Portrait of Virgil in Hell

Hablemos pues con los vivos
hasta que podamos.
Virgilio Piñera, “Alocución contra los necrófilos”

ONE. Not a tall man, but remarkably slender, with ever so supple a gait that he seemed to tiptoe on clouds. Thanks to the photographs, we have become familiar with the wide forehead, the curved nose, the meager chin, the fleshy lips, which created what we assumed was the profile of a pilgrim falcon, a Dantesque profile. The photographs do not reveal, however, how charming his eyes were, with a color between amber and green and a mixture of sadness, melancholy, intelligence and, of course, causticity. Definitively myopic, in the street he wore ancient spectacles, those that are called aphakics. The photographs also do not reveal the beauty of the hands, that look strangely youthful. If he had chosen to hide himself and show only his hands, one would have thought he was a twenty-year-old guy. The voice seemed to escape from the bottom of a tin bell. His intelligence, and consequently his sense of humor, was linked to his ever-excited imagination, a trait that rejuvenated him even more. He was playful, intellectually playful, and I don’t know if I am saying this right. I mean: he played with ideas and although he knew how to get serious, his conversation was always full of paradoxes and, above all, of incitements, of opinions and concepts that later, after taking his leave, were left ringing with the intensity of the chimes of that same tin bell from which his voice escaped. Usually he dressed like a man that was going to work cutting sugar cane (although he would have said he was dressed like someone who was going to look for herbs): shoes that, although they were not boots, looked like them: they were the shoes people got in exchange for coupons they were given at workplaces; comfortable pants, made of poor quality fabric; gray khaki shirts one size too big with top pockets. Clean and well ironed, despite the fact that he claimed to only bathe on Saturdays. He never sweated, not even at noon at the peak of summer. The jute bag with which he went to “forage” (a verb that was used a lot at the time, with its connotation of running, tracking and horse food) and with which he went to Supercake on the corner of Zanja and Belascoaín, in search of guava pies, did not look in his hands like a jute bag. There was something distinguished about the man named Virgilio Piñera that made him different from the rest of the people who drank coffee at the kiosk of the Las Vegas night club, in front of Radio Progreso, or foraged and went up and down with similar little bags along Infanta and San Lázaro streets.

TWO. A little by his own decision and a lot by someone else’s decree, he led almost a hermit’s life. His routines are also famous: reading a lot, playing canasta, going to bed early and getting up before dawn, translating some good books like Road to Europe, by Ferdinand Oyono; some that are funny, like Noup, Hero of the Mountains or Las pantuflas del venerable jefe del distrito. At best, he had time to sit down and write. His house was the closest thing to a cell and that was, of course, his decision. Lezama, for example, who had also been turned into a civil corpse, had his small, damp, dark house crammed with books, papers, paintings by Saura, Arche, Portocarrero, Mariano, Arístides Fernández; some small statues and pieces of art, even a wooden carving by Alba de Cespédes’ father, adorned the shelves of Trocadero 162. By contrast, Piñera’s apartment had his walls empty. When he had good paintings, he sold them religiously in order to survive heathenishly. Just a few pieces of furniture: a rocking chair (the one can be seen in the famous photo), a moiré armchair, almost without moiré, with the springs visible, also famous because it appears in several stories, as in “A Jesuit of Literature”. A white bookcase with a few books. He boasted of not storing them, of keeping them in his head. All Proust in French, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, Casanova’s memoirs, Saint Simon’s memoirs, François le Champi by George Sand, several dictionaries; Impressions of Africa and New Impressions of Africa, by Raymond Roussel; an author that, in my view, influenced him a lot: Raymond Queneau; and The Flowers of Evil, of course. In that house there was also a small, old battery-powered radio, for the news and for the days of the cyclone (I mean, for the hurricane season). He did not have a TV. The most valuable objects were the typewriter and the record player that Maya Surduts had given him when she was declared persona non grata and had to leave Cuba. What he played the most on that wonderful record player was Beethoven. He loved the sonatas for piano and violin, especially the Kreutzer Sonata. And the piano sonatas, especially the Appassionata. I remember the Wilhelm Kempff record with the piano sonatas, which he enjoyed over and over again.

