A Journey Through Havana’s Clandestine Book World
Visiting Cuba's Hidden Library of Babel
Translated by Lisa Carter
Eliezer was one of the first people I met in Cuba. It was 2002, and a Princeton professor by the name of Peter Johnston—the epitome of a WASP: very white, tall, thin,
serious, with blue eyes that stared intently ahead, expressionless—had invited me to accompany a group of students to the island. Peter had been traveling to Havana for years and knew many of its writers. He took me to Antón Arrufat’s house; to Reina María Rodríguez’s rooftop; to visit a young novelist who had just won a prize for his novel El paseante cándido. “That Peter knows everyone. Word has it he’s CIA,” a friend would later confess.
“You’ve got to meet Eliezer—he’s the best bookseller in Havana,” Peter Johnston said one day.
We took a taxi to El Vedado, got out in front of the Coppelia ice cream parlor, and walked until we reached an entrance on L Street bordered by four simple pillars. We knocked, and a voice from inside shouted: “It’s open!”
Upon entering, we found ourselves in someone’s living room: there were lace curtains, dusty and lit up by a neon sign; porcelain figurines—angels and shepherds; and, in the middle of the room, an older couple sitting in rocking chairs, watching one of those big old cabinet television sets. They must have been about sixty. She was in a bathrobe; he was wearing shorts and a muscle shirt that rose up to show his hairy belly.
“Eliezer?” Peter asked, getting straight to the point as always, wasting no time on useless pleasantries.
We must have come to the wrong place, I thought. Weren’t we coming to see a bookseller? This was an old couple’s home, and it smelled musty.
The man paid no attention to us and remained fixed on the TV, but his wife replied without looking at us: “In the back, down there, see,” pointing to a door at the far end of the room. The image onscreen was blurry, in black and white, of a news anchor.
We crossed the living room, passing between the old couple and the television, came to the door, and walked into a bedroom. There, sitting on a chair, surrounded by piles of books stacked on the floor—some of the heaps reached as high as the ceiling—was Eliezer, a very handsome young man, about thirty years old, with thin, dark eyes and classic Arab features. Must be of Lebanese descent, like so many Cubans, I thought. His gaze was intense, his smile mischievous.
“Peter,” Eliezer said, as if he had been expecting us. “I got a first edition of Paradiso for you.”
“We already have it,” Peter replied drily.
“I also got a real gem for you,” Eliezer went on as he rummaged through one of the piles. “Wait until you see this.”
He pulled out a book seemingly at random and passed it to Peter. I was amazed the tower of books hadn’t come down with it. “Look at this gem. You won’t find another copy in Cuba, or anywhere else in the world most likely. It’s the album from Saddam Hussein’s visit to Havana in 1979. Wait until you see this picture. Look: Saddam with Fidel and Raúl. Can you imagine? Take it . . .”
Eliezer was asthmatic and would run out of breath halfway through a sentence: he paused to inhale, and the constant interruptions lent a breathy, mysterious quality to the conversation: “Look at this . . . eeegh . . . Can you imagine . . . eeegh . . . that dictator . . . eeegh . . . here in Havana?”
“How much?” Peter asked.
“For you . . . fifty dollars. I’m giving it away.”
“Fine,” Peter said. “And have you got any material on churches? I’m interested in documents about Protestant churches in Cuba—pamphlets, fliers—for the Ephemera Collection at Princeton.”
“Not right now, but I’ll get some for you. What I do have is this. Look: Los siete contra Tebas, the banned book by Antón Arrufat. An autographed copy.”
“We already have it,” Peter said.
“This is the essay that won the Casa de las Américas Prize this year. It sold out, but if you see here—”
“I’m only interested in Protestant church pamphlets.”
I listened to the conversation and the haggling while contemplating, in amazement, the piles of books all around me. There wasn’t a single bookshelf or a single cabinet in the entire room, just towers of novels, books of poetry and essays. How many? A thousand? Two thousand? A lot, in any event. And Eliezer seemed to know the inventory of these insane depths by heart: he could find a book and pull it out of a stack in a matter of seconds.
“I’ll come back tomorrow for those Protestant pamphlets,” Peter said.
“Come whenever you like . . . eeegh . . . You know I’m always here.”
We walked back through the living room, the old couple still in exactly the same place, their eyes still glued to the TV. “Revolution is construction,” a voice announced over images of workers pouring concrete.
