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The Name of the Father

By
May 3, 2005

Cowering behind an almost idiotic silence, I avoided looking into his eyes, gripped by the same fear that must have gripped Odysseus as he ran from the singular gaze of the Cyclops.

____________________________

“Lie down!”

Cowering behind an almost idiotic silence, I avoided looking into his eyes, gripped by the same fear that must have gripped Odysseus as he ran from the singular gaze of the Cyclops. How had I dared make such a humiliating request? The very idea of it was perfectly absurd: his wide bulk, stretched out across four painfully-aligned chairs, like an ungainly society matron settling into a bath of electric light. For the record, his aides had claimed it had been impossible to locate a chaise longue of his proportions in the local furniture stores. And to add insult to injury I had insisted on sitting at his side, as if I were trying to gain some kind of tactical advantage over him, like a supercilious naturalist observing the behavior of a rare species of lizard. The premise itself was outrageous enough: a defenseless giant can only hope for either tenderness or ridicule.

One single gesture was all it took for him to let me know that I had overestimated my role: he was no ordinary man—he was a hero, a being that floated somewhere between the human, and the divine and perhaps hovering near the monstrous, as well. I, meanwhile, was a mere mortal (even worse, a Mexican mortal) who had just committed the sacrilege of displaying that special kind of arrogance, that of the doctor who relishes exposing his patient’s weaknesses. Cowering beneath his unflinching shadow, I felt as if I had been reduced to the level of a wounded animal whereas he grew in stature, and assumed the plenitude of his natural authority. Though I could scarcely distinguish his features, I nonetheless sensed the magnitude of his scorn in the faintest glint of his luminous beard. Lit up from behind, his silhouette stood out against the lazy shadows of the tropics, and he was like an embattled prophet confronting my sinful lack of faith.

“I thought you might be more comfortable.”

His eyes shot through me like daggers: I should consider myself fortunate simply to be granted this moment in his presence—how many other faithful souls before me had fought for such an audience?—much less try to impose my conditions upon him. He was the one who wrote History–or, better put, dictated it—and no matter how clever or prepared I thought I was, no matter what revolutionary feats I might have to my credit, no matter how many recommendations I had brought with me from France, I was still nothing more than a mere interpreter. If in fact, he had decided to consult me (so to speak), if he had finally decided to concede me a bit of his time –by offering little fragments of his life which in and of themselves were to be considered a priceless reward—it was not for my academic prestige, and much less for my sympathy to his cause, but for my purported ability to uncover the roots of his insomnia.

Nobody doubted his ability to reason–on the contrary, who was a greater judge of right and wrong than he?—and as such, he was not looking for a cure. Of what could I possibly cure him? No, the only thing he required was the opinion of an expert who might help tame the part of him that kept him up at night. In this equation, I was nothing more than a “mind worker,” no different from a plumber or carpenter. Once the imperfection (his insomnia) was repaired, I could leave with the satisfaction of having performed my task. That was all. In no way could our relationship be construed as personal: like the witches or santeras whom so many of his compatriots secretly consulted, my sole job was to clear up his future. And then, like any good priest, my job was to keep quiet about it.

“Do you think I care about comfort?” he asked, concealing his wrath behind a wall of peerless self-control. “That comforts could possibly concern me, a man who has spent months in the mountains, without bathing, without ever touching water, sleeping in caves and trenches in the middle of the jungle, at the mercy of animals, filthy and foul-smelling”

His intonations were terse and biting, but also ever so slightly nasal and perhaps not entirely convinced of what he said; his voice sounded less like that of a national hero or a titan and rather more like that of a sports columnist or a simple defense attorney (which, in fact, was his original profession). In any event, he continued to berate my banal, dense assumptions for a long while: did I not realize that comforts were an extension of lukewarm capitalist morality?

Fully immersed in my revolutionary activities, I was now far more interested in the inner workings of machine guns and explosives than the study of the questionable schizophrenia of a few recalcitrant members of the bourgeoisie.

His lecture droned on and on—at this point I could only feign interest, and I ruefully began to reflect upon the paradox that had roped me back into psychoanalysis. When I had decided to leave France in early April of 1971 to follow Claire on her adventure/escape, I knew that my clinical career would be finished. I knew that my commitment to the underground struggle necessarily implied my unspoken expulsion from the academy, but I didn’t really care. I was disenchanted in those days, plagued by the nagging feeling that despite everything I had read and studied, despite all the theories and postulates I had memorized, despite my active membership in the school, I had never truly reached the core of Lacan’s mind games. And though I may have considered myself one of his most fervent disciples during those faraway months, now I simply felt like the victim of his duplicity. Now it seemed to me that he had never really said the things I thought he had said, and if he did, he had done so for very different reasons than I had imagined.

