University of California, Merced
University of California, Merced
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Published in Global Cold War Literatures: Western, Eastern and Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. Andrew N. Hammond. London: Routledge, 2012. 30-42
‘Art is a weapon of the Revolution’.
The subgenre of detective and counter-espionage novels became much more popular in Cuba once the revolutionary government decided to offset British and U.S. political propaganda in films and novels, such as the James Bond series by Ian Fleming, with literary awards like the Anniversary of the Revolution Contest (Concurso Aniversario de la Revolución) and the National Award on Detective Literature (Premio Nacional de Literatura Policial), sponsored by the Ministry of the Interior. According to Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes, however, these literary awards ended up creating a series of aesthetic and political precepts for this subgenre that were obeyed by the hundreds of crime writers during this period: ‘These ideas were imposed through the bases of the National Award on Detective Literature, and the panel of judges’ whims and ideas about literature (juries were formed by civil writers supervised by a high officer of the Ministry of the Interior). Therefore, the birth of this “aesthetics” in the very meridian of the grey five-year period of Cuban literature is not a coincidence’ (González Marrero n.p.). In this sense, Cuban detective novels published during the 1970s and 1980s cannot be understood without taking into account the governmental censorship protocols that governed cultural production in general on the island. In an interview with Doris Wieser, Leonardo Padura Fuentes explained the impact that this censorship had and still has on Cuban literature. Although Padura Fuentes does not feel particularly constrained by it, he admits that it made the Cuban political novel see reality in “a narrow and prejudiced way” (n.p.). Since the 1990s, he argues, Cuban society has changed dramatically: after the economic crisis, writers began to look for their own editors with complete freedom, even abroad. Still, he is aware of the limitations imposed by governmental censorship:
I know that I can write with absolute freedom, always keeping in mind that there exist limits that I must not transgress so that my books can circulate in Cuba. But I am not interested in transgressing these limits, because as soon as I did it I would fall into the open field of politics. I do not want my literature to become political, because whether you write for or against, the literature that enters the field of politics is devoured by it. (n.p.)
José Fernández Pequeño reveals that there was a meticulous surveillance of revolutionary political literature to avoid publishing anything that was not aligned with the government’s Socialist ideology:
It was evident not only through the censorship of novels carrying a critical vision against a Cuban social structure [as was the case with the novel Allá ellos, by the Uruguayan Daniel Chavarría, published only twelve years after it participated in the 1980 Anniversary of the Revolution contest], but also of works that attempted any deviation from the openly ideological schemes canonized by this literature. (21).
As we will see in the analysis of Cardi’s El American Way of Life, another consequence of these ideological mandates was that authors ended up selecting facts from reality and reorganizing them in order to accommodate to the prescribed political discourse. In Fernández Pequeño’s words, ‘The Ministry of the Interior published, in 1972, some rules to help anyone interested in writing detective novels that seemed extracted from the most orthodox inductive tradition, and that, today, make us laugh’ (Cuba 11). Likewise, José Antonio Portuondo points out in his prologue to Los hombres color del silencio that in 1973, the two novels that won the award, La ronda de los rubíes (The Ruby Necklace) and La justicia por su mano (Taking Justice in His Own Hands), were both written by lieutenants of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior Armando Cristóbal Pérez and José Lamadrid Vega. The reason for this was that, according to Fernández Pequeño, the only people invited to participate in the first literary contest of the Anniversary of the Revolution, created in 1972 by the Ministry of the Interior with the goal of fomenting the publication of crime fiction, were its own members (Cuba 10). Only the following year was it extended to civilian participants with the explicit understanding that they would have to adapt to an unquestioned political affiliation. Evidently, then, revolutionary detective and counter-espionage narratives responded to an ideological apparatus that, as Fidel Castro’s epigraph indicates, had decided to make literature a weapon of the Revolution and of the cultural Cold War that took place during these decades.
