How a 1960s Sci-Fi Fable Expanded the Meaning of Cuban Pilgrimages

Yoss on Miguel Collazo's The Journey

I discovered Miguel Collazo’s second novel, The Journey, at the age of 13, in January 1982. My mother brought me the novel—then in its second edition, published only months earlier—along with a couple of other Cuban books in what was already my favorite genre, science fiction. I was at Río Verde at the time, the farmer field school camp in the country town of Alquízar, well outside of my own hometown of Havana.

Lots of kids claimed they enjoyed the freedom of a month and a half away from their parents, but the truth is, most city kids like me felt every hour spent in those rustic, field-surrounded cabins was a harsh punishment. As high school students preparing for university, we were forced to perform monotonous agricultural work in a farm field school for six weeks straight. At that time the Cuban education system assiduously followed the doctrine that studies had to be combined with manual labor.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Years ago the Cuban government finally began to think rationally and renounced that (laudable?) aim—probably because, working as young hired field hands (a figure of speech; they didn’t pay us one cent, of course) while having less than zero farming experience, we were better at producing economic losses and damaging the crops than generating any dubious benefits through our harvest labor and our collective but incompetent enthusiasm.

Sundays were visiting days at Río Verde. Most of my schoolmates looked forward only to stuffing themselves with home cooking and desserts their families brought, the delicacies they’d been dreaming about after an entire week of swill (or going hungry). I, for my own part—after filling my belly, of course—hardly noticed when my mother left our camp for Havana. I was already deep into reading the three books she had brought me.

I remember it like it was yesterday: in addition to Collazo’s novel, she had brought me Expedición Unión Tierra (Earth Union Expedition) by Richard Clenton Leonard, and Juegos planetarios (Planetary Games), a collection of Cuban science fiction stories compiled by Juan Carlos Reloba. I saved Collazo’s novel for last. And this time the cliché proved true: last but not least.

From the very first pages of the novel, I realized it was something completely new, different from any SF I’d devoured up to then. Like many other young readers, I would guess, much of what fascinated me about the genre was the futuristic technoscientific gadgetry it offered up: the spaceships, the power weapons, the robots, and so on. Along with exotic settings on bizarre worlds, alien races, and astonishing flora and fauna. There was hardly any of that in The Journey.

I quickly deduced that the story was set on a distant semidesert planet, Ambar, in the distant future, and that the main characters—humans, or at least very like humans—were not natives of that planet but had landed there by some means (probably technological) and had then seen their civilization deteriorate.

Though a war in the planet’s past was never mentioned, the situation there could be fairly summed up by the title of an old film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda: Landscape After the Battle. There were no cities or farms, only disoriented people wandering about, on their own or in small and sometimes violent tribes. No books, no TV, no running water, no apparent technological advances of any sort.

Life on Collazo’s Ambar was very hard for those humans, who had barely held onto the gift of speech but who continued to question things.

Right, a classic postapocalyptic story, I remember the conceited young man that I was at the time thinking, convinced by having already read a mountain of science fiction that recognizing the signposts was the same thing as understanding the thing itself. I also deduced that the inhabitants of Ambar had probably gone through a terrible war—nuclear, perhaps?—though the hypothesis of long, gradual cultural degeneration could not be entirely discarded either. In any case, Ambar wasn’t what it used to be. No doubt about that.

Some early passages in the novel supported my conclusion. They described at least one ray gun that had belonged to a semi-mythical figure from the past, “Nur B’s weapon,” capable of causing great destruction with its energy shots and thus conferring tremendous power on those who kept it and handled it.

On the other hand, there were also plenty of frankly bizarre and disconcerting elements, such as the three giant flowers. Or the fact that the men who lived on arid Ambar seemed perfectly capable of surviving naked, without hunting or farming or eating much of anything beyond whatever they casually came across. And, most notably, without seeming to really miss a technological civilization that they had only known as a set of vague legends.

They also had their symbols, an inscrutable attribute that could be both a strength and a weakness: the symbols allowed them to recognize each other, but anybody who managed to get free from the mark of the symbols became indestructible. They had no family lines or surnames.Their strange names (Bímer, Jalno, Orna, Catal, Casel) could not be recognized as belonging to any known culture on Earth.

