Tangential Narratives: Notes on Julia Cooke’s “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.”

As a child can only be tangential to its parental revolution, what happens when the citizen is a child of the state that follows, the state that insists on adopting parental authority, never relinquishing its hold? The child learns to walk and talk in the surveillance of its parental shadows. Some children learn to escape into other families, baseball or boxing, music or resistance. Most want a narrative of their own. They must go off on a tangent.

It may seem some sort of performance is required: “The self does not belong to its possessor…A person is a mask which has grown into the body, grown one with the body” (from chapter V Person, “Love’s Body,” Norman O. Brown, 1966). A state, too, may be such a mask.

And when that self belongs to the state, is the state, revolution may become the mask. And the mask must be kept alive, at all costs. This is the state as a person, the corporation as a person. Symbols wash up with the tide. If states and corporations are people, what becomes of an actual person of substance? In practice, the further actual persons can move from the state or corporation claiming itself to be a person, the less likely the actual person is to be totally subsumed in the umbra of public eclipse.

A few weeks ago, rummaging through the neighborhood library box down around the corner, I pulled out “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba” (2014), by Julia Cooke. The book is a first person narrative of Cooke’s time living in Cuba on the local economy amid actual persons of substance, each with their own personal narrative, all complicated by the paranoia often created by the inability to completely know another person (let alone a state or a corporation), particularly when that person lives within the shadows created by a repressive rule.

One of the ideas in Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body” is the state shaped like a body. Thus we get the head of state and the seat of government, the long arm of the law. And the body is huge, its shadow gigantic. And of course we get metaphor. And metaphor too becomes enmeshed in the narrative.

The reductio ad absurdum of the gentrified neighborhood is an urban street lined with posh restaurants. And that’s it. No locksmith. No shoe repair. No bookstore or record shop. No hardware store. No haberdashery or hatter. No luthier, plumber, or deli. No butcher, no baker, no candlestick maker. And the sidewalk has been swept clean of buskers. Poverty is the inability to make something, for lack of skill and resources. Dire poverty, fearsome and terrible, is a state of constant need. The one surplus is time, a resource persons of wealth can never get enough of. Persons with time but nothing else can only wait. Poverty is the inability to start something up while waiting.

Consumption of time is what corporations like Facebook peddle. It seems many persons have lost the ability to spend time doing nothing. Thomas Piketty argues that as capital continues to grow exponentially, income of persons with no capital falls (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” 2014). The poor will still have their labor power, but the 21st Century is already seeing needs for human labor diminish. What becomes of the poor person when he has not even his labor to sell? The block fills with Bartlebys. From page 531 of “Capital”:

“With zero return on capital, man (or the worker) finally threw off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth. The present reasserted itself its rights over the past. The inequality r>g was nothing but a bad memory, especially since communism vaunted its affection for growth and technological progress. Unfortunately for the people caught up in these totalitarian experiments, the problem was that private property and the market economy do not serve solely to ensure the domination of capital over those who have nothing to sell but their labor power. They also play a useful role in coordinating the actions of millions of individuals, and it is not so easy to do without them. The human disasters caused by Soviet-style centralized planning illustrate this quite clearly.”

And one of those disasters, given Piketty’s view, has been Cuba, and the details, the description, of the specific and authentic person to person human disaster is one of the themes of Julia Cooke’s book. Of course there’s still the problem of narrative, the stories we create as we try to explain our predicament to others. Cooke lives among common persons coming of age in Cuba as Cuba is forced to change in its old age, personified by the aging and death of Fidel and the subsequent changes in leadership. The crash of the USSR, upon which Cuba had relied for economic aid, precipitates and rushes in local change. Still, the common person, the worker, seems occupied with two choices: wait for the opportunity to leave Cuba or stay and wait for more substantive change. Leaving is possible, though not easy, through both illegal and legal means. Both options are fraught with and rely upon bureaucratic and random chance happenings. And the motivation for each relies on a future narrative fictionalized in the present. Will I be glad I left or happy I stayed?

