Thursday, March 03, 2016

Miguel Barnet: The Boundaries Between Genres Are Increasingly Invisible
Miguel Barnet, Cuban poet, ethnologist and writer, has enticed readers ever since he published Biografía de un Cimarrón (Biography of a Runaway Slave) half a century ago, the first of his testimonial novels

Mireya Castañeda |
February 24, 2016 09:02:26

Writer Miguel Barnet proudly confesses that he writes by hand. Photo: Mireya Castañeda
Miguel Barnet, Cuban poet, ethnologist and writer, has enticed readers ever since he published Biografía de un Cimarrón (Biographyof a Runaway Slave) half a century ago, the first of his testimonial novels.

Barnet (born in Havana, January 28, 1940) has had an extensive career. He is president of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation and the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and is an Academician of the Cuban Academy of Language.

In 1963, he published his first poetry collection, La piedrafina y el pavorreal, which was followed by others such as Isla de güijes (1964); La sagrada familia (1967); Orikis y otros poemas (1980); Carta de noche (1982); Poemas chinos (1993) and Con pies de gato (an anthology, 1993).

He has also published Autográfos cubanos and La fuente viva (a collection of historical essays); Akeké y la jutía (Cuban fables), and the short story Fátima o el Parque de la Fraternidad, which won the 2006 Juan Rulfo Short Story Prize.

With Biografía de un cimarrón (a work of great repercussion worldwide, translated into English, French and other languages such as Japanese, Danish, German, Korean and Greek) became a precursor for the testimonial novel. Barnet later published Canción de Rachel (1969), Gallego (1983) La vida Real (1986) and Vida de Ángel (1989) in this same genre.

He has received numerous awards in Cuba, such as the National Prize for Literature (1994) and the Distinction for National Culture, as well as various international recognitions, including among others, the García Lorca Prize of Andalucia, Spain; the National Order of Merit of the Republique Francaise in 2003; the Grand Cross 1st Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, 2004; and the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, 2011.

Granma International spoke with this man of many talents in his UNEAC office in Havana.

50 years after the publication of Biografía de un Cimarrón, a classic of Cuban literature, it continues to appeal, to be read…

I can not say that my book is a classic. Others will say when it is a classic. For me now, it is a book that continues to spark interest in publishers and the public. A new edition is set to come out in Turkey, where it had never been published before. Plus other new editions in England and the United States, which will be the eighth. Also in Slovenia. In Japan and in China they told me, how exotic, how exotic. Just imagine that, something that is so normal, so natural and so organic for us, because he is a man who lived in Cuban slavery and with this book somehow contributed to a definition of Cuban cosmogony and the wars of independence, the world of popular imagination, of religiosity. Everything in the book, which is a compendium of quintessentially Cuban factors and values.

You will soon present a CD in which you read extracts from the book. Could you explain how this idea arose and where it was recorded, the music used, your expectations?

A CD by EGREM’s Areito label will be released, an original idea of Ana Llerena. I think it could be interesting, I read out passages from the book with music by Merceditas Valdés and also the guitar music of Héctor Angulo, some precious Yoruba songs. It’s original, the writer is still alive, the book is 50 years old. 60 years ago I published La piedra fina y el pavo real, but nobody forgets El Cimarrón. It was a book that gave and continues to give me a lot of satisfaction, especially in Germany, France, Italy, the United States, and here in Cuba I have lost count of how many editions there have been, something like ten. It always runs out, it’s never in the bookstores.

Do you see a conflict between the poet and the narrator?

No, I don’t believe in genres. The people have never believed in genres either, the people sang in décimas, in cuartetas, in silvas, they performed them, read them, sang them, dramatized them. Theater has music, literature, storytelling. I see a big fusion and today the boundaries are increasingly invisible. Biografía… was born with a very particular characteristic. Today they would call it postmodern. Why? It became a novel with a testimonial base, with a prologue, epilogue, with footnotes, a vocabulary. That is very rare in a novel. All this gave the book its own look and I had to force myself to try to define what it was that I was doing, the hybrid that I had created. I gave it the label of testimonial novel and so it stuck. It has kept this dual term.

How do you view printed books versus new technologies, such as the iPad or tablet?

The book remains, just as human hands still make a wood carving, chisel stone or mould clay. The prodigious hands of man will never disappear. I am in favor of new technologies. I'm an Aquarian, I’m with the future, but they are also a double-edged sword, as they provide a lot of information, but little hermeneutics. People have a lot of information, they know who Jean Paul Sartre is, who Milan Kundera is, they can tell you he was born on such a date, but they have not read his work. People read less. All the information is in that little gadget, in the little screen, which is so useful and at the same time so dangerous.

Do you write on a computer?

I've never sat at a computer. I have not needed to. I write everything by hand. I need to taste, smell the paper, touch it, I like to see the word as it is formed or deformed. I even correct on paper. I like to think hard on what I write. For example, I write a text and go lie down a little while, I come back to it again. The same with a poem. I write some verses, I say this does not work here, I have to change this and I go and sit somewhere else and come back again. The computer requires my presence, it is very authoritarian. I only sit at the computer to see a photo or send a message. I respect those who write on computers, I write everything by hand and I like to see the manuscripts. I go to libraries and museums and I love to see the manuscripts. To think that they have lost manuscripts, what a horror! What a crime against culture. Such a beautiful thing as to see the manuscript of anybody, of Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Lezama Lima, the people you have loved and admired.

Since Biografía de un cimarrón, you have seen great literary success. What does success mean to you?

I don’t know what success is. You have left me perplexed. I am a writer whose books are read. The Beatles, Renata Tebaldi, Luciano Pavarotti were successful. I’m a writer read by many people it’s true, I have to say, but those words like success, triumph, I don’t like to hear them, because if there is one thing humans can afford to lose it is their vanity. And they can also lose, and I have been witness to this in my life, their envy, and these are two sentiments that I never wish to feel. Gabriel García Márquez has been successful, I have been recognized in some parts of Cuba and outside of Cuba. There is no need to go further. If I thought I was a successful man I would not be able to go out at night, as I do, to have an ice cream at the Coppelia. People know me and they greet me, but that's not success, it is the affection and admiration that a public may have for a writer, an artist.

Do you write every day? What new books are you working on?

I don’t have anything prepared, nor do I know what I am writing. I do not write every day. I always say, I hope it doesn’t appear pedantic, that I am not a professional writer, I'm a cultural promoter, who writes. Soon I will publish an anthology of my poetry because I was asked to when I turned 75 (in 2015), it’s called Una botella al mar, and new editions of my novels are going to be released. I do not write every day, what I do every day is dream, and conjure up stories and work hard at the Foundation (Fernando Ortiz) and in UNEAC and that gives me pleasure, nobody should think that I'm sacrificing my work to dedicate myself to leading these organizations, I do it with great pleasure. I think the most beautiful distinction I have received, after all these international awards, is that awarded me by the José Martí Society (2006), the La Utilidad de la Virtud Prize. I want to remain useful to my country and keep pushing the country forward. Where to? To wherever, to never never land, to infinity.”

Half a century of Biografía de un Cimarrón, the celebrated testimonial novel of Miguel Barnet, which in its English edition (Pantheon Books, New York, 1968) was well defined by Graham Green: “There has been no book like this before and it is unlikely that there ever will be another like it.”

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