Gossip, Dissent, and the Public Sphere
La historia no es más que la ilación de dos o tres chismes decisivos.
—Guillermo Cabrera Infante
IF GOSSIP is, as Niko Besnier argues, “a quintessential tool for political action in private realms” (Production of Politics 12), then it has become so chiefly through its ability to blur the boundaries between the public and the private.1 The act of gossiping, after all, is in large part the act of making public that which was once an intimate secret: while gossip, in its classic form, is private speech, it can also be understood as engagement with a network of speakers—a public, or perhaps a counterpublic—that goes well beyond the immediate participants. Gossip, then, is among other things a way for private speakers to address and even insert themselves into the public life of their community. Lisa Lowe argues that gossip plagiarizes public discourses even as it remains “parasitic on the details of ‘private’ life,” thereby transgressing and eroding the boundaries between public and private spheres (116). This makes gossip—alongside kindred forms such as rumor—a powerful resource for those excluded from more formal public discourse. Domesticity, after all, is only one kind of marginalization; as scholars such as Ranajit Guha have ably illustrated, in colonial and postcolonial contexts, gossip and rumor can become a locus of resistance against authority. Indeed, by facilitating communication and organization, and allowing entry to or replicating some of the functions of the public sphere, gossip and rumor come to serve, in Guha’s words, “as the most ‘natural’ and indeed indispensable vehicle of insurgency” (256).2 This has certainly been the case in the Caribbean: as Raphael Dalleo notes, gossip “appears frequently in Caribbean literature of the modern colonial period as a sort of counterpublic where those excluded from the dominant public sphere pass along knowledge” and serves “as a more democratic, oral alternative” to the literary public sphere. “This trope of gossip as a counterpublic created by the restrictiveness of the official public sphere [ . . . ] suggests an anticolonial interest in exploring how groups excluded from official discourse still express themselves,” Dalleo writes (102–3).
As described in the preceding chapters, gossip certainly does play the role Dalleo describes in Caribbean literature, and not only in that of the modern colonial period: through gossip, we frequently see groups and individuals reshaping their understandings of community, negotiating the tropes and truths they take as valid or meaningful, and constituting, maintaining, or disrupting the publics and counterpublics they inhabit and slip between. Such readings focus in large part, however, on the construction of predominantly local public spheres grounded in the family, the village, the neighborhood, and the city. This does not make them less valid, but it suggests they may not tell the whole story. In focusing on the recent Caribbean, I read the region as a globalized archipelago: forged by the traumatic influx of conquistadors, colonizers, and slaves but now defined by bidirectional networks of cultural influence, diaspora, exile, and tourism. To speak of gossip’s role in the public sphere of the contemporary Caribbean, it is necessary to consider not just the public and private discourses of individual island nations but also the Caribbean’s place—and the Caribbean writer’s place—in a global network of literary, political, and historical discourses. This is especially true since the Caribbean has, in this period, been marked both by authoritarian regimes that have sought sweeping and even totalitarian controls over the public sphere, and by a corresponding outpouring of literary and political exiles who have sought to write back against perceived oppressors and to radically reshape their home countries’ perception and place in the global public sphere.
Reading Caribbean writers in terms of a global or transnational public sphere is inherently somewhat problematic: as Nancy Fraser notes, the public sphere, as conventionally conceived, is a discursive space in which a given nation’s citizenry negotiates and asserts a democratic consensus in order to hold its leaders accountable. Public sphere theory, Fraser states, insists for these purposes upon “a Westphalian political imaginary” in which the public sphere is bounded by and accounts for a single coherent and strictly defined nation-state (8). Such a framing is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with a geographically dispersed and politically heterogeneous “transnational public sphere”—and yet, Fraser insists, such a reconciliation must take place if public sphere theory is to remain relevant in the modern, globalized and post-Westphalian world. “A critical conception can no longer restrict its attention to the direction of communicative flows in established polities,” she writes. “It must consider the need to construct new addressees for public opinion, in the sense of new, transnational public powers that possess the administrative capacity to solve transnational problems” (23).
Fraser’s argument rests upon the conviction that the nation-state is no longer a sufficient space in which to negotiate questions of power and that transnational discussion, and the appeal to transnational institutions, must be part of public sphere theory’s evolution if it is to “keep faith with its original promise to contribute to struggles for emancipation” (24). This is doubly true of the Caribbean: already, as I have previously argued, a space that demands to be understood as a meta-archipelago of interconnected islands and diasporic outposts in fluid and constant communication but also, lamentably, the site of entrenched power struggles and politics of domination that have too often curtailed opportunities for participation in conventionally conceived, nationally bounded public spheres.3
Fraser envisions the evolution of a global public sphere in which “new transnational public powers [ . . . ] can be made accountable to new democratic transnational circuits of public opinion” (24). For the writers discussed in this chapter, however, appeals to the nascent transnational public sphere of which Fraser writes would have been largely fruitless—not least because such a participatory space has yet to clearly emerge in any meaningful way. Instead, their efforts to address a global public sphere resonate more closely with Pia Wiegmink’s notion of activist performers who “make use of symbolic political acts in order to make their agendas visible to a wider public” and “create a space for public discourse by means of performance” (2). The writers detailed in this chapter conceive of themselves not simply as intellectuals but as provocateurs, seeking to make a splash and thereby insert themselves, and the scandals of Caribbean authoritarianism, into the global consciousness. Like Wiegmink, they “perceive the public sphere as a battleground of competing publics that struggle for public attention” and understand that “before certain political issues become subject of political discussion and debate, these matters must be uttered and made visible in public” (2).
In this sense, the public sphere of which I write is not entirely Habermasian, for it is a space in which rational debate is subsidiary to or, at best, exists alongside an ongoing narrative battle. Instead, I hew closer to the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, who writes of an “agonistic model” of democratic engagement and artistic activism, and conceives of public space as “the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation” (3). The Caribbean writers here studied have little faith in the free, democratic process of consensus building proposed by Habermas: they align far more with Mouffe’s notion that “the impediments to the Habermasian ideal speech situation are not empirical but ontological and the rational consensus that he presents as a regulative idea is in fact a conceptual impossibility” (3–4). What remains, for such writers, is the possibility of disruption and adversarialism: the refusal to be silenced and—in the absence of a viable local public sphere—the ability to cause a ruckus on the global stage and disrupt the reputations and public images of their island’s authoritarian leaders.
In what follows, I explore gossip as a strategy, at once literary and political, that can be used not just in local acts of subversion but also as a means of gaining entry to, and reformulating, the international public sphere. Reading Reinaldo Arenas’s 1992 autobiography, Antes que anochezca, as an act of self-gossip, I show how his hypersexualized braggadocio serves to undermine the Cuban government’s prudishly macho conception of the revolutionary nuevo hombre, but also and especially to capture the prurient imaginations of foreign readers. Another Cuban exile, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, uses gossip about others—including despised political figures but also persecuted artists toward whom he is largely sympathetic—to cement his own position as a knowledgeable broker of information about the island. A similar impetus can be seen in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), an essay written for a foreign audience, which uses gossip to criticize both Antigua’s corrupt government and the oblivious tourists who flock to the island. Finally, I turn to the regime of François Duvalier, which—having effectively silenced Haitian writers—understood Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians as a reputational attack and responded by publishing a gossipy pamphlet, intended for international consumption, containing a litany of insinuations and ad hominem attacks on the British writer. All these figures sought to reshape the public perception of Caribbean nations in real time, using gossip with the explicit goal of reconfiguring and redirecting contemporaneous international public discourse. In the next chapter, I will explore similar issues from the perspective of writers who have used gossip as a means of exploring the legacy of authoritarianism, with a focus on more inward-looking questions of memory and national identity. Here, however, I focus on the immediate, the contemporary, and the global.
Few writers gossip with quite the same riotous disregard for propriety as the Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, whose autobiography, Antes que anochezca—described by Manuel Pereira as “a monotonous collection of minor gossip with an emphasis on the obscene” (56)—is packed with ribald anecdotes about the sexual indiscretions of a long list of Cubans. Arenas gleefully recounts the tale of a police officer who would detain a good-looking young man, then drag him into the bushes to “suck his member” (264).4 He writes of how Hiram Prado was expelled from the Soviet Union “after he was caught sucking the cock of a young Russian during a Bolshoi Theater performance”—and subsequently arrested when, back in Cuba, he fellated a man behind a theater curtain only for the curtain to go up, leaving him exposed on center stage (98). He dwells, too, on a “happening” at the home of a poet named Carilda (likely Carilda Oliver Labra, although only the first name is given) who strips to her panties, quarrels with her husband (whose prostate problems are also described in detail), and winds up being chased naked through the streets by her sword-wielding spouse, while begging him “not to cause such a scandal in my hometown” (268). Many of these stories are told with a certain affection: Virgilio Piñera, whom Arenas loves and respects, is shown not just as a brilliant writer but also as a sexual adventurer, with Arenas lingering over the tale of a well-endowed cook who continues to stir his soup as he penetrates Piñera. Other tales are more spiteful: Hiram, the friend turned informer who helps the authorities locate Arenas, is described as having his “most fulfilling” sexual dalliances with his own eighty-year-old grandfather until he “could only have a real orgasm” when being penetrated by the old man (234). Similarly, the critic José Rodríguez Feo, who abandoned Piñera after his fall from grace, is described as a pimp who runs a male brothel “where strong men worked as bartenders and, on the side, engaged in such other activities as clients might request” (82). Whether vicious or affectionate, however, the stories are gossip in the classic sense, offering up juicy revelations about the scandalous indiscretions of their subjects in a manner clearly intended to titillate and captivate the reader.
Arenas’s text is notable for the extent to which it recounts not just the deeds of absent third parties—the usual targets of gossip—but also Arenas’s own adventures. “Autobiography is a form in which one gets to gossip about oneself,” asserts Joseph Epstein (18), and Arenas takes full advantage of the fact, filling the text with tales of his comic sexcapades.5 Arenas also shows himself gossiping about other people and in fact recounts how he used gossip to play tricks on various acquaintances, often with hilarious results. In one passage, Arenas details what he terms “the War of the Anonymous Letters”—a rapidly escalating exchange of pasquinades between members of his literary circle. The “war” begins with the circulation of anonymous bulletins accusing Arenas of murdering a child; he responds by covering Havana’s public restrooms with graffiti against Pepe Malas, the presumed author, “stating that he was the most faggoty faggot of them all, and that he was an informer for State Security. [ . . . ] Whenever he went to a rest room in search of adventure, he would see those messages and run away” (264). Finally, Arenas and a friend pen an anonymous communiqué urging right-thinking Havanans to condemn orgies supposedly being held at the church where their acquaintance Samuel Toca lives. “The communiqué was really not too far from the truth because Samuel would bring anyone he met into the church, including a cop who happened to be a closet queen,” Arenas confides (264). The authors lists the participants in the supposed orgies, including their own names “as a cover-up,” then quietly inform Toca that Malas is responsible for the stunt (265). Toca is threatened with eviction from his cell at the church, and Malas has several teeth broken in the beating Toca subsequently gives him; still, “no one took the letter seriously,” Arenas claims (266). Elsewhere, Arenas notes a similar episode in which he sent a “Termination of Friendship Notice” to friends who had failed to stand by him “at a time when friendship really mattered” (238). Hiram made more than a hundred copies of the letter and sent them to all Arenas’s friends, causing “dreadful confusion”; Arenas responded by sending Hiram a notice of his own, then penning a series of tongue twisters making fun of him. “This was another of the weapons I used against those who had harmed me,” he declares. By 1977, he claims, his tongue twisters had “become famous throughout Havana,” targeting more than thirty “well-known people in the city’s theater and literary worlds” (238–39). Arenas’s social network, it seems, was mapped through reputational pranks, pasquinades, and acts of spitefully adversarial gossip.