In any case, thanks to the literary contests, the publication of detective stories increased dramatically. Among other Cuban detective novels published during the Cold War period, are the following: Manuel Cofiño López’s La última mujer y el próximo combate (The Last Woman and the Next Combat, 1971), Armando Cristóbal Pérez’s La ronda de los rubíes (The Patrol of the Rubies, 1973), José Lamadrid Vega’s La justicia por su mano (Take Justice into His Own Hands, 1973). Rodolfo Pérez Valero’s No es tiempo de ceremonias (It’s Not Time for Ceremonies, 1974), Alberto Molina’s Los hombres color del silencio (The Silence-Colored Men, 1975), Daniel Chavarría’s Joy (1977), Luis Rogelio Nogueras’s El cuarto círculo (The Fourth Circle, 1979) and Y si muero mañana (And if I Die Tomorrow, 1984), Bertha Recio Tenorio’s Una vez más (One More Time, 1980), Carmen González Hernández’s Viento Norte (Northern Wind, 1980), Juan Ángel Cardi’s El American Way of Death (1980), Luis Rogelio Nogueras’s and Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera’s El cuarto círculo (The Fourth Circle, 1980), Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña’s Con el rostro en la sombra (With His Face in the Shadows, 1981), Luis Rogelio Nogueras’s Nosotros, los sobrevivientes (We, the Survivors, 1981), Daniel Chavarría’s and Justo E. Vasco’s Completo Camagüey (Complete Camagüey, 1983), and Rodolfo Pérez Valero’s and Juan Carlos Reloba’s Confrontación (1985). In these works, the often idealized Cuban counter-intelligence agents, law enforcement, and the CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) proved the invincibility of the revolutionary process by inexorably outsmarting depraved CIA’s infiltrators and their collaborators. Carmen González Hernández’s Viento Norte (1980), for example, devotes several pages to the inner workings of a CDR and provides examples of the successful results of individual reports on suspects.
By the same token, in Los hombres color del silencio, the superiority of Cuban intelligence services over the CIA is summarized in the following sentence: “The city became the stage for a game: the persecution of the big fish after the small fish. But, on this occasion, the small fish was too intelligent” (214). In turn, the counter-revolutionaries were always moved by selfish economic reasons (such as a character named Arencibia, in Los hombres color del silencio, who dreams of returning to the United States with his hands full of money so that he can start a gambling business) or by reactionary ideological convictions (Cuban citizens who lost their privileges after 1959, as is the case, for example, of the counter-revolutionaries Osuna and Orihuela in the novel Viento norte). Revolutionary detective novels, therefore, displayed an overtly politicized and anti-Yankee discourse that condemned Capitalism as well as U.S. imperialism and interventionism in Cuba. For this reason, Padura Fuentes has expressed, in an interview with Doris Wieser, his disappointment with these works. As he explains, he wanted to write literature that reflected Cuban life more accurately, with all its frustrations and shortcomings:
I tried to distance myself from that tradition and attempted to carry out a much deeper analysis of Cuban society, through the characters and their deficiencies, through all these things that have been with us all these years, which are not exactly heroic. […] I’m not interested in making my literature political literature, because whether you write for or against, when literature enters the political terrain it can be devoured by it. (n.p.)
