by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Our Havana has something of both mythical Atlantis and archaeological Pompeii.
In Memories of Underdevelopment, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film based on the novel by Edmundo Desnoes, the protagonist Sergio looks out over a known but already unrecognizable Havana. Sergio is all alone, as befits all witnesses to the end of the world, because he is a classless bourgeois and his family and friends have just packed themselves off into exile. Indeed, sick of capitalism, skeptical of freedom, and eager for violence against the Republican status quo, Havana had just opened its walls to a totalitarian Trojan Horse that would end up deurbanizing it in the sacred name of a fratricidal equality.
Sergio cannot help but utter a sentence full of pain and sarcasm toward his insular environment, evoking the title “The Switzerland of America,” pompously assigned to Cuba under capitalism before the triumph of Fidel Castro on January 1, 1959. In his mind, Sergio compares the splendor of that other world with the city captured by his telescope, and he pronounces just for himself that “Havana now looks like a cardboard city.”
In the early '60s the “capital of all Cubans” was filled with trucks of war and anti-aircraft batteries. American battleships were on the sea horizon. The headlines of the only remaining press—tautologically called Revolution—published an apocalyptic, euphoric piece with hints of epic poetry, boasting of the summary “legal execution” of the “enemies of the people,” of the prisons mined to blow up in case of invasion or insubordination, and of the camps for “re-education through forced agricultural labor.”
In the midst of this apoCUBAlypse Sergio is, essentially, the perfect witness. He is the citizen who sees, the urban creature who knows how to measure the events of a precarious present, and who stays on the island to report in the first person the intimate story of his Revoluzoica Era that was “giving birth to a heart,” according to the Nueva Trova movement led by Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés.
I am a bit like that Sergio. But instead of a telescope I look through the lens of a digital Canon camera. I am not confined to my house, like him. Instead, I walk and click on any corner. I observe and let them observe me observing. Shooting and shooting, but without ever using deadly weapons, the preferred currency of every revolution.
Given that words in my country have been devalued after decades of official speech, I havefaithin the testimonyof pixels. All around me I catch a graveyard calm, which imprints on Havana a sense of cauterization. I look and I mingle with the telluric forces that are debated between my city’s fall and its resurrection, between the horizontality of its proliferating beggars and the verticality of a government that feels its own impunity like a military camp.
When, in April 2009, I started to post pictures on my blog Boring Home Utopics, I was bored to the point of desperation. It was the invention of my digital photo diary that awakened me to the twisted reality right under my nose. The snapshots revealed to me the intrinsic intensity of every moment. The miraculous map of this city with a silent H was healing my photographic sterility, my apathy as a voiceover narrator, my Havanostalgia of internal exile.
Forcing me from my paralysis were Cuban readers from every corner of the world—a displaced, super patriotic, and yet post-national audience. It felt as if the migration process inaugurated by Sergio’s family members had ended up emptying the entire island. The joke that the last person to leave will turn off the El Morro lighthouse is cruel in its accuracy; our population is decreasing, according to State statistics. I’ve dreamed of this Havana in flight like a ghost ship, foundering, detached from its island shelf: the nightmarish apotheosis described by Reinaldo Arenas in his almost posthumous novel, The Color of Summer.
From Miami, Mexico or Madrid they leave me comments on every post or send me requests by email: Please, take a photo of this or that Havana corner of my childhood; let me know what happened to the glamorous church where my poor parents baptized me; let me see if the bench is still there in that forgotten park where I kissed my first love; send me an image today of twenty, thirty, fifty and so many years ago…
In a country with no individual—only institutional—access to the internet, my photo-blog (half blocked, half clandestine) functions as a time machine, where Havana is more a raw yearning than a city: a memory that comes this time as feedback from the First World, from a universal viewpoint where Cubans point the telescope at our homeland as if it were a distant asteroid, filling it in with our emotional imagination and finally erasing all ideological taboos and generational differences.
Our virtual Havana, with its scars recalling the ruins of a civil war, has something of each mythical Atlantis and archaeological Pompeii. It is a city where even the language is frozen, its facades' ashen color seeming to denounce this anachronism. Always so vain, Havana looks like a provocative but provincial girl, humiliated beneath layers of excruciating austerity.
The essayist Antonio José Ponte speaks of its buildings' “slumification,” unlucky civil dislocations (absolute chaos is citizens' reaction to absolute control), and a “miraculous static,” the only theory that can explain why these skeletal buildings still stand. They lean against one another, in solidarity against the debacle, so as not to collapse in unison and swallow Havana in a plume of dust like a volcano or, worse, like a Hiroshima mushroom cloud in the Tropic of Cancer.
In the German documentary The New Art of Making Ruins, Ponte presents a kind of farewell for all the inhabitants of Havana. For him, as a novelist and a poet, the iconography of a bombed city has a deliberate effect, the ultimate work of art of Fidel Castro and his Revolution. Otherwise, the official discourse based on the permanent danger of an armed invasion would be meaningless. It is as if Havana needed debris as proof of a heroic battle to show tourists, to spin its self-destruction not as a military campaign but as commercial propaganda.
