2003 was a deadly year for Cuba. In March, the government declared an open war on the citizens. In less than a few hours, the Police arrested over a hundred peaceful dissidents and independent journalists from all across the island. Although the international press nicknamed the most notable of the arrested men and women as the “Group of 75”, there were many others who had been repressed months before (and also after) the event that has come to be known as the “Black Spring”.
Jorge Alberto Aguiar Diaz was 36 at that time and was selling books in the Centro Habana district. He had an honourable amount of books and as a post-Deleuzian idealist, he offered free literary workshops, which he called “labs”, or “clinics of writing”. He was known as JAAD (the acronym of his name) and had a large, enthusiastic fan club, to which I also belonged. We were his audience and we sometimes seemed to look at him as a kind of a generational guru. And he was one, in fact: it was as if he were a cross-breed of Charles Bukowski and Roberto Arlt, embodying the angry desires of the former with the neurotic touch of the latter.
I was his favourite pupil (or perhaps, the bad one). In fact, JAAD’s words gave us freedom within the increasingly prison-like, funereal atmosphere of Havana. JAAD wrote opinion columns for the dissident newspaper agency known as Decoro. That’s why his home was frequently visited by the State Security. There were always two of them, those secret little agents in plain clothes, coming on a single Suzuki motorcycle. One of such visitors was the brother of a poetess exiled in the USA, who has recently become an academician. JAAD recognized him but preferred not to say anything (and I prefer to do the same now, for the very same reason).
At another battlefront, Iroel Sanchez, president of the Cuban Book Institute, was sitting on his Taliban throne. In 2001, JAAD won a short story award in the “Premio de Pinos Nuevos” literary contest with his book entitled “Adios a las almas” (Farewell to Souls). A part of the award was the publication of the book by the “Letras Cubanas” publishing house and indeed, the book came to be published in 2002. Apparently, the censorship in Cuba was gradually becoming skilled in the art of circumventing scandals, averting collateral damage and avoiding making more martyrs.
Yet, JAAD began to be subject to hidden pressures and blackmailing, both from the Ministry of the Interior (Political Police sponsored by the Castro clan) and from the Ministry of Culture (literary sergeants paid by Abel Prieto and Miguel Barnet). After all, “Adios a las almas” was introduced at the International Book Fair of Havana and it seemed that it started circulating. The book immediately became a best-seller, which was both unexpected and suspicious, considering the fact that there had been no official promotion campaign. In just a few weeks, the thousand copies that had been published disappeared from the shelves of Havana book stores and nobody heard about the book’s sales volumes any more. Ahem…
JAAD’s friends congratulated the author on his success, but he didn’t celebrate. He had an intuition, which later proved prophetic. The thing is, State Security always carries out its operations in the realm of the invisible. It never shows its face. That’s the sinister essence of any left-wing dictatorship. Also, JAAD couldn’t forget how much he was pressed to stop publishing his critical pieces as a member of the Decoro group on the CubaNet website.
In 2004, after more than a few warnings and threats, he got a permission to travel to Spain on account of his being married to a Spanish woman. Before that he had been warned that he could be put to prison with the members of the Group of 75 on a charge of enemy propaganda. He had also been told that something unpleasant could happen to his closest family, including his daughter. The government wanted to get rid of his presence in Cuba and in the end, they succeeded.
Several hours before he was to board the plane, he got an anonymous phone call: “Come immediately to this address. Bring money. It’s in your interest.”
JAAD, book and adventure trafficker, couldn’t resist the temptation ant went there. I’m his witness.
When he got to the address, he found a book distribution warehouse of a company belonging to the State book empire run by Iroel Sanchez. The man who was waiting for him was an old acquaintance of his from the Centro Havana district. He told JAAD: “You’d better sit down or you’ll fall back.” (Actually, that’s just my bad, self-censored transcription of what he really said, which was: “…you’ll shit yourself with shock.”)
They entered the warehouse and in one of its large naves there were several metal containers, one of them padlocked. The boy took out a bunch of keys, chose one as if at random and opened the padlock. What JAAD saw inside was a kind of aleph – as if the whole, unique universe were condensed in a few square meters of the most populated neighbourhood of Havana.
Actually, the belly of the padlocked container was filled with an intact edition of the book “Adios a las almas”. The books were not only intact, they hadn’t even been released to the public. In fact, the storybook was published only formally, to fool the public and it was withdrawn from circulation. That was the reason why the government spread rumours that “Adios a las almas” had become a best-seller and soon sold out.
The boy had strict orders to sort the books out with “damaged books” and turn them to pulp for recycling. What a perverse kind of palimpsest, what a crooked demonstration of tropical despotism of an obsolete regime, which despises any form of free Cuban culture. The boy had been postponing his destructive task on the books for quite some time, but it was not for sympathy with the author. His hesitation had purely financial motives. I bet the boy had surely traded even with his soul, selling it to Death.
Now, this boy, this employee of Iroel Sanchez, asked JAAD for a dollar for each copy of the book he wanted to save. A difficult dilemma for a writer, indeed. How many books of his own could he save and how many can he bear to see crushed, without being able to do anything?
JAAD had saved a few euros for his journey – the currency was quite new in the island at that time, you wouldn’t see it very often. So he bought almost half a thousand copies and paid the boy about 300 euros in total. He put the books in a box and carried them away to his flat on the second floor at the corner of San Miguel and Escobar streets.
He hardly managed to find a taxi and get to the airport on time. In Madrid airport, his recent wife was awaiting him (they aren’t married any more). JAAD had left half of the copies of his only book (it still is), the worst-seller entitled “Adios a las almas”, in Havana. It seems that JAAD has always been between two waters, as if he were a Christ of totalitarian scams. Caught between carnal passion and passion for literature.
On the one hand there was the mendacious State ready to do something wicked, spending Cuban people’s money on a futile endeavour of printing and recycling “questionable” books, without even bothering to present them to readers. On the other hand there was the pleasure as a substitute of death and life in the truth: escaping from fossilized Fidel and pretending to be an intellectual, far away from the raw material he was made of – Havana.
Almost nobody in the world knows how the Cuban State recycles published books without even releasing them. I’d like to warn all famous Cuban writers not to be so confident about the sales of their books in the island. Leonardo Padura and Pedro Juan Gutierrez, for instance, may also have been censored without censoring.
A decadent decade later, JAAD is still living in Spain, displaced and abandoned by the State and by God, suffering 1959 misfortunes without complaining. The storybook “Adios a las almas” is a rare and valuable thing that almost nobody has had the luck to get hold of. Hopefully we, Cuban readers both inside and outside Cuba, will bear in mind to save this author before it is too late. One euro per book will do.