A Visit With Castro
Luers, in effect our senior shepherd, introduced our members in Spanish, and Gabo added a few words of explanation to identify us for Castro. García Márquez is quite short and the rest of us men are six feet or over, so that he stood looking up at Castro and the rest of us like a new younger boy in school. His friendship with Styron and his English started things off fluently, so that between them and Castro's conversations with Luers and Wendy, his wife, and Patty Cisneros and Inge, a loud hubbub banged against the walls. Suddenly Castro looked at me over the heads of the others and nearly shouted, "What is your birthday!"
"October 17, 1915," I replied, pretending I was not astonished at the question.
He now pointed his long index finger at his right temple. All went silent. An expression of deep-delving sagacity settled over his face as he kept the finger pressed against his head. I sensed hambone overacting, but then recalled paintings of Cervantes's Knight of the Sad Countenance, the heaven-directed gaze, the scraggly beard, the slanty eyebrows, the immemorial dark Spanish mournfulness, and Castro began to look normal. Now he raised the finger to point upward like a censorious teacher. "You are eleven years, five months and fourteen days older than I." (I can't recall the exact figures, but this will do.) Congratulatory laughter burst out and brightened the air. There was something almost touching in this childish demonstration of his calculating ability, and one recognized again his boyish hungering for the central distinction in a group. I thought of his idolization of Hemingway, another star who I am sure had felt the same driving need in himself. It was easy to imagine how they must have appreciated each other.
Now, with a wicked look in his eye, he turned to Wendy Luers. In midafternoon she had gotten us all out of the minibus the government had provided and into taxis that had taken us to the home of a dissident, Elizardo Sánchez. There we learned what was rather obvious--that despite the man's having been jailed a number of times for writing and distributing antigovernment publications, he was presently free but without any detectable influence. Knowing that his house was bugged he felt free to say whatever he liked, since his positions were already well-known. And if any of us had imagined that the visit was secret, we were disabused by the friendly TV cameraman who photographed us out in the street as we left. So much for our taking taxis instead of the government bus.
Now, addressing Wendy Luers primarily, Castro leaned forward and said, "We hear you were all missing for a couple of hours this afternoon! Were you shopping?" A flash of fierce irony crossed his face before he joined in our laughter. And so to dinner.
A meeting had been arranged the previous afternoon, no doubt through the writers union, with some fifty or so Cuban writers. Initially the organizers had expected only a few dozen on such short notice, but they had had to find a larger space when this crowd showed up. We encountered a rather barren auditorium, a speaker's platform and an odd quietness for so large a crowd. What to make of their silence? I couldn't help being reminded of the fifties, when the question hanging over any such gathering was whether it was being observed and recorded by the FBI.
It was hard to tell whether Styron's or my work was known to this audience, almost all of them men. In any case, with the introductions finished, Styron briefly described his novels as I did my plays, and questions were invited. One man stood and asked, "Why have you come here?"
Put so candidly, the question threw my mind back to Eastern Europe decades ago; there too it was inconceivable that such a meeting could have no political purpose. Styron and I were both rather stumped. I finally said that we were simply curious about Cuba and were opposed to her isolation and thought a short visit might teach us something. "But what is your message?" the man persisted. We had none, we were now embarrassed to admit. Still, as we broke up a number of them came up to shake hands and wordlessly express a sort of solidarity with us, or so I supposed. But in some of them there was also suspicion, I thought, if not outright, if suppressed, hostility to us for failing to bring a message that would offer some hope against their isolation. But back to the dinner with Fidel...