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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Carlos Alberto Montaner: Cuba and the Era of Lezama Lima
"Adriana has had the intelligence to use the book that collects the letters, but to do something much more impactful: a film about the anguish of an exquisite writer trapped in a filthy place that was degrading dangerously and ineluctably," writes Latin American genius Carlos Alberto Montaner about a wonderful new film -- "worth an Academy Award" -- at the Miami Film Festival.

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

In Miami, for some years now, there has been a remarkable film festival, increasingly important, sponsored by Miami Dade College. On Sunday ,March 8, they exhibited a great documentary. Its title was “Letters to Eloísa” and it was directed by a magnificent filmmaker named Adriana Bosch.

It’s excellent.

The starting point is the correspondence between the Cuban poet José Lezama Lima and Eloísa, his younger sister. Lezama wrote to her from Cuba and Eloísa replied from exile. Lezama was not allowed to leave Cuba. She was afraid to enter the island (her husband, Orlando Álvarez, was an outstanding opponent), and he could not leave.

Fidel and Raúl were the owners of all Cubans. They decided who traveled and who stayed on the island. Lezama had been born in 1910 and died in Havana in 1976 at the age of 65. Eloísa died in Miami in 2010. They could never meet again. Adriana has had the intelligence to use the book that collects the letters, but to do something much more impactful: a film about the anguish of an exquisite writer trapped in a filthy place that was degrading dangerously and ineluctably.

Lezama was gay. Closet, but gay. He married a lady to take care of him and to protect himself from official homophobia. He was also fat, asthmatic, and a lawyer. Before the revolution, his friend – they were not a couple – Gastón Baquero, also a poet, had gotten him a “small job” on the board that studied the files of common prisoners and recommended or denied freedom to those inmates. (It seems that Lezama was very severe.)

When I asked Gastón, exiled in Madrid, why he respected Lezama so much from a literary point of view, despite the fact that they had taken divergent paths in the poetic field – Gastón’s poetry was direct and transparent – he stared at me and said, with all certainty, “Because one day the encyclopedias will say that Fidel Castro was a minor dictator in the Lezama Lima era.” His devotion to the poet who created the group Orígenes was total and authentic.

Has the era of Lezama Lima already begun? Maybe. Not only has the documentary, worth of an Academy Award, been released, but his novel Paradiso, a 600-page baroque monument, has been republished, eliminating numerous errors from Cuba’s neglected original 1966 edition. I’m not a fan of Baroque literature, but I understand that others are. For example, Julio Cortázar and Octavio Paz were fascinated by this labyrinthine world of intricate forms, surprising vocabulary, and highly cultured and unexpected literary and historical allusions.

However, Paradiso has not caught the attention of many Cuban (and non-Cuban) readers for its baroque virtues, but for its chapter eight, the homoerotic text that spoke of open homosexuality, which caused an aggressive reaction from the revolutionary leadership. Especially from Fidel, Raúl and Ramiro Valdés – Che Guevara, the other great homophobe, had already left Cuba – to the point that people began to speak of “machismo-Leninism” on the island. Calling the anus a “copper circle,” and explaining that “the phallic configuration of Farraluque (a fictional character inspired by a flesh-and-blood gentleman) was extremely conducive to that retrospective penetration,” was more than the scant sensitivity of those fierce bearded men could tolerate.

It was the era of the UMAP (Military Production Aid Units, 1965-1968). It was the era of locking gay men in concentration camps to re-educate them and remove by violent means their “bourgeois customs” of loving or being attracted to people of the same gender. The useless punishment ended with dozens of suicides and with Improper Conduct, an extraordinary documentary made by Orlando Jiménez Leal and Néstor Almendros (winner of an Oscar), in which some of those locked up in the UMAP bitterly told what they had suffered along with many religious believers.

Eventually, the dictatorship recognized the stupid crime and shut down the UMAP camps, but the criminals were not punished, because they included Fidel, Raúl and the rest of the leadership, and the revolution continued to be “macho-Leninist.” In the 1980s they continued to expel gays from their jobs or from universities, accusing them of being “scum”. Lezama was dead, but his literary prestige grew under the grass. Today there is not the slightest doubt: the figure of Fidel shrinks under the accusatory weight of his own words in the film libraries, while that of Lezama grows larger. Will Gastón Baquero’s prophecy be fulfilled?

Carlos Alberto Montaner is a journalist and writer. Born in 1943 in Cuba and exiled, Montaner is known for his more than 25 books and thousands of articles. PODER magazine estimates that more than six million readers have access to his weekly columns throughout Latin America. He is also a political analyst for CNN en Espanol. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named Montaner as one of the fifty most influential intellectuals in the Ibero-American world. His latest novel is A Time for Scoundrels. His latest essay is "The President: A Handbook for Voters and the Elected." His latest book is Sin ir más lejos (Memories), published by Debate, a label of Penguin-Random House.


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