In the café of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC), Pedro Juan Gutiérrez chooses a far-off table, next to a fence that’s covered with bamboo. Drugs, sex, and alcohol abound in his books, so I’m struck right away by his refined manners and his gentle, deliberate way of speaking. Before he takes his seat, I can imagine him perfectly in a tailcoat.
Good manners notwithstanding, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez speaks up, and he holds nothing back. Author of more than twenty books–short stories, novels, and collections of poetry among them–he has been widely published and translated. He may be the Cuban writer who has most thoroughly explored the capital’s Centro Habana neighborhood, along with the social consequences of the Periodo Especial that led to what was perhaps the worst economic crisis in Cuba’s history. In an hour-long conversation in January 2015, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez talks about literature, friends who have gone away, a generation’s disillusionment, and his upcoming projects.
Ezio Neyra: I’d like to start off by asking about your beginnings as a reader. What were the first books you read? Outside of literature, what kinds of art made an impression on your early years?
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: As a child I would read a lot of comics–that’s practically all I read. Hills, mountains of comics that I came into by way of an aunt who had a news agency in the little town of Pinar del Río. She got comics in Spanish from Mexico, and she got them, literally, by the ton. We had an arrangement where she would sell them to me for five cents a piece and then I would sell them for seven. It was my first business, and I made a lot of money and got loads of reading material for free.
I would also read at one of the few libraries in Matanzas that was close to home: the Guiteras library. I read the usual, what one is expected to read at that age: Salgari, Verne, Twain, Defoe, among others. When I was about 16 years old I discovered Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, and that was the book that changed my life because I realized you could write literature that didn’t seem like literature. It was in that moment that I told myself if one day I were to write, I would do it in that way.
EN: You’ve worked in a number of different fields, and your longest-running job was in journalism. To what extent is your journalistic background visible in your literary work?
PJG: I think it’s a presence that has been and is very strong. I worked as a journalist for 26 years and it’s hard to put that aside. I think the most important lesson journalism left me with is that you should exercise control over language; be direct, concise–that you should try not to leave a single superfluous word in anything you write.
EN: Your stories and novels are set in Havana. More specifically, they’re almost always set in the Centro Habana neighborhood, where you yourself live. Where did the desire to set your texts here come from?
PJG: For me, literature is antagonism and conflict. If these two elements aren’t there, it doesn’t interest me–it seems boring to me, something that is for boring people with uneventful lives, people who live in boring, gray places. In Cuba, it’s different. In Cuba, it’s relatively easy to find people living in extreme situations. Various factors (poverty, the character of the Cuban people, idiosyncrasies, social and historical development) come together in such a way that our lives seem to always be on the edge. That generates a lot of antagonism and conflict. Until I moved to Centro Habana, I had a very mundane life. I worked every day as a reporter, I put on a guayabera, I was clean-shaven, I wore a watch, I had a car, I led a middle-class life. I had a family, two children, a cactus collection; there was always a little dog in the house. That life didn’t suit me very well. In 1986, I arrived in Centro Habana. After four or five years, the country was a disaster, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the USSR in 1991. Those things led to a big crisis for the country, and on top of that, there was a crisis going on within my own family. I was getting divorced, which was very schizophrenic and caused me a lot of pain. Everything was disturbing to me. At the same time lots of people were dying. My father dies, my best friend dies, the mother of one of my children dies. In the end, there were several factors that came together there in just a few years.