Life on Ambar was very hard for those humans, who had barely held onto the gift of speech but who continued to question things. That might be why they had started talking about “the Journey,” which I immediately assumed meant some sort of repatriation, a physical return to their origins: leaving Ambar and returning to their home planet, probably Earth, though they had forgotten where they were from. Otherwise, why did they insult one of the characters, Borles, with names like “Pigeon,” “Etruscan Shrew,” and “Noahsark,” which had no direct meaning for the Ambarines?

I gradually grew excited about the great mosaic of groups and generations that Collazo’s prose constructed with surprising skill—and, even more commendably, without relying on any sort of technological novum. I found myself on Ambar before I knew it, suffering along with them in the mists of forgetfulness, searching for the light of “the Journey.” I was there at the flirtation, almost the rediscovery of sex, between Teles and Orna. I learned about Jalno and the powerful, terrible forgotten machines he preached about.

I wandered with Casel, his descendant, the man (?) who could read minds and who single-handedly stopped a possible invasion by the alien Cuantas (yes, a few spaceships finally do show up in the novel, after all), people who follow another symbol, the Sphere, rather than the Ellipse of Ambar, by unmasking their ambassador and explorer and convincing him that the planet held nothing that his race would find useful.

I grew terrified together with Vet, a clear symbol of environmental indifference and moral failing, the ruminant human who lived only to eat from the day he sat down under a tree and never got up again, because nothing else had ever been good for him. And I was there at the tearful birth of Cadars, whose name means “that which comes with pain,” the one predestined to make “the Journey” possible and to set it in motion.

Entranced and intrigued to see where this epic would take me, page after page I watched the generations go by. Watched skeptics denying the possibility of “The Journey.” Renegades fighting against their champions and prophets. Immortal cynics without bodies and beyond time, incapable of believing in the project and unhappy on account of it. And, before I realized it, I was coming up to one of the most beautiful endings in all of Cuban SF, when, before any new cities, technologies, or futuristic weapons had been built but when plans to make them were already in the works, Tulque, one of the Men of the Projects, the followers of Cadars, announces simply that “the Journey has begun.”

That’s when I came to the anagnorisis, the revelation. I understood that in The Journey, Collazo wasn’t talking about anything so vulgar and pedestrian as a physical trip. It wasn’t about flaming rockets and lifting up from the gravity well of the colonized planet of Ambar to return—where, to space? to Earth?—but about something much deeper: humanity’s metaphysical voyage inwards, to a full acceptance of our past, of our roots, of our mistakes: the only way we can have a future again; can look past today, past mere survival; can attain spiritual growth.

Obviously the novel made an indelible impression on me. Since that time in Alquízarback in 1982, I must have reread it at least five or six times. And I am hardly the only one who continues to consider it one of the finest SF books published in our country. Indeed, in the late 1980s, the Oscar Hurtado Science Fiction Workshop to which I belonged, led by Daína Chaviano, considered it part of a sort of hexagon of top-notch, almost inimitable Cuban books of the genre.

The other five sides of the hexagon, not to leave you hanging, were: the short-story collection Historias de hadas para adultos (Fairy Tales for Adults, 1986), edited by Daína herself; another collection, Espacio abierto (Open Space, 1983), by Chely Lima and Alberto Serret; and the novels Una leyenda del futuro (A Legend of the Future, 1985), by Agustín de Rojas; Kappa 15 (1983), by Gregorio Ortega; and ¿Dónde está mi Habana? (Where is My Havana?, 1985), by F. Mond.

You will notice that all but Collazo’s novel are from the 1980s. Plenty has been written and published in Cuba in the years since. But even today, though many might include one or more of my own novels or short-story collections in a similar hit parade, along with works by younger writers such as Elaine Vilar Madruga, Erick Mota, or Michel Encinosa Fú, I am pretty sure that The Journey by Miguel Collazo would still hold its firm place on every such list.

