Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s debut novel, The dead soldiers– –A withered portrait of a Cuban family with conflicting visions of their country and their role in it was published in June 2020 and has helped establish Álvarez as one of the leading writers of Cuba’s new generation. The divisions in the book reflect deeper rifts in the land today. Armando, a die-hard Marxist, holds on to his idea of the sanctity of the Cuban revolution, even if he becomes the peasant of a corrupt bureaucracy. In the meantime, his son Diego, disaffected and distraught, scrubs under the demands of forced military service. Mariana, the mother, is prone to mysterious dizzy spells and is slowly losing touch with reality. while her daughter Maria is embroiled in a web of betrayal on the island’s black market for tourism. Revolutionary idealism has encountered the harsh realities of modern life. In fact, the privations of the “special period” of the nineties are still present today. “If we think back now, we can only remember a cycle of hunger, a state of siege in which there was nothing,” recalls Mariana, “an emptiness in every plate, an emptiness in the shops, an emptiness in the freezer the refrigerator, an emptiness in the fields and in the factories, and an emptiness greater than any other, in our hearts and in our stomachs. “
Last December, Álvarez was targeted by Cuban authorities for supporting the San Isidro movement, a gathering of artists and activists protesting against government censorship. He was interrogated and placed under house arrest in Havana. He was subsequently physically assaulted when he was taken to his family home in Cárdenas, Matanzas Province. Álvarez responded by posting a video on Facebook and an editorial in the New York Times, “They call us enemies of the Cuban people,” in which he condemned the charges against the leaders of San Isidro. We recently connected on Facebook Messenger and then did this short but targeted interview via email – about current disagreements in Cuba, the intentionally suffocating structure of his novel, and the life of writing in Havana and Mexico City. (His answers were translated by Anna Kushner, whose translation of the novel by the Cuban writer Marcial Gala, The black cathedral, also came out last year.)
Anderson Tepper: Carlos, thank you very much for that. First of all, how are you now and where are you?
Carlos Manuel Álvarez: I am in Mexico City. I’m reviewing and listening to changes to a novel of mine coming out in April [Argentine rocker Luis Alberto] Spinetta and I spend my evenings hanging out with friends I haven’t seen in months. I suppose all of this makes me feel okay.
Tepper: Tell me more about the San Isidro movement in Cuba – how it started and how you got involved.
Álvarez: It is a movement of artists who are not recognized as such in Cuba’s institutional culture. For the most part, they come from poor areas, they are black and they express their discomfort with a system that does not support, legitimize and actually suppress them.
I became involved in the movement after several group members and others who were not members decided to go to their headquarters and go on a hunger strike [last November] to demand the release of one of her unjustly imprisoned colleagues.
I felt like I should be there; I felt physically ill seeing it happen from New York. I am no stranger to them and some of them were already friends of mine from before.
Tepper: What is happening now to the San Isidro activists?
Álvarez: One of the members of the movement, Maykel Osorbo, just released a song along with several other rappers and reggaeton artists famous in the Latin American music industry, such as Yotuel and Gente de Zona. In it they sing to the leaders that “ya se acabó“(It’s over, your time is up) This has created hysteria within the regime. Everyone from the president to television [shows] and even the most important newspapers have slandered the artists, as Trump did on Twitter when he had a bee in the hood about Lady Gaga or Colin Kaepernick. I would say that despite the surveillance and repression, San Isidro is strong as it reveals the reactionary, classicist and racist character of Castroism like no other social movement has done.
In this way we in Cuba combat the constant lynching by the press of artists, writers and anyone who chooses to stand against them.
Tepper: How have you been able to use social media and other means – articles, interviews – to spread the word about what’s going on in Cuba?
Álvarez: In this way we in Cuba combat the constant lynching by the press of artists, writers and anyone who chooses to stand against them.
I speak on social media with the same severity that I speak in my articles and interviews, and I speak in my articles and interviews with the same ease with which I speak on social media.
What happens in Cuba is simple, and the way of explaining it is simple too.
