Biografía de un cimarrón

biografia_de_un_cimarron

The key to a testimonio is almost always found in its paratexts–its preface or introduction, epilogue or afterword. Which itself is odd enough: if this is a genre noted for, indeed for some defined by, its presentation of a story as it is, without literary pretensions, it is remarkable how much varnish its truth seems to require. But then it is these paratexts themselves that claim to offer the guarantee of veracity and legitimacy, often enough by laying bare (apparently) the mechanism of the text’s production, assuring us that what we see is really what we get. Moreover, it is in these supposedly ancillary texts that the testimonio’s editor or compiler, who otherwise usually removes his or her traces from the text itself (so that the informant can speak unadorned), outlines his or her role as the stand-in for the reader. For if the essence of the genre is its basis in the oral discourse of a subaltern presumed to be an outsider to literate culture, the original interviewer has to vouch for the bona fides of that original contact, even as he or she betrays it by subsequently translating oral exchange into written form. We are then to imagine ourselves in the editor’s place: listening more than reading, hearing the subaltern “speak,” as our proxy did for us once before. It is in a testimonio’s introduction or preface, then, that the book’s compiler often attests to his or her personal, affective, unmediated relationship to the book’s narrator, conjuring up a bond into which the reader can project themselves even as the editor outlines all the intermediary steps required for that fantasy to stick.

So it is, then, with Cuban anthropologist Miguel Barnet’s introduction to Biografía de un cimarrón (1966), the testimony of former runaway slave Esteban Montejo, which assures us that the book is based on a “living dialogue” between interviewer and interviewee (15). Barnet tells us that, having identified Montejo as a suitable source–mostly because of his extreme age, but also because of the intrinsic interest of his life–he put to good use “the customary resources of ethnological research” (for ethnologists have their customs, too). He tried to resolve some of Montejo’s immediate problems, to do with money, women, and health. He then gave him some small gifts: tobacco, badges, photos. And so the conversation began, if not quite along the lines that Barnet had originally envisaged when he thought that this would be primarily a study of the survival of African religious traits among Cuba’s black population. Indeed, at the outset, Barnet tells us, things were decidedly difficult, as Montejo “showed himself to be rather surly” (16). Perhaps the usual ethnological blandishments had not been enough! But even the tale of these difficulties serves its purpose, in that Barnet is telling us the story of how Montejo came (almost) to trust him, in the end even to “identify with us,” once he “realized the interest of the task at hand” (16). The gap between letrado and subaltern is visibly shrinking as the introduction proceeds.

But testimonio cannot rely on gifts, identification, or affective pact alone. Technology, specifically tape recording, is also a ubiquitous guarantee both of authenticity in that it (quite literally) captures the voice verbatim, and of the seriousness of the investigator’s research in that he or she can then go back over the interview and deepen his or her familiarity with the subject. As Barnet puts it: “Many of our sessions were recorded on magnetic tapes. This allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the linguistic forms, turns of phrase, syntax, archaisms, and idioms of [Montejo’s] speech” (18). The interviewer can thus immerse himself in his informant’s world, even if such immersion then begins to provoke doubt… “The need to verify facts, dates, or other details led us to have conversations with veterans who were more or less his contemporary. But none of them were old enough to have lived through the periods or events that Esteban related” (18).

Ultimately, the paratextual attempt to guarantee the veracity of the text as a whole ends up offering hostages to fortune. The description of the methodology by which the book came into being reminds us, whether we like it or not, of the multiple mediations that give the lie to the direct reproduction of experience that the book otherwise wishes to tell us it is presenting. We are reminded of editorial interventions, such as paraphrase and reordering of the narrative, even as they are justified on the grounds that “if we had faithfully mimicked the twists and turns of his language, the book would have made itself difficult to understand and excessively repetitive” (18). The paratext, then, itself a form of excess or supplement to the main text, exists to rein in the excesses of a different order that would otherwise disrupt any reading of the text. The tightrope or balancing act inherent in any testimonio becomes apparent, as it tries to remain faithful or true to its subject, without falling into the trap of becoming “excessively” so. Only a judicious pruning, or unfaithfulness to the source, can ensure that the text does not slip into incoherence or even nonsense.

Barnet’s introduction is interesting in that his relationship with Montejo seems to have been particularly complex, indeed verging on antagonistic–for all that he claims to have subdued or overcome Montejo’s original surliness. The anthropologist is eager to admit that “undoubtedly, many of his tales are not rigorously faithful to the facts. [. . .] His version is subjective. [. . .] It reflects our informant’s approach to things” (19). But this is less an admission of the testimonio’s weakness than an attempt to attest to its main strength. For unlike many similar narratives, Biografía de un cimarrón does not claim to be typical, or at least not in any simple sense. The very fact that Montejo was a runaway slave (who, we come to learn, spent much of his time alone, not trusting others) marks him out as different and distinct. Montejo is a renegade as much as or even more than he is a representative of nineteenth-century Cuba. But then that is because, Barnet implies, he is perhaps a man out of time: his “honesty,” his capacity to be true to himself (if not the facts), mark him as a “revolutionary” avant la lettre, even if his story never actually touches on Castro’s campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. In the end, it is the fact that Montejo doesn’t entirely trust us, and is not entirely to be trusted in turn, that ensures less his tale’s veracity (because the truth doesn’t really matter) than its political charge.

