-president Agostinho
Neto, resulted in series of forced confessions,
persecution and execution of presumed collaborators. And the civil conflict
continued to intensify. It was accompanied by a State-sponsored publishing
program similar to Cuba’s, where literature proliferated, but
where the political thrust of works of art were tightly monitored,
to be sure of compliance with the program linked
to revolutionary ideals. This period, in short,
ushered in the beginners of a widespread feeling
of disappointment. In my work, disappointment responds
to how the radical possibilities of revolutionary promise take
on recognizable political forms, such as bureaucratization,
censorship and corruption, while the new literary forms
that had been associated with utopian ideals and revolutionary promise
become the basis for prescribed esthetic models. Texts of disappointment revisit the
radical possibilities of revolution through a poetics of
citation and imitation. They used techniques such as parody,
pastiche and historical re-writing. These practices, in turn,
interrogate the meaning of signs, forms or events for which the
cultural value is changing. So, I’m now going to
turn to the first example of a literary text
of disappointment. The satirical detective
novel Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent, by Angolan novelist Ahtur Carlos Mauricio
Pestano du Santus, better known by his
pen name of Pepetela. Perhaps the most famed
living Angolan writer, Pepetela’s corpus spans the early
years of revolutionary action in the mid-1970s to the present day. In the midst of a career of
prize-winning historical novels and later works critical of the
corruption and domestic conflict, Pepetela has written
two Jaime Bunda novels. Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent, published
in 2001, and the follow-up, Jaime Bunda and the dead of the
American, published in 2003. They appear in the decade after
the constitutional reforms of 1991 left behind the single
party government in favor of a Capitalist, multi-party
democracy. In Pepetela’s depiction, turned kleptocratic
autocracy in the 21st century. The protagonist of both novels
is the comically inept secret not-so-secret agent of
Angola’s fictional general investigative service. He obtains his nickname, Abunda,
due to his outsize back side, which is what Bunda
means in Portuguese. He holds his lowly
junior position only due to the nepotism of
a distant relative. While both the Jaime Bunda novels
nod to the genre conventions of detective fiction, in both novels
he’s attempting to solve a murder. The wandering, tangled intrigue
of government corruption, social disorganization,
false leads, misinformation, and widespread ineptitude, by the
end of both novels, fails to result in a satisfactory resolution
for either crime. In Jaime Bunda, Secret
Agent, the titular character, the laughing stock of his
office, gets his big break when his boss recruits him
to oversee the investigation of the rape and murder
of a teenage girl. Jaime finds it strange to devote
national police efforts to the case, since her family is neither
politically nor socially prominent. But it is his first chance to put into practice the investigative
techniques he has read about in the English language crime
novels and films that he favors. He ultimately fails to discover
that the murderer is the son of a prominent Congress member. That crime is solved
by the local police. But he does accidentally stumble
upon an international counterfeit currency ring. His discovery leads to the
apprehension of several of the players, but leaves
the masterminds at large. Nonetheless, Jaime distracted
from his original mission, and more concerned with his esteem
in his office, and his access to a gun and a car, accepts
his new reputation as a star, more or less willing to accede
to the version of the truth that puts him and his collaborators
in favor with the bosses. In the novel’s portrayal
of this inept but accidentally successful
investigator, we can read in Pepetela a satire
of a wide variety of aspects of contemporary Angolan society. Including nepotism and his critiques of a rising revolutionary
elite turned bourgeoisie in the 21st century. Who, following the post-
Cold War political winds, embrace all things American. Although, of course, a
running joke in the novel is that Jaime can’t distinguish
references to British detectives like Sherlock Holmes, J.G. Reeder
and James Bond from American ones like Mike Hammer, Philip
Marlow and Perry Mason. For him, they’re all gringos. However, in the connections
between the way that the novel narrates Jaime’s
imitation of fictional detectives, I also read the novel as a
literary pastiche, and here, I’m drawing on Jeanette’s definition
of pastiche as a satirical form of imitation that is
primarily concerned with style. Pepetela manifests the stylistic
imitation central to pastiche in describing Jaime Bunda’s
approach to investigation. Drawn from a literary
history of careful observation and logical deduction,
clearly rooted in classics like Edgar Allen Poe
and Conan Doyle. The first time we meet Jaime, we learned that while he lacks
the confidence of his bosses and co-workers, he has honed
