In his acceptance speech, Joseph Brodsky said that to receive the Nobel Prize was to take the longest route between Saint Petersburg and Stockholm. This was no surprise, as it had been a long while since he was last excited by the idea that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. And he was pleased to discover that (unexpected) geography, which had led him into exile in the United States, could bring about poetic justice. One of the metaphors that Brodsky chose for exile was the idea of going astray, or that a straight line becomes serpentine, a metaphor that Dante had used before. But I’d like to step away from this metaphor to discuss the experience of many Latin American writers who have found themselves living as professors in the United States. This is the subject of Donde van a morir los elefantes by José Donoso. The novel is narrated by Gustavo Zuleta, visiting professor at the University of San José in a fictional Midwestern desert town, and deals with the tensions between Anglo-American and Latin-American cultures. A clash of identities has always existed, but maybe this conflict conceals another one that is less anecdotal but more important. In Donoso’s novel, Professor Gustavo Zuleta’s writing work is actually peripheral to the story. In the epilogue, Zuleta admits that he secretly wrote his novel in Chile, after finishing his visiting professorship in the United States, and he was tempted to hide behind pseudonyms like Pessoa. He also confesses that art is not a lecture stand, but simply a way to “keep the wall of darkness somewhat at bay.”
Brodsky used to say that the only thing politics and poetry had in common was the letter p, so he perhaps mocked politically conscious poets while at the same time suggesting that politics does harm to poets. He undoubtedly became freer to pursue his writing career after the Soviet Union decreed his expulsion to the West. Nevertheless, he worked in a number of universities, which speaks to a certain instability or inability to adapt. Solomon Volkov, who published a book of conversations with the Russian poet, related something a Harvard professor had once told him, very irritated. According to this professor, certain ideas of Brodsky’s violated his students’ civil rights. Forcing them to memorize poems was a ridiculous and cruel punishment when these poems could simply be taken out of the library, in contrast to the situation in the Soviet Union. This anecdote is surprising in and of itself, but also because of the misfire that occurred in the meeting of two very different cultures. As far as I know, Brodsky never explained his situation as a writer forced to be a professor in a foreign country. It is not hard to see who had more to lose in this university setting.
But let’s leave aside the poet-professor Brodsky and direct our attention to Latin America. The list of Latin American professors who have settled in the United States is long, and their contribution to research and teaching has become a part of history. The list of Latin American writers who have left their country to work as professors in the United States is shorter. Due to its geographical and historical proximity, the path from Latin America to the United States is one of the most well-trodden, but not the only one. But this path has often been a serpentine one, through a land of confusion and misunderstandings.
The work of a few of these writers is often inscrutable, baroque, or oozes existential angst. The first names that come to mind are Cubans: Heberto Padilla, Antonio Pérez Benítez Rojo, José Prats Sariol. But I also think about several writers from the Southern Cone. Even if they didn’t come as refugees, they’ve dealt with their own traumas and felt uncomfortable in the atmosphere of the U.S. university. Ricardo Piglia is the best-known example, but not the only one. Finally, I also think of the novels Moronga (2018) by Horacio Castellanos Moya, or Llévame esta noche (2020) by Miguel Gomes, in which a Latin American professor living in the United States—but who does not end up adapting to life there—wrestles with the ghosts of his past (the civil war in El Salvador, Chavismo in Venezuela). This alienation is usually described as cultural, but I will try to draw your attention to something less evident, something related perhaps to the foreigner in relation to themself, which is what a foreigner becomes.
Heberto Padilla (1932–2000), like many intellectuals, supported the Cuban Revolution at first, but fell into disgrace when his book Fuera del juego won a literary contest in Cuba in 1968. The book satirized a revolutionary speech, quickly turning Padilla into an object of persecution. He was placed under arrest for forty days in 1971, alternately in the custody of the state security forces and the Military Hospital, subjected to physical and psychological torture to pressure him to write and memorize a public confession for his “unforgiveable errors” for having “maligned” the regime. What followed this televised confession is well known. Intellectuals of the international left were divided over the “Padilla Affair”: some stood in solidarity with the writer and withdrew their support for the Cuban Revolution; others did the opposite and reaffirmed their support for it. Padilla eventually managed to obtain authorization to leave Cuba and establish a residence in the United States, where he taught at a few universities, ending up at Auburn University in the final years before his death. In other words, he was never able to get a stable appointment at a university. He never recovered emotionally from the humiliation of 1971, and according to Guillermo Cabrera Infante, suffered from alcoholism. Whatever the reason may be, his life in the United States ended in failure. But we should not consider his case paradigmatic. Two Cuban writers who worked as professors in exile, but who had different endings, are Antonio Benítez Rojo (1931–2005) and José Prats Sariol (b. 1946).