THREE. I don’t think I ever had as much fun again as I did during those four years of my friendship with Piñera. I have never met anyone with such a sense of humor or with such youthful zest, with such a genius for literarily ennobling the banalities of a horribly heroic reality, the grotesque epic that we lived through. A garden had built his dream so that in it he dreamed (and we dreamed) reality. With him everything became literature, brilliance, intelligence, bon mots and witticism (or boutades, as he would have preferred to say). The well-known note in Bioy Casares’ diary seems idiotic to me. The landowner Bioy writes: “At night two Cuban fags from Ciclón magazine eat at home: Rodríguez Feo, the editor in chief, and Virgilio Piñera, the editorial secretary. Rodríguez Feo is rich, handsome, less literary than his friend […], Piñera is thin, with the head of a skinny dog, of an umbrella’s handle; he’s demure, silent, and a bit gloomy”. The faggot thing does not deserve a commentary, even if the phrase sounds like the rudeness of a ruffian-bourgeois-chauvinist-full of tawdriness, which would not be expected from the ingenuity of the author of La invención de Morel. The thin, skinny dog-headed, umbrella-handled thing is fair. The demure, silent and a little bit gloomy thing… We would have to see which character Virgilio was representing in the house of that Bioy-Ocampo couple, from the Buenos Aires jet-set. Piñera, at least the Piñera I knew, had nothing of the demure and silent type, much less of the gloomy. What would the manly Bioy have thought of Piñera’s comments when he met with Gombrowicz and they both made fun of those Francophiles? I don’t know how Bioy Casares behaved, always in Borges’ shadow, at any of the meetings in San Isidro. As for the demure Virgilio of my experience, he was the irradiating center. Perhaps that’s why that other irradiating center called Lezama Lima sometimes found him unbearable. He would hold our attention with long stories, wonderfully well put together and extraordinarily funny. For instance, the story that he repeated, at our request, and that on each occasion was enriched with new information, that of his friend from Guanabacoa who could guess other people’s fate. He didn’t tell your fortune with cards, he didn’t read hands, he didn’t use any traditional means of divination. He predicted the future thanks to the study of feces. The eschatological diviner was able to create the astral chart just by using excrements. Virgilio put special emphasis on detailing the room where this guy worked. With great historical responsibility, the guy had a long space where he stored the shit of many famous Havana personalities. Another story had to do with two twins, amazingly alike, high class prostitutes. A long story, always improved with details, subtleties, rites, about the erotic and almost Japanese liturgy of the twins. This story, however, had an ending. It happened on the night when someone realized that he had never revealed the name of the twin prostitutes. Hesitant, caught out, Virgilio sighed, looked up at the ceiling and said or shouted, “Ah…, their names are Lidia and Clodomira”. He also told of the long voyages from Santiago de Cuba to Buenos Aires; the inevitable costume party when they crossed the equator, where he used to dress as Phaedra or Theda Bara. And the enthralled captains of the ships used to fall in love with that Phaedra or Theda Bara and invited her, invited him, to the table of honor, where they uncorked an Épernay champagne in honor of the disguised one. And speaking of Racine’s character, he liked to remember the performance of Racine’s Phaedra that he did, in French, at the Prometheus theater. He talked about his meeting with Yma Súmac in Buenos Aires; with Marlene Dietrich at a party at Feltrinelli’s house in Milan. Of his friendship with James Baldwin, whom he had also met in Milan. Of the occasion in which he spoke with an American on the reefs near La Puntilla, by the mouth of the Almendares river. They talked for a long time; the American was philosophizing about life and men, until a very beautiful young man came to pick up the American gentleman and Virgilio realized he had been talking to Tennessee Williams and that the young man was Marlon Brando, who had come to pick him up. He said that one night, in a New York pub in the late forties, he had seen a drunk man who could hardly put on his overcoat. Virgilio had to help the waiter carry him to his car, with a black driver. The waiter later revealed to him that the drunk came to the pub every time he visited New York and that his name was William Faulkner. Or the morning when he waited for hours for Gabriela Mistral in the lobby of the Packard Hotel, the one who stood (or stands, I don’t know) in front of Lovers’ Park, to give her his little volume of Poetry and Prose, published in 1944, and how she looked at it and told him with an aggressive tone: “I’m sorry, I don’t want any book; I’m not going to read it anyway”. Or the night when he dined at Victoria Ocampo’s mansion, where an English word whose meaning had changed over the years was being discussed. According to Virgilio, Mrs. Ocampo simply raised a hand; a livery servant immediately appeared with a lectern in which there was an etymological dictionary, conveniently opened on the right page. I also remember many stories about Lezama, Rodríguez Feo, Dulce María Loynaz, Gastón Baquero. I would especially like to mention one about Emilio Ballagas because it had literary consequences: they had gone, as they used to, to the port in search of lost sailors. They were passionate about lost sailors. Ballagas and Piñera were called “the frigates” by their friends. As they had only found one, they decided to sleep both with him. A total failure. Once in Emilio’s or Virgilio’s room (they lived in two adjoining rooms in a boarding house on Galiano Street), both of them began to laugh nervously and unstoppably, and it is known that laughter is inversely proportional to libido. The result of that night of the two poets with the unknown sailor became the subject of a dazzling tale, “Laughter”, included in Muecas para escribientes.

