Internal Censorship and Post-Soviet Cuban Subjectivity in José Manuel Prieto’s Livadia
Britton W. Newman, Wofford College
José Manuel Prieto’s Livadia (1999) is the centerpiece of what he has called his “trilogía rusa” (Interview). The three novels share a common narrator-protagonist, one who in Livadia, the second installment, shows a narrative maturity not yet reached in the inaugural Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia (1998). Livadia also continues Prieto’s interest in Russia, which begins to fade over the course of the third novel, Rex (2007). The present article will focus on Livadia, while making references to its companion pieces, and will center on the use and repercussions of the theme of censorship. I will argue that the narrator-protagonist, who first experiences Soviet-inspired censoring practices in his native Cuba, adopts an attitude and behavior when he lives in post-Soviet Russia that emerge from his Cuban subjectivity. It is the legacy of censorship that leads, as we shall see, to the narrator’s penchant for the ambiguous, as demonstrated in his writing style, his conflicted identity and his supposed search for the rare yazikus butterfly.
Born in Havana in 1962, Prieto left the island in 1981 to pursue university studies in Novosibirsk, USSR. After briefly returning in 1987-88, he and his Russian wife settled in Leningrad, where they lived until 1993, when they left first for Mexico (1993-2003) and then the United States (2003-present). The Russian trilogy was thus published after his departure from Russia, but with that country very much in mind. All three novels follow the same bookish narrator-protagonist whose border-hopping adventures revolve around Russia and the Russian émigré community. Rafael Rojas has described Prieto as sui generis even as he studies him within the context of Cuban literature, noting that Prieto is “el primer autor cubano que se empeña en no escribir ni una sola novela sobre Cuba” (“Las dos mitades” 233).
Indeed, Prieto’s novels studiously avoid those elements of Cuban history and lore that have been so commercially successful in the recent international boom of Cuban literature. They shy away from meditations on the lost homeland, typical of much of Cuban-American fiction, and from the Dirty Realism associated with recent exiles and island-dwellers such as Zoé Valdés and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. In fact, Cuba seems to be meticulously erased from the narration, with the words Cuba or cubano appearing only three times in the trilogy, and only twice in connection with the narrator’s identity. Rojas’ observation notwithstanding, I will argue that the narrator’s elision of Cuba results from habits of silence or masking acquired in Soviet-era Cuba. Having experienced the Cold War when he resided on the island, Prieto—like other Cuban novelists of the 1990s that I have studied elsewhere—projects that experience onto his novels, where his writer-protagonist consciously or unconsciously continues to lead the sort of guarded and double-voiced existence that living under Soviet-style communism required. (1)
By studying the effects of censorship on Livadia’s Cuban narrator, the present article accompanies from the perspective of Cuban literature the recent trend of scholarship that studies Soviet subjectivity by shedding light on the private lives of those who lived under terror. (2) Prieto himself has participated in this wave of historical research, defending a doctoral dissertation entitled “La antesala del Gulag: El terror de baja intensidad en la URSS 1929-1953,” which the author describes as a study of “el impacto del terror en la vida cotidiana” (Interview). As an author of fiction, Prieto continues to show interest in the history of the Soviet subject. His narrator studies those Russians around him and at times reflects at length on elements of their post-Soviet present by relating these elements to Russian and Soviet history. Though the narrator chooses not to turn his analytical gaze on his own homeland, we can piece together an image of post-Soviet Cuban subjectivity by carefully following his reflections on Russia and by studying the stylistic eccentricities of his narration.
The Cuban narrator, who refers to himself only as J. and avoids directly revealing his nationality, is challenged by experiences with what I call external and internal censorship. External censorship describes overt censoring practices by the authorities, such as banning a work or publishing it in emended form, stealing a private letter or prohibiting a performance. Individuals may exercise external censorship against others either to curry favor with the government or at its behest. In Cuba, the revolutionary government essentially imported the Soviet approach to practically all forms of expression, including literature, quickly censoring experimental or what they judged to be non-committed literature, limiting the news media and imposing the Soviet aesthetic of socialist realism. (3) In that sense, Cuba’s censoring practices and their aftereffects are part of the legacy of the Cuban-Soviet relationship. J, a self-described “lector compulsivo” and an aspiring writer (16), shows familiarity with external censorship both on the island and in the USSR.