Fully immersed in my revolutionary activities, I was now far more interested in the inner workings of machine guns and explosives than the study of the questionable schizophrenia of a few recalcitrant members of the bourgeoisie. Suddenly terms like phallus, mirror phase or object a sounded strange, even insipid. How maddening! Just when I thought I had finally put that farce behind me, just when I was throwing myself into the guerrilla operations, I was being forced to re-assume my role as analyst, in the most incongruous setting on Earth, as far from structuralism as one could possibly imagine. In the middle of an iridescent jungle that was the polar opposite of Lacan’s seminar, I now found myself obliged to reembark on an endeavor that I was so very intent on putting behind me.

“…nothing, can you comprehend that? Nothing. Comforts mean nothing to me. I despise them. So, if comfort is what you truly want, you can lie down yourself”

Lost in my own contemplations, I had completely lost track of what he was saying, and I didn’t understand that his last sentence was neither a rhetorical exclamation nor a mocking taunt, but rather an order. A clear, direct order.

“I said lie down!”

He didn’t have to repeat it a third time: this request was not open for discussion. And so I arose from the armchair that he had ushered me into at the beginning of the session and stretched out across the wooden folding chairs that had been set up for him. This had to be a most unprecedented variant on the psychoanalytic technique: while the patient paced from one end of the room to the other, the analyst –that is, me— lay down on the improvised couch.

“Wouldn’t you prefer to sit?” I asked him.

“No.”

“All right, however you are most comfortable”

Or should I have said most uncomfortable? When the director of the Casa de las Américas put me in the hands of the State security, I never would have guessed that my assignment would have anything to do with my previous life. Perhaps because the trip had seemed so endless, and the night air so fragrant and balmy –so unlike my early mornings in Paris—I had assumed they were taking me to a training camp or a military base. But no, instead they deposited me at this rustic country estate guarded by a weary posse of soldiers. “Do you know what my assignment is here, compañeros?” I had asked them solicitously, but no one dared venture a response. Once they had led me inside the house and removed the blindfold, a secretary (who was not wearing the usually invariable olive green uniform) finally advised me to curb my impatience. “You should feel proud, compañero,” he said. “Only his closest advisers are invited to come here.”

The room I was led into wasn’t austere at all—it was a perfect disaster. Here and there I could make out the faint, shadowy designs in an old tapestry, like the traces of a long-forgotten dream, hinting that once, long ago, the villa had shone with a certain provincial grandeur, but given the state they were in now I could hardly understand my host’s predilection for these rooms. Aside from an oak table by the window and a pair of hammocks brought in from the beach, the setting was nothing less than desolate: a grayish, not particularly clean room with a bottle-green rug, bathed in the lukewarm light offered by a pair of spotlights whose heads, like sleeping cranes, pointed directly down toward the floor. The decadent environment must have seemed like the perfect backdrop for an endeavor as decadent as psychoanalysis.

I paused for a few moments, trying to adjust my vision to its newly horizontal perspective. Then I tried to start the session again.

“Let’s begin, then. I’m listening.”

“They tell me you are a very good listener”

For someone so naturally suspicious of people, it must have been extremely disconcerting to share his anxieties with someone else. A short while later he would reveal to me that he hadn’t made a confession since finishing his schooling with the Lasalle brothers twenty-five years earlier. To relax a little, he reached into the inside of his jacket and extracted a cigar. In ritual fashion, he sniffed it, cut it, and raised it to his lips.Then he blew a mouthful of smoke in my face.

“If you tell me that tobacco is a phallic symbol, I swear I’ll have your balls chopped off right here.”

He was more familiar with Freudian slang than I had expected. I attempted a smile, but his tightly-knit eyebrows made it clear that this was no joking matter. The warning was enough to make me discard the idea of theorizing about the Lacanian figure of the name of the father, or mentioning the potentially tremendous significance of such a lewd, threatening last name. Instead, to break the ice, I asked him:

“Is this your first time?”

“…”

“The first time you’ve subjected yourself to analysis?”

“I subject myself to nothing.”

