viernes, 5 de octubre de 2018

In Visible City

Kastro Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco People says when he describes the cities visited during his exile, but the commander-in-chief of the Cubans does continue listening to this historical Havanan with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.

Only in People's accounts was Kastro able to discern, through the waling walls and totalitarian towers destined to crumble, the terminal tracery of a pattern so despotic it could escape the termites' temptation.

1.  Havana and memory

The special quality of Havana for the man who arrived here six decades ago on a January evening, just when the days of democracy were growing shorter and the monocolored lamps of another language were being lighted all at once, is that the man today would feel envy toward the inhabitants of Havana who still believe they haven´t lived such an evening six decades ago on a January evening, and who stubbornly think they were happy at home before the man´s arrival.

The special quality of Havana for the man in question is thus that he hates Havana with all the dialectical historicisms of his heart. 

2.  Havana and memory

When a man fights a long time through wild regions, he feels the desire for a city. Finally, he conquers Havana. A city where the buildings have spontaneous staircases encrusted with socializable silences, where stunt tyrants and improvised violators are welcome, where the foreigner hesitating between two utopias always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into civil bloodsheds among the citizenry.

Any man fighting over a certain amount of time through wild enough regions will think of all these things when he desires a city. Havana, therefore, has become the city of their dreams. With one difference: their dreamed-of Havana contains them only as old warriors, but they have arrived in Havana in their youngest age.

In the Revolution Square there is now a wailing wall where these youngsters sit and wait for their youth to go by as soon as impossible. They seat in a ridiculous row. Dreaming, remembering. Dreaming remembrances that never happened in the history of Havana and remembering the one and only dream that in vain they still dream to dream.

Desires are already memories. But the tragedy of these men and men is that they are too young to belong to a city like conquered Havana. Or perhaps a city like conquered Havana is too old for their barbaric beauty to fit in.

1.  Havana and desire

There are two ways of describing the city of Havana.

You can listen to the taxi driver who is taking you there: “You arrive a little too late. People are hurrying along the streets toward the Malecón. Women have false teeth and look you straight in the wallet. Three primordial prostitutes under the red spotlight are blowing long and long the trumpets of post-totalitarianism, while all around the wheel of markets is turning and huge colored banners are printed in a wind of change. Before all these miracles, it was only the desert of communist routes.”

Or else you can say to the taxi driver who is taking you away from there: “In the years to follow, my eyes will return to contemplate again the rutilant ruins of the Revolution, but now I know this path is only one of the many pathetic impossibilities that your description of Havana has originally opened for me.”

3.  Havana and memory

In vain shall we attempt to describe Havana, city of high bastions.

You could tell me how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways and the degree of the arcade´s curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs, but you should already know that this would be the same as telling me nothing.

The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged exploiter´s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the commander-in-chief´s funeral procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the proletarian who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and the remains of class struggle revolutionarily running along it; the firing range of the gunboat Granma which has suddenly appeared beyond the bay and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fish net and an old generation of men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the 1959th time the story of the gunboat Granma owned by the exploiter, who some say was the commander-in-chief´s illegitimate brother, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock.

As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Havana as it is today should contain all of Havana´s pasts.

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a newborn´s hand, erased from the corners of the streets, erased from the bars of the prison cells, erased from the insults screamed by the crowds, erased from the pirate parabolic antennae disguised as legal lightning rods, erased from the poles of the firing squads, yet every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. And again with scrolls, indentations, scratches.

2.  Havana and desire

At the end of six decades, moving southward, you come upon Havana, a city with concentric communities concentrating it and rockets flying over it.

I should now list the war wares that can profitably be bought there: anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and other varieties of strict anti-establishment ideologies. I should praise the fidelity of this green-olive philosophy cooked here under the friendly fire of sovereign Cuban woods and sprinkled with much sweat and tears; and tell of the women I have seen boringly bathing in the pool of a hotel and who sometimes―it is said―invite the stranger to disrobe with them and chase them in such hard-currency convertible waters.

But with all this, I would not be telling you the city´s true essence. For while the description of Havana awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Havana one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you.

The city appears to you as a whore where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since Havana enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.

Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Havana, the treacherous city, possesses. If for eight hours a day you work as a local collector of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-establishment, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Havana wholly when you are only its slut.

1.  Havana and signs

You walk for decades among palm trees and among funeral stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the boatman´s escape; a marsh announces the last military invasion; the withering of a soy plantation, the first famine after Fidel. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are.

All journeys lead to the city of Havana. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: propaganda posters point out the tooth-drawer´s house; a tank, troops; halberds, the barracks; scales, scarcity.

Statues and shields depict heroes, martyrs, monoliths, stars: a sign that something―who knows what?―has as its sign a hero or a martyr or a monolith or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the ministry with bicycles, to urinate behind the tribune, to fish with your pole from the Malecón) and what is allowed (cursing foreign foes, playing baseball, burning counterrevolutionary corpses).

From the doors of the temples the gods´ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes―the ulcer-licking dogs, the newborn-breastfeeding virgin, the machete and the torch of freedom―so that the worshiper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city´s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the madhouse, the anti-imperialist school, the brothel. The worms, too, which officers display on their cages are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the illustrated T-shirt stands for exile; the olive-green uniform, power; the volumes of Ché Guevara, forgetfulness; the hard-currency bills, voluptuousness.

Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Havana you are only recording the myths with which the Party defines her and all her parts.

However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Havana without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon. The sky closes, with static clouds. In the shape that chance and cruelty give the clouds, you are already tired of recognizing figures: a fleeing raft, hands, a drowning goodbye.

4.  Havana and memory

Beyond no river and no mountain range rises Havana, a city that no one, having seen it, can forget. But not because, like other memorable cities, it leaves an unusual image in your recollections. Havana has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in its succession of broken streets, of houses broken along the streets, and of broken doors and windows in the houses, though nothing in them possesses a special beauty or rarity.

Havana´s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over mute patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced, much less performed. The exile who knows by heart how Havana is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the frozen clock follows the barber´s stained awning, then the faithful fountain with the dry jets, the commander-in-chief´s concrete tower, the State´s newspaper kiosks, the statue of the hero and the horse, the totalitarian totems, no cafés at any comer, the bus lines that invariably lead to the harbor.

This city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like a skeleton, a honey-comb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: names of infamous men, vices, nationalizations, vegetable and mineral calcifications, dates of battles, conspirations, parts of speech. Between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be broken, serving as an immediate aid to memory. So exile´s most learned Cubans are those who have memorized Havana.

But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, Havana has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. Havanans have forgotten her.

3.  Havana and desire

Havana can be reached in two ways: by ship or by airplane. The city displays one desert face to the traveler arriving overseas and a different one to him who arrives by air.

When the pilot sees, at the horizon of the airport, the military obelisks come into view, the radar antennae, the black and red flags flapping, the chimneys thirsty of smoke, he thinks of a ship. He knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a vessel that will take him down to the bottom of the sea, a bathyscaphe about to sink, with the waves already announcing the wreck, not yet confessed, or a ghost rowboat with its cadaver crew crying in the cardboard keel. And he thinks of all the Cuban ports, the foreign merchandise the cranes unload no more on the docks, the strictly surveilled taverns where crews of different flags break bottles and boredom over one another´s heads, the heavy, ground-floor colonial windows, each with a Black woman substituting the tempting architecture of a previous Black woman.

In the coastline´s haze, in turn, the sailor discerns the form of an airplane´s withers, a ricocheting rocket with glittering fringe between two trembling wings, descending without ever landing. He knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as an airplane from whose landing gear hang the hopes and hatreds of permanent passengers, sugarcane wine, tobacco leaves, carbonized coffee, and already he sees himself at the criminal cabin of a bomber aircraft taking him away from the crowded wasteland of Florida Straits, toward oases of free expressways refreshed by palmetto trees´ jagged shade, toward palaces of thick, White-watched walls, tiled courts where girls are dancing barefoot, moving their arms, half-hidden by their fake diamonds, and half-revealed by their hungry hearts.

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the pilot and the sailor see Havana, a border city between two deserts.

2.  Havana and signs

Travelers return from the city of Havana with distinct memories: a blind black man shouting in the crowd, a lunatic teetering on a mausoleum´s cornice, a girl walking with a poodle on a leash. Actually many of the blind men who tap their canes on Havana´s cobblestones are black; in every mausoleum there is someone going mad; all lunatics spend hours on cornices; there is no poodle that some girl does not raise, as a wish. The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something can sometimes come to mind.

I too am returning from Havana: my memory includes helicopters flying in all directions, at window level; streets of shops where tattoos are drawn on tourists´ skin; obsolete trains crammed with famished women yet suffering from hypertension. My traveling comrades, on the other hand, swear they saw only one helicopter hovering among the city´s pyres, only one tattoo artist sterilizing needles and improvising inks and pierced patterns on his bench, only one famish woman fanning herself on a bus stop.

Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can believe it exists.

1.  Thin Havana

Havana, city of the thousand walls, is said to rise over a deep, subterranean oil vein. On all sides, wherever the inhabitants dig long vertical holes in their homes, they succeed in drawing up oil, as far as the city extends, and no farther. Its gray border repeats the dark outline of the buried fuel; an invisible landscape conditions the visible one; everything that moves in the sunlight is driven by the boiling fossil enclosed beneath the rock´s calcareous catacomb.

Consequently two forms of religion exist in Havana.

The city´s gods, according to some people, live in the depths, in the black lake that feeds the underground steams. According to others, the gods live in the buckets that rise, suspended from a cable, as they appear over the edge of the wells, in the revolving pulleys, in the windlasses of the norias, in the pump handles, in the blades of the windmills that draw the oil up from the drillings, in the trestles that support the twisting probes, in the reservoirs perched on stilts over the roofs, in the slender arches of the pipelines, in all the columns of gas, the vertical fumes, the plungers, the drains, all the way up to the weathercocks that surmount the suffocating scaffoldings of Havana, a city that moves entirely upward.

Perhaps, Kastro Khan thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind´s phantasms: “On the day when I know all the emblems,” he asked Marco People, “shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?”

And the Havanan answered: “Chief, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.”