The Life and Times of Iconic Cuban Novelist José Lezama Lima
Gabriel Pasquini on How a Writer Gets Disappeared—and Rehabilitated
In the long historical list of writers canceled by the powers that be, the case of the Cuban poet, essayist and novelist José Lezama Lima has a peculiar poignancy. Part of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s—but at the opposite end of the spectrum of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in terms of both prose style and popularity—he was not an exile like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, nor was he sent to prison like Reinaldo Arenas, or subjected to public humiliation like Heberto Padilla. A writer’s writer with an intricate, baroque style full of classical allusions only the very well read might hopefully grasp, a closeted gay man who presented himself as a married, Catholic, tie-and-jacket lawyer, Lezama walked step by step a slow path to literary glory for much of the 20th century—and when he finally seemed to attain it, right after his 60th birthday, the very floor was swept from under his feet.
A general crackdown on intellectual freedom by Fidel Castro’s regime in the 70s left him ostracized, isolated, and deprived Lezama of the recognition the international world of letters was trying in vain to bestow upon him. Sad, lonely, and deliberately ignored in his own country, Lezama died at 66 on August 9th, 1976.
One of the many merits of Letters to Eloisa, the documentary on Lezama directed by Adriana Bosch that premiered on PBS in October, is how it captures the very literary quality of Lezama’s sorrowful case. In the film, a sequence of interviews with Cuban writers and scholars that include a few of his friends—as well as with Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa, who met Lezama in the 60s in Cuba—alternates with archival footage and photographs. Actor Alfred Molina supplies Lezama’s voice, reading the author’s letters to his sister Eloisa, who left the island in 1961 to live in Mexico, over a beautiful, melancholic soundtrack by Cuban trumpeter and composer Arturo Sandoval.
Despite its literate cast, the film is concerned chiefly with Lezama’s life and fate, not his work. Born in 1910 to a patrician family fallen into straits after his father’s demise, Lezama got a degree in law, but dedicated himself instead to poetry. He founded and directed literary magazine Orígenes (1944-1956), which became one of the crucial arbiters in Cuban literature recognized by the most important Spanish-speaking cultural scenes at the time, in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Madrid.
Facing the corruption and frustrations of the Cuban Republic that would end with the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1952, Orígenes erected itself as an an ivory tower of writers, musicians and artists who would strive to find the “true” Cuban identity, which for Lezama meant scouring—with a peculiar, anti-modern, Catholic, Neoplatonist bent—not only national traditions but the classical canons of both the West and the East.
Like many other intellectuals in Cuba and abroad, Lezama welcomed the 1959 revolution that ousted Batista and led Fidel Castro to power. Beyond political sympathies, he soon found professional reasons to be grateful to the new regime. All of a sudden, there were previously unavailable resources and opportunities for writers to work and publish. As for freedom, Fidel Castro famously stated in a public speech: “What are the writers’ and artists’ rights? Within the Revolution, every right; against the Revolution, none.” In other words, the regime didn’t claim to mandate an official cultural aesthetic, and writers were free to experiment as much as they wanted, as long as they didn’t become part of a political opposition.
In theory at least, this should have worked perfectly for Lezama, a non-political writer in the narrow sense of the word, and in fact he was appointed as the Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos (UNEAC) vice president. And after announcing its imminent completion for years, without following through,Lezama published his magnum opus, the novel Paradiso (1966). “Everybody had always thought that Lezama would have never finished it, that Paradiso was a myth,” the late Cuban writer César López recalled in Letters to Eloisa.
A 600-page novel that Lezama himself acknowledged would not have been easily published anywhere but in revolutionary Cuba, Paradiso came out in the middle of the Latin American Boom, with Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (1963) and Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) leading the way in what was an explosion of literary vitality throughout the region.
Among that soaring flock, however, Paradiso was, and is, a very rara avis. Like Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Paradiso challenges the reader to grapple with metaphysical questions over many hundred pages, but in a completely different way. Where Hopscotch offered generation-defining characters like Oliveira and La Maga in a colloquial prose distilled from contemporary Buenos Aires’ vernacular, Paradiso’s characters and narrators speech meander through convoluted passages packed with literary and cultural allusions, and allusions of allusions, and jokes about allusions of allusions that are nearly impossible to follow but to a selected few.
Starting as the story of Jose Cemi and his family—which looks very much like Lezama’s family—the novel evolves quickly into the narration of a metaphysical ascension that summarizes—or rather details—Lezama’s long and sprawling quest to define a “poetic system” that would allow him to pinpoint lo cubano, Cubanness. Paradiso has been connected by critics to works of Dante, Goethe, Proust, and Joyce—and surely, they are all in the novel, which has been defined as a poem, or a novel-poem, or a poem-novel-essay, and is also rife with Lezama’s varied intellectual preoccupations, from Neoplatonism to the ideas of Pythagoras, and from Orphism to classical Chinese philosophy.
Such an arduous text would have been bound to only reach rarefied literary circles, if not for the inclusion of very graphic homoerotic passages that were both a coming out of sorts for Lezama and an absolute scandal in homophobic Cuba, where the revolutionary government was publicly condemning homosexuality and sending homosexuals to labor camps.
