What’s It Like to Write Poetry in Authoritarian Cuba? Tricky, This Novel Suggests

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A review by Jaime Lalinde for The New York Times.

By Wendy Guerra
Translated by Achy Obejas
191 pp. Melville House. Paper, $16.99.

Early in Wendy Guerra’s new novel, the narrator is flying from Mexico City back to Havana. Cleo, a poet, is carrying a sensitive letter, acting as courier for an exiled Cuban she met in Mexico City. The letter, Cleo has been told cryptically, has something to do with a high-profile defection in the Cuban government.

The idea of reading a forbidden text is inherently potent; one has the sense that every page contains some disclosure. And like this secret letter, “Revolution Sunday” too is populated with censored and missing texts: Cleo’s poetry is banned by the Cuban government when she accepts a literary prize in Spain; documents from the country’s national archives go missing; and the secret police more than once search Cleo’s home and delete all the writing from her computer.

On the plane from Mexico, Cleo considers smuggling the letter by stuffing it in her underwear. But first, to see what she may be complicit in, she opens the envelope:

“Pseudowriter: We knew you’d open the letter. We never trusted you. … That’s why you came, to find out about our ideas, our personal Cuba.”

The exiled Cubans decided she was a spy for the state, sent to infiltrate their weekly dinners. This is the fate that follows Cleo: She finds Cubans everywhere she goes, each with his or her own “personal Cuba.”

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The trouble with a censored text is that its censored-ness can become its only quality. Guerra’s own work — she is a protégée of Gabriel García Márquez, to whom the novel is dedicated — has been officially-unofficially banned in Cuba. But Guerra plays with the expectation one might have of an authoritative account of the island during the normalizing of United States-Cuba relations. As often as she gives a concrete description of Havana in the loosening grip of socialism, she gives one that dances and evades.

More than in its plot — a Cold War conspiracy of sorts — the movement of “Revolution Sunday” is in the coming and going from the island, the beacon that will find Cleo in Paris, Barcelona and New York.

“On this militarized island full of farewells,” she writes, back in Cuba, “we’re trapped between conformity and defecting. We Cubans have been well trained; our real damage is in our souls. Innocence isn’t possible here.”

Yet this militarized Cuba isn’t uniformly sinister. It’s telling that the violent crime in the novel occurs in Mexico City, not Havana. And that Cleo enjoys a liberated and un-self-conscious sex life. She uses the bathroom with the door wide open while her Americanized Nicaraguan lover keeps the door shamefully closed. There’s humor, too, in totalitarianism. When Cleo is pulled aside at the airport to be questioned about her forthcoming essay collection, “Dissident Apprentice,” she sees that one of the officers has an advance copy: “I didn’t recognize the book until they put it in front of me. … I had it in my grasp for the first time. The cover was fantastic.”

The translation by the Cuban-born novelist Achy Obejas is attuned to what Guerra might be leaving out. For the word “desfloró,” Obejas doesn’t go with the straightforward cognate “deflower,” in all its evocations of courtly love. Instead she chooses an idiomatic translation to “planted his flag,” which retains a hint of the original’s botany yet allows the novel’s political themes — the nation, the body — to emerge more explicitly. Though the phrasing “guayabera shirt” makes this Spanish speaker flinch, Obejas succeeds in capturing the sense of doom, the weather of half-truths and paranoia, floating at the edges of Cleo’s Cuba.

What emerges in “Revolution Sunday” is primarily a novel of the self, of an artist contending with her own vanishing. The paradox of isolation without privacy. The isle in the word exile. “Why do this to me?” Cleo thinks after her home is raided by police. “Who am I to them? Above all, who am I to me?”

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