The more affluent citizens suffer harsh deprivation;
The lower classes suffer, famished, of shameful beggary.
Eduardo Blanco, Venezuela Heroica.
Coco Chanel arrived in Havana. She was there, in the streets, parading. Everyone looked beautiful, elegant.
I look at the photos from a distance and suddenly, with the lightness of an unexpected flash, a suspicion, a doubt appears to me. What sort of decadent event would be hidden behind the fashion show? I ask myself. And what remote connection would bring it closer to the crisis in my country?
I swallow hard when I think about it. I have trouble assimilating it. I feel the suspicion of another reality behind the very reality of the images, another film to watch that I do not know the ending of. After all, we are united. We are Latin American brothers.
No one better than Antonio José Ponte to think about the ruin of Havana. Francisco Morán sees it as the “coagulating nucleus” of his writing, that serves as a hinge connecting melancholy for the lost with political criticism of a decadent Cuba. There is a documentary, made by his German friend Florian Borchmeyer, based on his reflections, and which uses the title of one of his most famous stories: “El nuevo arte de hacer ruinas” [“The New Art of Making Ruins”].
In that story, he confesses that his fascination for these decomposing artifacts, these images of wear, has to do with a perverse, singular pleasure that assaults human beings in an almost masochistic way, which is the joy provoked by decay.
In the story that titles the film, we regard the figure of the vestige from the vantage point of fiction. The protagonist discovers another city, a hidden and sunken city called Tuguria, where “everything was preserved as in memory,” growing in the shadow of the ruins of Havana.
A tugurio is a dump, a small cheap place. There is also talk of “tugurización” in urban studies to allude to an overpopulated city that occupies new spaces within the established ones. In this narration, it serves to describe, in an ironic manner, the process of pauperization of capital that characterized the “special period” under the modality of a dystopic utopia, a residual non-place.
I see the images of the fashion show and Venezuela comes to mind. What does it have to do with Ponte and Lagerfeld? Immediately, I am overcome by several flashes, like fragments of a film: Humboldt describing the debris of Caracas—a city he first met on his way to Cuba—after the earthquake of 1812; José Martí narrating the arrival in Caracas of a stranger who seeks our redemptive hero in an unmarked statue; the solitary catacombs of Cubagua in Bernardo Núñez’s novel of the same name, a work completed in Havana, especially its very revealing final part.
Is there a plot behind the ruins that the fashion show is concealing? An ur-ruin that only appears like a camera flash, sporadic and almost unapprehensible?
Ruin comes from Latin ruīna, which in turn is derived from the Greek ruĕre, that means “to fall.” It has become fashionable these days. I think of four meanings. I will list them on the fly.
The first, perhaps most obvious, is that of decadence and wear. The second involves that which refuses to give up, a signal of another time that will not yield to disappearance. The third is a sign of some real hecatomb: an earthquake or a bombing. And the fourth, perhaps the one Walter Benjamin inaugurates, is the one left behind by the hurricane of progress in its passage across the world.
In Ponte, although the first three stand out, his literary path shows important nuances. Poems such as the title of one of his books (“Asiento en ruinas”—”Seat in Ruins”—) or “En el antiguo barrio de putas” [“In the old neighborhood of whores”] show bare portraits of misery in Cuba.
In another work, Las comidas profundas [Deep Meals], the narrator, as he sits at an empty table in Havana and mocks the precarious conditions of the time, imagines—in the style of Lezama—different types of food under cultural passages with neo-baroque resonances. In one part, he says: “What is at the end of eating in Cuba supposes the end of all Cuban food, it is the shadow. That might be why Lezama Lima wrote that the forest is incorporated into Cuban eating. Such a solar people are naturally compelled to eat darkness.”
Then, in his novel Contrabando de sombras [Contraband of Shadows], the theme reappears under the scattered forms of the memory of a historical experience in which homosexuals were murdered (remains of a book, mysterious dreams, an inscription on a wall), under the remains of the tombs of a cemetery sold on the black market, under the tours that Lula gave to foreigners to discover the vestiges of abandoned buildings, and under the figure of a Spanish photographer who compares Havana with Beirut, destroyed by wars but with the difference that it had never been bombed. The leftovers are scattered thus in different lands, some of which allow the characters to face a past that they have forgotten or denied.
Finally, in La fiesta vigilada [The Closely-Guarded Party], the best approximation on the subject, decadence is once again incarnated in the urban materiality of Havana. Here Ponte defines the work of a “ruinologist” who, while moving with mixed feelings between his fascination with ruins and his criticism of reality, has the duty to radiograph the downfall.
A downfall that it is hidden, but that Ponte notices in a change that has occurred throughout the Revolution: from losing spaces of enjoyment by closings casinos and bars due to revolutionary puritanism in the sixties and seventies to recovering a controlled form of celebration in the post-Soviet era, only affordable to night-hungry tourists.
