Undisturbed Reading…

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I returned from a three week trip to Cuba nine weeks back. I haven’t worked since and won’t start again until October. My working year gets shorter. Money is sometimes a problem, but I’ve enjoyed the time off. While in Havana, I read: A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle 1805-1915 by Miranda Seymour (The circle here included Hart Crane, H.G. Wells, Ford Maddox Ford, Edith Wharton and James’s brother William); Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation 1940-1944 by Charles Glass; Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt, Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin; Conversations with Marilyn [Monroe] by W.J. Weatherby and You Talkin’ to Me: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith.

Quite a heavy selection, now I look at it, but I enjoyed every one. Possibly I wouldn’t have read all of those books at home – too distracted, but in Cuba I can read for hours undisturbed and with good concentration.

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In the nine weeks I’ve been home I’ve read: Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism by Greg Grandin; The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene by Marie Francoise Allain; Defying Hitler, a memoir by Sebastian Haffner; Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (the horrific tale of the chemical spill) by Dominique Lapierre & Javier Moro; Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle; Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies; The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook and Thirst by Kerry Hudson.

They appear, on reflection, quite heavy too, but they weren’t. And it’s taken me nine weeks to read them, mostly in bed; during the day there was little concentrated reading, being easily distracted.

I also noticed from one of my recent posts that I said I’d never read William Faulkner. The reason I’d never tried was just a few comments I’d read over the years. I remember Bill Bryson, ages ago, writing about a passage being three pages long “which would constitute one sentence for William Faulkner”; that and a few other remarks coloured my opinion of him. But having never read Faulkner, I became curious and, after all, he won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.

I decided to investigate Faulkner. I looked through his books on Amazon and settled on Light in August. The Spectator said that it:

Burns throughout with a fierce indignation against cruelty, stupidity and prejudice – a great book”

A comment from a reader said;

This a Faulkner’s major work which could be considered as one of the best American novels of the 1930s. This book represents the best introduction to Faulkner’s novels and to the history of the deep South. Anyone interested in American literature should read it.”

It has 384 pages. Surely ideal as an introduction to Faulkner. I enjoyed the first few chapters but found the style difficult. Faulkner describes everything, tells you everything. It is written in, what for the time, was a modernistic style. It is impressionistic. The following passage is fairly typical:

Then a cold hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing hard away like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and despair and the hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too. With the very blast of it he seems to feel himself rush back and empty again, without anything in him now which had not been there two weeks ago, before he ever saw her. The desire of this moment is more than desire; it is conviction quiet and assured; before he is aware that his brain has telegraphed his hand he has turned the mule from the road and is galloping along the ridge which parallels the running man’s course when he entered the woods.

Beautiful writing. But essentially the man changes direction; that’s about all I wanted to know. Perhaps that makes me a moron; perhaps I have a short attention span, except there comes a stage where I just want to get on with the story – it seemed so slow, so stodgy. It is wonderfully written, but the whole book is like that: every action, every thought, everything surrounding that action and thought is described in detail. It was too much. I waited and waited for the story to move. I tried. I read 200 pages. I don’t mind that kind of description in moderation, but paragraph after paragraph, page after page – and I was never entirely sure what was going on. So I gave up. I don’t like abandoning books; I usually give a book ten to fifty pages; I really tried with this one. Ultimately I didn’t care.

Maybe I am a moron. If that is a good introduction to Faulkner, I won’t be reading any more. A wonderful writer. But not for me.

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This post would be too long for me to discuss the above books in any detail, assuming anybody wants me to. Although I would recommend them all, I would like to praise a few unreservedly. I enjoyed Thirst. Kerry Hudson writes with great insight about Alena, a girl in trouble, but I didn’t care for the male character – a shame. Hudson though is a good writer. She writes about ordinary people and their interesting and, in this case, dangerous lives. She is also genuinely working class. Not enough of those writers around (see Rod Liddle) and I’ll watch out for anything else she writes.

Peter Brook is always interesting. He writes clear prose and thinks originally. He writes very slim volumes though. This one I read in an hour-and-a-half, and I’m a slow reader. Stiff at £12.99, full-price. All his books seem to be that way. Recommended though.

Strong recommendations for:

Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin.

I knew nothing about Hannah Arendt but found myself agreeing with everything she said and everything she thought. I liked the way she lived her life, her courage and her stubbornness. I disliked Martin Heidegger. Stranger from Abroad is a superb read. I’d never heard of Daniel Maier-Katkin. He’s an academic, but also a good writer and meticulously fair-minded.

Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle

Rod Liddle’s book is a bit of a rant, but all the better for it. He says things most people haven’t the courage to say and, for me, need saying. Our society has become rather silly and unfair. He says so, says why and names the guilty. Selfish Whining Monkeys indeed.

Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies.

Cracked is an exposure of the psychiatric industry; and it is an industry. It also reveals how drug companies are prescribing dangerous drugs worldwide, doing most of the published research themselves while burying negative reports. Very disturbing.

Despite appearances, all the above are easy reads with the exception of Light in August (for me). You Talkin’ to Me can be hard-going too.

Hope you weren’t bored.

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Writing Heroes – Ernest Hemingway

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I have a strange relationship with Ernest Hemingway. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, and loved it. I was completely caught up in the story of the Cuban fisherman who caught a giant marlin while way out to sea and…well I won’t spoil the story for those who may want to read it. Then I didn’t read anything else by Hemingway for 30 years, picking him up again when I first visited Cuba.