As these episodes show, the tone of Arenas’s autobiography is frequently comedic: numerous scenes, from the “incessant farting” of his fellow convicts to the episode in which a former lover attempts to break into Arenas’s apartment (Arenas reaches through a hatch, unseen, bops the man on the head with a stick, and disappears; the process repeats until the man, bruised and confused, stumbles away), would not be out of place in a Mel Brooks movie. A similar cartoonishness marks the incessant sexual shenanigans he describes: busloads of men grope and fellate one another; husbands duck into changing rooms for hurried homosexual encounters and then rush back out to take family photos; and Arenas, swimming underwater, fellates men as they stand chatting with unwitting third parties. “I would suck his penis powerfully until he ejaculated, and would then swim away with the help of my flippers. The person he was talking to at a little distance would notice no more perhaps than a deep sigh at the moment of ejaculation,” Arenas claims (101). Such scenes demand to be read as fantasy or hyperbole, but Arenas makes it hard to be entirely sure.6 They are also clearly intended to sharpen the contrast between the comic text and the tragic reality: despite the jokes, after all, the farting prisoners are in fact the inmates of a concentration camp. A similar pathos underlies Arenas’s sexual adventures, which are grounds for persecution and subject to undignified scrutiny by the Cuban government. Late in the text, Arenas is forced to explain the exact nature of his sexual preferences, and to parade himself back and forth in front of psychologists “to see if I was queer” (281). Taken in isolation, the episode would be a violation; presented after hundreds of pages of bawdy and joyful sexual encounters, however, it is stripped of much of its power. It reads, in fact, like a punch line: Arenas has suffered, but by turning daily life in the Castro regime into a tropical sex farce, he also manages to have the last laugh.
Arenas’s frenetic tone also serves to blur the line between gossip and slander: throughout Antes que anochezca, he offers a cocktail of truthful and presumably exaggerated or fabricated tales, with little effort to differentiate between them. Are we really to believe that Hiram fornicated so avariciously with his grandfather that he drove the old man to a premature death? Or that so many Cuban officials—from a lesbian State Security officer to a policeman who fantasizes about Arenas throwing nude parties—are truly closeted homosexuals? It’s hard to say, in part because Arenas, in sharing countless other gossipy, titillating tales, has already drawn us to a place of nodding complicity: in a country in which men appear to be making love behind every bush and in every public restroom, it is all too easy to accept the stories that Arenas tells about his enemies.
Such episodes demonstrate Arenas’s mobilization of gossip as a means of revenge. Abilio Estévez describes Antes que anochezca as “an act of vengeance” and, in a phrase borrowed from José Rodríguez Feo, “a masterpiece of slander” (“Between Nightfall” 861). Arenas’s text is marked, Estévez writes, by its commitment to “defamation and vengeance as method” (865). But Antes que anochezca is not just a settling of old scores: it is also a fervently political document that demands to be read as a dissident writer’s decisive intervention in the international public sphere. Nerea Riley describes Arenas’s work—“so angry, subjective, bitchy, paranoic in the face of injustice” (493)—as a form of literary vendetta, and correctly notes that his energy derives from an acute sense of persecution. In this sense, Arenas’s listing of his enemies’ scandalous indiscretions is an act of defamatory vengeance against the people named, but also against the Cuban revolution in general and against Fidel Castro in particular. This is not the nostalgia of the lifelong exile but rather the urgent and defiant work of a writer who still feels ensnared by, or has only just managed to escape, a regime that personally targeted him.
Arenas thus uses gossip to retaliate, and to write himself and his works back into the Cuban narrative. He is acutely aware that Havana has sought to destroy his literary reputation: when accused of corrupting a minor, he claims the charges were brought to avoid turning him into a political symbol.7 “By convicting me of a common crime, they would avoid an international scandal,” he writes (206). Arenas’s writing is a process of rescandalization: a refusal to accept the regime’s condemnation, a celebration of his own apparently endless appetites, and a gleeful flaunting of the homosexuality that the regime saw as a counterrevolutionary embarrassment. The delirious and denunciatory mode that Arenas adopts allows him to assert his own identity and to present a page-turning exposé of the persecution he faced for the two things that he most prized: his writing and his sexuality.
It is sex, of course, that emerges most vividly from Arenas’s text, with virtually every page of his autobiography containing another erotic adventure. This cataloging of sexual antics is quintessentially gossipy, but it is also an act of defiance: Arenas displays and foregrounds the homosexual acts for which he was persecuted, casting them as both joyful and rebellious. Sandro Barros emphasizes the political significance of Arenas’s professed erotomania, describing it as “without a question personal and political, since the very presentation of desire is framed within the subversive homosexual act of reclaiming the body as private property.” Arenas’s text turns pleasure into a symbol for individual freedom, Barros argues, but also symbolically comes “to represent the rejection of the State’s effective control over one’s body” (6). Rafael Ocasio similarly suggests that Arenas turns his own “hypersexualized” body into “his main weapon in the opposition to Castro’s revolutionary practices” (197). But Antes que anochezca does more than just chronicle Arenas’s own erotic encounters: it also presents, through gossip, a panorama of homosexual practices under Castro. Arenas argues that the systematic repression of homosexuality brought about precisely the opposite of what it intended: an unleashing of sexual activity that extended to the most ideologically committed sectors of Cuban society. Arenas writes: “I think that the sexual revolution in Cuba actually came about as a result of the existing sexual repression. Perhaps as a protest against the regime, homosexuality began to flourish with ever-increasing defiance. [ . . . ] I honestly believe that the concentration camps for homosexuals, and the police officers disguised as willing young men to entrap and arrest homosexuals, actually resulted in the promotion of homosexual activities” (107). Here, Arenas turns the table on the Castro government: having been convicted as a corruptor of minors, Arenas makes the case that it was the government itself that, by politicizing the sexual act, drove young people to begin fornicating as a form of defiance. Arenas’s own lovemaking, in fact, is presented as the homoerotic conquest of the hombre nuevo and of the Castro regime’s cult of machismo: “I think that in Cuba there was never more fucking going on than in those years, the decade of the sixties [ . . . ] when the sexual act became taboo while the ‘new man’ was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted. Many of the young men who marched in Revolutionary Square applauding Fidel Castro, and many of the soldiers who marched, rifle in hand and with martial expressions, came to our rooms after the parades to cuddle up naked, and show their real selves” (105). This is a gossipy subversion of the aggressively macho image put forth by the Cuban government: the real hombre nuevo, Arenas suggests, is engaging in military drills and revolutionary parades one moment and locked in a homosexual embrace the next. Arenas thus both queers the macho—all those young, lusty soldiers are sexually available to him—and incorporates macho ethics into his own queer identity: the braggadocio and boundless sexual appetite manifested in his text constitute a macho gesture of defiance and a refusal to allow Castro’s government to define his sexuality as somehow shameful or effete.8
Arenas’s politicization of his sexuality is entirely in keeping with the views of both heteronormativity and homosexuality espoused by Cuba’s revolutionary leaders. Emilio Bejel describes how, from the early 1960s, the Cuban government added “an aggressive homophobia” to the ideological apparatus of the revolution (96) in an effort both to create a culture “free of the impurities of the bourgeois past” and to forge an hombre nuevo whose machismo and heterosexual virility was matched only by his readiness to “sacrifice for his country” and “renounce utilitarian values” in the name of socialism (99). The hombre nuevo was envisioned as fiercely heterosexual and energetically devoted to the regime but also as paradoxically meek, at least in the sense of being unquestioningly obedient and politically compliant. As Lillian Guerra notes, the revolution preached radical nonconformity with the capitalist traditions of the past and the exterior, but simultaneously insisted on absolute conformity with the Marxist values and cultural logic of the nouveau regime. To be homosexual—especially, as in Arenas’s case, to be openly and exuberantly homosexual—was to be fundamentally at odds with this project. Guerra remarks: “Those who distorted or diverged from a mandatory heterosexist gender order were ‘ideological diversionists’ who jeopardized the collective prosperity of society[. . . . ] Real and imagined homosexuals were considered particularly virulent carriers of ideological diversionism” (228–29). Through gossip, then, Arenas turns the Cuban government’s institutionalized homophobia against it: in celebrating and hyperbolizing his own homosexual liaisons, he both stakes out a position as a dangerous rebel and underscores the fact that countless other young Cubans, including many apparently devoted to the regime, are also engaged in politically subversive sexual acts.
Arenas jubilantly documents the “erotic rebelliousness” of the postrevolutionary period, repeating countless ribald tales about young people, especially soldiers, engaged in homosexual affairs. A trip to the beach is “like entering paradise because all the young people wanted to make love, and there were always dozens of them ready to go into the bushes” (92). The eroticization of the hombre nuevo continues on a train ride: “The train was full of recruits; everybody was sexually aroused and having sex in the bathrooms, under the seats, anyplace. Hiram used his foot to masturbate a recruit who seemed to be sleeping on the floor. I was lucky enough to be able to use both hands” (92). Later, Arenas and Hiram visit a military camp where sex-starved recruits crowd around them, wrapped in blankets or completely naked, then throw an orgy in an abandoned tank (93). The sex is endless: one friend claims to have “made a small fortune during his stay for the Revolutionary parade” by having sex with more than twenty people a night, “at ten bucks each” (52), while Arenas and Hiram calculate that by 1968 they had bedded some five thousand men apiece. Arenas adds that he and Hiram “were not the only ones carried away by this kind of erotic rage; everybody was: the recruits who spent long months of abstinence, and the whole population” (93).
As Barros proposes, Arenas’s “rhetorical homosexualization of the revolutionary macho” is, among other things, a denunciation of the perceived hypocrisy at the heart of the revolutionary establishment (1). Arenas contrasts his own sexual energy with the repression of the revolutionary government. “All dictatorships are sexually repressive and anti-life. All affirmations of life are diametrically opposed to dogmatic regimes,” he writes. “It was logical for Fidel Castro to persecute us, not to let us fuck, and to try to suppress any public display of the life force” (93).9 But he also shows his persecutors as caught up in the sexual fervor of the moment, even as they seek to suppress it. An official at the Ministry of the Interior is portrayed as showing off his erection on a bus, then taking offense and beating up someone who makes a pass at him. Later, the official threatens Arenas while strutting around his home in a towel, flaunting an erection and surreptitiously masturbating. “The man, who was persecuting us for being gay, probably wanted nothing more than for us to grab his penis, rub it, and suck it right then. Perhaps this kind of aberration exists in all repressive systems,” Arenas writes (95). Fidel Castro’s personal friends, such as Armando Rodríguez and Alberto Guevara, are shown living a “scandalous homosexual life” without repercussions, thanks to their political connections (77). Even Arenas’s teachers, so dedicated to turning young boys into “cadres of the Revolution,” engage in torrid homosexual affairs with their charges, with one supposedly having relations with almost a hundred boys (50). “Sometimes the young men lined up by his room to fuck him; I actually saw this,” Arenas insists. “In addition, a classmate of mine, reputed to have one of the largest penises in school, told me that he was a favorite of that professor of Marxism” (51). Both the students—future revolutionary leaders denying their homosexuality while jumping the fence each night to have sex with local men—and the teachers are shown as hypocrites, just like the many fornicating policemen and politicians who help sustain the regime’s repression of homosexuals. But the hypocrisy is portrayed as endemic—something that “exists in all repressive systems.” In this sense, the gossip that Arenas presents about specific figures is often also gossip about Castro’s regime, with the cowardice and hypocrisy of individuals becoming a synecdoche for the failings of the revolution itself.
