Late-Breaking Chicanarte News Follows This Review!
Translated by Kathleen Ross. Durham : Duke University Press, 2006. ISBN 0822338297
Deliberate Serendipity is my name for browsing the New Books shelf at my local public library, Pasadena’s main branch. Whoever buys the books here makes some good decisions. That’s what I tell myself as I take the spine announcing Jésus Díaz, The Initials of the Earth. A novel of the Cuban Revolution. I flip open the last page, 480, it reads in tiny type, “bibliography.” Flip back through the back of the book, glossary, extensive end notes!
Published as part of Duke University’s Latin America in Translation series, there’s a trove of useful material back here. I didn’t read any of this in advance of tackling the translation, trusting to Kathleen Ross to keep the prose flowing and honest to the unseen original art. What a task. Díaz loads his prose with stylistic games and the cultural allusions must have given Ross headaches and sleepless nights.
Those things that are untranslatable remain in Cuban or the original, e.g. Tarzan ape-speak that clouds the child Carlos’ fantasy. But other material comes in for the best the translator can offer. The word games the comrades play pose wonderful challenges to the translator’s art, but just in case a reader doesn’t “get it”, there will be a note. Culture resists translation even when there’s a word for something. When this occurs, there’s a note for it. For example, the note on Chapter 18 p. 274, “We screw around with anyone. The dialogue plays with the Spaniard’s use of joder as an expletive meaning ‘fuck,’ while for the Cubans it means having fun or joking around.”
Whether to hold off on the notes until last, or read them first to front-load some of the more arcane experience, is the first decision a wise reader will make.
Díaz writes a moral biography of one Carlos Pérez Cifredo. As the novel open, Carlos sits with his supportive wife, filling out a biographical form with intention of making a full accounting of the man’s life. It’s the novel in a nutshell, “why he’d done this and not that, why he’d almost never accomplished what he tried to do but rather what had been decided by chance”. Carlos is on the eve of what a US reader might call an inquisition. In Carlos’ terms, he must sit before a communal debate that will name him an Exemplary Worker, or deny him the moral distinction that goes with the honor.
Readers will know Cuba from a variety of literary sources, some foreign, some exiles. Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective haunts the vedado in 1999’s Havana Bay. That same year, Smith’s guide in Cuba, local writer Jose LaTour, published his noir masterpiece Outcast. Daniel Chavarria’s pair of Cuban titles, the risqué Adiós Muchachos and the more recent thriller Tango for a Torturer. Written prior to Diaz’ exile to Spain, The Initials of the Earth gives Cubans a chance to speak with their own voice.
Díaz does it warts and all, writing Carlos' career as a kind of archetype for the Cuban revolution. Throughout the life he leads in The Initials of the Earth, Carlos keeps his head in the clouds with flights of fancy, comes to earth to exercise the passionate intensity of a true believer who makes terrible decisions or acts mindlessly, inexplicably.
Being the younger son of a middle class family, Carlos has no responsibility other than to follow orders of his adult caretakers. But little Carlos' world beats to a different drum, a fantasy world based on movies and comic books like Tarzan and one of my own favorites, Blackhawk.
Intent on giving his fantasy world reality, little Carlos wanders into forbidden places, meets people his family prefers he not socialize, especially black skinned Cubans like the family's servants, and the denizens of an arroyo on the family’s land. One of the novel’s “warts and all” parts is its portrayal of the racism against Blacks that runs rampant through the novel's Cuban society. It confuses young Carlos and makes him a reticent warrior when race riots pit him against his neighbors and friends, as an adult, he’ll hurl her blackness in his wife’s face.
The novel covers a lot of historical ground. We see life for teenagers under Batista’s rule, when police arrest meant torture and probably disappearance and death--que plus ça change, que no?—and witness kids turn into revolutionaries. Carlos’ sympathies lie with his friends but his actions remain safe and controlled. He finds himself in the right place, between factions, and becomes a leader.
Carlos is lucky in this way. He invariably recovers from bad falls. Typical is his wedding night. Wound up in bedroom hijinks with his bride, he receives notice of a general mobilization. Carlos speeds off into the night, only to wind up near death in a speeding accident. Or the time Carlos is called upon to write a report. He can take the safe route and pad the old boy network, or he can step forward with revolutionary correctness and nail the lazy administrator. He steps forward and in the fervor of completing the impossible project, Carlos and his secretary are interrupted in mid screw. However, his report hits its mark and Carlos’ analysis is vindicated, even though he is expelled from his position.
Unemployed and out of options—his wife has kicked him out for his infidelity plus she’s gotten even—Carlos heads to the sugarcane. The cane cutting section of the novel fills with beautiful paeans to hard work. The description of the low-growing snakelike caña, its slipperiness when wet, makes me glad I’m not out there swinging my machete for a living. What a living these workers in the caña have. What a wonderful respite for them the day Fidel himself puts his arm around Carlos’ shoulders, conducting a technical discussion of a harvesting machine.
By the time Carlos’ sugar career concludes, he has become the manager of the world’s largest sugar mill, the America Latina. But for the insight of an idiot, however, Carlos’ life would come crashing down. This is one of Díaz’ sly shots at revolutionary order. Cuba has announced a 10 million ton goal for the harvest. Carlos will run the largest and most modernized mill. Officials from various ministries have come to see Carlos push the button that starts the new machinery. But the foreign engineers are stumped and cannot get the equipment running. They offer to return to England for a six month consultation. The village idiot offers a solution. The Brits complain that “this is what is wrong with you people, your figures are all wrong.” They rework the math and direct the millwrights to build a contraption that gets the mill running at record-setting productivity.
Clearly, Carlos is an opportunist, malgre lui. Being recognized as such would be one step below being a gusano, under revolutionary order, and it is this fact that drives an underlying tension throughout the story. Carlos gets by because of his good heart but horrid decisions. He doesn’t deserve the crap that hits him, but on the other hand, he doesn’t really deserve the reader’s sympathy.
Díaz doesn’t really say much about the revolution’s politics other than the tiny scale of Carlos’ immediate experience. There is, however, one political point that looms large. Aside from the warm treatment of Castro, Díaz holds little affection for most revolutionaries, and zero tolerance for revolutionary sexism. In the most telling indictment in the story, the men express zero understanding of sexual equality, universally condemning a woman for an affair that was a “gotcha” for her man’s own affair and blind disrespect. For his part, Díaz always gives the women the last word. In fact, the novel's final page sums up Carlos’ career in the speech of an impassioned compañera who supports Carlos’ stature as an Exemplary Worker, thinking, “Carlos proved he was brave and sensitive, because in this country, only a man who had both of them right where they belonged would do what he had done, for love; and thank you, that’s all.”
Almost all. This is the way the book ends:
“Very well, compañeros, then we are going to vote by a show of hands: first all those in favor, then all those against.”
Not with a bang but no decision. Yet, given that Carlos has been such a clod, I don’t hold the ending against the author. After guiding through 370 pages of Carlos’ career, Díaz brings us up to this currently most decisive moment in Carlos’ life, and as with all the foregoing crises, Carlos has no idea how it’s going to work out. But if things go against him, I’ll bet on Carlos finding a way to recover. He’s like Cuba.
Here we are, gente, mid-July, summer's almost done. I know, wishful thinking. Be cool, find a good book, a deep shade, sit back, and read! See you next week.