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Probably as much has been written about Hemingway as any other writer. As with many writers, even Nobel prize winners, the critics at first loved him, perhaps over praised him, and then turned against him, sometimes with justification. But the critics turn against almost everyone eventually and: Who are they but people who can’t write, people who can’t tell stories?

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I haven’t even read all his books, but he did change the way many people write, so he’s endlessly interesting, his incredible life apart. When I returned to Hemingway I read his short stories and turned first to Big Two Hearted River, which I’d heard was special. It was. By this time I thought much more about writing; I couldn’t be pulled along by a narrative as I had been by the Old Man and the Sea, and had not been much impressed by any new writing. The story hit home. I understood Hemingway and what he did and what he meant to people. When Samuel Putnam asked Hemingway what his aims were in the twenties, his answer was:

Put down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it.

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Well, he did that in 1925 with Big Two Hearted River. I found some of the writing moved me (a rare experience); it sounds corny but reading it was like being there. You felt it. I don’t know if it will have the same effect here, in isolation, but here goes. Nick has just set up camp, alone, by the river:

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It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in a good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.

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This passage reminded me immediately of my hitch hiking days in Europe. After a day on the road, find a site, pitch your tent and you were done for the day. But it didn’t just remind me – it made me feel it. Hemingway has captured that sense of achievement, of creating your home, being comfortable and being all set for the evening, perfectly. It is a wonderful, simple piece of writing. It looks easy – anybody could write that – but they couldn’t. I liked most of the other short stories too.

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I also read Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I enjoyed it but not so much. Already his macho tendencies were creeping in. Later I disliked A Farewell to Arms. It seemed to me thoroughly sentimental, not really an experience of war but a man imagining the part he would like to play in it. Hemingway was intensely competitive: the great white hunter, the fearless war correspondent, the champion fisherman, the boxer, the drinker. I felt it tainted most of his writing after the short stories.

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I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees; I didn’t like Islands in the Stream. A Moveable Feast is an entertaining, but not entirely true account of Hemingway’s early days in Paris. The Garden of Eden is very strange, an erotic ménage a trois, again based on his early days in France. But with success came obsessions: to hunt, to own a boat and catch the biggest fish, to be present, though not necessarily involved in, war. Ultimately it felt that Hemingway was in constant competition with everybody, even poor Scott Fitzgerald, whose fragile psyche he messed with.

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The story that did for me occurred long after he had lost a lot of friends because of his behaviour. He was on his boat, Pilar, in Cuban waters with a good and old friend, Mike Strater. Strater had hooked a really big fish, the biggest he’d ever caught and bigger than anything Hemingway had ever caught. He was slowly reeling it in to the boat. It was being followed by sharks but they only really go for blood; he would have got it on board. Hemingway grabbed his machine gun (he loved shooting sharks) and sprayed the water. Strater’s fish was attacked. By the time they landed it the bottom half had been eaten away. It weighed in at 500 pounds, but would have weighed double that whole. It was pure jealousy, stopping a friend from beating him. He then lied about the event in an article for Esquire. Friends don’t do that.

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Of course his whole life was tragic. There were five suicides in his family. It is thought his father had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, where the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Hemingway’s hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961. Hemingway’s father, siblings Ursula and Leicester and granddaughter Margaux all died by their own hand. Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria. Several books could be written on Hemingway’s life, but here I’m just concentrating on the writing.

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I returned to The Old Man and the Sea a few years back and didn’t like it much. Was that just the result of me becoming older and more cynical? Partly, but not wholly. Although it showed flashes of the old Hemingway, I thought it was overly sentimental and contrived.

In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2012), Paul Hendrickson spends over 700 pages trying to rescue Hemingway’s reputation. I don’t think he does it. In many ways he was an awful man. His writing remains though, and many of his early observations have stayed with me. Carlos Baker:

Hemingway always wrote slowly and revised carefully, cutting, eliding, substituting, experimenting with syntax to see what a sentence could most economically carry, and then throwing out all the words that could be spared.

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The actual, he wrote in 1949, is ‘made of knowledge, experience, wine, bread, oil, salt, vinegar, bed, early mornings, nights, days, the sea, men, women, dogs, beloved motor cars, bicycles, hills and valleys, the appearance and disappearance of trains on straight and curved tracks…cock grouse drumming on a basswood log, the smell of sweetgrass and fresh-smoked leather and Sicily.’

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Perhaps not so awful.

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Honking in Havana

 

Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee in Israel, a Saturday about twenty years ago; the Sabbath. Everything stops in Israel on the Sabbath (actually, it doesn’t, but that’s another story); there was nothing to do in Tiberius. With another Englishman I’d met along the way, fed up, wanting to be somewhere else and unable to get there we found nothing open: no bars or shops – nothing. Sitting on a wall by some traffic lights near the centre of town after spending most of the day, first trying to leave and then find something to do, this Sabbath caught us out, surprised us. We ended up at the harbour, found some old bits of discarded fishing line and made a hook from a piece of wire and put some stale bread on the hook. You could see fish in the clear water of the harbour. After much ingenuity and patience we caught a fish, the highlight of the day.