his observational acumen through minute observation
of the details around him. Quote, they never gave him a chance
to prove that he could be an ace, only ordering him to
go and buy cigarettes. During all those months spent
in that room, more than 20, he learned to distinguish all
the types of flies that came in and out of the windows. End quote. Later, as Jaime is briefed
on details of the case, he interrupts his boss
with the observation that his superior has one brown
shoe lace and one black one. The style of his speech
reveals a clear allusion to the step-by-step
reasoning typical of Sherlock Holmes or Auguste Dupin. Jaime Bunda got up from the chair
in front of the chief’s office and walked around to the other
side, to stand next to him. He even bent down, to get a
closer look, and then straightened up with a triumphant smile. This is what I think
happened, chief. Actually, both shoelaces are brown. Only one received some black polish. Probably when you were
shining your shoes. Did you do that yourself, chief,
with one of those little bottles, with one of those bottles with
the little sponge at the tip? Jaime Bunda went back to
sit comfortable in front of his superior, who could
not stop looking at his shoes, and then at his subordinate,
completely dumbfounded. His authority undermined. End quote. The joke, of course, is not
just that Jaime is forced to exercise his considerable
observational skills on exaggeratedly trivial matters. But that he is entirely
unable to distinguish trivial or irrelevant observations
from important clues. Well, in a Sherlock Holmes story,
such an episode might serve to demonstrate the detective’s skill
in advance of a brilliant deduction that solves the crime, Jaime Bunda
equally enthusiastically pursues leads that are related to the case, and others that just match
patterns he has read about. Cherche la femme, he mysteriously
repeats several times throughout the novel, quoting Alexandre
Dumas, but then he never tracks down the one female character who holds the most
important information. It might well be said that if the
murder is largely without clues that lead us, as readers, to its
conclusion, the novel is replete with clues, like the
mismatched shoes laces, that are unrelated to any crime. The deliberate unpairing
of the detailed narration of the protagonist’s observations
and reasoning from the investigation of the crime and its clues
is one of the primary ways that the novel deforms the
detective fiction style. After sharing his affinity for
crime fiction with his inspector, denying that an Englishman
was distinct from an American, since they’re both gringos,
he urges his companion to begin with Conan Doyle. Which is always where to begin. Right? However, I argue that the way that Pepetela satirizes the
detective style also points to another literary source, that remains entirely
unacknowledged in the novel. The mystery of Cintra
Road, published in 1870, is considered the first
detective story written in the Portuguese language, by Portugal’s most famed 19th
century author, Eca de Queiros, and his friend, Ramalho Ortigao. The mystery of Cintra Road
was a satirical literary hoax about the supposed accidental
murder of a young Englishman by his beautiful Portuguese lover. Delivered in a series
of letters to the editor of the Lisbon newspaper,
Diario Di Noticias. And this is an image of
the first, the first one. The final letter spread
over more than two months. In the final letter, the two authors
revealed that the case is not news of a real murder at all,
but a literary fiction. The key to figuring
out the hoax is style. The two authors said
they wrote it to make fun of a Portuguese reading public
that they see as uncritical of the exaggerated and tired
tropes of the sentimentalist novels that were popular in
Portugal at the time. But which the two writers
saw as markers of Portugal’s backwards tastes
and lack of sophistication. The clue to figuring out the prank
lies in contrasting it with the new, modern style epitomized
in modern French poets and writers like Edgar Allen Poe. Both modern style and sentimentalist
tropes are evident when one of the main characters it
finds a clue to the murder. A single hair that turns out to
belong to the murderer herself. Quote. The person to whom it
belonged was blond, fair. Certainly small. Mignon. Because the strand
of hair was very fine. Extremely pure. The character of this person must be
sweet, humble, dedicated and loving. She must have simple tastes. Elegantly modest, the
owner of this hair. She was likely educated in
England or Germany, because the tip of the hair was cut into a point,
a habit of the women of the North, completely foreign to the meridional
women, who abandoned their locks to their abundant natural
coarseness. End quote. The narrator’s careful
examination of the hair results in all the stereotypes of
the sentimentalist heroine. Although the narrator here is able to glean a comically
excessive amount of detail from a single object, another
sentimentalist trope gets in the way of satisfactorily resolving
the crime. All the five young men determined
to figure out what happened to their friend fall in
love with the murderer. And thus, they end up helping her
