The documentary opens in 1976, with a dramatic recreation inside a Havana funeral home. Reflected on a black casket candles flicker, as we hear voices and shapes of women praying. The sound of hushed conversation filters into the room from the mourners gathered away from view. We learn that the dead man is José Lezama Lima, once a celebrated poet and novelist, author of a seminal and controversial novel, Paradiso, whose work had been censored by the Cuban government, and had since passed into obscurity. One witness recalls the words of Lezama’s widow born from a long held frustration. “They left me alone with the man,” she said, “now leave me alone with the corpse.”
Act One, Orígenes, covers the first 53 years of Lezama’s life. It begins in spring 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, and just weeks after Lezama’s sister, Eloísa, left Cuba with her husband for exile in Miami. The act begins with the dramatic reading of one of Lezama’s Lima’s earliest letters to his sister, where he relates a dream by their mother, Doña Rosa:
“We wake up and Mother tells me, “I dreamt that it was raining when Eloy was leaving in the morning. It was pouring. Then I called her house on the phone. ‘Eloy, did you arrive OK? Did you get too wet?” …I should confess that Mother telling the story of that dream, in her enchanting simplicity, saddened me all day… “We dream of your return…”
Illustrated by an abstract scene of rain, more like threatening shards of glass than soothing drops of water and by family photographs from the 1950s and early 1960s, the letter underscores the ache of separation, a central theme of a correspondence that will continue for the next fifteen years, until Lezama Lima’s death and provides the armature of our documentary.
Over the course of the first act, we learn of Lezama’s enthusiastic embrace of the Cuban Revolution as the fruition of Cuba’s destiny: “All the curses have been beheaded,” he wrote. “The ring that had fallen to the bottom of the fountain, like in ancient mythologies, has been found.” It is an enthusiasm shared by most Cubans who saw in the revolution a promise of national renewal, and by many prominent Western intellectuals who looked at the island as a hope for humanist socialism away from the Stalinist East Bloc. Archive and testimony of those heady first years speak of a literacy campaign, of books printed by the thousand, of expanded cultural access for the masses. “We had a future, an enormous project to conclude, we were giddy with the prospect for cultural creation,” one witness recollects. But Castro’s Speech to the Intellectuals in June, 1961, where he stated “Within the Revolution Everything, Against the Revolution Nothing,” carried with it an implicit threat of government censorship. Lezama, largely apolitical and dedicated to the rebirth of Cuban culture, was named vice-president of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists, and remains an influential member of the cultural establishment. Yet his letters describe a life in Cuba circumscribed by privation and loneliness, and by the constant negotiations between government officials and artists and intellectuals in the years following Castro’s 1961 dictum.
“If there is no freedom there is no possibility, if there is no freedom there is no poetry. If there is no freedom, there can be no truth,” he wrote his sister Eloísa.
As the camera tilts from the text of the letter to the half closed blinds of Lezama’s home in Trocadero Street we see the ornate façade of the building across the street. The blank canvas of sheets fluttering on the balcony take us back to Lezama’s childhood in Havana.
Based on a rich archive collection of family photographs, we establish Lezama’s Cuban roots, the tragic death of his father, and of the childhood asthma that limited his activity but turned him into a voracious and remarkably retentive reader. At the University of Havana’s law school, he participates in demonstrations against a 1930s dictator, Gerardo Machado, then withdraws from politics and turns to poetry. Illustrated by evocative imagery we hear fragments of Lezama’s first poem The Death of Narcissus. Lezama emerges as the intellectual leader of a new generation of Cuban artists and intellectuals dedicated to constructing an authentic identity for a nation coming of age under the strong influence of the US.
“In gardens, coffee houses and parks dialogue and and spiritual exercises are replaced by the desire to attain luxury,” he lamented. “Everywhere people are replacing their colonial furniture with American living room sets.”
