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Approaching Demonia

  • May 23, 201620:19h
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Nabokov

A splendid Sue Lyon shouts her defiant “cha cha cha” in a hilarious scene from Kubrick’s Lolita. And that battle cry makes me ponder the curious ‘Cuban connections’ in Vladimir Nabokov’s oeuvre, and how they have become surprisingly current, now that the island seems determined to reclaim the American side of its lost memory.

In Transparent Things, the main character describes in his diary a pair of travellers, mother and daughter, who “have visited Cuba and China, and such-like dreary, primitive spots, and speak with fond criticism of the many charming and odd people they made friends with there”). In Pnin there are several mentions of a Tristram W. Thomas (“Tom” to his friends”), a professor of Anthropology, who “had obtained ten thousand dollars from the Mandoville Foundation for a study of the eating habits of Cuban fisherman and palm climbers.” In The Defense, Luzhin’s former schoolmate insists on reminding him of their paradisiac, communal life as students and is proud of his visit to the island (“You know I’ve traveled the whole world… What women in Cuba!”), until his listener discovers that these boasts of travel are pure fantasy and his world of exotic temptations, nothing more than the string of whoppers of a blowhard who likes to read travel prospects.

Nabokov’s penchant for chess led him to cross paths, as a young boy, with an illustrious Cuban: José Raúl Capablanca, who in 1914 played a renowned game versus Lasker in St. Petersburg before being awarded the title of Grand Master, granted by Tsar Nicholas II. Years later, in his book review of Evgueni Znosko-Borovski’s Capablanca and Alékhine, a rather severe Nabokov deployed his objections to Cuban’s game, which was too unorthodox for his taste.

In all of these “Cuban episodes” from Nabokov’s vast body of work, we invariably encounter a negative or mocking tone, an estrangement. During the 1960s, Nabokov, whose anti-totalitarian stance is perfectly clear in works like Bend Sinister or Invitation to a Beheading, professed over the course of an intense academic and editorial career his visceral hatred of the Castro regime —a natural consequence of his animosity toward a Bolshevism that had robbed him of home, language, and family. In a famous interview granted to the BBC, Nabokov even alluded directly to “Dr. Castro” as one of the four heads of the hydra that triggered torrential bile in him (the others were Dr. Freud, Dr. Zhivago, and Dr. Schweitzer).

A little-known episode from his biography illustrates all too well his political convictions; Nabokov never minded running the risk of seeming too political or politically “incorrect”. In late 1963 the French magazine L’Arc, run by the Micha brothers René and Ghislaine, offered to dedicate one of their prestigious monographic issues to Nabokov. He accepted with pleasure, but in autumn of that same year, having read a previous issue of L’Arc dedicated to Cuba, demanded that the editors include the following disclaimer in “his issue”:

“It is not my custom to display my political credo. Nevertheless a certain sympathy for Castro that I believe I detected in the Cuba issue of L’Arc forces me in this issue to make a little clarification of my principles. I do not care a fig for politics as such. I despise all force which strikes at liberty of thought. I am against any dictatorship, right or left, terrestrial or celestial, white, grey or black, pink, red or purple, Ivan the Terrible or Hitler, Lenin, Stalin or Khrushchyev, Trujillo or Castro. I accept only governments that let the individual say what he likes.” [Letter to René Micha, December 5, 1963, Vladimir Nabokov Archive, quoted in Bryan Boyd: Nabokov, The American Years, pp. 475-76].

The Micha brothers were quite peeved. At the time, the Cuban Revolution formed an essential part of the imagery of Saint Germain chic, and they believed they were making a strictly literary magazine, although beneath the cover featuring a drawing by Wifredo Lam and alongside short stories by Calvert Casey, Alejo Carpentier, and Virgilio Piñera or photos by Agnès Varda, lay a text by Fidel Castro on the Battle of Jigüe. (By the way, in the table of contents of the Cuban issue of L’Arc, a curious text by Guillermo Cabrera Infante appears that, in time, would merit his presiding over a hypothetical society of Cuban Nabokovites: Nabokov and Cabrera share, among other things, an admiration for Hitchcock and Lewis Carroll, chess as a form of mental gymnastics, disdain for Freud, and a particular sense of wordplay as humor… in addition to their anti-Castro position, Nabokov being the first to repudiate him).