Not surprisingly, even though Padura Fuentes is not a political dissident, his novels have often tested Cuban censorship and two of them, Pasado perfecto (Past Perfect, 1995) and Máscaras (Masks, 1997), were temporarily banned on the island. Revolutionary crime fiction of the 1970s and 1980s also demonized the ‘fratricidal’ activities of the Cuban exiles in Miami, who were portrayed as lackeys of Capitalism and the United States, the imperial Other whose aggression needed to be repelled at all costs through the collaboration of all loyal Cubans on the island. The idea, exemplified in Rodolfo Pérez Valero’s No es tiempo de ceremonias (It’s Not Time for Ceremonies), was to raise awareness about the need for a collective defence of the Revolution and to convince readers about the infallibility of the national security forces. Although some stories deal with covert intelligence operations in the United States, as is the case in Luis Rogerio Nogueras’s Y si muero mañana and René Vázquez Díaz’s De pronto el doctor Leal (Welcome to Miami, Doctor Leal, 2007), most take place in Cuba. Often with pamphletary overtones, they blend anti-American political propaganda with high praise for the Revolution: both national security professionals and heroic, regular citizens devote their time to detect the threat and then counteract the enemy’s espionage and acts of sabotage or terrorism. Through the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, Cuban civilians become one with the law enforcement and intelligence units. As Claudia González Marrero points out, this collaboration replaces the traditional private detective to the point of becoming a cliché in Cuban crime fiction: ‘a second agent in the fight against crime appears: the people, a union that, by osmosis, becomes a collective hero’ (González Marrero n.p.).
Together with the collective hero, adds González Marrero, counter-espionage novels provide characters that typify a man faithful to the Revolution, the New Man, who is willing to withstand public accusations from his peers of being a counter-revolutionary gusano (worm), in order to infiltrate real counter-revolutionary groups abroad, such as Lieutenant Villa Solana in Luis Rogelio Nogueras’s Y si muero mañana. This last character is a point in case of the Socialist hero who sacrifices his reputation for the Revolution (González Marrero n.p.). These optimistic and didactic works are diametrically opposed to the pessimistic, oppositional message delivered by works dealing with the so-called ‘Special Period in Peacetime’ (the official name given to a steep economic decline during the first half of the 1990s) and published, for the most part, outside of Cuba, such as Daína Chaviano’s El hombre, la hembra y el hambre (Man, Woman and Hunger, 1998) and Zoé Valdés’s I Gave You All I Had (Te di la vida entera, 1996).
In this essay, I will concentrate on the detective novel El American Way of Death (1980), by the Cuban humorist and writer Juan Ángel Cardi (1914-1988). While, in my view, its aesthetic and literary merits are quite limited, it is, on the other hand, a valuable document to critically re-examine the ideological complexities and the cultural wars that took place during the Cold War period. As the global phenomenon that it was, it would be reductive to analyze this era without taking into account alternative discourses, as echoed in literary and other forms of cultural production throughout the world. El American Way of Death is also a good example of the influence of Soviet ‘factography’ on the island. This term was coined in the 1920s to describe the inscription and creation of facts in cultural production for the working class. As Devin Fore explains, rather than creating the most objective description of reality possible, as was the intention of western documentary work, factography redirected its focal point to ‘operativity’: ‘on the claim not to veridically reflect reality in his [Sergei Tret’iakov’s] work, but to actively transform reality through it. The objectivism of an indifferent documentary had no place in the interventionist practices of the factographers’ (Introduction 4). Fore adds that factography ‘pursued an art whose task was not to reflect human experience, but to actively construct and organize it’ (Introduction 5). In the literary field, he continues, the most recognizable factographic form is the ocherk, ‘a prose genre that was part scientific inquiry, part literary composition, and whose closest approximates in the Western European tradition would be the essay or the short sketch. […] Somewhere between science and literature, this “experiment in form” could be more accurately described as a rhetorical practice than as an identifiable class of aesthetic work’ (Introduction 9). Factography and the ocherk were, in fact, the answers, in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, to the dilemma of how to modernize literature in line with industrial advancements. As stated above, its main concern was not the passive depiction of life, but sign production, the interventionist composition and re-construction of reality: ‘“Operativity” was the term Tret’iakov used to designate a situational aesthetics that conceptualized representation not as an objective reflection of a static world, but as an operation that by definition intervenes in the context of the aesthetic act’ (Fore; The Operative 105).
