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About the Author
Mark Fried lives in Ottawa, Canada. He is the translator of Eduardo Galeano's Children of the Days, Mirrors, Voices of Time, Upside Down, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Walking Words, and We Say No. He is also the translator of the historical collection Echoes of the Mexican-American War and works by Severo Sarduy, Emilia Ferreiro, José Ignacio López Vigil, Oscar Ugarteche, and Rafael Barajas Durán.
Read an Excerpt
SOME ANIMALS SEEM to have been created by divine Providence or nature or fate for the sole purpose of one day embodying a metaphor, geological eons or an eternity later. The way a number of Hebrew poets hiding behind Biblical anonymity used the snake, for example, or the dove, deformed and transformed them into creatures of myth. Other animals, like the sloth or the jackal, have come to personify even in their names moral attitudes of which, needless to say, they are blameless. Similarly, some men exist as little more than metaphor, like the figure representing historical evil in modern times, the Man in the Iron Mask, who first launched the saga of the unknown political prisoner and now embodies that legend. Other men are more prescience than presence and manage to predate by years the historical moment when they become indispensable as metaphor.
A century earlier his name would have meant something else in Cuba. The Aldamas did not simply belong to the Creole aristocracy: they were its essence, la crème de la crème; in other words, they gave meaning to the notion of aristocracy in Cuba. One of the Aldamas, Miguel, had a palace made to measure as if he had ordered it from a tailor, built with untold amounts of quarried stone, marbles, and precious woods. The mansion, located at the beginning of one of Havana’s loveliest lanes, was once a central attraction and, although the lane later became a commercial street and is now an ugly thoroughfare, it stands there still, converted into a colonial museum, its ancient multicolored frontage scraped down to the naked stone and then concealed under the soot of the twentieth century, blackened so it looks more like a lithographic reproduction than the three-dimensional original. The towering columns of the sumptuous neoclassical portico – a façade is a mirror of the owner’s soul – reveal that its proprietor imported not only his political ideas but his lifestyle from a France dubbed Revolutionary. But in his heart of hearts Miguel Aldama aspired to be precisely the opposite of a Frenchman, that is, an Englishman concealed behind a private door.
Inside his palace was an inaugural jewel: the first flush toilet in America. This Aldama was a patrician noble, a protector of the arts and letters who opened the gates of his palace every Friday to a literary salon. He was also a noble patriot whose all-too-frank political opinions attracted the attention of Spanish authorities and finally earned him exile. Like the entire Creole aristocracy, the Aldamas were slave-owners. Their sugar refineries, their sugarcane and tobacco plantations, plus their mansions, haciendas, and persons, were attended to by thousands of slaves imported from Africa. Following the custom of the period, the Aldamas’ slaves were also named Aldama. Thanks to the ironies of history or biology, the white aristocratic Aldamas disappeared within a century of their apogee and today that illustrious name of yesteryear is held only by the descendants of their black slaves. Pablo, alias Agustín, Aldama lives still and is of course the grandson or great-grandson of slaves, although it is possible that some blood from the original Aldamas may run through his veins, since he is more dark mulatto than black.
I know little of Agustín Aldama’s private life, among other reasons because he spoke rarely and never of that. Truth be told, his could not have been a very blessed life, though he did treasure a photograph of his niece as if she were a daughter (or perhaps she was his daughter, since one of the things I discovered by studying Aldama is that a quiet man can be a quiet liar). When he did speak, Aldama talked about his public life, especially his revolutionary credentials. The loquacious passion that seized this taciturn man when enumerating his civic virtues made these credentials seem suspect, yet it is a fact that he had once been, as they say, a man of action, and he wore proudly the scars that bore witness to that time. In the forties he had been a member of one or several “action groups,” as they were known in Cuba, and judging by his various silences and evasions he must have changed sides often. Not that he would have been a traitor, rather, as the Argentine put it, “a man of successive and conflicting loyalties.”
In the UIR – these groups were always shielded by acronyms – Aldama met or said he met Fidel Castro, at that time no more than an amateur thug. The actions undertaken by the Unión Insurreccional Revolucionaria discouraged any temptation to turn its acronym into a verb – huir, to flee – composed as it was of men whose courage had been tested far too often. In particular, its members shared with their deranged leader, Emilio Tro, a taste for the darkest humor. They gave each other risible nicknames – a man lame from a war wound was known as Prettyleg, another whose mouth had been shattered by a bullet became Bulletlip, twin assassins were known as the Dead Ringers, one of their leaders, J. Jesús Jinjauma, had a deputy named Lazarus of Bethany and whenever he liquidated someone in an act of vengeance he hung from his victim’s neck a sign that invariably read: “Justice takes time, but it comes.” On the audacious occasion I am about to describe they managed to unite black humor, a braggart’s valor, adroit timing, certain literary inclinations, and the name Castro.
It happened that another of the action groups, the ARG, captained by another Jesus, Jesús G. Cartas, better known as the Stranger, a pseudonym that paid homage to his foreign looks, had perfected a technique borrowed from Chicago’s gangster days. When the intent was to settle accounts with a rival gang, they used two cars instead of one. The first would drive by the target to spray the entrance to the marked house with lead – the newspapers in those days were fond of gardening terms. Once over their alarm, the angry thugs would run into the street to see if anyone was wounded and sometimes to shoot a few useless bullets at the fleeing car. Then the treacherous second vehicle would come over the horizon at their backs and open fire on the mercilessly exposed group. That was how the ARG attacked the home of Jesús Jinjauma’s mother while the UIR were meeting inside. The UIR decided to respond by risking an assault that evoked the technique’s origins, while adding a twist of their own.
