Armando Lucas Correa entered the nonfiction market a decade ago with En busca de Emma (Rayo, 2009), re-released in October 2021 in the original Spanish and in English translation under the title In Search of Emma, both published by Harper Collins.
At the age of 56, Correa, who was the theater critic of the Havana magazine Tablas in the 1980s, a reporter for El Nuevo Herald in the 1990s and, in the 2000s, editor in chief of People en Español magazine, began his career as a novel writer with The German Girl (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and The Forgotten Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2020), the first two parts of a trilogy that closes in 2023, with La viajera nocturna.
The books are of historical subject matter, in the genre known in English as WW2 fiction, or World War II fiction, have been translated into 17 languages and have sold around one million copies internationally. The financial settlement for Armando Lucas Correa’s next three books reached 1.2 million dollars, a record for a Cuban author. His titles can be purchased in bookstores and airport concessionaires around the world, from Tel Aviv to Stockholm, and from Adelaide to Warsaw. Some of the countries where they have reached bestseller status are Australia, Sweden and Canada.
In terms of sales and influence, Correa ranks comfortably above Wendy Guerra, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, Zoé Valdés and Leonardo Padura, and perhaps all of them together, so it could be said, without fear of exaggeration, that the author of The German Girl is the superstar of Cuban literature today.
So why do we know so little about him?
It is possible that Armando Lucas Correa has gone under the radar because of the way “the Cuban” is presented in his books. It is necessary, then, to redefine that geopoetic notion and find out if it has undergone metamorphoses since the times of Lezama Lima and Cintio Vitier, and more recently, since Padura’s heyday; or if it could be expressed in ways not yet tried by nativist literature.
What place can the Cuban claim in novels written in the language of historical romance? How can Cubanness be introduced in fictions conceived for the global consumer and set in Berlin, Morningside and Haute-Vienne? To get to the Cuban, as Correa conceives it, it will be necessary to resort to genetic archeology, to reformulate teleology. Sometimes it will be necessary to put a character under the microscope, to surprise him as an embryo. Microbiology, ecology and heredity come into play in these books.
In Search of Emma lays the groundwork for what might be called The Girl Cycle. It is the moment of creation in which the author, split in the paternity of a same-sex couple, undertakes the search for his creature. We must not lose sight of the fact that the girl sought is an entelechy that will take shape in the future installments of some national episodes yet to be written. The materialization of the promise will be, simultaneously, reality and ready-made: the new work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Consequently, the daughter Correa seeks arrives in a pack of thirteen, a baker’s dozen. One day, in La Jolla, the affluent suburb of San Diego, the writer awaits word from the fertility center where the assembly operations take place. In the chapter entitled “My Thirteen Babies,” Armando goes for a walk, to kill time, among the exotic plants of a greenhouse, while his thoughts run amok: “By now, a sperm must have already pierced the cell membrane of each of the thirteen eggs. The two nuclei must have merged and each contributed its genetic endowment. The zygote is already on its way.”
This is the moment when the author receives the following message: “All eggs were fertilized.” The Emma of the title bursts onto the scene as the heroine of the new Cuban novel, a Bovary who becomes cʼest moi in the strict sense. The narrative that will transport her from Europe to the New World, from coast to coast and, eventually, from clinical history to fiction WW2, is one of the great adventures of the Cuban spirit.
We know that to arrive at the greenhouse scene the author has considered selling his Manhattan apartment, toyed with the idea of a hefty bank loan, become an expert in adoption, fertilization and surrogacy, and overcome the skepticism of relatives and friends. Money, love and technology are intertwined in the narrative of the advent of the Girl. We are in the year in which Wikipedia appears and the first map of the human genome is published. In the distance we glimpse twin towers in flames.
“To have one child, I have killed five,” is the opening line of In Search of Emma. A little later, in The German Girl, which is the sequel to the same genetic saga, Armando Correa will set in motion, with a bang, the true story of the wandering Jews who escape from Nazism on the transatlantic Saint Louis: “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents,” a dramatic statement that obliquely refers to José Triana’s Night of the Assassins.
