Floored Genius

From high-minded to hype-crazed, book fairs have a rich tradition of coaxing out reclusive authors. New Times was fortunate to get a rare audience with the person redefining writing, M.M. Pascal-Paul.

Ah, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.

Yeah, that cracker lady. [Laughs] Seriously, it's a very important book. The other part of the story is that my dad was an early Rod Stewart fan, when Rod Stewart was still a rocker. So my dad also liked the name Marjorie because then he could call me Maggie when I was little.

Oh, as in the song "Maggie May."

M.M. Pascal-Paul is to non-nonfiction what Camille Paglia is to opportunistic feminism
M.M. Pascal-Paul is to non-nonfiction what Camille Paglia is to opportunistic feminism

Yep. Which, as you know, is about how an older chick lured the young Rod to move in with her. Anyway, my dad is a mutt. He's of French-Portuguese and West African descent. His mom was from Toulouse and his dad was from Senegal. He was born in Haiti, because his parents went there with the United Nations just after World War II. He grew up in Port-au-Prince, the Azores, and Paris, then moved to Montreal to go to college. And believe it or not, my mom's dad was Estonian. He moved to Cuba after the Spanish-American War. My mom's mom's family migrated to Cuba from Asturias, Spain, in the 1930s after Generalissimo Francisco Franco came to power. My parents met in Montreal in the Fifties.

So you're pretty well covered, ethnically speaking.

That's right, cracker boy.

Martí is quite a name to be saddled with. Is he an influence?

Saddled is right. But it's become, dare I say, a comfortable saddle. After you wear one for a while, you get used to it. Was it Borges who said writers invent their influences? I'm not sure that José Martí is one of mine, though I'm sure I've probably thought about him more than I otherwise would have because of this intimate name connection. Besides, I think he was drunk or on drugs half the time he was writing. "The pen soars when it has great things to narrate but plods along heavily when it must, as now, give an account of brutal things that are devoid of beauty or nobility. The pen should be as immaculate as a virgin. It twists away like an enslaved woman, lifts from the paper as if trying to escape and droops in the hand that holds it, as if there were some iniquity in describing iniquitous things. Men charge at each other like bulls here." That's from a piece he wrote on boxing. I've often marveled at how some Cubans, ideologues I guess you could call them — be they exiles or communists — lay claim to Martí and appropriate his writings into their respective dogmas. Did you know that Martí also wrote something called Tributes to Karl Marx, Who Has Died?

I did not.

You don't hear much mention of that in Miami. Like over at the Plaza of Cuban-ness in Little Havana there's a sculpture consisting of palm trees. And there's a plaque with a quote from a José Martí poem: Las palmas son novias que esperan. The palm trees are girlfriends who are waiting. It is easy to imagine that in Little Havana, at least outside the [militant anti-Castro group] Alpha 66 headquarters, which is adjacent to the plaza, one predominant interpretation would be that the novias are waiting for their boyfriends to return from a commando raid against the communist regime. In Havana the interpretation would more likely be that the novias are waiting for their revolutionary guys to return from overthrowing Batista.

Or to return from Miami with a pile of money and clothes.

[Laughs politely] Borges is also famous for writing about the power of context. You put the same words — or in this case the same palm tree sculptures — in two different contexts and you'll get two different meanings. I'm thinking of Borges's hilarious short story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." The story is based on how in the 1930s Menard supposedly wrote the same exact book that Cervantes wrote in the early 1600s. And Borges writes that it is a revelation to compare the two Don Quixotes. To make the point he selects a passage: "Truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future." Then Borges notes how Cervantes easily handles the Spanish of his time, while 300 years later Menard struggled to write in the archaic style that was second nature to Cervantes. Then Borges contrasts the seventeenth-century faith-based notion of history being the mother of truth with a more skeptical twentieth-century notion of history as a kind of a phenomenological construction, as he puts it; history is not what took place, only what we think took place. But then this guy Menard comes out with this astounding statement that, no, history is the mother of truth.

And what does this have to do with Cuba?

Well, Menard is kind of like an ideologue. Hardliners here and on the island tend to have a very inflexible view of truth and history. But obviously not all Cubans are ideologues, just as not all Saudi Arabians or not all Israelis are. Or Palestinians. It just so happens that those in power tend to be. One of my favorite metaphors of Cuban authoritarianism is the John Lennon statue that's in a park in Havana. People now call it Lennon Park. As opposed to Lenin. Which is highly ironic because the Beatles were considered counterrevolutionary by hard-core Castristas back in the Sixties. And now there's a park named after John. Go figure. I mean, you can just imagine the central committee or whatever back in the day deeming the lyrics "Baby you're a rich man, baby you're a rich man, baby you're a rich man too" to be a corrupt entreaty for everyone on the island to become a greedy capitalist pig. Over here it was the opposite. That song was from the Magical Mystery Tour album, 1967.

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