In February, during the Book Fair, my first novel was published. It merited two reviews, one in the May-June issue of El Caimán Barbudo, and the other in La Gaceta of July-August. The first was wary: the second frankly cryptic. I will cite one typical excerpt.
“Nosotros los impotentes is, then, genesis and epiphany. The discursive continuum flows without stumbling, meandering from the initial spell to a sudden surprise, and at the end of the eternal adventure of reading, to the fruitful revelation of the essential numina; through the length and breadth of the text, Nicanor O’Donnell avails himself not of the precarious ingredients of the adornment ad usum, but of a rich foundational marrow, tasty lure for unprejudiced hermeneuts. It is a matter of a promise and a rupture, a narrative exercise of beautiful semantic flights that invite complicity with the emerging estrus, and with the hope of its next arrival . . .”
To the extent that I could understand it, the critic was speaking favorably of my novel. Since it was the first book of an unknown author, it looked promising. Full of enthusiasm, I dedicated a volume of stories to the publisher and sent it along with a request to join the Writers’ Union. There things remained until October when I received a summons. A slip of paper slithered under my door, urging me to appear the following morning at a certain section of the Ministry of Culture.
At ten o’clock in the morning I gave my name to a secretary with impossible breasts, and prepared to put in a couple of hours in the waiting room. That’s not the way it went: thirty seconds later the girl opened a door and said the compañeros were waiting for me. The compañeros were two individuals who came toward me simultaneously both with hands outstretched. So as not to slight either one, I held out both hands at the same time.
“Nicanor O’Donnell,” said one of the men, savoring the syllables in a strange manner, “the author of Nosotros los impotentes . . . A pleasure. I am Segura. He is Rodríguez.”
They served me coffee. While I was drinking it, they were looking at me so fixedly that I began to feel uncomfortable.
“Is there some problem?”
“No . . . Why do you ask?”
“I’ve never been called in for anything good.”
I said it in a joking way, but they didn’t laugh. Rodríguez put a blackish document on the table within my reach. I glanced at it. It was a photocopy of my birth certificate.
“Nicanor O’Donnell, no second name, born in October 1962, son of X and Y. Look it over. Is it correct?”
“Certainly it is correct. But I don’t understand . . . Is this some procedure in order to join the Writers’ Union?”
“In a certain way,” Segura replied. “Listen, have you ever thought about changing your name? Or using a pseudonym? There are some very attractive ones. The history of literature is full of authors who sign with a false name. Mark Twain, Rubén Darío, George Sand.”
“George Sand was a dyke who slept with Chopin,” I explained, “and look, if you can’t give me an explanation . . .”
Rodríguez nodded and took a copy of my novel from his briefcase and placed it on top of the photocopy and then various other documents that made a much larger stack. I looked at the new group and felt a chill. There were newspaper articles, novels, movie scripts in various languages . . . all signed by Nicanor O’Donnell.
“I didn’t write these,” I stammered.
“Yes, we know,” Rodríguez said. “These texts have been signed with pseudonyms by authors whose numbers would surprise you. And the nom de plume chosen in every case: Nicanor O’Donnell . . . What conclusion can you draw from that fact?”
“That they should find themselves another pseudonym,” I hazarded loyally.
“No. Rather, you will have to come up with another name.”
Taking note of my stupefaction, Segura took the initiative.
“Some years ago . . . well, the date is not important, a World Congress of your colleagues decided that all those filthy works of a particular type that must be written by someone, meaning scripts for soap operas and B movies, local news items for newspapers, publicity tracts, notices of accidents and so on . . . well, they decided it was bad enough that an author of some standing would have to waste time writing such garbage but on top of that would have to sign them. They chose to establish a universal shield, a cover for such tasks: an improbable name, a first and last name together in a combination that never ever should have occurred in the history of mankind. I suppose you can guess what it was.”
“Of course. It’s very comforting to know that one ought not to exist.”