From one book to the other, from non-fiction to fiction WW2, Correa extends a narrative line that functions as a bibliographic consanguinity. The transatlantic liner of The German Girl, full of genomic cargo, sails an ocean pregnant with possibilities and it is a matter of luck that any of its crew members is admitted to a port of call. It is the struggle for the survival of the fittest gene, the most selfish, the most unexpected.
We learn from one of the families on the ship that their surname is Rosenthal; that Alma Rosenthal, née Strauss, the matron of the elegant residence where the action begins, owns an apartment building in the Berlin of swastikas and sturmabteilung.
A casual stroller on the streets of that 1934 Berlin would have observed the marches of Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Röhm and his SA militia, not realizing that these were the first gay pride parades of the modern age. He would have been no less shocked to learn that the little blonde on the cover of Das Deutsche Mädel magazine in the spring of 1939 is none other than Hannah, the protagonist of The German Girl, the daughter of the Rosenthal Jews, caught by the lens a Nazi showbiz reporter who takes her for a specimen of Aryan perfection.
That the charm of revolutions, regardless of their sign, is the consequence of equivocation, misrepresentation and trompe l’oeil, ends up being the unforeseen moral of the novel trilogy.
The choice of the egg donor who will bring “beauty and intelligence” to Emma’s quest continues, requiring exhaustive research. The gene hunters turn the pages of a thick catalog in the waiting room of A Perfect Match, the company that harvests embryos. At this point, Armando and his partner, Cuban photographer Gonzalo Hernández, are the “parents-for-image” of the Girl in the Making. By the time the English translation of the first book goes on sale, the firstborn will have celebrated her fifteenth birthday and will be about to enter college.
In the meantime, the screening of potential donors begins and the parents weigh multiple options. They look through the catalog like someone leafing through magazines in a dentist’s waiting room, with the big difference that their lives are at stake in this decision: “Those with conditions such as kidney stones, or with mothers who wound up in the emergency room for a dislocated hip, or a grandfather who died of lung cancer as a heavy smoker are often disqualified by the agency or remain on the list of available donors for months, even years.”
In In Search of Emma, the writer allows us to look over his shoulder at some little stickers that terrify him —the clinical sheets of a thousand debutantes— while the reader of best sellers shares with him the responsibility of deciding who will be the chosen one: A Perfect Match offers the selective dynamic as a sort of apolitical eugenics.
This is how we got to know some of the candidates (“Lisa, a twenty-two year old Russian, has made four donations […] She’s asking for twenty thousand dollars…”), before turning the page and landing on Karen’s profile.
Karen is Central European (“a doll,” says Becca, the recruiter), blonde, light-colored eyes, slim, self-confident, athletic, a student and an admirer of Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. The scene of her meeting with Armando takes place in a restaurant in La Jolla and offers a glimpse of the kind of decisions that are usually made in the vulgar environment of American canteen. The sequence is constructed on the basis of Correa’s interior monologue, who approaches the “doll” as if it were a strange mating ritual.
In the pages of The German Girl, the encounter of the Cuban and the Central European occurs in a much crueler way than in the fertility clinic in La Jolla. Forced by political violence, the Rosenthal Jews eventually leave Berlin, leaving behind “the building, the apartment where I was born, the furniture, the ornaments, my books, my dolls.” In Hamburg, they board the last ship that can take them out of the cold Nazi hell: the Saint Louis liner.
In the meantime, Hitler has discovered the plot of Lieutenant Colonel Röhm, his friend and antagonist, who intended to take command of the army by force. As supreme leader of the SA, the Führer decrees what becomes his first holocaust: the blood purge known as the Night of the Long Knives, in which the gay vanguard of the Nazi party perishes.
Historical fantasies of the WW2 type usually follow the script of Hollywood productions conceived for an audience indifferent to the omissions of non-fiction, a herd of cinematographers addicted to moralizing and little versed in pure violence, unmediated by culture.
Armando Correa revises WW2 history with the express intention of taking it beyond the Soviet koniec: The German Girl is revisionist history, as the narrative of National Socialism does not conclude, as is usually the norm, at the Allied bombing of Dresden or the Red Army’s entry into Berlin in 1945, nor even at the Nuremberg trials or the disastrous liberation of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, but lengthens into an extemporaneous and far more tremendous chapter: tropical National Socialism.
