A Princess of Letters Goes to Cuba
By: Anubis Galardy Céspedes Photos by Emilio Herrera
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, traveled to Cuba in February to present a volume of 67 of her short stories, a reminiscence revealing her in all her literary royalty and splendour.
Entitled The Resplendent Quetzal and Other Stories, published by the Cuban publishing house Arte y Literatura, the 200 page volume was presented during Havana’s 19th International Book Fair 2010; inciting the reader, in the arms of an intelligence whose nerves and muscles are almost palpable, to become an unapologetic traveler into Atwood’s work.
“It’s a compilation I made just for Cuba” said Atwood during an encounter with the public at Morro- Cabaña Park, the outdoor space bordered by trees and the sea across Havana harbour from the city, and Havana’s venue for the Book Fair. “I prepared it like a box of small, different chocolates, with the exception of a first long story. There are science fiction stories, short stories, monologues, poetry, all in the spectrum from 1977 to 2006.”
The book is all that she is, revealing her powerful talent, her wit, her sometimes sarcastic, sharp, stabbing humour. Her irreverent irony, sometimes bitter but also compassionate, and her control of language as if each story brought along the exact words needed. Those and no others: precise, polished, lucid and organic.
It is not a secret that she writes by hand “because I sense how the writing flows from the brain and pours down in a very natural way onto the pen and paper”. She later transcribes. She is not methodical, but is a compulsive workaholic, she confesses.
Perhaps that is the explanation for the perfect harmony between the language and what is narrated, the way it slides and traps the reader in an embrace from which there is no escape. She always goes to the foundation to reveal the disturbing and unexpected in human nature.
While in Cuba she spoke of her literary beginnings. She grew up in northern Canada where her father was a forest entomologist who studied insects. In the winters she lived in the city and in summers in the backwoods of Northern Quebec.
“Back then, there was no TV, movies, radio, libraries or even other people close by, except for the scientists that visited from time to time. But there were books, many books. If it rained there was nothing else to do but read. And it rained a lot.” Atwood visited Cuba for the first time back in 1984, and she said that for a long time she had wanted to participate in the book fair, but for different reasons she had been unable to do so.
She said that she was pleased to have succeeded this year “at a particularly interesting time, when the publishing meeting is dedicated to Russia as guest of honour; both nations reconnecting, in a reunion with a whiff of nostalgia.” One of her most constant worries, besides women’s issues, is environmental deterioration. “We have come to a time”, she stressed, “in which collaboration will not only be possible but necessary.” “Nature does not need us, but we need nature,” she warned.
Although she did not have much time to visit the fair and its pavilions, she was impressed by the quantity of books offered to readers at reasonable prices. “I find that exciting,” she said.
Regarding Cuban art and literature, after specifically referring to Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s narrative, Atwood said she is attracted by its suggestive quality “that area in which reality touches fantasy and invention.”
Petite and dynamic, Atwood at 71 continues writing with the same determination and devotion with which she entered the world of words at 16. As she has remarked on numerous occasions, her work “has to do with desire and darkness, or maybe with the compulsion to penetrate it and with a bit of luck, take some light out.”
Inside the Fair
The Cuban publishing event was also enriched by the presence, besides Atwood, of two other great writers: Atwood’s dear friend, Nobel prizewinner in literature South African Nadine Gordimer, and a poet and filmmaker with a depth of aesthetic erudition, an irreverent personality and an iconoclastic and trespassing spirit, Russian Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
With an extensive work dedicated to denouncing racial discrimination in her country, Gordimer spoke of her inspiration: “Literature is my life,” she affirmed as someone professing a faith put to the test over and over again since she decided, at age 26, to open the doors of literature. Today at 86 she follows the same creed. She still maintains her slender figure, her lively walk, her clarity of mind and the same convictions that caused her to confront all forms of injustice.
“Writers are committed to the exploration of life, but we are not only writers, we are also citizens of a country”, said Gordimer, speaking to the audience at the fair, where she presented the Cuban edition of her novel A Sport of Nature.
“Life is a profound and marvellous mystery in all of its aspects: cultural, social, political. We are human beings with human responsibilities” she noted.
Yevtushenko brought a short poetry collection, Stolen Apples, and strolled around Morro-Cabaña Park like someone pleasantly sailing on a sea of print.
Opened February 11 in the Cuban capital, the first stage of a trip that took it all over the island until its closure on March 7 in Santiago de Cuba, the Cuba 2010 International Book Fair dealt with seven million books, more than a thousand titles and 200 novelties covering a great diversity of intellectual and culture spheres.
Central of all was the Russian pavilion, in a 450 square kilometre area, an exhibit ranging from the most iconic of Russian literature, Chekov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Sholojov, to those most recent. There was also a space dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and Russia.
Some 200 exhibitors, two laureate Cuban writers, Reynaldo González and sociologist and historian María del Carmen Barcia, and a large theoretical and artistic program embellished the fair. According to official numbers, 900,000 books were sold and more than half a million people attended the fair.
Cuba’s Minister of Culture Abel Prieto noted that the book fair, with rigor and quality as a premise, once again strengthened itself in a feast of diversity, far from any type of dogma or sectarianism and farther still from tendencies and prejudices.