Image: Cuba vs. Puerto Rico at the 1986 Baseball World Cup. Wikimedia Commons.
Dick Cluster’s translation of Eduardo del Llano’s “Swimming Upstream” appears in the May 2016 issue of Words without Borders: On Cuban Time: New Writing from the Island.
Eduardo del Llano’s “Swimming Upstream” inhabits a space where the flying feet of speculative fiction cross the cultural touchstone of home plate. Interestingly, while Cuban sci-fi is a genre in its own right—with a long history of novels, periodicals, and anthologies—baseball fiction is not. Unlike in the US, there has never been a popular baseball novel in Cuba, or any baseball novel at all as far as I know, and the same is true in the rest of the countries of the Caribbean rim that love the game. On the other hand, many Cuban writers are inveterate baseball fans, primarily men but women too, and in occasional stories they do express their passion for the game and its usefulness as background, foreground, or metaphor. I have my theories about why this is true, but for now I’ll leave you with the paradox and describe just a few of these stories, as revealed in the first Cuban baseball fiction anthology, Escribas en el Estadio (Scribes in the Stadium) issued by the publishing house Editorial Unicornio (in Santiago de los Baños, southwest of Havana) in 2007 and republished in 2014.
Besides “Swimming Upstream,” two of the other twenty-six stories meld baseball (replete as it with superstition and curses) and the supernatural. In “Rookie of the Millennium,” the sci-fi writer Yoss, also represented in this WWB issue, offers the life and exploits of a pitcher with superhuman abilities and his mysterious disappearance in the midst of a game, as told through a series of excerpts from published and unpublished interviews and media accounts. “It’s impossible to understand the Cuban mentality without taking baseball into account,” says a psychologist and poet in a TV interview, and indeed the story explores the perspectives from which many facets of Cuban society see the phenomenal rookie, as expressed in registers from that of the street to those of officialdom, science, and sportscasting (and not without commentary from the Vatican and Miami as well).
Arturo Arango’s “The Stadium” is about a tobacco vendor beneath the stands of Havana’s main baseball stadium who learns to interpret what’s happening on the field through the sounds of the crowd and the body language of his customers. He comes to see the entire stadium as a complex, interdependent organism, and from there a slippery Faustian slope leads him to find ways to predict and then to manipulate the outcomes of the games. “‘Am I God?’ the man asked himself each time he arrived at the still-empty stadium. ‘Am I what people expect a god to be?’” Arango has written one other baseball story (available in translation in Achy Obejas’s anthology Havana Noir) that merges baseball with murder mystery. One of the springs of this plot is gambling, a frequent theme in Latin American baseball fiction, though almost completely ignored in the US variety. In another story in Scribes in the Stadium, Enrique Del Risco’s “Post-Epic,” gambling serves as a metaphor for the crisis of values in post-Soviet Cuba.
Gender and sexual orientation also figure among the themes, as how could they not in the sport which has given rise to so many expressions with sexual meanings in Cuban Spanish and in American English too? Poet, playwright, and fiction writer Carmen Hernández Peña’s “The End of the Game” is an epistolary story in which a poet on the rebound tells her correspondent about a romance with the catcher of her favorite team. They drink and dance at a party and then go back to his place but, just as things are getting serious, he wants her to recite him a poem: “Now stop and consider, Pablo dearest, after ten or twelve glasses of rum, when one’s body—especially my body, aching, bruised, trampled on—is ready for a good fuck, for a tremendous body-to-body with that guy built like a brick wall, along comes this crap about a poem and literature . . .” For a time, the catcher’s physical prowess fails him both in the bed and on the field, but this story has a happy ending after all. (Speaking of happy endings and stranger-than-fiction, Hernández Peña roots for her home team in the eastern city of Ciego de Ávila, which last month won the decisive game of the 2016 Cuban championship after losing three straight to nearly blow a three-game lead.)
David Mitrani’s “Are You Staying Here?” also involves an encounter between a poet and a ballplayer. This time the poet is male and gay, and it’s actually a whole team of ballplayers, arriving sweaty and fragrant from practice. What follows with one of them is a challenge even to the poet’s own imagination, he tells a confidant, an older female poet, who in turn tells her boyfriend, a rabid fan of the team and rabid homophobe too. He sets out to discover who the “pervert” might be, reviewing the team position by position, and attempting to set a trap.
The presence of poets among both authors and characters may be no accident since the volume’s introduction by cultural historian Félix Julio Alfonso points out that baseball has a longstanding presence in the writing of Cuban poets from Julián del Casal to Nicolás Guillén. Guillén’s odes on the deaths of prominent figures include one in honor of Martín Dihigo, star of the Cuban, Dominican, Mexican, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, and US Negro Leagues. On a lighter note, Guillén’s poem “Tú no sabe inglé” laments the state of a would-be gigolo hampered by his limited English, which consists only of de etrái guan and guan tu tri; that verse was translated by Guillén’s friend Langston Hughes as “‘Merican gal comes lookin’ fo’ you/an’ you jes’ runs away/Yo’ English is jes’ strike one!/strike one and one-two-three.”
Meanwhile, del Llano’s fantasy on the transmigration of the spirit of Nicanor O’Donnell (who appears, by the way, in most of his stories and films, though always with a different identity) reminds us that not everyone in Cuba is a baseball fan, but that even for those who are not, the game is part of the culture that surrounds them. It is part of a national communion of souls, so to speak, and, as the story suggests, it is linked to the country’s material contexts as well.