prediction

A friend was asked for a prediction for what might happen in Latin America over the next twelve months. This is what I suggested (with a little help from another friend, Eric)…

Castro dies. Nothing happens. So some fool Florida gusano tries to assassinate Raúl, but fails. We find out that US special services have helped him out on the sly, and that Cheney’s given them the nod. Scandal. Cheney has a heart attack. Bush is impeached. Hillary is the only one with the machine to step in, and so in these exceptional circumstances she becomes president. But the perverse result is that, as the first woman commander-in-chief doesn’t want to look soft on defence… she invades Cuba by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, happy holidays and all that.

dangerous

Reinaldo ArenasReinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls, the gay Cuban writer’s memoir, is saturated by death. It is as though, as far as Arenas is concerned, Castro’s revolution ushers in a reign of death.

Arenas reports that the fighting that preceded the Revolution was little more than a phoney war, “a war of words” whose “battles were more myth than reality” (43): Castro “won a war that had never been fought” (44). The killing, then, begins only once that war is over: “Many more were dying now than during the war that never was” (46).

So we’re told a series of stories almost all of which end, either integrally or as an afterthought, with an account of their characters’ demise. There’s the young man “escorted out of town and shot” for himself killing a young rebel (46). There’s Pedro Marinello, director of the course Arenas takes at the university, who “disappeared; he was said to be a CIA agent, the label pinned on anyone who shows any disagreement with Fidel Castro’s regime” (66).

There’s the Geography professor, Juan Pérez de la Riva, who tries repeatedly to kill himself but just when he had found happiness “got throat cancer; he no longer wanted to die, but die he did” (67). Arenas’s lover Miguel “was finally arrested and taken to a UMAP concentration camp. [. . .] I think they killed him at the concentration camp” (70). A Haydée Santamaría “ended up shooting herself” (71) while Héctor, Armando Rodríguez’s lover, “died in an accident while riding his motorcycle” (77).

Then the long episode describing Arenas’s time confined in the El Morro prison features a series of more or less spectacular demises, from those who jumped off the fortress rooftop to smash themselves to pieces on the rocks below (185) to La Macantaya, guillotined by other prisoners: “the headless body of the queer was discovered three days later because of the stench” (189). Another prisoner, La Maléfica, meanwhile, combines suicide and decapitation, swinging a “sharpened bar round and round and then, turning it with a fast sweep, cut[ting] his own throat. A self-beheading.” As Arenas rather dryly adds, “one witnesses such a scene once in a lifetime” (191).

But in fact he witnesses innumerable such scenes, such as the murder of Cara de Buey, stabbed in the back in the prison kitchen (194), or what happened to the boy nicknamed “El Niño,” killed while he slept by someone shoving “a metal rod into his back and it came out through his stomach” (195).

Through all this, somewhat ironically, the one person who seems unable to die is Arenas himself, despite attempting suicide once by taking a quantity of pills (“the doctor told me it was a miracle I was alive” [179]) and once by hanging himself on the end of his bed board (“the same prison doctor [. . .] told me, ‘You’re out of luck, you failed again'” [200]).

Arenas emerges as the great survivor, while all around him is death and destruction.

Of course, Before Night Falls was written in the shadow of Arenas’s own death, as his health declined from AIDS, and shortly before he finally (successfully) killed himself, in New York, in 1990. It’s no great surprise, then, that it should include such a meditation on death and on those who have died before him.

This biographical framing also, therefore, adds extra weight to the link that Arenas establishes between beauty and danger:

Sexual pleasure often exacts a high price; sooner or later we pay with years of sorrow for every moment of pleasure. It’s not God’s vengeance but that of the Devil, the enemy of everything beautiful. Beauty has always been dangerous. Martí said that everyone who is the bearer of light remains alone; I would say that anyone who takes part in certain acts of beauty is eventually destroyed. Humanity in general does not tolerate beauty, perhaps because we cannot live without it; the horror of ugliness advances day by day at an ever-increasing pace. (194)

Putting to one side, therefore, Arenas’s controversial anti-Castro stance, what’s interesting is the way in which he here raises his own (and others’) suffering at the hands of the Cuban regime to the level of a cosmic struggle between the Devil and beauty.

Beauty is precious and endangered: El Niño is killed because of his pristine innocence, his “face where terror had not yet left its mark” (194). Beauty is easily crushed by the restrictions of politics and confinement: “prison is a monstrosity where love turns into bestiality” (187).

Though his life could easily be seen as a tale of tragedy and waste–poverty, imprisonment, censorship, illness, suicide–and though his memoir scarcely flinches from horror, monstrosity, and death, Arenas suggests that these hardships have come from his perpetual struggle for life, for beauty. That he has always rather been true to his “own being’s innermost desires” than be “a poor, resigned creature full of frustrations with no urge for rebellion” (197).

And that, in the end, his has been a life well lived.