Internal censorship refers to a protagonist’s intuition to keep in check actions or utterances that the authorities could potentially censor. It arises from the internalization of norms of expression established by the censoring apparatus and often remains even after norms or rules are relaxed or eliminated. Having lived under a totalitarian regime, the characters are marked by an experience that affects all areas of life and can manifest itself in such forms as hesitancy, indecision and fear. In a writer-protagonist, it may appear as writer’s block, the unconscious creative paralysis of the writer. He may also consciously exercise internal censorship at the moment of choosing a topic, shying away from topics known to be off-limits. Such an example illustrates the interconnected nature of external and internal censorship, for it is the individual that decides not to address taboo themes, but that decision is the result of a perceived external threat. In the absence of the threat of external censorship, the individual’s decision would presumably be different.
Livadia provides an example of a Cuban narrator who, while residing in post-Soviet Russia, a country that in the 1990s loudly voiced its renunciation of communist-era policies, still acts in many ways as if he were a Soviet, or Soviet-era Cuban, subject. His present lifestyle of smuggling is made possible by the dissolution of the USSR, which he speaks of as the Big Bang, “la Gran Explosión” that creates a new universe of possibilities for him (273). However, he moves in this new world with old habits of reticence. In Livadia, he offers no indication of when he arrived in the Soviet Union, but in Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia, he reveals that he first moved to the USSR to study, “cuando todavía era un alumno ejemplar, muy consciente de lo que esperaban de mí y no echado a perder... políticamente, para decirlo de una vez” (Enciclopedia 51). Reserve and surreptition have been learned in his Cuban adolescence, as we see when he describes himself as a teenager listening to North American disco hits of the late-1970s, “los anuncios de verdad que recibíamos desde los centros mundiales de la emisión RADIAL. Por las noches, inmóvil en la penumbra de mi cuarto, yo giraba incansable la pera del receptor hasta que era alcanzado por la descarga galvánica de That’s the way, oho, aha, I like it” (Enciclopedia 188). In his experience using clandestine radio to enjoy the music of Cuba’s North American adversary, we see that his Cuban childhood has fully acquainted the narrator with the censorship of expression and with modes of skirting such controls. Thus, the subject that we see here may be representative of those Cubans who lived on the island well into the revolutionary period. His worldview is likely to be typical of that of children who grew up in Cuba with no memory of life prior to 1959 and whose formative years coincided with the decades of peak Soviet presence on the island, the late 1960s through the late 1980s.
J. shows interest in the external censorship of letters, a mode of censoring of particular relevance given that the narration of Livadia presents itself as a letter from J. to his lover, V. The epistolary form of the novel and his concern with the monitoring of private correspondence may help to explain his reliance on an ambiguous narrative style. On two occasions, other characters tamper with his personal letters. Tigrán, an Armenian pimp in Istanbul, steals J.’s letter to V., a Russian prostitute, and nearly foils their escape from Turkey. J. recalls the ridiculous measure taken to safeguard the letter’s contents: “Yo había sellado cuidadosamente el sobre y pintado un par de rayas sobre la pestaña para que en caso de que fuera abierta—violado el secreto de la correspondencia—, se notara al momento” (250). This precaution has been completely ineffectual, and when J. discovers Tigrán’s intrusion, “El sobre yacía sobre la mesa, abierto sin recato alguno” (250).
After J. arrives in the Crimean town of Livadia, his xenophobic guesthouse neighbor, Petrovich, breaks into his room and steals one of the letters that V. has written to him. Already suspicious of J. because of his foreign origin,
Petrovich deseaba conservar una carta mía como material comprometedor. El día en que me vinieran a sacar de la cama, semidormido, dos linternas alumbrándome el rostro, él aguardaría en el pasillo a los agentes y les entregaría aquella carta que sólo gracias a su celo pasaría a engrosar los folios de la instrucción, aportaría evidencias concluyentes sobre mis actividades ilícitas. (144)
For Petrovich, the motivation to steal V.’s letter arises from his experience in a totalitarian state in which neighbors are asked to spy on neighbors and are rewarded for the “material comprometedor” that they compile. Also through Petrovich, J. learns of the “carta escamoteada” between Karl Marx and Vera Zazulich. This historical letter was Marx’s reply to a letter from Zazulich that asked “si la doctrina de Marx se avenía a Rusia o no” (149). J. describes Marx’s reply as “[u]na obra maestra de ambivalencia” that concludes with “una rotunda negativa” (150). He continues: “Los marxistas rusos—Plejanov, Lenin y Co.—escamotearon la carta. Esto le costó a Rusia casi un siglo de desgracias” (150). (4) This famous and costly example of the censorship of letters is not alone. J. recounts the existence of the “gabinete negro” (292), the governmental office charged with monitoring and intervening in private correspondence. “Rusia había tenido gabinetes negros,” he explains, “desde los tiempos de Azef e incluso antes. (5) Un departamento de la policía, todo un edificio, con interventores de tiempo completo de la correspondencia privada” (292), offices which “habían dejado de funcionar en 1991” (293).