It would not be too far-fetched to assume that Cardi, who wrote a brief history of the press, was influenced by this Soviet creation. In the first page of El American Way of Death, he explains his factographic narrative strategy in a footnote:
The names and facts marked with an asterisk (*) correspond to real-life characters and true events, although its location in the plot is a narrative choice. On the other hand, said names and events—taken from newspapers published in Havana in 1977—do not coincide with the time of the action in the novel—January 1957—, but undoubtedly—and this is the author’s goal when using them—can be considered to coincide in the contemporary space of the decadent American society. (9)
Curiously, at the same time that El American Way of Death follows factographic precepts by pointing out with asterisks all the events and characters that have been taken from real life, it also includes Agatha Christie and American fictional detectives (Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, the hero of the film The Maltese Falcon ), as some of its characters. Cardi’s plausible motivation to include these characters was to mock the traditional detective novel and film as an outcome of Capitalist mentality and propaganda. In any case, his inclusion of real-life characters, events, and organizations represents an attempt to offer, with verisimilitude, an ultra-nationalistic historiography of a prolonged Cold War whose consequences continue to affect the island nation of Cuba today. In his defence, Cardi affirms, in the aforementioned author’s note, his ideological positionality as a firm supporter of the Revolution: he will try to demonstrate, through a purportedly accurate description of American society and institutions, the failures of consumer society and of the Capitalist system in general. At the same time, he presents, without ambivalence, what he perceives as the achievements of the revolutionary process, a former utopia that has become a palpable reality in Cuba. Together with this footnote, the title, the dedication of the novel to his children and ‘the honourable uniform they wear,’ and the two anti-American poems by Nicolás Guillén that open and close the narrative leave no doubt that, beyond the detective story, the reader will find an unforgiving criticism of the American society of the late fifties and, by extension, of the 1970s as well.
Although the novel begins and ends in Cuba, most of the action takes place in the New York City of January of 1957, two years before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. The macho protagonist, Pedro Pizarro del Pradoameno, is a Cuban lawyer whose hobby, after having read many detective stories, is solving crimes in seven days as if he were a professional detective. As we later learn, he has no accent in English because he spent his teenage years in New York. While he is the focal character in action scenes, his inseparable and cerebral uncle, Amiel, who shares the same hobby, collaborates (like the fictional American detective Nero Wolfe) mostly by reasoning and coming up with logical deductions from his room. Months after the action in New York takes place, both Pedro and his uncle will join Fidel Castro’s insurrection in the Sierra Maestra. To criticize what he sees as the decadence of contemporary American society, Cardi chooses to place the action during the post-World War II era of McCarthyism, when anti-Communist hysteria was rampant in daily life. As expected, Nero Wolfe (one of the fictional detectives who become characters in the novel) asks the protagonists, without preambles, about their political affiliation. Wolfe, we later learn, has worked for the Pentagon and was involved in the McCarthyist witch hunt. These characters also set up the dialogues so that the Cuban protagonists can easily disarm them with a reaction that proves the inequalities created by Capitalism and the superiority of Communist societies. For instance, when Wolfe justifies American society’s flaws as the price one has to pay to enjoy this type of civilization, Pedro explains to him that not everyone enjoys those benefits equally. Likewise, when the lawyer Perry Mason defends his profession, the protagonist’s uncle points out the absurdity of supporting a social mechanism that is full of contradictions, when he could be using his talent for more noble causes. The satire continues with cynical observations that take on many facets of American society, including the press, corrupt politicians, gangsters, the CIA, the FBI, the New York police, prostitution, and the porn industry. The excuse for these diatribes on American immorality is the assassination of a Brazilian actor, Amorinha do Portobelo, whom the protagonist had met a few days earlier. While investigating this crime, the protagonist and his uncle, Amiel, will uncover a seemingly never-ending network of evil and corruption that go, for the most part, unpunished.
