Authors: Guillermo Rosales
INTRODUCTION BY JOSÉ MANUEL PRIETO
TRANSLATED BY ANNA KUSHNER
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
BY JOSÉ MANUEL PRIETO
It’s not difficult to see a parallel between the life Cuban writer Guillermo Rosales (Havana, 1946-Miami, 1993) led in the United States as an outsider to the American experience and the imagined existence of his alter ego William Figueras in a halfway house or “Boarding Home” as those came to be known in Miami. Rosales, a lifelong misfit who was diagnosed early on with severe schizophrenia, went into exile in 1979 with a history of mental illness. It wasn’t long before he descended to the only spot available to him, “one of those marginal refuges where the desperate and hopeless go.”
The time he spent in several of these institutions provided Rosales with the material to write the novel you have in your hands. The work itself, its powerful condemnation of the Dantean existence of the wards’ miserable existence under the complicit watch of deceitful managers, must be read in the light of his experiences. Rosales wished to unveil the existence of these infernos, writing about the many halfway houses allowed to operate so cruelly thanks to the indifference of a community focused on achieving the American dream, of refugees from Castro’s regime who may have continued to ponder their painful expulsion from Cuba but were determined to get ahead at all costs.
The novel’s halfway house is not, however, the efficient jail-like institution (representative of the oppressive state) that appears in Ken Kesey’s
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
, a place governed by cleanliness and order. Rosales’ description of the “boarding home” is full of murky similes: toilets that are always “clogged with old shirts, sheets, curtains,” flooded again and again with “feces, paper and other filth”; the color of Arsenio’s skin, Curbelo’s sinister Lieutenant, is “dirty as puddle water,” while the eye of one of the nuts, Reyes, is oozing constantly. The place is a sort of sewer where misfits end up and are preyed upon by Curbelo, the manager, whose main hobby, not coincidentally, is deep-sea fishing.
People from all walks of life have ended up in this sinister place, this circle of Hell: Ida, “the grande dame come to ruin”; René and Pepe, “mental retards” whose fights Figueras watches with indifference; Hilda, the decrepit old hag sexually abused by Arsenio; Eddy, a nut who lost everything in Cuba and who demands that the United States use an atomic bomb to wipe out all the communists in the world. Cubans aren’t the only residents; there’s Louie, the American, who swears and curses all the time, and Napoleon, the Colombian, a four-foot tall midget, “fat and solid,” Rosales says with his incredible precision, “as a speed bag.”
In contrast to the other residents, Figueras is an educated man: “I, William Figueras who read all of Proust when I was fifteen years old, Joyce, Miller, Sartre, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albee, Ionesco, Beckett . . . ,” Rosales, himself impressively well-read, also endows his alter ego with rich intellectual baggage. Figueras will be the one, with his strong narrative voice, to firmly drive the story without stumbling for a single moment, without ever falling into the nonsensical talk of the demented.
Just one detail stands out about him: he is a dejected man who arrives at the halfway house beaten down by History. “They thought a future winner was coming, a future businessman, a future playboy . . . The person who turned up at the airport . . . was a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy...” In essence, and this is important to understanding the book, Figueras is a survivor, yet someone who can’t manage to make a life for himself outside of Cuba. He is someone who has escaped the overwhelming totalitarian experience, but for whom the damage persists. Figueras shares that curse of conscience described by Sophie in William Styron’s
, “My purity was an inward-dwelling Golgotha,” as well as that burden carried by the “damaged” characters in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel
Enemies, A Love Story.
This explains his passivity, his inability to adapt to his new country, his having gone as low as the halfway house without offering any resistance. But what makes this character truly complex is that Figueras is not only a victim but also a victimizer. What it deals with—and Rosales understands this very well, his character’s ambiguity is his greatest achievement—is the absolutely most destructive way in which the Totalitarian State makes you complicit in its cruelty and terror. At the end of the passage I cited above, the one beginning with “I, William Figueras who read all of Proust when I was fifteen years old…,” he adds: “I who lived twenty years within the revolution, as its
victimizer, witness, victim
.” (The italics are mine.)
