Martha Luisa Hernandez Cadenas: against the ferret power

La puta y el hurón (The whore and the ferret) by Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas (1991), aka Martica Minipunto, won the Franz Kafka Prize in Prague in 2020. With this novel, the young writer expanded the register of new feminist voices in Cuba. The theatrologist and performer also holds awards for poetry and essays, coordinates the Laboratorio Escénico de Experimentación Social (LEES) in Havana and is a columnist for Hypermedia Magazine. Her writing coincides with that of Legna Rodríguez Iglesias in the desecration of patriotic symbols and in the theatricalization of the nation’s discourse. Both give life to Virgilio Piñera’s tradition by demystifying all kinds of grandiloquent history and using female characters for this purpose.

The monologue of the protagonist-narrator Mary in La puta y el hurón has a very specific temporal location: “the Saturday after his death”;[1] meaning Fidel Castro’s. On the one hand, this reference is crucial, in terms of history, and on the other hand, irrelevant. The name of the deceased operates only as an indicator of the scenario games where the plot takes place. The plot is about a theater designer who lives in a kind of limbo because, among other things, she does not even have a job. Her mother falls ill, a friend leaves the country, another friend goes to prison, a lover dies and she herself is interrogated by the police on suspicion of prostitution. The narrative is a patchwork of Mary’s inner monologues (and those of her trans friend, now living in Paris) that can take the form of a letter, a disjointed reflection, a narrative or an agonizing reconstruction of days of personal survival. In some parts, she addresses imaginary narrators with a cathartic tone that can easily be imagined as a performance in front of an audience. A staging that, in the end, is a critical testimony of how power and its numerous exclusions circulate, both in the everyday as well as in the political anthropology aspect.

Whereas Legna Rodríguez Iglesias dismantled the national abc of the literacy campaign in favor of poetry,[2] Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas focuses on the anti-mosquito campaign and the time of mourning. Both writers are inspired by the ingredients of the national discourses with their heroes and warlike language in order to recreate and deform them in the form of pastiche, dressing them up with the element of genre.

The novel establishes an ambiguous relationship with time: the events narrated span the period between two epileptic seizures of the mother and range from the censorship of the play Lo duro y lo blando (The Hard and the Soft) to the reopening of the theater. What appears to be a week of mourning ends up being two months. In this time, linearity does not operate, but rather it is a phantasmagoric and uncomfortable present, a time outside of time where past, present and future are not linked. There is, however, a reference to a supposed “hecatomb”, a misfortune that can be read as a symptom of the relationship between subject and present. Chronology is broken through the repetition and insertion of different moments where the sensation of a convulsive day to day is created. The idea of catastrophe and the absence of a future are constants in the novel.

“The hecatomb has probably passed,”[3] says the protagonist referring to it in the past tense, while at other moments she places the disaster in the future: “I don’t know if you will arrive in time for the hecatomb.”[4] Interestingly, the catastrophe not only implies a negative event, but is also a space of creative strength , since “I once read that to grow old is to lose the desire for anarchy. If I grow old, I stop thinking about the hecatomb,”[5] and that force is what makes the event function in turn as catharsis and affirmation of voice.

The sense of catastrophe or limit, however, is chronic, and that in-betweenness between all times is what marks the ghostly character of the present. In La puta y el hurón, the liminal time is reminiscent of Carlos Manuel Álvarez‘s Los caídos (The fallen ones).[6] (Recall that both narrators were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that in their respective novels, both have an epileptic mother, a symptom that Kimura Bin (1992) has read as an apotheosis of the present, an experience that surpasses one.)[7] The excess of the present in the mother is given as epilepsy, for the protagonist is represented by the nothingness, from the impossibility of construction”Limbo. Friday of last week like any other Friday, I arrived home. My mother on the floor. Monday. Today is Tuesday. I don’t know how I got to Tuesday. Limbo.”[8]

The epileptic present merges with a great and eternal patriotic nothingness: “that nothingness, arising from itself, as physical as the nothingsun that warmed our people since that time, like the nothinghouses, the nothingnoise, the nothinghistory… led us ineluctably towards the morphology of the cow or the lizard”,[9] Virgilio Piñera would say.

Although in this case, rather than cows or lizards, it will be ferrets. It is precisely from this limbo that the subjects in La puta y el hurón will have to renegotiate their ties with others and with the public and the private. In this relocation, is positioned the belonging, the exclusion or the possible creation of a community. One that marks the outline of the inside-outside of the nation and where the categories male/female, ferret/insecticide and whore/pimp/whore come into conflict.