Happiness is another theme. What is it? Do I mistake a general malaise and inertia resulting from dissatisfaction of wants and values with a permanent state of unhappiness? I seem happiest when hanging out with a few friends drenched in the heat of a Havana evening drinking bad rum out of improvised cups, listening to music, telling and listening to one another’s stories, discussing past, current, and the possibilities of future events, plans gone awry and the hopefulness of a new plan. But the extent of that telling and listening depends on who else is in the room, who else might be listening. And why they are listening. Paranoia lurks everywhere yet you’re never sure exactly from where it comes. Yet life in Cuba seems in some ways accessibly enjoyable: the weather, the sea and beach, one’s friends and family, the happy occasion of food. The lack of resources, without the boundless activities that seem to occupy persons elsewhere surrounded by sophisticated toys, pro sports, stadium rock, sponsored opera, and all the latest consumer stuff, the latest myphone, forces one into a different mode of life, but it doesn’t seem the case that this mode is unhappily different from the existential mode of unhappiness experienced when stuck in traffic in your 50 thousand dollar car in the latest but still inadequate infrastructure unable to find a good radio station in Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, or Houston, illegally texting while driving to tell your kids you’ll be late, unable to get them to pick up their cell phones busy creating stories on Facebook and Instagram. And while you can afford not one but two 50 thousand dollar rigs, you’re pissed your health care options suck.

Cooke’s book seems journalistic in intent, but is memoiristic in style and employs a creative, literary sentence structure and narrative form, including descriptive prose and conversational dialog. The book is also scholarly, researched, with a bibliography of sources and other references as backing and useful for further study. And the book is also something of a mystery. Cooke is in Cuba to experience and report on the changes in society and the effects on everyday citizens. To what extent are her subjects representative? For the most part, the focus is Havana, where she lives and keeps track of those she meets and lives among and with. But she’s interviewing them, clandestinely, with seemingly some degree of risk to everyone involved. Add to that the romantic Havana evening – but she’s quick to dispel romantic views of life within an oppressive, repressive, almost invisible regime. Practically no one she meets owns a rebuilt ’56 Chevy glistening down a Havana street. And she doesn’t hear, she reminds us several times, the Buena Vista Social Club playing Cuban jazz on every corner, if any corners. And the Cuban health care system is one of the best in the world.

Even music, maybe especially music, and art, and literature, comes wrapped in narrative.

“Adela hadn’t left Cuba. I had often wondered, in the year since I’d left Havana, if I really knew who Adela was…Once, drunk at a party with Lucia, a friend of hers had slurred to me that no one around me was who they said they were. He’d dated an American and the secret police had knocked on his door the day after she’d spent the night for the first time to interrogate him. I’d dismissed his words as boozy hyperbole, but the reality was, any one of my sources could have been someone spinning false stories of spliced families and sodden dreams” (207).

There are universal truths regardless of where a narrative originates or how it changes from person to person. That business of “spinning false stories” could easily apply to conversations with anyone here in the States.

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, by Julia Cooke. Seal Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group. 2014.

Actually, Clarice Lispector

Guardian Angel“The Hour of the Star,” Clarice Lispector’s final book, is a study in narration, how to tell a story. The style is more industrial and electronic than “Agua Viva.” And more colloquial. First published in 1977, a time of candlelight compared to today, “The Hour of the Star” is dedicated

“…to the strident cries of the electronic generation.”

The short dedication, signed, “Actually, Clarice Lispector,” brings attention to the difference between the author and her narrator, between experience and fiction that tries to bring the experience to others, and suggests the angle of the work, and why she chose the strategy.

Writing, for the narrator, is not easy:

“No, it’s not easy to write. It’s as hard as breaking rocks.”

Maybe his difficulty comes from his being an amateur:

“Anyway. It seems that I’m changing the way I write. But it so happens that I only write what I want, I’m not a professional.”