J. ruminates on the Black Room when he receives a suspiciously large package in Livadia. Recalling a recent newspaper report on the Unabomber, he imagines that his package may be a copycat attack, a mail-bomb sent to him by a xenophobic Russian. His comical fear leads him to enthusiastic thoughts of support for the censorship of mail, as he even envisions himself on the floor of the Russian parliament arguing for the restoration of the Black Room. Walking with his bulky package at arm’s length, he curses “la libertad de expresión, un valor rastreramente burgués, la posibilidad sin precedentes en Rusia de poder publicar reportajes” (291). Hidden in this humorous episode is a revealing aspect of post-Soviet life: J. acknowledges that both in newspapers and in private correspondence, post-Soviet Russians have unprecedented freedom of speech, an acknowledgement that implies his familiarity with the censorship that existed on the written word in Soviet-style systems.
The ambiguity with which J. writes may be read as a way of evading such external censorship. He is well aware of the police-state practice of violating private correspondence. Moreover, through his experience with an Armenian, Tigrán, and a Russian, Petrovich, he has seen that post-Soviet subjects continue to perpetuate the censoring practice of the now-defunct state under which they were formed. J.’s internal censorship in his writing style may be a conscious or unconscious reaction to the perceived danger that this letter—the novel—could be stolen and used against him. However, the notion of his letter to V. being externally censored is unrealistic. As J. notes, the Black Rooms have been closed. He has already escaped from the only truly dangerous character of the novel, Tigrán, and the thought of Petrovich turning J.’s letter over to the police is humorous precisely because the butterfly hunt that has brought him to Livadia is so inoffensive in the context of the chaos and rising criminality of early-1990s Russia. These low stakes make his evasive narrative style all the more significant. Even in a seemingly safe situation, J. writes with tactics of ambiguity that one can assume were used to slip by the censorship of letters during the heyday of the Black Rooms. The residual fear of external censorship provides one explanation for J.’s ambiguity. However, as I will show, the attempt to reconcile his conflicted identity and the search for the yazikus butterfly become avenues through which he struggles to overcome the internalized censoring norms.
The ambiguity in J.’s narration appears in the forms of information that J. does not know, that which he knows but does not share and that which he erases in such a fashion as to leave a trace, enabling the reader to divine the absent referent.(6) J.’s work as a smuggler involves him in a murky world of mystery and incomplete knowledge. He receives an unusual request from a rich Swede named Stockis, who hires him to capture the nearly extinct Russian butterfly yazikus euxinius, last caught by Czar Nicholas II. J. spends much of the novel hunting for this butterfly, only to come to doubt its existence by the end, as I will explore below. When J. falls in love with V., a young Russian trapped in the Istanbul sex trade, he helps her escape to Crimea but is abandoned by her upon their arrival in Odessa. Neither we nor J. ever know for sure whether V. has returned to her home village in Russia or reunited with Stockis, as J. suspects on occasion. Hunting for the yazikus in the Crimean town of Livadia, J. begins to receive letters from V. with no return address. His own reply to V., which he may never be able to send because he does not know where to reach her, makes up the text that the reader holds.
J. also consciously withholds information from other characters and from the reader, never revealing, as I have alluded to above, when or why he moved to Russia. Early in the novel, he conceals the reason for his visit to Livadia from the Russian innkeeper, María Kuzmovna: “Quiso saber el motivo de mi estancia. No se lo dije. Quería saber, me aclaró, por qué necesitaba alquilar por tanto tiempo. –Necesito una habitación con vistas al mar—le respondí” (25). Presumably J. evades Kuzmovna’s questions because of the borderline-illegality of his butterfly hunt. In other cases, he conceals from his reader (that is, from V., the primary addressee of his letter), a much more intimate audience with which we might expect him to be forthcoming. The information he chooses to conceal includes minutiae that is in no way incriminating, such as when he tells a story about a particular book he purchased years ago. He points out that he is not sharing the title of the book, stating without further explanation, “No diré de qué libro se trata, aunque lo recuerdo perfectamente” (71). J. appears to self-censor and to draw attention to the act of self-censorship as a way of acknowledging and pointing out to the reader this aspect of his narration.
The very name and nationality of the narrator recede into the gaps of ambiguity in his narration, leaving behind only a trace. He refers to himself and V. only by their first initials. Even in dialogues in which other characters are presumably saying the name in full, the narrator reduces this name to its first letter: “¿V.?—preguntó Stockis lanzándole una mirada a Lars—. Es un nombre ruso, ¿no es así?” (154). Though the paratexts of the novel lead us to read J. as an alter-ego of José Prieto, (7) such a correspondence remains only a possibility.