Larc

The editors of the magazine wrote at length to Nabokov trying to convince him that L’Arc was an apolitical magazine, and that his letter would politicize it needlessly. Nabokov replied:

“You tell me that I put L’Arc in an impossible situation; but the situation in which the Cuban issue has placed me is no laughing matter either. You tell me that my publisher Gallimard has published authors of very diverse political views; agreed, but a publishing house is a grand hotel, Place de la Gare, where one doesn’t worry about one’s neighbor, whereas a review is a salon where everyone remembers yesterday’s guest.” [Letter from VN, December 11, 1963, quoted in idem, pag. 476].

By no means would Nabokov take a room neighboring that of a (bearded) communist. Finally, he suggested a mutual agreement just as the magazine was about to go to press. His note would be printed without the first two sentences: his anti-totalitarian credo was already clear enough. The Micha brothers agreed.

But the most interesting of Nabokov’s “Cuban connections” is, perhaps, involuntary. It appears in Ada, or Ardor, a novel published in 1969 in which the author imagines a planet of sorts, Antiterra or Demonia, whose geography combines the traits of Russia and the United States. On Antiterra, everything happens at least fifty years earlier in comparison to Terra, a strange world the existence of which has not been altogether proven. The area we call Russia was conquered centuries ago by the Tartars, whereas America was colonized by the Russians, British, and French. In an astonished review [Commentary, August 1, 1969], Rober Adler described this mish-mash in the best possible way: “historical periods as well as cultural boundaries have been hybridized—the Daemonian 19th century combines the quiet country houses of Chekhov and Jane Austen with telephones, airplanes, skyscrapers; a mock-Maupassant figure is contemporaneous with the author of a Lolita-like novel masquerading (anagrammatically) as J. L. Borges”.

It is generally understood that life is perfectly capable of imitating art. Circumstances that defy even the wildest powers of imagination caused the USSR to be invaded from 1960 to 1989 by an avalanche of Cuban students, the protagonists of a Cold War Bildungsroman without precedent. A great deal of the Cuban academic elite was trained in there during that period. Watching them cross Nevsky Prospect or Kalinin Avenue, shoulders hunched, wrapped up in their threadbare coats, was proof of the extent to which politics at times succeeds in violating geography. The result: adolescences grafted onto a strange medium that in the end would become, not unlike that territory invented by Nabokov, a combination of Russia and the United States.

A Cuban —such as myself, for example— who was sent off to some point within the vast Soviet geography in those years was obliged to implement a complex mental process in order to incorporate the memory of parents who had grown up in the fifties (baseball, the Mob, skyscrapers along the waterfront…) into communist utopian ideology (grim morality, five-year planning, a society reduced to the beekeeper model…). Capitalism and socialism were melded, thus, into a sort of tropical ideological amalgam, and our adolescent dreams were watered down by abundant kitsch-poshlost, secreted by glands on both sides of the political spectrum.

This mix still fascinates many tourists disguised as amateur anthropologists, hypnotized admirers of a museum-like society (“I have to go there before it’s ruined!” they say), where old American cars are still running, educated people converse about Soviet filmography, and the political police have overly fond memories of the dystopia described in Invitation to a Beheading: there is hardly any need to oppress citizens, because except for a small number of dissidents, nearly everyone joyfully embraces the vulgar transparence of “Truth,” while an executioner with an odd sense of humor requires that the beheading take place in “that atmosphere of warm camaraderie which, with the help of patience and kindness, is gradually created between the sentenced and the executor of the sentence.”

Ernesto Hernández Busto

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