Not for bringing to mind the word hodgepodge is a book like Tumult, by German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Malpaso Ediciones, 2015), necessarily condemned to be an imitation of chaos and the ordinary mess of memory.
The Bavarian-born writer recounts how, upon arriving in Leningrad in August 1962, with an invitation to a subpar congress where he would meet Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Ungaretti, Sholokhov, and Evtushenko, the first thing he did was ask for a map of the city, just to realize that his naive act had provoked incomprehension. “In general,” he recalls, “no one seemed to be interested in maps. The mere question caused surprise. Only spies are after such state secrets.”
Arriving from West Berlin, the heart of global espionage during the Cold War years, Enzensberger was starting his journey through two capitals that are central to understanding the pulse and that other, enormous divide of the 20th century: Moscow and Havana. That is what this book is about: it is the story of a map. Like a story that is told by a detached voice, through a small box and headphones, when we enter a museum.
From that initial trip to the Soviet Union – following the footsteps of the old Gide and so many others –, the portrait of Novosibirsk kommunalkas’ microcosm stands out, those dwellings of the old bourgeoisie that had been converted with the flick of a finger into a succession of disheveled rooms where people, forty-five years after the triumph of the soviets, still crammed together, “not only temporarily, but for decades”, sharing a single bathroom and an overload of nocturnal murmurs. “It smells of vinegar and dirty water,” writes Enzensberger. “The neighbors fight in the kitchen. ‘My fur hat has disappeared, and who has stolen little Aliona’s teddy bear?’”.
There will also be, as a nod to those of us who lived at some point under the same conditions, the empty shelves at the stores, the shop windows displaying “pyramids of old canned goods”, the three standard lines that must be made to buy any product, and the total absence of feminine pads. “The planned economy,” he remarks, “seems to ignore the fact that women live in this land. No one can explain it to me.”
This is the extent, we would add, irrational, of this kind of book: that our own history often lacks a manual of instructions to explain much of what is happening before our eyes.
Another memorable moment, perhaps because of the cinematographic nature of its representation, is that of Enzensberger’s return to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian train, and the image of those solitary stations, not a soul in sight, consisting of “a dimly lit barrack” from which a statue of Lenin stands out with his right hand stretched out, “as if asking to get on the train”, which brings us back, through the solitude and the picture of the steppe, to the story “Memory of the Kalda train”, which Kafka introduced in his diary of 1914.
Back in the capital, Enzensberger starts what he calls “my Russian novel”, his turbulent love affair with Maria Makarova, daughter of a forgotten poetess, and Aleksandr Fadéiev, the suicidal author of The Young Guard. Hand in hand with Masha, Enzensberger will visit Peredélkino, with those “crooked huts” that contrast so sharply with the dashas assigned both to writers who have been loyal to the regime and the officials of the powerful Writers’ Union. “Was it quieter there, or more exposed to danger?”. In addition to being the abject place of literate officialdom, Peredélkino is also the place where Boris Pasternak would die, in its perpetually silent house whose fenced garden Enzensberger approaches for a few minutes before continuing on his way.
Finally, the writer turns to Georgia, the land where Stalin was born, with the leader’s portraits glued to the windshields of almost every car, his twenty-meter statue in front of the town hall, and even the “monstrous museum” that pays tribute to him, displaying his pipes, his uniforms, and his funeral mask.
Tumult is, above all things, the testimony of a writer’s struggle with his own memory and, beyond that, with the idea of a certain ostentatious historical legacy that every man of letters must generate. Going against his rational self –the one that watches over our sanity and the balance of our soul–, Enzensberger is confronted with the irruption of memory when he discovers in the basement of his house in Germany, hidden between the wine rack and a toolbox, several cardboard wrappings containing 40-odd-year-old notebooks, packets of letters, photos, manuscripts, newspaper clippings, a 60-cm-long Gallo machete “of Chinese manufacture”, some Polaroid glasses that survived the Caribbean, Cambodian coins, rubles, a “crumbling” two Cuban peso bill with Ernesto Guevara’s signature… The task would have been arduous, but –he stresses– nothing of what he found was invented. Everything belonged to his own personal map.
“Could these raw materials still be of any use?” –he wonders. At the age of 85, at the closing of the only cycle we have been granted, Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes this atypical book of memoirs after re-reading his campaign diaries, aware that the impossibility of fully representing what happened in the past gives rise to the “famous cartographic paradox”: there is no map equal to another, even when both pretend to faithfully reproduce a specific reality.
That’s the origin of the five texts collected in Tumult, a book constructed in the spirit of the confessional, of memorabilia; a sort of domestic noir in which we can independently pursue, without the help of manuals or historiographic theories, the itinerary of our own existence –which in the case of the German author is also the journey of Marxist utopia, of egalitarianism, but above all of the totalitarian enterprise–, aided only by that moldy bunch of papers that we think we left forgotten on a distant shelf.
Mention apart deserves the piece entitled “Memories of a tumult (1967-1970)”, in which Enzensberger evokes his arrival in Havana amid a “relaxed, euphoric climate”, under “a different atmospheric pressure from that of Moscow, East Berlin or Warsaw”.
“After all,” he says, “the Cuban Revolution had not been imported with the help of Soviet tanks. It had triumphed without the Russians”. He was accompanied, in what he calls “a political carnival”, by several of the most outstanding left-wing vedettes around the world: Hobsbawm, Leiris, Nono, Cortázar, Siqueiros, Einaudi, Feltrinelli…
But on his second visit, the vision is already different. He was offered a tour of the country to, in the words of a revolutionary minister, “understand the situation”, and he was given his own driver, a character who fulfilled “the function of a watchman and the activity of a smuggler, a subtropical mixture not uncommon in Cuba”.