Cardi tries to increase the verisimilitude of the story by showering his writing with English terms, such as ‘smog’, which often represent reprehensible aspects of the ‘American way of life.’ However, he occasionally uses terms incorrectly, such as ‘humour sense’ (113), instead of ‘sense of humour’, or fails to understand others, such as ‘slang’. One of the first criticisms of American society that appear in the novel is the pervasive conspicuous consumption that dominates every aspect of life, including newspaper sales:
The extravagant logic that serves as base for consumer society justified very well the extraordinary waste of ink and paper, as well as the amazing pile of more or less absurd hypotheses and incredible, contradictory theories. It is necessary to understand that not every day there is a topic that can exacerbate the noxious curiosity of a nation that takes pleasure in consuming scandals with the same satisfaction and more desire than in ingesting pop corn and toasting peanuts, and in chewing gum. Even more: the nth sense of that society—the hyper-developed and perverse sense of publicity—is capacitated as much for launching detergents with fabulous additives to the market, highly explosive chewing gum and corn flakes with mystical vitamins, as it is to sell stories about fabulous robberies and legendary narrations of hair-raising crimes. (36).
The protagonist derides, several other times, New York newspapers as mere ‘yellow press’ and criticizes the prominence they give in their pages to the assassination of an international prostitute, while at the same time ignoring the hunger and misery of developing nations, the oppression and torture of innocent people living under dictatorship, and the children who are devoured by voracious rats in pestilent Harlem.
Within the context of ‘the rottenness of the so-called consumer society’ (225). El American Way of Death claims that, in the United States, everything, including death (hence the title) is for sale. Thus, after Amorihna dies, a hysterical crowd gathers in front of the funeral home hawking their wares: necklaces made with raw coffee beans, imitations of the emerald jewel she owned, little bundles of hair, photographs in which Amorihna’s face had been superimposed on other naked women’s bodies, and remnants of bloody gowns. Along these same lines, a character called Aaron Levsky claims that another one, William Smithson, has sold him films with macabre scenes from the Dachau concentration camp, and that he has clients who enjoy seeing the torments and other morbid scenes. Considering the large number of assassinations that take place throughout the plot, the title of the novel also refers to the purported little value that life has in the United States. As a Spaniard who had lived in Cuba and then moved to the United States explains, ‘In New York, we are all enemies of one another. Here death strolls happily through the streets. No one is safe from a stabbing, a gun shot, or, at least, a blow’(381).
The description of the cityscape serves the same demeaning purpose: Manhattan shows its ‘monument to the exploiting efficiency of the Rockefeller’ (99) alongside ‘insolent perpetuations in concrete and steel to expensive names of consumer society: General Electric, Chrysler, Woolworth, Metropolitan Life Insurance, RCA, Bank of Manhattan and the New York Stock Exchange—stone heart of Wall Street’ (99); churches are dwarfed by the exorbitant growth of high-rises erected to the seven capital sins; and majestic palaces owned by the princes of the dollar and monuments to genocides and reactionary colonialists are side by side with an underworld of prostitution, gambling, drugs, crime, and slums. Harlem denizens complain about not being able to afford health care and avoid returning to their sordid, depressing neighbourhoods, choosing, instead, to daydream, loitering in Central Park. Later, another asterisk attests to the veracity of the following real-life events: first, looting and provoked fires create havoc in Harlem, Brooklyn and Bronx. Then, two hundred policemen and twenty fire fighters are injured, and two thousand looters have been arrested. Later, the protagonist actually helps an elderly lady to steal a coat, feeling that the looting will bring justice for the underprivileged and he also condemns a scene that takes place in wealthy Fifth Avenue, in which two police officers beat a looter who has stolen a mattress for his dying mother.
