Miguel Barnet A Runaway Slave with and Angel's Craft
By Ciro Bianchi Ross / Photos: Silvia Mayra
Miguel Barnet wears a cap to keep his head warm while he puts pen to paper. He says that all great literature is hand-written. He is afraid of the computer because every time a word appears on the screen he begins to see it like something carved in stone, definitive, something that won't let him move on. It deprives him of the pleasure of the blank page filled with his symbols, of the pleasure of crumpling up a page, which is like killing an imperfect creature so as to create a healthy one. That's what he did, painfully, with the first three hundred pages of Oficio de Ángel, started in 1975. He knew he would return to it someday and so he did, in 1987 when, while staying at an ugly hotel in Valencia, Spain, he took a piece of paper and wrote "And the time of the river began. And the surface water was never again calm. And the night became day ... "
Barnet is 68 years old and creates an extrovert personality for others. He is really a melancholy person; a sad man who always seems happy. He likes walks for a purpose and deserted beaches. He collects other people's lives like that of the runaway slave, the singer Raquel and the Galician immigrant. They do not sit in his pocket or his home. He lives alone. His dogs are his only company.
Although he does not cook for himself, he does for his dogs. If he does not eat out, he eats some tuna on whole-wheat bread with jell-O and a couple of diet colas.
"I am incapable of making myself coffee" Barnet says.
"I enjoy my solitude. It is the only time I have to create.
I have to make the most of my time for writing and reading. Having people at home disturbs me way too much. Even so, I am not totally alone. My ancestors' voices and those of my informers resound in my mind like the antiphonal chorus of ancient Greece. I am just a soloist receiving choral responses."
The runaway slave escaping his masters and finding freedom is Esteban Montejo, the last of the surviving runaway slaves in America. In 1963, at 104 years old, he was living in a nursing home when the writer found out about him by pure chance. That circumstance coincided with his need to write about some dark areas of Cuban history and of slavery. That is why today Barnet thinks the Runaway is not only an unrepeatable book, for him it was inevitable. It led him to discover a hidden area of Cuban writing and to rescue its buried voices. Those elements were missing from Cuban literature and Barnet cannot explain why they had not been recovered sooner.
Biography of a Runaway Slave provided him with much joy and compensations. To Miguel Barnet. Esteban Montejo is not the main character of his work; he is a person joining him, a musical shadow. His presence in pictures, posters and book covers is quite visible in the writer's home, even in his bedroom where the portrait of the runaway slave shares space with several crucifixes on a wall canvas near the bed. On another is the image of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint, by Santiago de Cuba artist Lawrence Zúniga.
Barnet has a predilection for his collection of poems.
Despite his preference, there is no doubt that his novels provide his fame and place him, at Manuel Alvar's (Spanish philologist and professor) proposal, on the seat labeled with the letter T in the Cuban Academy of Language (each academic holds a seat labeled with a letter of the Spanish alphabet) when the academy was directed by important Cuban writer Dulce María Loynaz.
Barnet is proud of his membership in that organization and, at heart a big child, but one who continues to grow; he is delighted by the meetings - especially those where linguists speculate. "I did not study languages. I studied anthropology and listening to them is like going to school; a school for adults."
Cuba already has three Cervantes Prize winners (awarded annually to honor the lifetime achievement of an outstanding writer in the Spanish language). Will Miguel Barnet be the fourth winner? He does not think so.
With surprising modesty he says he does not remotely think of that possibility. For the time being, without time for a new novel, he focuses on poetry.
He is perhaps the most important living figure of Cuban letters and without a doubt the most read. In Chile, he was awarded the Donoso Prize for lifetime achievement, putting him in the race for the Cervantes prize.
Besides Runaway (1966), Barnet has published Canci6n de Rachel (1969), Gallego (1983), La vida real (1986) and Oficio de ángel (1989). His poetry collection, Itinerario inconcluso (Unfinished Itinerary) has also been published.
Biography of a Runaway Slave is the most famous novel by Barnet. Translated and in 73 editions, it has inspired theater scripts and musical compositions. Tele Madrid and Tele Sur are filming it for television.