The patriotic time and the nothing time

While the whole country is in mourning, the protagonist is busy saving her mother from an epileptic seizure. Through a juxtaposition between intimate life and national life, both their contrast and their interrelation become visible: “I said that Fidel Castro had died, and the fact did not fragment the calm that happened between the wall, Sunday, my right arm, the gelatinous immanence of mourning, and my mother.”[10]

With a playwright’s gaze, patriotic life is portrayed as mere spectacle. Fidel Castro is “a great actor”, and television “should understand that a farewell is a play that produces tears, that less is more, that nothing is too tremendous, neither the biography of a man nor the pupils of the people in the street”.[11] Time is split in two: one historical-symbolic, of representation, and the other singular and/or lived, although both must be thought of as a difference. The patriotic time is an immobile backdrop that has a whole country as a stage, while the individual experience will be something else, and crosses the former.

Despite not respecting linearity and returning again and again to the convulsions of the mother on the floor, the text has many temporal clues that measure and name the days of the week and from where the ritual tempo of the revolutionary nation can be measured, such as those “defense days” organized by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) that serve to simulate and train for an eventual enemy invasion: “In reality, it was not a Sunday of defense or any other day of patriotic voluntarism, it was the Saturday after his death.”[12] From the non-identification with the chronology of national history, this patriotic time can be seen as a time of others. However, the individual revolutions in the novel will be the battles for the psychic integrity of the protagonist, or for the mother’s health:

It was Saturday, a wet Saturday, with the atmosphere charged with a certain monstrosity. Slowly, the ferrets emerge from the hall to collect signatures, summon me, and show me that they have something to show me. They are not aware of my mother’s pain in my arms, of the hematoma (by dint of bruising and complacent sex), and they judge the insignificance that my mother and I possess. In a room in Centro Habana, my mother and I like little pictures of the terrible, of the eternal fall and incurable diseases. My mother and I, with our own cederist [CDR member] and intimate stomping, that is not aware of the historical moment we are living.[13]

In La puta y el hurón there is an explicit denial of the obligation to mourn that is installed in the country: “I am not in mourning,” she points out. “My grandfather is the only man I have ever mourned”.[14] The life I have had does not deserve a time of mourning; one can almost hear him say.

Judith Butler (2004) asks what makes a life worthy or not worthy of this time and reflects on mourning as a transformative process, a space of affect and reparations. However, here mourning is official, imposed. To deny it could be seen as a subversion of the forbidden, an offense to the figure of Fidel Castro, to the state, to the ideological narrative of the country. Walfrido Dorta (2018) has analyzed how some contemporary novels have broken the taboo of representing the figure of the commander in a satirical and burlesque way,[15] and La puta y el hurón fits perfectly into that line. Although in his case, more than satirical representation, it is non-representation.

Cover image of ‘La puta y el hurón’, by Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas, Fra, Prague, 2020.

There is an immense NO in this novel. A no to the symbolic and state fold. A no to the ubiquitous representation of the dead president. A no to all kinds of mourning. A non-relationship. Mary gracefully suggests: “Fidel is an idea or a portrait (I can’t decide), my mother is the navel and the long fingers untangling my hair.”[16] Thus, a distinction is made between the national symbol and bodily experience, and both the symbol and the taboo of representing it inappropriately are demystified. The idea of mourning does not go through the worship of an image. To arrive at it or to establish it, one would have to recognize a loss of connection between the vulnerability of one body and the vulnerability of another, as Judith Butler explains,[17] Whether Fidel Castro is a portrait or an idea, it is clear that such identification will always be impossible. The opposition between the precariousness of some and the invulnerability of the nation-history, which rather than the difference underlines the continuity, also becomes evident. The opposition between the immune and the vulnerable, between those who deserve mourning and those who lead fragile lives, will also become evident.

La puta y el hurón constructs in this way dissidence to patriotic time, puncturing it with micro-stories of various subjects who move in a territory of insignificance and do not accept to build (to fold, to live) the mourning. It is a minimal action, but it is an act of freedom, an “I’d rather not” -as Melville’s character repeated from his office-; a phrase that could be the motto of all dissident identities and sexualities: “I cultivated my detachment from any collective social decision, I am alien to the ferret movement, to the crowd, to the design of people that makes your dizzy, no one can impose a way of being on me” (p. 85). This heroic no, however, does not lead to any liberation, for these are defeated subjects in themselves even though they are marked by their own difference.

