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Virgilio Piñera, a hundred years on from his birth

He was one of the pioneers of modernism in twentieth century Cuban literature. The Cuban poet, narrator and dramaturge was characterised by his independence, irreverence and authenticity.

Virgilio Piñero

Mario Lopez Goicoechea

The fish from the tower swims on tarmac” is the line of a poem in the work “Aire Frío” (Cold Air) that choreographer Marianela Boan chose as the title for her piece for six dancers, which premièred in 1992 in the Avellaneda studio of Havana’s National Theatre, in Cuba.

She used it because she wanted to explore what it meant to be Cuban in the midst of a crisis and their “contemplative capability, minimal resistance to pathos, search for immediate catharsis, refuge in exorcism-like humour”.

And the life and work of Virgilio Piñera was an escape from this pathos.

Piñera was born on the 4th of August 1912 in Cárdenas, Matanzas. His father was secretary of the Education Board and then later and administrator for the Cárdenas Aqueduct, and his mother was a teacher at Public School Number 8. In 1923 the family moved to Havana, but a couple of years later they then went to live in Camagüey.

The first of Piñera’s works to be published was the poem “El Grito Mudo” (The Mute Cry), in the anthology “Cuban Poetry of 1936”.

It was around this time that Piñera began studying for a degree in arts at the University of Havana. What’s more, when he was required to present his final dissertation, he refused to do so in front of what he called the “panel of idiots”.

It was this stubbornness and rebellious nature that won him the reputation of being a difficult person, and according to those who knew him well, this reputation was not undeserved.

Luis Carbonell, an idiosyncratic exponent of Cuban culture, used to love recounting the tale of how he included“El baile” (The Dance, written in 1944), one of Virgilio’s most well known works, in one of his recitals.

Shortly before opening night, Carbonnel received a visit from the set designer Andrés García who said to Luis “So, you’re going to include one of Virgilio’s short stories? Well, be careful, because if he doesn’t like how you read it, he’s very capable of causing a scandal.”

Only a few days after opening night, Carbonell heard a knock at the door of his dressing room. It was Virgilio Piñera, who had come to tell him: “What you’ve done with my short story is simply marvellous”.

There is no doubt that Piñera’s work is a constant search for unreality within reality. And he does this using a language filled with the everyday. Within the aesthetic of mid-twentieth century Cuban literature, it was Virgilio who created a mechanism for transforming the banal and the mundane into poetry. One of his most famous theatrical works (and the most autobiographical, according to the author himself) is “Aire Frío” (Cold Air) which premièred on the 8th of December 1962.

According to Piñera the scenario showed the life of a family in Havana and had to be viewed as “the dramatic expression of a cycle in the life of our nation which has now definitively ended”. What brought this stage to a “definitive end” was the Cuban Revolution, lead by Fidel Castro. This historical success coincided with Virgilio’s return to Cuba from Argentina, where he had spent almost ten years, on and off. From the off, he aligned himself with the barbudos supporters of the revolution. “Without hesitation I chose the Revolution as my natural state was always one of constant Revolution. I, like thousands of Cubans, didn’t have what the few had, a levelling out was required, they ‘have nothing to declare, except Revolution’”.

Sadly for Piñera and other intellectual contemporaries who shared his enthusiasm, the fledgling government had other ideas. In the first years of the Revolution, raids were carried out against homosexuals, members of the Abakuá sect, Christians (especially Catholics), young people with long hair and lovers of rock music. With his effeminate appearance and effected voice, Virgilio was an easy target. He was arrested while living in Guanabo, on the outskirts of Havana, and from that moment on his hope in the revolutionary process crumbled.

Marianela Boan

What the critics who tore into one of his best known works, Electra Garrigo (now considered a classic of Cuban theatre), could not do, the military boots of the Castro regime certainly achieved. In the 1970s Virgilio entered obscurity. He carried on writing, but no one performed his works, his poems were not published and his short stories were better known outside of Cuba than they were within his own country (it was during this period that a translation into French of his “Cuentos fríos” (Cold Tales) appeared under the title Comtes Froids”.

Virgilio Piñera died of a heart attack on the 18th of October 1979. He was 67 years old. With characteristic irony and odd humour (amongst his poems there is one entitled “Just Canasta”, dedicated to the card game) it is likely that his last act was to yawn, and his last words the same as those spoken by Luz Marina in Aire Frío: “Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow I’d like to eat meat and potatoes”.

(Translated by Viv Griffith)

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