The sexual freedom that Arenas relishes is not itself free from corruption: Arenas presents his time in prison as the antithesis of the good-natured lustiness he describes elsewhere. The “queers” and “fairies” who inhabit the prison are not the untroubled lovers of Havana but rather embittered rapists who drive newly arrived adolescents—“fresh meat”—to suicide, or engage in bloody razor fights aimed at disfiguring rather than killing their rivals. “I had no sexual relations while in prison, not only as a precaution but because it made no sense; love has to be free and prison is a monstrosity where love turns into bestiality,” Arenas writes (187). When he arrives in prison, moreover, Arenas is defined through gossip as a “hard-core criminal who had raped an old woman, murdered God knows how many people, and was a CIA agent”—a claim, presumably encouraged by his captors, that serves to strip away the joyful sexual identity that Arenas has forged for himself (187). It is by penning letters to prisoners’ girlfriends, and thus becoming the “literary boyfriend or husband for all the prisoners” (188), that Arenas is able to reclaim and reassert his identity: not as a homosexual but as a writer. This cuts to the core of Arenas’s project: though it is easy to view him chiefly as a sexual dissident, this is only the case because he expresses his sexual dissidence so forcefully through the written word. Arenas’s autobiographical sex caper, in other words, is a document dedicated not just to revealing sexual rebellion but also to exploring the role that writers play in pushing back against the public narratives of authoritarianism.
Castro’s “Palabras a los intelectuales” looms large in Arenas’s imagination as he seeks to chronicle the erosion of intellectual freedom in postrevolutionary Cuba. The country’s writers were sometimes fearful or diminished, and sometimes defiant in the face of intellectual repression; either way, Arenas records, to write freely was to be fundamentally at odds with the regime, and punishment and retaliation were never far off. Few writers, including Arenas himself, were able to navigate these perils without compromise, and Arenas’s autobiography is full of intellectuals who betray themselves or others. The persecution of homosexual intellectuals initiated by the Padilla affair is portrayed in terms that strikingly recall the operations of gossip: private denunciations flare into public scandals aimed at policing the parametraje, or parametrization, of social norms. The Castro regime uses performance, both of shame and of judgment, to enforce its persecution of gay writers, Arenas asserts: “Public humiliation has always been one of Castro’s favorite weapons: the degrading of people in front of a public always eager to make fun of any weakness in another, or of any person who had lost favor. It was not enough to be accused; you had to say you were sorry and beat your chest before an audience that would applaud and laugh” (139).
Amid the humiliations and betrayals and compromises, however, literature continues: Arenas and others write furtively and share their work among small groups of intimates. Notoriety even helps promote the work of some targeted writers: “As the persecutions intensified, the people were more and more eager to get to know the works of censored writers. Lezama became very popular, and some people knew Padilla’s banned verses by heart” (136).10 Arenas gossips about peers who, fearful for their safety, report details of the gatherings where writers share their work: “Undoubtedly those meetings had already been infiltrated by agents of State Security, writers turned informers, such as (we later found out) Miguel Barnet, Pablo Armando Fernández and César López. Whatever was read in one of those places was reported to State Security by the next day” (136). By cataloging these literary turncoats, Arenas uses gossip to map his social network and sort his acquaintances into in-groups and out-groups, much as he did with his Termination of Friendship Notices. “This was one of the most vicious acts perpetrated by Castroism: to break the bonds of friendship. To make us mistrust our best friends because the system was turning them into informers, into undercover agents,” Arenas writes (154).11 But if Arenas uses gossip to name and shame those he perceives as having betrayed him, he also makes a larger point by documenting the progressive corrosion of the Cuban public sphere: an insidious process through which intellectuals were either parametrized away from public life, or co-opted through fear and self-interest into the Castro regime’s intelligence networks.
By gossiping about his fellow writers, Arenas personalizes the damage done by the Castro government and seeks to memorialize and make sense of the regime’s actions. Following Piñera’s death, he uses gossip to question the official, sanitized account of his demise and to suggest that Castro himself, offended by Piñera’s work, had ordered his murder. “Fidel Castro has always hated writers, including those favoring the government, such as Guillén and Retamar. But in the case of Virgilio, this hate was even fiercer, perhaps because he was a homosexual,” Arenas writes (274). This is expository, denunciatory gossip, but it is also an attempt to lay the blame for Piñera’s killing directly at Castro’s feet. Throughout Antes que anochezca, indeed, Arenas emphasizes Castro’s personal responsibility for the government’s actions, frequently invoking the Cuban leader by name when describing the regime’s excesses. In this way, Arenas leverages the personal adversarialism upon which gossip is predicated: his own writing becomes less a counterrevolutionary gesture than an act of direct antagonism, and the regime itself is cast not as a vast and faceless bureaucracy but rather as an expression of the flaws and prejudices of a single man.
The reduction of the regime to its leader might suggest a symbolic reclamation of power: to gossip about Castro is arguably to domesticate and belittle both the leader and, by proxy, the Cuban government as a whole. Certainly, Arenas takes pleasure in describing the anger and frustration with which he imagines Castro receiving news of his evasion of his security forces. While he was on the run, Arenas writes, Castro “had given the order to find me immediately; in a country with such a perfect surveillance system, it was inconceivable that I had escaped from the police two months before and was still on the loose, writing documents and sending them abroad” (174). But if Arenas shows himself thumbing his nose at Castro, he also shows Castro as enjoying sweeping control over the island: despite his defiance, Arenas is eventually captured, and a confession is quickly wrung out of him. “This only proves my cowardice, my weakness, the certainty that I am not the stuff of which heroes are made,” he writes (204).
Arenas’s performative insistence that he is not a hero is likely not intended to be taken entirely seriously; despite his admitted failures, Arenas consistently presents himself in terms of his dogged commitment to opposing Castro’s government, and especially to doing so through his writing. Indeed, the adversarialism of Arenas’s text is such that Castro’s efforts to suppress Arenas’s work become, in Brad Epps’s words, “the condition of possibility of Arenas’s writing itself,” with Castro emerging as “the phantasmic coauthor of Arenas’s writing, the authority who by striving to disauthorize Arenas ultimately only authorizes him all the more” (246). If Arenas’s forced confession and reduction to a jailhouse ghostwriter serve to underscore Castro’s near total control over the Cuban public sphere, they also provide a reminder that his power is not absolute, and that other publics exist beyond Cuba’s shores. Even as he gives in to Castro’s power, Arenas declares himself “comforted” by the thought that while still at large, he had preemptively disavowed his confession: in a series of letters to international organizations including the United Nations and the International Red Cross, he had insisted that his attacks on the Castro regime “were absolutely true to fact, even if at some point I denied them” (204). Likewise, while in prison Arenas is consoled by the thought that “although my keepers continued to threaten me, they also feared foreign public opinion” (204). Even at his darkest moments, Arenas remains convinced that through writing he can sway foreign audiences and do real harm to Castro and his government. Indeed, this is the fight in which Arenas declares himself to be engaged throughout his autobiography: to write, despite everything, and to be published, despite Castro’s efforts to the contrary.
Arenas gains a more nuanced understanding of the global public sphere after leaving Cuba, coming to realize the complicity and cowardice (in his view) of foreign intellectuals who supported the Castro regime, and the extent of the Cuban government’s “tremendous propaganda machine and numerous international connections,” which include “cultural centers, bookstores, publishing houses, and public-relations agencies spread worldwide” (300–301). Against such opposition, Arenas faces a tough fight—“I realized that the war had started all over again, now in a much more underhanded manner,” he writes (288)—but demonstrates his enduring faith in the power of public opinion by penning an open letter, cowritten with Jorge Camacho and signed by many prominent intellectuals, calling on the Cuban government to allow a plebiscite like that which helped end Pinochet’s rule in Chile. “The newspapers published the letter, and it turned out to be a terrible blow for Castro; it proved that his dictatorship was worse that Pinochet’s, and that he would never allow free elections in Cuba,” he writes (xiv).
Not all of Arenas’s postexile efforts to shift public opinion are made through gossip: no longer living in Cuba, he is free to use other methods, from delivering speeches to writing letters to newspapers, and even reading excerpts from Granma and sections from Cuban statutes verbatim to incredulous academic audiences. Still, facing blowback for his political views, Arenas returns to gossip to recriminate those who slight him or obstruct his efforts.12 Publishers who refuse to pay Arenas are listed by name; Severo Sarduy, meanwhile, comes in for special criticism for refusing to return manuscripts previously smuggled out of Cuba, paying a pittance for the rights to the French editions of Arenas’s work, and spitefully telling Arenas’s credulous aunt that her nephew was now a wealthy man. Gossip similarly plays a role in the feud between Arenas and Angel Rama, detailed by Ocasio, with Arenas alleging that Rama had “signed ‘documentos subversivos’ [ . . . ] that favored Castro-financed guerrilla groups throughout Latin America,” a widely reported claim that likely contributed to Rama being denied a US visa (192).13 Even in exile, especially in exile, Arenas continues to use gossip to catalog his few faithful friends and the actions of his many “sordid and money-hungry” enemies (288). More than anything, though, Arenas uses gossip to sway public opinion against Castro. Arenas is clear eyed about the shortcomings of both communism and capitalism: “Although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream,” he writes (288). But after so many furtive liaisons, so many whispered tales and suppressed scraps of writing, the ability to scream, to publish and be damned, is all that Arenas seeks. “I scream, therefore I exist,” he declares (301).14
Of all Arenas’s screams from exile, his last rang loudest: Antes que anochezca, his final work, was his most decisive intervention in the public sphere, not least because it also serves as an extended suicide note. In a final act of self-gossip, Antes que anochezca concludes by reproducing Arenas’s actual suicide note, dubbed a carta de despedida, or farewell letter. Arenas certainly intended his note to be read far and wide, arranging for it to be distributed not just to his friends but also to a larger public. The note is a political gesture, one final attack: though brief, it is dense with political declarations, personal attacks on Castro—“There is only one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro,” he declares—and the unspoken conviction that public speech, public writing, is a weapon that can bring down tyrants (317). Arenas’s suicide note is an attempt to reframe his death as a political gesture: not simply another life ended by AIDS but rather, as Benigno Sánchez-Eppler suggests, “a politically marked Cuban suicide, with undisputed access to a Cuban grandeur worthy of monumentalization” (180). By making his suicide note a political and literary gesture, Arenas seeks to insert himself—all his life, with all its excesses and deprivations—into the public sphere, as a parting blow against the Castro regime. As Sánchez-Eppler notes, “The life so masterfully ended is explicitly handed over fully self-inscribed into the res publica” (177). Arenas closes his note with a defiant rallying cry—“Cuba will be free. I already am”—but, almost as an afterthought, offers the postscript “TO BE PUBLISHED” (317). It is both a practical instruction and a fitting epitaph for a writer who strove all his life for publication and for entry into the public sphere—just as avidly as he sought out sex, and with far more seriousness.
The Gossip Broker: Mea Cuba and Vidas para leerlas
Arenas’s text has been widely read as a work of testimonio: a searing, personal account of hardships endured and persecution witnessed.15 This can, however, be rather discomfiting for its reader. Antes que anochezca stands as “one of the most wrenching testimonials of oppression and rebellion written in our tongue,” notes Mario Vargas Llosa, but is undervalued because it “has the perverse faculty of leaving its readers bruised and uncomfortable, as though waking from an infernal nightmare” (“Pájaro tropical”). The rawness of Arenas’s text, and the bitterness behind the braggadocio, makes it a difficult pill to swallow. John Beverley proposes that “the complicity a testimonio establishes with its readers involves their identification—by engaging their sense of ethics and justice—with a popular cause normally distant, not to say alien, from their immediate experience” (37). Arenas’s autobiography depends upon just this process: ironically, in a text so full of seduction and consummation, Arenas makes little effort to seduce his readers but simply assumes that they will be outraged by the abuses he describes. Arenas’s undeniable charisma and his depiction of Castro’s Cuba as a nonstop sex romp keeps us turning the pages, but his gossip seeks to denounce rather than to convince. The reader is left simply to accept or reject Arenas’s viewpoint; there is little middle ground and little attempt to win over those who may waiver between the two ideological poles that Arenas presents.