Herein lies the depth of Figueras’ tragedy. Beyond acting as a condemnation of the halfway house, of Miami, or of the inhumane capitalism that makes no room for losers like him, Rosales decisively moves the origins of his character’s story to the past, to the time just before going into exile.
Hence the importance of his dreams, the retelling of seven prophetic dreams that appear in this book. In them, Figueras examines entire areas of his life in Cuba that bloom in his dreams as images and revelations. In the novel, the function of these visions is to carry Rosales’ explorations beyond the murky present of the halfway house, revealing the substrata where the damage took place. Thus, in the first dream Figueras describes a ghost town, an image that is later expanded on in the fifth dream in which he wanders around a Havana in ruins. In his second dream, he is tied to a rock, now a character with “nails … long and yellow like a fakir’s.” A sort of bound Prometheus who nonetheless is surrounded by octopi that he tyrannizes sadistically, “the octopi shed large crystalline tears at my cruelty.” He is tied to a rock but he tyrannizes them to the point of tears, forcing them to find him treasures that he immediately casts away with a diabolical laugh. He then dreams that he is shooting at a house in which Fidel Castro (who is also a character in the novel, although he only appears in dreams), “as agile as a mountain lion,” dodges his shots. Fidel Castro and all that he represents is Figueras’ deeply embedded past, difficult to remove, indestructible. In the second to last dream, Fidel has died but his coffin opens up, he steps out, and asks for a cup of coffee: “Well, we’re already dead,” Fidel said: “Now you’ll see that doesn’t solve anything, either.” The damage inflicted, Rosales wants to tell us, runs so deep that it will persist even beyond death.
In another revealing passage, Figueras is watching
, a famous Latin American singer, on television and he can’t establish a clear difference between
life, a rather apolitical one, if you will, and his own, with the burden he bears.
is someone who lives painlessly, superficially one could say, because: “He will never desperately embrace an ideology only to feel betrayed by it. He’ll never feel his heart go ‘crack’ in the face of an idea in which he firmly and desperately believed. Nor will he know who Lunacharsky, Bulganin, Kamenev or Zinoviev are. He’ll never feel the joy of taking part in a revolution or the subsequent anguish of being devoured by it. He’ll never know what the machinery is. He’ll never know.”
It’s worth pointing out that this is the same difference existing between the other inhabitants of the halfway house, real mentally insane people, and the image that the narrator has of himself. At no point in the more than one hundred pages of this book does the author signal any truly serious problem, “medical” or “mental,” in his character. In other words, I hold a radically different view from the reading of this novel as simply autobiographical, according to which our protagonist would be someone like Rosales himself, with severe mental problems. The distinction is important because it points to the fact that the other inhabitants have ended up at the “Boarding Home” blamelessly, or
as if they were blameless
. They are truly demented. Only Figueras, who knows himself to be guilty, paradoxically, has full use of his reason. The others are pure victims, for lack of a better term.
Figueras knows he is guilty (always in the sense previously pointed out, that of someone who took an active and enthusiastic part in the inevitable cruelty of the revolution), but hasn’t found redemption. He joins “mafia” forces with Arsenio and at one point towards the middle of the book, he comes to recognize: “I’ve gone from being a witness to being complicit in what happens in the halfway house.” Every once in a while, he is visited by his friend,
, a poet with whom he discusses literature, and in his free time, pierced by desire, he flips through pornographic magazines: the author wants to tell us that his character is not entirely dead.
And then Frances appears: “There’s a new crazy woman sitting in front of the set. She must be my age. Her body, while cheated by life, still has some curves.” She is a woman who is still young, but more importantly, “the new crazy woman” has not lost her humanity and Figueras perceives this instantly. The revelation of this detail in the book is masterly: the woman trembles when Figueras approaches her for the first time and inspects her unscrupulously. Frances, like himself, is completely conscious of the halfway house’s sordidness. She’s not “crazy,” rather, she’s “shipwrecked” like Figueras, and he feels immediately attracted to her.