We learn of Lezama’s complex poetics, his commitment to the Latin-American baroque, and his focus on finding an authentic Cuban culture. “Lezama was a deep thinker who believed that a European culture in decline could be revived by cultural renovation in the new world,” one scholar tells us us. It is in this period that he creates Orígenes, Latin America’s most influential literary journal where he defined “transcendental nationalism,” a concept of nation based on culture and family and erotic rather than politics history that he will
Act Two, Paradiso, covers the period from 1964 to 1968. The act opens with a letter by Lezama addressed to his family now all in exile:
“Dear sisters, nephews, and all family members united in grief: .we have lost a great family guide who suffered much and passed away remembering all of you….
Doña Rosa Lima’s death was a transformative event in Lezama Lima’s life. Following the 1962 Missile Crisis flights between Havana and Cuba ceased, and the poet at the death of his mother was now stranded in Cuba, and totally alone. It pushed him to marry his secretary, his quiet homosexuality notwithstanding, at his mother’s last request; it also led him to complete the novel he had been working on for decades, a monumental work published at a time when the cultural effervescence of early years of the revolution was beginning to run against the limits set by the State. We are introduced to the proud excesses of Paradiso, Lezama’s and, through interviews learn that it was widely regarded as a masterpiece; we are also introduced to the novel’s graphic homoerotic content, in tasteful, suggestive recreations.
Lezama’s timing, we learn, was problematic. Prior to the publication of the novel, a few zealous revolutionary writers had criticized Lezama for his Catholicism, and for the “elitism” of his hermetic poetry; his work though apolitical was not openly critical of the revolution. But Paradiso appeared at the very moment when the Cuban government was engaged in a campaign against homosexuals, who were thought threatening to the “new” Cuba of manly heroism and personal sacrifice. Official publications, headlined on the screen, lashed out at the novel and its author while the Minister of Interior ordered the book removed from book store shelves. It was only returned a close associate convinced Castro that censoring Lezama’s book would do more harm to the reputation of the revolution among its international allies, than the book’s homoerotic transgressions. The documentary stops to ask a crucial question: was Lezama challenging the regime’s homophobia or was the publication of Paradiso at the time a mere coincidence? The controversy seemingly resolved, the novel brought Lezama welcome offers from foreign publishers; perhaps even more important, it also earned him the admiration of the international literary community, including several well-known writers of the Latin American boom. Impressed by Lezama’s baroque masterpiece, Latin literary lions such as Julio Cortázar, Octavio Paz, and Mario Vargas Llosa celebrated the Cuban author as one of their own. Artists committed both to the Cuban Revolution and to the ambitions of Lezama’s magnum opus – “a great continent demanded a great novel,” one wrote admiringly– these prominent Latin American writers provided Lezama with invaluable protection against his detractors within Cuban official circles. Argentine Novelist Julio Cortázar had the novel published outside of Cuba and launched as an international phenomenon.
Today I received a telegram from Stockholm, Sweden to publish my novel Paradiso….It is almost ready to be available in English, French and Italian, the voice of an actor reads .
The sun streaming through the green stained glass, of Lezama’s windows creates an atmosphere of celebration on the artist’s 60th birthday. We see photographs of the Maestro laughing, smoking, surrounded by friends. Among them is Julio Cortázar. Without his intervention, one scholar asserts the novel would have died, as Castro only authorized one printing of 3,000 copies in Cuba.
Archive of tanks rolling into Prague fade up from black onto the screen, accompanied by newspaper headlines across the world condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 break the joyful mood of Lezama’s living room. Since the early days of the Revolution, Castro had coveted the approval of the international literati, who provided his government with useful ideological support against a hostile America determined to isolate Cuba. But with the Prague Spring, and the resulting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, relations within the socialist bloc were transformed, and old alliances fractured. Castro supported the Soviet invasion, much to his former backers’ dismay; Castro broke with his liberal supporters and moved unabashedly toward the Soviets. The censorship regime in Cuba was tightened, and writers like Lezama now had no one to turn to for help.