Like Arenas, the exiled Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante also relies on gossip to weave himself into the international public sphere. Where Arenas uses gossip as a means of vengeance and self-assertion, however, Cabrera Infante uses gossip as a more subtle tool, intended both to lure his readers into ideological complicity and to tell the story of Cuban exiles, including but not limited to Cabrera Infante himself, in a way that directly rebuts and is designed to outlast the Castro regime’s own international propaganda efforts. This is not to say that Cabrera Infante gossips less than Arenas; in fact, Cabrera Infante gossips with remarkable avidity. Still, where Arenas builds his entire autobiography out of gossipy anecdotes, Cabrera Infante’s gossip is as much a question of style and tone as of the specific information he relays. There is, of course, plenty of explicit gossip in Cabrera Infante’s writing, especially in the political essays, written between the 1960s and the early 1990s and collected in 1992 in Mea Cuba and Vidas para leerlas, on which I here focus. Still, he gossips not only through carefully staged scenes and anecdotes but also through a near constant stream of tossed-off asides and insinuations, backhanded details, and self-indulgently vicious digressions. Gossip, in fact, is as much a part of Cabrera Infante’s literary style as the wordplay and puns for which he is better known.
Cabrera Infante does more than simply emulate the style and formal structure of gossip, however: he also puts juicy meat on its bones. We see vividly, in his ad hominem attacks, the “degeneration of argument into insult and accusation” that Jean Franco perceives in Cuban discourse more generally in the wake of the Padilla affair (96). We learn in passing, for instance, that Che Guevara had a speech impediment and that Fidel Castro habitually filched cigars. But we also learn the intimate secrets and personal quirks of countless Cuban literary and artistic figures, including many whom Cabrera Infante considered his friends and allies. In Vidas, for instance, he gleefully reveals that Piñera was known as much for his romantic trysts as for his literary works, and that Enrique Labrador Ruiz once drank Pablo Neruda under the table.16 Cabrera Infante makes no attempt to conceal the fact that his essays are woven from gossip. Vidas borrows its title from Plutarch, “but it isn’t comparable to the Plutarchian model—except in that Plutarch gave considerable importance to salon gossip and court rumors,” he remarks, adding parenthetically that Plutarch’s master, Herodotus, “was called in Greece not the father of history, but the king of gossip” (MCAD 807). The effect, in Vidas and elsewhere, is of a panorama of Cuban art and politics, with Cabrera Infante dispensing, through barbed and breezy gossip, his own superior knowledge of the significant figures of the postrevolutionary period.
This aspect of gossip—the promise of the inside scoop—is one that marks Cabrera Infante’s essays, not least because Cabrera Infante really did have a privileged view of the Cuban revolution and the early years of the postrevolutionary regime. As editor in chief of Lunes de revolución, Havana’s most celebrated cultural magazine, Cabrera Infante had a ringside seat for many of the defining moments of Cuba’s postrevolutionary cultural life: his brother codirected PM, the short film that sparked Castro’s clampdown on intellectual and artistic freedoms; he was present for Castro’s “Palabras a los intelectuales” speech; his work played a part in the Padilla affair; and so on. As Raymond D. Souza notes, Cabrera Infante’s firsthand knowledge of the period’s key literary and political figures “is enough to make a Cubanist weep” (82).17
Even from exile, Cabrera Infante remained in close contact with vast numbers of other Cubans writers and intellectuals, and worked hard to maintain his image as a “king of gossip” and source of inside information about happenings on the island. Those who visited his London apartment frequently came away having been pumped for information and pumped full of fresh gossip in return. In a letter to Cabrera Infante from 1967, Julio Cortázar acknowledges Cabrera Infante’s role as a gossip broker and marvels at the speed with which news travels to him from Havana: “I’ve heard plenty of talk of the ‘Arab telephone,’ but the Cuban beats it for (or by) a long chalk. One can speak of a script in Havana, and the name of its author will arrive in London before the speaker has returned to Paris, proving once more the truth of the profound adage that my aunts used to say: it’s a small world.” Gossip may turn a large world into a small one, but not all of Cabrera Infante’s friends were as appreciative of the writer’s tendency to gossip. In a letter from 1980, Manuel Puig chides Cabrera Infante for his excessive gossip and begs him to be more discreet: “I beg you not to disclose things about me that you’ve learned as a friend. [ . . . ] I know that these things stem from an anxious drive for general amusement, for continuous humor, but sometimes things get complicated.” In another letter, Yale professor Emir Rodríguez Monegal tells Cabrera Infante that he has urged Rita Guibert, the author of Seven Voices, to refrain from publishing gossip about Castro that Cabrera Infante had shared with her: “I talked with Rita Guibert about removing from your interview the phrase about certain of Fidel’s intimacies,” Rodríguez Monegal writes. “Your interview was too good to go into such details. Rita promised me she’d remove the blessed phrase.” Cabrera Infante’s implacable drive to gossip was not just well known to his friends and peers; it was a critical part of Cabrera Infante’s identity and hard-won public image, even if, as Puig and others recognized, it could also be intrusive, reckless, or even dangerous.
While Cabrera Infante’s gossip is grounded in the promise of the inside scoop, it also carries the implicit threat that those who ignore it will be made to look foolish or be deceived by pro-Castro propaganda. In one gossipy aside, Cabrera Infante suggests that revolutionary heroine Haydée Santamaría, the founder of Casa de las Américas, may not have been the brightest bulb in the box. “One time Haydée told me, and not in confidence: ‘What an ignorant, stupid peasant I am! I always thought that Marx and Engels were just one philosopher. Like Ortega y Gasset, you know,’ ” he reports (MCAD 538). But his point is not simply that Santamaría is dim-witted; it is that she is uncritical. He continues:
Of more relevance were Haydée’s revelations after returning from her first trip to Russia. She then trustingly confided in me: “In Moscow, I met Ekaterina Furtseva. You know, the minister of Culture. [ . . . ] She explained to me, woman to woman (or better, comrade to comrade), what happened to the writers and artists who died in the Stalin era. They didn’t kill them because they were hermetic poets, bourgeois novelists, and abstract painters. No. In truth, they had them shot because they were Nazi spies and not artists. How about that? All agents of Hitler! There was no solution but to exterminate them. Do you understand?” Yes, I understood. Ah, what an innocent and dangerous revolutionary she was! (MCAD 538)
The reader is invited to join Cabrera Infante in rolling their eyes at Santamaría’s credulity. But Cabrera Infante’s invitation contains a delicately veiled threat: you and I, gentle reader, know better than that, he implies—and thereby also insinuates that if readers reject his opinions or scorns his gossip, then they risk proving themselves as credulous and dim-witted as Santamaría.
This is, for Cabrera Infante, a two-way, adversarial process: just as he seeks to condemn and sideline those who allow themselves to be taken in by the Cuban state, so too he believes himself to be besieged by people who question his authority. An exchange of letters in the London Review of Books following the publication of “Infante’s Inferno” in 1982 makes this clear. The Cuban poet Pedro Perez Sarduy writes rejecting Cabrera Infante’s characterizations of Cuba under Castro and questioning Cabrera Infante’s ability to accurately depict the island from exile: “I had recently arrived in England from Havana and was amazed that someone who for over fifteen years had been out of his native country, Cuba—my country—should attempt the remembrance of things for him long passed. I was especially amazed since Guillermito, as he was known in his early satiric days, was one of those writers who never did know what happened.” Perez Sarduy goes on to quote Padilla’s denunciation of Cabrera Infante as “a social misfit par excellence, a man of the humblest extraction” and to mock Padilla and Cabrera Infante for gossiping in exile. “Now, in a different time and space, they whisper secrets to each other over the phone,” he writes. Finally, he bemoans the ease with which Cabrera Infante wins attention by gossiping about the Castro government. “Guillermo Cabrera Infante is not only a much-embittered and out-of-touch man now: he never did know what happened in Cuba,” he insists. Cabrera Infante, unwilling to let such challenges to his credibility go unanswered, fired back a letter labeling Perez Sarduy a nobody, with no inside knowledge or personal connections upon which to draw. “Who is Pedro Pérez, and why is he saying these ludicrous things about me? He claims he knew me as Cain but I swear I don’t know him from Adam,” he writes in his response in 1983. He then seeks to turn the attack into a sign of the degree to which his own gossip has gotten under Castro’s skin—thus affirming his own authority—and to cast Perez as a proxy for the regime. “His letter I do recognise, though. It’s the typical production of the apparatchik: a massive missive made in Moscow[. . . . ] I enjoy detecting the hidden Goebbels in every party political broadcast.”
This conceit—that Cabrera Infante’s gossip is so urgent and important that it represents a festering thorn in Fidel Castro’s side, and that any criticism is therefore part of a pushback orchestrated by the regime—is one to which Cabrera Infante returns time and again throughout his political writing. Sometimes he suggests that he is at risk not just of getting hauled over the coals in literary journals but of more sinister and dangerous attacks. When Cabrera Infante’s London apartment is mysteriously broken into—and nothing taken, despite valuables having been left openly on display—he decides that Castro is behind the episode, and compares himself to Georgy Markov, the Bulgarian exile killed by the KGB with a ricin-tipped umbrella. There is obviously some distance between a break-in, however mysterious, and a political assassination. Still, by framing Markov as a fellow gossip, killed after disclosing “a series of intimate revelations about the life and miseries of the unnamable Bulgarian tyrant,” Cabrera Infante seeks to share in the “aura of James Bond” that marked the media’s portrayal of the Markov case (MCAD 470–71). The risk of retaliation is real, Cabrera Infante insists: “To presume that Castro governs only within Cuba is to refuse to admit that a political exile is a fleeing enemy to whom is extended not a silver bridge, but a long arm that can reach him anywhere,” he warns darkly (MCAD 468–69). Nonetheless, he flaunts his unwillingness to be silenced. “I’m only worried about the fate of my family, stranded in Cuba [ . . . ]. But I had to speak, and to begin to tell these things,” he insists (MCAD 480).
Despite Cabrera Infante’s ostentatious performance of courage in the face of danger, however, he is chiefly threatened by reputational attacks, not ricin-tipped umbrellas. He repeatedly claims that Castro has worked, directly or indirectly, to slander him and obscure his contributions to Cuban letters. After Cabrera Infante’s break with the regime in 1968, the official periodical of the Cuban military, Verde olivo, published a litany of personal attacks, suggesting that Cabrera Infante had relied on nepotism to have his work published, accusing him of collaborating with the CIA, and noting primly that only a debauched mind could have dreamed up the drunks, junkies, and prostitutes that populate the Havana of Tres tristes tigres (Avila 22). It would be easy enough for Cabrera Infante to brush off such partisan attacks were it not for what they signified: not just one critic’s disapproval but the regime’s determination to make his works disappear. Over the years that followed, the arbiters of Cuban culture did their best to airbrush Cabrera Infante from the country’s literary history, and he was pointedly excised from the Diccionario de la literatura cubana (Venegas 109). Such attacks, for Cabrera Infante, carried a real sting: “Nothing kills a writer like being forgotten,” he laments (MCAD 913).