According to Pedro, thousands of New York police officers refused to help during the emergency. The criticism of this police department is emblematic of the country’s moral crisis: they are accused of charging commissions to brothels, protecting corrupt politicians and gangsters, and inventing communist conspiracies. Subsequently, the drastic contrast with Cuban law enforcement and justice is exposed: Pedro and his uncle are reluctant to collaborate with policemen because they are not ‘organs of what we understood for justice; that is, that congruent legal structure upon which the intrinsic confidence that a people has on its social security, its economic welfare and its political freedoms is based—as it happens in our country—, which one can only feel when enjoying the absolute exercise of power’ (23). Pedro also accuses Captain Jonathan Murphy (who is humorously described as ‘fat, slow, flabby, big-headed, and ugly’ ) and his police department of being responsible for racially motivated beatings and assassinations of black people, of killing journalists who investigate their wrongdoings, and of considering Latinos subhuman. As a Cuban in the United States, he argues, he could never be considered a suspect in the crime because it was too sophisticated and enigmatic: ‘they are forced to find a super-genius who looks as American as possible’ (29). But rampant racism in the United States is epitomized by Bill Wilkinson, great wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who hopes that the next world war will eliminate blacks, Indians, and mestizos. Curiously, at times the Cuban protagonists themselves seem to make anti-Semitic remarks, for example when they refer several times to Levsky as ‘the Jew’ (before finding out that he was only pretending to be one), or to acquiesce with their silence when they hear other characters, such as Cornelius Morgan-Mellow, refer to Menachem Begin as ‘The one with the notable nose’ (308).
More so than the New York Police Department and the FBI, the CIA is depicted as an evil organization that commits gross abuses of human rights. Allan Welsh Dulles, the director of the agency, is sponsoring mind control research projects in which underprivileged students and common inmates become guinea pigs in experiments with hypnosis, electric shocks, and new drugs (again, the truth of this statement is marked with an asterisk). Pedro Pizarro del Pradoameno also has access to documents that prove the collaboration of the CIA with Aaron Levsky, alias Adolph Lunger, a notorious jeweler, gambler, and Nazi officer in charge of the Jewish genocide, who specialized in human head reduction and the fabrication of lamps and wallets with the bodies of dead prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp. Among other criminals, the CIA recruits Captain Murphy for special missions in Latin America and then, Joseph Barelli, a procurer that has murdered three men. Along with representatives from the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon, Captain Murphy forms part of a commission that goes to Havana in an official trip to serve as consultants for Batista’s army and police, and to provide advice against the spread of Communism and the Kremlin’s influence. CIA agents also force Maggie Scarf and other prostitutes in Greenwich Village to drug their clients with LSD so that its effects on the human mind can be tested. They even try to drug the protagonist, who successfully avoids the trap. Likewise, in Alberto Molina Rodríguez’s Los hombres color del silencio (1984), the CIA threatens to kill the protagonist’s child if he does not provide the information requested.
Cardi also lists sexual depravation as one of the main features of the American way of life. Senators, millionaires, and gangsters have all been photographed naked surrounded by prostitutes. Morgan-Mellow, one of the suspects in the murder of the Brazilian actress and prostitute, participates in orgies of swinging couples just to beat his spleen. He also supports Amorihna’s drug addiction and takes advantage of her nymphomania and masochism by using her in orgies and a pornographic film that was going to be titled Contemporary Decameron. Another suspect, William Smithson, confesses to Pedro that he can only continue to publish luxury editions of regular books by also selling pornographic books. He also admits to having made a fortune filming and selling child pornography:
I confess that it is a malign good idea; but I didn’t invent it. All I have done is to represent in my film bits and pieces of real life. In San Francisco, in Chicago, in New York, thousands of children are prostituted in specialized brothels. This morning, a merchant confessed to me that he pays up to two hundred dollars for each hour of a show in which couples of children execute the most sophisticated obscene practices. There I have an advertising agent’s letter, in letterhead paper, in which one can see the story, illustrated with photographs, of a twelve-year old girl who, after being drugged, was made available to dozens of men and women who carried out a true marathon of libidinousness. And don’t doubt for a moment that this may be one day legalized. (247)
This passage is also covered with asterisks to warn that it is based on real facts. Subsequently, in another paragraph with an asterisk, Pedro Pizarro del Pradoameno narrates how he saw Verónica Brunson, a twelve-year old girl who had been turned into a prostitute at age eleven, being thrown down from a window on the tenth floor of a hotel. At the risk of further endangering the text’s verisimilitude, Cardi strategically allows the pornographer Smithson, who claims to be anti-Communist, to explain the reasons behind so much degeneracy in American society: ‘we are seeing the full decadence of a society that needs, in the middle of its death rattles, the stimulus of vice and moral depravation in order to better endure the anguish caused by its imminent collapse’ (246). Incidentally, Fernández Pequeño has also noticed the lack of verisimilitude in Cardi’s novel: ‘The rest ends up being sacrificed by the demands of the inductive game, which the profuse use of chance and the manipulation of events and characters make incredible’ (‘La novela’ 210).
