Tag Archives: Farrar Strauss and Giroux

When, if not now?: The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Between 1960 and 2010, Christa Wolf recorded her thoughts, impressions, and experiences on the same day, September 27th, in each of those years.  In 1968, the same year in which The Quest for Christa T. was published, Wolf spent time in a hospital to treat her recurring depression. In her diary for that year she writes:

Now, while writing, I begin to feel better. Just the process of writing already helps. So it will probably remain the only thing for me after all. But ‘life’—that is: political, national life—runs along the old tracks. Sometimes it seems to me that it races towards a bad end. And we stand next to it and give woebegone commentaries. But once you have jumped the tracks with such force, you do not get back on them again…

The Quest for Christa T. follows the lives and friendship of two women, the unnamed narrator and Christa T., from World War II through the 1960’s when East Germany is under communist rule. The narrator, in a nonlinear narrative, uses her own memories, Christa’s letters and diaries, and discussions with others who knew her to piece together the life of her friend who died at the age of thirty-five from leukemia.   Although the novel is not overtly political, there is a constant sense of disillusionment and restlessness that Christa T. suffers and, the like author with whom she shares her name, her only solace against this is to write.  One of Christa T.’s diary entries reads: “To think that I can only cope with things by writing!”

As the narrator describes Christa T.’s life, childhood, education, friendship, career, first love, marriage, children, an affair, she also explores important questions about identity.  One can collect a list of biographical facts about a life, but what, truly, is the essence of that person?  Can we ever reconstruct the reality of another person?  Wolf’s style of writing is complex and reading this disjoined narrative requires a great deal of concentration and reflection—my favorite kind of book.  The novel is full of deeply philosophical passages such as:

You’ll certainly remember what we used to say when one of us was feeling forlorn: When, if not now?  When should one live, if not in the time that’s given to one?  It always helped.  But now—if only I could tell you how it is…The whole world like a wall facing me.  I fumble over the stones: no gaps.  Why should I go on deluding myself: there’s no gap for me to live in.  It’s my own fault.  It’s me, I’m simply not determined enough.  Yet how simple and natural everything seemed when I first read about it in books.

The most heart wrenching and difficult parts of the story were the descriptions of Christa T.’s tragic illness and death.  When she is diagnosed with an advanced form of leukemia at thirty-five she is at a happy, content point in her life and even though she had an affair, she has settled back into her marriage and has two young children.  As her death approaches Wolf repeats the phrase “When, if not now?” a few times within the text and this is also the line with which she ends the novel.  A simple phrase, yet so profound.  Something we all contemplate in our own lives, especially as we approach middle age.  It is no wonder that the GDR kept a close eye on Wolf and informed bookstores to sell this book only to serious members of the literary community.

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

Kissing Circe and Living to Tell It: Essays by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

In an essay entitled “And of My Cuba, What?” author Guillermo Cabrera Infante describes his escape from his island homeland and the Castro regime as “kissing Circe and living to tell it.”  He was born in Gibara, Cuba’s former Oriente Province in 1929 and moved with his parents to the capital city when he was twelve-years old.  Cabrera Infante’s parents were founding members of Cuba’s communist party and the author himself, as a socialist, opposed the Batista regime and supported the Revolution of 1959.

The author, however, quickly becomes disillusioned with the Castro’s increasingly totalitarian regime.   Cabrera Infante was head of the literary magazine Lunes de Revolución, a supplement to the Communist newspaper Revolución, which was shut down by Castro in 1961.  Having fallen out of favor with the Communist government, he was sent off as a sort of minor exile to Belgium to serve as the cultural attaché  in the Cuban embassy there.  When his mother dies in 1965, he travels back to Cuba for the funeral and thinks he will only be there for a few weeks.  But when he attempts to board the plane back to Belgium, he is pulled off his flight by the Cuban authorities who, for reasons never known to Cabrera Infante, will not let him out of the country.  The author is trapped in his homeland, a rapidly decaying and depressing place, that he no longer recognizes.

