Antigone in Havana  


Ophelias / Ofelias, Aida Bahr, translated by Dick Cluster, Cubanabooks, 2012
 Disconnect / Desencuentro, Nancy Alonso, translated by Anne Fountain, Cubanabooks, 2012


"Wall her up in the tomb, you have your orders."
Creon in Robert Fagles' Antigone 
"I'll find her a desert in the neighborhood I'll bury her alive"
Kreon in Anne Carson's Antigonick 

 "The most political decision you make is where you direct people's eyes."
Wim Wenders

            It can be difficult to get the news from Cuba; in terms of literary translation, it can be difficult in the US to get the news from almost anywhere, given the fact that according to UNESCO, 50% of translations travel out of English and only 6% in.  As Esther Allen put it in her 2007 article, "Translation, Globalization, and English," "The difficulty of crossing between languages—what International PEN President Jirí Grusa has called 'the pain of communication'—is something the English-speaking world has been rather successful at avoiding."  The avoidances of communication with Latin America have been particularly pointed, from the past denial of visas to writers based on their left politics (Julio Cortázar, Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez and Pablo Neruda) to the fifty-year-old provisions of the US embargo against revolutionary Cuba, persisting into the present.  Nancy Stout, author of the recent One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2013), expresses gratitude in her introduction that her labors took ten years:  "because so much, for the reader, has changed. At the beginning, I was assured the American reader’s ear—and eye, I suppose—could not possibly cope with Spanish names." 

            (7) ECONOMIC EMBARGO OF CUBA- The term `economic embargo of Cuba'refers to--(A) the economic embargo (including all restrictions on trade or transactions with, and travel to or from, Cuba, and all restrictions on transactions in property in which Cuba or nationals of Cuba have an interest) that was imposed against Cuba pursuant to section 620(a)  of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961

            Cubanabooks, a small independent non-profit press, was born in 2010 from a faith in the ability of 'the American reader' to cope with Spanish names, particularly those of Cuban women; it exists thanks to the resourceful rebel persistence of Sara Cooper, Associate Professor of Spanish and Multicultural & Gender Studies at the California State University at Chico, who was determined to make a way to cross what Nancy Alonso calls in her story "Anniversary," "the longest ninety miles geographically speaking," and "also the shortest." "I got tired of being told that these types of books would not sell," Cooper told La Jiribilla at the annual Havana Book Fair last February, "because they were not sufficiently exotic, erotic or against Castro."  So after years of trying to find publishers for the work of Cuban women writing and living in Cuba, she decided in 2010 to publish the work herself. 

                (2) SANCTIONS ON OTHER COUNTRIES- The Congress further urges the President to take immediate steps to apply the sanctions described in section 1704(b)(1)  of that Act against countries assisting Cuba.

            The books' small format, curly cover fonts and drawings make them resemble the samizdat editions from the US women's movement of the 1960s and 70s; but here the echoes are less of Muriel Rukeyser's "the world split open," or of This Bridge Called My Back, than of a world walled, bound in secrets, surveilled, where the bridges of all varieties are mined.  Although these two books of short stories reflect the visions of two quite different writers, they return again and again to descriptions of the fatigue and despair of dissociation:  the protagonist of Aida Bahr's opening story "Early Morning," "no longer herself, just a body that can be used by someone unknown"; Diana in "Sail Away" with "this sense of being outside herself"; Yilian of the book's last story, "Getaways," ("Fugas"), with "a strange void inside, as if she had vacated her own body"--or Rita of Nancy Alonso's "End of a Story" watching her lover with someone else, "just like a spectator seated on the front row of a theatre," wondering how the partner of an actor might detect infidelity, "as easy as it must be for a professional pretender to lie."

            (b) DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS - The Secretary of State should ensure that United States diplomatic personnel abroad understand and, in their contacts with foreign officials, are communicating the reasons for the United States economic embargo of Cuba, and are urging foreign governments to cooperate more effectively with the embargo.    b) (1) A civil penalty of not to exceed $50,000 may be imposed by the Secretary of the Treasury on any person who violates any license, order, rule, or regulation issued in compliance with the provisions of this Act.