The narration is similarly evasive with regards to details of J.’s life before Russia. We are told on numerous occasions that he is not Russian, but not once in the novel does J. state directly his country of origin. (8) Only by combining his playful hints about Cuba with the conclusive identification given in the other novels—“Yo era, sopresivamente, cubano” (Enciclopedia 135)—can we state with certainty his nationality. In Livadia, he makes references to his country without stating its name, a process that serves to highlight in the reader’s mind the absence of the name. In this way, he speaks of “mi país—un país lento” (114) and imagines himself impersonating a sailor on “un mercante de mi país” (235). He even humorously imagines what Russians may think when they try to guess his country of origin. His curmudgeonly neighbor Petrovich must think of him as, “un extranjero. No podía especificar de qué país, un extranjero a secas, quizá un marroquí, o de Túnez. ¿Un italiano? Poco probable. Español quizá; en fin, de algún lugar del sur (detestable)” (146). The townspeople of Livadia, he thinks, must see him as “el joven marroquí o español, el extranjero” (290).
J. actively hides his nationality from a young Russian who buys contraband materials from him. The Russian asks if J. has ever tried Bacardí rum, and when J. answers no, the man continues,
—¿No es lo que toman en tu país?
—¿En qué país?
—Bueno, pensé que eras de alguno de esos países donde lo toman. (288)
Despite J.’s efforts to evade the topic of his origin, the man continues during their business negotiation, “¿De dónde me dijiste que eras? Dios, regateas como un armenio” (288). J. recalls ignoring the question, noting, “Podía haber confusiones con ese asunto de mi país” (289). He implicitly recognizes that among post-Soviet Russians, eager to shed the trappings of the Soviet era, he will be more favorably received as a generic foreigner, a symbol of Russia’s new openness to the world, than as a Cuban, a relic of the Soviet past. He notes, in frustration, “No me gustaron nada sus preguntas. Yo era extranjero, ¿qué importaba de qué país? Le lancé una rápida mirada a sus orejas. Tenía demasiado poco pelo sobre las orejas, un corte militar que me infundió desconfianza” (289). Thus, he is put on guard by the Russian’s “prying” questions and is further alarmed by the suspicion that he may be a part of the state security apparatus. J.’s unfounded and humorous fear grows, as he imagines that the young Russian is really an agent sent from Moscow to deliver “una lettre de cachet, el despacho con el sello oficial que encerraba la orden de mi destierro o encarcelamiento” (294). What is important is not whether J.’s fear is justifiable, but the fact that this fear appears in him at all. His fear is evidence of a deeply engrained sense that one must not share information unnecessarily, that the authorities may be waiting to trap the unsuspecting person who speaks too much.
The question of why J. erases his country of origin even in the venue of his written narration also leads us to the habits of internal censorship instilled in totalitarian states. According to the artifice of the novel, the text that we hold is the draft of the letter both to V. and to J.’s double (a sort of doppelgänger figure that I will discuss below). No clear reason is offered as to why J. would seem to withhold information from those closest to him. This tendency to hide information again suggests a habit formed under a totalitarian government. It is the habit of reticence described by the historian Orlando Figes in his study of Stalinism, The Whisperers (2007):
In a society where it was thought that people were arrested for loose tongues, families survived by keeping to themselves. They learned to live double lives, concealing from the eyes and ears of dangerous neighbors, and sometimes even from their own children, information and opinions, religious beliefs, family values and traditions, and modes of private existence that clashed with Soviet public norms. They learned to whisper. (xxxii) (9)
J.’s internally-censored narration does not remain silent, but it whispers. Information such as the names of the central protagonists and the narrator’s nationality remains ambiguously present. As in Figes’ evocative image of the whisperer, J. continues to communicate but modulates his speech, apparently out of a habit formed in circumstances where expression could lead to punishment.
The narration contains traces that the attentive reader may use to surmise the names of J. and V. In an attempt to help Kuzmovna pronounce his name, J. suggests that she call him “Joska” (26), a logical Russian diminutive form of José. On one occasion in the novel, a character addresses the protagonist by his full name, which in the narration is reduced to “J.P.” (34). The narrator erases the name but reveals that his last initial is P., allowing us to flesh out his name to José P. As for the love-interest, V., we learn her name only in the final word of the novel, as J. declares that he will begin his final letter to her “Querida Varia:” (318). Varia is the diminutive of the Russian name Varvara, and it is only when we see this diminutive that we understand an earlier hint included when J. notes his young Russian customer’s incorrect pronunciation of Bacardí: “[S]u nombre no se acentuaba en la a, sino en la i. No Ba-car-di como él dijo, sino Ba-car-dí(aunque no Bárbara, ese nombre de mujer, sino Var-va-ra), eso sí lo sabía” (288).