get rid of the body and retire to a convent, rather
than face justice. These two elements, the unresolved
crime and the satire of style, are what I’m calling on to link
the 19th century Portuguese text with the 21st century Angolan one. Especially through the
notion of counterfeiting. The counterfeit news
that the Mystery of Cinta Street represents
reappears in Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent as a false conspiracy
that Jaime conceives in order to deliver some results
to his bosses when he fails at solving the murder. He stages a raid on a made-up
drug ring, but to his surprise, discovers in the process actual
criminals, who are scheming to exchange counterfeit
Angolan kwanzas for US dollars. You’re a genius, Shinito. You’re go far in the service,
his partner tells him, after Jaime reveals the plot. Jaime’s genius, and his invention of
stories, differs only in the details from the crime he actually
discovers. The narrative structure
is more or less the same. On the one hand, this
conclusion certainly points to Pepetela’s critique of
corrupt public officials. Jaime invents a story
that brings him success, but the social milieu is so
replete with crimes that he ends up solving an accidental one anyway. On the other hand, however,
as readers, we’re called upon to recognize another
kind of counterfeit. Just like the readers of
the 19th century novel. And explicitly attributing the
sources of Jaime Bunda’s style of investigation to English language
sources, the Portuguese origins of the satire are obscured. I think that this mapping
together of the acknowledged and unacknowledged sources
are crucial to the novel. For the Portuguese novel, the
detective formula serves as a marker of literary modernity that guides
the astute reader to figure out the hoax and the tricks
the uninformed reader, who fails to perceive the clues. In the Angolan novel, the
history of the crime genre, referenced through-out the text,
has itself become the formulaic form and style that is ultimately
insufficient. At least as deployed
through Jaime Bunda’s lens, to grasp the complexity of the Angolan society
in which it operates. In most crime fiction, the
reader is also the detective. And the economy of the text
provides the necessary clues for both the detective and the
reader to follow the logic. While Jaime can apply the narrative
formula to his Luandan context, the intimate integration of the
content and the style fall apart. The layering of the two
English and Portuguese sources of literary styles operates as
both a critique and a warning. If the revolution sought to cast off
the vestiges of colonial occupation, replacing Portuguese
political hegemony with American cultural hegemony
leaves the fundamental colonial formulas intact. The old and the new colonial
regimes float just above and just below the
surface of Angolan reality. For Pepetela and for
Jaime Bunda’s world, the key to the crimes remain
illegible without both of them. The second example
I’m going to discuss, of a text that employs
techniques of disappointment, is Cuban novelist Eliseo
Alberto’s Caracol Beach. But I want to begin, however,
with a discussion of an image, to which I’ll return
at the end of the talk. And special thanks to Aroun Soud
[assumed spelling] for the image. Ah. This is missing
a — there we go. Okay. Popular knowledge asserts that
Fidel Castro never appeared publicly in anything other than military
fatigues between 1959 and 1994, when he was famously
photographed in a guayabera. His fatigues continued to be
Fidel’s preferred public dress, until he stepped down from
the presidency in 2006. In the days after his death, the
state newspaper Granma ran photos of Fidel from throughout
his long political life. Chatting with peasants and
schoolchildren, playing baseball, greeting world leaders, and speaking
from podiums, all the while dressed in the military uniform that
provided him visual continuity over the decades of his influence. The cover page graphic from
the November 27 issue, a black and white stylized image of
dozens of identical armed Fidels, emphasizes both the saturation
of images of the iconic leader, and communicates the idea of the
soldier cum everyman in the headline that accompanies the image. Cuba is Fidel. Depending on the viewer’s
visual, rhetorical or political vantage point, the
graphics suggest an audience which is incorporated
into the multitude, replicating Fidel’s march toward
the future of the revolution. Or, alternately, viewers
faced with an army of infinitely reproducing
opposing forces, perhaps even about to be overcome. The starkly divisive
implications of the black and white graphic encapsulate
one of the ways in which authors such as Eliseo Alberto reflect on the revolution’s
rhetorical inheritances, where the neat partitions
of the Cuban community seem to themselves divide and multiply, producing dozens of
different iterations. We’ll come back to this image. Eliseo Alberto’s 1998 novel Caracol
Beach explores the profound impacts of what the author sees as a Cuban
community divided against itself. The Cuban revolution’s saturation
of images, slogans and language of militarization and Manichean
divides is one of the effects of a national leadership that saw
