“But regardless, if someone is a true writer—not an opportunist who wants to be in favor with the government of the day—that person is always going to be for freedom. Because the simple truth is that without freedom, the writer cannot exist. And the writer who is for freedom is, by definition, not for any totalitarian system. So the duty of the writer is to write well and champion freedom.”
“I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.”
July 16, 1943 – December 7, 1990
Is there such a thing as a Cuban novel?
I wouldn’t go so far as to categorically state that a Cuban novel exists. If we compare the Cuban novelistic tradition with the French or English or North American ones, there hasn’t been an accumulation of really impressive works. But Cuba is a surprising and mysterious case, because such a small island that’s rather unfortunate in every way has, in each generation, produced very good poets, novelists, and short-story writers. There’s been an important Cuban literary tradition that, in spite of—or maybe because of—so many hardships, has shown an unusual continuity. This has been demonstrated over two hundred years, in a country where almost nobody reads. With the exception of the police, who read your manuscripts.
Since you’ve been here, have you noticed a difference in perspective? What’s the perception of life compared with in Cuba?
It’s completely different in that here, you don’t feel the weight of a flagrant and inescapable evil. I’m much more relaxed in this sense; I can work more peacefully and my imagination can roam more freely. On the other hand, the experience of having lived in Cuba is also very important, because it’s given me an understanding of history that people who haven’t suffered like that lack. You can no longer see anything with innocent eyes. You know that behind every political system there’s a series of political interests that are what shape you, and people more or less work in agreement with these interests or against them. Knowing this has given me a critical ability that I’ll always be able to use.
What do you think about poetry?
Poetry is part of everything. You can’t have a really good work if it’s not touched by poetry. Poetry manifests itself in millions of ways: as rhythm, metaphor, mood. Sometimes it’s a type of emotional outpouring or necessity that’s not expressed through characters but through feelings. To me, poetry is the tragic sense of man. It’s a way of seeing things in the most complete way, the most absolute, and, to a certain extent, the most perfect. Where there’s no poetry, there’s no beauty, and without beauty no kind of artistic work can exist.
When you think about what you love or what you hate, what would that be?
In what, literature?
No, in general, in life.
What I love most is life itself. I’m very afraid of death. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it’s a solution. It’s the only thing that gives meaning to life! (Laughter.) I really like people in general. People, the mystery of the human being, and the sea above all. The sea is a mystery.
What I don’t like is … well, just imagine. There are so many things not to like. Stupidity, which is something terrible, and the militarization of the world. Dogma. When someone talks to me about some dogma, I can no longer talk with that person. Dogma can be religious as well as political; it’s the same. You can’t engage in any dialogue because the person is already wielding an absolute truth. It’s like pounding on a rock—there’s no way in. I think that, in the end, what I hate most in the world is fanaticism.
Does a writer have a duty to himself and to society?
The writer has a fundamental responsibility to write well or to write the best he can, because if he doesn’t he’s not a writer. And when a writer writes, he’s always referring to a social and historical context. It’s impossible for Argentinian writers not to write as Argentinians, because to be Argentinian is a circumstance of fate, like it is to be Cuban. When you analyze the bourgeois writer’s novel, you see the shortcomings of bourgeois society. Even when you try to write a fantasy story, in some way that fantasy is going to be connected to a reality. But regardless, if someone is a true writer—not an opportunist who wants to be in favor with the government of the day—that person is always going to be for freedom. Because the simple truth is that without freedom, the writer cannot exist. And the writer who is for freedom is, by definition, not for any totalitarian system. So the duty of the writer is to write well and champion freedom. And he champions freedom because he has an obligation—what better obligation than this?
Complete interview In The New Yorker here.