El American Way of Death also establishes a direct correlation between Capitalism and desire for nuclear war. Thus, Tessie Howard, Morgan-Mellow, and other American characters in the novel have an invested interest in the continuation of the Cold War because they own shares in the arms industry. Their investment in nuclear war is subsequently equated to their faith in the free market: ‘She had faith in nuclear war, because she had invested capital in the General Dynamics Corporation. And she also trusted the free market: here are the legal property documents for a bar in Greenwich Village, a warehouse in East Drive, and a beauty parlor in Lexington Avenue’ (107). Frank Pace, Jr., president of the General Dynamics Corporation, is as much a supporter of the Cold War, as is Joseph Alsoph, a reporter of the New York Herald Tribune. Once again, the leftist, American lawyer James Donovan establishes connections between free-market Capitalism and the arms race during the Cold War, when he informs the protagonists about Samuel Cohen, the inventor of the neutron bomb, who is participating in a high profile meeting:
This Cohen is a diabolic being. As a physician of the Rand Corporation, he visited the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where they were currently experimenting with the fabrication of weapons with low atomic radiation and more expansive and caloric power. And do you know what he came up with? Inverting the process; that is, creating more radiation with less heat and expansion, using a hydrogen bomb as the element of fusion and a bomb of fission as detonator. That way, and here is the diabolic part, they can kill living beings in, say, a city, without destroying the buildings and other facilities. This is what they are calling ‘the neutron bomb’.
I understand—I said—. What this man wants to do is to bring together in one artifact Thomas Malthus’s and Adam Smith’s dreams. (157).
As we have seen, to make all these arguments more convincing, Cardi allows American characters to confess the moral crisis of their own society. While Morgan-Mellow admits that the only thing he is representing in a meeting is the US dollar, James Donovan, a friend of the protagonists, tells them about the nightmare of McCarthyism and about his deposition in favour of world peace in one of the notorious hearings of the American Congress. His conclusion is that the direct result of the mirage called the American Way of Life is the relentless spread of criminality and the citizens’ indolence about it: ‘In truth, we are before the spectacle of an insensitive society that seems only anxious to beat its own records of pillaging and violence’ (344).
This American epidemic of vice and violence is also exported to other countries. The novel portrays the Havana immediately before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution as a hellish pit flooded by prostitution, gambling, and drug rings controlled from the United States. In fact, the image of Cuba that most American characters have is that of a new Sodom and Gomorrah. Paradoxically, Cardi criticizes the absurd stereotypes about Hispanics in the United States, while concomitantly dedicating most of the 446 pages of his novel to stereotypes about American society. In this context, in his analysis of revolutionary detective short stories, Fernández Pequeño points out the lack of subtlety in the characterization: ‘Counter-revolutionary characters are always corrupt, cowardly, servile, and they are sometimes caricatured. […] On the other hand, revolutionary characters are—always as well—determined, firm, loyal, owners of a trajectory and a valor that does not even make them bad silhouettes; it only gives them the heavy crown of the pamphlet’ (Cuba 39). The same can be said of Cardi’s characters and, by extension, of most the characters of the revolutionary detective novel, which tend to present a Manichaean view of the political conflict between the United States and Cuba, as well as of their respective societies. This is true, for example, in the case of the irredeemably negative character of Orihuela, in Carmen González Hernández’s novel Viento Norte, whose evil nature is highlighted by its contrast with the exemplary behavior of the flawlessly heroic revolutionary characters in the novel.