The variety of characters met by the German-Soviet couple during their long stay at the Hotel Nacional is striking –later on, the atmosphere would become boringly aseptic–: a mysterious compatriot, the hijacker of a Texas plane, the niece of a former Cuban president, and even the poet and guerrilla fighter Roque Dalton, “who had fled from his comrades because they wanted to end his life”, all of whom the Bavarian sees as “castaways”, subjects stranded in space and time, only masters of their own porosity.
The author does not hide it: “I wanted to know what was going on behind the façade”. This leads him to peek into all the tableaux: from a basketball game where “the boss” pretends to be just one more on the court,” in which Enzensberger detects “an element of banditry” as “Fidel is like an outlaw boss and the members of the gang act as courtiers”; to the visit to a model air-conditioned cattle farm, whose equipment had been imported from Europe and its specialized personnel brought from Switzerland, through which the Maximum Leader aspired to generate a highly efficient type of cattle that would supply the country with all the milk and cheese it needed.
From this and his contacts with Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera, or Heberto Padilla (whom Enzensberger compares to Evtushenko in his tendency to gabble; a man, Heberto, “who oscillated with great ease between seriousness and cynicism”), the writer and his young wife perceive Havana as an anthill made of tenement houses with endless passageways, twists, and turns, so similar to those of the Spanish Barrios in Naples, but also like “a Caribbean version of the Soviet kommunalka”.
One of the memorable moments in this book takes place amid the aisles of the old meat market on Carlos III Avenue. At the door of the market, a group of uniformed militia women stands guard. The writer climbs the huge concrete ramp leading to the top floor, and notices some banners and posters reading “Cuba will triumph! Cuba: an example for all America!”.
But at this point, it is no longer about meat or commerce. In the famous Havana building, human mannequins are now being made of plaster, soaked newspapers, and cardboard for the country’s schools: “A strapping black man painstakingly shapes a skull in plaster and then paints it. Other people make legs, breasts, and hands, also in plaster. A few steps away, in the next room, the figures are cast. It is now that the actual manufacturing begins. Four hundred ex-officials work in one room.
Suddenly, the reader is brought back to the detailed, minimalist vision with which Cuban poet Julián del Casal described the details of the well-known Havana slaughterhouse in 1890; a kind of bullring devoted to the slaughter and butchering of beasts, a space marked by the “salty smell of fresh meat”, the murmur of flies and “the stained clothes of the slaughterers”.
Everything is very vivid in these two texts, distant in time but dedicated to the same city: the yellowish and reddened ditch that crosses the slaughterhouse as seen by Casal, and the “garish, monstrous, diabolical” colors of the revolutionary homunculus of the 20th century. The Havana poet highlights the amphitheater structure with which the slaughterhouse has been conceived, with bleachers so that people, “either for pleasure or for idleness,” come to the show, socialize, and even encourage the matadors from afar in the middle of their work.
It is not difficult to picture the German writer, who still thinks he can smell the old stench of the blood in the erstwhile market, trying to approach those “sour-faced bureaucrats” who in 1968 colored the tonsils, vesicles, and matrices of their assigned dummies; or exchanging a few words in his broken Spanish with the civil servant who has dipped a mannequin in a container of “poison green” paint so that next some other anonymous hero can apply “a sinister pink” before an old mulatto man finally draws the dummy’s muscles “with an ox-blood red brush”.
Much earlier in Tumult, Enzensberger had seen “the predilection for blood and death” in Cuban political discourse as macabre, along with the capricious morbidness of “Fatherland or death!”, a slogan that was pronounced, to his astonishment, even when petits fours were served at receptions.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who surely never read Casal, but did read Baudelaire, ended up considering this “factory of men” as “the inversion of the slaughterhouse”, a euphoric space –a shopping mall in reverse– where the participants in the creation of this communist Frankenstein “share their optimism and spontaneity”.
The story of the fabrication of a low-cost being made of foreign parts assembled by equally mechanized characters is not shadowboxing, or a filler within the framework of this book, although its critics in Spanish have overlooked it. Insightfully, this glance at the concrete ramp of the Carlos III market coexists with the stage in Cuban history in which all private initiative was terminated, while the full embrace of the Soviet communist model was taking place.
Enzensberger and Masha walked the streets of Havana at the very moment when the Revolutionary Offensive was closing down the smallest of private establishments, while Fidel Castro was supporting the invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries into the Czechoslovakian territory. As would happen in old Bohemia from that ill-fated summer onwards, in Cuba a “normalization” process was starting, of which the humanoid observed by the German writer was the best example. Since generating a true “new man” was proving so laborious (shot or imprisoned commanders, ousted ministers, thousands of citizens exiled…), why not start by producing a kind of android out of soaked newspapers, plaster, and paint, just as they were already trying to create a perfect cow, capable of producing the best food for our children.
From the Trans-Siberian train to the writers’ retreat in Peredélkino to the Stalin stickers pasted on every car in Georgia, to the air-conditioned farm where an enormous Camembert cheese was produced that Castro sent to Enzensberger’s room at the Hotel Nacional, Tumult is the story of a delirium.
* This text was originally published in Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, n. 791, May 2016, pp. 154-158; and also in the digital magazine Potemkin, Barcelona, n. 14, August-December, 2016. It is reproduced with the permission of the author.