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But back to the traffic lights, fascinated by the impatience of many Israelis, supposedly enjoying their day of rest, we watched their actions as they queued. The traffic lights were free flowing; there were no delays beyond what the lights required, a few seconds to allow the crossroads traffic to move in the other direction. Used to the apparent irritability of the drivers everywhere here, now we could observe it scientifically. Hands did not stay off the horn for very long; a constant cacophony of horn blowing, for no reason. We watched a queue of traffic from our side of the lights, never more than seven or eight cars; you didn’t have to wait long before the lights changed. As soon as the lights changed to green, the absolute split second, all those waiting behind the first car started honking their horns for it  to move. They didn’t give the car a chance, waited less than a second before they started blaring away as soon as the lights changed, shaking their heads, talking to themselves and the driver in front, hunched over the steering wheel in their anxiety to be somewhere else. Not many of the drivers could have been going far.

 

We decided to count how long the silences lasted (remember, there was no need to use the horn at all – the traffic was free flowing). Seven seconds was the longest period of silence while we were there, and we were there for a long time. I don’t think a car horn is a very pleasant sound; it’s supposed to be a warning, and it’s quite irritating to listen to, especially when it’s constant, doubly so when there’s no need for it.

 

Seven seconds. That was not a good day. Until we caught the fish.

 

Cubans honk all the time but it’s mainly a form of exuberance, a need for noise. Horns are honked partly to warn other traffic or pedestrians, but such is the driving skill, from bicycle taxis to lorries and buses, that tooting as a caution is rarely required. Parts of Havana and Cuba are fairly advanced in terms of traffic signs and lights, but many parts are practically free-for-alls; take into account that many cars don’t have lights, indicators or cannot get above thirty miles per hour, and one realises that Cubans have developed a sixth sense when negotiating traffic. Nevertheless, they honk pretty often.

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Musical, novelty, multi-sound horns are a boon to Cubans and a curse to the very few (me) who can’t stand them. I am used to general noise in Havana and normal honking sounds punctuate the day. They are nothing like as relentless as in Israel and nowhere near as annoying, but I find the multi-sound horn irritating. It rises above the usual hustle to impose a strange, loud and unique sound; it suddenly disturbs. Cubans absolutely love them. There is an unconscious need for noise in Cuba; they are comfortable with noise; they like to be talking, shouting, laughing, and extraneous noise not only does not bother them, they welcome it. It seems to be part of the Cuban psyche. Freud once said that the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis – I don’t think he ever visited Cuba – for the same almost certainly applies to them.

 

At night when Havana is almost quiet, when silence almost reigns, say three or four o’clock in the morning, perhaps a Tuesday, you can guarantee that a Cuban with his new la cucaracha musical air horn will give it full blast and break the silence. There will be no concern for waking anybody. I have never seen Cubans give the slightest thought to neighbours in terms of noise; it is as though noise is preferable to silence. Nobody notices it; nobody complains about it.

 

I have grown fairly used to the noise over the years. I only notice it here because I am often writing, and have had that perfect sentence dashed quite a few times by La Bamba, Wedding March or Cavalry Charge musical, super loud air horns. I can swear loudly, curse my own impatience, accept that I’m in Cuba and that it’s just inevitable – and just get on with it. And however one handles it, it is certainly better than the impatient all-day honking in Tiberius.

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Crime in Havana

vivaI heard a sudden noise from the street, rather an increase in noise – there is always noise in central Havana, always. This was high pitched shouting and screaming. At first I thought it was kids in the corridor, not unknown, boisterous, echoing, but it was far too loud for that, so I moved to the balcony. Yuri had returned; she’d been out and gone straight to the other balcony. The disturbance must have begun right after she entered the building. I looked down, four floors; it was hard to figure out what was gong on; there seemed to be maybe a dozen people involved, nearly all women. There were two or three separate swirls of action, involving much shouting, angry, high-pitched and out of control, mostly female. I saw a few punches and kicks being aimed, but each swirl of action had another dozen people trying to break it up, and the whole thing was being watched by an almost instant crowd of about one hundred. Every balcony was full, traffic came to a standstill.

 

The police quickly arrived on foot and began to separate the warring parties. It was difficult though, because there were about ten women attacking two men; the men tried to take refuge in the flats or get into their white car. Every time the police moved one or two of the women, another one or two would come in from another side. And the women began screaming at the police, so more separate arguments began. The street was blocked with people by now. One of the men managed to get into the white car; a policeman stood guard at the door. A woman began screaming at him and while his attention was on her another woman opened the door and aimed a kick at the man inside. The police managed to separate the crowd from the fighting parties; one of the men was in the doorway to the flats, the other in the car. The man in the car was short and white; the one in the doorway was big, tall, probably mulatto.

 

The crowd watching swelled; it left just a small circle for the action, like a cock fight. The women were now screaming; at the police mostly, but also the men beyond. They were very, very loud, very angry, gesticulating wildly with their arms, jerky violent movements, explaining themselves to the police, but, I suspected, explaining nothing. I had seen this happen before in Bayamo one night. A friend and I had smashed up a hire car; we were in the police station to report the accident. It was quite a serious accident; my friend (he had no licence) had turned the car over, but we were more or less unscathed. A policewoman commented on this: why aren’t you more seriously hurt? José, my friend, indicated that we were wearing seat belts. She shook her head and wondered at the novelty. Anyway, suddenly about twenty women, mostly quite young, burst into the station. The noise was absolutely tremendous. Everything else had to stop. They were all shouting at once, waving their arms; it was hard to tell whom was arguing with whom, or what the problem was. Nothing else could be done while this was going on: the police woman excused herself. For about an hour they listened to various stories and (I think) pretended to take notes. The women talked (shouted) at the same time. Various officers listened to them. Slowly, very slowly, they calmed down a bit, perhaps talked among each other; it was hard to tell. Gradually everything went quiet and they were sent on their way. I don’t believe the police did anything. They just sighed with relief and went back to work.

