miércoles, 21 de noviembre de 2018

IN VISIBLE CITY, AGAIN


1.  Havana and memory

In Havana, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some imported post cards that show it as outside they say it to have been in the past: the same identical square with a sacred and scaring tombstone in the place of the boring bus stop, a tribunal in the place of the tribune, two Black Ladies in White with funeral photos and flowers at the gates of the munitions factory.

If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must ignore the postcard city and pretend to prefer the present one, though he must be careful to contain his complicity at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Havana, when compared to the previous, proletarian Havana, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the imported post cards, whereas before, when that proletarian Havana was before one´s eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Havana had remained chained; and in any case the metropolis has now the added attraction that, through what it has become according to the outside, outsiders can look back with nostalgia at what it was.

Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhibited inhabitants remain the same, and their voices´ ancestral accent, and also the faithful features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have committed exile without a word and others have settled in their place.

It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the imported post cards do not depict Havana as it was as seen from outside, but a different city which, by complicity, outside Havanans also called Havana, like this one.


1.  Havana and desire

In the center of Havana, that olive-green monotonous metropolis, stands a building of concrete with the earth globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see many multiple cities, the multiplicity model for a different Havana. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Havana as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Havana was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in an earth globe.

The building with the earth globes is now Havana´s museum: every Havanan visits it, chooses the city that corresponds to his desires, contemplates it, imagining his reflection in the magnifying mirror that would have reflected the whole of Cuban capital (if it had not been out of focus by a mathematical miscalculation), the view from the ominous obelisk along the avenue reserved for the Cadillac caravan owned by the commander-in-chief (now donated to the city mausoleum), the fear of falling down from the mimetic, mysterious ministries, and never find the pedal from which to stop the fall.

On the map of our Island there must be room both for the big, concrete Havana and the litany of little Havanas in earth globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only abstract assumptions. The one contains what is obeyed as necessary when it is not yet so, but useless; the others, what is imagined as impossible and, a moment before, was impossible no more.


1.  Havana and signs

The man who is traveling and does not yet know the city awaiting him along his route wonders what the palace will be like, the abandoned barracks, the military ministries, the theater of eccentricities, the executioner´s scaffold.

In every city of the Island every building is different but set in the same order: as soon as the stranger arrives at the unknown city and his eye penetrates the urban perplexity of parades and garrisons and hospitals, following the civility of police posters, army maneuvers, consensus campaigns, he immediately distinguishes which are the officers´ mansions, the diplomats´ democratic embassies, the tavern, the prison, the slum. This―some say―confirms the hypothesis that each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form, and the individual cities fill it up.

This is also true of Havana. In every point of this city you can, in turn, wait, take turns, accumulate time, not money, wait, take turns, question oracles. Anyone of its State roofs could cover a socialized leprosarium or the public baths. The traveler to the insular Utopia roams all around and has nothing but certitude: yet he is unable to distinguish the infinite features of the city, the infinitesimal features he keeps distinct in his mind also mingle. He instinctively infers this: if existence in all its moments is all of itself, Havana is the place of indivisible existence. But why, then, does the city exist divided? Why those language lines to separate the inside from the outside, life and loss, time and atemporality, the rumble of inmates from the howl of exiles?


1.  Thin Havana

Now I shall tell of the city of Havana, which is wonderful in this fashion: though set on dry terrain it stands on high pilings, and the houses are of cardboard and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by lingering ladders and hanging ropes, surmounted by cone-roofed colonial bastions, barrels storing fossil fuels, canonical anti-aircraft cannons, mosquito nettings, lanterns, newspaper-made fans, and telescopes, and battery radios.

No one remembers what complicity or command, or desire or debacle drove Havana´s fundamentalist founders to give their city this formidable form, and so there is no telling whether it was satisfied by the city as we see it today, which has perhaps grown through successive superimpositions and even superstitions from the first, now undecipherable plot. But what is certain is that if you ask an inhabitant of Havana to describe his most brutal vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Havana that he imagines, with its poor pilings and its shaking stairways and slipknot ropes, a Havana perhaps quite indifferent, a-flutter with barbaric banners and revolutionary ribbons, but always derived by combining the elementary elements of that humble horror.

This said, it is pointless trying to decide whether Havana is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their debacle to desires, and those in which desires either erase the debacle or are erased by it.


1.  Trading Havana

Proceeding ninety miles into the northwest wind, you reach the city of Little Havana, where Cuban merchants of the seven provinces gather at every solstice and equinox.

The rowboat that lands there with a cargo of books and other forgotten formats will set paddling back again, its hold filled with digital tablets and mobile phones in impermeable plastic bags, and the charter that has just landed with sacks of brown sugar and mashed moringa is already cramming its cargo compartment with tons of tinsel pewtery for the return flight.

But what drives Cubans to travel up the Strait and against States to come here is not only the exchange of wares, which you could find, everywhere the same, in all the market malls outside the Island, scattered at your feet on the same metal shelves, under the light of the same energy-savings bulbs and the electrodes protecting them from the flies, offered with the same lying reduction in prices.

