Heberto Padilla and the (discarded) poets of the Revolution

Self-Portrait of the Other
Heberto Padilla

At a time when figures such as playwright Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia, and Peruvian novelist and presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa seem to embody the idea of the philosopher-king, “Self-Portrait of the Other,” the memoir of Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, serves as a sobering reminder of the complex relationship between art and politics.
In May 1971 Padilla became an international cause celebre. An early supporter of the revolution, he was arrested for vaguely defined crimes against the state, jailed, and forced to write an abject self-criticism in order to be freed. This echoed some of the worst Stalinist practices and caused an uproar among North American and Western European intellectuals, including figures such as Susan Sontag and Jean-Paul Sartre. It also deeply divided the Latin American intelligentsia. Padilla was soon released but his punishment continued.

Despite having won Cuba’s highest literary prize, Padilla couldn’t publish his work; he survived as a translator and ghostwriter. In 1980, he was allowed to leave for the United States where he has lived since.
The voice in “Self-Portrait of the Other,” suggests Padilla the poet rather than the journalist. It’s a book full of paradoxes about paradoxes. And whatever light is shed on a given subject is, more often than not, indirect, reflected a matter of tone and inflection or of omission.

It’s his autobiography, yet Padilla is largely defined by his relationships with others: Fidel Castro, the poet St. John Persecq, Jose Lezama Limacq, Yevgeny Yevtushenkocq, Sartre and a dozen other political and literary figures.
His own sketches outline a man deeply alienated from his environment, at odds with the very geography and climate of Cuba, never mind its literary life or the revolution’s bureaucrats.
One of the founders of the literary magazine Lunes de Revolucion, Padilla worked for Prensa Latina, the Cuban press agency, as a correspondent in London and Moscow. He also, at one point, became director of CUBARTIMPEX, described as a subdivision of the Ministry of Foreign Commerce.
Yet in hindsight, his fate, while not inevitable, comes hardly as a surprise.

Padilla’s story is full of ironies.
Halfway through the book, someone gives the young Padilla advice about writing an autobiography: “Your memoir should give the real date of your birth, the most crucial moment of your existence.” So the older Padilla, a man with a profound distaste for history, starts his on the evening of Dec. 31, 1958.
Padilla is perhaps one of Cuba’s finest living poets, yet his most historically important literary piece is a patently false, self-debasing confession.
He ridicules people who “insisted upon” finding symmetries between the Russian and the Cuban revolution, yet he chooses to go to Moscow as correspondent “to glimpse the outlines of Cuba’s future.” It is there, and in other countries behind the Iron Curtain, where he realizes that “The bureaucracies always viewed culture as if it were an opposition party.”
As he begins to see certain developments in the cultural life of Cuba not as isolated incidents but as part of the policies of “an authoritarian regime,” Padilla sets himself on a collision course with the revolution.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t include the text of his “confession” or cares to recall his thinking in going through with the farce. Early on he paraphrases Yevtushenko’s advice, “The most important thing in a revolution is the saving of one’s own head,” and lets it stand as an explanation.
This carries new weight, and not a small dose of irony, what with Yevtushenko currently serving as a delegate in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies.

One doesn’t have to agree with Padilla’s political ideas to read “Self- Portrait of the Other” as a chilling warning. Here’s someone who didn’t just realize how some political leaders saw him and his fellow poets — as “small animals of history which someone superior knew how to make use of and then discard” — but lived through it.

First appeared in The Boston Globe, March 1990

Fernando González