While the authorities are dithering about whether they should deny the aliens’ presence or officially recognize them, the people of Havana have no problem interacting freely with them.

To the degree that, as recently as 2015, one of the most famous comic-book artists in Cuba, Luis Arturo Palacios, won a prize for his (necessarily partial) version of the symbolic adventures of the inhabitants of Ambar. His comic was later turned into an animated cartoon that proved popular among Cubans of all ages.

Reading The Journey over and over again, while I grew and matured, I slowly came to understand all (or at least a fair amount) that I had only vaguely guessed at in 1982 but would have been incapable of expressing in words. Especially three years later, in 1985, when I met Raúl Aguiar, a young writer and, like me, a fan of the fantasy genres, though he was a few years older—which means a lot when you’re a teenager in search of a mentor or someone to emulate.

Raúl revealed to me that my beloved The Journey had originally been published in 1968, no less, and he shared his personal theory that it was chronologically a hippie novel, a child of the summer of love! He also loaned me his copy of Collazo’s other SF novel, published only two years earlier but totally distinct: El libro fantástico de Oaj (Oaj’s Fantasy Book, 1966), which I had already heard about from another friend, mentor, and science fiction colleague, my neighbor Arnoldo Águila.

So I discovered that the irreverent and intellectually restless Miguel Collazo, born in 1936 and raised under capitalism, a professional illustrator who was only 23 years old when the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959, seemed to enjoy subverting the codes of the genre: El libro fantástico de Oaj was a sort of Martian Chronicles but turned upside down, brimming with humor where Bradbury is filled with melancholy. Here it is the Saturnians who come to Earth—to be more specific, to Havana in the 1950s.

While the authorities are dithering about whether they should deny the aliens’ presence or officially recognize them, the people of Havana have no problem interacting freely with them: a pimp from a poor neighborhood becomes a Saturnian woman’s boyfriend and begins to “Cubanize” her, a crazed and ragged beggar who had prophesied the extraterrestrial invasion tries to destroy them for “stealing his idea,” and so on, with ever more absurd and hilarious situations.

Unfortunately, Miguel Collazo, the pioneering author of these two novels, so indispensable for the history of SF in Cuba, during its incipient “Golden Age” in the 1960s, suffered the same fate as his handful of fellow devotees—writers such as Ángel Arango, Arturo Correa, Germán Piniella, Carlos Cabada, Juan Luis Herrero, Agenor Martí, and even the father and greatest promoter of SF on the island, Oscar Hurtado.

When the institutional cultural paranoia of the Quinquenio Gris (the “Five Gray Years,” 1971–1975) fell upon Cuban literature and writers were constrained to follow the hegemonic Soviet model of socialist realism, science fiction, once seen as the herald of a bright tomorrow, became an object of institutional distrust.

The crazy Caribbeans who had been writing about a future with robots and spaceships but figuring there would still be contradictions, were treated much the same as Mayakovsky and the other Futurists had been in Russia after its revolution. They weren’t the obliging cheerleaders that the Cuban Revolution suddenly thought it needed, but rather a bunch of dangerous purveyors of foreign ideas and perhaps even doctrines contrary to the teachings of Marxism-Leninism.

So the role of ideological torchbearer passed, almost by decree, from SF to the new genre of Cuban revolutionary spy and detective novels, often written by soldiers or former soldiers, which always narrated the victories of the heroic fighters of the Police or State Security against thieves / assassins / homosexuals / drug addicts / CIA agents, with the help of The People and their monitoring agencies, such as the omnipresent Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, led by the inevitable little old neighbor gossip.

Of the small group of writers who had thought a Cuban SF was possible and necessary in the 1960s, only to be banned in the following decade, some died, while others emigrated. Most of them stopped writing their beloved genre throughout the 1970s, at any rate. Meanwhile, the Soviet editions of SF books published by Mir, Progreso, and Raduga, translated into proper Castilian Spanish by the “children of war” who had been brought to the USSR after Franco won the Spanish Civil War, reached Cuban readers and showed them how to write SF that was politically correct—or maybe not.