The opening scenes of The German Girl introduce us to the Rosenthal family in their Berlin setting and introduce the narrative tone of Armando Lucas Correa, a writer of historical novels. We meet Hannah, her family, and her little friend Leo Martin, son of poor Jews, as well as a cast of snitches, careerists and militiamen who fly red-black flags and whom the boys call Ogres. For the Ogres, the Jews are the impure ones.
Three selected passages will give us an idea of the language in which the new Cuban historicist novel expresses itself:
Number 40 was a three-story building painted a mustard yellow blackened by damp. The windows hung open as if they had lost their hinges. The front door, set to one side, had a smashed lock. As I climbed the narrow, dark staircase, the air inside was even colder. It was like stepping into a filthy refrigerator that stank of rotten food. The stairwell was lit only by a feeble naked bulb. Some children rushed down the stairs and pushed past me. I clung to the banister so as not to fall, and felt something sticky on the palm of my hand.
Papa’s voice sounded as if he were conducting a religious ritual or reciting the Torah from memory. He repeated the word femur several times, pointing to gigantic limbs displayed in a diagram on the wall, and I resolved that as soon as my parents allowed me to have a dog, I would call him Femur.
We crossed onto the bridge, leaving the City Palace and the cathedral behind us, so that we could lean on the parapet and gaze down at the river Spree. Its waters were as dark as the walls of the buildings lining it. My thoughts wandered, following the rhythm of the current. I felt as if I could throw myself in and let it carry me along —become even more impure. But that day, I was clean; I’m sure of it. Nobody would dare spit at me. I was just like them. On the outside, at least.
This is the moment when the photographer from the magazine Das Deutsche Mädel appears on the square: “Young girl! Your name! I need your name!” shouts the paparazzo, while the little Hebrew doll disappears in the Berlin crowd.
Shipping records indicate that the cruiser Saint Louis sailed from Hamburg, passed through Cherbourg and docked in Havana on May 27, 1939. At that time, the president of Cuba was Federico Laredo Brú, with Fulgencio Batista and Zaldívar soaring in the sky like an imperial eagle. Photostat copies of the official statements issued by the Cuban government illustrate the stages of the rapprochement with Cuba. The good news will wither as the island takes the shape of a dragon lying on the tropical horizon.
“Out on deck, I saw Mama near the rail. She was being served tea while she stared down at the port of Cherbourg, France, carefully observing the thirty-eight passengers coming on board. Apparently she did not recognize any of them, for she moved away to one of the deck chairs on the starboard side of the ship.”
Under the watchful eye of the “divine” Alma Rosenthal, the children separated in Berlin are reunited on the deck of the Saint Louis, which is the politicized version of the Titanic. Leo Martin travels with his father in third class, while Hannah, as is de rigueur in fables of beggars and princesses, travels in first. In the distance, the Caribbean sun lights nautical vignettes that would admit the accompaniment of Céline Dion.
Hannah observes: “We were going to a tiny island that boasted being the largest in the Caribbean. A spit of land between North and South America. But that tiny spit was the only place opening its doors to us.”
However, the gates of Cuba were not opened indiscriminately and, of the 900 passengers, only 28 went ashore. The Government of Laredo Brú kept the amount of the visas and imposed burdensome conditions to the disembarkation of the Jews. Which of them could imagine that only twenty years later a new and remastered National Socialism would come to expel them from that island as well? Among those who disembark are Alma Rosenthal and her daughter Hannah, the German girl, now separated forever from her father and her best friend, who will suffer a historic death in one of the methodical crematoria of WW2 literature.
What is an island? For a discussion of insularity, I use evolutionary ecology and put aside the interpretative models that refer to Lezama Lima and his discussion with Juan Ramón Jiménez. In the Correa universe, the notion of the insular tends to the cellular, and appears fragmented: it is the island that repeats itself, the genomic insula where Armando acts as Doctor Moreau.