You do not come all the way from the big Havana only to buy and sell, but also because at night, by the fireworks all around the marketing multiplexes, seated on trucks or motor scooters or stretched out on convertibles fashioned like in the fifties, at each word that one Cuban says―such as “3-D,” “porno,” “tyranny,” “battle,” “victory,” “forever”―other Cubans tell, each one, their fairy tale of 3-D, porno, tyranny, battle, victory, forever. And we all know that in the short journey ahead of such virtual vocabularies, when to keep alert during the pilot´s bumping or the rowboat´s wrecking, we will start summoning up these minimal memories one by one, our battle will have become another battle, our tyranny a different tyranny, our victory other victories, on our return from Little Havana or forever, the city where memory is materially traded at every solstice and at every equinox.


1.  Havana and desire

From there, after six decades and several nights, you arrive at Havana, the whitewashed city, long and long exposed to the moon, with streets wound about surrender as in a skein. 

They tell this tale of its foundation: exiles of various lost nations had an identical dream. They saw a dead young woman running at night through a dead old city. She was seen from above, with long hair, and her corpse was naked. They dreamed of tracking down her planetary coordinates. As they twisted and turned the zenithal perspective, each of them lost her. And woke up. Collectively, simultaneously, already in love with the dead beauty of their vision.

After the dream they set out in search of that city. They never found it, but they found one another during the search. And they decided to build a city just like the one dreamt in their one and only dream.

In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his own nocturnal pursuit. At the spot where they had lost the fugitive´s fragile trail, they arranged wells and walls differently from the dream, so the female prey would be unable to escape again, living or dead.

This was the city of Havana, where they settled, waiting for that scene to be repeated one night. None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the young woman again. The city´s streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase of a beautiful death. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten in the fatuous flares of a putative perpetuity.

New generations arrived from other islands, having had a dream not like the original, but in the city of Havana they still did recognize something of the streets of this second dream, and they changed the positions of arcades and places to resemble more closely the path of a pursued young man, alive or at least immortal. And so, at the spot where he was revealed as orator in this derivative dream, wearing olive-green guerrilla costumes and a bountiful beard, they resettled, waiting for his spectacular speech to be pronounced one more night. Yet none of them, asleep or awake, ever saw or heard of the living young man again.

The first exiles to arrive could never understand what drew these other exiles to Havana. The last exiles, in turn, never cared to even consider what drew those primogenital Havanans to Havana, the undreamable city which brought them all here deceived by dreams.


4. Havana and signs

Of all the changes of language a traveler in distant islands must face, none equals that which awaits him in the city of Havana, because the change regards not words, but things.

I entered Havana one morning, a martial garden was reflected in official lagoons, I walked among the barbed wires, sure I would discover young and beautiful sluts bathing, a mulatta miracle; but at the bottom of the stagnated water, crabs were biting the eyes of the political prisoners, funeral stones tied around their necks, their hair olive-green with suicide seaweed.

I felt cheated and I decided to demand justice of the Minister of Interior. I climbed the pedagogical steps of Villa Marista with its republican domes, I crossed several tiled courtyards with fountains from the fifties, perhaps forties. The central hall was barred by iron gratings: civil convicts with imitation chains on their feet were hauling up school books from a quarry that opened underground.

I could only question the ideologists. I entered the State library. I became lost among shelves collapsing under the weight of pertinent propaganda. I followed the alphabetical order of foreign apologists (local apologists were already drowned), up and down halls, simulation stairs, decorative bridges. In the most remote newspaper cabinet, in a cloud of sensual smoke, the dazed eyes of an adolescent appeared to me, as he lay on a mat, his lips glued to a tobacco pipe.

“Where is the Minister?”

The smoker pointed out of the window. It was the official garden with the typical children´s games on the island: seesaw, a swing, a mechanical merry-go-round in miniature. The ideologist of the Interior was seated outside, on the legislative lawn, like a buddha of the international Left. He said: “Signs form a system, but not the kind of language you think you know.”

I realized I had to free myself from the instinctive images which in the past had announced to me the things I sovereignly sought: only then would I succeed in understanding the language of Havana.

Now I have only to hear the neighing of neighbors and the cracking of white whips and I am seized with amorous trepidation: in Havana you have to go to the institutions and other revolutionary headquarters to see the beautiful sluts like children who mount the saddle, necks naked, wearing seaweed in their hair, and as soon as a young foreigner approaches, they fling him on the piles of newspapers of this proletarian paradise and press their firm nipples against him.

And when my spirit wants no stimulus or expiation save tropical music, I know it is to be sought in the communitarian cemeteries: the censored musicians hide in the tombs; from grave to grave flute trills, guitar chords answer one another with a touch of tender totalitarian tintinnabulation.

True, also in Havana the day will come when my only desire will be to leave. I know I must not go down to the ministries then, but climb any of the abandoned obelisks and wait for history or at least a helicopter to go by up there. But will it ever go by? The letter H in Spanish is so silent. Elicopter, istory, avana. There is no language without deceit.