The state’s totalitarian impulse for narrative control, Cabrera Infante suggests, can be enacted through force in Cuba but must be achieved through more subtle means in the international public sphere. “Nothing works in Cuba besides two things: the police and propaganda. The police for the interior, propaganda for the exterior,” he writes (MCAD 779). Writers on the island and the manuscripts left behind by exiles are entirely within Castro’s power, Cabrera Infante asserts, declaring himself “truly worried” about the unpublished works of writers such as Piñera and Arenas, which he claims will be left to rot in a basement of the State Security building known to insiders as “Siberia” (MCAD 553). Even writers who have fled the island are still within reach of Castro’s propaganda machine—a machine, Cabrera Infante makes clear, that is itself fueled by gossip. Cabrera Infante details Castro lashing out, two decades after Carlos Franqui’s 1968 break with Cuba, with “mere gossip” about Franqui having abandoned his mother (MCAD 634). The reputational attack is intended, Cabrera Infante claims, as a warning shot, a means of silencing Franqui: “But why slander Franqui now and not then? The answer is simple. Franqui has just finished a portrait of Fidel Castro with all his warts. Franqui knows his model very well, and knows many private stories and can tell them. There is no other reason for the current mendacity” (MCAD 634). The Castro regime deploys gossip and defamation, Cabrera Infante argues, as means of keeping exiles tangled in its web. But despite being erased from official photographs and subjected to personal attacks, Franqui—like Cabrera Infante, the reader is surely meant to realize—bravely responds with gossip of his own. His Retrato de familia con Fidel (1981) contained “scoops and news, some of them sensational,” Cabrera Infante writes, including an account of Castro, piqued at being sidelined during the Cuban missile crisis, muscling his way to a control panel and personally launching missiles at an American spy plane (MCAD 642–43). The widely reported anecdote tarnished Castro’s carefully cultivated image, and Cabrera Infante retells it with the theatrical enjoyment of a street-corner gossip passing on a juicy bit of hearsay.
This brings to the fore a paradoxical aspect of Cabrera Infante’s use of gossip: while he does share plenty of firsthand information, he also stakes his credibility on his ability to recirculate stories told to him by others. The official account is mere propaganda, he insists, so only through personal reports—whispered accounts smuggled out of Cuba by, or to, exiles such as Cabrera Infante—can international observers learn the true nature of Castro’s revolution. Cabrera Infante also stresses the regime’s efforts to repress gossip in Cuba, thus increasing his own value as a gossip broker. In passing on information about the shooting of Trotskyites and Catholics, for instance, Cabrera Infante credits the writer Calvert Casey, emphasizing that Casey heard it “on good authority” through “clandestine connections” (MCAD 850) and was punished for what he disclosed. In a similar episode that Cabrera Infante relays in a 1981 London Review of Books article, Casey suffers for spilling the beans about Castro’s persecution of homosexuals:
Even poor, peaceful Calvert Casey got into trouble when he dared tell a Mexican writer of the Left, just one more political tourist, that there were camps for homosexuals all over Cuba, and they were not exactly summer camps. This was a carefully guarded secret which Calvert knew about through the gay grapevine. Next morning, as in a guilty hangover, the Mexican tipped off Haydée Santamaria that she had counter-revolutionaries in her house, who told tales, very dangerous lies for Casa de las Americas. He whispered a gringo name, Casey. Calvert was severely reprimanded and demoted. (BC)
Cabrera Infante shows Casey relying on gossip to both discover and disclose the regime’s secrets—and ultimately paying the price for doing so, thanks to the whispers of an informant. The only gossip that is permitted, Cabrera Infante claims, is that of neighbors who reveal one another’s secrets to the government. “Castro has forced the Cuban people to become snitches,” he writes. “He has created a Cuban version of the Nazi Blockwarts in the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, in which each Cuban is forced to spy on their neighbor, the children on their parents, and each one on the other” (MCAD 753). Cabrera Infante here closely tracks Ponte’s description of the spying that takes place between neighbors in Castro’s Cuba, as discussed in chapter 1. Still, where Ponte wryly compares prying neighbors to official security forces, Cabrera Infante draws a comparison with Nazi Germany, in a gesture designed to paint the revolution in the starkest possible terms before his global audience. There are no shades of gray here: to memorialize, for Cabrera Infante, is also to sensationalize, and thereby inject his own thoroughly partisan understanding of the revolution into the public sphere.
The counterhistory that Cabrera Infante assembles through gossipy, one-sided, and often rather histrionic anecdotes has not always been well received. In a July 1981 letter to the London Review of Books, where one of Mea Cuba’s lengthiest essays originally appeared, Nissa Torrents and Christopher Abel complain: “His article is littered with unsupported assertions and is heavily reliant upon gossip and hearsay that would be inadmissible as evidence in the analysis of any political system. [ . . . ] He tends to confuse fiction with a personal attack on the regime that sinks even to the banalities of describing his opponents as ‘paunchy’ and ‘bald.’ [ . . . ] Indeed, the author of the article undermines his own case by trivialising points that he clearly considers important.” Cabrera Infante’s article, the letter concludes, is “merely a catalogue of undisguised prejudices by an idiosyncratic author whose private likes and dislikes are presented as political journalism.” Torrents and Abel correctly identify Cabrera Infante’s method but misinterpret his goal: he seeks not to offer a balanced analysis of the Cuban situation but rather to gossip about, and against, Castro’s regime. Read as gossip, Cabrera Infante’s diatribe makes much more sense; in this light, we come to understand not just his offhandedly partisan attitude but also the political calculations behind his approach.
Cabrera Infante’s discussion of the Castro regime’s persecution of homosexuals, for instance, is mapped through insinuations and insults; he describes the policies as stemming from an “infamous collective illness” marked by “an obsession with queers, queens and kinks” that originates with Fidel Castro himself. “Why this ‘pathological’ aberration? Fidel Castro is, as gays in the United States like to say with terrible grammar, mucho macho,” Cabrera Infante writes. “On the other hand, Che Guevara considered homosexuals to be sick people who must give way to the politically healthy ‘new man’ made by Communist Cuba” (BC). The implication, echoing Arenas, is that the ostentatious performance of machismo by Castro and Guevara, and the revolution’s persecution of gays, speaks to an unvoiced insecurity: in short, the revolution is queerer than it looks. Like Arenas, too, Cabrera Infante pivots from insinuation to undiluted gossip: “There are multiple levels of irony here. The other Guevara, Alfredo, was a notorious fag, protected by Fidel’s own brother, Raul Castro,” he writes. Gossip becomes an argument as well as an attack: by gossiping about the regime’s tolerance of well-connected homosexuals, Cabrera Infante makes the case that its anti-gay policies stem not from ideological imperatives, but merely from the whims and prejudices of hypocritical officials.
This is a critical aspect of Cabrera Infante’s gossip: it is not mere logorrhea but rather a serious political gesture (or, as Wiegmink might argue, a performance) intended to gain attention, generate controversy, and establish Cabrera Infante’s own status in both the exile community and the international public sphere. The backlash against his gossip thus became a confirmation of his significance; indeed, the criticism leveled by Torrents and Abel was precisely the kind of literary ruckus that Cabrera Infante had been hoping to stir up. In a 1981 letter to Rodríguez Monegal, he brags about plans to republish “Bites from the Bearded Crocodile” in Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Spain, and notes the resistance to his article: “I’m sending you, too, a photocopy of one of the letters (typical castrista professor, like those you’ve suffered) and my answer,” he wrote. “These people never seem to learn that if you mess with us [ . . . ] you’d better be careful.” Cabrera Infante’s jeering, gossipy prose, it seems, was meant to stick in the craws of his castrista critics and to provoke violent reactions that would get Cabrera Infante’s message noticed on the global stage. During the 1960s, in fact, Cabrera Infante used precisely this strategy to secure a wider audience. In 1968, he wrote to Life en español editor Alberto Cellario pitching a polemical article on Cuban cultural affairs. “I’ve accumulated so many facts, so much material, and have a knowledge not only first-hand but from being the originator of many of these incidents and revelations,” he assured Cellario, continuing: “If you want I can send the Primera Plana articles, the attacks, my answers, etc., etc.” Once again, Cabrera Infante promises the inside scoop: the envisioned article, he writes, “would deal specifically with a sensitive angle that has never been touched on by anyone who studies the Revolution.” Cabrera Infante here makes clear that his own inside knowledge and the controversies that his writing generates go hand in hand. He is also frank about his ambitions: Life en español would be attractive “for the reach it would give and the penetration it would grant to my documents and allegations,” he explains.
Cabrera Infante’s insistence on his credibility, and on the accuracy of his depictions of the Castro regime, repeatedly leads him to clash with writers who view Castro’s Cuba through a more forgiving lens. One such case is the British writer Graham Greene, whom Cabrera Infante depicts in his writing as a dupe suckered into becoming a “faithful servant” of Castro’s propaganda machine (MCAD 989). Elsewhere, he is more explicit: “Greene chose to be inimical to Batista and amicable with Castro for religious reasons. He sees himself as Castro’s paraclete, whereas he is only the devil’s advocate,” he writes (II). Greene, he suggests, allowed himself to be seduced by Castro’s romantic image and to imagine himself an insider—but he was, in Cabrera Infante’s telling, only ever a useful idiot, an outsider put to work to polish the global public image of the Castro regime.
To establish the inadequacy of Greene’s knowledge of Cuba, Cabrera Infante follows his usual methods, first claiming personal insight into Greene’s time in Cuba: “I know, because it was I who arranged Greene’s first meeting with Castro,” he brags (MCAD 694).18 In contrast, Cabrera Infante suggests, Greene is a mere interloper, with only the crudest understanding of the Cuban situation. Cabrera Infante mocks Greene for his insistence on calling key Cuban figures by their first name—Fidel, Haydée—as a means of suggesting familiarity with the island. Greene suggests Cubans refer to their leaders by their first names as a sign of affection; in fact, Cabrera Infante asserts, Cubans are simply terrified of being seen as opposing Castro. “One of the most hideous tyrants in America ever, the Mexican Porfirio Díaz, was always called respectfully by Mexicans Don Porfirio: only enemies called him Porfirio,” Cabrera Infante notes (II). Such nuances, however, are lost on outsiders. Greene sees but does not understand, Cabrera Infante suggests—the corollary to his attack being that to truly grasp the reality of the Cuban nation, we need the guidance of an insider such as Cabrera Infante himself.
Cabrera Infante seeks to further diminish Greene by firing off a flurry of barbed digs and fragments of gossip. Cabrera Infante mocks Greene’s friendship with the Soviet defector Kim Philby and writes scathingly of how Greene regaled Castro during one of their meetings with tales of how he used to play Russian roulette as a young man. The tale reflects poorly on Greene, who toyed with suicide at an age when most young men “play more vital games,” Cabrera Infante writes (MCAD 655). Cabrera Infante also repeatedly mocks Greene’s depiction of Batista’s Cuba as a pleasure island packed with casinos and brothels. Greene himself spent plenty of time and money in Batista’s Cuba, Cabrera Infante claims, and now writes “like a Victorian moralist (one of those who would hide their perverse sex beneath the Macferlan of their good manners)” (MCAD 695). In the English version of Mea Cuba, Cabrera Infante adds that Greene divined Cuba’s moral shortcomings using “Aaron’s rod”—a mocking biblical reference, but also a phallic, Lawrencian euphemism intended to suggest Greene’s alleged hypocrisy and past debauchery (MC 295).