The Ferret Law

Rather than criticizing a particular political figure, La puta y el hurón moves against an entire social machinery, against a collective of “ferrets” that can turn anyone into one of them. The protagonist elaborates a theory about that species of vermin that seek to be next to the law: “domesticated beings without pleasure who live hypocritically, and for the sake of convenience, endure the heteropatriarchal mechanisms of power.”[18]

In other words, they can be detected under criteria such as opportunism or machismo: “This week in which the ferrets take advantage of the mourning to have some prominence”:[19] “An extraordinary Saturday that passes slowly, with so many ferrets -all males- making unnecessary noises and repeating unnecessary slogans.”[20]

The ferret prototype coincides with the macho, with the behavior of those who beat Alberto, a gay friend from high school who ended up taking his own life. It coincides with the abuse of power, the ostentation, the repetition of slogans with “censors’ mouths”; with those “who say homeland”. In the world of the protagonist gender plays an important role: male ferrets’ rape, since “hardness exorcises the male ferret”,[21] and “female ferrets”, “after being raped the first time, will end up sharing food with the male ferret”.[22] That is to say, not only a division of generic roles is formulated, but a social system in which power and authority will be associated to the male, to that which subdues and infects with a violating and ferretified dynamic will be criticized.

As in Mary’s theory of ferret power, this novel has at its center a rape, a rape that becomes recurrent, that exhibits a complex dynamic between rapist and raped, that repeats and repeats itself in a chain and inserts itself even into the family system. “Today it’s my turn to go to R.’s house,” “I hope he just wants to talk,”[23] writes the protagonist in the midst of a murky dynamic that includes acts of sadomasochism.

***

Undoubtedly, from the first rape, submission becomes ritual, a dynamic that R justifies with the idea of “a prostitute consent” which, Mary says, “I don’t know when I accepted or when I decided I wanted to stop, but with which I comply.”[24] With the money that R (the ferret) leaves on the table, the man projects a consent on the woman not to assume his violent act and buys her silence. This is how the protagonist supposedly becomes a “whore”:

When you are a character, you no longer choose where you want to be, simply time decides for you and men, directors, presidents, playwrights, dictators, professors, academics, writers, say, “She’s just a big whore.” You are the rest, the leftover of a thought, the void of a false representation, you are the commodity of the moment.[25]

Humiliation is chaining a relationship of domination and submission: “My cell phone rings. He writes me a message: “Little Red Riding Hood, let me take you. You escaped me on Friday”,[26] and from there an unsolvable conflict is born for the subject, since socially it implies assuming an undesired place, that of victim or unleashed madwoman. Conflict that has to do with the fragile balance between consent and vulnerability, with the real place where the whore emblem is inserted. Is consent possible from a position of vulnerability?

The label whore, for those who supposedly degrade in a sexual and civil way the morality assumed by the community, says a lot about how this community does not assume its own devaluation and how it projects it on the body of an Other excluded from the normative territory where the illusion of immunity reigns above all.

***

Although La puta y el hurón testify to the moral degradation of an adolescent girl as she crosses over into womanhood, in truth it speaks of the degradation of social space, of the struggle for one’s own territory. Mary’s voice says “no” inside a ferret-generating machine that in turn produces “whores”. Being a whore, however, implies being both victim and free, a tragic antinomy, since both freedom and subordination are consequences of the norms that exclude her; a space in which it is impossible to identify herself because of its vocation to turn the other into a remainder. Being placed -from the title- in the place of the abject, the only thing left for the protagonist to do is to choose between being a shark-whore (who consciously or unconsciously participates in power) or being an insect-whore (who operates from the resistance to power).

To assert oneself from another side, as happens with the alliance between voice-whore and voice-insect, is to break the stigma of re-signification. Resignification that in this case implies an alternative identity choice in line with the no and the “impolitic”, according to Esposito;[27] with the spaces that go against the instances of representation. The ties between these trans, bi, gay and whore subjects weave a network open to difference and create a community in which the institutional dimension with a tendency to order difference becomes inoperative. None of the characters -Pamela, Mayuli, Alberto and Mary- fit into this male-female dichotomous order, an order against which they formulate a queer, anti-ferret resistance.