 

This altercation reminded me of that, although three or four of the women didn’t calm down at all. The police though, calmly separated everybody and the watching crowd slipped away. Traffic started to move again. Two, then three police cars arrived. The white man stayed in the car, but the mulatto explained himself to the police. Some of the women tried to get at him, but couldn’t, so argued with the police. Eventually, the women departed. People left their balconies. The white man got out of the car. The two men left. The police stayed for about an hour, not doing anything, just talking.

 

Two hours later, three separate police on bicycles arrived; then a policeman on foot, then a motorcycle cop, then three police cars. The women then arrived; they came from another street, so I think did the men. The women had bought a bigger woman with them. She carried a can of beer and was built like a heavyweight boxer. She was shouting when she arrived and the whole time she was there. Two or three of the other women, the ones who’d been there before were also shouting. It was quite a performance but lacked the energy of the previous row. The police sort of listened, but really just ignored them. The men were nowhere to be seen. The car was still there. After fifteen minutes the women left. The heavyweight boxer kept stopping and shouting all the way up the street. She still held the can of beer, was probably drunk and perhaps trying to make up for not having been there. She had obviously been brought along as a reinforcement and was trying to make up for having nothing to do. The police ignored her.

 

The three bicycle police and the man on foot left after about thirty minutes. The three police cars, each with two police, and the motorcycle cop stayed for about another ninety minutes. They talked. One of them cleaned his car. They all had a look at the motorcycle; it was new. A trailer arrived, backed up to the white car and took it away. The police chatted briefly and left. I have no idea what it was all about. Neither did Yuri, but she lost interest after about five minutes.

 

I wondered about crime in Havana…

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Santeria – part three

 

I don’t really understand santeria. I have experienced it possibly four times; I go with the flow and do what I’m told but I don’t understand. I have discovered though, that very few people do. Joel James Figarola asks:

‘Is there in Cuban culture, specifically in popular tradition, any sort of practice which, consciously or not, is meant to diminish the fear of death? If it were so, does such practice imply that sort of feeble religiosity or limited capacity for abstract thinking which some authors have attributed to the Cuban individual?’

I think I know what he means by ‘the limited capacity for abstract thinking’; the Cubans that I know live very much in the present moment; history, which is yesterday, or one hour ago, is just forgotten, and one moves on with whomever happens to be around at that time. The only permanence seems to be family, perhaps some friends, but friends are quickly forgotten when they disappear (which is very common here), but they are remembered if and when they reappear. Figarola continues:

‘…that thick syncretic interweave which the ordinary Cuban individual is. The magical-religious systems created among us, are an attempt to achieve conciliation and serenity, to subdue chaos by integrating death as a domestic, everyday presence.’

Figarola believes that aspects of santeria

‘…are most probably acting as channels between transcendental aboriginal conceptions and those derived in the past century, from African populations brought into the Island as slave force, or from Antillean immigrant labourers…both black and white, in various ways and from different places, bring to the Island a traumatic experience interwoven with broken memories, projects and nostalgia: a broken inner world to be inserted in a new world in a perennial state of rupture.’

‘Transcendental aboriginal conceptions’ – I have often wondered about this. The native Indian population was quickly wiped out by the Spanish. Apparently the Indians were incredibly innocent, naive (and small); they did not know how to fight and apparently were extinguished quickly and completely. I would like to discover more about them but that will have to wait for another time. Were they all wiped out; every single one of them? I suppose if some survived, there is very little or no influence from them now. Then came the slaves, from all parts of Africa, and with them came their beliefs and stories and rituals. Cuba has also (apart from the last fifty years) been in a constant state of revolution:

‘…in a perennial state of rupture’;

this, in very simple terms, must be the basis for santeria – Where are we from? What are our stories? Who are we?

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Santeria makes Cubans unique:

‘… a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die -, where the dead are not expelled from the everyday world of the living nor ostracised from the family.’

Most black people here are descended from slaves and many, many in-betweens too.

‘Slavery is collective death. The newly arrived African slave loses his own environment, his emotional references, his memory; on the other hand, the criollo slave, born without an environment of his own, surrounded by emotional references inimical to him, inherits no memory at all.’

‘…the barracks, the whip, and the stocks, in the sense of cultural projection; and the wealth resulting from such efforts is contained in the foundations of each one of our major magical-religious systems.’

‘A certain detachment prevails in the social mind, disrupting the citizen’s accommodation in the general body and generating a diffuse yet exact there is no place for me sort of feeling.’

‘In the last fifty years the Island has been immersed in the urgent task of drawing new circumstantial limits; hence, death has recovered the sympathetic and fertile connotations it possessed when the nation was born in la manigua (the wilderness). Death in revolutionary Cuba is not an act of solitude but a unanimous communion of hopes; and in face of the usual enemies and occasional hardships, the words of the Gospel come to us: “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?”’

