One of the most impressive things about this site, is how stories about Cuban dissidents, stories generally ignored by the MSM, are maintained alive, and those courageous people are never forgotten.
I’ve learned a lot reading about them.
A little over a decade ago, by pure coincidence, I ran across an Internet site that was publishing news reports and stories from Cuban dissident writers inside Cuba.
The site was called The Cuba Free Press Project, and it immediately caught my eye. As I read the archives, one particular writer stood out heads and shoulders above the rest. Rafael Contrera’s prose, unique voice, and syntax fascinated me; as a writer trying to find my own voice (I still am) his was the first style to influence my own consciously.
As I wrote, I would ask myself “how would Rafael Contreras say this?”
I took it upon myself to translate his essays and stories, and as anyone who has ever done that will attest, many, many things are lost in the translation, but I forged ahead.
As I translated, I opted to proceed in a chronological fashion, from his oldest stories to his newest, fearing that the site may opt to archive older material in order to accommodate newer submissions.
As I did that, I began to notice subtle changes in his stories. Rafael began to sound bitter, frustrated, even angry, and there were even passages about excessive drinking as a result of living in a land where there was no future.
On September 24, 2001, Rafael Contreras posted a message of condolences directed at the American people in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11. Six days later, one last Rafael Contreras story was published by the Cuba Free Press Project titled “Cuando despertamos, todavia el dinosaurio sigue ahí”, the title being the full text of Augusto Monterroso’s story “El Dinosaurio”, thought to be the shortes short story ever written.
The actual text of Monterroso’s story reads (in its entirety) “Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí”, and it appears as if Rafael was writing from memory, and the story was angirer than anyting he’d ever written, and there was an ominous quality to it that made me go back, day after day, and week after week looking for more stories by Rafael Contreras to be published.
There were no more stories published again, in fact, The Cuba Free Press Project has never posted any more stories or reports since that day. It appears to have been updated a few times over the years, but it remains mostly inactive.
Rafael Contreras identified himself as a reporter for the Abdala Agency, based in Pinar Del Rio, and I think that the Abdala Agency is still active, but I’ve never read anything from Rafael Contreras ever again.
I don’t know if he’s alive, if he was detained. I don’t even know whether his real name was indeed Rafael Contreras. I do know that he was a brave man to write what he wrote when the simple exercise of that gift we sometimes take fro granted, our freedom to speak our minds, while living in a country where it can cost you your life.
You can find my translations of his work here, the ones I considered to be the best of the works I translated.
“Below the fold”, as George likes to say, I’ve posted my homage to Rafael Contreras, my homage to a brave man, written in my best imitation of his voice, and imagining what may have become of him since that day in September when his voice fell silent.
Sueûo de Una Noche de Verano
The writer bent closer to his work and read the words before him slowly, his lips savoring them as a tender kiss. Each word an individual inspiration, each sentence a revelation, each paragraph a testament to his desperation, his resignation to the inevitable.
He wrote by the light of the Moon, a Moon so bright it made him forget the Sun and dimmed the stars by comparison; the Moon was the writer’s secret ally. The Sun was the cold and cruel revealer of things hidden by the night; it was the Sun that was cold, not the Moon. His lover, his mother, his collaborator, his whore, his confidante and his confessor, that was the Moon as well. The harsh indifference of the Sun burnt his skin each day, and the warm caress of the Moon healed his soul each night.
The writer moved to the moonlight, it was soon to end and he had much to write. He followed the passing of the hours by the movement of the moonlight across the floor in this, his hell, and his inspiration. The light fell on the paper, and the writer held his pencil ready; the words would come, the words always came. He did not write the words, they revealed themselves to him, and his lead gave birth to them. They flowed through him, not from him; they emerged with a sigh, and sometimes with a roar.
Sometimes, the words came so fast that he feared not staying astride them long enough to record their passage, but lately (he sensed that he neared the end) they seemed to flow with great care and deliberation, revealing themselves to him only when they felt he was ready for their undeniable truth; and when they came, they were flashes of light illuminating the night sky of his tormented spirit.
So sitting perfectly still he waited patiently for the words to arrive, holding his pencil tight in one hand, while absentmindedly probing a rotting tooth in his black and swollen gums with the other.
No more words would come tonight; he could feel their absence. The writer folded his papers tenderly, carefully following the creases (too many creases would blur the words), wrapped them in an old piece of plastic, and buried them in the soft dirt beneath his cot and alongside his pencil. He lays down to get some rest.
He thought the same thoughts he thought every night: his words, the book they would birth, the truth contained in those words, and he remembered life.
He was a young man once. He had hopes, aspirations, and a man’s desire to be a man. He raged to be heard and be counted, to seize his day and change his world, and he was brilliant, or so he had been told. He held in his hand the might of the word. Words borne of righteousness and absolute certainty had changed the world before, and could change it again. He could change his world; clear-sighted, idealistic youth had changed the world in many ways before.
And he had Maria.
He whispered her name softly, like a prayer. In the darkness just before the dawn he whispered her name, and the very sound of it made something in him stir.
Her skin like butter, she smelled of night blooming jasmine and tasted like nothing he’d ever tasted before or since. And the memory of her was profaned by this place, so he fought to exorcise her from his mind.
But she remained, and the writer could almost hear her laughter in the sounds of the palm fronds rustling outside his narrow window.