But as an amateur, he’s free to go his own way, to address his own needs:

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body…I swear this book is made without words. It is a mute photograph. This book is a silence. This book is a question.”

This book may also be an act.

“Is the fact an act?”

Actually, it’s all an act. He’s obsessed with facts. But what is a fact? The narrator tells a story about how he wants to write a story about a girl he seems to be haunted by. What’s he haunted by, the girl, her story, or his story? But she has no story. And he has no story without her story. So he has to come up with one, and he invents it on the go. The girl is described as being poor, ugly, and stupid. She’s hopeless. She would be invisible were it not for the fact that she is annoying.

The girl looks into a mirror – no, the narrator sees the girl looking into a mirror, but she sees him in the mirror,

“we’re that interchangeable.”

Actually, is the author interchangeable with the narrator? Is it possible to see Clarice’s face when the narrator sees Macabea looking at herself in the mirror?

He’s obsessed with her, and so, obsessed with his writing. That he’s an amateur is evidenced by his having to “give up sex and soccer” in order to write. That’s the difference between amateur and professional writers. It’s a hilarious line.

“Or am I not a writer? Actually I’m more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another’s breathing to accompany my text.”

Lispector’s unconventional and idiosyncratic punctuation and syntax. Themes seem to play on identity of narrator and character: and author? The girl forlorn, he does not seem to pity her. At the bottom of one paragraph,

“Not that it mattered. Nobody looked at her on the street, she was cold coffee.”

And at the bottom of the next paragraph, he says of her,

“What a thin slice of watermelon.”

But he learns more about her as he goes, and here’s Lispector having some fun:

“I’ve just discovered that for her, besides God, reality too was very little. She could deal better with her daily unreality, living in sloooow motion, hare leeeeaping through the aaaair over hiiiill and daaaale…”

It’s a short book, 77 pages, a novella, but if writing can be hard, so can reading. He’s sarcastic and frustrated by his inability to get going on his story about the girl. We’re a quarter of the way into the book before we get her background and a traditional narrative seems to have begun. What was all that about, that meandering prologue? He seems to be improvising. He claims he doesn’t know how her story will end.

She lives in a tenement in a hard part of town; nevertheless,

“…the girl’s life might have a splendid future? I’m pleased by the possibility and will do everything I can to make it real.”

Macabea asks questions. She listens to Clock Radio, which is often incomprehensible to her, but fuels her questions. The narrator wants facts, is bored with description and other traditional writing requisites. The center of the book is devoted to a long section of dialog between Maca and her boyfriend, Olimpico, and Maca asks him questions he can’t answer. He leaves her for another, another typist. As a typist, Macabea is another kind of writer. But she’s not a female Bartleby.

Yes, she has a job, even a skill, though she’s not very good at it, and she doesn’t earn even minimum wage. She lives in a room with four other girls, all named Maria. She subsists on a diet of hot dogs. She’s never had a gift from anyone, never a party given in her name. Her parents died when she was a child. She was raised by a mean and ignorant aunt. She collects advertisements.

She hears on Clock Radio that

“there were seven billion people in the world. She felt lost. But with the tendency she had to be happy she immediately consoled herself: there were seven billion people to help her.”

Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the world population in 1977, when the book was written, was only 4.2 billion. It was 7 billion in 2011, when the translation was done. So much for the narrator’s quest for facts? Of course, as with all the other facts in the story, this adds up to nothing.

The end comes as no surprise, though the narrator says he’s tried to avoid it. We’ve been told Macabea has no guardian angel. Really? Should he have tried harder or was he simply being true to the story, the girl, or was he projecting some drama within himself that did not need to happen?

In the end, Macabea’s life does have significance, and all the narrator’s arguments fail to persuade. It might be trite to say it, but his criticisms say more about him than about Macabea. He’s a critic, the worst kind, a literary critic, but with this difference – he’s created and is criticizing his own work. Nothing else matters. It’s so fiction. Was he the driver of the Mercedes? Or is he the fortune teller? Who is he? But this is asking for something that is not there. He seems to have told a true story, after all, criticisms included.