On the one hand, happiness; on the other, ruinous solitude. Another flash: is that not the same difference perpetuated by the new houses of the Country Club and La Florida compared with others in the center in Caracas?
In the section “Un paréntesis de ruinas” [“A Parenthesis of Ruins”] of Ponte’s famous work, we are told about the ruinous conditions of the city while a theory to think about them is proposed. It distinguishes between two kinds of ruin: one brought about by nature or time, and one caused by war, while also differentiating between ruins that are abandoned, such as those mentioned by German sociologist Georg Simmel, from ruins that are inhabited, such as those in Havana.
Ponte sees the Cuban regime’s naturalization of an imaginary war against the Empire, where the spoils become a habitat, normalized, as a dynamizing factor of this terrible link with the ruin. A coexistence that was born from the word: “Fidel Castro’s discourse, at this time and for many years, from the very start, is based on the American invasion. The city of Havana, remaining in ruins, (…) corresponds exactly with that discourse.”
Ruin is thus a product of language and its paranoid power, which makes me think, as in a flash, about the conflict with chavismo, which recycled that trend. Is it not telling that they keep buying weapons while people starve?
“To the same degree that the Cuban crisis announces an ending of sorts, Havana appears a devastated city,” reminds us of another great Cuban writer, Iván de la Nuez. “A capital city that, though it has not experienced war –although war has been announced there every day–, lives in the physical state of the postwar period,” he says. “A sort of futuristic Sarajevo destroyed not by the bombs but by the devastating effect of discourse,” he continues. “It collapsed not by the battle of weapons but by the war of words. ”
By the time Ponte and even Iván de la Nuez himself were writing, the revolutionary ruin had been interspersed with mercantile exotism, and that is what the ruinologist underlines. It is in the photobooks Old Havana by Claudio Edinger, Cubano 100% by Gianfranco Giorgoni, or in Cuba by David Alan Harvey, not to mention Wim Wender’s documentary or David Turnley’s La tropical. But what might be happening right now, behind that sumptuous fashion show in Havana?
Again, another flash: Carpentier, telling of how he heard an illiterate popular troubadour in Barlovento singing the ruin of Troy, and Chávez arriving in Havana shortly before he was elected.
The subject, as we know, is complex. From the works of the early Humanists, who rescued with an idealistic devotion the Roman and Greek past, through the melancholic reflections of Browne or a Baroque Shakespeare, followed by the sublime renovation of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich or Joseph Mallord William Turner, on to the work on fragmentation in avant-garde collage, modernity, which has often been seen under the cult of the new, evinces its constant dialogue with the ruin, this creature of desolation and abandonment.
Perhaps Walter Benjamin has thought the most about it. In his first works, he includes the ruin to talk about the verbal fall in the representational world and the disconnection of modern man with nature. Later, he became interested in it as a new form of allegory, typical of a grieving Baroque world going through a crisis in which theological values succumbed to a more secular reality, and thus revealed history in a “petrified” way. He then employs the ruin to think about the capitalist world from the mid-nineteenth century—with industrial society’s waste, and following Baudelaire’s footsteps—, to finally understand it as an unforeseen image of the past that opens up a new possibility in the present to think about the future. This is formulated in his famous concept of the “dialectical image”.
In Cuba, the ruin has had a privileged place. If for Lezama Lima or Carpentier himself it was a potential image to celebrate Latin America, already with Abilio Estévez, in works like Los palacios distantes [Distant Palaces] or Tuyo será el reino [Yours Shall Be the Kingdom], it is a sign of the disintegration of reality.
Of course, this turn obeys a ruinous tradition that has been at work in post-Soviet nations where the celebration of a realizable utopia becomes the abandoned trace of an Empire of cruelties. I think of Eric Lusito’s photographs, some of the characters in Svetlana Aleksievich’s journalistic work “The End of Homo Sovieticus,” or in the reflections of old Yugoslavia novelist and essayist Dubravka Ugrešić.
But what is the Chanel event hiding? What is behind the beautiful reconstruction they made of Paseo del Prado? “I think the worst part of this regime is the ruin of Cuba,” confessed, with anticipated disenchantment, the protagonist of Edmundo Desnoes’s Memorias del subdesarrollo [Memories of Underdevelopment], seeing the changes that were happening in the sixties. Cabrera Infante, on the fateful journey he made, after three years out of the country, to his mother’s funeral, and which he reports in Mapa dibujado por un espía [Map Drawn by a Spy], stops at a corner of Old Havana and finds “a rundown building” and then finds “other ruins” that produced in him a “feeling of finality, of termination, of a thing that is ending.”