José Prats Sariol, like Heberto Padilla and Antonio Pérez Benítez Rojo, saw hope in the toppling of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The disenchantment came little by little, irreversibly, although each would come to it differently. Maybe it was because Prats Sariol was thirteen when Fidel Castro rose to power, but it took him the longest to solidify his breakup with the regime and his future exile. In 1963, at the young age of seventeen, he began working as a teacher in Cuba. At this time, Padilla was evolving towards a dissident position, as expressed in his book Fuera del juego, which won an award (one of the judges was Lezama Lima). At the same time as Padilla was under arrest, Prats Sariol was a university student. The subject of his graduate thesis was the magazine Orígenes, of which Lezama Lima was one of the most important directors. At that time, in the 1970s, to be interested in Lezama Lima, a Cuban cultural icon who was seen with utmost mistrust by the powers that be, was at minimum a cause for suspicion. However, Lezama died in 1976, and was no longer cause for alarm at that time. Prats Sariol would continue his activities as a critic and storyteller, but managed to maintain a low profile. By the mid-1990s, Prats Sariol had become an undesirable figure due to his intellectual activity and was allowed to leave the island in 2003. His exile began at the age of fifty-seven. First he petitioned for asylum in Mexico, then obtained a post as a visiting professor at Arizona State University—a position that, by definition, does not last long.
By the time his term as visiting professor was over, Prats Sariol was over sixty years old and not very attractive to an American university. He continued living in the United States, writing and publishing, although he has spoken very little about his experience in the North. However, in “Lo cubano como ensoñación,” an essay on Cuban identity based on some reflections by Cintio Vitier, he mentions “detachment,” [despego] asking “What attachment [arraigo] can there be for an emigrant forced to adapt or perish?” He talks about “detachment,” but he gives it a different meaning than Vitier: “The disposition to always go to another thing, and minimal nationalist feeling.” Exile is like an encounter with el azar (a word that can mean fate or chance, alternately bad fortune or good fortune) but this encounter with one’s fate is without attachment (without “creeds or ideals”). A book published in his final years is called Lezama Lima o el azar concurrente. The vagaries [azares] of language: when talking about Cubans, Sariol uses the word “emigrant.” The Cold War and immediate exile were a bygone era to them. Now the Cubans and Venezuelans who desperately crossed the borders were emigrants, refugees, or displaced people. But in many cases, the distinction between Latin American immigrants and exiles is fuzzy, especially when their lives are under threat in their countries of origin.
Antonio Benítez Rojo was a novelist, essayist, and storyteller. His work has garnered recognition within and outside of Cuba. He is particularly remembered for his books El mar de las lentejas (Sea of Lentils) and La isla que se repite (The Repeating Island). First and foremost, his work is surprising because his university studies in Havana did not focus on literature, but economics. Both he and his wife identified with the Revolution, but became disenchanted by the mid-1960s. The Cuban Government gave his wife authorization to travel to the United States with their two children in 1967, since their daughter needed special medical treatment, but Antonio Benítez Rojo was not given permission to leave. Their separation would continue until 1980, when he deserted his Cuban diplomatic delegation in Paris and travelled to the United States to be reunited with his family. This was the same year when Padilla arrived (the two were part of the same generation). With the help of a friend, Benítez Rojo was able to obtain a position as a Spanish professor at Amherst College. He would teach there for twenty years and was beloved by his students. This information can be found on the Amherst College website, but it is possible he wrote it himself. Antonio Benitez Rojo’s life was bittersweet. But beyond his personal hardships, he knew how to take advantage of another history, the history of colonialism and detachment he learned in youth. He became interested in Caribbean adventures and pirate novels at a young age. A cook in his house had been enslaved and she had told him stories of the orishas of the Yoruba pantheon. He used all this material in his fiction, and later, in exile, published La isla que se repite, which was widely recognized within North American universities. This novel, along with El mar de las lentejas, was translated into English and both were very successful.