Cuba surfaces through similar narrative acrobatics. It first appears when J. lists the distant places from which he occasionally receives mail: “puntos tan distantes del globo como Japón o Nueva Zelanda (¡o incluso Cuba!)” (35). On this sole occasion in which the name of the island appears in the novel, it is not explained to be the narrator’s native country. Later in the novel, J. mentions “Mi madre, en La Habana” (143), apparently revealing himself as a Cuban. However, even this seemingly solid evidence proves inconclusive. Perhaps the city in question is not La Habana, Cuba. Or perhaps his mother has only recently migrated to Havana from a different country of origin. Even when suggesting that he is of Cuban origin, J.’s strong habit of hiding information leaves a margin for doubt. His coy hints about his Cuban origin suggest a narrator trying to communicate through ambiguity, to say without saying.
J.’s conflicted identity, hinted at in the ambiguous erasure of his name and place of origin, further appears in overt ways as he reflects on his own psychological state. In a complex operation of duplicity, J. tries to separate himself from Cuba and reduce his Otherness within Russia. He is acutely aware that because of his swarthy skin color he will never be able to pass for a Russian, but through his cultural and linguistic fluency, he strives to claim a spot for himself within Russian society. In Crimea, he refuses to stay in an expensive Yalta hotel “para extranjeros” and instead goes on to neighboring Livadia to find a guesthouse that serves only Russians (21). “Yo no era un extranjero, propiamente hablando,” he argues; “Había vivido demasiados años en Rusia para que se me pudiera considerar como tal” (21). In some cases, his cultural Russianness, the mask behind which he hides his Cuban origin, gains him a level of acceptance. In others it does not, as when he makes a comment about the syrupy Russian breakfast drink kisel: “Petrovich me salió al paso: ‘Usted cállese. Usted es extranjero’. Yo no había tenido una infancia con vasos de kisel en el desayuno, es cierto, pero ¿no contaban los litros, los cientos de litros que había tomado [...]?” (115). J. is silenced by his xenophobic neighbor, Petrovich, and this imposition of silence would seem to validate J.’s tactic of self-silencing his Cuban roots in order to gain acceptance. (10)
Hiding his origin and denying familiarity with Bacardí are only two examples of many in which J. conceals his Cubanness. He is a diasporic subject, but he does everything he can to define himself by his present and not by his past. As he states, “Tampoco era un exiliado, no me gustaba esa palabra (prefiero una anterior a 1917 e incluso a 1789). Era tan sólo un viajero” (117). By eschewing the term exile, he avoids defining himself either by his place of origin or his place of residence. He wants to be simply a traveler, a figure who is defined only by his itinerancy. Traveler is a permanently ambiguous identity, coming from nowhere and settling nowhere. Interestingly, even in these sentences in which he declares his wish to be defined by the ambiguous traveler, he feels the need to avoid Cuba. This Cuban in the diaspora does not mention the most obvious historical referent that could lead a Cuban to be called an exile: the wave of emigration from Cuba during the early 1960s. He alludes to the Russian and French exiles after their respective revolutions, but he resists even this type of oblique connection to Cuba.
J.’s self-definition as traveler, silencing as it does the particulars of his origin, contributes to the split identity that troubles him. As he admits, “Había experimentado, en varias ocasiones, la extraña sensación de vivir dividido” (116). In many diasporic novels the division of the self is clearly, and perhaps predictably, enunciated along the line between homeland and adopted land. In contrast, Prieto’s narrator explains his internal division as the result of his constant travels. He develops an elaborate pseudo-scientific theory explaining how his travels have led to a slow falling away of particles from his self. The scattered particles have coalesced into a second J., a double, who travels along the same trajectory but is unable to catch up to the original J. This second J. is not an evil doppelgänger. “No se trataba,” he explains, “de un doctor Jekyll y un míster Hyde turnándose en el bien y el mal, sino dos J. esencialmente buenos (¿cómo, si no, hubiera aceptado rescatar a V.?) actuando en diferentes lugares, bilocados” (118). The double is not a figure to be feared, but rather one to be sought, for this division of the self has left J. incomplete, depleted by the inexorable dispersion of particles during his years of constant travel. J. is hoping to retire from smuggling, and this impending change combines with his being abandoned by V. to give him a personal crisis at the time of the novel’s enunciation, as he resides alone in Livadia. The possibility of finding his double offers the hope of a renewed wholeness of self.
