Report for an Infamous Institution

Venezuelan writer Álvaro Contreras.

Before the law sits a gatekeeper.
Franz Kafka

1. On the night of April 27, 1971, just hours after being released from prison (he had been arrested by order of a military tribunal on March 20 of that same year for “having plotted against the powers of the state”), Heberto Padilla makes a speech to the National Congress of the UNEAC (Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) featuring all the traits of the confession to which “traitors” of the Revolutionary cause are subjected, a speech which would go down in history as a disgrace for Latin American culture. Literary theorist José Antonio Portuondo opens the proceedings, summarizing the situation: Padilla himself had asked the benevolent Revolutionary Government for permission to explain his case to “his writer comrades”. Padilla, his friends and literary institutions would be present at the staged “self-criticism”, to which Lezama Lima had previously been subjected (convinced that the ceremony was a “farce”), all under the watchful eye of la Seguridad, the State security services. To add to the fiction of the confession, the author had to “memorize” and recite the text written in jail. According to Manuel Díaz Martínez (who, together with Lezama, had been part of the jury that awarded Padilla’s book of poems, Fuera del juego, the Julián de Casal Prize in 1968), at the main entrance, the only one open, an official and several agents check identification, only letting in those who have been invited. Within the hall, “everything was ready: the rows of seats, the top table, the microphones, the lights and the cameras from the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, who would film the spectacle, directed by Santiago Álvarez”. Padilla begins his confession reciting, in the cacophonous and triumphalist style of the Leftist bildungsroman, the things that “I learned from the humility of these comrades [from the State security service], from the modesty, the sensitivity and the warmth with which they carry out their human and revolutionary duty, the difference between a man who serves the Revolution and a man arrested for the defects of his character and his vanities”. His voice sketches the figure of an exemplary subject and an experience which should serve as an example. But an example of what? We can hear something else in that ceremonial voice, a trace of fear which separates what he says from what we hear. A historical distance alters what we hear, it is what the Revolutionary Government wanted intellectuals (in Cuba and throughout the continent) to hear, a warning of everything they were capable of: doubling the body and the voice, using the voice having supressed the body.

La Seguridad presents itself through this divided voice as a prophetic entity which produces moral benefits in its subjects (“they were often kind enough to take me out into the sunshine”, “if there have not been more arrests so far it is thanks to the generosity of our Revolution”), as an institution possessing superior intelligence, authorized to monitor the most banal aspects of daily life (family conversations, chats among friends) and to produce facts. Their power even stretches to determining the ideology of a text, defining the criteria by which a revolutionary institution could assert what the author probably meant, or what others have misunderstood. From his insistence on what he learned in his cell at la Seguridad (“which wasn’t a particularly dark cell”), the writer must or should know what the Revolution wants: its rules, its ideas about conflict, the boundaries of what can be done and what can be said, but above all, he should recognise that an interpretation which does not take into account the “principles” of the Revolution is “inconceivable”. A physical space of reclusion, to think about who one is, was or will be, that is what la Seguridad provides. There, after having been subjected to a re-education process, the body and the voice discover their private defects, they begin to recognize “enemy agents”, who they are and where: they also discover that only a sick or resentful man could write critical literature. There, with no civil or legal rights, one learns to write: “I wrote beautiful things in the midst of my distress and my sadness”.

It is always possible to discover the authorship of a text in the voice that reads it or that we hear. Indeed, for institutions, the truth is standing there, in the form of the poet who is lying. This voice has personal experience of the institutional truth, which it does not forget as it speaks, forced to internalize the voice of the other, as la Seguridad now believes is the role of the intellectual. The fiction and disguise of an institution that talks as if it were a poet. The time spent in confinement is a time for interpretation: the Seguridad comrades “did not even interrogate me”, they used “intelligent, political persuasion with me”. This is how authorship becomes displaced in a way that can only be called totalitarian, an essential element of the “self-criticism” ceremony. Precisely because a paranoid logic has lodged in the poet’s voice, authorship can only lie in this voice. Starting from this logic, after enough time, the poet explains what another has written in the voice of the censor, as if he were censoring what he has not written. Committed to the ceremony, his own voice, trapped in this spectral speech, is forced to internalize a way of reading – “I could tell the truth about many of those present today”, such as his wife Belkis, who is bitter and resentful, or his friend Pablo Fernández, who is “bitter, disaffected, sick, sad”, or that Norberto Fuentes “thought” that “the Revolution had built a kind of special machine against him, against us, to devour us”; to speak about how his friends went from optimism to defeat and finally to bitterness, about how the cultural “sector”, as a space of scepticism, resistance and doubt, is the most dangerous thing for the Revolution, a fertile zone for the enemy; to claim that writers are selfish, petulant, conceited, “united in pessimism, in defeatism”, that all they do is “make demands, gossip, protest, criticize”, and if I accuse them today, publically, it is because “I care about them a great deal”. In short, to assert that “the Revolution could not continue to tolerate such conspiracy”.

