Letters to Eloísa (Review) | NACLA
EcuRed, the Cuban state-run encyclopedia, describe José Lezama Lima as “one of the greatest figures” of the island’s literature, a writer of “astonishing erudition” which “constructs his sentences to perfection”. But, like the new PBS documentary Letters to Eloïsa says, while Lezama was admired in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, it was not until twenty years after his death that he was officially recognized in Cuba. Indeed, towards the end of his life, the state banned Lezama from publishing, prevented him from collecting prizes abroad, and even censored any mention of him by other writers.
Using Lezama’s correspondence with his sister, who moved to the United States in 1961, Letters to Eloïsa offers a short but intimate view of a Baroque writer whose life straddled a period of great upheaval in Cuba.
The son of a colonel, Lezama was born into a well-to-do family in Havana in 1910. His father died of the flu when he was eight years old, and young Lezama found solace in books. In 1929, her mother’s source of income, an army widow’s pension, could no longer support an affluent lifestyle. The family were forced to leave the grandeur of Paseo del Prado in the Old Town for a much smaller, damp house in Centro Habana, one block from the Red Light District. It is here that Lezama will live until his death in 1976, and will compose his major works of poetry and his only novel, Paradiso.
Lezama studied law at the University of Havana, but his vocation was the Spanish language. In 1944, Lezama co-founded Origins, a literary magazine that gave birth to a new generation of Cuban artists. Widely read across Latin America, Origins folded in 1956 after Lezama fell out with its main funder. A little over two years later, Fidel Castro came to power.
Although he preferred classical, theological, and literary themes to politics, Lezama, like most intellectuals, warmly welcomed the revolution. Fidel Castro has drawn international attention to Cuba and, by extension, to its literature. The state offered new opportunities for writers but, as Lezama would discover, these opportunities came with political demands.
These demands became clearer in the months following the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion when, in a speech to Cuban intellectuals, Castro said: “What are the rights of revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers and artists? Inside the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, no rights.
The threat of censorship was not Lezama’s only concern. His letters to Eloísa reflect the growing shortages on the island. Lezama asks for razors, talcum powder, typewriter ribbons, sheets and shoes. He regrets that there are no beans, tubers or fruit.
“An onion peel,” he writes with typical refinement, “can be as rare as an Etruscan piece.
In 1964, a few months after the death of his beloved mother, Lezama, a homosexual in the closet, married his secretary, María Luisa. Two years later, he published his only novel, Paradise, a story of an aristocratic family from Havana and the city itself. Lezama described it to Eloísa as concerning “the exaltation of the family, the birth of eros, the inclination towards infinity”. The novel has been praised in the Spanish-speaking world, in particular by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar. Interviewed for Letters to Eloïsa, Mario Vargas Llosa describes Paradiso like “a novel by a great poet, a great connoisseur of the language, in which often the style is more important than the story”.
Instead of attracting readers for its linguistic opulence, Paradiso quickly became famous – or infamous – for a homoerotic scene. The Cubans went to the library to borrow “the book with chapter 8”. It also caught the attention of censors.
According to historian Lillian Guerra, “Paradiso was Lezama’s personal coming out. With Castro’s government sending homosexuals to rehab camps, even promoting homosexuality using the mask of literature was courageous. Lezama was seen to approve of the “degenerate behavior” that Castro had exhibited noted a socialist society could not allow it. National sales of the novel have been suspended.
Lezama’s relations with the state improved in 1970. Two years after the Cuban government received criticism for supporting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the state sought to improve its reputation by creating more space for artistic expression. Lezama was celebrated as a singular literary voice and was able to publish his complete poetry.
Freedom was soon withdrawn. The trigger was the Padilla affair: in 1971, Heberto Padilla, critical poet of the path of the revolution, was arrested after a public reading of his work. In a televised confession, Padilla – who had been tortured in prison – thanked his interrogators and called his previous work counter-revolutionary. More serious for Lezama, Padilla accuses him of being ungrateful towards the revolution and of criticizing it in private.
The Padilla case marked the end of the government’s partial acceptance of creative freedom. It was also the start of five years of intense stress for Lezama, who told Eloísa how he lived “in fear, overwhelmed”. These were “days of anguish,” especially after the 1971 Congress on Education and Culture decreed that gays were a threat to Cuban values. Both a free thinker and a suspect of homosexuality, the author of Paradiso was prevented from posting.
Lezama may not have been able to participate in the Cuban intellectual discussion, but in 1972 critics in Madrid awarded him the Maldoror Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for poetry in the Spanish language. Two years later, with the help of the famous translator Gregory Rabassa, Paradiso was published in English.
When Lezama died in 1976, the news made headlines in the Hispanic world. But in Cuba’s main newspaper, Granny, it was only noted in passing. Lezama’s official position on the island changed twenty years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba invested in tourism as an economic lifeline. In 1994, the state transformed Lezama’s house, where he wrote all his important works and where he was placed under surveillance, into a museum. While it’s refreshing to see Lezama give him the respect he deserves, it remains ironic that a government that censored one of its greatest writers, intercepted his correspondence and tapped his phone now claims him as a national treasure.
Letters to Eloïsa aired at a time when the Cuban state is embroiled in another major dispute with intellectuals. Members of San Isidro Movement freedom of expression activists have been arbitrarily detained, placed under house arrest and had their communication channels blocked. Last month, Time The magazine named one member, performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Despite his baroque sensibility, Lezama, whose poetry is read during demonstrations, is a touchstone for the movement.
Running at sixty minutes, Letters to Eloïsa is more of a sketch than a portrait. Nonetheless, using archival photographs, television footage and small-scale reenactments – not to mention its own words – the film is a welcome introduction to Lezama and a glimpse into a story the Cuban government would prefer. to forget.
The film will premiere as part of the PBS VOCES series on Friday, October 15, 2021, 10 p.m. – 11 p.m. ET on PBS, pbs.org and the PBS video app.
Daniel Rey is a British Columbia writer and historian.