3. Thin Havana

Whether Havana is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some anthropological experiment or only a random whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has only walls, only ceilings, only floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a complete city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the roofs should be and spread out horizontally where the rooms should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows. Against the Tropic of Cancer´s skies a little lavabo stands out, or a tarnished bathtub, or some other precarious porcelain, like rotten fruit still hanging from the boughs. You would think the plumbers had finished their job and gone away before the bricklayers arrived. Or else their hydraulic systems, underdeveloped but indestructible, had survived a catastrophe, an earthquake, or the corrosion of communitarian control.

Abandoned before or after it was inhabited, Havana cannot be called a desert, but deserted. At any hour, raising your eyes among the pipes, you are likely to glimpse young men and women, many young men and women, slender, quite tall of stature, wet, exultantly ignorant as much as well instructed, or indoctrinated, luxuriating in the bathtubs or arching their backs under the showers suspended in the void, cursing, washing or drying or perfuming themselves, flirting, or combing their long hair at a mirror to the point of mutual masturbation, laughing. Aloud, alive. In the sun, the threads of water fanning from the showers glisten, the jets of the taps, the spurts, the splashes, the sponges´ suds of home-manufactured soap.

I have come to this explanation: the streams of water channeled in the pipes of Havana have remained in the possession of snitches and agents. Accustomed to traveling along underground veins, they found it easy to occupy the new aquatic realm, to control its multiple fountains, to place new mirrors, to execute new maneuvers, to propagate the new propaganda of witnessing the water. Their invasion may have driven out the human beings, or Havana may have been built by humans as a votive offering to win the favor of Agent and Snitch, both offended at the aerial misuse of the force of gravity.

In any case, now they seem comfortably content, these two species which sprout out of social justice: in the morning you hear them both singing. They are home at Havana and the city is concomitantly in their hands.



2. Trading Havana

In Havana, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand and nine-hundred fifty-nine things about one another; meetings which could take place between them abroad, conversations coopted by geopolitics, suicide surprises, complicit caresses, the brutal bites which every exiliography demands. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping. Theirs is a very faithful foreignness. There is no language without devotion.

A Cuban Spanish girl comes along, twirling a parasol on her shoulder, and twirling slightly also her rounded Hispanic hips. An unknown walking old man clad in black comes along, showing his full historical age, his eyes restless beneath the hat, his lips trembling with hate in the time of Utopia. A tattooed Cuban Australian giant comes along. A young man with white hair, like a Cuban Antarctic champion. A female dwarf, assumed to be Asian Cuban beyond any DNA evidence. Two girls, twins, dressed to kill Cuban Americans. Two boys, unrelated, dressed like girls dressed to kill Cuban Americans.

Something perverse runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one foreigner with another foreigner and draw arrows, stars, pentagons. Also isosceles triangles, until all combinations on the island are used up in a moment, and other charade characters come on to the silent scene: a blind man with a Bible of Victory open in one hand, a soldier with a box of chocolates shaped as AK bullets, an ephebe chanting the ephemerides of the Revolution, before and after the Revolution as such.

And thus, when some exiles happen to find themselves together, taking shelter from the rain under an arcade, or crowding beneath an awning of the Plaza, or stopping to listen to the Party band in the square, then seductions, infatuations, copulations, and orgies are consummated among them without a common place exchanged, without a word touching anything, almost without a sigh exhaled.

A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Havana, the most chaste of cities. But if strangers began to live their return dreams here, every phantom would again become a person with whom to begin a story of local persecution, suspicion, interrogation, misunderstanding, fallacies, clashes, oppressions, and the Cuban carousel of modern mythology would stop.


1. Havana and eyes

The ancients built Havana on the shores of a bay, with houses all balconies one below the other, and narrow streets whose pretentious parapets look out over the water. Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the bay, and the other reflected, upside down.

Nothing exists or happens in the one Havana that the other Havana does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its floating mirror, and the Havana down in the water contains not only the preciousness and pestilence of the facades that rise above the bay, but also the rooms´ interiors with barbacoas and closets, the primary perspective of the windowpane stained glasses, as well as the secondary mirrors of every wardrobe.

Havana´s inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that action and its mirror-image, which possesses the special suspicion of all images, and this awareness prevents them from caring for a single moment about chance and forgetfulness. Even when lovers screw their naked biology, sex against sex, seeking the pose that will give one the most extasis in the other, even when murderers plunge the machete into the blue veins of the neck and more dotted blood pours out the more they press the blade that slips between the tendons, it is not so much their copulating or murdering that matters as the copulating or murdering of the images, loquacious and legible only behind the mirror.

At times the mirror increases a city´s value, at times denies it. Not everything that seems veritable above the mirror maintains its farce when mirrored below.

Besides, the twin cities are far from equal, because nothing that exists or happens in Havana is strictly symmetrical: every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and gesture inverted, point by point. The two Havanas are invented by each other, their lines interlocked, but there is no linkage between their miraculous mimesis.

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