There is something intrinsically stupid in the censor and his revolutionary “ethic”; he tries to make us believe that he is looking out for us, that he is telling us the truth. In his criticisms of the artist (his lack of integrity), it becomes clear how the institution imagines itself. The poet’s twisting of words is taken as proof of his twisted conscience. Padilla talks about the regimes of truth built by la Seguridad. This is the discourse of an Institution which wants to be seen as exemplary. Padilla’s speech has all the formal traits of a confession, a ritual through which faults, weaknesses and desires are exposed. By saying everything in public, turning the confession into a cynical accusation, he is looking for forgiveness from the Revolution, for the correction of his self, and for clarification of the relationship between intellectuals and those in power. On the edges of this statement, perhaps more clearly than in any other testimony, lurks the idea that the Revolution needs these written “confessions” to prove their fears.

According to Foucault, there is a “discursive ethic” in modern literature which shows and tells “the most forbidden and most scandalous”, seeking “everyday life beneath itself”; through detail, as Foucault suggests, the everyday becomes part of the “order of discourse”, and it is in this search for and integration of the everyday that literature “brutally or insidiously disclos[es] the secrets” of reality, “oust[s] the rules and the codes”, and says “the unavowable”. Padilla’s self-criticism, which we read here as a piece of literature, “say[s] the most unsayable, the worst, the most secret, the most intolerable, the shameless”.

2. The historical figure of the censor is, according to Coetzee, someone who searches for “second-order writing (metaphor, allegory) that will open itself to interpretation”; he is “a figure of the absolutist reader: he reads the poem in order to know what it really means, to know its truth”. And now that censorship constitutes “a regime of reading and writing, writers can be expected to either regulate themselves or, by rejecting the rules, to place themselves outside the law”. The question ‘How do censors read?’ can be better understood by returning to the prologue which the UNEAC added to the first edition of Fuera del juego. The “leadership of the UNEAC”, as a body charged with “safeguarding the principles which inform our Revolution”, tells us how to determine the nature of a book of poems which is “ideologically” counterrevolutionary. Padilla, so the censors say, “maintains an ambiguity in his pages through which he, at times, attempts to place his discourse in another latitude. At times it is a dedication to a Greek poet, at others an allusion to another place. Thanks to this crude device, any description which follows cannot be applied to Cuba, and comparisons can only be formed in the ‘guilty conscience’ of someone who draws parallels”. The censor opposes this “guilty conscience” with a “revolutionary conscience” to examine the poems as a politically committed reader would.

The dedication alluded to belongs to the poem “Fuera del juego” [Out of the Game]: “To Yannis Ritzos, in a prison in Greece”. The poems set in other latitudes could perhaps refer to “Cantan los nuevos Césares” [The New Caesars Sing], “El abedul de hierro” [The Iron Birch], and “Canción de un lado a otro” [Song From One Side to the Other]. These are the first and final verses of “Fuera del juego”:

The poet! Kick him out!
He has no business here.
He doesn’t play the game.
He never gets excited
Or speaks out clearly.
He never even sees the miracles.
He spends the whole day in reflection
Always finding something to object to.
And everyone jumps,
Steps back,
Opens their mouths
          “Well yes,
          of course,
And they all dance well,
They dance beautifully.
As they want the dance to be.
Throw that guy out!
He’s got no reason to be here.