J. achieves a humorous flash of connection with his double during his butterfly-hunting expedition in the Caspian Depression. He imagines that the sparks rising from his campfire are souls freed by the flame and that they
algo deben haberle informado a mi otra mitad errante, importunándola por un segundo, en algún bar de Linz, en Austria: ‘Hace unos instantes vimos a J. junto a una hoguera, a orillas del Volga. Parecía triste. ¿Nunca piensas en él?’ Mi doble farfullaría molesto, volvería a su jarra de cerveza pero por un segundo debe haber tenido un pensamiento para mí, y en ese instante recuperé mi integridad, volví a existir en mi anterior calidad por una breve fracción de tiempo... (88)
This momentary recuperation of wholeness brings J. a revelation, as he stumbles across a scrap of newspaper that mentions the palace and gardens of the czars near the Crimean town of Livadia, a potential breeding ground for the yazikus. Reunification with the double enables this discovery and others, as we see later. Indeed, the urge to reconnect with his other half becomes so strong that he begins to think of the double as a second intended reader of his letter. He explains,
Debía explicarle a mi alma, con toda la claridad que me era posible en este estado de división, por qué había actuado de manera tan irracional en Estambul. Poniéndolo en el papel, quizá llegaría a entender plenamente los móviles de mi conducta (116).
However, in his debilitated, divided state he cannot write successfully. He decides to halt his constant travels in Livadia, where he “viviría a la espera de que mi doble, que había dejado atrás por la demasiada velocidad de mis desplazamientos (en tren, en barco y en avión), se me uniera y recobrara yo la plenitud anterior” (119).
While J. explains his divided self in terms of his post-totalitarian present, it seems to be at least partially a vestige of his totalitarian past. On the one hand, J. attributes his division to his recent mobility. For him, as for everyone in Cuba or the USSR, mobility across borders was limited during the Cold War. With restrictions now all but gone in post-Soviet Russia, J. travels at will, but he has not yet acclimated to his new situation, and it creates in him a sense of instability. At the same time, being split in two is similar to self-masking, the double life to which Figes refers as a survival tactic in a totalitarian society. The habit of living a double life lingers even when the repressive state that initially inspired it is gone. Though J. may choose to view his sense of division and his inability to write in scientific terms, we can relate them to the totalitarian systems in which he has lived and to the internal censorship inculcated by those systems. J.’s recognition of his divide and his effort to recuperate wholeness represent steps towards overcoming internal censorship.
The theme of the double is interwoven with J.’s search for the nearly extinct yazikus. In the beginning, he views the yazikus as a piece of cargo to be found, transported and exchanged for cash. “Para mí,” he freely admits, “aquéllas eran sólo mariposas: yo desconocía cómo trocarlas por unas vacaciones en Niza, libros o cuadros al óleo. No me interesaba admirar el dibujo de sus alas, sólo quería sacar dinero de aquello” (81). He also immediately sees the search for the yazikus as a step away from the typically dangerous and violent world of smuggling, and he gladly accepts this unusual commission. After failing to catch the yazikus in the Caspian Depression, he meets with Stockis in Istanbul and convinces him to finance a second expedition, this time to the Black Sea town of Livadia. At this point, however, the search itself comes into question, as he reveals to the reader that “[e]n Livadia no me ocuparía de cazar mariposa alguna (mucho menos el yazikus) y no le devolvería aquel dinero” (216).
After arriving in Livadia, J. mixes an uncertain amount of butterfly hunting with the compulsive reading of collections of letters, as he drafts his own letter to V. His search continues, but the object of the search appears to shift, for while J. as protagonist continues to view the yazikus as just a butterfly, J. as narrator begins to speak with analogies that suggest to us its metaphorical meanings. As he recalls his efforts to write the letter to V., he speaks of the written text as a butterfly: “el borrador de mi respuesta cuyas hojas, en las noches sin sueño, parecían cobrar vida bajo la luz de la lámpara, pero que, a la mañana siguiente, las descubría muertas porque al dejar de calentarlas con mis manos se abarquillaban, apagándose como las alas de ciertas mariposas” (119). In this way, the narrator connects the ever-elusive butterfly to the similarly elusive written text that he tries to compose.
