Art and Revolution

I really enjoyed this book. It was given to my sister by her friend in Oakland. I’ve never read Alma Guillermoprieto before, but apparently she’s the Latin American correspondent for the New Yorker, a publication I wish I had the $ to subscribe to (even more so now that all their fiction and poetry is subscription-only).

A lot of this book hit close to home for me. I loved Alma’s younger-self narrator: her constant self-critcism, her dislike of her ignorance about politics and Latin American affairs, her love for art, her low self-esteem, her poor choices in men. Even the section where she contemplates suicide is charming. To me, Dancing With Cuba isn’t a good book just because it’s a snapshot of a very specific time and place, or because I learned a lot about Cuba while reading it. More than anything, I liked this book because it powerfully captures the feeling of what it’s like to be young and confused and enamored of art and completely lost in your life.

I really liked the theme in this book about the relationship between Art and Politics. The description of all the delegation of poets and intellectuals coming to Cuba to fiercely debated such as question reminded me of the section in The Savage Detectives, in which one of the main characters gives up art in order to go fight in Nicaragua. There an El Salvadorean poet in Dancing that sums up the dilemma with the following query: “Do I write sonnets or devote myself to studying peasant revolution?” (263) It reminds me of similar questions raised by Bolaño, or of the life of Rodolfo Walsh. It’s a question that young-Alma struggles with quite a bit. My question is, is it possible to combine the two? (Maybe fact that she ended up as a journalist, writing about Latin American politics and writing very openly poetic, subjective memoirs, proves that it is!)

There were lots of interesting questions raised in this book. I liked the part where she talks about stillness vs. consciousness, in terms of modern dance. Apparently in the Merce Cunnigman style of modern dance, the key concept is stillness: “the quiet that things and beings achieved when they have no consciousness of themselves, when they simply are, without intention or aim. Consciousness, however, was Fidel’s key word–self-consciousness, class consciousness, revolutionary consciousness–an in Cuba a human being without aim or intention was inconceivable, unless of course he was a vago–a slacker–who, as Fidel began proposing around the time, deserved to be thrown in jail.” (94)

What is the point of the aritst or intellectual in society? This question is asked again and again. Should they be thrown out into the sugar cane fields, put to work that’s actually productive and useful, work that is concretely measurable via statistics and units? There’s another interesting section that I can’t find right now, in which she talks about how the communist conception of an economy treats it as a machine, as opposed to a living, breathing organism that is affected by lots of different systems, as opposed to a strictly input-output mechanism. I really like this parallel, and think that it would be useful to apply it to a lot of different subjects (I’ve heard similar ideas discussed in trainings I’ve received for one of my non-profit jobs). It really feels sometimes like the knowlege of humanity is moving away from the conception of life as a mechanism, and more towards life (and people, and relationships, and social justice, and so on) as a living, breathing organism, composed of and balanced by many different systems…

I heartily approved of the narrator’s treatment of Fidel, as well as most of the Revolutionary rhetoric that fills the book. I first picked this book up with slight apprehension, mostly due to the subtitle, A Memoir of the Revolution: Oh no, what if this is filled with Fidel love? Thankfully, it’s not, and when it is you can very clearly see how the author is making a point about how seductive that kind of “Viva la Revolucion!” talk can be. As one of the Cubans says early on in the novel, if it weren’t for the Revolution, a lot of Cubans would feel like they had nothing to live for, no purpose in life. I mean, how would you feel if you had to leave your job at the hospital or the university and go cut sugar cane in the fields para la causa for hours and hours, if you had an inkling at the back of your mind that la causa was very, very troubling and problematic?

I also liked Alma’s discussion of Che. I think she does a good job of summing him up and being approrpriately intimidated, repulsed and fascinated by him. Her reaction was similar to mine after reading his massive biography last year, in the sense that good-bad judgements aside, what Che’s life boils down to is that not many people can live like that. They really, really can’t.
 
I’d like to read more of Guillermoprieto’s work, for sure. Here are some other works mentioned in this book that I’d like to check out at some point:
– the film Memorias del subdesarollo
– Poesia en movimento: Mexico 1915-1966 (ed. Octavio Paz) 
– Mario Benedetti poetry
Paradiso by Jose Lezma Lima

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Filed under art, books, non-fiction, politics, women writers

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