FOUR. However, these are just anecdotes. The truly important stories I cannot tell. Not because I can’t or don’t want to or because they are secret, but because of something much more mysterious. They did not depend on the stories themselves: they are too ineffable; they depended on the tone of the voice, on hand gestures, on looks, on too many subtleties that I am unable to replicate. They were not so much about the quality of what was told as about the way in which those stories stopped being stories and became tactics, ways that transfigured reality, that created a parallel world. They abolished everyday life and transformed routine into something unique, unheard of. I have never known anyone with such a capacity to “literaturize” (if you’ll excuse the ugliness of the word) life. Nor with so much maieutic. How, without my realizing it, he directed my interest towards Les Chants de Maldoror, A Season in Hell, Cruel Tales by Villiers, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel by Camus, Felisberto Hernández, Bruno Schulz, Gérard de Nerval, Raymond Roussel, the English metaphysical poets. The time, for example, when he told me he was writing an essay and needed a phrase by Thomas Mann lost among the pages of The Magic Mountain. I have not forgot the sentence, it was one of those morbid ones of the German: “There are two paths in life, one is the ordinary, the direct, the good; the other is the bad…, it passes over death and is the way of the genius”. To “help him”, I read the novel. The thing was that there was no essay and I was, of course, helping myself. Similarly, I read two novels, now forgotten, which I reread from time to time: The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler and The Last Puritan by George Santayana. He also had me translate a short biography of Baudelaire and sat with me to correct the translation. Sometimes we would take several translations of the same book, or the same poem, like Poe’s “The Raven”, to see which one we thought was better. By the way, he knew “The Raven” by heart, in English, as well as poems by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and all of The Sea Cemetery, fragments of La Jeune Parque, both in French and in the extraordinary Spanish version by Mariano Brull. He also looked for books for me in other people’s libraries, such as Pedro Salinas’ translation of In Search of Lost Time from the library de Estorino, who, at the time, I had not met yet. By the way, he did not hold that translation in high regard. I also looked for books for him, because he read quickly and tirelessly. Only the books I brought him could be any book. That I remember: Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone and a book that had impressed me in my teens and that Virgilio found very amusing, Twenty-One Years at the Papuans, by a missionary whose name I cannot recall. He liked very much Revulsion by the Hungarian László Németh, and he thought it superior to Nausea by Sartre. I know that he was impressed by Milan Kundera’s The Joke, which he read in French, in the Gallimard pocket edition, with a foreword by Louis Aragon. Sometime Virgilio found in some bookstore a “little jewel”, according to his peculiar way of assessing things. This was the case of El arco de Belén by Miguel Collazo, which he bought at the Viet Nam bookstore, on San Rafael almost on the corner of Águila. “In the middle of this wasteland, that little book is a great thing”, he emphasized.