Being a whore and being an insect is, from their own semantics, an operation of dissidence against the dynamics of power and a reaffirmation-female in order not to fall into the “ferretfication” of the male. Even if one were a cockroach, if one had to “poison us as one more plague that infects the country”,[28] the insect-ethic implies in this context to defend vital attitudes: “We loved drone bees […], I imagine you and I as small solitary bumblebees that were scared away by Cuban society.”[29]

Small signs of vitality and emotion that oppose death and the sensation of nothingness, formulating from his opposition a micro-politics of desire-parasite against the social contract imposed by the power-ferret: “You need a mosquito to inject you with sperm and make you cry. You need to safeguard your country so as not to feel so much itching in your navel. You need to eat an ice-cream cone.”[30]

Exhibiting social and political violence can be defined as an act that exploits the vulnerability of the other to secure one’s own immunity, a path that only leads to destructive dynamics. The imperative, as Judith Butler argues, would be to understand vulnerability not as an exception, but as the norm itself, and to be able to re-found a life in common from there, from that “fragility.”[31]

If we were to look at Martica Minipunto’s novel with a magnifying glass, we would see that this is precisely what she does: she builds from the remains, from the broken, from the leftovers, from the abject. La puta y el hurón is the angry performance of a body that waters the party to a patriarchal power system. But even in that performance that screams “I am a whore”, where from so much screaming she is almost voiceless, more than the self, what is exposed is the socioeconomic and political machinery, the production of precariousness that becomes impossible spaces of identification for the subject.


* This excerpt is from the essay “Tiempo, cuerpo y contagio: Fumigación en La puta y el hurón de Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas” (Time, body and contagion: Fumigation in The Whore and the Ferret by Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas) included in Nanne Timmer: El presente incómodo: subjetividad en crisis y novelas cubanas después del muro (The Uncomfortable Present: Subjectivity in Crisis and Cuban Novels after the Wall), Corregidor, Buenos Aires, 2021. The book is available in digital format on Amazon and Google Play.

Notes:

[1] Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: La puta y el hurón, FRA, Praga, 2020, p. 18.

[2] Cf. Legna Rodríguez Iglesias: Las analfabetas, Bokeh, Leiden, 2015

[3] Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: op. cit., p. 134.

[4] Ibidem, p. 140.

[5] Ibidem, p. 138.

[6] Cf. Carlos Manuel Álvarez: Los caídos, Sexto Piso, Mexico City, 2018.

[7] Cf. Kimura Bin: Ecrits de psychopathologie phénoménologique, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1992.

[8] Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: op. cit., p. 42.

[9] Virgilio Piñera: “La vida tal cual (fragmento de sus Memorias)”, Unión, n.o 10, 1990, pp. 22-35.

[10] Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: op. cit., p. 18.

[11] Ibidem, p. 43.

[12] Ibidem, p. 18.

[13] Ibidem, p. 19.

[14] Ibidem, p. 112.

[15] Walfrido Dorta: “Fidel Castro como tabú: disrupciones de una prohibición”, Hypermedia Magazine, 26 de noviembre, 2018.

[16] Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: op. cit., p. 20.

[17] Cf. Judith Butler: Precarious Life. The power of mourning and violence, Norton & Co., New York, 2004.

[18] Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: op. cit., p. 62.

[19] Ibidem, p. 97.

[20] Ibidem, p. 21.

[21] Ibidem, p. 66.

[22] Ibidem, p. 65.

[23] Ibidem, p. 25.

[24] Ibidem, p. 63.

[25] Ibidem, p. 78.

[26] Ibidem, p. 46.

[27] Cf. Roberto Esposito: Categorías de lo impolítico, Katz, Madrid, 2006.

[28]  Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: op. cit., p. 38.

[29] Ibidem, p. 10.

[30] Ibidem, p. 38.

[31] Cf. Judith Butler: ob. cit.

Translation from Spanish by Sergio Vitier.

NANNE TIMMER
NANNE TIMMER
Nanne Timmer (La Haya, 1971). Poet, essayist and researcher. She is a specialist in cultural analysis and contemporary Latin American literature at the University of Leiden, where she received her PhD in 2004. She has published, in essay, the books Ciudad y escritura (LUP, 2013), Cuerpos ilegales (Almenara, 2018) and El presente incómodo: subjetividad en crisis y novelas cubanas después del muro (Corregidor, 2021); in short story, Dingetjes (Isidoro, 2001); and in poetry, Einsteinʼs three fingers (Doublepoint, 2011) and Logopedia (Bokeh, 2012), among others.

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