In these stories of exile, there is a marked contrast between the case of Padilla and that of Benítez Rojo and Prats Sariol. The work of all three will stay with us, but I also believe that the different nature of their exiles influenced how their writing evolved. Although Padilla invited readers to look upon history with suspicion, his autobiography Self-Portrait of the Other: A Memoir (Mala memoria in Spanish), confirms that his intention was to use the book as a way to defy the Cuban regime. He did not foresee that he would be subjected to cruel tortures and, in fact, he paid a high price to write history. Whether we attribute his failure in exile to trauma, a lack of discipline, or disrespect for all established orders, he never seemed very satisfied with the outcome of his individual defiance of a totalitarian regime. And the impact of his punishment on other writers is undeniable. Neither Benítez Rojo nor Prats Sariol defied the dictatorship of Fidel Castro with the same energy. The era of the intellectual as hero had ended. In these cases, the work tends to become a testimony or a symbol, or something in between. Padilla’s books directly speak to the trauma of persecution and expulsion. For Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, the motif of the shipwreck survivor, one who survives the trauma on the opposite shore, is, in The Repeating Island, a symbol of Benítez Rojo himself, a symbol of his exile refashioned through literature, and I would add, ennobled. Prats Sariol talks about Cuban detachment [desapego] in a 2019 essay. The Royal Spanish Academy dictionary defines desapego as “lack of passion or interest, distancing, detour.” Maybe cautious distancing or detour is a symbol of Prats Sariol. Traumas, shipwrecks, detours: metaphors of loss in exile. Each writer tried to use the time they had left to write, the time they had lost. In light of what we’ve seen, the results were divergent.
For José Donoso, writers who end up as professors in the United States can be compared to elephants that, when they sense they are going to die, take refuge in a reservation in Kenya. Donoso was able to think about this metaphor of old age and power because Gustavo Zuleta was in a certain position of power: he was able to choose where he would end his days. But not every Latin American writer has that option, or that fate. That’s why I prefer to think of them not as elephants but as Don Quixote’s skinny nag Rocinante, when, after his defeat, he wrote his will. At this point, the debilitated horse has no more heroes to follow, and is relegated to a humble position. If I think about the most successful of the writers I’ve studied here, Antonio Pérez Benítez Rojo, one cannot really say that the recognition he received in the United States compensated for the limitations of his private life in exile. He spoke very little about the circumstances that motivated him, but he said enough for us to understand the magnitude of his loss. At the same time, while the book most representative of his U.S. phase, La isla que se repite, moves away from legitimizing the Nation and the Revolution, it is rich with cultural and theoretical reflections about the Caribbean, which speak to his time spent in universities there. But we shouldn’t idealize these compensations either.
Intellectuals taking refuge in an institution of knowledge: this pattern was repeated many times in the West since the beginning of the twentieth century. The United States took in many European intellectuals fleeing Nazism, fascism, and communism. Some who were uninterested in adapting returned home when conditions allowed, or they apathetically kept a distance from their hosts. It was different with Latin Americans. Due to their historical and geographical proximity, Latin American intellectuals have felt the pull of U.S. universities, even in the twenty-first century. They have seen their faces disfigured in this mirror, or, seeing their fate reflected in a mirror, they have searched for their own identities. The late-blooming work that these writers have left us usually seems like an intellectual last will and testament. Shortly before Don Quixote writes his will and dies, Sancho says he is to blame for his defeat because he did not properly secure his saddle. But Rocinante doesn’t say anything. It was enough to have led Don Quixote and the ghosts of his loss to his deathbed. This is the moment when the masks fall, when Don Quixote, after his final return home, says he is actually Alonso Quijano. We don’t know exactly how he ends his will, but we do know his intentions. And this is the same thing that happens with last wills in exile. They are forgotten or betrayed through seemingly transparent discourses that contain no trace of doubt or complications in historical interpretation. This was why Brodsky did not trust certain rational geometries that assert the shortest distance between two points with complete certainty. A straight line only goes in one direction, like a violent, deadly arrow advancing towards its target. Exile and life in foreign countries go through many disparate, oblique, unpredictable paths. If there is a take-home message from these writers in exile, it is that we should avoid absolute truths and fanaticism, which admit no complexity. Other are the truths that appear between imperfect lines of light and shadow.
Translated by Slava Faybysh
Slava Faybysh is a translator based in Chicago. He translated Leopoldo Bonafulla’s The July Revolution, Barcelona 1909 (AK Press), a first-hand chronicle of a weeklong rebellion and general strike followed by government repression, told from an anarchist perspective. His translation of I Want to Live My Life (1931), by Carmen de Burgos, a Spanish socialist feminist who was problematically writing about gender-identity issues, is forthcoming from Song Bridge Project in 2022.