EN: It’s almost as if the Cuban Periodo Especial coincided with a special period in your own biography…
PJG: I was getting drunk a lot. I started living a double life. One life in the neighborhood, a life with a lot of sexual promiscuity, a lot of alcohol, and a lot of craziness, and, on the other hand, I continued on as a journalist. Somehow, without realizing it, I was gathering material with which to write my books. At the time I didn’t know it was happening. I was trying to survive that whole mess and I fell into a sex addiction. It wasn’t promiscuity. Promiscuity is one thing and a sex addiction, or an addiction to tobacco, or marijuana, or alcohol, is another altogether. It was a life of craziness. Later on I tried living in Malaga, Spain, but I failed, and in June of 1994, during the worst moments of the Periodo Especial, I went back to Havana. That year, on August 5, a big protest took place on the boardwalk, several thousand people calling for freedom and making all kinds of demands. Since I lived over the boardwalk, I saw everything, and I was amazed because I didn’t think people were capable of protesting like that in Cuba. People were fed up and taking to the streets. Fidel spoke that night and said simply that he would open up the borders (which is a figure of speech because we have no borders, only a sea full of sharks). And then all during August 1994 there was the story of the balseros–the rafters–until they reached an agreement with the U.S. to put an end to it. It was all very humiliating, in my opinion. I was witness to the way the balseros set out drunk to face the sea, without knowing what they were doing. They left in these rickety things. Sometimes with an inflated tire, with a wooden plank and a bottle of rum, completely deceived and manipulated, without knowing what direction they were going in or what they were doing. That whole situation was disturbing for me. Morally, I felt very humiliated. I thought it was the saddest, most unpleasant time in Cuban history. No one knows how many of them were eaten by sharks in the ocean. We know how many arrived, but we don’t know how many people left Cuba, because there wasn’t sufficient oversight here. I was so pissed off about all of it that in the early days of September 1994 I wrote my first story about what was happening.
EN: Which was the beginning of Trilogía sucia de la Habana, right?
PJG: Yes. After that first story, ten, fifteen days after, I would hear that this or that had happened, and then I would write another. I was like that for three years, so I wrote around seventy stories in total. It happened that they were all very much linked together, even though that wasn’t my intention. My aim had been to write stories that stood on their own. At the end of three years I finished three books made up of those stories. There was a chance they would be published with Editorial Oriente, in Santiago de Cuba, but I never heard back from them because the content scared them away. Later on, when I got the manuscripts back, a French editor who was just passing through Havana took them with her to Europe. She put them in the hands of someone who later became my agent and it was that woman who passed the book on to Anagrama publishing house. Now it’s been published in twenty languages.
EN: I’m also interested in the possible political motivation behind your writing. Would you say that Trilogía sucia de La Habana was a critical reaction to the social and economic stress during those years in Cuba?
PJG: I don’t think so. What was behind it was a great fury and a great feeling of frustration. Which was what my entire generation was feeling. I’m about to turn 65. Everyone who was fortysomething years old in that moment and who had put their bodies and souls into the revolution felt very cheated. So there were some who left their religion, others who left the country, and others, like me, who got mixed up with alcoholics and craziness. But in those texts I had no intention of criticizing or protesting, in the sense that for me the division between politics and literature is very clear. Politics are always very circumstantial. If you want to get into politics you have to do it through journalism or through some other platform for opposition, but that didn’t interest me. I was already sick and tired of politics and the political debate and the heroism. That’s why in my book there are no heroes, and there is not a single word of circumstantial politics. I had Dostoyevsky as my model for this, who even went to prison, and was sentenced to death. On the one hand he made his political pamphlets, and, on the other, he wrote Crime and Punishment. He was a very present author, to the point where when he was making his edits, he would remove everything that could be read as a political allusion. If it was there, it was only in a very poetic form.
EN: Nevertheless, your work is often read in a political manner, especially books like Trilogía sucia de La Habana or El rey de la Habana. How does this affect you?
PJG: It bothered me a lot at first because they were coming to do political interviews with me as if I were a dissident, until I realized something fundamental, and it’s that everyone does his own reading, which is a basic concept of art. Everyone does his own reading. If you’re interested in politics, you see politics even in a cup of coffee. But if you’re interested in sociology or anthropology or sex, well, then you see all of those things in my books. I’ve learned not to concern myself with what each reader believes.
EN: Why do you present yourself as a writer who doesn’t talk about politics and who doesn’t like to be asked political questions? I ask because–maybe we can agree on this–not addressing politics is a kind of political position in itself, isn’t it?