Without referring explicitly to the poem, the censor reaches the following conclusion: “In Padilla’s mind, the revolutionary dances as he is asked to dance and unceasingly agrees to whatever he is ordered to do, he is put in his place, he is the conformist who speaks of the miracles which occur”. The censor’s need to interpret becomes more eloquent in citing a verse from “También los humillados” [The Humiliated Too]. The poem says: “that history is the blow that you must learn to resist”. And the censor: “history ‘like the blow that you must learn to resist’”. There is a commentary embedded in this subtle change to the verse. Outside the verse, the censor again explains: “A revolutionary does not fear history”. He acts as if the book of poems was responsible for what the poet wanted to say, as if it were possible to extract from the words of the poems the suspicious and unknown identity of the artist himself. Perhaps it is necessary to understand that the censor reads every line attentively, and so that his reading does not seem simple, obvious or even ridiculous, he decides to present himself not as the representative of an institution, but of a discipline, as a specialist, and, therefore, as someone who is skilled at unpacking meaning. In these cases, the discipline becomes the social face of the censor in totalitarian regimes, with which they claim their public “innocence”. Let’s now suppose there were a hidden message in this “second-order writing” which Coetzee speaks of; what is the message that the UNEAC reads in Padilla’s book of poems? Let’s ask the censor. It appears that, in his poems, Padilla “changes the dialectic of the class struggle to that of the battle of the sexes; he suggests there are persecutions and repressive climates in a revolution like ours which has been characterized by its generosity and openness; he identifies the revolutionary with inefficiency and ineptitude; he is moved by the counterrevolutionaries who are leaving the country and those who are shot for their crimes against the people; and he hints at conspiracies against him which can only be a sign of arrogant delusions of grandeur or a profound resentment”. From the moment in which, in the name of revolutionary knowledge, certain specialized individuals join the defence of this knowledge extracted from revolutionary catechism, it becomes possible to fix the criteria to prevent any possible dissidence, to censor what is within and outside the text, what can be said and what cannot, to contest even that which has not been said. This effort is ultimately in favour of two objectives: to exhaust all the possible meanings of a text and to make the poet read himself with the voice of the censor. How can these two objectives be achieved? I think it is Coetzee who, in his book Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship, best defines the role that interpretation plays in these circumstances. Ultimately, Coetzee states, “the linguistic practices of totalitarianism” consist of “send[ing] out coded messages whose meaning is known to all parties and then [using] the censor to enforce a literal interpretation of them, at least in the public arena”. All the censor’s dreams, in the end, revolve around something unconditioned: the language of the poet. Those who heard or read Padilla’s “self-criticism” also had reasons to doubt the poet’s language, but for other motives. They suspected it was not his, not even as a borrowed language. They supposed it was the language and the syntax of the Revolutionary State. At least that is what Mario Vargas Llosa detected: he who writes in this language gives more than an account of a “despicable life” and his relationship with power. It is something different: if la Seguridad can be heard in the “self-criticism” through the voice of the poet, in the poems, according to the censor, much can be found which raises suspicion. Or rather, literary suspicion leads to political suspicion. Both cases must answer questions asked by the institution. What are these questions? Although the censor rarely cites verses by the poet, it is in his interpretation that the meaning of poetry becomes visible. He will never let go of this idea: in the epigraphs, in the geographical references, the poet is trying to speak about something else, and to reveal these tricks, the censor must bestow poetry with a regime of truth, to speak not of the content but of the meaning of the poems, of the author’s “intentions”. In this way, through his reading everything becomes evident: once the poetic illusion has been destroyed, the poet can no longer pretend. To know to what extent the poet is lying or using tricks, the censor must first develop a theory of literary representation which settles the question of the truth of what the poem says, a theory designed to uncover the poet’s tricks for hiding messages. From Portuondo’s point of view, the mission of literary criticism should be to discover and reveal “the intention which determines a particular structure and personal style” and “to make difficult or obscure symbols and structures understandable”: “in criticism, as in the sugar harvest, guerrilleros, we must wield the pen and the machete”. From the start, the critic-censor denies any possibility of thinking of literature and culture as free from suspicion. Instead, they are considered to be the stronghold of subversive discourse, and consequently, poetry is seen as an account of conspiracy. The critic-censor’s literary theory is based on the hypothesis that literature and culture are rituals of ideological purification.

3. It is significant that when Ángel Rama was putting together his account of the narrative of the 1960s, at the state of the 1980s, he did not mention politics, considering it of little relevance from a historical perspective. He considered it “more useful to consider the socio-economic transformations which affected the continent following the Second World War than to get caught up in the excessively ideological political discussions that marked the 1970s more than the 1960s”. Even if this were true, why would a political perspective on the Boom be any less useful than a sociological one? Is this methodological choice not the result of an interpretive choice, based precisely on political questions? Following these criteria, the Uruguayan critic was able to classify and order, unproblematically, the personal opinions of Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and José Donoso about the definition of the Boom, divide the editorial world (including magazines) in an opposition between cultural and commercial, and attempt to fix a date of origin (1964) for this movement according to a quantitative measure (the increase in sales of Cortázar’s work). It is not hard to see a connection between Rama’s supposedly sociological perspective and the notion of objectivity, as if “political discussions” would take distance and effectiveness away from the study of a literary or cultural phenomenon. It would seem that even at the start of the 1980s the ghost of the Padilla affair still haunted the writing and the conscience of some intellectuals, who felt obliged to keep their distance from the affair, while at the same time seeing it as their ethical mission to point out those “traits” which characterize an author on the Right (“señor” Borges, as Rama notes). It is not a question of reviving those simplistic interpretive frameworks so common in literary criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, but of interrogating the objects of study which such frameworks made possible, the divisions they drew in cultural studies, and the ideas and concepts used to organize those objects of study, thereby opening up the past with new questions about our present.

Álvaro Contreras
Universidad de los Andes
Mérida, Venezuela

Translated by Katie Brown


Number 8

The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro. 

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Sergio Ramírez

Dossier: Octavio Armand


Latin American Science Fiction

Indigenous Literature





Nota Bene