Here, once more, Cabrera Infante blurs the line between revelatory gossip and ad hominem attacks. The adversarialism continues in the letters that followed the publication of Cabrera Infante’s article, with Greene himself scolding Cabrera Infante for various errors: “When one attacks one should get one’s facts correct. This Mr Cabrera has failed to do,” he writes tersely (“Letters: “Cain’s Cuba”). Characteristically, Cabrera Infante’s response is more verbose: “Cuba is more than somebody else’s facts. She is my constant concern. But Greene, like many modern writers, confuses facts with truth. He of all people should know that the Gospels are revealed truth—but are they fact? Moreover, he seems to believe that dates are facts. Is the year Jesus was born faith or fact? For a doubting Catholic, Greene reveals himself to be as factual as a materialist” (“Letters: Cain’s Cuba”). Elsewhere, Cabrera Infante claims that his original article “provoked a tantrum by Graham Greene, who tried to defend the indefensible: Fidel Castro’s obscene political presence” (MCAD 695). As before, Cabrera Infante sees Greene’s anger, and his own response, as a vindication of his methods. Writing about the episode in the English translation of Mea Cuba, where he reproduced his response to Greene, he claims that Greene was “totally rebuked” by his reply (MC 308). He concludes with another first-person anecdote, about a time the pair crossed paths at a bookstore owned by Greene’s brother, where Greene was attending a party. “There, front and center, tall, looking more than ever like a fish-faced phony, was Greene with a glass of wine in his hand,” Cabrera Infante writes.19 “Before turning around and going back to the street, I saw his bloodless face redden. Did he fear a real slap rather than a literary one? Or was it the wine?” (MCAD 695). The episode is told through gossip, but the aim is clear: to depict Greene as cowed—and perhaps more important, speechless—in the face of Cabrera Infante’s truth telling. Through a personal attack, Cabrera Infante aims to establish himself as the only credible source of information about the reality of Cuban life under Castro, and to ensure that it will be his account that endures to shape Cuba’s perception in the public sphere.
Cabrera Infante may not have demolished Greene’s vision of Cuba quite as effectively as he claims. In a broader sense, however, he was largely successful in giving reach and traction to his account of the Cuban revolution: a great many of Cabrera Infante’s tales have now become widely accepted and repeated parts of the revolution’s folklore. In disseminating his own versions of events, however, Cabrera Infante also seeks to force his readers to address the Cuban revolution on moral rather than ideological terms. As he writes, “My position is an extreme moral, not political, opposition” (MCAD 759). Gossip is well suited to this project: to gossip, after all, is a collaborative act that not only renders judgment but also presumes moral alignment between its participants. Cabrera Infante’s texts, by drawing the reader in with gossipy anecdotes and the promise of privileged insights, seek to foster a complicity that will ultimately give way to shared outrage and incite what Rafael Rojas calls “a moral reaction to political barbarism” (Tumbas 35). This may involve a turning away from philosophical debate about the merits of communism, but it is far from apolitical. Cabrera Infante accuses the Castro government of engaging in “politics through other means: hooliganism” (MCAD 790), and in fact Cabrera Infante uses gossip as a key tool of his own politically charged gamberrada, or hooliganism: a way to scrawl dissenting messages in opposition to the Castro government and to hoot and jeer back at the foreign intellectuals whom he sees as helping to shore up the regime’s global image. Cabrera Infante is dismissive of the foreign intellectuals who oppose him, writing that “to stir up such bochinche isn’t to take a stand against me or what I write, but rather to be against liberty in a free country” (MCAD 790). But bochinche—here used in the sense of a ruckus, though still one incited by gossip—is actually something Cabrera Infante directly seeks to inspire. Just as Mouffe suggests that the artist obtains political significance “by subverting the dominant hegemony and by contributing to the construction of new subjectivities” (5), so Cabrera Infante sees his ability to spark angry debate as a direct blow against the narrative hegemony of the Castro regime and as generating precisely the kind of messy narrative pluralism that, in Cuba, he sees as effectively suppressed by the Castro government.
This, in fact, is the foremost role of gossip in Cabrera Infante’s political writing: a means of stirring up trouble and of undermining too-generous or too-credulous readings of the Cuban revolution by those outside the island. In an essay from Mea Cuba, Cabrera Infante ponders the absence of dissident writers in the communist countries of Eastern Europe and argues that Cuba, similarly stricken by silence, “has become a Latin American Albania.” He continues: “But few foreigners know this. Political hell is paved with the ignorance of strangers. The Holocaust was fully known only after the war. The gulags were publicised only after the death of Stalin. The atrocities of Castro, not all of them literary, will be known in full only after his demise, whenever that may be” (BC). Cabrera Infante once more compares Castro’s excesses to those of the Nazis in the hope of eliciting a visceral reaction from his foreign readers. Such acts of radical hyperbole may sometimes have backfired, making Cabrera Infante easier to dismiss as a crank, but it is indicative of the urgency underpinning his project. Through gossip, he aims to supply insights that would otherwise come to light only after the fall of the communist government. Cabrera Infante describes Castro as “a crude actor” playing his version of Macbeth “to the largest captive audience in the Americas” (BC). But the audience, he suggests, extends beyond the island and encompasses the credulous onlookers in foreign parts who applaud while the Cuban tragedy unfolds. Through the moral charge and scrappy adversarialism of gossip, Cabrera Infante seeks to disrupt the performance: to hiss and holler and to force others to join him or shout him down. His goal in gossiping is to problematize, to provoke, and ultimately to substitute outrage and angry debate for credulous acquiescence.
The Historical and the Everyday: A Small Place
Arenas and Cabrera Infante are not the only Caribbean intellectuals to appeal to gossip in order to mobilize public sympathy and intervene in the public sphere. Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad, was renowned for his mastery of informal, almost casual oratory, and his ability to keep a crowd enthralled as he wove gossip, history, and politics together into a single compelling countercolonial narrative. Thanks to his grasp on populist oratory, writes Spencer Mawby, “no other anti-colonial politician was better qualified to question the truthfulness of the uplifting imperial stories which the British liked to tell to themselves and to the colonized” (31). The Barbadian novelist George Lamming offers a widely quoted summary of Williams’s populist appeal: “He turned history, the history of the Caribbean, into gossip so that the story of a people’s predicament seemed no longer the infinite barren track of documents, dates and texts. Everything became news: slavery, colonization, the forgivable deception of metropolitan rule, the sad and inevitable unawareness of native production. His lectures retained always the character of whisper which everyone was allowed to hear, a rumor which experience had established as truth” (731).20 Cabrera Infante and Williams were very different figures, operating in different political contexts and with different goals; still, there are similarities in their approaches. In his best-known speech, the “Massa Day Done” address given in Woodford Square in 1961, Williams seeks to personalize Trinidad’s social and economic history, offering a detailed account of the “Massa” who extracted personal wealth from Trinidadian society and offered little in return. Williams weaves in gossipy details—the “Massa” who gave his name to a beach and then returned to England to worship in the same church as his ancestors, the “Massa” who fiercely protested limits on floggings, and so forth—in order to grab his audience’s attention and lead them through his argument for Trinidadian nationalism. Williams’s collage of historical anecdotes, filtered through gossipy oratory, is remarkably similar to Cabrera Infante’s own approach in the historical vignettes of Vista del amanecer en el trópico (1981). Williams’s approach, with its composite subject, is arguably more a rhetorical or oratorical flourish, a stratagem, than true gossip; still, as we have seen, Cabrera Infante’s use of gossip is also very much a stratagem, and one deployed to similar if not identical effect.
Where Arenas and Cabrera Infante used gossip to insert themselves into an international public sphere, however, Williams uses gossip to shape the local, Trinidadian public sphere and to carry his audience along with him as he pushes back against the imposed logic and power structures of empire. Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988) has something of both approaches, using gossip to stage both an angry outward-facing critique of the neocolonial forces she sees at work in the Antiguan tourism trade, and a finger-pointing attack on Antigua’s troubled domestic politics. Its first two sections present a disdainful reflection on the impact of rich, white tourists on the tiny island of Antigua; its third, read by some scholars as a reward for white readers who persevere through the first two essays, is an equally embittered reflection on the failings of the island’s black political elites. All three sections of the book, as Nalini Natarajan remarks, use gossip—chiefly, in Natarajan’s reading, to forge a fragmentary and deliberately inconsistent account of Antigua’s political reality. The island nation, Natarajan suggests, is “imagined through an epistemology of doubt” that is “especially noteworthy in the pages that describe the horrors of neo-colonial politics, not as a fact, but as a tourist attraction related in town gossip” (130). She continues: “Gossip is the medium of the text’s relentless tirades (against the enemies of Antigua, domestic and colonial); fragmented information (about the doctors, the politicians, the businessmen), repetition (the Library, corruption, colonial atrocities), rumours (the horror stories of domestic violence). [ . . . ] The fragmented telling, the petty prejudices, the mistakes and inconsistencies, the trivial details, the lack of proof in many of the judgments made make this all a very non-authoritarian, non-positivist imagining of nation” (130–31). Where Natarajan sees gossip as fundamentally “unliterary” and opposed to the radical certainties of the printed word, I prefer to read Kincaid’s project as one of scandalization. Natarajan is correct to perceive some of the oral markers of gossip in Kincaid’s text, but it is in the content of Kincaid’s “relentless tirades” and rumors that gossip’s presence can most clearly be seen: not the accessible, populist patter of Williams’s speeches, but rather an accumulation of accusations and shocking details intended to serve as spurs to a complacent readership.
Kincaid’s short but discomfiting piece is simultaneously accusatory and ashamed, and determined to bring into the light all the untold secrets and failings of Antiguan society and politics. Kincaid suggests that the white tourist, with whom her reader is expected to identify, is the unwitting subject of gossip, mocked by local Antiguans for their accent and appearance, their way of eating, even their intimate habits. “They collapse helpless from laughter, mimicking the way they imagine you must look as you carry out some everyday bodily function. They do not like you,” she writes (A Small Place 17). Structurally, gossip depends upon having a specific, identified subject; here, Kincaid makes the reader that subject, in a narrative twist that both generates an affective charge and demands that the reader consider his or her own relationship to, or complicity in, the scandals being described. Kincaid also uses gossip, or something very like it, to skewer and deflate the various prominent white figures of Antigua’s colonial past. As J. Brooks Bouson notes, the English heroes who gave their names to the streets are revealed by Kincaid to be “maritime criminals,” while Princess Margaret is described as “putty-faced” and the Barclay brothers are cast as former slave traders (99). But it is in the third section of A Small Place, when Kincaid turns her cannons inward and fires broadside after broadside against the island’s black political leaders, that gossip truly comes to the fore. This, she makes clear, is a public accounting of the island’s open secrets and the scandals already on the lips of native Antiguans. “As Kincaid’s speaker assumes the role of the insider-informant and talebearer, the reader becomes a kind of eavesdropper on island gossip about governmental corruption,” Bouson writes (104). In staging the things that Antiguans say about their government officials, Kincaid’s text also serves as a condemnation of the fact that their words, their gossip, fails to ignite into political action. Kincaid reflects at some length on why, exactly, Antiguans’ gossip about government corruption does not spark a political awakening. Part of the reason, she suggests, is that in Antigua, the scandalization of the everyday makes the scandalization of larger events less compelling. “In a small place, people cultivate small events,” she writes. “The small event is isolated, blown up, turned over and over, and then absorbed into the everyday, so that at any moment it can and will roll off the inhabitants of the small place’s tongues. For the people in a small place, every event is a domestic event” (A Small Place 52). Gossip amplifies the everyday, but historical events are also discussed in the same register and with the same narrow, personal focus. Slavers’ flotillas are remembered as if they landed only yesterday; the abuses suffered under slavery, the broken families and beatings and deaths, are equally present and personal. “Then they speak of emancipation itself as if it happened just the other day, not over one hundred and fifty years ago,” Kincaid writes. “The word ‘emancipation’ is used so frequently, it is as if it, emancipation, were a contemporary occurrence, something everybody is familiar with” (55). But where Williams used gossip to make historical events more acutely felt, Kincaid perceives in Antiguans’ gossipy relationship with history a kind of flattening: an amplification of the mundane and trivial, and a failure to manifest the proper outrage about the historical situations and government excesses of which she writes. “In Antigua, not only is the event turned into everyday but the everyday is turned into an event,” Kincaid asserts (56). This bilateral transformation leads to Antiguans “not knowing why they are the way they are and why they do the things they do” and makes it impossible to “put in their proper place everyday and event, so that exceptional amounts of energy aren’t expended on the trivial, while the substantial and the important are assembled (artfully) into a picture story (‘He did this and then he did that’)” (57). Gossip, in Kincaid’s reading, serves to exaggerate the trivial and to collapse the truly momentous into something mundane: worth chattering about, but not worth acting upon.