‘Even if much has been written on the subject, I do not think that we Cubans have yet been able to fully comprehend the extent to which slavery and the plantation system conditioned social behaviour and values, either in material or spiritual matters, either in immediate or prospective terms.’

I was quite relieved to read the above. My first experience of santeria, several years ago, involved, basically: ‘nobody really understands it’. I believe that is still the case. Santeria involves countless rituals. They are not made up; every one is recorded from previous experience, written down and referred to. Also involved is percussion, lots of it and for very long periods, chanting, singing and dancing. It always involves at least two people and the subject (usually many more than two, sometimes as many as will fit into a space). I will explain no more.

For what it is worth, I believe that santeria is a response to chaos, the chaos of many centuries of Cuban life, followed by the revolution, hope, brief comparative prosperity, hardship again and now perhaps hope – although none of that is acknowledged – Cubans live for the moment, don’t worry about much else and express themselves through santeria.

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Cuban magical religious systems cannot be analysed as independent structures; not one of them, despite their isolation or liturgical complexity, exists without a functional reference to the others.

Rómulo Lachañtarés believes that santeria is a system of local cults. In relation to santeria there are five fundamental reglas (cults). If we were to go any deeper inside any of them, we would run, like it or not, into the others. Each system, thus, inhabits its own recognisable space, while it steps into the territories of the others.

The orisha cult or Regla de Ocha is expressed in a total subduing of the dead in favour of the orishas (Yoruban deities).

Other systems include Oggunismo, Espirito de Cordón, Regla Muetera and Regla de Palo Monte. We are concerned here only with Regla de Ocha or santeria: Yoruban origin.

1 – Ridden by orishas: The repertory of gestures is quite conventional. Theatricality and stereotypes are the obvious frame for a wavering personality.

2 – Ridden by anonymous or unknown muertos:  Possession is weak and superficial. There is no prearranges code for gesture except for closed eyes. No sounds are produced and no attempt is made to establish communication.

3 – Ridden by orishas as mortal spirits: Strong, violent states offering no possible communication. The orisha rides following the mortal, earthly avatar he enjoyed before death and ulterior deification. Possession acquires a tragic mood, as if the orisha was intuitively and wildly searching for whatever has been lost. This is specially so in the case of warrior gods.

None of the above sufficiently explains any of my experiences. This was just the best, short explanation I could find. Joel James Figarola believes that:

‘trance or possession is a quality, talent or capability of human psychic nature, regulated by cultural determinations which are closer to ethnic – not to mistake for racial – heritage rather than to immediate social or educational circumstances. Trance and possession are thus part of the reservoir of human potentialities, and much as, for example, feelings and emotions, they are tones of the mnemonic range of the species. Mystic crises of communication involving forces believed to be transcendental are part of the foundations of every religion and are easily traceable throughout the planet. Both the Old and the New Testament, to name but two instances, contain clear references to this matter.’

Although he believes that ‘fraudulent imitation is far from rare’, he finds that the most convincing example of possession is the third in santeria: orishas in their avatar as dead individuals:

‘in santeria they attempt to achieve a fair enough communion with the orishas’.

I found the examples of possession fairly convincing.

DSC00554Santeria – part one

Santeria – part two

Santeria – part two

In Yuri’s eight day absence, her mother will come to the flat and cook for me. Tomorrow I go the santeria myself. At the flat I make do against the heat (33˚), which is not too bad; there is a mostly constant breeze and it rains on many days, mostly the evening. I can look after myself but Yuri has taken care of everything; my Spanish is awful, I can’t protest, so I’m happy to let things be as they are. I am considered useless and happy to be so.

 

Tomorrow at ten in the morning Yuri’s mother and sister will call for me.

 

They came at ten on the dot and we walked the half-mile or so to the place of santeria. Yuri had been there for two days. Her head had been shaved and she wore a white dress. The room was full of every type of paraphernalia to do with santeria: fruit, herbs, crusts of bread, myriad objects, tassels and objects of clothing. She sat in one corner of the room on a mat, above her a triangular canopy of yellow. We were soon joined by about eight other people, some to do with Yuri, others about their own business. For an hour they just talked and laughed. Three of the women were the same as we had seen the week before, but in a different place. This was the real thing.

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After about an hour and a half I was taken aside. My hair was washed with something strange, doused with coconut juice and dried slightly, while the woman chanted in Yoruba. Then I was taken to a separate room where desiccated coconut was placed on my feet, knees hands, chest, neck and finally the top of my head, all the while as chanting took place. Then the largest pile of coconut (on my head) was covered with a cap, and left.

 

The santeria man has a nice house, a very wide screen TV and several women working for him. He’s very sociable and everybody likes him.

 

I went to see Yuri on Sunday, still dressed in white although there are yellow dresses she changes into at other times. She is tired. She sits on a mat in the corner of the room. She must sleep there too. I drank a coffee and talked for a while, but soon exhausted my limited Spanish and what I had been doing (very little) and left after about an hour. I hated the time Yuri was away. Although my Spanish is extremely limited and her English almost non-existent, we seem to communicate well. Much of the time she isn’t here, but I know she will be back and that makes all the difference. The eight days she was away, apart from writing and the occasional film, I did not know what to do. I have been to Havana so many times that walking held little attraction, and it is over 30˚. A woman comes to clean every few days, Yuri’s mother and sister come to cook, but I find I’m rarely hungry. I go and collect cash when I need it. I went to watch the beginning of the English football season on Sunday, but it appears that ESPN have lost the English games to BT, so I just waited until I knew the score and left.

