Iflew out to Cuba in January as guest of the Casa de las Américas, an organization roughly corresponding to the British Council, but with a lively publishing house appended, also a first-class literary magazine. I was invited to form one of a jury of five to judge the annual poetry prize open to unpublished books from any part of Spanish America. Prizes are also offered for the novel, book of short stories, drama and sociological essay, and juries were assembled from various countries for each. I was the only British juror. The beat poet Allen Ginsberg from the usa was my colleague on the poetry panel. The rest were entirely from Spanish America or Spain.
The first thing to impress me was the educational drive. Actual illiteracy has been more or less abolished, though classes were still being held at
Early results of the educational drive can already be seen in the book-shops. Several publishing houses, pursuing different editorial policies but all ultimately under state control, are producing and selling as many books as paper stringency will allow. Particularly interesting are cheap editions of the ‘modern classics’, which sell more quickly than anything else: Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Hemingway, the short stories of Julio Cortázar (a very fine Argentinian novelist), and the collected poetry of Luis Cernuda and Antonio Machado (recent Spanish poets of the first rank). The literary taste, even of the young, seems to be conservative. A girl student produced a typed copy of The Waste Land—Eliot’s poems are, like most English books, unobtainable—and asked me to help out her inadequate English. Eliot and Dylan Thomas are the last two English names generally known.
Culturally Cuba remains in the American orbit. The best Cuban writing, the short stories of Calvert Casey, Cabrera Infante—who has just won the Biblioteca Breve prize in Barcelona—Onelio Cardoso, Humberto Arenal, and of the new generation who have started writing since the Revolution, are all distantly modelled on those of the Americans from Sherwood Anderson onwards; a small group of the very young, however, is beginning to experiment with science-fiction and ‘sick’ fantasy. This strong influence from the North is explained by the fact that many intellectuals fled to the United States at the height of the Batista oppression, and consequently read English as easily as Spanish. But Spanish influence also persists. The Cuban poets know and discuss the work of their Spanish contemporaries, as the Mexicans do not. Writing in the Spanish ballad metres also continues; the Communist daily Hoy prints topical poems in this form, and one or two old-time balladists submitted their work to our competition. They had the droll appeal of our own late William MacGonagall.
The Cuban poets follow the French tradition from Apollinaire, with occasional hints of surrealism. The hermetic school whose influence was great before the Revolution continues to be respected. None of
The novels which have attempted in the chunky dos Passos manner to cover the years of the dictatorship and the rise of the Fidelist movement—La situación, the first of a planned trilogy by Lisandro Otero, is perhaps the best—concentrate on the decadence of the rich and the corruption of the politicians. But accounts of la dolce vita, however well done, don’t add up to a revolutionary novel. Most of the writers see things from a middle-class angle. The best of the intellectuals, of course, joined the Revolution. But for an account of the change of spirit that is taking place, one must look to some unknown peasant or militiaman who is still learning his craft. An afternoon at a reading at the Writers’ Union left me in no doubt that such people exist. The questions were practical and to the point.
Culturally Havana is lively, with folk-ballet, experimental and national theatres, and plenty of films from the Eastern countries, France and Italy. . . The night clubs are full, and the cabaret is topical. For the first time all this is for the Cuban, not the tourist. But there is little antigringoism, far less than in Mexico where the American, tourist or business man or cultural busybody, is a brooding and insensitive presence.