itself as under constant threat, or even attack, by larger
forces of imperialism, usually the United States, that
threatened to undo the course of its history since 1959. Or even to annihilate it altogether. Alberto’s novel addresses the
extension of the sense of threat from without through
reference to two phenomena that mark the configuration
of the Cuban community in the latter decades
of the 20th century. The internationalist missions
abroad, ostensibly extensions of revolutionary fervor and
solidarity on foreign ground, and the divisions among
the Cuban community, especially as imposed through exile. In Caracol Beach, the protagonist,
Beto Milanes, a Cuban soldier in the Angolan war,
is the sole survivor after his company is ambushed. Convinced that he has betrayed
his country after he’s rescued by American forces, Beto chooses
17 years of isolation and exile over facing what he is sure
will be punishment back in Cuba. Beto sees suicide as the only
way to rid himself of the madness that haunts him after the war, symbolized in a winged tiger
that follows him around. He kidnaps three teenagers to
assist him in his death wish, forcing two of them to commit
increasingly violent acts against strangers, and
ultimately these two die with him in absurd accidents at
the end of the novel. So, my argument here is that this
novel critiques the reproduction of violence, focusing on how
media images of Cuba at war result in a system that passes real
violence along a chain of actors. Including the violence
of a community divided between the island and exile. Beyond its critique, however, Alberto’s novel also
calls for a kind of truce. Looking to Afro-Cuban
ritual as a counterpoint to bring the many divided factions of the Cuban community
toward reconciliation. Eliseo Albert de Diego Garcia
Marruz, another long name, is part of one of the most
prominent intellectual families of 20th century Cuba, and was
an eclectic and prolific writer. He established his
reputation in journalism, film and eventually
television script writing, and published chronicles,
essays, poetry and novels. He moved to Mexico in 1988, and
despite many attempts to return, was only able to return to Cuba
in 2010, a year before he died. The breadth of his area of production are evident
particularly in his novels. In addition to a vast array of
cultural reference points drawn from music, literature and film,
Caracol Beach frequently lapses into extradiagetic
commentary that reads at times like a film voiceover, stage
directions, or director’s commentary on the action taking
place in the background. Beyond a quirk of the individual
author’s range of talents and interests, however, I think that this technique points
to a broader context. Alberto was a young child
when the revolution triumphed, and was educated and came of age during its first
two turbulent decades. The cinematic texture of
the novel thus also signals to its readers a history of the
ongoing participatory construction of the revolution and its lived
realities via visual representation. Critic Lillian Guerra has analyzed
the revolution’s construction in media via what she
called a hyperreal futurity. She focuses on television,
photography and films portrayal of social mechanisms,
like mass rallies, voluntary labor, and
military service. In post-modern theory and media
studies, the hyperreal refers to a displacement or
disappearance of external reality, in favor of a reality
experienced through simulation, image and representation. Guerra explains. Critical to explaining the
imagery’s importance to struggles over the grand narrative
is the idea that images — photographic, imaginary, personal — played a central role in placing
Cubans outside the mundane circumstances of their daily lives, and into the hyperreality
of the revolution. That is, a utopia caught
in the process of becoming. Like hyperreal spaces in
any society, hyperrealities of State-orchestrated mass rallies and routinized volunteer labor
projects convinced participants that the euphoria, the
happiness, the sense of justice, the pride of unity and
self-righteousness, that the experience generated,
were emblematic of reality. That is, the rest of
the society external to the hyperreal experience. One authenticated the other, even
though they were not the same. That authentication
showed that the values of the hyperreal experience
should not be contested. End quote. In Caracol Beach, the vestiges of
the revolutionary hyperreality show up most frequently in the
soldier’s flashbacks and memories of his experience in Angola. But lose their integration
with his present reality. In the novel’s present,
the soldier’s kidnapping of the teenagers holding one
named Laura hostage calls up the familiar Hollywood
cinematic plot convention of the woman in peril. Perhaps even a direct reference,
a possibility that just occurred to me a few weeks ago, to the
classic 1944 noir film Laura, who many of us saw together. However, the predominating
references are to the genre of war ethic. Connected explicitly
to the war in Angola. The surprise ambush that kills
Beto’s fellow soldiers is a kind of twisted, negative incarnation of