 

After eight days, Yuri returned. Her head has been shaved. She wears a quite substantial pair of drawers, tights, socks, a white dress and a white head dress. She must wear this stuff every time she goes out, and she must go out and walk around every day. She must not have the sun on her, so she carries a white umbrella. In the house she can wear a white shift and remove the tights but everything else remains. She must eat while sitting on a mat and somebody else must wash her empty plate. She must wear this stuff and behave like this for three months, all the time remaining in Havana. After three months she can return to Bahia Honda, but must continue to wear the outfit for a year.

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I had noticed people wearing all white, but it was not until Yuri had her treatment that I realised why. Walking around Havana, one day you might see two or three people all in white, their hair at various stages of growth; on another day you might see ten or more. This is not scientific, but of the people I saw, perhaps 30% or 40% were white. Whatever Yuri had done, it is very popular (for those who can afford it). I have been to perhaps four places that practice santeria. There are many, many other places and hundreds of shops supplying trinkets and many secret places providing animals for sacrifice. I would imagine that Cubans do get conned, but not often; tourists are fair game and I would expect the gullible to be fleeced. This eight day treatment is the first time I’ve spent any substantial amount on santeria – and it does involve a lot of expense.

 

The first Friday after Yuri had completed she returned for a final ritual on her Padrino’s birthday. Free food, loads of it was available for everybody. Some people were drinking, but not many. Yuri’s ritual lasted an hour or two, involved lots of percussion and people dancing and chanting around her. Two or three others had similar rituals; one black man seemed to be possessed and was taken into another room, where he continued to speak in a voice of possession for a couple of hours. The Padrino listened to every word. If there is anything suspect about santeria, it is still very, very hard work.

 

I’m not disillusioned with santeria; I’m just a bit bored with it all. Not understanding the language doesn’t help. But this is something that means a great deal to Yuri and I’m happy to provide it. In future though, I won’t have much to do with it. It can be fun, it can be a spectacle – but I’ve just about seen enough….

 

 

The third and final installment of my Santeria experience will be posted on Monday.

 Santeria – part one

Santeria – part one

On arrival in Cuba, Yuri, my woman, asked if I remembered that I would consider paying quite a lot of money for a massive santeria campaign for her, involving over one week’s intensive treatment: clothes, occupation and all the paraphernalia that went with it. I remembered the email conversation of six months before but there had been no discussion since, and I had forgotten about it. Yuri hadn’t. I quickly calculated the reliability of the request, the chances of her staying faithful to me and agreed to finance the santeria. It would mean less money to spend on whatever, but I hadn’t intended much in the way of entertainment anyway.

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The santeria involved two afternoon preparatory sessions. I was persuaded to attend the first one. I was not a stranger to santeria, having undergone sessions in 2001, 2009 and 2012. I was not a believer – well, certainly a sceptic – but as my experience grew I realised just how firmly entrenched the religion was in Cuban culture. My 2001 experience, though extensive, paled in comparison to late experiences. In 2009 I encountered, more closely, the thoroughness of operations, undergoing a two hour session involving the sacrifice of a young goat, a chicken and a goose. Although the sacrifices took up only a small part of the operation, most of which involved two santeria practitioners repeating from the book of Yoruba, a series of litanies. I had no idea what was being said; I was ordered to bow, touch, speak, perform strange rituals, and touch objects, symbols, dust, powders and liquids. I kissed the severed neck of the young goat. At the end I was told that I was capricious and would need to be careful of my health. I didn’t need santeria to tell me that. Yuri could have told them that. But one of the practitioners told me several times that I was crazy, which may or may not be true, and also I didn’t understand ninety per cent of what they told me. My Spanish is very, very basic. Yuri speaks little English. Despite both of us taking lessons in each other’s language we have so far failed to learn much beyond the absolute basics, although we communicate between each other pretty well, mainly using my rudimentary Spanish.

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The next occasion entailed santeria for Yuri. We visited a spacious and airy building where a man began preparations for her ritual. He was impressed by my book on Cuba, Caliente; at least he appeared to be. He was accompanied by at least two women who seemed to be there permanently. While we were there he was visited by several other people; there seemed to be a constant flow of people, mainly white Cuban, during the time I was there. Some spoke English, some did not; the age and occupation varied but I was left with the impression that santeria was not a minority interest, but that practically all Cubans followed it to some extent.

123We took two bicycle taxis, first to a nondescript building where a few people waited outside. The man knocked several times and we waited several minutes before someone opened the double-doors. A very sleepy, attractive young woman opened the doors, very reluctantly allowed us access. The interior was completely dark with three walls lined with cages. The cages contained goats, chickens, cockerels, geese, and other varieties of bird. For reasons of which I know not, perhaps price, we didn’t stay long, and rejected what was on offer. Off in the two bicycle taxis again, for about a mile where Yuri, the main man and an assistant, much older, found another place. I was told to wait in the taxi. After about thirty minutes they arrived back with two chickens and a goose. A motor taxi was hailed, the animals, tied by the feet were thrust into the boot and we set off elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be about fifteen miles away, on a beach, although not facing the sea. A small lake adjoining the beach was chosen and preparations made. One of the chickens immediately escaped. I thought this funny, but just watched with amusement as they tried to catch it. They didn’t. I was secretly pleased. I have no particular fondness for chickens but I was happy to see it make its burst for freedom. Perhaps it’s still there or thereabouts. I hope so. No such luck for the remaining chicken and goose, both had their heads removed, the blood sprayed over Yuri’s legs among the usual chants and exhortations. The ceremony lasted about thirty minutes. I have no idea what it was about or what it was supposed to achieve.