It was largely this scandal that made the book a literary sensation. As writer Margarita Mateo remembers in the documentary, “people would go to the National Library to ask for the ‘Chapter 8 Book.’ They did not know the (actual) title, but they did know there was a Chapter 8 that was very heavy.” The government’s response was to immediately suspend distribution of the novel.
To the rescue came various prominent figures, inside and outside Cuba, most crucially Julio Cortazar himself, who as both a Latin American author of towering international importance and an ally of the Cuban revolution could exert unparalleled authority over the matter. In the essay Around Lezama,” included in his book Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (1967), Cortazar defended Paradiso as a masterpiece, granting the novel and its author a place of honor in the Latin American Boom, a gesture that made Lezama “profoundly grateful,” as he wrote to his sister Eloisa.After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lezama was rehabilitated and soon reconverted into a national asset, his apartment turned into a museum.
Thanks in part to Cortazar’s international reputation (or maybe because, according to legend, after reading Paradiso Fidel Castro concluded that nobody would understand a word of it) the controversial novel was allowed to return to bookstores. Soon after, it was translated into several languages, in Europe first, followed by the United States.
Although the documentary insists on connecting the homophobia of the Castro regime to Lezama’s eventual fate, that doesn’t really seem to be borne out by its own narrative. When he celebrated his 60th birthday in 1970, in spite of the scandal surrounding Paradiso and his own sexual preferences, Lezama seemed poised to achieve his lifelong dream. His poetry had been collected and published, along with an anthology of his essays, and his work was being taken very seriously. “This is the year of the printing press for me,” he joked happily, according to one of his friends.
Three months later, however, Ananke, that Greek deity of the inevitable—as he would later refer to it in one of his letters to Eloisa—came to collect her due. It all began with a poetry collection, Fuera del Juego, or Out of the Game, authored by the increasingly dissident writer Heberto Padilla, which in spite of its being outspokenly critical of the revolution (or because of it,) received the UNEAC award in 1968. After the official outrage, the UNEAC decided to publish it with a preface in which the Union condemned the book as counter-revolutionary. Lezama, who had presided over the jury that awarded Fuera del Juego, did not sign this statement, or retract the award, or apologize.
The regime made the Padilla Case, as it was later known, its benchmark for (in)tolerance of dissidence. As it embraced a Soviet-style hardline way of governing, Fidel Castro ended any sort of intellectual freedom in Cuba, and with it, the revolution’s brief romance with a world of international culture that had up to that point sympathized with its goals. Padilla was detained together with his wife, the writer Belkis Cuza Malé, forcibly interrogated, and, on April 21st, 1971, made to appear before the UNEAC to perform an infamous self-denunciation in which he not only confessed to badmouthing the revolution, but implicated his wife along with several other writers, Lezama among them.
Thus came what was essentially a house-bound banishment for Lezama and his books, which disappeared from stores and libraries, and became taboo to even be quoted. His house, his communications, and his mail were surveilled. People stopped visiting him. He was left alone and isolated.
These were “anguished days,” Lezama wrote to his sister. “I live in fear, overwhelmed by melancholy.” Outside Cuba, he was granted awards and his work was translated. He was invited to many events in different countries. “I always accept, but the result is predictable,” he told Eloisa: each time, the government denied him an exit visa.
Robbed of the joy and the glory he had worked his whole life to achieve, having made no concession in his art or his private life, Lezama was left with the sole company of María Luisa Bautista, his former secretary whom he had married at 53 following his mother’s advice, and “surrounded by loneliness, with only more loneliness on the horizon.”
Asthmatic all his life, overweight and depressed, he died five years later, marking the end of the “Gray Quinquennium” of cultural repression, as it was later called. People who’d declined to visit him during five long years reappeared at this wake, including government representatives. In a “stoic” scene, as recalled by writer and friend Reynaldo González, María Luisa Bautista rejected them all, saying, “You left me alone with the living, now let me alone with the dead.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lezama was rehabilitated and soon reconverted into a national asset, his apartment turned into a museum. The importance and influence of his work became widely recognized in academia and new Latin American authors acknowledged the influence of his work on theirs.
Near the end of the documentary, Reynaldo González remembers arriving at the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid to speak in a conference on the now widely acclaimed Lezama, finding a picture of his dead friend covering the building’s entire facade—the perfect image of Lezama’s lifelong ambition realized, the very thing that had been stolen from him. “Gordo,” González said, “you could not come, so we brought you with us. You are lording over Madrid.” He entered Bellas Artes in tears.
And when, right afterwards, the film ends with Eloisa recalling the well known verses of Lezama’s very last poem, El Pabellón del Vacío (Emptiness Pavillion), No espero a nadie / e insisto en que alguien tiene que llegar (I wait for no one / and I insist that someone has to come), no matter that Paradiso is now considered one of the most important novels in Spanish in the 20th century, no matter the academic studies and reviewers’ praise, no matter the homages or the rehabilitations, the audience will probably feel like crying too.