The Heat of the Books

Every year when the first winter days come, I think of the women imprisoned in the Manto Negro prison, which is located in the Cuban village of Guanajay, in the Artemisa province. In summer, the small and narrow cells of the prison are like ovens while in winter they turn into real freezers.

I came to the Manto Negro prison in winter 1989, just when the first cold fronts from the North moved in. This allowed me to see right away how the women prisoners managed to wash – many of them were quite elderly, others, on the other hand, appeared too young. At first, I refused to warm the water up the way they did, by burning books, and I washed in cold water, shaking all over.

Then, in January and February, when the cold became more severe, I went against my will and accepted this way of washing (which I baptised “barbaric”) and learned to make a fire. I would crumple up pages of books to make pellets, which I placed under an oil can filled with water standing on two bricks.

“I have just washed thanks to Jose Marti,” a girl of hardly 18 years of age once told me, smiling. She was sentenced to one year in prison because she had accepted shoes from a foreigner.

Not long ago I met one of the women from the prison on the street, so I stopped to talk to her. I asked her if she still burned books to heat the water after my departure and she answered that she did, because Fidel Castro had failed to distribute heating coils among prisoners; nor did he install electric heaters. That would be too much to expect.

The book shelves in the prison library, where I would often go to look for a good book to read, were gradually slimming down in the winter months. The wardens knew how the books disappeared, they knew that they turned to ashes in the fires burnt in the cells.

I must say that in the beginning my heart would sink at seeing these books lose pages – books like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I read as a teenager, or my father’s favourite book, The Divine Comedy, or Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, or Jose Marti’s books of poems.

However, I have a happy memory of how I managed to persuade the inmates of the Unit One, where I stayed for one year for having publicly demanded a plebiscite in Cuba, to burn old magazines and newspapers with endless speeches of the Commander in Chief (which no one remembers today) instead of valuable works of world literature.

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