The gossip of the Antiguan street corner, Kincaid argues, thus comes to seem childlike, or even like a form of insanity. It stands apart from the political life of the island, unmoored, as though—like the townsfolk of Crónica de una muerte anunciada—Antiguans have mistaken gossip for action. The gossip of the islanders, which Kincaid so carefully relays, is if not the cause then at least a sign of the paralysis and hapless disempowerment that Kincaid perceives in Antiguans’ response to the tourism industry and the corrupt government that it sustains. “They say these things, pausing to take breath before this monument to rottenness, that monument to rottenness, as if they were tour guides; as if, having observed the event of tourism, they have absorbed it so completely that they have made the degradation and humiliation of their daily lives into their own tourist attraction,” she writes (68–69). The irony, of course, is that Kincaid herself is both gossip and tour guide. Indeed, the two facets of Kincaid’s authorial persona are here directly related. It is through gossip that Kincaid reveals her island’s shameful secrets, in an indictment both of Antigua’s corrupt leaders and of the tourists who blithely sun themselves without realizing that anything is amiss. But Kincaid, unlike the islanders of whom she writes, is not simply chattering to other Antiguans: she is writing outward, addressing her text directly to the “white people in the suburbs” (Cudjoe 401) who visit Antigua’s resorts—and who read the New Yorker, the publication for which Kincaid originally wrote A Small Place. Kincaid frames her account as a revelation of family secrets, intimacies to which foreign visitors are not usually privy; her disclosures are thus very much in the register of gossip, and were perceived as such by her fellow islanders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kincaid’s text initially met with a strongly negative reception in Antigua. “One thing Antiguans said about A Small Place: ‘It’s true, but did she have to say it?’ ” Kincaid later said. “No one says that it’s a lie; the disagreement is did I have to say it” (“Interview” 499). Like Arenas and Cabrera Infante, Kincaid also experienced pushback from the government; her book was suppressed in Antigua, and Kincaid herself was “informally banned” from the island (Bernard 129). Still, Kincaid writes not primarily for her compatriots but for a global audience. By publishing the gossip of her native island, she challenges foreigners—Americans especially, but also the English—to consider their own complicity in Antigua’s postcolonial plight, and seeks thereby to raise awareness of the island’s political corruption on the global stage.
The efforts of Antigua’s government to punish Kincaid for her outspoken criticism were muted by comparison with the ad hominem assault launched against Graham Greene by Haiti’s government after the publication of The Comedians in 1966. Like Kincaid, Greene wrote his novel, along with numerous newspaper columns and letters, in a bid to increase international awareness of the wrongs he perceived. In so doing, however, he sparked a reputational conflict, mediated through vituperative gossip, into which François Duvalier himself entered with gusto. I will return to this point, but first it seems important to ask: Why was it necessary (or why did it seem so to Greene) for a foreign writer to address Haiti’s struggles? If gossip offers a potent and accessible tool with which writers can shape international narratives and insert themselves into the global public sphere, why was it Greene, rather than a Haitian writer, who sought to draw back the curtain on the Duvalier regime? In Cuba and, as detailed in the next chapter, in the Dominican Republic, the authoritarian impulse to exert a narrative monopoly made gossip a vital resource for exiled and dissident writers. Haiti endured back-to-back dictatorships and shares many of the social and postcolonial tensions that mark the Hispanic Caribbean. Where, then, are the gossiping dissidents of Haitian literature?
To begin to answer this question, it is first important to acknowledge that Haitian writers have been far less forceful than their counterparts from other Caribbean nations in writing back against authoritarianism. As Dash notes, Haiti and its diaspora “never managed to produce outstanding treatments of political dictatorship” to rival the “far more accomplished novels in Spanish” (“Exile and Recent Literature” 458). Even within the circumscribed efforts at dictatorship novels and other dissident fiction that have marked the Haitian and exilic fiction of the Duvalier eras, however, gossip plays a smaller role than it does in Cuban or Dominican literature. This may be in part simply because Duvalier cracked down harder and earlier on writers than did Castro or Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, leading the vast majority to flee the nation. For Cabrera Infante and Arenas, Cuba remained a fundamentally vibrant island filled with people trying to hustle and gossip their way through the perils of the Castro regime; for many Haitian exiles, in contrast, the nation was seen as a husk, with little bilateral communication and little love lost between exiled intellectuals and the handful of writers who remained behind. The result, Dash writes, was “an unbridgeable gap of mutual suspicion and distrust [ . . . ] between those who write in exile and those who are du dedans” (Literature and Ideology 207). If transatlantic gossip allowed Cabrera Infante, exiled in London, to keep his finger on the pulse of Havana’s literary and political happenings, the same was hardly the case for most Haitian exiles in Paris or Montreal.
Indeed, the literary vacuum left by the flight of writers and intellectuals gave rise to an exile community that viewed the nation they had fled in bleak terms. René Depestre’s long exile “led him to despair for Haiti,” Dash writes, and to come to view it as “a world of vermin and dust where only the living dead survive” (“Engagement, Exile and Errance” 750). For writers such as Depestre, direct engagement with this perceived wasteland was simply too painful to contemplate; in Le Mât de cocagne (1979), for instance, Depestre uses allegory not to obliquely recover the country lost in exile but rather to create still more distance. “It is as if the brutal excesses of Duvalier’s Haiti are too painful to present without the comforting yet distorting lens of allegory,” Martin Munro writes (Exile 103). Anthony Phelps, in his 1968 poem “Mon pays que voici,” makes a similar point when he writes: “Ô mon Pays si triste est la saison / qu’il est venu le temps de se parler par signes” (“O, my country, so sad is the season / that the time has come to speak in signs”). The need for distance, the urge to speak in signs, is antithetical to the stark, intimate specificities in which gossip deals; one cannot gossip without speaking directly.
Georges Anglade, who was imprisoned in the 1970s and subsequently spent many years in exile, alludes to Phelps’s poem in his 2006 lodyan “Les couverts de trop,” which charts Haiti’s descent into a silence that Anglade suggests began early in the Duvalier era. Tens of thousands of people, he claims, now quietly set a place at their table for those who have disappeared, an “act of duty to their memory” that “had spread all the more rapidly since it was the last way of speaking of them. By signs” (209).21 He continues, in a powerful passage worth quoting at length:
People were falling like flies. First the peddlers of political gossip, public chatterers in perpetual motion who had experienced their moment of glory during a long and hectic presidential campaign. Their flood of information, mostly false, delighted the galleries and tonnelles. In every camp they batted with bits of gossip, especially ones that hit below the belt. Those among them who did not realize quickly enough afterward, once the new government was installed, that gossiping so openly was becoming a highly risky occupation, paid for it with their disappearance. One day, just like that, vanished into thin air. And the trade itself disappeared, since there was no one left to carry it on. Then the gossip-mongers, who had been mere amateurs, gave way to the professional tattletales, trained infiltrators who prompted the revelation of rumors and secrets everywhere. The government lay in ambush, having organized a great word-hunt. Fear swooped down upon the square-shaped city. People had to be wary of what they said, even in other people’s dreams, and that is not merely a way of speaking. The tale was told, in great detail, that a careless man mentioned that he had dreamed of hatching a plot with a few of his acquaintances. The whole group vanished. It’s true!
Commonplace phrases went back into service. The walls have ears, Discretion is the better part of valor, When the candles are out, all cats are gray, There’s no cowardice in taking precautions . . . were no longer figures of speech. People thought they saw ears growing on walls. Only whispering survived. The tattletales, who had replaced the rumor-mongers, gave way to hard-line informers. Spies. Calumny triumphed over even the slightest, most discreet lip movements. Arbitrary accusations of coups d’état and conspiracies were made up out of whole cloth, by the dozens. Even the dogs stopped barking at night. It’s almost true!
During those cursed times, since every word was suspect and all speech monitored, as was usual, each of us took refuge in puns and word play in order to exorcise our fear of the executioners: a sign of the times, this time of signs, we would chant when the heat was on, from the moment when an inspired poet had been fortunate enough to create a triptych on how sad is the season / when the time has come / to speak to each other with signs. The only thing that remained was the gesture around the table, with teeth clenched. (209–10)
But the silence, and the gestural allegorization of suffering, is not something that ended with the fall of the Duvalier dynasty. In fact, Anglade argues, silence has become a defining characteristic of Haitians, with speech itself understood through its risks as presaging “the rapid arrival of a long silence” inflicted by the powerful on the merely glib. “For there are a good two dozen ways of cleverly characterizing speech (to be silenced) in a country where taciturnity passes for profundity and gloom for strategy,” he writes (395). Anglade makes a similar point in “La galerie des huit portraits à grands traits,” in which he describes the differences between native-born Haitians and those born in diaspora: “I finally understood that the answer lay not in what they were saying. Their difference lay in the fact that they were speaking,” he writes. “For just as speaking in order to say what one truly thinks, to differentiate oneself, to propose, to explore . . . is promoted in their culture, so our culture puts a premium on keeping silent at all times and in all places” (369). The point is a telling one: for Anglade and many other Haitian exiles, silence was too ingrained, too hard-learned a lesson, to simply shrug off after leaving the country.22
The relative scarcity of gossip in Haitian texts of the period may also be in part due to linguistic and cultural specificities. Haiti has been studied as a Francophone nation, and most of its literature is in French, but the business of daily life, for the vast majority of Haitians, is conducted in Creole. Literature and gossip are thus separated by a linguistic rift (itself also a social rift) that, though by no means insurmountable, may have made gossip a less obvious and readily available resource for the country’s predominantly Francophone writers. To the extent that Creole has been embraced by younger Haitian writers, meanwhile, it typically comes at the expense of their entry into the international public sphere.23 Even those writers who use Creole, however, typically make fairly limited use of gossip as a narrative strategy and fall back on similar strategies of defensive distancing to those used by their counterparts who write in French. Frankétienne’s Dézafi (1975), the first novel written in Creole, allegorizes the Duvalier regime by describing its protagonist’s zombification by a Vodou sorcerer and his subsequent awakening and instigation of a zombi rebellion. In both Dézafi and Frankétienne’s French rewriting, Les Affres d’un défi (1979), Haitians are allegorized as subsumed in a silenced, zombified collective, reduced to guttural grunts instead of meaningful speech. The zombification described by Frankétienne, one of the few Haitian writers of the period who remained active without going into exile, has become a prominent way for Haitian writers to thematize the impact of the Duvaliers’ regimes. The focus in such works, however, is on passivity and silence, not the active and adversarial narrative battles in which gossip proves such a potent weapon.24 Victimization expressed through oblique, allegorical messages, not resistance or dissidence, has been the primary motif in Haitian approaches to the pain and suffering of the Duvalier era.