Out in the street, as we walked back to the Hotel Habana Libre, Peter told me about Eliezer. He had been studying history at the University of Havana, but his studies were interrupted during the Special Period, when there was also no power at the university and no food in the student cafeterias. It was during those desperate times, when everyone had to invent some way to survive, that he began to sell books, first on a sidewalk in the El Vedado district and then in the Plaza de Armas. He did so well that, within a few months, he was able to rent a room from the old couple to receive customers somewhere a little more discreet, because at the time it was illegal to run a business.
A clandestine bookstore! I recalled how Eliezer had kept his voice low and would glance at the door as he showed us his treasures. I also remembered how, upon arriving at the airport, the customs agents had checked every one of my books and written docs on my baggage tag: they were looking for book smugglers, the way customs agents in other countries pursue drug smugglers. Books instead of drugs: one of the many peculiarities of this island, a paradise for bibliophiles.
The next day at the breakfast buffet, a hotel employee handed me a note from Peter. As was his custom, he had written it on Princeton letterhead:
“I forgot to tell you that, for legal reasons, it is ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN to ride in three-wheeled vehicles. They are extremely DANGEROUS and university insurance does not cover accidents that occur while in them.”
Three-wheeled vehicles? It took me a minute to understand that Peter was referring to cocotaxis, those yellow motorcycles with a Pac-Man-shaped cab, which were the most entertaining, efficient way to get around Havana: they race along the Malecón, transporting fair-haired tourists, long hair blowing in the breeze. Oh, Peter! I thought.
I left the hotel, flagged down a cocotaxi, and asked the driver to take me through the streets of Centro Habana. He was a strapping twenty-five-year-old, with muscular brown arms, sculpted in the gym of life. Like so many Cubans, he radiated sexual energy. He told me that he drove a cocotaxi three days a week and a regular taxi the other three days.
“Which do you like better? The cocotaxi or the regular?” “I prefer the regular taxi.”
“Why is that?”
“With a regular taxi, if a tourist gets in, I can take him wherever he wants to go, anywhere.”
“I’m here to make the tourist happy. You get me?”
As he spoke, I stared at the black curls escaping from his helmet and the shapely biceps that flexed every time he turned the handlebars to change direction.
“And if I were to tell you to take me to Camagüey?” I asked. “To Camagüey? Well, that’s far . . . really far. We’d have to come to an agreement. Here, take my phone number.”
I noted his number—William was his name—as he sped us along the Paseo del Prado. In two minutes we were in front of Trocadero No. 162, one of those mythical addresses in the history of literature, like Boulevard Haussmann No. 102, or the corner of Río Guadalquivir and Reforma in Mexico City.
Trocadero: I had always imagined the street in an elegant section of Havana, like its Parisian namesake, which has a view of the Seine and is flanked by the mansions where so many of Proust’s friends lived. But the Cuban Trocadero was a dusty street in Centro Habana, full of crumbling buildings, with mountains of garbage on the sidewalk and shirtless kids sitting in doorways. It looked more like Africa than Paris.
José Lezama Lima’s home was now a small museum: three rooms that housed the writer’s furniture, paintings, photographs, and part of his library, locked away in sealed bookcases.
“May I consult the books? I’m actually writing about Lezama and Proust,” I said to an employee in a government uniform.
“Well, you can’t exactly consult them, no. You can, however, see them through the glass. The bookcases are sealed and can’t be opened.”
“Do you know if Lezama had Proust’s novel in his library?”
“Well, what we’ve got here are Lezama’s novels and the books he read, but not all of them. Some of them are at the National Library.”
So poor, this Lezama Museum! Especially in comparison to museums like the Louvre and the Metropolitan, those transnational storehouses of first-world culture, with their luxury buildings, with armies of employees and million-dollar budgets. And yet this little and lonely museum—with its three employees in khaki uniforms and cats prowling the courtyard—seemed somehow more authentic. You could feel Lezama’s spirit here.
The employees watched with curiosity as I studied the titles sealed away in the bookcases. No Proust. When I was done, the girl who sold tickets—in the same khaki uniform—asked:
“Where are you from?”
After leaving the Lezama Museum, I spent hours wandering through Centro Habana, dodging piles of rubble, motorcycles, and taxis. “Oyeee, oyeee” could be heard everywhere, and—as always happens whenever I walk through this neighborhood—I felt immeasurably happy to be surrounded by blacks and mulatas, old women sitting on stoops, and jineteros hustling boys, girls, cigars, pirated music, and almost everything else.