PJG: What happens is that this is a very political country, in which political discourse is everywhere. That’s why I’m not interested in being like Zoe Valdés, for example, who is a writer who makes a living on politics rather than on literature. The same happens with other writers. When a writer starts talking about politics, he’s screwed. He’s screwed because he’s going to have to talk about politics for his entire life. Right now, in the context of the negotiations between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama–journalists from seven or eight different countries have called to ask me about that. I’m not interested in talking about politics because I don’t talk about politics. I’m a writer.
EN: In the course of this conversation, however, there have been two or three sentences that have gone in a political direction, and on top of that there’s the profound fury you felt during the years of the Periodo Especial. With no intention of making you uncomfortable, do you think everything went to hell after the Revolution?
PJG: I think what they’re doing now is trying to salvage a social-democratic plan. That term isn’t in use because it’s not convenient, circumstantially, for the politicians–because they don’t align themselves with European social democracy, and consequently it’s not in their best interest to talk about it. Right now, I think Cuba is faced with a very interesting project, that efforts must be made–slowly, not in a hurry, as is being done now–to try to recover education and health, to support the poorest so they don’t just sit down in the street one day. I’m very much in support of this project that, from my point of view, is social-democratic. The economy is controlled so a mafia doesn’t just rise up the way it did in the ex-Soviet Union. I don’t think everything has been screwed up. Things have just evolved, and for good, for the better. For example, my books are being published here in Cuba now. Six or seven of them have already been released, and three more came out during the last Havana book fair. That’s a sign of a certain openness and calm.
EN: Moving on to another subject, I’d like to discuss the way sex functions in your fiction work. Are the sex scenes in your books the result of a desire to represent your own lifestyle or what is going on around you, or do they have a certain narrative function of their own?
PJG: Partly it’s that. It helps me. The sex scenes in my writing aren’t gratuitous. I use them when they’re meaningful for the narration. What happens is that instead of going and killing people like Agatha Christie does, I prefer to make them have sex, which is something more Cuban, and certainly, more agreeable. Now, there’s an idea behind that. I think as Cubans we’re very sexual, and in that sense we’re very much like animals. And not just the Cubans. I think the way the black Africans have mixed with the Spanish is different from how they’ve mixed with indigenous people. In Mexico, in Peru, in Bolivia, people are genetically different and therefore their idiosyncrasies are different. So, if we’re so sexual, if we’re not in New Jersey or in Vermont, and if we’re in Cuba, in the Caribbean, why would I get rid of sex, why would I get rid of the vulgar, frenetic, hopeless language of the people who live here. That’s how my literature is. Whoever it bothers, it bothers. I reflect the time and place that has touched me. At the same time, I also have a thirst for revenge against the middle class. Literature is a middle-class concern. I mean, writers are always middle-class–readers, too–and all the accompanying paraphernalia (editors, agents, critics, etcetera). Neither the elite nor the very poor are preoccupied with literature. So we’re accustomed to a vision of the middle class, of the problems of the middle class, of its prejudices, of the two thousand years of Christianity in the middle of modern literature, all of the 20th century. It bothers me how sex is always seen from a middle-class perspective (“we don’t talk about that”). Why not talk about that, if it’s the nicest and most normal thing in the world. It’s a natural function of the human being, just like crapping or pissing or spitting. Why do we have to run away from sex. Those writers who said things like, “They met, they fell in love, and they went to bed,” end of story, irritated me to no end. It is retaliation against all of that.
EN: Would you say the term ‘autobiography’ is appropriate for describing your work? Is it a term that fits you?
PJG: Yes, I think so. I’ve had a very intense life. Many women, many travels, many friends, a lot of craziness. I’ve had a life that, in some moments, bordered on chaotic, dizzying. And I think I have–and have had–a lot of material to process by writing. So I’m not interested in writing historical novels, for example. No, look, I don’t need to invent anything. I’m not going to live another forty years. I have my own story very clear. My writing is very autobiographical and it’s always based on people who I’ve met. And that’s caused a lot of problems for me.
The second part of this interview will run tomorrow.
Translated from Spanish by Lizzie Davis, a writer, translator, and musician living in Providence, Rhode Island. Her translations have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Circumference, and Aldus