Leonardo Padura: "I´d like to be Paul Auster"

There are days when I'd like to be Paul Auster. Not that I care or would have wanted to be born in the United States (not even in New York which, as everybody knows, is almost not the United States); but I think that I would have loved, like Paul Auster, to have spent a few years in Paris, precisely in those years in the life of a writer when Paris can be a moveable feast: the time when the so called city of lights is the best place in the world for a novelist apprentice. And this despite its gray skies, its dirty metro, its aggressive waiters; all of which are totally compensated for by its wonderful museums, buildings, and morning croissants.

I think I'd like to be Paul Auster for reasons that have nothing to do with awards, fame, or money. I don't deny, however, that I would have liked (in fact would have liked a lot) to have written The New York Trilogy, Brooklyn Follies, Smoke, for example. But I would like to be Paul Auster most of all so that in my interviews journalists would ask me what journalists usually ask writers like Paul Auster, and almost never ask me -and not because of the light years that separate me from Auster.

The fact is that it is most unlikely that someone like Paul Auster be interrogated about the possible future ways of the American economy, or why he remained living in his country during the horrible years of the administration of Bush Jr. -or if he would leave his country if Sarah Palin became president. Nobody insists on repeatedly asking him what is his opinion on the Guantanamo prison, or if he considers Obama's economic measures to be sincere or fair, and much less if he himself or his work are for or against the system. In an interview with the fortunate Paul -that I've just read- they didn't even ask him about sensitive issues such as the strong surveillance of American citizens as a side-effect of 9-11, or the close watch of individuals by the FBI (almost everybody has a file there, although perhaps not as thick as Hemingway's), the National Security Agency, the Treasury Department and other controlling entities, including the banks that know the DNA and the brand of toilet paper aperson uses (as we have learned watching series like CSI and Without a Trace).

If I were Paul Auster and was for or against Obama, or Bush, or Palin, my political stance would barely be an anecdotic item, just as the decision to remain living in Brooklyn or take off to Paris until I got bored with its cloudy skies. Because, then, I could talk in interviews, like the one I just read, of nice topics, pleasant topics that could even make me seem intelligent, I could talk of things I (believe) know a lot about: baseball, for example, Italiancinema, or how to build a character in fiction, or where I get my stories from and what I intend with them -that is, aesthetically speaking, even socially speaking, but not always politically speaking…

But you know, my name is not Paul Auster and my luck is different. I am only a Cuban writer, less gifted, who grew up, studied and learned to live in Cuba (by the way, without the remotest opportunity to even dream of going to Paris for a while, when it is more profitable to go to Paris -among other reasons because I lived in a Socialist country where travelling -let's forget money for now- required, and requires official authorizations). A Cuban who had to study in Cuba and every year voluntarily spent a couple of months cutting sugar cane orharvesting tobacco as was fitting for a the future New Man that I was supposed to become. But above all, because since I am a Cuban writer who decided, freely and personally, and despite all odds, to remain living in Cuba, I am damned, unlike Paul Auster, to answer questions different from the questions they usually ask him, questions that in my case are almost always the same; or quite the same.

It is true that a Cuban writer with the minimum sense of his role as an intellectual, and above all, as a citizen, is in the obligation to have certain ideas about the society, the economy and the politics of the island (and to express them, if he dares). In Cuba there are no ivory towers -there never were- and for more than fifty years politics has been lived in everyday life, as an exceptional thing, and as history in the making one cannot break away from it. And behind politics walk the economic and social schemes that, as in very fewcountries, depend on the politics that flows out of the same fountain, even when the liquid may come out of the mouths of different lions who in fact share the same stomach: the state, the government and the party, all unique and intertwined. Therefore, politics in Cuba is like oxygen: it gets inside us without our being aware we breathe; and most of our actions, everyday, public, even intimate and personal decisions somehow bear the mark of politics.

There are Cuban writers who, from one end to the other of the ideological spectrum, have made of politics the focus of their obsessions, a way of life, or the projection of their interests. Politics has moved from their breath to their blood and has been turned into a spiritual projection. By accusing the regime of all possible horrors, or by praising the virtues and extraordinary qualities of the system, they extract from politics not only literary or journalistic subject matters, but also styles of life, economic status -more or less well off- and especially representativeness. And so -and I don't criticize them for their free ideological or citizen choice- the political denunciation or defense defines them, sometimes even more than their artistic creation, and quite often precedes it.