the war films that Beto is trained with in advance of his deployment. Specifically, Soviet war propaganda. While his disillusionment and
even madness caused by the loss of his companions and his
homeland are foreshadowed in his frequent references to
Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai. While I won’t have
time today to analyze in detail the specific film
references in the novel, I do want to examine
the place in the novel of media representation
of violence in general. The difference between
cinematic scripting and the soldier’s lived reality
remains the underlying conflict for the character’s experience. As he recounts in his soldier’s
diary, quote, what’s happening is that nothing is happening. In training, back in Cuba,
they showed us movies about the Great Patriotic War, and
naturally the defense of Leningrad that lasted months and months was
condensed into two hours, in color, with music in the background. And so, the battles were exciting. But in real life, you will learn
that wars are full of dead time. Routine. The worse boredom. You dig trenches and fill
them in, climb a tree, get water from the river, and
you don’t see shooting anywhere. Or you hear it like thunder in
a rainstorm falling in hell, until I guess the day
comes when it’s your turn to get wet in a shower of lead. And others see our lightning in
the distance, while they’re digging and filling their trenches. Poundcake says we really
are seven samurai. I’m the crazy one. Because just for a roof over
our head, and a few sardines, we’ve come to defend the future of
a people we’ve never even heard of. End quote. Betos’ epithet of the crazy one,
which recurs throughout the novel, results in this case from
the gaps in his comprehension between experience and image. What defies logic for him results in
searching for a state of perception that accommodates simultaneously
contradictory experience and representation. Guerra discusses the case of Cuban
documentary filmmaker Nicolas Guillen Landrian [assumed spelling],
whose films throughout the 1960s and 1970s were repeatedly
censored by the State. While the film maker was forcibly
interned in a mental asylum. Authorities argue that
his films were, quote, incoherent with the context. End quote. Here, Guerra points to a critical
intersection between State power and the artist’s power to create
the lived reality of the audience, via the hyperreal world of art. Guerra’s characterization of Guillen
Landrian casts the filmmaker’s madness as a result of
the failure of the artist to accommodate the work of art to the idealized experience
of the people. Being out of coherence with
the context is equivalent to being out of one’s mind. Beto’s madness is certainly a
result of being out of context. He believes himself to be
a failed revolutionary. Since he survived the attack that
killed his entire fellow company. And is literally out of context
by living in exile in the land of the enemy, the United States. His solution, however, rather
than a challenge to State power, is to restore his proper
cinematic ending. By scripting his own death to
comply with the cinematic trope of the revolutionary soldier who
sacrifices himself to the cause. He describes the scene in
a letter to his rescuer. Quote. Watch for any carelessness
on my part and shoot me. Bring your son. The boy will witness a wonderful
scene, like in the movies. I’ll fall on the sand,
in slow motion. Background music. A harmonica. The sand will gradually
turn red with blood. Don’t turn my body over. Leave me like that, with
my arms out stretched. A fistful of sand in my right hand, the fingers of my right
hand spread open in a fan. Fabulous. Bring your son. End quote. So, this is a trope. Here, I just have three apologies
for the poor quality screenshots from Cuban films, roughly
contemporary to Alberto’s career. Two of them, Caravanna and
Cangamba, are films about Angola. But this appears everywhere. You guys have all seen it. The details that the soldier
mentions, the background music, the slow spreading of the blood,
the position of the hands. Even the perspective of the spectators fulfill
the cinematic particulars that we’re missing among
the tedium and the boredom of his dead time in real combat. They produce, via simulated image,
the sacrifice that would allow him to comply with the projected course
of the revolutionary soldier. But, more importantly, however,
their cinematic staging transmits that message of sacrifice
to the spectators. Those spectators he has built
into his own staging of the scene. Bring your son. The ultimate danger of the kind of
aestheticized and scripted violence that the soldier imagines is
not just his individual suicide. But the reproducibility, and
then the actual reproduction, of the violent scene,
resulting, Alberto warns, in a kind of collective
annihilation. The wartime violence also
serves, crucially in the novel, as a metaphor for the reproduction
of violence on the Cuban community. Politically motivated divisions
on the island and, of course, the fundamental violence of exile. Virtually the entire novel
takes place on foreign ground. Either Angola or Florida. The conflict between hyperreality
and lived experience culminate in Beto’s final climactic