            Aida Bahr's Ophelias, as the title might indicate, focuses on women struggling with madness, in a context where what's awry in individual emotional life and what's awry in a state are intertwined.  Bucking the Havana-centric trend, the stories take place in what the preface calls "the edge of nowhere," "the towns and cities of eastern Cuba: Holguín, Santiago, places that have rarely found themselves in fiction translated into English in the past."  "They will take you to a Cuba that is not at all about nightclubs," the preface adds, "or politics, or vintage American cars"; while it's true that nightclubs and old American cars are scarce here, Bahr has the acuity and courage to engage with the politics, the relations of power, that frame any intimate life anywhere--here particularly the lives of women, framed by contexts of masculine power, and of both men and women struggling in the meshes of economic hardships and deprivations no one discusses in the open.

            The opening story's single four-page paragraph is a kind of feminist parable, of awakening to the violence hidden in accepted social arrangements:  a woman lies beside a snoring man--an intruder? her husband?--who half-wakes, pushes past her "Please, no," to have sex with her, without her, then goes back to sleep.  Cubanabooks prints each story in its entirety, English first, then Spanish, instead of running the translation on facing  pages--a method that gives each version its autonomy, its timing, its room to breathe.  So a reader has to wait a bit to hear how the original Spanish makes and keeps a subtle, powerful blurring of intimate and rapist, one the English seems compelled to spell out:  "Junto a ella el hombre da vueltas sin lograr acomodarse, carraspea, patea la sábana," says the original, "No la sorprende ni le importa"--literally something like "Beside her the man turns without being able to get comfortable, clears his throat, kicks the sheet.  It doesn't surprise or matter to her"--where the translation adds, "The man tosses alongside her, unable to get settled. He coughs and kicks against the sheet. Even now that he's raped her, he doesn't show any sign of leaving. She discovers this neither surprises nor matters to her."  A helpful translator's note at the beginning of the book discusses some of the ways Spanish may let a character's gender remain unspecified, by building its undetermined sense into a verb; less helpful is the decision that when confronted with the dilemma of local references, "a translator has to slip in some of this implied information so as to help out the North American reader."  In the case just mentioned, what's being un-implied isn't local idiom or slang or history but a subtlety crucial to the power of the story, one even a North American reader with no Spanish or knowledge of Cuba might be trusted to wrangle with on her own.

                (3) is substantially moving toward a market-oriented economic system based on the right to own and enjoy property

            Nancy Alonso's Disconnect in the original is the fascinating Desencuentro:  an un-finding, an un-meeting, an un-encounter, the facts of connection and of disconnection pressed as closely together as possible, in one word.  In spite of what the titles might suggest--"Bad Luck," "A Tranquil Death," "Final Credits," "End of a Story"--there are fewer tears here than in Ophelias, and more sharp grief-edged jokes, often in the form of what's left unsaid, at the edges of astute, wry descriptions, by this writer who spent decades as a biologist and physiology professor.  Her training seems to have left her less absorbed in physical detail than in the details of human interaction, observed with both care and often-amused detachment--absorbed in the study of life, as it is, with all its desencuentros, played out at the edges of all the encuentros that might be.

            Enforcement Authority. -- The authority to enforce this title shall be carried out by the Secretary of the Treasury. The Secretary of the Treasury shall exercise the authorities of the Trading With the Enemy Act in enforcing this title.

            In just two and a half pages, Alonso's "Anniversary" paints a portrait of the Cuban diaspora split into mirror-worlds reminiscent of Borges:  the twenty-fifth anniversary of the inauguration of the College Preparatory Institute in Havana is celebrated simultaneously in Havana and Miami, with the same notings of the passage of time, the same music, the same games (although what's rendered here as "the spin-the-bottle game" is literally "the game of 'The truth'" in the original, "el juego de 'La verdad'"), but ninety miles of desencuentro between them.  The book's epigraph comes from Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths": "Time forks perpetually/toward innumerable futures./In one of them I am your enemy."  If someone from one of those innumerable futures were to read this story, without knowing the history of what those ninety separating miles have become, it might seem like science fiction, the almost identical celebrations unfolding in tandem in worlds that don't touch, with the subtle echoes of militarization in the party planning on one side ("las pautas que regirían el encuentro," "the rules that would direct the meeting," what to do about "La presencia de intrusos," literally "the presence of intruders," "un peligro para el encuentro," literally "a danger for the meeting," "reported for duty") and the slightly oblivious cheer on the other.  The portrait is not one of honor on one side and dishonor on the other, but of some kind of pervasive miasma that seems created by the split itself.