“Hosts are islands to their parasites,” explains Eric Pianka in his indispensable Evolutionary Ecology (1994). “Even a drop of water or the body of an insect may be an island to a bacterium.” At the genomic level, the Cuban is expressed in binary sequences of x’s and y’s. Cuba is the selfish gene. Cuba is the selfish gene, whose commercial appellatives could be Emma, Hannah, Anna, or perhaps Elián. The Cuban, whether it comes by raft, by plane, or in packs of thirteen, is equally inseminable, transportable and translatable.
For our purposes, it is important to recognize, with Pianka and Correa, that “genotypic and phenotypic variation between individuals, in itself, is probably seldom selected for directly,” and that “especially important are changes in environment” (“Maintenance of Variability”).
Understanding The Girl as a biochemical, semiotic and even meteorological phenomenon. In her adopted homeland, the little “parasite” will adapt to the abrupt change of environment and the constant variations of political climate. In contrast to the natives of Spanish, Chinese and African descent, the German Jewess will be a comparatively superior specimen. She is white and blonde, exotic traits that in Cuba are equivalent to “a university degree,” so she will not find social and professional advancement too arduous. It is true that she carries with her the stigma of the Ungeziefer, the “worm” of Nazi teratology, but it is a fact that this epithet will pass, unchanged, to the glossary of revolutionary politics to come.
Fulgencio Batista, the Ogre of the populist comic strip, is a key piece of the insular version of the Night of the Long Knives. In its origins, the Cuban Revolution is also presented as a cleansing of blood, a moral—even racial—purge against the supposed Batista decadence and corruption. The specter of the Batista of 1939 bursts into the pages of The German Girl and will serve as a springboard for subsequent elaborations of the saga.
I do not intend to shock the reader of Armando Lucas Correa —born in Guantánamo in October 1959, the Year of the Triumph of the Revolution— when I say that the Cuba of his historical novels is a remastered version of the old National Socialism. Our triumphant revolution turned out to be the perfect tyranny —not Pan-German but Pan-American— spanning four decades of the 20th century and three of the 21st, the equivalent of a millennium in political time.
The millenarian possibility introduces us fully into the field of modal logic, that which deals with “what could have been,” for without that constructive element that serves as a framework for Correa’s historical narrative, the work of our writer would redound to the merely symbolic and would lose support in the real. A National Socialist —or Nazi, to put it more bluntly— Cuba will seem a far-fetched idea to the unwary reader, be it American, European or South American, but not to the frequenter of the works of Norberto Fuentes, Svetlana Aleksievich, Reinaldo Arenas, Danilo Kiš and Andrei Platonov.
Correa, the editor-in-chief of an entertainment magazine, observes contemporary history from his office on the thirty-seventh floor of the Time & Life Tower —but, years before ascending to the top of Rockefeller Center, the author had lived in a series of houses seized from the bourgeoisie in his country of origin, residences hastily abandoned by their legitimate occupants, who left behind furniture, crockery, cars, paintings and libraries. That encounter with history gave Correa’s generation a privileged perspective of what is known today as “material Cuba,” another variant of the “ontology of the object” that has been captured, with an overabundance of perfumes, textures and colors, in the Cuban or Berlin scenes of The German Girl and The Forgotten Daughter: vacant scenarios in which the novelist bursts in like a ghost, and in which he is unable to find himself completely at home because they are mummified spaces, subjected to the treatment of a taxidermist.
The residences confiscated and reassigned by the dictatorship —the central theme of another book of his, due to appear in 2024— were the ideal locations for the adolescent Armando. Changing houses periodically allowed him to become acquainted with the tastes and propensities of the dead class, and it is possible that the adult writer’s hyperesthesia was exacerbated by the Republic’s cadaverous stench, an allergic reaction to the very materials of which the Cuba that had just set fire to its Reichstag and sabotaged its civic integrity was made.
Hannah Rosenthal, c’est moi, Correa will say, cloned in Flaubert. Cuban writers have a head start when it comes to conceiving the inconceivable; particularly, the ontic paradoxes of totalitarianism, so Armando Lucas Correa locates his homeland in the gap where revolution and reminiscence converge, a Middle Earth built with the rubble of Lezamian “fixity.”