He remembered running through the streets of the city, Maria by his side, and El Gordo Palacios behind them, shouting at the startled military police standing on every corner, delighted in their private joke.
“Upsilamba!” – they shouted, over and over again, and ran until El Gordo fell to the ground behind them, exhausted and laughing, and Maria into his arms, breathless and smelling of night blooming jasmine.
He told her of his dreams that night. In the heady aftermath of discovery, he confessed his deepest desires to the girl with skin like cocoa butter and a prayer for a name, and how somehow he felt left without a choice, that these words trying to flow out through him had somehow chosen him, not the reverse.
“But the revolution needs Doctors,” said he, “the revolution needs me.”
“The revolution can find doctors anywhere. Be who you are.” And the young man who would become the writer wrote of the young revolution with heady exuberance, and the revolution held him in high esteem. He reigned in the battlefields of militant academia, unchallenged, shouting down dissidence wherever it was found.
But truth is great, and truth will always prevail, and the words that funneled through the young man slowly began to peel back the blinders of youthful exuberance from his eyes. So he wrote the truth because he had no choice, and he was brilliant in his passion, and the truth set those around him on fire. He wrote of the tyranny of forced equality, how mediocrity subjugated excellence, and how the best and the brightest left, never to return because of it. He denounced the stolen dreams and raged at the broken promises, and those he denounced, the empowered mediocrity of the fallen revolution struck back. They took everything that mattered from him, but the girl whose whispered name was a prayer never left his side.
Then, mediocrity took Maria. One of those Doctors – found somewhere by the revolution – simply let her go, and his slow descent into madness began. He spent his nights walking city streets where once he ran free, the paradox of it making him mad – this man who had never been free – and imprisoned himself in a bottle; a prison within the prison that was the Island. His words became dark, menacing, dangerous even to himself, and daring retributions.
El Gordo Palacios did his best to help, never leaving his side. It was the writer who was sent to Angola, it was El Gordo who volunteered; it was in Angola that a mortar found El Gordo Palacios softly singing “Yellow Submarine” in a shallow foxhole.
”Gordo! Gordo”! – He ran through the jungle of that God-forsaken, worthless corner of the world they were dying for, unconcerned by the battle raging all around him.
”Gordo! Gordo!” – He listened, impossibly, for the strains of a badly sung Beatles song to break through the clamor of mortars and bombs to guide him.
”Gordo! Gordo”! – He stumbled headlong into the smoldering pile of meat that had once been his childhood companion.
His searched for El Gordo but found the far shore of Acheron instead.
The writer thinks all these thoughts as he lies in his cot waiting for the Sun to end this night, and it was then that the words come to him.
He falls to the ground and digs at the dirt beneath it, hands trembling, he writes the last words of his book as the poison from untreated infection takes its final toll.
The words come now in an unstoppable rush of blinding explosions, faster and brighter than any time before, until in one brilliant moment of lucidity before the final plunge into the darkness ahead, he understands that he will finally be free.
Hands trembling, fighting to keep his mind focused on the task, he buries his treasure one last time, and falls exhausted to the floor.
“Gordo, Maria, forgive me, for I have sinned. Into the truth, I commend my spirit.”
The door to unit 14A opens and frames the slight man as one would frame a picture. He stands there, momentarily suspended in time, then falls forward on to the hard dirt floor of the small cell, pushed from behind by unseen hands.
He hears the unmistakable sound of the tumblers falling in the lock outside, and sits up slowly, pulling his knees tight against his chest.
The voice that comes through the slit where the maggot-infested meals would soon be pushed through sounds crass and brutish.
“Oye, maricón, I hope you like the accommodations, you got the celebrity suite.”
The slight man looks around trying to evaluate his situation.
“The last gusano who stayed in your room was famous – just like you. Even more famous, maybe.”
He sees the small window through which the sun shines in, cold and indifferent. He sees the cot and the stained mattress pushed against the wall.
“That last one, he lasted almost three years. El hijo de la gran puta made me lose ten dollars US, I bet he wouldn’t last four months.”
“I need to use the bathroom” – says the man.
Raucous laughter erupts from outside the cell.
“I told you puto, you got the celebrity suite, complete with accommodations.”
The slight man looks until he finds it, a rusted metal bucket partly hidden behind the cot.
“I need toilet paper.”
This time, the laughter outside his door borders on insanity.
“Well, tell your Mommy to bring you some, just like that last gusano’s Mommy did. Every week a roll of toilet paper and a pencil even though it’s been rationed for years, but his whore of a mother always managed to find some. And for what? That crazy bastard always stunk, too crazy to wipe his own culo. Personally, I think he ate it. Hey, maybe that’s what killed him, too much toilet paper in his diet.”
The laughter outside the door faded slowly away. The slight man began to stand up. It was then that he saw it, a small piece of plastic sticking out of the dirt beneath the cot. He pulled on the plastic, and the dirt began to fall away.
Hours later, the man sat in his cell, dumbfounded by his discovery: a dozen plastic-wrapped packages buried in the dirt beneath the cot. He unwinds the plastic, and holds the soft rolls of tissue gingerly in his hands, marveling at his treasure. There are words written on the paper, and a name he recognized, a great writer’s name, a desaparecido, a writer of great words, but in a land ruled by mediocrity, words were meaningless and toilet paper is scarce.
He gently tears two sheets, and heads for the rusted bucket.
Dedicated to Rafael Contreras