Link to original post
December 31 2009
Gray, Gray, Is the Quinquennium Gray?
(Exemplo de lo acaescido por causa de’l reςelo que fizo una grabadora mal enςendida)
Now that, summoned by “Criterios“, a brilliant group of Cuban intellectuals will lead the much-needed reflection on the “Gray Quinquennium” and while the national intelligentsia in and out of the island (a closing chasm in spite of all odds) gets passionately involved in a theoretical debate about it, I want to express what that colorless and temporarily vague quinquenniun represented for me. I’m doing it because I could not be present in the debates organized by “Criterios”, and because for years I have wanted to recreate this story, maybe to exorcise my memory that refuses to fade with the years and the advent of senile forgetfulness, of those somehow uncomfortable and persistent insects, whose presence is reinforced by a reality unwilling to yield.
In September, 1975 I was just 21 and studying Arts at the Universidad de Oriente (Eastern University). Those who are familiar with the scenario know that the eastern end of Cuba is the part of the country that has experienced more strongly, not only the few seismic events that sporadically shake us; but also periods of “errors correction,” stages of “revolutionary reaffirmation,” ideological purges of various types and many other adjustments or screw tightening that occurred during the last Cuban half-century. The University of the East was hit the hardest by tremors of this kind between 1968 and the early seventies, a story enacted and suffered by intellectual friends, whom I met on my arrival at the high house of studies (some of them joined me in the creation of “Casa del Caribe,“ but that’s another story). It turns out that in September 1975 a group of writers living in Havana (i.e. nationals) and members of the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) visited the literary workshop at the Faculty of Humanities. I did not belong to the workshop (never belonged to any) but I went to meet them, curious about what the established writers had to say. The organizers of the workshop had printed the works of the participants in a mimeographed pamphlet. I can still see the room, the Dean of Humanities‘ office: not too big, with an oval table -the same one that your humble servant will eventually move to one of the stories of a “Perfumed tiger on my track“- around which we sit: the apprentices at one end and the national writers, resembling a wise and magnanimous court, following the above-mentioned oval disposition, at the other end.
In principle, everything went on normally (the presentations, the first exchanges, the jokes typical of that kind of gathering, the instructions about how the activities would take place), until by chance two seemingly unconnected facts concurred. The first and decisive one came about with a total lack of malice. When the reading of the materials collected among the members of the workshop started, someone put a recorder in the center of the table. “To record the opinions of our experienced writers”, he said, “so that they can be studied by both present and absent neophytes“. It was one of those old tape recorders that looked at from the time of modern microchips, grow coarser, more imposing, antediluvian.
The second event also brought a touch of naiveté, but in a different way. In the brochure prepared for the workshop, rather towards the end, appeared a poem that had been circulating among the students of humanities, and had became widely known, not so much for its quality, but rather for the person to whom it was dedicated.
Even though the rule had been established that only the texts of those authors who were present would be discussed (the author of the aforementioned poem was not), in the middle of the session a very influential writer with enormous power at that time at UNEAC, raised his hand and said he had read in the brochure a text that he could not help himself but to comment on. And then he embarked on a fiery diatribe against the elitist attitude of the author, “who thought himself to be different from the rest of his comrades and believed, that as a poem writer, he deserved a special treatment. That’s how the deviations of the intellectuals began, and like in the case of Heberto Padilla, this kind of behavior will often end up in betrayal, petty bourgeois hypercriticism, etc.., etc”.
