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Famous smokes: No magic in realism

  • Published at 04:41 pm February 9th, 2019
Ahsan Akbar

One wonders if Gabo, had he been around today, would say anything against the Maduro regime.

My friendship with politicians is as unpolitical as it could be. I consider myself least friendly with intellectuals, for reasons unknown to me. 

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, El Pais, April 1988


Gabo’s neighbor Venezuela is burning.
 But why should we care when its thousands of miles away?

First, we live in an increasingly connected world. A writer facing self-censorship or death threats in Bangladesh is ominous for every writer, editor or publisher, regardless of geography or nationality. The rise of populism in America and Europe affects all of us. The Guardian in the UK running a one-sided story of our garment industry on their front page will most likely have a negative impact on future orders from buyers—ironically, the ultimate victim would be the factory worker on minimum wage. No brainer, and I know you care.

Our sympathy for the Palestinian cause is seasonally on digital steroids. Free Gaza, remember this meme? I didn’t partake in that very useful exercise of changing my profile picture on Facebook and thusly got heavy castigation from a sanctimonious lot. I don’t know what pictures—or selfies—they are choosing today to save our planet, but I sure hope Venezuela is on their minds. Right now it is the largest growing refugee crisis in the world. Over 3 million people have fled the country and further 2 million are looking to escape the nonsense of one Nicolas Maduro.

***

Every lover of foreign fiction in Bangladesh will readily admit Latin Lit, perhaps more than others, shaped their thinking during their formative years. Invariably, it’s a Neruda collection—hardly a baptism of fire, and in my opinion the right poet for every nonlover of poetry—or its Garcia Marquez and his tour de force of magic realism that jumpstart the engine. From there, it’s a voyage into a supreme forest of imagination and literary output: everyone from Borges to Bolaño, or names that are still around—Allende to Zambra via Vargas Llosa—it’s easy for us to fall in love with their works. In their stories, we find similarities aplenty: close ties with family, friendships that become thicker than blood, triumph of love over defeat, the mixing of narrative with rich folklore and the supernatural, and of course, our shared history of colonial past. Our hearts bleed for all the things that may not even move a certain cold-blooded native of the West. 

But we go beyond the books. We go through teenage angst with that ubiquitous poster of Che (all hail Alberto Korda) on our walls, treasure copies of Motorcycle Diaries, Guerrilla Warfare, knowing fully well the closest we’ll ever get to be in a guerrilla operation will be on a friend’s Nintendo. More poignantly, we become fans of communist dictators, perhaps because we haven’t experienced the tyranny of one. Yes, I know, I know—ye forget the Bay of Pigs invasion, exploding cigars and all the other 637 futile attempts the Americans made wishing to topple Castro. Now there’s something to be said for standing up to Uncle Sam and for so long. 

What’s more troubling, though, is how some of us don’t grow out of this phase. It’s easy to be swayed when you are nineteen and romanticizing revolution, maybe you felt your pulse racing at one of the Aziz Super addas or maybe you were lazy like me and preferred to read-dream-scheme from the comfort of your bed. I mean if pop’s top bloke Lennon could aspire to it, why the heck not?   But anyone beyond the age of—and let’s be generous—thirty and still enthralled, and in blind admiration of the three C’s: Castro, Che, Communism is surely steeped in magic with zero realism. It’s a case of clouded ideology and passion superseding clear-eyed logic and reason.

***

If you travel to Cuba, and I did, you’d feel as though you travelled back in time to the 1950s. How charming and how pathetic—how things haven’t moved on! Internet is heavily state-controlled, available to only 25 per cent of the population, and that would be your government types and their chums. Only a handful of television channels and newspapers are allowed to operate, and all used as state propaganda machines. Bizarrely for a state that proclaims big on equality, there are two currencies at play—one for you the extranjero, and one for the local. Your currency has a much higher purchasing power and it will be accepted everywhere. The hapless local has to rely on state rations and avoid shops and restaurants that openly declare they won’t accept the local peso. If there was a system of economic apartheid, this would be it.

There are other restrictions in place. We experienced one first-hand when we invited Yoss, the country’s leading sci-fi writer, to Dhaka Lit Fest in 2015; let’s just say their bureaucracy took the cake. It would be the same for Leonardo Padura whose Havana trilogy is a must-read, and he’s someone we’d love to see in Dhaka one day, provided he can get “permission” to travel. This is nothing new nor unknown; sadly, Gabo had no time for writers, their cause or the intellectual life; in fact, he “hated” them; he preferred his politicians on the island instead. 

There is no democracy on the island, for there is no election; in fact, it’s a simpler process of power transfer: Fidel handed the baton to his brother Raul who passed it to their favorite disciple. Garcia Marquez had lazily defended the Cuban system several times by citing “democracy doesn’t come only in the form of elections”.

But Gabo had nothing to say about Castro’s terrible record of human rights and continued repression. His incarceration of dissenting writers, for example, or the torture of homosexuals in state prisons. Gabo the keen journalist, always on the lookout for a story, visited all the Cuban prisons but remained schtum all his life. Starting with the Padilla case, which made him lose valuable friends like Vargas Llosa and destroyed the Latin Boom’s unity, Gabo continued to ignore his conscience; he remained faithful to his amigo Fidel. It’s a friendship that went back to 1977 and lasted till his death. 

The story, according to Gabo, of how the two bonded says a lot. It goes something like this: when Gabo asked Fidel about Angola’s food crisis, Fidel—instead of responding—wanted to know if Gabo had eaten poorly in Angola. Gabo said he was ‘very happy’ with a tin of caviar, something Fidel—quite rightly—called overrated and not ‘exquisite’. Thus, their mutual love of seafood and delicacies like lobster bisque and crab consommé made for a delightful conversation, which took them from the VIP suite of Hotel Riviera overlooking the Caribbean Sea to the VIP lounge of Havana airport. And so began a lifelong friendship in one very socialistic manner. 

Gabo didn’t shun the intellectuals, as the quote from El Pais on top suggests; it was the other way round. His closeness with Castro was seen—even by leftist writers such as Eduardo Galeano and Jose Saramago—as opportunistic and somewhat a Faustian pact. The lure of power—both evident in his fiction and real life—attracted Garcia Marquez wanting political clout, whilst accepting his white Havana mansion, the only private property on the island (illegal under Cuban law for foreigners), and a white Mercedes-Benz from Castro. And for the latter, it was a brilliant chess move to buy cultural capital that started with Papa Hemingway, moving on to hiring a better roadman to spread his propaganda.

One wonders if Gabo, had he been around today, would say anything against the Maduro regime. We won’t know but we do know about his fondness for other dictators like Franco and Torrijos. Gabo was simply fascinated by power. And I have this for you, as parting shot:

           I have never read an article or essay by Garcia Marquez that explains in moral and civic terms this systematic alignment (with Castro’s dictatorship) that seems religiously devout, because intellectually he should explain it and he hasn’t so far, and I doubt very much that he ever will. 

                                                                        -Mario Vargas Llosa, March 2003


Ahsan Akbar is Director of Dhaka Lit Fest. [email protected]