The retaliation took place in the “Chicago” of Hollywood: in front of a family movie house, affectionately known as Cinecito, owned by Manolo Castro, who was National Director of Sports, a former student leader, and a member of the MSR, an ARG ally. He was chatting with a business friend in the lobby of the theater when out of nowhere a vehicle raced past and shot up the front of the building. Castro and his friend, taking refuge behind the box office, were not wounded. A short while later, seeing that the second and lethal car did not appear, they stepped into the street. That was when two hit men standing on the opposite sidewalk opened fire. The businessman was seriously wounded but survived, while Manolo Castro died on the spot under his glowing marquee.
The ARG, the MSR, and a lone prosecutor accused the other Castro, Fidel, who was not related, of being the fatal shooter; his guilt was not proven at the time, just as his innocence is not proven today. But Emilio Tro in his grave (the UIR leader had died a short while before, a death ironically filmed by the local news, having like Manolo Castro been unarmed while treacherously attacked by the allied forces of the MSR and the ARG at the tail end of a pitched battle with machine guns, rifles, and tanks on the streets of Marianao) Tro must have smiled a last merciless smile in gangster heaven: it was in the best tradition of the UIR that there be two Castros on the battlefield. Most comical of all was the fact that Castro had killed Castro.
The UIR was where, I repeat, Aldama said he met Fidel Castro. It could be. What is certainly true is that Aldama retained an indelible mark from those days: he had taken a bullet in the head that passed through his eye. So he was a one-eyed man. What’s more, he suffered from terrible neuralgia headaches on the side of his face where the bullet had either entered or exited. I learned this later on. At first I did not even notice he had only the one eye: perpetual dark glasses hid the absence, as well as the eye in attendance.
The day I met him he had just arrived at the embassy in Brussels. He went straight to bed to recover from the journey and then strolled into the office in the middle of the afternoon. I had never seen a Cuban so tall. He barely fit through the door: a six-foot-six giant with overlong arms and legs and gigantic hands that were bony claws, and he was extremely thin. He spoke in a deep, gravelly voice and whenever he did so, which was not often, he said little. His dark glasses, jutting jaw, and kinky hair clipped close to his head all accentuated his cadaverous skull. Over all, I had the impression his inscrutability was entirely deliberate: Aldama was now a security officer, employed by the Ministry of Foreign Relations. At least that is what he took pleasure in appearing to be. But that was at the end.
At first, he claimed to have been sent by a well-meaning vice-minister in order to find an amicable resolution to differences between the ambassador, Gustavo Arcos, and his first secretary, Juan José Díaz del Real. Rumors had reached the vice-minister, Arnold Rodríguez, that the two of them, after arriving at the embassy the best of friends (the ambassador had requested the first secretary as a personal favor), now wanted each other’s heads, and some feared the situation might degenerate into bloodshed. Díaz del Real had already killed an exiled Cuban in Santo Domingo, in the days when it was known as Ciudad Trujillo and he was ambassador in the Dominican Republic. The murder nearly cost him his life and the Cuban Embassy was set aflame. For his part, Ambassador Arcos had been involved in the assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and, although he was a gentle man, he was capable of turning violent. The two always carried hefty pistols. Aldama was supposedly a friend of both – indeed, when he arrived he seemed to be closer to the ambassador than to Díaz del Real, but that was when he arrived.
Soon he changed sides, or better put, he took the side of the first secretary against Gustavo Arcos. In the beginning he did so obliquely, by making comments when he and I were alone in the diplomatic offices; later on, he did so continually because, not only were we always alone, but Pipo Carbonell (the third secretary and the only other Cuban official) had made common cause with Arcos, breaking with his patron, the first secretary, who had asked Arcos to bring him to Belgium in the first place. Amid this crossfire of ever-shifting loyalties and disloyalties, I was trying to hang onto my post as cultural attaché by cleverly remaining independent of both sides. At first I managed thanks to my knowledge of French, since at a certain point (when Arcos was off in a Czech sanatorium seeking treatment for the incurable wound he suffered in the attack on the Moncada) I was the only one in the embassy who spoke the language. But my position was precarious and soon became compromised due to an intrigue woven by Carbonell, which made Arcos suspicious of me, until the ambassador realized he had too many enemies in the embassy as it was, and that my work was essential for his survival. By then, Aldama was practically not speaking to Arcos, but he would not forget the confidences the ambassador had shared with him, one after another (as anyone would with someone he considered a friend), many of them of a serious political nature, including disclosures that bordered on the scandalous regarding the nefarious personality of Fidel Castro. All this Aldama (and also Díaz del Real on his own) stored up for future use against Arcos.
Aldama lived on the top floor of the embassy in a small room he had essentially turned into a lair, which he could reach directly by elevator from the garage. Once, after he had disappeared for days and was apparently ill, I went there to see him. I found him lying on a bed so enormous it made his long prostrate body look minuscule; he was suffering from one of his frequent attacks of facial neuralgia. The maid, a friendly, uneducated, good-hearted woman from Galicia, had heard him moan one night and got up to ask him if something was hurting him, and he answered that no one was hurting him. She told me this the following day, which was why I climbed up to his lair. With the only window hermetically sealed and the room in darkness, the odor in it was indescribable. It was the only time I saw him without his dark glasses and his lifeless eye looked elongated and dead like glass, perhaps it was glass. With the other he watched every one of my nervous movements about the room. I confess I felt afraid, though I know not of what or of whom. Perhaps I was recalling the bloody past that had produced this Cyclops, perhaps I had an intimation the role this apparent invalid would play in the future. I do know that I left the room understanding enough to feel a certain pity – yet I did not feel sorry for him in the least.
With time, the situation in the embassy became untenable. There was a moment when Díaz del Real, in answer to a summons from Gustavo Arcos, took his gun out of his desk drawer and went upstairs, shouting as he waved the weapon:
“I’m going to kill that sonofabitch right now!”