performance. His actual death. But one that does not comply
with the cinematic end that he’s imagined for himself. It turns into, rather, a ritual
about space, where the damaged, the exiled, and the
mad can find release. In Beto’s final act, expecting
to be shot by police officers who have come to rescue
the teenagers, he discovers at moment
of his death that he is accompanied by Jamaiya [assumed
spelling], the Orisha or the saint or spirit in Cuban santeria, who represents both
maternity and waters. That substance that connects Cuba
to Africa, as well as the island to its exile communities. But Jamaiya is not the first
orisha that Beto invokes. Giving up the resisting his madness, he calls up Babalu Aiye [assumed
spelling], the saint syncretized with the Catholic saint Lazarus. Who both causes and cures illness. The ritual practice serves
here as a counter point to the revolution’s
mediatic representation. And it also recalls a
prior historical moment of entangled African and Caribbean
histories, the slave trade that brought these religious
practices to the Caribbean. Dreaming of his return to Cuba, and
his promise to honor Babalu Aiye if his wish is granted,
Beto imagines himself as a part of the a procession. Quote, at a certain distance. Quiet, respectful, loyal, patriotic. Thousands of Cubans
in solemn procession. Men and women, young and old,
sinners and penitents, vagabonds, lepers, the maimed, the Mongoloid,
the lame, the blind, the mute, the half-witted, the diabetic,
the desperate, the disabled, the one-eyed, the tubercular, the
deaf, the moronic, the paralytic, the hand-less, the tongue-tied,
the weak-hearted, the hopeless, the asthmatic, the AIDS-infected,
the paranoid, the solitary, the melancholic, the
neurotic, the mad, mad, mad. Hundreds of the poor madmen, some
incurable, like him, Beto Milanes. End quote. In its repetitive rhythms
and syntax, this passage performs the
processions in which devotees to Babalu Aiye participate
each 16th of December. Some of them crawling with
stones tied to their ankles, or otherwise simulating
disease or disfigurement, to honor the Orisha
and ask for healing. So, what I want to do here is offer
this passage as a counterpoint to the image with which
I began the section, of infinitely replicating Fidels. Rather than reproducing
the model revolutionary, Alberto here is using the novel as a space the ritually acknowledge
those figures whose representations fall outside of the
hyperreality of the revolution. As well as to call for
bridging the divides that separate the Cuban
community from itself. This, I believe, is the function
of the layering together of film and other media with
the form of the novel. And here, I’d like to return
to that idea of disappointment. So, this is my conclusion. The techniques that
I’ve analyzed with both of those novels use citation in part
as a way of insisting on the place of art, and specifically of
literature, as a privileged place to negotiate both the
possibilities imagined as part of revolutionary fervor,
and to bridge the divides between those hopes and
the difficult realities that many Angolans and Cubans live in the later decades
of the 20th century. I’ve tried to show not only that
authors from different places engage in similar literary
techniques, but that Cuba and Angola’s mutually
imbricated left overs of enmeshed Cold War-era ideologies and post-colonial geopolitics
continue to be visible through the very forms of the novels
that contemporary writers produce. As I hope we’ve seen, the notion of disappointment certainly
encompasses critique. But it does not remain solely
in the realm of the negative. Techniques of disappointment also
constitute, in cases especially such as the Alberto novel,
an ethical re-engagement with the politics and
promises associated with the early years of revolution. Considering texts like this together
also reveals their similar turn to the potential of literature
itself, as both an expression of the negotiations that
make art a site of healing and rebuilding community,
in both Cuba and Angola. The revolutions live
on in literature. Thanks. [ Applause ]>>Ted Widmer: We have
time for some questions. And if you wouldn’t mind
repeating it, so it’s captured?>>Lanie Millar: Thanks
so much, Shannon. So, just to repeat the
questions, the first one was about the critic I cited, Lillian
Guerra, and her use of the image to generate a sort of mass affect. And that’s relationship to Leotard, the theorist that I
cited at the beginning. And then the second
question, about this passage, of listing all the deformities,
and how that might be, provide a different kind of model
of revolutionary collective. So, thank you so much
for the questions. They’re both wonderful questions. I think that you are absolutely
spot-on in the relationship between the mediatic construction of
hyperreality that Guerra describes, and the possibilities that Leotard
opens with other possible ways of generating enthusiasm. Of course, Leotard is one
of the theorists of sort of, post-modern moment,
and the use of image, and I think that you have pointed
to an excellent way in which that could be deployed
to describe why his idea of revolutionary enthusiasm