And that is why, almost in penance, I hang my digital camera around my neck as if it were a Rosetta Stone: to translate into Havanagraphics what words cannot express. In every photo that “strange silence” of "Últimos días de una casa" by Dulce María Loynaz returns (her poem was published—by chance?—on 31st December 1958, one day before the triumph of the Revolution): a “silence without profiles, without edges” that “penetrates us like deaf water, like a tide lifted by the moon.” This silent glass is the same for Sergio, standing on his balcony, clutching his telescope as a talisman, avoiding having to emigrate; no city of exile could reproduce the magic inherent in Havana, our lovely lost city of cities.
Halfway between foreign capital and that endemic impoverishment that fascinates tourists, between a dynastic regime and Raúl Castro’s mild reforms, amid all the excitement and skepticism to reconcile a nation with its exiled, with a few museums and a lot of mausoleums (understood by Octavio Paz as the essence of the totalitarian monologue), all the imaginable opposites are explosively combined in Havana today.
Memories of Over-Development, a saga shot by Miguel Coyla in full color, slips away from the Island and is set in the United States of America. Here, Sergio languishes in velvet exile, no family on the horizon. Eventually, he becomes a hermit in the antediluvian deserts of the west, where neither God nor the State can harass him. Loyal only to dinosaur fossils, he fantasizes about emigrating on a spaceship into the Cubaless cosmos. The film is, undoubtedly, the most radical departure to eradicate our congenital Havanosis: to see Havana from the abyss of space may save us from Havana.
I, much more mediocre than the Sergios of both Memories, content myself with a day-to-day portrayal of an Album of Boredom, displaying my Brownian motion throughout the length and breadth (and plainness) of a city crystallized in La Nada Cotidiana (The Daily Nothingness) so well intuited by Zoé Valdés in her Havanaphilic novel. My modus operandi is the "art of waiting" that the thinker Rafael Rojas identifies as our most cynical symptom of national identity. Havana can be revived in Post-Revolution times only when resuscitated by the retro rhetoric of the Maximum Leader, the one who currently never speaks but communicates in writing with his “reflections” printed in our repetitive newspapers. Being a social process in his image and likeness, the Revolution in Post-Havana times is condemned to silence, as is Fidel himself.
Sergio’s original telescope, like many other “luxury” objects, was one of the first equipments to be confiscated from Cubans in the name of “building communism.” Perhaps they were considered a threat within the concept of the “war of the entire people,” not only against “Yankee imperialism” but also against the “colonial regimes” of Africa, the “puppet dictatorships” of Asia and Latin America, and “internal counterrevolutionary mercenaries.” Only the panoptic eye of the State could look with a relentless magnifying glass at Havana; the masses had to cede their right to narrate.
In the poem "Requiem" by the novelist Jesús Díaz, the speaker compares Havana to a brassy whore, her “clitoris guiding the mariners like a lighthouse in the bay,” polyglot and gluttonous, suddenly repentant and forced into a Revolutionary mea culpa, a self-flagellation. The practice of penitence carried on as a virtue, in a fit of discipline until “sadness dried up her sex,” “heartbreak stripped the flesh from her lips,” “the great silence deafened her,” and “ugliness killed her at all,” reducing her to a Havananemic simulacrum.
A Cuban recognized as Italian, Italo Calvino, imagined a constellation of “invisible cities” while Cuba was living through the so-called “Five Gray Years,” with hundreds of artists censored by a cultural policy that imposed Real Socialism as dogma for all creation. Calvino’s were successive cities of confused dimensions, hidden cities with countless qualities, cities subtle in their abstractions and airiness, cities with almost angelic properties and that fuel worldly passions, cities of labyrinthine semiotics to be read and unraveled (un-read-veiled), cities that survive their martyrs, cities of a genetically constituted memory, cities of optical effects (defects?) like Sergio’s through the spyhole of his telescope or the macro lens of my digital Canon camera.
All these invisible and invincible cities could be, of course, Havana. As Havana was also from the very beginning that Hiroshima, mon amour of the anti-warmongering film by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras (released in 1959, the inaugural year of the Revolution, on an island not in the Pacific Ocean but equally prone to the next war with the United States). We Havanans have nailed deeply into our souls those interrogation hooks of that same uncertainty for our future: Our Holy Havana of our daily lives, are you home or horror?
When, months ago, I took a Cubana flight to visit New York, I saw the puzzle of my city from the air: a Havanaquiz without rules to solve it, a jigsaw missing pieces. I’d never noticed before how extensive Havana is. Like the Great Wall of China, it should be possible to see it with the naked eye from outer space. I don’t know if the aliens will think it’s a megalopolis uninhabited since the Middle Ages, or if we ourselves are now the aliens of a village with no contact with the rest of the universe: Havanautistic.
When I landed and traveled the island of Manhattan, no gigantism could take away my impression of still being at home. Since then, I have taken very few photos in the United States of America, as if there were no raw material here to feed my eyes. As if my camera and photoblog unconsciously resisted involving themselves in another city. We can betray Havana when we portray her from within, but we can never do so while shes absent from our bodies. It’s a biological pact, a secret and sour-sweet symbiosis.
Habandoned Habana: shine on us, crazy diamond between despotism and redemption.