FIVE. Sometime or another I have told about the night in July 1975 when I met him at the Gómez villa, on the Calzada de Managua, which today is known by the name he gave it: La Ciudad Celeste (The Heavenly City). I was twenty-one years old and the little I knew of Virgilio’s work was limited to a short-story, “En el insomnio”, and to an ephemeral staging of False Alarm by Teatro Universitario at the Tespis theater, then located in the Habana Libre hotel, where there is now the non-place of a dreadful coffee shop. My literature professor at the Preuniversitario de Marianao, Trinidad Benedit, felt a special passion for Piñera’s stories, and she always talked to me about him. And although it may seem unusual, even bizarre, “En el insomnio” was read aloud in the barracks in Unión de Reyes in those years when we were cutting sugarcane cane to transform us into new and strong men (which we did, as it can be seen) and to help raise the Cuban economy (which I don’t know if we did, as it can be seen). In 1975, I was no longer at the Marianao senior high, I was already in my second year at the School of Letters of the University of Havana. In the seventies, I insist: so you can understand what the classes of that terrifying period consisted of. With a few exceptions (some even splendid ones, such as the classes of history of literature by Dr. Beatriz Maggi or the classes of history of art by Amado Palenque and Rosario Novoa, who, by the way, had been Virgilio’s teacher), they were pedestrian classes, of praised last women, of upcoming fights, of a rare mixture of quenas, ridiculous chamamés passed by the simplicity of F. V. Konstantinov’s manual. I have also said that Piñera did not pay attention to me all night, as if I did not exist, that he only turned around at the end of the night, for an instant, to ask me: “And you, boy, are you from Camagüey?”. Even though I was carrying, to flatter him, a book by Professor Julio Ortega entitled Relatos de la utopía (I do not know how I had managed to get it) and I naively thought that he might be interested in it. He barely paid attention to the book, like someone who looks at a frivolous magazine, and exclaimed: “This man has had the bad taste to place me next to Onelio Jorge Cardoso”. That night, that was all. Well, it was all in relation to me. I have also written that that night he read the twenty-one novels of a book he was planning to entitle “The One Hundred and One Novels”, in which he narrated the adventures of the washerwoman Fligar Sánchez and her husband Gabrior Aranda, in a Havana that was not Havana but the meeting point of all possible paths. What I heard had nothing to do with what the cultural commissars were asking for. He was not following the “trail of the liberators”, there were no heroic military trainings, no endless walks, no battles fought from the red dot of a collimator, no “anonymous heroes” who “returned to the earth”, no fighting between “combatants and bandits”… No realism, much less realism with a political surname.

SIX. I wrote a moment ago: “I don’t think I ever had as much fun again as I did during those four years of my friendship with Piñera”. I could also say that, in the same way (and because that is the way life is, “laughing and crying”, as Roberto Ledesma’s bolero says), those were the worst years of my life. I know they were the worst years for many of us, and first of all for Virgilio Piñera. He was the one who had it the worst. He was without a doubt the most humiliated. And not only because of the Castro years. During the sixty-seven years of his life he knew only a few moments of recognition. If we decided to accept the capricious conventionality of counting that time in a linear fashion, perhaps we would not go farther than five years. To be fair, even that small interval seems to me to be an exaggeration. I say “recognition” and I am not referring, of course, to the indifference tinged with contempt (so Cuban) prior to 1959; much less to the marginalization, so absolutely rude, the civil death imposed on him by totalitarianism, even though that categorical style of crime without crime is undoubtedly a twisted and sinister way of recognizing the importance of a writer. I am talking about the dubious social approval implicit in the publications, the translations, the awards. The “social success”, to designate it with an uninspired common place. True, Virgilio Piñera never wrote with that in mind. One could almost say that when he wrote he was aiming for the opposite, for non-success, and he was brave enough not to condescend. He didn’t see literature as a contest or a way to prosper, but as an artifact of unmasking. The act of tearing off the masks has never been kind or charming. It is not well received. To understand literature as a moral fact is not the easiest path to achieve celebrity. From very early on, he wanted to be jealous of his freedom. Rebellious, annoying, impertinent, aggressive, anti-establishment, a naysayer. As he tried to make clear in the play he was writing at the time of his death, he was condemned to be free and to choose, even if he had the limitation of only being able to choose what he chose. However, even when he wrote without expecting anything in return and chose the risky path of unease, sarcasm, harshness and coldness, it is no less true that he obtained much less than he conceded. He lived in the uncomfortable comfort of the margins. Marginality sought: marginality found, or as he used to reiterate: fixed idea, idea that became reality. He was free, he wanted to teach how to be free; in return he found only harshness. Unlike many people I know, his inclemency did not seek to destroy; on the contrary, it was the result of clemency. In his “evilness” lay his honesty, his nobility, his goodness. It is true that he was a frenemy of Lezama Lima, that belonged to the group Origen, that was a friend and binge buddy of Gombrowicz, that approached the circle around the magazine Sur, that visited Paris, Rome, Bruges, New York. It is true that he saw some of his plays performed and some of his books published, that he was in charge of editing for a short time a book collection, which won a Casa de las Américas award (with Vicente Revuelta voting against it). It is also true, however, that the author never saw Two Old Panics on stage, that when he died he had eight unpublished books and that he lived, as always, in poverty, with the addition of that other poverty, oblivion.