It is necessary to remember that the extremely politicized compact reality Cuba has lived in the last decades inevitably had to produce such reactions among its writers and artists. And we must not forget that the political and intellectual public projection of many creators has depended on this junction dominated by politics which, to paraphrase Marti (so political in most of his literature) has worked as a pedestal rather than a sacrificial stone. But no less memorable is the fact that a writer who lives or has lived in the Cuban context carries along(whether he likes it or not) the responsibility of having political opinions about his country (the more radical and Manichean the better) for the simple reason that not having them would be physically impossible and intellectually unbelievable. Only that, obviously, for some of them politics is a responsibility, as it should be; for others it is a way to get near the heat and the light, and sometimes the way to bear a whip to brand the backs of those who think differently.

Differently from Paul Auster, a Cuban writer today -this is my case, and therefore my envy of Auster- begins with a definition as a writer by the place where one lives: on the island or abroad. Such geographical location is immediately considered as an indication of a political stance full of causes and consequences, also political. Nobody -or almost nobody, to be fair- accepts him as just a writer, but as a representative of a political option. And of suchtopics he is frequently questioned, morbidly sometimes, and usually expecting answers that would confirm the criteria the interrogator has in his mind (everybody has Cuba in mind): the image of the Socialist Paradise or the view of the Communist Hell.

The saddest thing for a writer who, for one reason or another, decides to live and write in Cuba is not to enjoy the privilege of talking about literature that someone like Paul Auster enjoys. This decision, no matter how personal, places him on one side of a well defined boundary. And if by chance this writer expresses certain opinions of his own, not close and even distant from those officially promoted, something perverse happens: he becomes the target of accusations, suspicions, or at least the distrust of the talibans of both affiliations. (Of this, as of baseball, I also know a lot. In my back I have the imprints of several types of whips).

The vaudeville part of this drama is the expectation that if a writer is Cuban, he must also be a soothsayer, an astrologer, or a babalawo; and for starters he must also be versed in economics, sociology, religion, and agronomy; apart from being, of course, an expert in politics. But above all, in his condition of guru he must be able to predict the future and offer exact data on how it will be and the exact dates of when such possible future will arrive.

As whoever read the paragraphs above may have guessed -maybe even know- I, apartfrom not being Paul Auster, am a Cuban writer who lives in Cuba, and as a citizen of the island, I frequently go through circumstances similar to those of the rest of my ordinary fellow countrymen (neurosurgeons, cybernetics specialists, teachers, bus drivers, and that sort of people) rooted in the country. Compared to many of them I have privileges (I don't deny this) which I believe I had the fortune to have earned with my work: my books are published by publishers in several countries, I live modestly but adequately on my royalties, I travel more freely than other Cubans (particularly the neurosurgeons), and even thanks to a literary award in 1996, I could buy the car I have since 1997 and will have until only God knows when, in this my country of prohibitions…

I also have, let's see*, a house I built by buying and carrying each brick in its walls, a computer nobody gave me, and even Internet access (I didn't have to beg for it). But as many of the Cubans I share geographical space with, I must go after certain goods and services, find a socio [a helping hand] to find a faster solution for a problem (even health related, perhaps through a neurosurgeon friend), be "generous" with a clerk to speed up a procedure, and every other day carry a couple of buckets of water from a well my greatgrandfather dug, because the aqueduct may forget to give us service for a few days. These among other bizarre adventures the like of which I cannot picture -according to the interviews he usually gets- a writer like Paul Auster being involved in.

The funny thing is, however, that even when many times I wish I could transfigure into Paul Auster, this wish is not of my competence; because as a Cuban writer life in my country, what happens in my country, and my opinions about the society where I live cannot be distant from me. Reality makes me deal with a time to which, as a writer, I hold a citizen responsibility, and part of this is (without having to become a fortune teller, without becoming estranged from the people among whom I was born and grew up) to leave testimony, whenever possible, of arbitrary actions or injustices when these occur, and of moral losses that can hurt us; as certainly does Paul Auster when journalists bring upsuch topics: because he is a true writer, and because he too must have a citizen consciousness.

*[Allusion to Nicolas Guillen's poem Tengo]

February 7, 2012 A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann. (Taken from IPS)