However, it is during the “special period” that one notices a more careful work on the subject. It is present in the physical and moral scenarios of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s works, in the atmosphere of desolation and sadness of some of Leonardo Padura’s books, in the Perversiones en el Prado [Perversions on Prado] by Miguel Mejides, and of course in the works of Ponte.
By the way, while I’m thinking about this subject, I see that in one of the Reuters photos by Alexandre Meneghini, people are gathered on the balcony of a derelict house. Apparently, following Ponte’s closely-guarded party, some were able to participate in the event and others were not. The tradition of ruin marks territories, selects spaces, decides who perpetuates it, who denies it, who uses it, who saves it.
Ideological ruins are also exported under strange recycling schemes, less like ideas than like dogmas; less like critical bodies than as spectra. From Aleksiévich’s Soviet Union we went to the Cuba Ponte and many others, to end up now in Venezuela; not in vain did the “beautiful revolution” emerge during the Vargas landslide, which left traces of collapse that still, despite the reconstruction, continue to appear—fortunately captured by the photographic eye of Angela Bonadies.
In Venezuela, we had our Ponte. Cabrujas was our Ponte in two celebrated texts: “Caracas escondida” [“Hidden Caracas”] and “Catia, tres voces” [“Catia, Three Voices”]. For Cabrujas, our capital city was “a monument buried again and again”, conceived “with a provisional concept”. In order to valorize it, to rescue it again, he suggests following an “archeology of collapse.”
His reflection echoes that of Mario Briceño-Iragorry in the fifties, at the time of the boom of the “Magical State.” “The history of our country is the story of a long process of demolition,” he said, anticipating a qualifier that our chronicler would use, and in another text, criticizing our apathetic relationship with the past, he came to say something heartbreaking: that “we have come to kill our own dead”.
However, Venezuelan archeology belonged to the Magical State, and it has become mixed with the revolutionary broth in terminal phase. What Cabrujas was examining at his time joins what Ponte diagnosed: a populist ruinology?
The Confinanza Towers are a good example: an exercise of “empowerment” for alternative communities that ended up turning a forgotten financial complex into a new Venezuelan tugurio. With expropriations throughout the city, the art of making ruins is spreading. There are still upper-class estates, it is true, and malls without electricity, and a few burgeois-Bolivarian residences… but the tugurio, the dump, is lurking in various ways, entering through the walls, the basements, and the souls. It is already a physical fact, consolidated in the poorest areas.
People like Lisa Blackmore, Celeste Olalquiaga, Vicente Lecuna, and Ángela Bonadies herself have been thinking about this relevant topic through recent theories. Many artists and curators have forged a machinery of resistance, sometimes somewhat nostalgic, by collecting broken pieces left behind by chavismo. I think, for instance, of Mauricio Lupini, with Espacio sin volumen [Space Without Volume], who rescues architectural works of the fifties, or Alessandro Balteo, who with the Museum of Architecture (MUSARQ) store has gathered much of the modernity that was refused: Paolo Gasparini photographs, Gerd Leufert designs, works by Nedo and Álvaro Sotillo.
A story by Carolina Lozada, “Los pobladores” [“The Settlers”], speaks of a city exposed to an epidemic with unforeseeable consequences, and Nuni Sarmiento says in “Los inocentes” [“The Innocents”], where criminals are the ones who roam the streets: “Now we innocents live here in quite a constricted situation, as the place is in ruins and sanitary conditions are terrible, but we have recovered our status of free citizens.” I must also remember the film Pelo Malo by Mariana Rondón, and the bitterness of the character of the mother: the bitterness of those who feel betrayed by the promise of a military man and a revolution that never came, that never occurred.
I return to the images of the Chanel fashion show and keep wondering if, behind the freshly painted walls, there might also be a rundown poster of Chavez. Because they have not only concealed the ruins of the Cuban revolution and its Communist and Soviet imaginary, but they have also have covered up more recent, more Latin American, more Bolivarian ruins, which some still find difficult to accept.
Final flash: When speaking about the arrival of Simón Bolívar—“The Liberator”—, Martí describes his appearance as a destructive encounter where “the five pavilions of the new peoples, with true flames, burned on the cusp of the resurrected America,” and “the mortars” exploded “to announce to the hero.”
About the author:
Juan Cristóbal Castro is a professor at the Universidad Pontificia Javeriana (Bogotá), and is currently the Director of its Department of Literature. He has Doctoral studies from the University of California and a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. He received two undergraduate degrees (Journalism and Literature) from the UCV as well. He has been a professor at various universities. He has published the books Alfabeto del caos: crítica y ficción en Paul Valéry y Jorge Luis Borges (2009) and Idiomas espectrales: lenguas imaginarias en la literatura latinoamericana (2016). His work has appeared in the academic journals Cuadernos de literatura (Bogotá), Estudios (Caracas) and Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos (Canada), and he has contributed to important Venezuelan newspapers such as Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Universal, and the online portal Prodavinci.