SEVEN. On the day of his death on Thursday, October 18, 1979, around eleven o’clock in the morning, Virgilio received a phone call that disturbed him greatly. At least that’s what told us the boy who cleaned his house, who also fulfilled some other purely health-related functions. We will never know if there was really a phone call or what was announced to him in it. (In any case, and without wanting to say too much, remember that the summons to Villa Marista in 1977, the one that put an end to the nights at La Ciudad Celeste and left him for six months without his unpublished work, was also by means of a phone call. But this enters the realm of pure speculation. We never even knew the name of the cleaning boy; neither did we see him again). He ate little at lunch and went to bed. No matter how disturbed he was, the nap was inviolable. Around three in the afternoon, he went downstairs to play canasta (one of his frivolous hobbies). He went down the stairs of the building as usual, because he was terrified of the elevator. On the stairs, he felt a stab of pain in his chest and left arm. He made the unforgivable mistake of going to the house of his doctor, Dr. Sergio Cavarruiz, who lived very close by. He walked up five floors. When he reached Cavarruiz’s apartment, he was almost dead. He said something that the doctor never wanted to reveal to us. (Later, Luisa Piñera and I went to visit him several times: he never opened the door for us again). Virgilio died on the sofa in the living room of Cavarruiz, who called the actor Enrique Santiesteban, supposedly a friend of Virgilio. Santiesteban took him to the Calixto García hospital as if he were still alive, otherwise he would have had to answer to the police; he left him in the emergency room and disappeared. When Luisa arrived at the hospital, Virgilio Piñera’s naked body was alone, with a little piece of paper tied to the big toe of his right foot. He was taken to funeral home on Calzada and K. Before dawn, they took the body away for an autopsy. It was not returned until shortly before the funeral. It was then that we kept a vigil for a dead man who was not present, as Reinaldo Arenas put it: a truth among other exaggerations of that delirious writer. Even after his death, Virgilio remained as invisible as in his final years. Invisible and so poor that he was buried in the borrowed tomb of a well-known family, next to the pantheon of Naturales de Ortigueira. Nobody worried about saving his manuscripts that remained locked up in the house sealed by the Ministry of Justice until three years later; nobody worried about him having an epitaph. His sister Luisa and I went to a marble mason who had his workshop on 14th and 25th streets and had him build a jardinière where some of his verses were badly engraved, saying: “This arm that I raise, this mouth that smiles are the arm and mouth in the photograph of immortality, and no human or divine power can give them a pagan or Christian burial”. So badly engraved that after three or four downpours, the letters disappeared. Anyway, three years later Luisa wanted to exhume the remains to take them to Cárdenas, as a cousin had provided a place for them in the family ossuary. We went, then, early to the cemetery of Colón. Luisa, her husband Pablo, a friend (who had nothing to do with literature) and I. I will never forget that morning, not only because we exhumed Virgilio, but also because due to one of those strange mechanisms of revenge that the imagination has, it seemed to me an extraordinarily beautiful morning. Fresh, cloudless, with a sun that is typical of Havana’s winter. When they opened the tomb, Luisa and I moved away. We wanted to look and we didn’t want to look. The gray box of bad wood, or cardboard, was black and ruined. I saw the remains of clothes and some bones, enough for my little curiosity to completely evaporate. In the end, the gravediggers (they were two beautiful young men and an old man) gave me a little metal box inside a paper bag. Luisa and Pablo had a ticket to Cárdenas that noon. With Piñera’s bones, we left the cemetery. No one was looking at us with surprise. No one knew what we were carrying there. If they had known, they wouldn’t have cared either. Luisa and Pablo left for the bus station. My friend and I went up G Street, went past the School de Letters (where I had studied and had not exactly been happy) and continued along 27 to N, where the bus had its first stop. I don’t know why we did it. What a strange pilgrimage was that? To my disappointment, his house remained closed. No angel or demon came out with the sleeveless undershirt, the green shorts, a smile and a languid gesture of goodbye. One thing was certain, however: the bones had gone to Cárdenas while the jardinière, with the illegible epitaph, continued out in the open, in the borrowed grave at the Columbus Cemetery.

*This text belongs to the volume Testimonies of the Orgy, Editorial Sloper, Palma de Mallorca, 2020.

Abilio Estévez (Havana, 1954). Cuban writer. He has lived in Barcelona since 2000. He has written, among others, the novels: Tuyo es el reino (Yours is the Kingdom), winner of the Critics' Prize in Cuba in 1999 and the Prize for the Best Foreign Book in 2000, in France; Los palacios distantes (The Distant Palaces), selected by La Vanguardia as book of the year in 2004; and El navegante dormido (The Sleeping Sailor). He has also written into short stories and theater.


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