“Oh, you can exist, except you should give yourself some other name. In fact, the Congress approved Nicanor O’Donnell as the universal pseudonym to protect the true authors of monstrosities. And so it was registered with the PEN Club of London, the appointed depository of the rights. That’s how the world began to be filled by works by Nicanor O’Donnell.”
“I’ve never seen any until this moment.”
“The truth is that here we neither publish nor exhibit many of these products,” said Segura, not without pride. “We watch to make sure that our public does not become contaminated. For every bad book available to the national consumer, ten worse ones are rejected. For every infamous movie, we reject fifty out of hand. And those, almost all, will carry your name. I know because I have video.”
“And why have you waited until now? Didn’t you notice when I offered my novel for publication?”
“There was no Cuban delegate in the Congress,” Rodríguez admitted, “and we only learned about the whole business a short time ago. In any case, the officials of the publisher that brought out your book have already been penalized.”
“Even so, I don’t see what the problem is.”
“Your novel is good, that’s the problem. As for us personally, we like it a lot. And it has sold very well. Some tourist who bought it must have alerted them, because yesterday we received a complaint and an ultimatum. You cannot have new books of high quality signed by Nicanor O’Donnell, or a demand will be filed against the Writers’ Union. A demand for damages asking several millions that the Writers’ Union cannot pay.”
“Obviously it doesn’t have to go that far,” said Segura. “You change your name or take a pseudonym for your next book and that’s it.”
“And if I don’t want to?”
Segura looked at Rodríguez and smiled.
What is so momentous about an individual name? Keeping in mind that it is a matter of convention, a row of sounds lacking any correspondence with the named subject, why do we cling to it as we would to a ledge in an abyss? Does it make any difference to a person if they’re called one way or another?
I think so. Oscar Wilde explained the importance of being called Ernest, but only to devalue less euphonious names. Well, I’ve known guys named Eleuterio, Cipranio, or Idelgrades who would ridicule any suggestion of replacing any of those abominable phonemes.
Examples of the aforementioned determinism? They are ready at hand. A proud progenitor bestows on his offspring his proper name, or that of a great person to emulate. After the Second World War and until today, German fathers have avoided calling their sons Adolf. Or they chose it on purpose, without being fascists at heart. And it is a scientifically proven fact that two-thirds of gays are named Roberto.
We do not use a name: we are a name. It’s not by chance that in the armed forces, where the individual is supposedly annulled or nearly so and only the mass counts, people are known merely by their surnames. Major Bolaños, Sergeant Estrada, Private Monero. (Or General Grant, Marshall Zhukov, foot soldier Cambronne.) And even so, history remembers the illustrious ones. Not even the most rigorous army manages to divest a man of his syllabic I, although it snatches some beloved portions away from him.
And the pseudonyms in general are not chosen so much to hide the name as to have two. The author always enjoys beforehand the instant of anagnorisis.
I am Nicanor O’Donnell. That’s how my family and lovers see me. With that name in blue letters, like insignia on a ship’s mast, I visualized the cover of my first book even before I’d begun to write it. Blue, I repeat. Words have color, as do months and days. And, of course, names. How could I resign myself to being green or purple, I, a blue Nicanor?
When I came out of the office, the secretary bestowed a smile on me.
“Your book is very good,” she said, in such a way that her breasts now seemed to be possible.
I had asked Rodríguez and Segura for three days to think it over. Actually, I didn’t need to think over anything, but it was prudent to concede them a fair chance at my cowardice. The two compañeros had even prepared a list of alternative names, and let it be known that by taking any one of them, my entrance into the membership of the Writers’ Union would be a matter of hours. Otherwise . . .
The real lengths of the otherwise case I was not yet able to foresee. I crossed the plaza and presented myself at the Ministry.
“Hi,” the secretary said. “My name is Ana.”
“I’m Nicanor,” I said firmly. “Tell them that Nicanor would like to see them.”
She looked at me a bit skeptically, but with sympathy.