Did the girl “exist”? It’s fiction, so she did not exist. That’s the whole story. He claims not to know the ending. But it becomes clear, in the end, that he knew the ending all along. In fact, he started with the ending and worked backward to a beginning, but he couldn’t find a beginning, so he began by telling about himself, limited to his struggles to write the story. He introduces himself as Rodrigo, but we forget his name since it’s not mentioned again, while he goes on talking about “the girl.” We have to wait a long time to get her name, Macabea. When she tells Olimpico her name, he says,

“Sorry but that sounds like a disease, a skin disease.”

Her poverty is all she possesses. She barely exists. She does not exist.

No, not actually. Actually, she does exist, as fiction. We believe in her. The book begins and ends on a “yes.” Still, the narrator grows tired of it all. Maybe a different narrator would have come up with a different ending. But no. This is the story. Take it or leave it. Except that, in her poverty, in her worldly nothingness, she is as beautiful as a weed struggling through a crack in the asphalt, and Clarice, her guardian angel, waters the unwanted flower with tears of words.

“The Hour of the Star,” 1977, by Clarice Lispector. First published as New Directions Paperbook 733 in 1992. Newly translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, 2011, and Introduction by Colm Toibin, 2011, in New Directions Paperbook 1212.

On Setting and Narration

Life on the Mississippi
Life on the Mississippi – Reading the Waves

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s explanation of Lawrence Buell’s reading preferences informed by historical setting (New Yorker, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” 21 Apr, 104), there’s an ambiguity, whether caused by Buell, Adam Gopnik, or both, I’m not sure, but Gopnik says Buell thinks Huck helping Jim escape is a less radical act in the eighteen-eighties, after slavery has already been abolished. The argument is made in the context of a comparison to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, an inferior work, according to Buell, but one, the argument continues, that Mark Twain must have read in order to write his better book. That’s probable, but while “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in the US in 1885, Twain set Huck and Jim’s story in “The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to fifty years ago,” before the Civil War and before Stowe’s book. Would a common reader in 1885 have understood the costs to a kid of deciding against the values of his immediate, local culture “forty to fifty years ago”? The answer to that question seems vital to Buell’s method of reading literature.

A common mishap reading any text occurs when readers confuse the author with the narrator. And often, indeed, writers struggle separating themselves from their narrator, trying to turn memoir into fiction, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than they intend. But crafty authors often deliberately create unreliable narrators. The lying or self-deluded narrator is most easily detected in the first person, but hidden behind the credible screen of the third person omniscient narrator, an author may still turn deceitful, sleight of hand tricks. And authors, too, often suffer from self-delusions. This isn’t so much about how literature works as how the making of literature works. But either way, readers may be easily confused. But how does that confusion matter to the reading of a text open to multiple possibilities?

Buell thinks it’s important that readers understand something of the times of the author; or does he mean the times of the character the author created? Either way, a reader who knows something of the setting of a novel will no doubt read it differently than a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s setting. But there’s another problem: how does a reader come to know settings of the past? Through narratives, some of which may be unreliable, even if cast in the non-fiction mode. And even if reliable, history is constantly undergoing revision. How does historical revisionism impact the reading of literature?

But the question of whether or not readers in 1885 understood Huck’s predicament given the novel’s setting is an important one. It’s a question we might ask of any number of literary works. Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957), for example, gets a new reading with each new generation of readers, but the further we get from the so called Beat Generation, the more we might need other works surveying the period of the work’s setting – a good companion piece to “On the Road” is “Go” (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. How readers respond to a narrative is dependent on many variables. Non-Catholics, for example, are likely to read Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” differently than Catholics, and Catholics who actually attended Catholic schools will read it differently again.

Where is the reader who brings no experience or expectation whatsoever to a text? They just might be the author’s best target audience. And likewise, why wouldn’t readers search for that very book, the experience about which they know nothing?