In any case, Cardi claims to be offering a happy ending in El American Way of Death. In spite of all this corruption, not everything is lost for the United States (and this is, according to the first-person narrator, ‘the true message of this book’ ): after creating a committee in support of the young revolutionary Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement, Pedro and his uncle are invited to an event in which a massive group of young American students and workers sing slogans—a hymn of hope for the protagonists’ ears—to promote the participation of the United States in the Sixth Festival of the World Federation of Democratic youth in Moscow that will take place in the spring of 1957.
Besides blending Soviet and American influences by incorporating Soviet factography and fictional American detectives to his writing, Cardi attempts to Cubanize his novel (with little success, in my opinion) through the use of humour, and the quintessentially Cuban choteo and relajo. Cuban historian and anthropologist Fernando Ortiz actually defined relajo as an obstacle for national unity: ‘There is something else that aggravates our national unity. I refer to what we call relajo, that is, relaxation of discipline, lack of respect, mocking of authority, evasion of laws, admiration for vulgarity, flippancy, lack of restraint, impunity of crime, tolerance of baseness, avoidance of all forms of sacrifice’ (‘The Relations’ 28). Jorge Mañach, in his Indagación del choteo (An Examination of Choteo; 1928), also explored this perceived idiosyncrasy of Cuban national psychology. According to Gustavo Pérez-Firmat, however, Mañach censored and ‘cleaned up’ Cuban choteo from its traditional penchant for refuse, filth and other scatological matters, thus bringing it closer to the concept of relajo: ‘Mañach attempts a “purification” of choteo, a filtering out of its baseness and filth. Deliberately or not, he acts to cleanse or edulcorate his subject by glossing over its scatological subtexts, its bottom lines’ (76). However, rather than creating a truly Cuban version of the traditional, American detective novel through the incorporation of choteo and relajo, Cardi only uses this approach to exaggerate even more his overt anti-Americanism and to radicalize an already Manichaean perspective of the contrasts between Capitalist and Socialist societies. The potential comedic effects of his prose are, therefore, limited by his reluctance to camouflage the pamphletary message of the novel.
This case study has shown both the impact of Cold War mentality in the fictional construction of the ideological Other and the negative consequences of official censorship for Cuban cultural production. The ideological, propagandistic, Manichaeistic, and didactic nature of this orthodox literature seems to take precedence over the aesthetic value and the verisimilitude of the work. As a result, characters often become simplistic types (heroic and intelligent patriotic Cubans versus cowardly and unintelligent counter-revolutionaries) whose only role is to demonstrate the inevitability of the triumph of the Revolution or similar pre-established ideological theses. Fernández Pequeño argues, however, that the revolutionary detective has been successfully humanized in novels such as Luis Rogelio Nogueras’s Y si muero mañana, Daniel Chavarría’s Joy, and Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña’s Preludio para un asesinato (Prelude for a Murder, 1981) and Con el rostro en la sombra. This essay also reveals the application of Soviet factographic techniques, which are then Cubanized through the use of humour (as well as Cuban choteo and relajo). This hybrid product is then blended with the narrative devices of traditional crime fiction, including the incorporation of American fictional detectives, who are mostly used to satirize the bourgeois origins of the detective novel. These traditional traits of the American/Capitalist detective novel are then transgressed through the use of collective protagonist (often the CDRs) and by prioritizing the consciousness raising mission of the text. Overall, El American Way of Death, together with some of the other novels mentioned here, is an example of the negative consequences of state censorship and of the Cold War mentality that imposed ideological premises on detective novel writing in Cuba.
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