“What I meant was if this is the first time you’ve consulted a psychoanalyst.”

“Yes, and I hope it will be the last.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I think Freud is a charlatan.” Occasionally he would use a rather affected vocabulary, as if to prove his mastery of the language. “Does the world really revolve around the struggle between the instincts of life and death? The triumph of the libido? Do you think I would be here if my biggest concern was sex? Do you think I want you to tell me that what I’ve really been trying to do is kill my father? Or that the Revolution owes its victory to my maternal fixation? What about when I was running from the CIA’s attempts to assassinate me, where was my death wish then? Doesn’t this sound like a bunch of lies to you? Do you really believe those myths? Really and truly believe them?

It was a good thing he didn’t let me get a word in edgewise, because I don’t know how I would have responded to such a direct challenge.

It was a good thing he didn’t let me get a word in edgewise, because I don’t know how I would have responded to such a direct challenge. If I told him yes, that basically I did believe in those theories–not in their vapid, pop-psychological simplifications, but in their more rigorous and complex formulations—I would risk sounding pompous, which would reignite his temper. On the other hand, if I said he was right and confessed my own skepticism, he would throw me right out of the room. His reasons may have been a mystery to me, but at least one thing was perfectly clear: I had been summoned because I was a psychoanalyst.

His propensity for long, meandering lectures provided an escape from the question he posed, and in the minutes that followed (actually, I think it was more than an hour) I listened to an exhaustive discourse on the life and work of Sigmund Freud. I was surprised by his command of the topic: though he started off with the typical litany of cliches used by psychoanalysis critics, little by little he made a series of observations and reflections that sounded more like the opinions of a specialist in the field. After a detailed summary of Freud’s main contributions to the discipline, including his rift with Jung, he actually began dropping a series of painfully-pronounced names like Ferenczi, Adler, Rank and Fromm, and then he launched into a tirade against those people who, in his opinion, had turned psychoanalysis into a therapy for pensioners. And then, finally, he turned back to me.

“They tell me you are a Lacanian.”

“Well”

“I haven’t read any of him. Can you tell me how his analysis differs from Freud’s?”

“It’s a bit difficult to explain. If we begin with”

I had only barely begun to lay out the basic principles of the Lacanian clinic when he began to crack his knuckles as if they were walnuts. Clearly, he was a man of action, not theory. For him, notions like the interpretation of dreams, penis envy and the castration complex had little relation to reality and far more to poetry –and as such, fiction, lies, depravity. He was an admirer of Plato –I had not realized this at first—but he took advantage of the digression to confess that he would be all too happy to sign a law that banned poets and their useless efforts, and ordered them to leave his Republic—his island—forever.

“Those poets are good for absolutely nothing,” he suddenly muttered, picking out a bit of tobacco from between his teeth. “They don’t care about the Revolution, they only care about words. And what use are words?”

“Those poets are good for absolutely nothing,” he suddenly muttered, picking out a bit of tobacco from between his teeth. “They don’t care about the Revolution, they only care about words. And what use are words?”

A curious commentary from someone who took such pleasure in piling up sentence after sentence. I figured I would now have to endure another mild diatribe against writers –those unprincipled arrivistes, those leeches, those rats—followed by another defense of the Revolution and its ideals, but suddenly he fell silent and finally acknowledged my presence in the room. Despite his confrontational attitude, he seemed tired and tense, slightly out of sorts. In my rather odd position I listened to him, intimidated by his height, which had grown even more disproportionate from that angle.

“The truth is, I’m having trouble concentrating,” he admitted.

“Does that mean I can get up now?”

“Of course. Do I have to give orders for everything?”

His cigar had gone out a few moments earlier. Suddenly he stood at attention, as if preparing to salute me, military style, and then he left the room without another word.

“Until tommorrow, comandante.”

Who the hell ever said that the ideal position for analysis was horizontal? My back was killing me. Outside, the State security agent greeted me with a malicious smile. He vaguely reminded me of one of those Golden Age Mexican movie actors, with his badly-cut, wide moustache, and one ironically-raised eyebrow.

“How did it go, compañero analyst?”

“All right, I suppose.” And noting his surprise, I corrected myself. “Excellent, in fact. And now will one of you compañeros do me the favor of driving me back to Havana?”

Behind the young captain (or whatever he was, I’ve never understood military stripes), a chorus of impertinent chuckles erupted among the group of privates.