The island where being born is a party will only become actualized in the bloodstream of some surrogate mother, after an aseptic masturbation ceremony in the toilet of a Western laboratory (In Search of Emma) where the genitor collects—and the writer freezes—the sample of his own imago.
Cuba is an island of castaways for mother and daughter, so Alma Rosenthal will bear an eternal grudge against that “spit of land” into which they were thrown by the winds of revolution: the fickle city that condemned to death the 900 Jews of the Saint Louis, among whom were her husband and her daughter’s best friend.
This is the last image that crosses the Girl’s mind: “Someone was saying good-bye to me. Perhaps it would be better never to know who it was. About thirty of us had been allowed to disembark. We were the chosen ones, the fortunate ones. I could see it only as a sentence, a terrible punishment.”
The idea of luck as a condemnation marks the end of childhood and becomes the surreptitious plot of this novel. It is the reason why Mrs. Rosenthal, following the rules of the best seller, receives the news that she is pregnant just as she is about to set sail. The narrative threads of In Search of Emma (non-fiction) and The German Girl (fiction) intertwine in a reef knot. Once installed in her house in Vedado, The Divine realizes that being born in Cuba is not really a party: “‘My son will not be born on this island!’ She stressed the word island with all the disdain she could muster,” without imagining that the isolated child will give flesh and bones to the post-national novelistic genealogy.
Cuban National Socialism was then in its embryonic stage. Just a couple of bombs and the inevitable barracks coup made the country explode, its foundations cracked and the triumphal parade of the new Ogres began. Thus the revolution is revealed as the recessive gene of human evolution.
Meanwhile, the adjustment of the women —in the cinematic sense of the term— to their new environment is treated with characteristic preciosity: “I opened a door thinking it was a closet and it turned out to be my bathroom. I had another surprise when I saw the tiles, which immediately transported me to the Alexanderplatz station: they were the same gray-green color as the place where I used to meet Leo at noon.” After the change of scenery, The Girl was quick to reorient herself: “I passed the time counting the white stone markers identifying each street.” The famous Havana markers.
Names are also transfigured, and surnames: “Now that our names had become more Spanish-sounding, she would be known as ‘Señora Rosen.’ My first name was changed from Hannah to Ana, although I decided to tell everyone it should be pronounced with a J, like Jana.”
Jana with a J is the corollary of Hannah with an H: one follows from the other, novelistically and dialectically. As time goes by, the Rosens will acquire a pharmacy, devoted employees and a modus vivendi. Reluctantly they will learn to live as Cubans, resigned to being taken for Nazis by the natives, like that photographer of the magazine Das Deutsche Mädel.
The third act of The German Girl takes place thirty years later, when Gustav, alias Gustavito, the island offspring of the Divine, is born, grows up, studies law, makes the revolution, impregnates Viera the guerrilla and conceives a Jewish-Cuban boy who inherits the name of the ship and his paternal grandfather: Louis. It is the squaring of the circle, or the curriculum cubensis.
In 1959, Gustavito, the embryo escaped from the crematorium, enters Havana with the rebel troops, accompanied by his guerrilla girlfriend. Before the end of the decade, he will reappear in a terrible scene where Esperanza, the employee of the Rosen drugstore, and her son Rafaelito, will provoke the final crisis of a family that has embodied every possible interpretation of the German ideology.
Armando Lucas Correa’s novels are a gallery of mirrors whose perverse effect is the reiteration of the same historical monsters. What does it feel like to represent the same tragedy twice over? The solution to the enigma may be found in Hegel, in Marx, in Nabokov, in Jorge Luis Borges or in Ecclesiastes; but Cuban literature does not offer an answer more forceful or loaded with consequences than The German Girl.
We enter a Mandelbrot-like recursive History, made of ideological loops, an evil universe where insular teleology is abolished. Perhaps this universe also comes in packs of thirteen: it is the world as an embryonic lottery, as the Jewish cabala, the gematria where Anna is the reverse of Hannah and Emma the palindrome of herself.
Even the great revolutionary offensives bear the same names in both sections of the novel. In 1960, scarcely cured of their fright, Hannah and Alma realize that the confiscations and the “inventories of misappropriated goods” (Vermögenserklärung), both in Nazi Germany and in Castro’s Cuba, respond to identical nomenclatures.