Act Three, Fuera del Juego, covers the period from 1968 to Lezama’s death in 1976. It begins late in 1968, when Lezama served on a jury that awarded a literary prize to a poet named Heberto Padilla. For three years now Cuba’s artistic and intellectual elite had waged combat with the government as the revolution radicalized. Padilla’s book, Fuera Del Juego, thinly veiled in poetry, was critical of the revolution. When an official asked Lezama to retract his vote in favor of the prize, he refused. Now Lezama, a Catholic with unorthodox ideas, a reputed homosexual, and the author of a scandalous book, was in the crosshairs.
Over the next two years, basking in the growing international success of Paradiso, but aware of his vulnerability in revolutionary Cuba, Lezama retreated to his house, and to the solace of good conversation with old friends and young admirers. But in March of 1971, Padilla was arrested. In late April after 5 weeks of confinement, he made a televised confession where he admitted he was a counter revolutionary, and, much as American writers and producers in 1950s Hollywood, he was forced to name names. The most prominent name was José Lezama Lima, whom Padilla accused of not supporting the revolution: Lezama, he said “was ungrateful and at his home anti-revolutionary comments and jokes were often shared.” Described by an eyewitness Padilla Affair which will be complemented by eyewitnesses who describe it as “a medieval
The Padilla affair, as it was called, was the most significant crisis in the intellectual history of the Cuban revolution. It marked a hardening of Cuban cultural policy, and a period of tight government censorship of the arts that continues to cast a shadow over Cuba’s cultural life. For Lezama, it marked the end of his career, and beginning of a time of painful isolation and ostracism. Friends shunned him. He was condemned to anonymity. His books were banned, his work not taught at schools, his name disappeared from library catalogues. Despite repeated invitations to travel, Lezama was denied permission to leave the country; his plans to reunite with his sister Eloísa repeatedly dashed, as the increasing despair of his correspondence demonstrates. He was effectively imprisoned in his rundown home on Trocadero Street, which deterioration, plainly visible in the photographs and in the surrounding distress of his neighborhood, mirrored his own inner state. In failing health, Lezama wrote his last letters to his sister: “To wait, wait and always wait….”
He died on August 9, 1976, a broken man, at sixty-six; his passing barely noted in the official newspaper Granma on Page 13, “Una Sensible Pérdida” “A Regretful Loss.”
The Epilogue, Rapsodia para el mulo, begins with Lezama’s recorded voice reciting a few lines from his poem, Raphsody for a Mule: “With what self assured step the mule steps into the abyss..,” Original photography shows the urban abyss of Lezama’s Havana neighborhood as we find, in recreation, the old writer at his desk . A decade after his death, we find out, Lezama was re-discovered by a young generation of artists and writers who saw in him an ethical artist whose celebration of a Cuban nation rooted on individual freedom and the synthesis of the baroque was a defiant refusal to accede to the government’s interpretation of Nation as a unified heroic epic. By the early 1990s, first inspired by the reforms of the USSR, and more urgently after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the government itself began an effort to distance itself from that monolithic interpretation and in particular, from the harsh treatment of homosexuals in the 1960s and regain some of its lost prestige. "Strawberry and Chocolate," an officially-sanctioned Cuban film about the friendship between a young Communist student, David and a homosexual writer, Diego was a giant step in that direction. At its center was Lezama Lima. A clip from the film shows the camera raking the floor and then revealing a photograph of Lezama Lima. The young Communist, David, asks Diego, "And who is that, your father? No. That is the best Cuban writer of all time."
In its final scene the documentary comes full circle, returning, this time over original photography of the crew wrapping up the last interview while descending the grand stairs of La Guarida where Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed, to Lezama’s voice reading Raphsody for a Mule. An interviewee recalls, from memory a few lines: “ I think that the resistance of Lezama, which has to do with that poem “step by step the mule in the abyss, extracting little sparks on the rock with their hoofs. I believe that the life of Lezama is all about.”
The film ends wtih a classic close up of an iconic Lezama Lima photograph, as we push into his eyes.
“Everything comes to those who wait.” Lezama had written his sister, Eloisa in the summer of 1963."