Arrufat is of mixed Catalan and Lebanese parentage. At the age of 11, he moved with his family from Santiago de Cuba to Havana. He studied philology at the University of Havana. His first book appeared in , a collection of his early poems.
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He went to a Jesuit school there the same one attended by the Castro brothers a decade before before moving to Havana at the age of 11 to continue his studies. While Padilla left the island Arrufat chose to stay, but was prevented from publishing for 14 years. I think my family suffered from a unique type of panic. Despite that attitude, my father knew about a lot of things, he had read a good few books, mainly history, and he liked going to the theatre to see the Spanish zarzuela operettas that were put on around Havana.
I went to see him in the afternoons, when I had finished my classes. His house was a typical Havana solar : a beautiful, but ageing nineteenth-century mansion that was converted into a citadel over two floors with an enormous central patio; dozens of families lived there. We used to go outside to sit on the balcony of his room. Suddenly, life was very different. He loved to read aloud and I would listen attentively.
On the balcony we were isolated from the rest of the house and the street noise. His main interest was philosophy, mainly Nietzsche and Sartre.
Although he wanted to be a writer, he never managed it. He earned a living selling books. On the path outside the gates of the Gener cigar factory he would put a board across two wooden trestles where he displayed his books for sale. He used to sit on a cod crate. He had another few crates for the friends who came to buy books and stayed to chat.
We could talk for hours. He continued to tend to his customers throughout; he would get up, sell a certain book and then come back to his crate to pick up the conversation again. Opposite his stall there was another little business: a brothel. The whores would often sit on his crates, they also came out to chat, to tell us what they did with their clients, or to take a break from work.
Usually the opposite happened, and prospective clients of the brothel were sitting on the crates and they would have a Cabeza de Perro beer to get themselves in the mood before crossing the street. In those days editions by an Argentinian company called Tor were doing the rounds. Paperbacks that cost thirty cents. That was when I met and became friends with various young writers and poets. They drove us to the nearby station, one of the most notorious for torture.
We spent hours there. We could hear the moans and the horrible beatings they were inflicting on people under arrest. The dictatorship had been defeated and the Revolution was in power. At some point he wrote to tell me to come back, that I would have the chance to publish and earn a small salary. At the same time, the Cuban Revolution had a creative aspect: establishing literary journals, theatre groups, libraries and museums, art colleges…plus, it did two important things for our cultural history: founding publishing houses and paying copyright fees.
By means of different ministerial decisions, copyright fees were standardised, they were modest, of course, but they existed. During the Republic there were no publishers, only printers and good editors who an author brought their manuscript to, and paid for the publication themselves. It cost or pesos to do a book in the Republic. Now, who were those people dancing, singing and getting drunk? Such a representation supposedly distorted the Cuban worker, and disturbed and offended a certain revolutionary leader.
We never knew which one. We were never sure if the great leaders of our nation even saw the short. But there was an intermediary, Alfredo Guevara, who was very keen to quash any opportunity to make films outside the institution he was in charge of. It was a surprisingly cheap shoot. And it turned out better than the first films ICAIC tried to make, despite their huge budget and abundant bureaucracy.
After that first encounter, a difficult period began with divisions between the artists, and constant ideological suspicion. Who is? Cuban artists were not used to such divisions, these verbal and sterile battles in the order of creation, some struggled to adapt, to form a style that did not belong to their cultural tradition, and others opted to go into exile, if they got the chance.
We did a long interview with him that later appeared in the magazine. That interview is a telling piece regarding our fears. The issues that concerned us came out in the insistent questioning. The support we expected from the poet ended in disappointment, his answers were unsatisfactory.
A bit evasive, he referred to literary dogmatism with no mention of the fatal consequences for artistic creation of state dogmatism.
I should mention that my play was met with suspicion before I entered it for the prize. I read it for Teatro Estudio, a theatre group where I worked as a play consultant, to talk it over, hear opinions and get feedback. The one who put her foot down was the actress Raquel Revuelta, sister of Vicente, the general manager of Teatro Estudio. When I finally decided to take part in the competition, something very suspicious happened: Raquel Revuelta was chosen as a member of the jury.
She was the most insistent on voting against Los siete. They never let me see the printed proofs, edit, delete or change a word, see the cover or give my opinion. I knew it had been finished because some impatient people stole copies from the printers and got them to me.
They stayed like that for a few days. It was never sold in any shop. It was almost an ecclesiastical event, a rite of contrition. That quasi-medieval ceremony was filmed; the film cameras recording the event gave it the appearance of modernity.
Then things took a downward turn, as if they had been thought out and organised in advance, like a governmental project. A number of writers were forbidden to publish and many painters could not exhibit again. And this was not just minor or unknown artists, no, it was the big names, those that are now considered the greatest artists of this country. Right now, after so many years and events, the possible reasons, strictly speaking, a group of writers, painters, musicians and theatre practitioners would spend so many years marginalised in a dark corner seem childish, idiotic even.
I have two hypotheses, two ways of explaining it: either the high-up civil servants were clumsy or obstinate, making problems where there were none — an urge that endangered the Revolution and they never knew how to resolve — or they wanted to make things so that the USSR would see that what it had achieved years previously was happening here too, so that the petrol tankers would keep coming and the necessary support from the USSR would continue, through this show that culture was building a society similar to the Soviet one.
My work in the basement consisted of packing journals into boxes with twine for eight hours. I was the only male employee and people who worked in libraries were generally women. My bad reputation preceded me. Naturally, they kept their distance; they literally fled from me. Number one: some boys were playing in the library gardens, flicking lit matches through the air like carnival fireworks; a few landed in a kind of storage space where we kept old newspapers, and started a fire.
The boys got scared and started shouting. The librarians came out with buckets of water and put out the fire in a matter of minutes. Hardly any of the newspapers were damaged. It was him! Call the police! That was certain. Then the boys confessed they did it, unintentionally, as part of a game. Now, the second one might sound more outlandish, like all true stories: some neighbours donated an oil painting by an unknown artist to the library.
The manager accepted it, apparently pleased, but as soon as the neighbours left she had it sent to the basement. It was a bit too pornographic for the walls of the reading rooms. A few days later it was found on the floor. When the librarians went to hang it up, they noticed something strange on the fabric and told the manager; they all leaned in to inspect: without hesitation, what was on the naked body of the Maja was declared a semen stain although nobody dared to verify it.
Somebody had masturbated onto her. Whoever had masturbated was never found out. The mystery gave way to speculation and suspicion. Probably one of the librarians had her husband or boyfriend to visit during a night shift, and they did it on the sly. I paid for their secret, their joint secret, and was sentenced to clean the library for six months.
As a living writer, one needs a few knocks and a few kicks up the arse to know that the relationship between writing and the state is not easy, and we must encourage it never to be so.
You have to accept that writing is a horrible sacrifice and something you choose, that voluntarily becomes destiny, the only destiny one chooses in life: obey your gift.
The feeling of a lost paradise and the need to live in it is a hope and an idea that humans are rooted to, something relentless inside us. Perhaps it comes from Christianity, or in Greek culture, long before then, there was also the idea of a lost paradise, and if you think about Hindu culture, the teachings of Buddha, you find a similar idea and the same longing.
This idea flowers in human beings: the hope for a better place, a golden city, a blissful future that we can arrive at after struggling every day, somewhere on earth or in the heavens. We travel from the hell we live in to the paradise we dream of. However tired of each other they must have grown from time to time, there was always great solidarity among The White Review.
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