“Isn’t he funny, the Mexican,” he said, in a poor imitation of my accent. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible, compañero.”

“What do you mean not possible? I have to be back in the city today.”

“I said it’s not possible. Orders are orders, you know.”

“And how long do you plan to detain me here?”

“Detain you? Compañero, nobody is detaining you,” he said, slowly, separating out each syllable as if he was peeling a peanut. “You’re free to go whenever you please, not that I would recommend it. What if the comandante comes looking for you and you’re gone? He likes to work late into the night, and maybe he will want to talk to you later on, you know, to rest his mind”

They had made me a prisoner. Or rather, a revolutionary hopeful forcibly chained to his ill-fated status as psychoanalyst.

“And how long is this going to last?”

“Well, you’re the expert, compañero. When the comandante no longer wants to speak with you, you’ll know it. Do you play dominoes? We were just about to start a game and we need another person to make four. It’s a long night, my friend.”

I spent the next two hours under the wary gazes of my watchful companions, as I struggled with an incongruous number of tiles. My partner, a lethargic, hostile mulatto man, seemed ready to whip out his machine gun every time I made a mistake with the points. When we finished, the men placed a couple of blankets on the furniture and settled into them as comfortably as they could. I had little choice but to follow suit.

“Good night, compañero analyst.”

At two in the morning, a corporal (or whatever he was) shook me awake: the comandante was waiting for me in the parlor. I was just beginning to get my bearings in the villa compound, no doubt seized during the Revolution and not remodeled since.

They never bothered me after that. Surely the comandante had to deal with issues of the State that were far more transcendent and pressing than his opinions on Freud, so I assumed that sooner or later I would be released from captivity. The following morning they gave me breakfast, and allowed me to take a stroll in the area around the house. The comandante wouldn’t be returning until nightfall, when it was a little cooler, they explained, and they told me to be ready for him starting at 8 in the evening. At two in the morning, a corporal (or whatever he was) shook me awake: the comandante was waiting for me in the parlor. I was just beginning to get my bearings in the villa compound, no doubt seized during the Revolution and not remodeled since.

“Good evening, Quevedo.”

“Good evening, comandante.”

Among my friends it was considered appropriate to refer to the comandante by his first name –only his detractors added the last name— but I didn’t dare suggest such familiarity with him. I settled back into my previous position stretched out across the four chairs, hoping that he would forgive my previous arrogance and allow me to sit down normally. But then again, my comfort was of little importance to him.

“You don’t mind if I record our conversations, do you? It’s not that I don’t trust you, Quevedo, but if in the future you were ever to think of repeating our conversations, well, you should know I’d be able to deny whatever you might say”

Generally it is the analyst who takes notes or records the session, but in this inverted world nothing surprised me anymore. The comandante was both the best and the worst patient a Lacanian analyst could hope for: on one hand he respected my function as simple provocateur of his lectures, and didn’t ask my opinion on anything –in fact, he didn’t seem particularly interested in my opinions at all. Yet on the other hand, he made it impossible to conduct a reasonably short session. I didn’t try to silence him –I just tried to put a limit to his endless droning, but even so I had a terrible time trying to wrap up our sessions. For all my polite gestures and encouraging facial movements, he would only add a few onomatopoeias to his verbal diarrhea.

How many nights did he subject me to that routine, that bizarre surrender of trust, that priceless revolutionary privilege, that torture? It was perfectly clear that there were no other patients waiting for me in some hypothetical waiting room, and I certainly didn’t expect to charge him an hourly rate, but due to a number of reasons –the fact that our sessions began at two in the morning, that I was to remain in that supine position for their entirety, that the room was badly lit, and that he would talk for three or four hours at a stretch– the effort to remain lucid was simply not humanly possible. And if you added the fact that I had a team of security agents who woke me up at dawn and made me participate in soccer games in the morning and dominoes in the afternoon, never allowing me a single moment’s rest, it could hardly come as a surprise that my own lack of sleep had begun to push me into a dense, vaguely hallucinatory state. I felt transformed into the antipode of one of the characters in The Thousand and One Nights; I was like a Scheherazade, only in my case I was being forced to listen to the tedious stories of the sultan at the risk of losing my head if I dared fall asleep. I began to realize that if the comandante did not start to make progress with his therapy, fast, not only would the patient’s condition remain unchanged, but the therapist would almost certainly be driven to madness.

