Every morning of my life I remember the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé -ridiculed by Roberto Bolaño in ¨El gaucho insufrible¨- where we were roughly told that sex and reading, in the end, are boring, and that travelling is our only way. The journey -and we may also say breath- first than sex and literature. (It would have been interesting to read those verses by Mallarmé to David Foster Wallace, an author whose sole purpose on earth was to stick his penis into the largest possible number of vaginas: 329 in 46 years, and write cult books or something like that.)
But what I really remember the most is how ironic is a poem like “Brisa marina” for Cubans, and its illogical reasoning on this parallel world where travelling is almost an ucronia, I mean, a science fiction subgenus, so to speak.
It is known: the Cuban writers-and such adjective has the damn custom of becoming everything strained- are the professionals of the “stationary ride”. There are the examples of José Lezama Lima, who just left the island twice: a very brief trip to Mexico in 1949, and to Jamaica, a year later. And most recently, Havana’s narrator Abel Fernández Larrea, who wrote his “Trilogía sucia de Manhattan” con el Google Earth. Because obviously, that is what literature makes: it is needless to be in a city to meet it. We know Oxford by “Crimenes imperceptibles”, Juarez City by “La Muerte me da”, Las Vegas by “Beautiful Children”, Mexico DF by “Mantra”, Bogotá by “Satanás” (Satan), Paris by “Ulysses syndrome”, Manhattan by “American Psycho”, Tokyo by “Tokyo Blues”. And there are cities that we only know because it is impossible to be there: the Autofac imagined by Phillip K. Dick, Virtual Light by William Gibson, the exotic Amaurote by Thomas More, the Yoknapatawpha County in which William Faulkner sniffed, Italo Calvino’s invisible cities, Ctulthu´s underwater city: that metropolis dreamed by Lovecraft lurking at the bottom of the ocean waiting for the return of its builders.
But it was not always that way, of course. There was a time when the Cuban writers had to do without the sedentary trip (I am thinking of Alejo Carpentier and Lisandro Otero, a couple who did more tours than the Rolling Stones.) And as we remember, the journey is possibly less traveled in contemporary national literature; an absence to be filled of and with anything. And for that, fortunately, there are our increasingly witty publishing houses, which it seems must be saved at all costs. Meanwhile, and until then, just a glimpse of what is published is needed to notice the prevalence, almost laughable, of books where the journey is the other way around, in reverse (the bus in reverse?), or any of those euphemisms where it highlights the journey towards ourselves: the insight. Books like “Por los caminos del mar. Los cubanos”, published by Libros Placebo.
But the idea is to talk about real travel writing. Ronaldo Menéndez highlights within this ecosystem thanks to his most recent text “Rojo Aceituna” (Paginas de Espuma, 2014): A thirteen-month tour of the main lefties areas in the world, which serves as the anatomy of communism. And since this is not exactly a review, it is rather a public and written utterance of a lack –Rojo Aceituna is not in any Cuban library (saying it is not in any bookstore would be a common place). Note here the tone of reproach, I reread damn scanned pages-, take this opportunity to promote Menendez’s epistemology: “I did not go to any country saying: ‘how is communism here’, but I did ask ‘where can I have a beer?’ Communism and beer: good logarithm. I imagine Menendez in Havana during the Prohibition (I mean that lapse of time when there was no beer anywhere) looking for a beer. Result: Rojo Aceituna.
We must approach Ronaldo Menéndez from several directions. The biographical angle portrays him as a super fiction Cuban lover, based in Madrid. The fashion angle puts him as a kind of moderate Nathan Zuckerman, with no mobile phone, who one day decided to go around the world and be exposed to communism uranium. The ideological angle shows Menendez expatiating on his identity metabolism:
Out of Cuba I try not to tell anyone that I’m Cuban. Sometimes I have become Colombian during the twenty minutes of a taxi ride […]. Others, I’ve become Argentine […]. Why do I hide my Cuban national pride to the ground […]? You can not hide what you do not have […]. Every time I have been exposed as a Cuban and the resulting information that I do not live on the island about twenty years ago, I have to suffer the ordeal of the usual questions: ” How did you leave Cuba?” “Can you go back?, “ the latter is always accompanied by a skeptical face. And immediately, a classic: “What will happen when Fidel to die?” But it can go even further in my trembling intimacy: “Do your parents still live in Cuba?” “How old are they?” “Are you an only child? “” They must miss you very much “… and so on. Imagine this old story for twenty years with each driver, bureaucrat, drunk at a pub at three in the morning, the girl you want to flirt or any backpacker. All cheerfully unknown asking questions […].
And to avoid those questions, Ronaldo Menéndez changes country, travels as doctors formerly recommended to their patients, especially those suffering from nervous diseases; travelling to eliminate the cancer that Cuban identity meant to him. We watched amazed these “postcards”, without Telesur channel’s absurd epic, that Menendez send us from each region: China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Cuba, Venezuela … adding to the landscape the Rojo Aceituna´s eroding prose, which seems carefully studied in a classroom at WG Sebald University, with Paul Theroux as Dean and Fraggle Rock’s Uncle Matt as chair. (Do you r emember that section of Fraggle Rock…? “Dear Nephew Gobo”, where a travelling fraggle sent unusual postcards from around the world, to his nephew?) Ronaldo Menendez’s book has that fraggle optics because it deals about communism. It is unnecessary saying that reading Rojo Aceituna when living in a communist system can produce very strange effects.
Let’s go back to the beginning: Why in Cuba, where until very recently to travel was a pipe dream, travel literature is barely published? (Volumes like ¨Viajeros sin itinerario¨, by Enrique Labrador Ruiz, are strange sirens in Cuban beaches.) I really do not know. Today, for example, in the library of Linea and 12 Streets there is only ticket -judging by the nationality of what is published-, to:
Haiti (there is not much difference between a ticket to Haiti and reading The Atrocity Exhibition, by the British writer JG Ballard).
Spain (the Spain of Belen Gopegui).
Venezuela (Boeing 747).
Ecuador (The cathedral of disposable clothing).
Mayabeque (that other country).
Argentina (an Argentina bled by vulture funds: nothing about Pauls, Fogwill, Fresán, Washington, Curcuto, Guillermo Martinez, not even mentioning Patricio Pron, Anna Kazumi …).
Russia (perhaps I should say: USSR).
Coleridge’s England, Muller’s Germany, Victor Hugo’s France… the past.
And tickets for travelling to that other Neverland, which is always fighting with itself, that is Cuba.
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