I walked back to the hotel, all along the Malecón, passing by Maceo Park and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. By the time I got to La Rampa, I had decided to pay another visit to Eliezer and went through the ritual I had learned from Peter: I knocked on the door, said hello to the old couple, walked through the living room, past the television, until I reached the door at the end. Eliezer walked up to me with a bright white smile and held out a hand as he said: “Look what I’ve got for you. First edition of Virgilio Piñera’s short stories, published in Buenos Aires. It’s the only copy anywhere in Havana. And not only that: look at this dedication. ‘To my friend Gombrowicz, with admiration from your Cuban disciple. Buenos Aires, May 1954.’ It’s dangerous for me to have a treasure like this here: someone might steal it. You take it.”
The price—two hundred dollars—was more than I had left for the rest of my trip, but Eliezer didn’t give up. He opened two folding chairs that were propped in a corner; we sat down, and he continued to propose treasures.
“Look here,” he said. “It’s a book of poetry by a lost Origenista. Have you read María Zambrano? You can’t get anything of hers in Cuba, but I’ve got a novel that came out in Mexico. And look at this: the speech Carpentier gave at the Pioneers’ first youth congress in ’63. Can you imagine? Not even the Fundación Alejo Carpentier has a copy. A friend brought it to me, an old guy who knew Carpentier, went to the event with him, and kept one of the handouts. The great Neo-Baroque novelist speaking to a bunch of twelve-year-olds. Do you think they understood a word he said?”
Eliezer’s little room was a library of Babel that seemed to contain the entire canon of Cuban literature. You only had to mention an author from the island—Julián del Casal, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Lydia Cabrera—and, as if by magic, he would pull out a copy that also had a whole story around it: a first edition, signed by the author, a bookplate from a famous collection, a banned work, an avant-garde journal published in a far-off province . . . Among the thousands of tomes, there were a few treasures: books by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, Severo Sarduy, and other exiled writers.
“I don’t show this to anyone,” he would say as he surreptitiously pulled a book out from under a chair or behind a curtain. “Look at this treasure: Pájaros de la playa, Sarduy’s posthumous novel about his illness. Did you know he died of AIDS? A friend brought me this from Spain. I don’t know how he got it through customs. If they’d caught him, they’d have arrested him. Can you imagine? It’s the story of an island full of terminal patients, young men aged by disease . . . the bomb. This book, it’s a criticism of the UMAP camps and what the government did to gay men in the eighties: lock them up. If they ever find me with this, they’ll lock me up, too.”
Apart from being Babelic, Eliezer’s bookstore was also mono-thematic: every single book about Cuba was there, but nothing else. There wasn’t a single foreign author, unless it was a Hemingway or a Humboldt who had written about the island. Carlos Fuentes? From the look on Eliezer’s face, I suspected he had never even heard of him. Borges? “No, never had a book by Borges here . . .” Vargas Llosa? “A year ago someone brought me a copy of Conversación en la catedral, but, being a banned book, it didn’t last long. I sold it for a mint. Have you ever seen Fresa y chocolate? In the sixties, we Cubans could recite the first page of Conversación by heart: it was a form of protest.”
We were chatting like this when I heard a door close behind me. Eliezer stood up.
“Well, look at that. I didn’t think I’d ever see you here again,” he said to the visitor.
As I turned to see who had come in, I came face-to-face with a six-foot-five blond, with a gymnast’s body and a pair of impres- sive biceps, who looked like he had just stepped off the page of Vogue Italia or International Male. Bronzed skin, long hair, blue eyes, and muscles everywhere. Was he Swedish? Norwegian? Danish? A Nordic athlete? A Scandinavian bodybuilder?
Apart from being Babelic, Eliezer’s bookstore was also mono-thematic: every single book about Cuba was there, but nothing else.
“You speak Spanish?” I asked.
“Sí,” the Viking replied. “Michael,” he said, offering his hand. “And where are you from, Michael?”
“I’m from Granma.”
In the region of Oriente, over five hundred miles away, is the beach where Fidel Castro disembarked before heading into the Sierra Maestra mountain range: he arrived on board a yacht called Granma, which he had bought from an American in Mexico, and after the Revolution, the province was named after it, as were the official newspaper and many other things in Cuba. The American had chosen that name in honor of his grandma. And so the yacht—which is on display at the Museum of the Revolution— the newspaper, the province, and even this Viking continue, to this day, to honor that little old lady who, unbeknownst to her, became the grandmother of the Cuban Revolution. How many great things had been given to this island by that anonymous grandma? “From Granma? But you look Swedish. Is your family Scandinavian?” I asked, expecting a story about Communist parents who had come to Cuba to support the Revolution.
“Huh? Swedish? No. I’m from Granma. My family is from Granma.”