The very name yazikus indicates that this butterfly is more than a simple insect. The name is a latinization of the Russian yazik (язык), which means both language and tongue. Thus, J.’s quest for the butterfly is also a quest for language, a concept that we may expand to include words, communication and literature. We see the parallel searches blending together in his mind as he awakens from a nap and asks, “¿Qué asunto me ocupaba antes de dormirme? ¿El Yazikus euxinius? No, las cartas, el arte epistolar” (125). At times he considers abandoning the search for the butterfly, and by extension the search for the words with which to write, convinced that it is futile, “seguro de que el yazikus se había extinguido para siempre: podía culparse de ello al DDT, a la agricultura intensiva, a los setenta años de poder soviético” (74). The last of these causes is particularly suggestive. The seventy years of Soviet rule saw numerous ecological disasters that could have led to the extinction of a butterfly. But if we view the yazikus as a metaphorical embodiment of literature, the seventy years of Soviet rule were hardly more forgiving. Both through an active censorship bureaucracy and through the cultivation of the limiting socialist-realist aesthetic, the Soviet authorities, like the Cubans after them, arguably saw the end of literature as collateral damage in the construction of the new society.
Fittingly, J.’s aid in the search for the yazikus is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, the Russian émigré who was not published in the USSR until late in the years of Perestroika. Nabokov appears in Livadia in numerous forms. J.’s favorite bookseller in St. Petersburg is the elderly and erudite Vladimir Vladimirovich, from whom he buys the books used to plan his expedition to the Caspian Depression and later the books used to prepare his letter to V. One of the most important books that J. buys as he prepares for his expedition is “Mariposas diurnas y nocturnas del imperio ruso, por V.V. Sirin” (73). V. Sirin was one of Nabokov’s early pennames, though the volume purchased by J. is apocryphal. Nabokov is mentioned directly on one occasion, as J. notes that “Nabokov había donado su colección de mariposas al museo de Lausana, en Suiza, envueltas … en sobrecitos de fino papel caligrafiados” (300). We may see Nabokov’s passion for lepidoptery behind a large portion of the narration’s plot involving butterflies and behind J.’s descriptions of women in terms of butterflies. As J. himself notes, perhaps suggesting his debt to the narrator of Nabokov’s Lolita, “Debemos ver a Humbert Humbert … como a un cazador que persigue a un ejemplar de la familia nymphalidae, subyugado por el perfume que secretan sus glándulas ventrales” (300).
That this novel should be, in part, homage to Nabokov, aligns it with that author, one known for his fascination with descriptive language, with yazik. Nabokov’s presence in the novel also brings to mind the limitations placed on his works by the regime of censorship in place in the Soviet Union. (11) For his part, J. attempts to preempt non-literal readings of his narration: “¿Cabía ver el yazikus como un símbolo de la libertad de Rusia, que tan sólo ahora, etcétera? Claro que no, nada de eso. Ahí estaba, era un insecto que quizá valía miles de dólares” (302). Though the narrator may try to give univocity to his narration, the fact remains that the butterfly for which he hunts belongs to the invented genus yazikus, a name that encourages interpretive readings. The connections of the butterfly to written texts and to Nabokov create a web of meaning in which the novel may be read as both a criticism of censorship and an exaltation of an author who wrote with apparent disregard for potential censorship. This criticism of Soviet censorship, coming as it does from the voice of a Cuban writer-protagonist, implies a criticism of the Soviet-style censorship in Cuba as well.
J.’s literary inclinations inform his search for the yazikus. We find few indications about J.’s past, but the details that we receive indicate a character who has long hoped to become a writer. Describing his decision to work as a smuggler, J. states, “Yo había abandonado una vida normal, de aprendiz de escritor con varios fines de semana descargando carne en un frigorífico de San Petersburgo … Yo quería llegar a convertirme en algo más que un novelista, llegar a ser algo más que un escritor de historias y me lancé al agua fría del contrabando” (62-63). His decision to enter a life of contraband seems to be driven by a desire to see the world beyond books, and the details learned in his life as a non-writer later provide material for his written work. His dreams for the future also revolve around literature, as he explains to V., “Quería irme a un lugar donde pudiera reunir una biblioteca que pudiera visitar por las tardes, después de pasarme las mañanas ejercitándome en escribir (cartas, tal vez)” (223).
For much of the novel, however, J. is a writer who does not write. As we have seen, he has hoped to be a novelist, but in Livadia we see no suggestion that he has ever written a novel. Only after settling in Livadia does he begin to write anything at all, and then he writes his letter with agonizing slowness. He describes his writer’s block in his Livadia hotel: “Sin haber escrito una línea, apoyé la cabeza sobre la mesa y dormité en esa posición, incómodo” (41). Even when writing a telegram, J. is curiously incapable of creating an original text. When he sends a telegram to Vladimir Vladimirovich, he does so through a surprising process of compilation. Looking at the numerous sample telegrams on display in the office, he compiles his own. “Lo escribí de un tirón,” a notable difference from his struggle to write a single line of his letter to V., “sin que me temblara el pulso, copiando palabra por palabra las muestras escritas en letra de molde bajo el vidrio del pupitre … Pasé ágilmente de uno a otro telegrama, hallando las palabras precisas, los giros correctos” (42). This style of compilation lends itself to readings under postmodern theories that problematize the concept of originality in writing. However, J.’s reliance on compilation as a writing strategy, even in the most mundane of texts, also shows a subject plagued by internal censorship, unconfident and unable to enunciate his thoughts. This struggle to write will finally end when J. reunites with his double.