We later stopped at one of the several little shops or holes in the wall (one at least on every street) to renew my bracelet, a yellow and green beaded effort that I had been wearing for three years, to protect me from I know not what.  The shop contained every trinket imaginable. We also visited, by taking the harbour ferry to its other side, the Catholic Church where Yuri lit candles for my book and briefly prayed at the altar. The santeria religion is a mixture of the Catholic faith and the beliefs that countless slaves bought with them from Africa. As far as I can tell the religion is perhaps twenty percent Catholicism and eighty per cent an unfathomable mixture of African beliefs, but be sure, it is widespread and inseparable from the rest of Cuban culture.

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Fast forward to today and the preparation for Yuri’s week long santeria initiation. I hadn’t intended to go, not knowing what to expect. First we visited the top flat of an overweight young woman, her Madrina. I was given coffee and there was much talk about what was to come. After about thirty minutes we moved to another top floor flat, the stairs to which would have been condemned anywhere else, wooden and rickety and only vaguely attached to whatever they were supposed to be attached to. The last leg of the journey upwards involved a spiral staircase covering three floors. We finally settled into a small room where the young woman and one female, very attractive assistant, prepared for whatever was to come. Although the size of the room made it impossible, I sat as far away from the action as I could. The two women were later joined by two others – so four practitioners and one subject, with me sitting in the corner with my book and cigarettes trying to pretend that nothing was happening.

What followed was three to four hours of intense chanting and activity. The overweight woman seemed to go into a trance of some sort for at least two hours. Whether she became people from the past (the dead), one person or several people, I don’t know. I was trying to avoid involvement. The other three women and Yuri followed many of the chants and vague suggestions. They all knew exactly what was going on and how to respond. The overweight woman inhabited other personalities. She shouted, screamed, had minor fits and seemed very much to be genuine. If it was at all fraudulent then it was exhaustingly so. She involved me a couple of times but I tried to remain invisible and take no part at all.

Three days later at twelve o’clock, Yuri left. Eight days were to follow of intensive treatment. She left on Tuesday. I was to join, reluctantly, on Thursday. Alone in the flat was both pleasant and unpleasant. I missed Yuri but I also enjoy being alone. Every provision had been made. I had food to last. Yuri’s mother, who had come from Bahia Honda to assist with the santeria, would come in every day and cook.

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Santeria – part two

Being Gay in Cuba

When I first came to Cuba, Gayness wasn’t discussed. It was disapproved of and people rarely talked about it. Yamilia whispered to me in 2001 that Raul (Castro) was gay; José asked me if I could find him a book on gayness, but beyond that it was never mentioned, acknowledged – it just didn’t exist (openly). Prostitution existed, but to me it was never that open or that common. Sure there are women who will sell themselves, some, a few, to anybody, while others are more fussy, more opportunist. The rest of the world makes a big deal about Cubans selling sex, but in reality, I would bet that any English, European, American town or city – worldwide probably – has more prostitutes per square mile than Cuba. Cuban attitudes to sex are different too. It is not very important; it is fun but they do not mistake it for love or take it too seriously. They take it seriously while they’re doing it, but it’s just a bodily function, quickly forgotten.

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I noticed things were changing in 2006. Mine and Yuri’s room had been double booked, so we were temporarily sent to another house. It was run by three gay men and populated mostly with gay travellers. The main man of the house spoke English and for the few days that we were there he spoke to us frequently. He was jovial and friendly, but afterwards Yuri always gave me a look, a isn’t he strange look; she wasn’t comfortable with it. If we stopped in the street to talk to someone (always male), she would afterwards say

‘he’s gay’

and give me that look.

 

It’s different now. Gays are everywhere.  And Yuri never mentions anyone’s gayness. It’s so common she has just accepted it. About gay prostitution I’m not sure. Yuri did set up a meeting with a gay friend but it fell through. I know they congregate around the Capitol building (which is being restored) and in Vedado. Beyond that I know little about it. Actually, I take little interest. To me it’s just a sexual preference. If that’s the way you are – fair enough – do what you like. I don’t agree with Gay Pride marches or advertising yourself too much, but I dare say that will settle down.

 

If you’re not gay, then there is little to notice. You may notice an apparently obvious gay person wandering around, but that’s about it. As far as I can see, whatever gay community there is, keeps itself to itself. If I hadn’t been told about the gay culture, I would certainly barely notice it. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it is more overt and I just don’t see it, but I don’t think so. In ten years Cuba has gone from not even acknowledging gayness, in fact persecuting open gayness, to accepting it quite openly. Not bad going.

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A Cuban memory trick

 

Some of the older people do have memories, for big events. Those old enough remember the revolution or, much later,  the Russians leaving, but everyday life, everyday people, they are past or gone, unless they stick around or return. Tony remembers, he clearly remembers me, but he could not remember Yamilia, José or Paul. He says I am family, that I can stay in his house anytime, but I don’t think he remembers why; I don’t think he remembers any of the stuff we got up to all those years before, he just knows there was something, that I keep coming back, that there is something there.