Tepper: How has the pandemic affected the protests and the organization’s ability to organize?
Álvarez: The pandemic has acted as another form of police control, but the pandemic will end and the state of things that led us to protest will still be there.
Tepper: I’m curious about your novel The dead soldiers, published by Graywolf here in the US last year. What did you want to show or research about contemporary Cuba in this book and why did you structure it according to the different perspectives within a family?
Álvarez: I was looking for a story where sickness would serve as the state of clarity as I learned in [Thomas Mann’s] The magic mountainand also, in which material poverty would mix with the private effects of a struggle that was taking place in the realm of the body. That speaks of Cuba, it seems to me.
The structure helped me create a closed, repetitive, claustrophobic atmosphere. Exactly what the novel conveyed. I think that form is a fundamental element of action in any text.
Tepper: Every family member remembers the needs of the “special time” of the nineties and provides information about their approach to the present. Does this time still occupy an important place in Cuba’s collective memory?
Álvarez: Not just in memory. In many ways, that time is not over. There are people who never left it. That is why San Isidro was created.
Tepper: Was The dead soldiers published in Cuba, and if so, how have the reactions been?
Álvarez: No, it wasn’t published in Cuba so of course there was no reaction. But I suppose a book that doesn’t get publicity from the mouths of totalitarianism should be happy.
Tepper: You are also the director of a digital magazine, El Estornudo (“The Sneeze”), and you have just received the prestigious Don Quijote Journalism Prize in Spain for your 2020 article “Tres niñas cubanas”. Tell me about the mission of El Estornudo and the challenges of keeping it going.
Álvarez: El Estornudo just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It’s a humble long-form journalism project that tried to do that crónicaor an essay that is an integral part of the Cuban journalism scene. Over time, we have crossed national borders and have become a magazine that linguistically, politically and aesthetically enters into dialogue with other editorial projects in the region. El Estornudo is censored in Cuba, many of its chief leaders have emigrated or exiled, but somehow we managed to reconfigure the work teams and set new guidelines for publication that guaranteed our survival. The State Security deliberately tried to get rid of the magazine. Those of us who worked on it have seen interrogations, threats, arrests, psychological pressure and blackmail. They tried to turn us against each other. Suddenly those in power are treating us no longer as a magazine, but as a secret political cell or the armed wing of a foreign power.
Suddenly those in power are treating us no longer as a magazine, but as a secret political cell or the armed wing of a foreign power.
Tepper: They live in both Havana and Mexico City. What are some of the differences in the literary communities and publishing worlds?
Álvarez: There is no literary industry in Cuba, and publishers do not seem to respond to more or less fixed lines, be it cultural or commercial. There is certainly an ideological coherence that can be seen in both the publications and the brochures advertised.
In Mexico I can only really talk to what is happening at Sexto Piso, my publisher. But the same guys, here and everywhere, always make up the literary community: a group of bad writers, another handful of Arrivists, friends who only promote their own friends and tell each other how great they are, and only two or three people, Try to remember what writing is about, despite all odds.
Tepper: In 2017 you were included in Bogotá39’s list of the best Latin American writers under 40. Do you feel particularly connected to other young writers in the Caribbean and America? What about other new Cuban writers at home and abroad?
Álvarez: Yes i feel close [Dominican writer] Frank Báez, [Colombian] Juan Cárdenas, [Cuban] Legna Rodríguez, [Mexican] Rodrigo Marquez Tizano. I don’t know what’s wrong with other new Cuban writers, but I hope they find the Lion’s Way in Mishimas Thirst for love: an animal that is not satisfied, “because there is no third world that is neither the world of the cage nor the world outside the cage.”
Tepper: Your book begins with a quote from Philip Roth: “We all have a home. Everything always goes wrong here. “Who are some of the other North American writers who have influenced you in particular?
Álvarez: I love Cheever, I love Lucia Berlin, I love Denis Johnson. Roth is good, but maybe [Faulkner’s] Absalom, Absalom! enough. “Why do you hate the south?” they ask Quentin Compson. “I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it,” he replied.
Translation from Spanish