“Now, did I tell you about that incident on board the Granma?” he asked, without waiting for a response. “Just listen to this”

I was his dream audience, someone he didn’t have to even look at, someone who had no other choice but to listen to him revel in his storytelling, as if he were speaking into a microphone in the Plaza de la Revolución. The worst part was that in the course of those long hours, he would virtually drown himself in a sea of imagined worlds. With anyone else, the amount of time we spent together would have been more than enough to make progress in analysis, but with him it was simply impossible. In the first few sessions, I had tried to figure out the causes of this avoidance, but in the end I concluded that he derived a very real pleasure from that sterile waterfall of words: he talked and talked so that he wouldn’t have to talk.

If not for the fact that he was convinced that I was the person who could free him of his insomnia, I might have suspected that he was only using me as a pretext. The persistent insomnia that had plagued him ever since childhood was not something that had bothered him until now –in fact, it had given him a strong advantage over his adversaries. During his captivity in the Cuban island of Los Pinos, and then during his long period of exile in Mexico when he was planning the rebellion against Batista, and then finally during the battles in the Sierra Maestra, his ability to remain awake for nineteen or twenty hours a day had been invaluable. Nevertheless, once he achieved his victory he had not been able to rid himself of this thing that had once been a gift. And during his first few months in power, it was probably quite easy to fill up his free time: reading his memorandums (over fifty a day), holding meetings with his aides at the most ungodly hours, or simply reading romance novels for hours at a time. Nevertheless, in the long run the burden of having lived more hours than the rest of humanity had begun to consume him. At some unidentifiable moment in the past, just like Macbeth, he had murdered sleep.

“Excuse me for interrupting, comandante,” I ventured one afternoon. “But have you ever written poetry?”

The question caught him completely by surprise. In more than a few of our sessions, he had railed against poets with such venom–to be sure, those were the least boring parts of his lectures— that I began to wonder if the key to his desires had something to do with this.

“Me, poems?”

“A few lines, maybe?”

“I don’t have time for that sort of thing.”

“But you have so many friends who are writers.”

“Friends?”

“García Márquez, Cortázar, Benedetti”

“Well, Che wrote me a poem once.”

“Che?”

“To tell the truth, it wasn’t that good.”

So there it was. Like every other respectable Latin American revolutionary, the comandante was a romantic at heart.

“And you? It never crossed your mind?”

I dared to sit up a little so that I could see his face. The comandante’s eyes clouded over and he took a brief spin around the room with his hands behind his back, as if walking down a path toward his youth.

“Well, yes, like everyone.”

“Like everyone.”

“Oh, what do I know. Once. For a woman”

So there it was. Like every other respectable Latin American revolutionary, the comandante was a romantic at heart. Just like Martí.

“Do you remember it?”

“Of course not!”

A few moments passed and, as unbelievable as it may sound, he began to talk. He nervously stroked his beard, and a slight uneasiness clouded his severe, angular face. What had he been like then, in the days when he had still been able to dash off a poem? Suddenly his tone grew sharp, as if imitating the voice he had when he was a law student. According to his calculations, his unfortunate encounter with poetry must have taken place in the late 1940s, when he shared an apartment with two of his sisters and drove a spectacular Ford V-8 that his father had bought him a few months earlier.

“Do you know what they called me back then?” he boomed, the words coming out easily, almost proudly. “El loco.”

Crazy. Crazy in his desire to outshine everyone else in everything, even though he only did so in sports. Crazy because every time he stepped on the mound to pitch a baseball game, he couldn’t stand to lose and would occasionally throw temper tantrums. Crazy because of his precocious appreciation of physical force. Crazy because he was bored to death by school, despised his teachers and only exhibited indifference toward the purported academic brilliance of the university community. Crazy because, despite his reputation as a troublemaker, he was convinced that one day he would write a page of Cuban history. And crazy because he was willing to go to any lengths to get what he wanted.

As I listened to him talk about his university years, I noticed a glimmer of fear come into his eyes. In 1947, his life had taken a radical turn: defying his father’s orders, he had refused to return to Las Manacas on weekends. Under the influence of his friend Pepe Pardo, who introduced him to the Revolutionary Socialist Movement, he shed his status as a “politically illiterate” student, and began a training course in guerrilla warfare on Cayo Confite. And in October of 1948 he finally married his first girlfriend, Mirta Díaz Balart, the scion of one of the most well-to-do families on the island.

“You wrote her a poem and that was made her marry you?”

