Domingo, 23 de Febrero de 2020
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Martí: Books of a Criminal Sect

A bust of Martí, Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra, Cuba. (CUBADEBATE)

Gastón Baquero was the first exiled Cuban writer I met, and it was he who taught me, a decade before I left my home in Havana, how to deal with the Cuban books that could be found in the second-hand bookstores for exiles in old bookstores.

The apartment where Baquero lived was bursting with books, like the back of an antique shop. The shelves were overflowing, so there were piles of them standing everywhere. From the entrance to the corner where he had his chair we walked down a narrow corridor, rendered even narrower by the stacks of volumes.

There were, as I recall, more than one little Cuban flag.

And there was a portrait of General Antonio Maceo.

The old poet warned me about a book that was about to fall, as if it were a rock teetering on the edge of a cliff. We walked through a gorge, and at the end of that ravine was the chair in which he sat every day, reading and listening to music.

For visitors there was a smaller chair too. Inside a niche, dug out of the walls of tomes, was a modern stereo and some stacks of compact discs. Years later, when I read the poetic auto-anthology stating that each poem had a corresponding piece of music, I was reminded of that corner.

His ailing health prevented him from sitting comfortably. So, with the help of several cushions, he almost stood in his chair. Baquero was tall and corpulent, with owl-like eyes and eyebrows. He wore a jacket and a vest. His apartment was infused with the scent of old books. We didn't speak. He did. Of all the writers of the Orígenes group that I came to know, the only one capable of dialogue was the one who believed any dialogue to be impossible: Lorenzo García Vega. The others, including Baquero, only expounded.

He spoke that afternoon of the history of the Americas, of heroes, of ancient relationships between the New World and Spain. He asked me – and it was the only question he asked during the visit – if I was aware that my paternal surname was one of Simon Bolívar's. When I said that I was, he told me that Bolivar's black family came via that branch. He did not mention José Lezama Lima at any time, perhaps because it was understood, between us. Nor did he inquire about his former literary colleagues who lived in Cuba.

In a moment of the monologue, when referring to his apartment's invasion by books, he pointed out that in his excursions through old bookstores he sometimes stumbled upon books published in Cuba – works whose authors he knew nothing about, and whose names did not even ring a bell. And yet, this did not keep him form buying them. In fact, he could not stop himself from doing so. He would bring them home even though he knew from the very outset, full well, that he would never read them.

For some reason that he did not explain, he could not just leave them there, in a second-hand Madrid bookshop, abandoned to others' lack of curiosity. It was as if those books could not find no other but he, who, in the end, was not going to read them, backing away as soon as he flipped through them, repulsed by such crude propaganda.

That habit of his was not attributable to curiosity, because most of those books were scant on any intriguing elements. He did so, I suppose, out of "Robinsonism." That is, the joy of recognizing an object coughed up by the tide, no matter how useless it was. He bought those books in the same way that others visit city kennels in order to save dogs as helpless as themselves.

He took them home despite his antipathy towards them, and how boring they were. It was compassion that must have spurred him, a pity for whatever his distant compatriots printed, no matter how repugnant the subject or the writing, or how poor the graphics.

More than in the little flags, more than in the portrait of General Maceo, the deeply nationalist aspect of his library resided not in the admirable Cuban works that he mentioned in his monologue, but rather in some almost unknown ones, by obscure writers, whom, in spite of everything, he treasured. These works served to confirm that this was a library of the tides, of flotsam, of exile.

A decade after my visit, Gastón Baquero having passed away, I was to repeat his expeditions through Madrid's old bookstores. And to stumble upon some books published in Cuba. I could distinguish them at a glance, among piles of other works. I spotted them before looking them over. They were, not another possible life, as they must have been for Gastón Baquero, but my past. Because, far from here, an ocean between us, in other bookstores, I had encountered those books before. Just as I am able to detect, in the midst of a crowd, anyone with the visage of Commander Guevara on his clothes, I could spot the spine of any of those Cuban books struggling to sneak by undetected.

I managed to catch sight of them – those spines and the Guevara shirts – with a sixth or seventh sense, like the one used to detect erratas. Unlike Baquero, however, I could not show compassion. It was not even worth it to open them and look inside to see all the crap that their pages contained. Any elucidation I might acquire by undertaking their reading was not worth it. So, I avoided them. And, when I find them, I still do. Just as I avoid anyone wearing Guevara's face, no matter how young and ignorant and naive he might be.

It is not just that I do not buy those books. It is that I do not even browse them. With one exception: those about José Martí.

Those on Martí, are, evidently, books of a sect. None of them lacks a preliminary study and notes, and they have been organized according to a political philology. I am very familiar with the sect behind them, and I refuse to accept their insistence that his every phrase calls for their coarse explanations, bent on twisting them, and stripping them of any joy and anything that is not utilitarian.

They are books put out by a criminal sect to justify State-perpetrated crimes. They were printed to advance the complicity of José Martí with Fidel Castro, to make the former an alibi for the latter. They constitute the preliminary steps to that funeral arrangement in which the monolithic tomb of Fidel Castro is located as close as possible to the mausoleum where Martí rests.

I stumble across some of them, I sense them before I have even seen them, I grab them, I open them at random, and I whiff their unbreathable stench. The stink of the site of a crime, closed up for a long time, and rotting. And, even when they are discoveries that should be dismissed with a laugh, I can never let go of them.

There are times when I muster my will out of pure pragmatism. How else could I amass everything Jose Martí wrote about the Caribbean in one manageable volume? I then step over the critical apparatus to which his texts are subjected, and I accept as best I can all its stupidity and mediocrity, and brace myself to hear all the lies they want to tell me. I take them home aware that they will be toxic guests. They will not be reread, and will only be spared thanks to their utility for specific and isolated consultations.

There are other editions in which I do read him. I rely on foreign publishers, not Cuban ones. Publishers not belonging to the sect. Their compilations also feature prologues, as such an author calls for some prior notes by someone certifying that what follows is literature. The advantage is that these prologues do not establish political complicities or seek to exploit his writings to achieve a mission. They do not aspire to lay the foundations for an impending republic, as one could hardly imagine a government capable of relying on such fossils. If these writings have consequences, they are attributable to the reader’s will.

This the only way I can still read him. His essay on Emerson, to cite an example, I find virtually incomprehensible. I do not understand what he is trying to get at, or what those phrases mean, as they not build on each other, or finally open and close. Rather, all of them open and close simultaneously. It is that point of non-comprehension that one must grapple with when re-reading him, in attempt to grasp him, and even more so in the case of a writer as unfairly treated as Martí.

This text originally appeared under the title "José Martí leído afuera y según qué ediciones" in the Sevillian journal Sibila (No. 52, April 2017). It is published here with the author's permission.