“The compañero who was here the other day is asking for you,” she called to them and they immediately asked me to come in. As she went past me, she blew me a kiss and sighed with her probable breasts.
In the office, in addition to Rodríguez and Segura, there was a bald, nondescript-looking guy. Segura took charge of the introductions.
“This was Nicanor,” he said, and I understood instantly that they hadn’t believed seriously that I would need three days, “and compañero . . . ah, you there.”
“Piñero,” said the bald guy. “I am the attorney for the Ministry. I’ve been given the task of speeding up the paperwork.”
I sat down and ran over in my mind the statement I’d prepared. They served me rum. I took a drink and suddenly realized I’d forgotten the beginning.
“So you’ve already thought it over,” said Rodríguez. “When my kid was about to be born, my wife and I were going nuts trying to decide on a name and it wasn’t easy. We ended by calling him Ernesto.”
“Nicanor,” I said.
“I mean to say that I will continue to call myself Nicanor O’Donnell. There is no change worth it.”
There was a silence. The attorney cleared his throat. Segura cracked his knuckles.
“Have we heard correctly?” asked Rodríguez.
I nodded vigorously and started to scratch my testicles in open defiance.
“Well, I think not,” Segura said. “You have no idea what can happen to you if you refuse. He’ll explain it . . . you there . . .”
“Piñero,” said the bald guy. “Look, in the first place you wouldn’t be able to publish anything again in this country. Or in any other. Perhaps you might manage to interest some sensationalist foreign press or a fly-by-night publisher, but as soon as the claims against you start falling on your head, they’d no longer be interested, I can assure you. And neither would we allow you to use your name in any official proceedings, which means that your ration card and your Identity Card will no longer be valid, and will remain invalid as long as you persist in calling yourself Nicanor. No company will hire you; if a friend sends you money, you will not receive it. You will be Nicanor only for your conscience. Every one of the above mentioned restrictions will be revoked only when you come to your senses.”
Three big triumphal smiles surrounded me, while I asked myself if something like this would ever have occurred at the old Berkeley.
“Suppose,” I said, “that the damnable Congress had chosen Lezama or Carpentier as a pseudonym.1 Would you have forced them to do the same?”
“Yes,” said Segura.
“No,” said Rodríguez. “They had a name. Isn’t that right . . . you there?”
“Piñero,” said Piñero.
As I left I touched Ana’s breasts.
The first weeks were very difficult.
Well, the worst was not to be left without money. In my circle of friends, and I suspect that even going further afield than that, to defy a stupid prohibition-and all prohibitions are, as the French students saw very clearly way back in ’68-had become an attractive pastime. I was not illegal within myself, only if I undertook any sort of social activity. So I gave up social activity. Burned my ration book and Identity Card and shut myself up at home to write. I wasn’t sure why I was writing. Sympathetic acquaintances brought me food and paper, read my stories, and urged me to resist.
The worst was also not that they cut off the light, water and telephone. A century ago people didn’t have such conveniences. I cooked with wood, got water from neighbors, used their phones. Anyway, my neighborhood had always suffered numerous cutoffs of all those things.
The worst was not by any means that I’d become a punishable vagrant in the eyes of the police. The chief of the area, Lorenzo Columbié, was a fanatic admirer of my novel and chose to turn a blind eye.
The worst was when they withdrew my novel from bookstores. The PEN Club had issued a warning only against my next works, but the officials had gone to the extreme and also withdrew Nosotros los impotentes. Quite a few copies had already been sold, but that didn’t console me; it was hard to see that the institutional culture had forgotten me. In the long run the result of this policy was that my novel became an underground myth, and one copy came to be worth fifty dollars or a thousand pesos on the black market. That was definitely a relief as well as vengeance.
Two or three days a week Ana came to my house and made me depository of her breasts. According to her, also of her heart, but the usufruct of that organ did not matter so much to me. Not because of machismo, or not mainly, but because the unwritten law of the relationship was that no one where she worked must know of our connection. She protected herself, so the love she confessed to me was partial, while the breasts were not. One could say anything about her breasts except that.