Because, as luck had it, among these translations there were two novels by the undoubtedly brilliant yet politically unsettling (to say the least) brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: Hard to Be a God (1964) and Far Rainbow (1963).

Out of the original group, only Ángel Arango took up SF again in the 1980s, though his most talented and productive years were by then already past.

And Miguel Collazo? Though his prose grew more and more sophisticated, as shown by surprising poetic books such as Onoloria (1971) and Estancias (1985), which could even be classified as fantasy broadly defined, he never wrote SF again. Disillusioned, the dreamer of the 1960s, who had set out to learn Chinese when the Asian power under Mao seemed like a viable alternative to Soviet bureaucratic rule, quickly succumbed to alcoholism, dying at the age of 58 in 1991, at the outset of the Special Period, the hard years of shortages following the collapse of the USSR and the Socialist bloc.

The Journey‘s characters undertake an inner journey that has sometimes been compared to the construction of a new society, communism.

Shortly before he died he published his swan song, a chapbook with his magnificent short story “La gorrita del Papa,” an ultra-realistic description of the semi-marginal world of regulars at the neighborhood bars that he knew so well in the flesh.

Years later I had the privilege of meeting his son Abel, to whom he dedicated The Journey, through Abel’s wife, who at the time was working at the Agencia Literaria Latinoamericana; later they both left for Miami. And—small world!—while Restless Books was working on getting the novel translated into English and published in the United States, I discovered that Collazo’s widow was none other than Xiomara Palacios, who had been my mother’s good friend since the days when they were both young and active in amateur theater, one as a puppeteer, the other as an actress. Sadly, Xiomara, a lovely person, died a year or so before she could see her husband’s great novel published abroad for the first time.

Much could be written about The Journey from a literary theory point of view. A fundamentally symbolic and polysemous work, its characters undertake an inner journey that has sometimes been compared to the construction of a new society, communism. Even though it remains clear throughout that Collazo’s characters are attempting to return to a glorious past, can you ever really return to something? Bathe in the same river twice? And isn’t all progress, to some degree, a return to what we used to have, but on a higher level?

Others have seen it as a metaphor for travel itself, the great impossible dream for Cubans after 1959. A period when we were unable to travel whenever and wherever we felt like and had to get used to going on journeys only when we were given permission. Inhabitants of an island surrounded by the natural barrier of the sea, those of us who tried or managed to visit other countries, other latitudes—especially those not counted as members of the socialist bloc—were often considered, in Cuba as in many other socialist countries, potential deserters, “impure” for having come into contact with the “capitalist contagion,” and at a minimum looked upon with suspicion.

Ideological and geographic prisoners, like the inhabitants of Ambar on their arid world, almost all of us dreamed about crossing the sea that surrounds our island. The same aspiration remains topmost for many of my fellow citizens. Of course, now that the government no longer requires its surrealistic and arbitrary Exit Permit in addition to a passport in order for us to travel, we Cubans are discovering that only a very few countries are willing to extend entry visas to people they see as likely immigrants.

But for me, despite its stylistic timelessness, The Journey is above all a novel of its time, the New Wave of the 1960s—whose echoes, curiously, barely reached Cuba, even at its peak. A book that explores inner space, the doubts and contradictions of its characters, more than the unearthly planet Ambar, so exotic yet so familiar. Like an onion peeled layer by layer, there is much to be discovered in successive readings of Collazo’s novel: an analogy about social processes, about the changing mental paradigms in a civilization, about prophets and reluctant masses. About preachers and their flocks. About the skeptical and the indifferent. In sum, about humans in all their immense complexity and variety: the object of analysis for all art.

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From the introduction to The Journey, by Miguel Collazo, translated from the Spanish by David Frye. Introduction copyright © 2020 Yoss.

Yoss
Yoss
Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, Yoss assumed his pen name in 1988, when he won the Premio David in the science-fiction category for Timshel. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Cuba's most iconic literary figures—as the author of more than twenty acclaimed books, as a champion of science fiction through his workshops in Cuba and around the world, and as the lead singer of the heavy metal band Tenaz. His three novels translated into English are A Planet for Rent, Super Extra Grande, Condomnauts, and Red Dust.





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