The circles of readers of The German Girl gathered in the auctions of Perth, in Australia, or Uxbridge, in the steppes of Massachusetts, are forced to share the pain of the “Poles” when they learn that Gustav Rosen is a henchman, the Ogre who sent Rafaelito, the son of Esperanza, the apothecary’s employee, to the concentration camps of the UMAP.
Armando Correa imposes this supplementary effect on the reader, a mimetic effect:
Rafael did have time, though, to tell them that a delegation had been there to inspect the camps, which were known as “therapeutic rehabilitation work camps.” In the group were several members of the government who were concerned about the prisoners’ conditions and asked how the reeducation process was going. He had recognized one of them, who returned his gaze. Rafael smiled and suddenly felt a glimmer of hope.
“Gustavo was part of the delegation,” said Esperanza, looking straight at Mother.
In order to make us suffer, the former editor in chief of People en Español does not spare any melodramatic tool, the audience must feel the anguish he felt, that his compatriots have felt and continue to feel. Then the novel becomes a perverse telenovela that overflows the limits of tragedy and falls into a tearjerker.
The acts of repudiation in The German Girl are the same as in Nazi Germany; the broken glass is the same; the graffiti on the doors is identical to that of SA Berlin; the “Ogres” and the “impure” are the same. The inescapable—perhaps inconceivable—conclusion is that both systems are the same. Trying to explain it to the world is the impossible task that Armando Lucas Correa has imposed on himself in this modest monumental work, a political treatise that falls into our hands wrapped in the cover of a best seller.
The condition of being a swine, an undesirable or vermin (Ungeziefer) was not, after all, the prerogative of any particular people: given certain variables, everyone can become a pariah, a deplorable. Political parties are as interchangeable as a first name: it is enough to permute some letters, modify some memes, change the order of the factors in the providential leader’s speech. Hell is other people, but Hitler c’est nous:
As was to be expected, Señor Dannón’s legal practice had been taken over. The United States had broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba three years earlier, but he and his wife had obtained exit permits and were going to leave from a port near Havana where boats came from Miami to pick up entire families. It wouldn’t be good for us if he visited anymore, because now he was seen as a “worm.”
When Mother heard that word, she shuddered. That was what they had started to call those who wanted to leave the country or did not agree with the government. To her, it was as if she was reliving a nightmare. People were being dismissed as worms once again. History was repeating itself. What a lack of imagination, I thought.
Armando Correa has seen his life plagiarize itself, strutting in front of the mirror of History with magician’s pigeons on her shoulders, changing costumes, beards and mustaches. In 1939, the largest of the Antilles had spit out Hannah’s father and best friend; but from 1959 onwards, the Caribbean Sea will be the virtual crematorium of the worms without a transatlantic liner and without Céline Dion. Alma Rosenthal’s curse is fulfilled.
Louis leaves the island, settles in New York, where he will continue the Rosenthal progeny. The name of his only daughter is Anna Rosen, the Girl who travels to Cuba in 2014 to meet Aunt Hannah and herself. In his own way, Louis also makes history: he dies in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers around the time Wikipedia appears, the first map of the human genome is published and the main character of In Search for Emma is born in La Jolla. If it is true that the variation of genotypes and phenotypes between individuals “is probably seldom selected for directly,” we now understand, with Pianka and Correa, that the environment works in secret and never stops doing its thing.
Putting Berlin in Guanabacoa is what Armando Correa, the novelist, has done.
That similarities abound between one regime and the other is not surprising, because every totalitarianism works in parallel to an unrealized future that will eventually adopt the principles, promote the achievements and amend the mistakes of its precursor: every body politic is a living-dead, a Dracula waiting for the one that will give it young blood to drink and remove the stake that keeps it nailed to some historical coffin.
The parallelism between regimes is the perfect match and is another of the elemental structures of kinship, difficult subjects that more seasoned authors would not dare to touch, and which Armando Correa presents to the kind of perfectly oblivious and perfectly unsuspecting public that stops to buy a book and a Coke at the Hudson News concession stand.