                        Whereas the United States, in accordance with its international obligations, is prepared to take all necessary actions to promote national and hemispheric security by isolating the present Government of Cuba and thereby reducing the threat posed by its alignment with the communist powers:

            But the most powerful story here is the last, "Desencuentro," told in a voice that doesn't cross to a reader as if from under water, but explores dissociation's most powerful antidote:  love, "la felicidad plena," "full happiness," "la avidez de ti," something like 'the eagerness of and for you,' if the word 'eagerness' in English carried the echo of the word 'life.'  It's the only time in either of these volumes that love appears:  the kind forbidden from several different directions, where the place of un-meeting aches and will not be quieted, the kind that compels toward connection, even when that might mean great risk for current arrangements.  The voice is a professor's, who's fallen in love with "a boy like any of the others, lost in the crowd of students listening to my lecture about Antigone's sense of duty"; "Everything would have turned out differently, Leonardo, if it weren't for your eyes," the story begins.  "I wouldn't be trying to write this letter (lacking the courage to talk to you face-to-face)."  

As you read the first scene, consider the gravity of the city's condition and how aware Antigone seems of it.
             Throughout the play, Antigone and Creon will talk much about friends and enemies.  Think about what each means by these terms.

                                    Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Study Guide for Sophocles' Antigone

            The story's lovers walk through the crumbling city, and their joy seems to come not from touch but from talking:  "the endless dialogue," "about all things, human and divine," beside which material hardship becomes insignificant.  The act of lying isn't elided or joked about but examined, with clear, frank tenderness and grief, by the narrator drawn to this boy as much for the way his embattled hope, like Antigone's, makes him tell the truth--"la esperanza que cambia lo predecible," the hope that changes the predictable--as for his beauty.  "My life ambled along in this walk through the clouds," the narrator says, as they walk through the streets of Havana, "its rhythm marked by the moments I spent with you."  But as with Antigone, the imperatives of love and the imperatives of law and custom are not the same.  "I ask myself, over and over, what to do, what my duty is," the narrator says, in one wracked litany of questions, "what in the hell duty really means and whether my effort to transmit Antigone's message to students means anything at all, if I myself can't take it in?" 

                        ANTIGONE: If you join me If you join in my action
                        ISMENE: At what risk Where is your mind

            Alonso chooses the words of Whitman to represent the way-out-of-no-way these lovers don't find ("You are a person in love with the impossible," Ismene tells Antigone in Anne Carson's version), the place for them that doesn't exist yet:  "Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems."  But the narrator chooses a different way:  "The exciting game that my recklessness had put into play was becoming dangerous, and so I distanced myself from you."  The distance is made partly of what their age difference means they can never share, including "those dreams of utopia that nowadays they try to convince us are destroyed"--but in the original it's not dreams that were lived and now can't be shared, but the utopias themselves:  "tampoco las utopías de cuyo derrumbe quieren ahora convencernos," "and not the utopias of whose collapse they want to convince us now."  'Derrumbe' is here both a word for a lie and a word for an everyday occurrence; it's the Havana word for when a house falls down, it's everywhere.

                        "Who are our comrades?" "How will I recognize you?"
Revolution: A Reader, Lisa Robertson & Matthew Stadler
                                                 (Paraguay Press, 2012)

            "dear Antigone," Anne Carson writes in her introduction to the play, "you also are someone keeping faith with a deeply other organization that lies just beneath what we see or what we say"--"a deeply other organization" someone like Adrienne Rich might call "the revolutionary idea," which tends to make itself manifest by way of the impossible, and then to be drowned, or quarantined, as it's often contagious, or buried alive, by law and by custom, until it's breathed to life again.  "and let’s footnote here," Carson continues, "Hegel calling Woman 'the eternal irony of the community,'” as Cuba might be called the eternal irony of the Americas, attempting to provide, as Judith Butler notes that Antigone provides, "the occasion for a new field of the human"--reminding us, as this editor's vital press and these writers do, that another world is possible, maybe even nearby.