Maykel—I later learned that’s how his name was spelled—had a hick accent and when he spoke he filled the room with fresh country air.
“From Granma, but I moved here for work.” “What do you do?”
“I’m a baker,” Maykel said.
Maykel was wearing a tight sleeveless white T-shirt that delineated every muscle in his back. The very spectacle of that body—freckled shoulders, triceps, long arms—made me dizzy.
Eliezer had observed our interaction in silence, his smile dripping with irony. How did he know Maykel? This baker did not look like a bookworm.
“Tell me about Granma,” I said. “What’s life like there?”
“Well . . . I live in the country there. It’s not like here in Havana. It’s different.”
Maykel told me that he had left Granma because of a girlfriend; she was so jealous that one day she found him talking with the neighbor and went crazy. She went into the kitchen for a knife and threatened him, screamed that she would kill them both, but then, no, she would kill herself, and Maykel had to tackle her to get the knife and stop her from slitting her wrists. She made such a scene that the police came and nearly arrested all three of them. The girlfriend was a lost cause, so he decided to move to Havana.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I was chatting with the neighbor. But my girlfriend doesn’t understand. Muchacho, the problem is that there in Granma, everyone stares at me. It’s not my fault; it’s just the way it is. I go out, and people stare, and the girl loses it. That’s why I came to Havana.”
“And people here don’t stare at you?” I asked.
“Well, yeah. They stare here, too. But at least no one’s monitoring my every move.”
“What do you mean, people stare?” I insisted.
“Just that. If we were to go out now, you’d see: people stare at me.”
“Let’s go see what that’s like. A guajiro peasant from Granma walking around El Vedado, and people staring at him,” Eliezer said with the same enthusiasm as when he talked about books. “A baker from Granma strutting down La Rampa. We have to see that.” Maykel smiled in amusement at Eliezer’s words.
The three of us left the room—the old couple was still glued to their TV—and headed out into the street. Night was falling and the sky had clouded over with birds heading to roost in the trees of El Vedado. Just before we reached La Rampa, as we walked past the Cine Yara, Maykel said: “Walk behind me so you can see how people stare.”
Eliezer and I let Maykel walk a few steps ahead. He moved as if he were a runway model, strutting through the crowds: cute couples on their way to the movies, office workers waiting for the bus, students on their way to Coppelia for ice cream. Maykel wiggled hips and shoulders, but—despite his handsome, muscular physique—there was something awkward about the way he moved. He was much sexier when he stood still and said nothing. When he walked, he looked like a robot, a bad actor bumbling across the stage. Maykel paraded to the corner, then stopped and turned around.
“Did you see how people stared?” he asked with pride.
But in fact—poor Maykel!—no one had even looked at him. The streets were teeming with sexy, athletic, seductive bodies; amid all that beauty, Maykel had passed unnoticed.
The following day—my last before returning to New York—I went back to visit Eliezer.
“I got you another book by Severo Sarduy,” he said upon seeing me. “Look: erotic sonnets that hide pornographic scenes. Do you know how it begins? ‘Omítemela más.’ Can you imagine? Omission becomes a synonym of penetration. Take it . . . you’d be doing me a favor. Can you imagine if the police found this here?”
“And Maykel?” I asked.
“The baker from Granma is probably out jineteando, chasing after foreigners,” he said with his impish smile. “That’s what the entire province lives off: jineterismo, hustling.”
I told him it was my last night in Havana and said, “Let me take you out for dinner. Peter recommended a family-run paladar nearby.”
Eliezer grew serious and replied, “I don’t go to restaurants with foreigners.”
“What, do you think I’m going to rape you? We’re going to dinner, not to a brothel.”
“I’ve never been to a restaurant. On principle.”
“Principle? I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m inviting you because I like you, I like talking to you. We’d continue the conversation over a glass of wine and a plate of croquetas. The paladar’s nearby, up on a rooftop filled with shaded plants. We’ll sit outside, and you can tell me more about Maykel and your books.”
“I never eat at night,” Eliezer said, his expression unchanged. “And I’m not going to a restaurant.”
There was no way to convince him.
I gave him a hug and said good-bye. That night, as I ate alone at the Hotel Habana Libre restaurant—an enormous room with a socialist vibe, full of pasty tourists and waiters dressed in black bow ties—I thought of Eliezer a few blocks away, eating all alone in his little book-filled room, as the old couple sat, still glued to their television.
Excerpted from the essay “Sodom’s Bookstore,” from CUBA ON THE VERGE: 12 Writers on Continuity and Change in Havana and Across the Country, edited by Leila Guerriero. Copyright © 2017. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.