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Lucia (my nurse) didn’t remember when I went to see her. She remembered me, the face, but when I mentioned Yamilia, to whom she was close, there was a complete blank. No memory of her. No memory of the flat, of the eighteen or so months we were intermittently together, of José or anybody else. I wish I spoke Spanish. I have tried. I have a good memory; I remember loads of words and their meaning, I can make myself understood, but I can never get the hang of putting all the words together. I don’t understand how they link. I’m hopeless; being able to learn a language is a gift – I don’t have it.

 

If I could speak Spanish (I will continue to try), I could talk to people, learn more about what happens here. I’ve learned a lot because I am curious; I know a great deal about Cuba, but I want to know more, before it disappears. I think it will disappear, not as quickly as many people think, but it will go, and here will be the same as everywhere else.

 

Yuri remembers our meeting and many of the events since. But we have stayed in constant touch; I have been part of her life for seven years. If I had disappeared after meeting her in 2006, I don’t think she would remember me. At the Ambos Mundos, where I used to stay before I met Yuri, the staff there remember me from 1998, my first visit, but in between I’m sure they don’t remember me at all. Perhaps that is typical, to a certain extent I think it is; my memory is very good, perhaps I assume that everybody has the same faculty.

 

There is something unique about Cuban memory. Joel James Figarola believes that Cubans live in ‘a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die’. I think this explains Cuban life quite well; they live very much in the moment – what has just passed has gone, the future does not matter, all that matters is now – this moment.

 

It is a good way to live. It requires that everyone else lives that way too, but it is a good way to be. Stuff still gets done, in a way that is sometimes mystifying. For ages nothing seems to happen, then suddenly there is a new building or a new cafe or restaurant. The pace of life is slow, but that is partly the weather – who wants to hurry in 30˚ of heat? Bureaucracy can be painfully slow, but that can happen anywhere. It is a hangover from the Soviet influence. I think it will change, slowly, but things will always take longer here.

 

Whatever the answers are, life in Cuba is unique. It has its faults (as does everywhere), but there is nothing like here, the way it is now. I love it. I leave the final words with Andrei Codrescu (not a fan of modern Cuba):

‘The best quality of an observer is empathy, which has to come with your worldview. No amount of immersion or adventure can take the place of empathy. If you look with love, you get back love. Ditto anger, indignation, or indifference. The Cubans are full of warmth, a vast reservoir of affection.’

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This is progress?

 

The buildings here are much the same as they were when the revolution occurred. They have been extended upwards and backwards, but the main structures are the same as they were then. Many are in disrepair. Three, four or five stories have been added to most of the buildings. Most have gas and electric systems that would be illegal in most other countries: wires and tubes protruding everywhere. Even on Obispo, the most touristy of streets, there is nothing new. Away from Old and Central Havana there are fairly new flats, but it is hard to find any progress.

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The building opposite us is empty. Some of its balconies are shored up. It must have been some kind of government building, whatever, definitely not inhabited. Perhaps one hundred years old, on a list somewhere for renovation. I have only seen what there is between Jose Marti Airport and central and old Havana. But I have not noticed any change; there are many derelict factories, many more signs of dilapidation than progress. Occasionally there is a newish building with a newish business, but it all seems a bit depressing. Perhaps progress is being made, but in a depressed world economy and a collapsing Cuban economy, it is hard to find it. Apart from tourism, I’m not sure that the Cubans have much going for them.

 

I don’t really know anything beyond Old, Central, Bahia Honda, Villa Pan Americana or Guanabacoa, I don’t know much about Cuba. I lived in Villa Pan Americana for a year; I lived in Guanabacoa for six months; I stayed in Bahia Honda on several occasions, Lugareno too; I stayed in various places in Havana many, many times. I noticed much about those places, felt at home in them, was part of them. But I still feel that I don’t know much about Cuba. I know a lot more than most foreigners, but still not much.

 

I’ve seen how the very poorest live and the rich too. Some clearly stayed rich after the revolution – I don’t know how. Some get money sent to them from the United States, many don’t. This trip I had been unsure until the last minute whether I wanted to come or not; I have been bored by my last few visits. But then I had a different outlook; I was mainly clubbing and drinking and getting up at midday. Now, I have adjusted to the pace of life here; I’m looking at it from a different point of view. I like it. It needs money. Not a great deal, but more than I have, so far.

 

According to Graham Greene,

‘The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese built cities where they settled, but the English just allowed cities to grow.’

I hadn’t thought about that before, but it is true. This is a Spanish city that has had a Cuban makeover, but very little has been added; most of what has been added is for the benefit of tourists, not Cubans. I think plans are afoot to improve the Cubans lot, but they will be slow and very gradual. Much will depend on the success of quasi-socialist governments in South America. Can they hold out against US influence or will they find a way to succeed? If they do succeed, even partially, then Cuba will have friends and allies. If the embargo were to end (without the US taking over), that would help tremendously too.

 

I don’t think Cuba will change quite as quickly as some people suppose. There are plans in place for gradual change, but what influence will the new entrepreneurship have on the people? Will the taste of money change everything? Or will they continue with a vaguely socialist outlook? Whatever happens, I hope that change doesn’t come too quickly, that Cubans somehow find a way to retain their uniqueness. It really is unique here; it would be awful if Cuba were just to become like everywhere else.