Figueras goes back and forth between tenderness and cruelty. On two occasions, he starts to strangle the woman to the point of asphyxiation, making her black out. Frances offers no resistance to the torture because she confesses herself broken, “dead inside,” and is the only one who, like him, understands her own guilt, the terrible duality of her condition. And this shared guilt is the basis for their understanding each other. During their first walk around Little Havana, already as a couple, they talk about it. “My angel,” Frances asks him, “were you ever a communist?” “Yes,” Figueras responds. “Me too,” Frances affirms. And in the scene that immediately follows—heart-rending because of its profound meaning and its symbolic location inside the “big, gray” arcade of a Baptist church—both of them chant an anthem “from the early years of the Revolution.” The two seem to be saying, yes, we had a past in the Revolution, we believed in it, we chanted anthems and slogans, we were part of its terrible machinery.
It’s surprising that this moment has gone unremarked by almost all critics. We stand before what can be considered the book’s neurological center. Everything stems from here, its importance, its very genesis. Because once the guilt is understood, they turn to art to redeem themselves, to leave testimony of the past.
Which is what makes this book great, imbuing it with deep human significance. Rosales, like no other Cuban author before him, knew how to leave behind the narrow road of victimhood for the larger, more arduous one of full responsibility. He looked deep into the tragedy and found himself to be part of it. This is his truth, the important discovery that the book brings to us: we are all responsible, all of us, in one way or another we took part in it, were small pieces, no matter if unconsciously so, of that great oppressive machine. He must, then, communicate his discovery, put it into words. Hence the importance of literature for his character, the conversations he holds about his literary idols: Hemingway, Truman Capote. Hence the fact that Figueras arrives at the asylum with a book of English poets: literature is the tool for the great task he sees before him, that of leaving a truthful and blunt testimony of the Hell that is the halfway house, but above all, and most significantly, of his past as part of the great machinery.
Yet one obstacle presents itself: the experience of that existence within “history,” within the nature of the totalitarian phenomenon, is of such utter otherness that it ends up being virtually untranslatable. It’s a recurring complaint in the literature written by exiles, survivors of totalitarianism. The problem appears in Milan Kundera, Joseph Brodsky, in Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself. It’s an impediment that makes them feel they cannot be saved. “Nobody understands,” Frances confesses at another key moment of the book upon speaking of the years lived in Cuba, during the euphoria of the Revolution: “I tell my psychiatrist and he just gives me strong Etrafon pills.”
It thus requires the talent of a great writer to articulate this, the tenacity of an artist who views this task as the great goal of his life, although he proclaims himself beaten from the very beginning: “The house said ‘Boarding Home’ on the outside, but I knew that it would be my tomb.” Once there, however, he will fight to leave his mark; he knows he is lost, but he will leave his testimony. To his endless surprise, Figueras discovers that Frances is also an artist. She draws and does it so well that he is amazed when she shows him the drawings she has been making of the asylum’s inhabit- ants: “It’s done in the style of primitive artists. It’s very good …, Everything is exact. It also breathes its own life … She’s really good! She has captured all of our souls.” Exactly the feat of the memoirs of Primo Levi (another suicide like Rosales), exactly the feat of Varlam Shalamov’s powerful
, and of every artist survivor. In art the unnamable tragedy acquires a voice and is vanquished. The artist fights to leave his mark, knows he is lost, but will allow the victims to speak in his book.
Which is how the novel closes with such majestic force—the moment in which the possibility of conquering fate scintillates: the couple makes plans, they opt for believing in a miracle to get them out of there. Figueras imagines himself living with Frances like a normal man: “If she weighed a few more pounds and took better care of herself, she’d be pretty.” He feels so certain of success that during the walk he takes, once he and Frances have agreed to leave the halfway house, he fraternizes with unknown people in the streets and, to his great luck, runs into a neighbor from his childhood in Cuba. Figueras knows he is saved and the tone of the story changes: “As I pass by Pepe … I take his bald head in my hands and kiss it … I burst out laughing.”
Finally, the dream of escape is dashed, but it’s no longer entirely tragic for Figueras. Not only did he find love, he also found a person like himself who was purified by repentance, who has achieved moral regrounding.