Discovering Cuban Sci-fi
Ilan Stavans did some literary exploring in Cuba, and he's sharing with us the fruits of his (and many others') labors.
I guess I’m a peculiar science fiction and fantasy lover. I’ve read my share of English-language classics, as well as some translated from French, Russian, German, and Polish. But because of my upbringing—I was raised in Mexico—I’m particularly attracted to Spanish-language Sci-Fi. Truth is, though, there is not much of it. Borges’s stories (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “Utopia of a Tired Man,” etc.) are a favorite, and there are a handful of other Argentines, Spaniards, and Colombians, but the shelf is, quite frankly, rather slim.
The reasons are complex. Latin America, especially, has always had a traumatic relationship with its past and an almost non-existent one with the future. Scientific thinking entered the region rather late and only took hold among a small group in the educated elite. And technology is seen as invariably imported from elsewhere, even if the big corporations invest in factories that manufacture it at home.
This might explain why I have a special weakness for Cuban Sci-Fi in particular. Cuba is the only country in the Spanish-speaking word that has built itself—for better or worse—following a scientific model. My weakness, for the most part, has been nothing but a desire to find out if Cubans, during Fidel Castro’s half-century of control, have dreamed Sci-Fi dreams.
For years I asked friends for recommendations. Most of the time, the answers were flat-out disdainful: “Cuba is a factory of extraordinarily baroque literature—authors like Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima, and Reinaldo Arenas. That’s what the Cuban dream is about.”
Fate rules the universe. It wasn’t until last year when, during a trip to Cuba, I stumbled upon just the right person. A friend of mine at Casa de las Américas, the organization in Havana devoted to promoting the nation’s culture at home, told me I needed to be in touch with a Sci-Fi writer known as Yoss, “que es un roquero”—who also moonlights as a rock musician. Before giving me his telephone number, he made a comment that is de rigueur in Cuban literary circles: “But that isn’t really literature.”
Soon after, I called Yoss. I found out his real name is José Miguel Sánchez Gómez. He wears his hair to his shoulders, dresses up like a heavy metal rocker—leather vest, black boots, chain necklaces and bracelets—and is astonishingly charming, not to say literate. I asked him on the phone about the state of Cuban Sci-Fi and within minutes he offered me a catalogue of influential books beloved by the people but whose presence among the nation’s literati is non-existent. “They still think Sci-Fi is an adolescent fad,” he told me.
I invited him out for a beer. He immediately accepted, and we met outside a rundown hotel not too far from where the film Strawberry and Chocolate, directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, had been filmed. Talking to Yoss was an experience. His looks are designed to make him unique. He has had countless opportunities to leave Cuba yet has chosen to stay, although not without developing an identity that is in constant rebellion against the environment. Of course, he isn’t the only one with this attitude. In fact, within minutes of our sitting down at the bar, his fans began to show up, telling him how much they liked his latest novel or thanking him in general for making Cuba less asphyxiating. The majority of them also wore what is in that country distinct clothing: a t-shirt with Jerry García of the Grateful Dead on it, for instance, or one with Kurt Cobain. To a Westerner, the apparel looks passé. But in Cuba nothing ever really is. The whole place looks frozen in the inane seventies.
Yoss told me about Agustín de Rojas, the father of Cuban Sci-Fi, who authored a trilogy of novels about the country while the principal cultural influence was the U.S.S.R.’s Social Realism. He gave me the titles and recommended I call an old bookseller who was his friend. He also said he could give me some of his own writing as a present.
I spent the next couple of days walking the streets of Havana, not only looking for Yoss’ bookseller friend but also finding other antiquarian bookstores and book stands that might have copies of de Rojas’s Espiral, Una leyenda del futuro, and El año 200. I could only put my hands on an old copy of the second one. I called Yoss again and asked for help. I also invited him out again, this time to the hotel’s tourist bar.
Cuba has two economies with their own currencies; one is for its citizens, the majority of whom live quite modestly, and the other is for tourists. Cubans aren’t welcome in the tourist establishments unless someone brings them in.
That was Yoss’s case. The bouncers at the hotel door stopped him flat, saying wearing a vest without a shirt wasn’t appropriate. I needed to go find him and say he was my guest. The bouncers complied.
It was on this occasion when Yoss gave me details about the Cuban Sci-Fi tradition. He told me it dated back to before the Communist regime but that it had flourished in the seventies as a result of the cultural exchange the country had with Russia and the Soviet Bloc. He talked at length about Agustín de Rojas, how he was a biologist by training who lived in a city of Santa Clara, where he taught the history of theater at an art school, how Espiral had won the most prestigious Sci-Fi prize in the island, called the Premio David, how he was influenced by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury but also by Soviet Sci-Fi authors like the brothers Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky. He told me that toward the end of his life, de Rojas had either lost his mind or become a hyperrealist, since, as Yoss put it, he would go around telling people that Fidel Castro didn’t actually exist. Finally, he said that at the time of his death he had left an unfinished novel and that Yoss had agreed with the de Rojas estate to conclude it someday.
Then we talked about Yoss himself. He has a wide range of tastes. He has written Young Adult novels, encyclopedic volumes on the history of words, essays on the arrival of science to Cuba in the nineteenth century, and a long list of contemporary Sci-Fi classics that have gone through countless printings. He had brought with him a collection of occasional pieces in which he discussed the first time Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy was read on the island and some unofficial attempts at translating I, Robot.
Happily, he gave as presents two of his books, Se aquila un planeta and Super extra grande. The former is a gallery of stories reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, in which Cuban social types are charmingly ridiculed. The second is a satirical adventure about an outsized galactic creature whose stomach mishaps need to be stopped in order for peace to be brought along. A courageous hero is asked to perform the purges with all sorts of sophisticated technological equipment.
As a publisher, I feel I have stumbled upon a treasure box. Restless Books acquired the de Rojas trilogy as well as the two novels by Yoss. Publication of the translations begins this fall. I’m sure English-language readers will be astonished by the visions of the future these authors offer. Cuba is just ninety miles away from Florida yet the cultural divide is enormous. The United States is obsessed with the future; it builds its identity around the idea that tomorrow will be better than today. Cubans aren’t that presumptuous.
Unexpectedly, Yoss recently received a visa to visit New York while A Planet for Rent is being released. It will be his first time here.
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