Havana Does Not Believe in Tears

Prize-winning author Roberto Uria landed in hot water in Cuba. Granted refugee status in the U.S., he must now sink or swim.

One of Uria's stories written during this period takes the reader inside the head of a young man dying in a public hospital, while another reveals the thoughts of a man and a woman preparing for a date in their separate homes. In a third, the writer orchestrates a comedy of errors in which a boy introduces a schoolmate to his parents as his "husband." And in a particularly fanciful tale, Uria turns an elderly mulatto woman's trip to the market into the journey of a Creole princess.

"I write about people with serious conflicts of integration," Uria explains, "be it for reasons that are ideological, sociopolitical, or within the family. This applies to a gay character as much as it does to the defiant character who's been placed in an interrogation room." That last allusion refers to a scene from Uria's "Inf centsrmese por favor," wherein the story's unnamed protagonist is being interviewed for military service. But the subtext touches on other kinds of interrogation. Uria structured the story as a dialogue in which a bureaucrat's voice reels off standard questions about political affiliation, religion, and sexual orientation. He is answered by an interviewee who philosophizes about homeopathic herbs; recites a love poem; remembers a bus ride; ponders the Venus de Milo, el Greco's View of Toledo, and a Bach cantata; and briefly acknowledges his dismal fear.

"The story shows the absurd vision that I have of life," says Uria. "It's an encounter between the tragic and the comic. My perspective of life is that it's not tragic, it's absurd, and the absurd ends up being comic. It's amusing. People laugh about what happens but it's really tragic. Cuba is a country that's absolutely delirious. The absurd is our daily bread."

A prestigious cultural institution in Havana, the Casa de las Americas (House of the Americas) hosts academic conferences and theatrical performances. Additionally, it edits publications to promote the culture of Cuba and that of other Latin American countries. Uria started working at the institution's self-titled magazine in 1988. His job was to write book reviews and informational copy on cultural conferences and prizes. He was not given a byline. "I had a reputation for being difficult, of being critical of the government and the system," Uria recalls, leaning forward in a rocking chair in the spotless living room of his cousins' Hialeah house. "Because of what I wrote, because of what I said, because of what I did or didn't do."

Uria was already considered untrustworthy enough that he had been forbidden by government officials from taking part in the so-called "voluntary jobs" -- actually an obligatory work detail in which Cuban citizens toil in the fields or on construction sites, clean buildings, or build bomb shelters. It didn't help his reputation when on an especially trying day he stood up from his office desk and announced that he was not a communist. "I didn't have a good reputation there," he admits, laughing. "But there was no real excuse to get rid of me until this incident occurred A this absurd incident in which I had no direct participation. It was Kafkaesque."

Uria claims it was his editor, Arturo Arango, who had the idea of putting a fool's cap on a photograph of Luis Sexto, a writer for the newsweekly Bohemia. The two men were known to be feuding, and Sexto had previously criticized Arango in one of his columns. Clowns constituted the graphic theme for the entire May-June 1990 issue of Casa de las Americas. Cesar Ernesto, the magazine's art director, had placed drawings and photographs of clowns on every page, a fact the state security agents did not find amusing when the case was investigated almost a year later. To make matters worse for Uria, he finally had a byline in that issue -- on an article that passionately vindicated the work of gay writer Virgilio Pinera.

"'[Uria demonstrates] hostile conduct toward the principles of the Socialist state,'" Uria pronounces, reading from the edict that ended his livelihood in Cuba. "'We do not recommend him for another job with the Ministry of Culture due to his untrustworthiness.'"

After his appeal failed, he sought out jobs at various publications and institutions but was turned down each time. (Meanwhile, Arango, a high-level party member, was given a prestigious job at another publication.) Uria tried to leave the country, applying for visas to Mexico and Venezuela; he also received invitations to writers' conferences outside of Cuba and won a grant for a six-month writing residency in Ecuador. However, he was not permitted to leave the country.

To make money to buy food, Uria resorted to selling his rations of rum and cigarettes on the black market; he supplemented that meager amount with some financial support from his family. With time on his hands, he began to write essays that analyzed the Cuban government and the contradictions of the Cuban psyche. He also wrote fables, animal stories that were cynical allegories for human behavior. Most of the intellectuals and academics who had courted his friendship when he worked at the magazine would no longer speak to him. He had become an undesirable, and says he was beaten up in public several times.

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