There was a moment of great astonishment, but only among the beginners. With great speed and for nearly an hour, each of the seasoned writers, speaking in the same order they occupied around the table, declared emphatically to the monotonous spin of the reels of the recorder its rejection of the terrible attitude of some elitist intellectuals, who were separating themselves from the people and would certainly wind up playing the game of the enemy. One by one, without pause, those adults (some of them had children of our age or slightly younger), professional writers, full of books and awards, repeated the same arguments using almost the same words, not for us to learn them by repetition, but to leave recorded testimony of their fighting spirit. The 21-year-old I was then had a hard time understanding what was happening; and if I did not have to undergo psychiatrist treatment after all that madness, it was because at the moment of the most heated arguments, Grillo Longoria (who was or had been until recently attorney general) asked, with his sympathetic and grandfatherly tone, if weren’t they being excessively suspicious in turning just a mere poem written by a college student who had a hard time waking up early, in a terrible ideological treason. A full understanding of what happened and the role that the recorder had played that night came to me the next day, in a conversation with the poet from Guantanamo, Marino Wilson Jay, who was unable to attend the activity. Many of the writers invited that night and the vast majority of the then young hosts are still alive.
Whenever I hear the term “Gray Quinquennium”, it inevitably revives in my mind that night: the tense environment, the meticulous fear that ran beneath every word, the irrational self-censorship that clouded the understanding of those men, not allowing them to recognize the limits of the absurd. After thirty years this is not just a distant memory. That night happens again every time I meet that most aggressive and harmful virus that have plagued Cuban intellectuality for years: caution. Whenever someone asks himself (or ask me) if it would be desirable to act in a certain way, every time we see intellectuals, until very recent politically correct, acting very carefully about the way in which they express their point of view within the island, and then become the bitterest critics of their colleagues once they are safely standing on the other side and aware from where the winds favorable to their own personal convenience blow, every time (even here in Santo Domingo) a colleague advises me to remain silent as a less compromising option or reminds me that I’m no longer forced to state my opinion, that night is revived. That’s why I wrote in a message I sent to Desiderio Navarro a week ago that the rejection to the return of Luis Pavón (and what he represents) concerns not only those who had been directly affected by the actions of the cultural gendarmes of that period, but to all Cuban intellectuals with dignity.
I believe I had been present at a defining moment for the crystallization of the label “Gray Quinquennium”, during the Convention of Cuban Narrative I helped to organize (with Jorge Luis Hernandez and Aida Bahr) in Santiago de Cuba in the year 1980. Ambrosio Fornet was a key element to the success of those meetings and also in the recovery of our generation, those who turned twenty in the middle of this grim period. I think the essay writer was attempting to signal the end of a period, characterized by dogmatism, persecution and a total lack of dissent, purposely designed to exclude and subjugate, a period that we needed to conjure away to be able to move forward and keep growing as people and as writers. We had to draw a dividing line, and in that sense I think the name helped. Those discussions held under the sun of Santiago in 1980 (Armando Hart, then Minister of Culture participated in many of them) accelerated the publication of some of the most interesting novels of the eighties in Cuba, including titles that had been trapped in the grasp of the censorship, as “The initials of the earth“, written by Jesus Diaz.
During the last of those Santiago‘s conventions, held in 1988, the controversial quinquennium and its influence in the subsequent years returned to debate. In this occasion the participation of young writers who had emerged in the eighties lend to the discussions a better perspective. Unexpectedly, the discussions ended with the drafting and signing of a document protesting the beating recently inflicted, by members of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), on a group of poets gathered in Matanzas, which made it very clear (if [not] for someone it would have remained obscure) that we had been doing more than the methodical dissection of a fossil trapped under the geological layers of oblivion.
Because the debate over that period could serve as a starting point to recognize a present from where to look into the future; it seems entirely appropriate to review the current invitation to re-examine the ”Gray quinquennium” once again, to fathom the depth of its implications and the real intensity of its grayness: how many times has it been reenacted, how many of its procedures have been camouflaged to continue to act with full virulence. As long as the analysis lead to a sharp dichotomy of victims and perpetrators, provided it does exclude the examination of the responsibility that the intellectual class has had in all of this, the seed of submission, opportunism and double moral that the so-called “Gray Quinquennium” planted, will remain fertile, and the reel of the ominous recorder will keep spinning for ever and ever.
José M. Fernández Pequeño
Translated by Miguel A. Gomez Mujica