Wholeness begins to return to J. when he finds, or thinks he may have found, the yazikus. He chases the butterfly frantically through the forest near Livadia, but at the same moment, he realizes that he cannot be sure of the yazikus’ appearance: “Sólo entonces caí en la cuenta de que cualquier mariposa podía ser el yazikus; las descripciones divergían. Stuart no lo mencionaba. El ejemplar descrito por Sirin difería mucho—no le dije a Stockis—de la descripción que él me proporcionó” (302). There seems to be something reassuring in this freedom. If literary language is not a single elusive species in near extinction, but rather any of the thousands of butterflies that J. has seen during his search, perhaps the writing process is not so daunting. In the wake of this revelation, J. continues to pursue comically what he thinks to be the yazikus, but when the butterfly finally eludes him in the forest twilight, he finds himself satisfied, “Alegre por haber dejado escapar la mariposa” (308).
Returning to the inn, he appears to encounter his double at last. He loses consciousness upon meeting his errant half, and while he is unconscious he dreams:
Tirado en el piso soñé que, como un cartoon de Disney, entraba en mi cuerpo su copia etérea y me ponía de pie, iba hasta la mesa y me sentaba a escribir una larga carta, calamo curente, al correr de la pluma, y de mi mesa caían hojas tras hojas, toda la noche. Me sentí el hombre más feliz del mundo: había, por fin, hallado la clave. Soñé que escribí una carta perfecta, rebosante de ideas … Cuando desperté no recordaba ni una palabra de aquella carta pero, todavía sobre el suelo, me sentí perfectamente feliz, seguro de que sabría reproducir en la vigilia aquel estado hipnótico, que había dejado atrás la búsqueda... (313)
J. awakes newly whole and confident. He has left behind his search for the yazikus butterfly, finding instead the yazik with which to write. Completing this restoration of wholeness, he performs what we may read as a purifying ritual of fire, burning the letters that V. has written him, the notes that he has made to prepare his response and even the draft of his letter. That is, in a paradoxical twist on the mise-en-abîme trope, the text of the draft—which is the novel itself—is destroyed. “Y las arrojé todas,” he says, referring to V.’s letters, “después de leerlas, al fuego. Leí también, de punta al cabo, este borrador, todos mis apuntes, los fragmentos de cartas ajenas, que fui lanzando al fuego. Algunas se elevaban propulsadas por el aire caliente, las llamas lamiendo sus bordes, rojas como mariposas” (318). The purifying force of fire cleanses away the unfruitful prior attempts to write, and the reunification with his double gives him wholeness of self.
The Cuban subject divided by the habits of internal censorship is now, it would appear, healed. Wholeness of self signifies a triumph over the manifestations of internal censorship, such as duplicity and silence. J. advances, confident now in his ability to write the text that he has been seeking. As he walks away from the town of Livadia, he recites to himself what will be the first words of a new letter to V., “sentido y franco, sin una sombra de duda, comenzaría mi carta a V.: Querida Varia:” (318). In this final sentence J. speaks with the confidence of one who will be capable of writing unambiguously, “sin una sombra de duda.” He envisions a fresh beginning, the start of a new text. As he leaves behind both Livadia and the internal censorship that has defined his writing, the salutation of the new letter reveals the long-concealed name of his lover. Reading J. as an example of the post-Soviet Cuban subject, the novel would seem to end on a hopeful note. Internal censorship can be overcome, habits can be changed and divisions of the self can be mended.
4. This letter also figures in Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia, in which Kolia, a character who claims to have been born in a forced-labor camp, tells the other characters of “la carta escamoteada” (85), in which the author of the Communist Manifesto “explicaba por qué el experimento comunista no podía ser llevado a cabo en la madrecita Rusia. Carta que, pérfidamente, nos fue ocultada por los marxistas rusos” (85).
7. The author’s biographical sketch included on the dust jacket playfully hints at a close correspondence between the author and his smuggler protagonist, stating that while in Russia Prieto worked as the “director de una sospechosa empresa de exportaciones” as well as in “otras ocupaciones menos confesables” (Livadia).
9. As one more illustration of the similarities between the Cuban and Soviet contexts, the “dangerous neighbours” alluded to by Figes are reminiscent of the Cuban Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR), neighborhood watch groups established to monitor the activities of residents and insure their allegiance to the revolution.
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