is different from Kant’s. And so, for Kant, I think
it is absolutely predicated on the physical presence and
participation and observation of the revolutionary action. And your question is making me
think, if maybe Leotard is proposing that there’s another kind of
observation that’s mediated, that might be able to produce
that kind of enthusiasm as well. So, Guerra mention, for example,
the difference between going to a mass rally, when you can’t
really perceive the size and scale and sort of impact
on the, on the space. And then, seeing it on
television, where you think, I was one of those
hundreds of thousands or millions of people there. And so, that might be one way to
begin to approach those things. And so, thank you for that. I’m going to think
about that further. The second question, I think
you’re absolutely correct as well. And so, I like your
suggestion of a different model of revolutionary collective. So, there are a number of artists
and writers who would think of themselves, or whom the
critics have labeled dissident. And I don’t think that Eliseo
Alberto is one of those. He’s a member of a community that
always insisted on his right, and his desire, to return to Cuba. And he, interestingly, had several
obituaries as well as publications that came out posthumously, in
Cuba, which would not have happened with some earlier generations
of exiles. And so, I think that that model
of bridging various aspects of the community, and not
allowing exile to become a cutting of from the revolutionary
action is going to be key. Yeah. Thank you. Matthew? That’s a really excellent question. So, just to sort of
outline the question. Matthew is talking about the
sort the triumphant narrative of Cuba’s participation
in a war that neither of the superpowers was
interested in getting involved with until they were forced to. And what the Angolans
might think of that. I don’t have a complete
answer to that question. That’s one of the questions
that I’m trying to answer. The official position from
Angola is absolutely one of solidarity, friendship,
gratitude. So, in 2013, the Cuban international
book festival was dedicated to Angola. That was their special
invited country. They have a special
invited country every year. And they did all of these
translations of Angolan literature. Most of the translators that I
talked to had served in Angola in some capacity, and that
was how they knew Portuguese. And every single one of the Angolan
writers who attended would start of speaking by saying, I
want to express my thanks and solidarity with
the Cuban people. Thank you for what you
did for our country. But notably, several
authors were not there. And the authors that
tended not to be there, the most prominent one was
the young writer Onde Jacque [assumed spelling]. Are authors who have, in some cases,
expressed a more nuanced perception of Cuba’s presence in Angola. Not as a critical presence
necessarily, although there’s one ethnography
that interviewed Angolans that calls them the good colonizers. I don’t imagine that that
sentiment is widespread, but I don’t actually know. And so, sort of that gap
between the official position and what people talk about
among themselves is one of the questions I don’t
have an answer to yet. And I really, really
want to find out. Thanks. Thank you so, so
much for that comment. From an actual Kant scholar. Or, somebody who knows Kant
better then I do, I think. I really like your, your sort of touching a sublime
that can never last. Because, of course, the
notion of the sublime is that it couldn’t be
cognicized, right? So there’s a necessary search
for some kind of concept or form that will allow us to discuss that. But of course the paradox is
that that moment is then lost by putting it into a form. So, I appreciate, I
appreciate the commentary. Yeah. And that’s really helpful
also, because there is, of course, an extensive body of theory that
looks at revolutionary theory and its connections
to Catholic theology. And the sort of messianic
figure of the revolutionary. Thank you. Okay. Mary Lou? Yeah. That’s a really, so, sorry. The comment is about Shaddon’s
[assumed spelling] work on the seduction of the
colonized by the colonizer. And its relationship, maybe, to this
relationship between two nations who see themselves
as colonized people. I think that’s a really
excellent point. And in fact, there’s a
long history of theorizing, particularly in the
Portuguese context, that the Portuguese were
the exceptional colonizers, because they seduced their colonies. They didn’t conquer
their colonies violently. And so, I think, actually,
part of the image of the violent revolutionary is a
deliberate mechanism to counteract that ideology of seduction. So, violence becomes sort
of rarefied and celebrated as this possibility of
resistance against a colonizer that did not seduce but in
fact violently conquered and oppressed the people on whom this supposed
seduction is being enacted. And so, I think that’s an
excellent sort of comparison to make about sort of the circulation
of the opposition to that kind of seduction. Thank you.>>Ted Wimer: All right, everyone
please join me in giving our thanks. [ Applause ]

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