The second month the attacks began.
On day they threw a brick against the door. Then another and another. I used them to build a protective wall in front of the house.
Another time while I was walking alone through the neighborhood a group of strangers started screaming that I was the villain of a soap opera and pounced on me as if to lynch me. I escaped by running away. However, I could swear that I’d seen at least two of the provocateurs a long time ago in literary workshops.
A new attack happened one morning when suddenly water went gushing through all the pipes. I collected several gallons and boiled it with wood. Not well enough, I guess. I caught amoebic dysentery.
“As long as you’re alive, you’re a potential menace,” Ana said to me one afternoon. We didn’t make love at night because of the heat and the darkness. “How can you live this way?”
“I don’t know,” I said in all sincerity.
“Do something. To change your name, no, I agree. Write a bad book and sign it.”
“I can’t write a bad book only because someone suggests it. It requires a certain talent, or the entire world would be full of Corín Tellados.”2
“And it isn’t?”
“There are epigones, but she was a genius. On the other hand, even though I could write such a book, all the publishers are so prejudiced against me they’d always find something of value in it. They’d do it so as not to compromise themselves, but there would be some truth in it. The quality of literary writing is relative, you know? Someone should invent a bad-smelling ink for texts that are bad. Impartial. That way we’d know.”
Ana caressed me gently. Next morning she left me.
People often visit me: admirers, misfits for whom I am a living idol, curiosity seekers and provocateurs. I’ve learned to fence with all of them. They help me pass the time, not to miss Ana.
Last night I had a special visit.
They knocked at the door. I was writing by flashlight. For some reason, the knocks sounded strange. Resigned, I went to open the door.
There were Milan Kundera, Tom Sharpe, Steven Spielberg, Nanni Moretti and Ray Bradbury.
“Take any seat,” I gestured in my dyslexic English. “I’ll get another flashlight.”
“We’re here incognito,” said Spielberg, “and what’s curious is that we’re all in agreement. We all wanted to see you.”
Kundera had brought peach tea. We drank it in silence.
“How are you?”
“Getting by,” I answered stupidly. “I often have doubts, crises. Rodríguez and Segura send me messages to see if I’ve changed my mind. I’ve finished my second book. I think it’s good. Here it is.”
I held out the only copy, with a huge Nicanor O’Donnell tattooed on the first page. Tom Sharpe started to read it.
“You’re not going to give in,” cautioned Bradbury. “You are our only hope, for Mars.”
“I thought that you, well, the big guys . . . needed my name to sign bad things.”
“Oh, a name as a cover would be fine. It doesn’t have to be yours. You know, once creativity becomes institutionalized, it slips from our hands. Including ours. The next Congress will be held in the upcoming year. We’ll see what we can do. Until then we’re caught up with attorneys and bureaucrats.”
“Resist,” said Moretti.
We kept on drinking tea. Talked about our next projects.
“You never know if a work is going to be good or bad,” said Spielberg. “It’s easy when you’re dealing with garbage. But sometimes you put your heart into a film, and the critics blast it and the public takes to another. To repeat: I am Spielberg.”
They said good-bye at four in the morning.
“The book is quite good,” Sharpe said as he handed me the original. “There are certain weak stories . . . But you can see it’s by the same guy who wrote Nosotros los impotentes. Good title, for sure.”
“Don’t give in,” Moretti repeated.
Ten minutes ago Segura called me at the neighbor’s. I told him, as I had before, that I had not changed my mind. Back at the house, an attack consisting of the ten volumes of Lezama’s complete works came crashing down beside me. I didn’t even bother to see where they fell from. What for? With all the threats, I am still Nicanor O’Donnell.
The one and only.
1José Lezama Lima, Cuban poet and novelist, and Alejo Carpentier, Cuban novelist and musicologist.
2Castilian romance novelist.