The comandante said nothing at first, but he couldn’t resist sharing this secret.

“No, I didn’t write it for her I already told you, I didn’t waste time on things like that in those days. I was busy with more important things. Mirta was studying philosophy, and she wasn’t the kind of woman who demanded things like flowers or poems.”

“So”

“ It was a little before then. In April.”

“Springtime, the season for love.”

He was in a more relaxed mood than usual today, but my sarcastic comment could have ended it all right then and there

“Are you going to let me finish?”

“Of course, comandante, of course. Excuse me.”

“My friend Rafael del Pino and I went to Bogotá to participate in a student gathering.” His words didn’t flow so quickly or easily now; they came out in spurts, like a succession of waves. “Nice hotel, I remember”

Wearing only their light guayaberas, not having realized that the climate in Bogotá was far from tropical, they took a stroll through the Colombian capital, and Del Pino persuaded him to take a trip through the city’s less-advisable neighborhoods. Squalor and misery were so rampant in Latin America, and he wanted to see it for himself. Of course, he also had another goal in mind: to make contact with some of the local young ladies, who everyone said were the loveliest on the continent.

“Obviously, women didn’t particularly interest me,” he clarified for me. “In those days I was too wrapped up in our country’s political conflicts. But in the end I couldn’t say no to him, he kept insisting that he didn’t want to go out looking for girls alone.”

“I imagine you would have already had some sexual experiences by then, comandante.”

“With all due respect, that is none of your concern.”

Although he declined to describe the encounter in much detail, it was exceedingly clear that the woman hired for the night awoke in him an emotion far stronger than mere carnal desire. After a few hours with this young lady, he decided that he could not allow her to go on being used in such a way. In other words, he couldn’t tolerate the idea of her being with another man. As he told Del Pino the following morning, he was determined to rescue her–by now, the comandante had forgotten her name—from ignominy. He felt an obligation, which grew out of a most basic conviction –the seed of his future revolutionary faith—and a force beyond rational thought. During the early hours of that morning, he racked his brains to figure out a way to bring her to the island without compromising his engagement to Mirta—and, as such, his future in politics. And after dawdling away on the pages of a notebook for a few hours, he realized that he had produced a draft of a poem. A long love poem.

“So there it is. As corny and stupid as all the rest.”

As bad as the verses might have been, he felt he had to give them to the woman who had inspired them and despite his friend’s mocking taunts he went out to search for her, not stopping until he found her.

“In those days I could be a bit innocent, but never stupid. I wasn’t in love with her, not at all. I simply couldn’t bear the injustice she had been dealt. Yes, I gave her the poem—I had written it, after all—but I never expected her to fall in love with me.”

No, of course not. But that was exactly what had happened. One might wonder if perhaps the young woman had read the verses of that daring, brutish Cuban man, and saw him as a way out of her squalid life, but in any case the story was significant to me because twenty years later, the comandante continued to look back on that incident as proof of the existence of young love.

“I feel I should congratulate you, comandante. I don’t understand why you are so skeptical of poetry when it served you so well once. And to think people say literature is good for nothing!”

Though I thought I saw him repress a spark of fury, I still didn’t know the extent to which he was capable of controlling his emotions when he felt cornered. I shouldn’t forget that he was a born survivor and a stubborn, mercurial man of controversy.

“Get up, now.”

For a moment I thought he was going to say he wanted to challenge me to a few rounds of his old passion, boxing. Luckily, he only looked me up and down with scorn.

“You honestly don’t remember it? Not even one line?”

“That’s not important, Quevedo. Now, aren’t Lacanians supposed to let the patient do the talking? And didn’t you tell me that your role was to do nothing more than provoke the ‘discourse of the Other’—that is, me? So be quiet already! You remind me of her. She talked as much as you do. Anyway, as if that weren’t enough, she fell in love with me. She fell in love with me because of my poetry. You don’t have to believe me but that is how it happened. And I can tell when someone is lying to me. You don’t doubt that, do you?”

For the next hour and a half, the comandante told me the story of his love affair with the stubborn Colombian woman. . .