In August, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Map Drawn by a Spy which is Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical account of the frightening four months he spent in 1965 trying to escape from Cuba.  I highly recommend this fascinating book which portrays his harrowing escape to Madrid and eventually to London where he spends the rest of his life.   After his voluntary exile from Cuba,  he becomes a staunch and frequent critic of Castro and his government.  His essay “And of My Cuba, What?”, written in exile in January of 1992,  and “Answers and Questions,” written in July of 1986, are both included in his collected volume of non-fiction writing entitled Mea Cuba translated into English by Kenneth Hall and published in 1994 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.  Cabrera Infante’s essays are consumed with the nostalgia and longing that one would expect from an exile, a man that never expects to see his birthplace, his family or his friends again.  I chose to write about “And of My Cuba, What?” and “Answers and Questions” because they are two of the angriest, most chilling pieces in the collection and have an important message about corruption and greed in government and leadership.

In “And of my Cuba, What?”, Cabrera Infante directs his fury towards Fidel Castro whom he blames for economically, socially and spiritually ruining Cuba and plunging it back into a primitive time.  He writes:

Now, because of the deterioration of the economy, of capital and of the capital, of the whole country that has ceased to be Cuba to become the Albania of the Caribbean (a phrase with which I portrayed the whole island then), the nation has been demolished, ruined and brought finally to a fate worse than death: to take corruption in life.  Havana is as destroyed physically as Beirut, in a civil war made by one man.  Fidel Castro lives out his last days in his palace (read bunker) surrounded by physical and moral ruins.

Cuba’s history as well as her geography, Cabrera Infante argues, have helped to keep Castro in power for decades.  “All Cuba, as Berlin once was, is surrounded by a wall” he states.  As an island, Cuba’s natural wall, or barrier, is water.  Not even the Americans could successfully breach this “wall” in the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Cubans looked to Castro to free them from the oppression of the Batista regime, but no one expected him to stay in power, through force and violence, for decades.  Cabrera Infante’s anger towards Castro is palpable throughout this essay and he uses multiple, horrifying examples of Castro’s tyrannical leadership to justify his ire.  When  he visits Havana in 1965, he realizes that Castro has “made life regress to infrahuman levels…”  One of the most shocking revelations in this essay is the new form of racism that Cabrera Infante accuses Castro of creating.  Cubans are refused entrance to hotels, restaurants, beaches, night clubs and resorts unless they are accompanied by foreigners and can pay cash with American dollars.  But American dollars are also illegal and the punishment for possessing them is severe.  The author calls this an “indecent apartheid.” In addition to this racism, Cabrera Infante describes the shoot-to-kill policy used against those trying to escape the island, the concentration camps created for homosexuals and the Cuban version of the Nazi Blockwarts whereby every Cuban is forced to spy on his neighbor.

“Answers and Questions” portrays the dilapidation of what was a once prosperous and beautiful Havana and the effect this has on the every day lives of Cubans.   During his last visit to the island, he is horrified that he no longer recognizes his birth place:

Cuba now was not Cuba.  It was another thing—the double in the mirror, its doppelganger, a living robot from which an accident by its maker had provoked a mutation, a genetic change, a switch of chromosomes.  Nothing was in its place,  The features were recognizable, but even in Havana the buildings showed a new leprosy.

What was most striking in this essay is the author’s description of the lack of basic supplies that we take for granted.  Food, coffee, clothing and medicine are all scare in Castro’s Cuba unless one is lucky enough to have access to the stores reserved for diplomats or wealthy enough to afford items from the black market.  Cabrera Infante writes one of the most thought-provoking quotes which I keep playing over in my mind: “In theory, socialism nationalize wealth.  In Cuba, by a strange perversion of the practice, they had socialized poverty.”

Guillermo Cabrera Infante

One of the saddest stories included in Cabrera Infante’s essay is the death of his mother who suffers and passes away from a basic ear infection because she is not given appropriate and timely medical treatment.  I would argue that such a socialization of poverty is not unique to Cuba.  As I have read quite a bit of post-Soviet literature in the past few years, one of the themes that comes up in all of this writing about totalitarian regimes is a dearth of supplies, food, medicine and other items that are necessary to live an anxiety free and dignified life. Today, as I watched the American president call for the repeal of Obamacare without any viable plan for millions of Americans who will otherwise have no access to health services I kept thinking about Cabrera Infante’s essays.  It’s sickening that The President and the other Senators who are promoting this horrible agenda have access to the best health care in the world while expecting everyone else to go into bankruptcy or die due to the absence of appropriate care.  If we aren’t careful then Cabrera Infante’s nightmare might become our own reality.

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Filed under Spanish Literature