For the next hour and a half, the comandante told me the story of his love affair with the stubborn Colombian woman: it wasn’t a particularly drawn-out affair, in fact it only lasted the few days he was in Bogotá. He didn’t offer too many details this time either—it would have been useless to insist upon hearing the sexual tidbits, as that would have only invited more insults. He went round and round with the same arguments, moving forward in a kind of spiral, insisting upon giving me a picture of the young woman who hardly sounded objectionable to me. In the end, it only further clouded my understanding of his behavior. The short version of the story went something like this: an idealist malgré tout, he had fancied the notion of redeeming her, an interesting point given that this was a recurring theme in the novels and radio shows of that period: the sinful woman saved by the young revolutionary. Obviously this image was only hiding behind his phantasy: it wasn’t the desire to sleep with her again without paying for it, as he had assumed, but that of continuing to use her services and, like any other bourgeois man, pay her with amateurish love poems. Not without a twinge of fear, I suggested this as a possible interpretation.

“All right, so is that a sin?”

“Sins have no meaning here, comandante. Do you feel guilty?”

Some question. Him, guilty? Of course not. But his revolutionary ethic was an odd mix of Judeo-Christian morals and Communist asceticism, and so he did have to feign a certain amount of remorse, even so many years later.

“What happened next?”

“The next day, in what came to be known as the ‘Bogotazo,’ a distinguished Colombian politician was assassinated and the city suddenly became a powder keg. Del Pino and I immediately joined the protest rallies, convinced that the Government was responsible. She stayed with me for those few days, fascinated by the revolutionary activities. Then the police arrested us. It was only thanks to our ambassador’s skilled negotiating that they released us and sent us back to the island on a cargo plane.”

“And the girl?”

“She came looking for me at the airport. I still don’t know how she made it through the security controls! I told you before, this was one woman who knew how to take care of herself. There, at the foot of the plane, she demanded that I keep the promises I had made in my poem. I tried to make her understand that I wasn’t in exactly the same position as before, and that I couldn’t possibly bring her back to my country under those circumstances. They were throwing us out of the country! And do you know what she did? She demanded a public apology. She said I either had to admit that my verses were lies, or else she would make sure that all the journalists hovering around us would get copies of the poem.”

The story bordered on the absurd: the mere thought that his enemies could have used that love poem against him was almost enough to make you feel sorry for him.

“And so you had to apologize.”

“That was the end of my career as a poet. The Colombian press made sure to cover the story, but luckily somebody made a mistake when transcribing my name.” The comandante stopped for a brief pause. “But now I want you tell me something: what would you have done in my place?”

Confronted rather suddenly, I told him I would have done the same thing.

“Really?”

His anxiousness seemed almost childish, as if he needed my reassurance.

“I think you did what anyone else would have done in that situation,” I asserted.

“You don’t think it was disgraceful?”

“No, truly I don’t. I think it was a perfectly rational decision.”

For the first time since our sessions had begun, the comandante let out a bellowing laugh.

“So I was right, don’t you see? Poetry is good for absolutely nothing. It only makes us tell lies, can’t you see that? We should just forget about it altogether.”

His conviction was just a bit too strong for me.

“Well, I’m not so sure about that, comandante

But by then he had decided the session was over. Without letting me finish my sentence, he slapped me on the shoulder and rushed to leave, satisfied that he had won this round. Once I was alone, I reached a number of conclusions from what had happened: no matter how convinced he was that he had won the game that evening, the episode nevertheless remained extremely significant from an analytical perspective. To start with, it revealed the phantasy that plagued the comandante: the idea of sleeping with the young Colombian woman as a way of annihilating the Revolution and becoming a bourgeois, romantic young man. Despite his relentless disregard for literature, the fact that he had written the woman a poem implied that he derived enjoyment from humiliating that great Other. In this light, it seemed quite clear that his insomnia was the symptom that was trying to drive him back to his original vocation, and remaining awake for all those hours was his way of somehow proving his divine calling to be neither love nor poetry but commitment to the political struggle. The woman, by making him recant publicly, had revealed both his weakness and her own deeply ingrained scorn for his ideals. That was why now, the comandante’s hatred for the poets of the world was, in a way, a self-inflicted attack. Now I found myself fascinated by the idea of deciphering the blazons of his phobia, the charms of his impotence, the enigmas of inhibition and the oracles of his anxiety, the talking arms of character, the seals of self-punishment and the disguises of perversion –as Lacan himself wrote about. Thanks to all of this, the comandante and I would be able to experiment with new modes of symbolic interpretation that might just lead us to the truth behind his desire and, as a result, free him from his insomnia.

Unfortunately, he never gave me the chance to try. After that session we continued to meet for another fifteen days or so, but it felt as if we were fulfilling some kind of obligation, never advancing, not even an inch, in the right direction. He continued to drone on and on, digressing at every possible and obvious opportunity, clinging to the empty words that filled his lectures. What kind of analysis was this? I tried hard to trigger his anxieties but he was so sure of himself now, there was no way I could change his mind about anything. He wasn’t even irritable anymore. It was as if our one conversation about poetry had been enough to eradicate his interest in analysis, which had never been particularly strong to begin with.

Frustrated, and in an increasingly weakening physical state (unlike my patient, I did feel a strong need to sleep), I began to envision the comandante as a kind of vampire who sank his words, if not his fangs, into me, sucking what little energy was left in my bloodstream.

Frustrated, and in an increasingly weakening physical state (unlike my patient, I did feel a strong need to sleep), I began to envision the comandante as a kind of vampire who sank his words, if not his fangs, into me, sucking what little energy was left in my bloodstream. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer, so I decided to finally put an end to the charade. Our sessions were of utterly no consequence for him, and they were becoming dangerous for me. It is always difficult for an analyst to admit that he has failed with a patient –more so with a patient of his stature—but in the hope of preserving my professional integrity, not to mention my own survival, I had no other alternative.

When the colonel or general in charge of state security (I could care less about his rank at this point) awoke me that day at two in the morning, I walked across the patio of the villa like a prisoner walking toward a firing line. The comandante was waiting for me, savoring his cigar with the serene indifference of a man who had finally cracked a terrible mystery. I was determined to stand my ground and show him that I was not about to give in, and as I entered I didn’t even sit down. Standing up tall, with all the aplomb I could muster I announced to him that our analytic relationship had come to an end.

“That’s exactly what I wanted to tell you!”

I was so surprised that I barely felt him wrap his arms around me in a warm, affectionate embrace. Caught in a chokehold by the strands of his beard, I didn’t quite comprehend the reason for his euphoria.

“Last night, for the fifth day in a row, I slept six hours!” he exclaimed, radiant. “Six hours, Quevedo! All those people were right about you—you are the best. Nothing worked for me until now. Not pills, not hypnosis, nothing! Only my conversations with you. I don’t know how to thank you”

Perhaps I should confront him with the truth, and tell him that I didn’t think his abated insomnia had anything to do with me and that moreover, I had found our meetings rather ineffectual. But I was so tired that I said nothing at all.

“Would it be possible to see Claire, my girlfriend?”

“Of course, certainly! Right now?”

“If you don’t mind, right now I’d like to get some sleep. Perhaps both of us could use someI’d like to leave in the morning if possible”

The comandante summoned his secretary (the one who didn’t wear military fatigues) and instructed him to take me back to the city first thing in the morning. Then he gave me another slap on the back and before leaving the room, honored me with one final revolutionary salute. It wasn’t until hours later, as the military car drove me back to Havana, that I even tried to make sense of this ostensibly successful analytic endeavor. Had we, in fact, discovered something inside of him that had truly provoked something in him? Or was his cured insomnia nothing more than a coincidence?

A few days later, before leaving for our guerrilla training in the province of Oriente, I finally understood the nature of my participation in the internal politics of the island. Stationed in a tiny village not far from the Sierra Maestra, I listened to the news on the radio: following a long process of self-criticism –and twenty-eight days of solitary confinement, the poet Heberto Padilla publicly admitted to having tarnished the image of the Revolution with his beliefs and his writing. I didn’t even have to finish listening to what he said to realize that the comandante had had time to stop in and see him. With good reason I could once again fall asleep.

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in memoriam

Jorge Volpi is an author, scholar and diplomat who has written nine books of fiction. His novel, En Busca de Klingsor, won the Biblioteca Breve Prize in 1999, was translated into 20 languages, including English. His other books include the novels A Pesar Del Oscuro Silencio and El temperamento melancólico. El Fin de la Locura, the second part of his Trilogy of the XX Century was published in Spanish and French last year. He was the director of the Mexican Cultural Center in Paris and now is Visiting Professor at Cornell University and a Guggenheim Scholar.

Kristina Cordero has has translated Latin American and Spanish authors such as Ray Lorica, Alberto Fuguet, Jorge Volpi, and Francisco Casavella, as well as Carlos Fuentes, Gioconda Belli, and Javier Marías. Her translations and articles have appeared in Time, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, Granta, Grand Street, The Believer, and others. She lives between New York City and Santiago de Chile.

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