Horror and Hearsay: The Comedians
It was this state of affairs that made it possible, in 1966, for a peripatetic Englishman to write what has become, as Munro notes, the “best-known novel of the Duvalier dictatorship” (Tropical Apocalypse 63). Greene’s The Comedians is not as densely interwoven with gossip as Mea Cuba or Antes que anochezca, but it makes a similar promise: to lift the lid on the Duvalier regime and break the silence imposed by the Tontons Macoutes. The Comedians is not explicitly presented as a roman à clef, and indeed is prefaced by an introductory letter in which Greene denies that any of the novel’s characters are drawn from life.25 But its depiction of the country itself and of the suffering of Haitians under the Duvalier regime, Greene insists, is anything but a fiction. “Poor Haiti itself and the character of Doctor Duvalier’s rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night,” he writes, continuing: “The Tontons Macoute are full of men more evil than Concasseur; the interrupted funeral is drawn from fact; many a Joseph limps the streets of Port-au-Prince after his spell of torture, and, though I have never met the young Philipot, I have met guerrillas as courageous and as ill-trained in that former lunatic asylum near Santo Domingo.” Where Haitian writers struggle in the face of intolerable pain, Greene writes with a certain paternalistic detachment of “poor Haiti”; his text is an expression of sympathy (and, by extension, indignation on another’s behalf) rather than of personal suffering. Still, The Comedians is intended to be read as an exposé: a fictionalization of real events and real pain, often framed through its characters’ reliance on gossip in the absence of credible public institutions. In this way, much like the Cuban works examined in this chapter, Greene’s novel stands as an explicitly and theatrically adversarial gesture. If it lacks the deep knowledge of local affairs that Cabrera Infante and Arenas bring to their examinations of Castro’s Cuba or that Kincaid brings to bear on Antigua, it nonetheless draws on Greene’s own carefully cultivated public persona as a worldly and world-famous writer to render credible claims intended to shock, to startle, and thereby to alter international perceptions of the Duvalier regime.
Three years before the publication of The Comedians, Graham Greene used an essay in the Sunday Telegraph and the New Republic to map some of the key themes—Vodou rites, violent repression, chaos, farce—that would run through his fictional representation of Duvalier’s Haiti. Under the headline “Nightmare Republic,” Greene wrote:
While you wait for the lights to go on, you sit around oil-lamps exchanging rumors—the rebels are only 24 hours from Port-au-Prince, one optimist declares; the army has suffered a hundred casualties (it is always a hundred when an optimist speaks); a military plane has been shot down. Someone has heard on the Voice of America. . . . On the way to the hotel one night when I was stopped at a road-block, the man who searched me for arms, patting the hips, the thighs, laying a hand under the testicles, asked my companion in Creole, “Is there any news?”
But there is no such thing as news any more. (The stories which appear in the New York Times or the New York Herald Tribune as a rule have a San Domingo dateline and reflect the hopes of the exiles.) The President’s daughter is said to be on a hunger-strike to induce her father to leave; the President’s wife has abandoned him and is in America. . . . The Spanish Ambassador came home the other night to find a black dog in the Embassy, but none of his staff would touch it because it might house the spirit of Clement Barbot, the President’s deadly enemy, shot down a few weeks back on the edge of Port-au-Prince by the Ton Ton Macoute, the evil militia founded by himself. The Ambassador (the story grows and grows) had to put the dog in his car himself and drive it away. He tried to turn it out in the great square by the Presidential Palace, but it refused to move—the dog was too close to Dr. Duvalier. Only when he reached the cathedral did he consent to budge, trotting off into the dark to seek another sanctuary. Of course there was no truth in the story, but it seemed probable enough in this city without news and between certain hours, without light. (18)
Greene segues between rumor (anonymous, hesitant, about things rather than people) and gossip (specific, sure of itself, about named third parties) as he traces the whispered speculation—all of it in fact inaccurate—that echoes through the darkened streets of Port-au-Prince. Typically of gossip, the truth of the claims matters less than their plausibility—and in Duvalier’s Haiti, Greene asserts, even the most lurid claims are perfectly plausible. “Anything may happen, any time, anywhere,” he writes (19). Having thus justified his methods, Greene proceeds to mine rumor and gossip to expose the reality—for Greene implicitly promises to reveal the Haitian reality, the hidden truth of the matter—of life under Duvalier’s regime. He catalogs the hardships of specific (but unnamed) laborers and beggars, the extravagances of government officials, the actions of rebels and of the Tontons Macoutes, and the religious practices of Duvalier himself, presenting a vivid snapshot of a country spiraling into authoritarian chaos.
Greene returned to these themes, and perhaps these methods, as he wrote The Comedians, presenting Haiti as a country in which the decay of official institutions—from the dismantling of the independent news media to the collapse of the telephone system—has left gossip and rumor as the main ways for people to figure out what is going on. Gossip is described as swirling through the marketplace and as a resource that expatriates and foreign officials also rely on, albeit chiefly through intermediaries such as servants tasked with keeping their ears to the ground. The ambassador depends on relayed gossip to learn the “news in town,” from the inflow of refugees to neighboring embassies to the theft of Doctor Philipot’s body. The captain of the Medea, too, uses rumors and hearsay to plan his journey, and Brown, the protagonist, passes on gossip about the Tontons Macoutes machine-gunning the home of a former “prize sharp-shooter of the republic” (15).26 Brown also depends on gossip to learn what is happening in Port-au-Prince; explaining the discovery of Doctor Philipot’s body, Brown reconstructs the gossip and rumors through which the news is transmitted:
It was said that Doctor Philipot had killed himself, but of course no one knew how the authorities would describe his death—as a political assassination, perhaps, engineered from the Dominican Republic? It was believed the President was in a state of fury. He had badly wanted to get his hands on Doctor Philipot, who one night recently under the influence of rum was said to have laughed at Papa Doc’s medical qualifications. I sent Joseph to the market to gather all the information he could. [ . . . ] Joseph came to my office after breakfast [ . . . ] to tell me the whole story of the discovery of Doctor Philipot’s body as it was now known to the stallholders in the market, if not yet to the police. [ . . . ] One of the militiamen on the road-block below the hotel had taken a fancy to a peasant-woman who was on her way up to the big market at Kenscoff early that morning. He wouldn’t let her pass, for he claimed she was carrying something concealed underneath her layers of petticoat. She offered to show him what she had there, and they went off together down the side-road and into the astrologer’s deserted garden. She was in a hurry to complete the long road to Kenscoff, so she went quickly down upon her knees, flung up her petticoats, rested her head on the ground, and found herself staring into the wide glazed eyes of the ex-Minister for Social Welfare. (120–21)
The marketplace gossip about the episode, fueled by a detailed account of the sexual encounter that precipitates the cadaver’s discovery, outpaces the official account and comes complete with highly speculative accounts of Papa Doc’s own reaction, the reasons behind it, and the cause of the doctor’s fall from grace. Such accounts may not be the whole story, but they have a greater claim to accuracy than the official account, which, when it comes, is presented effectively as yet another act of gossip:
“Poor Philipot,” the Minister said, and I wondered whether at last we were to receive the official version of his end.
“What happened to him?” Mr Smith asked with admirable directness.
“We will probably never know. He was a strange moody man, and I must confess to you, Professor, his accounts were not in good order. There was the matter of a water-pump in Desaix Street.”
“Perhaps, or perhaps he has been the victim of the people’s vengeance. We Haitians have a tradition of removing a tyrant in our own way, Professor.”
“Was Doctor Philipot a tyrant?”
“The people in Desaix Street were sadly deceived about their water.” (163–64)
The insinuation and slander perpetrated by the minister is passed on in much the same way as the marketplace gossip, but is less reliable because its agenda is more transparent. The gossip of the marketplace may be speculative, but it at least strives toward the truth; the gossip perpetrated by officials—and the news and rumors that circulate through official media—is corrupt, unreliable, and intended not to inform but to whitewash and deceive.
This is evident in Brown’s reading of the gossip column penned by Petit Pierre, an eccentric character modeled upon real-life gossip columnist Aubelin Jolicoeur. Petit Pierre’s gossip column isn’t entirely accurate—among other exaggerations, Brown reads about how Smith “had been narrowly defeated in the American Presidential elections” (103)—but the florid prose is basically truthful and a more or less reliable record of the comings and goings of Port-au-Prince visitors and residents. The news pages of the same newspaper are far less dependable: Brown mocks a reported plan to eliminate illiteracy, suggesting that the education minister is counting on a hurricane to kill off unlettered peasants, and roundly dismisses claims that rebels had been captured bearing American weapons. “If the President had not quarrelled with the American Mission, the arms would probably have been described as Czech or Cuban,” he thinks (103). Gossip may not be infallible, but it is all there is; in fact, for those without access to gossip, it is essentially impossible to keep track of what is going on in Port-au-Prince. Toward the end of The Comedians, the manager of a Dominican bauxite mine asks Brown: “What’s the Tontons Macoute?” The question is absurd, unthinkable, a sign of how little of Haiti’s troubled reality filters into the outside world. “We were less than three hundred kilometres from Port-au-Prince; it seemed strange he could ask me that, but I suppose there hadn’t been a story for a long time in any newspaper he read,” Brown reflects (292–93). But Brown’s own grasp of the Haitian situation—like Greene’s, we may suppose—is entirely contingent upon his being able to access the native gossip network through intermediaries such as Petit Pierre and Joseph. Nobody gossips with Brown directly; rather, he receives reports, the authenticity of which he seldom questions, and from which he derives insights that he takes to be accurate but for which the reader has no native witnesses to vouch. Brown struggles when denied access to the intermediaries who pass on gossip to him: “Petit Pierre hasn’t been up for days. Joseph has disappeared. I’m cut off from news,” he complains when Martha tells him of Papa Doc’s “impressive” plan for a televised execution, staged in a floodlit cemetery before an audience of schoolchildren (202). When excluded from the local gossip and rumor networks, Brown is left adrift, isolated even from the manufactured spectacle and propaganda of the regime.
The news that circulates through gossip is not held by Haitians to be completely reliable but only basically truthful in its intent. Necessarily, then, upon hearing gossip, characters ponder its accuracy and significance. The ambassador dismisses “rumours” of the interrupted funeral, saying he “didn’t believe them,” only to revise his assessment after hearing firsthand evidence from Brown (137). Later, Brown and Martha weigh a rumor, reported by Petit Pierre, that Papa Doc is planning to expel Martha’s husband, the ambassador, from the country. “I told her of Petit Pierre’s rumour. ‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘no. It can’t be true,’ and then she added, ‘Luis has been worried about something the last few days.’ ‘But if it should be true . . .’ ” (256–57). This is not simply idle chatter: the pair are concerned for their own happiness and especially for Major Jones. “Darling, we’ll manage somehow, but Jones—it’s life or death for him,” Martha tells Brown (257). In Duvalier’s Haiti, gossip tracks the rise and fall of individuals and is therefore a serious business—a resource for navigating the treacherous waters of Port-au-Prince, and sometimes a weapon, too. Brown thinks as much after learning from the ambassador that Martha is the child of a German hanged during the US occupation of Berlin. “But why, I wondered, tell me this fact about Martha? Sooner or later one always feels the need of a weapon against a mistress: he had slipped a knife up my sleeve to use against his wife when the moment of anger came” (137). Gossip provides information, a vital resource; but information can also be used against people, to potentially calamitous effect.
In such an environment, gossiping acquires a dual quality: it can be both an act of bearing witness and an act of betrayal. Gossip is dangerous, and Brown is acutely aware of being watched—he notices the gardener eyeing him through the window, and later warns Jones to stay off the road, saying: “The peasants will [ . . . ] report any white man they see” (287). Hamit, from whom Brown rents the room where he and Martha conduct their trysts, is clearly aware of the power his knowledge gives him: “Hamit watched me, ironic and comprehending,” Brown states. “I remembered the stains we had left on his sheets, and I wondered whether he had changed them himself. He knew as many intimate things as a prostitute’s dog” (141). The pejorative description of Hamit signals Brown’s discomfiture at the very real power Hamit—standing next to the man Brown has cuckolded—now holds over him. But while knowledge brings power, it also confers a kind of responsibility, for it is through gossip that the excesses of the Duvalier regime are publicized and circulated. Brown and his friends realize as much after watching Doctor Philipot’s body being taken away by the Tontons Macoutes—an act about which Brown later gossips—with Brown saying: “We were witnesses, but there was no court which would ever hear our testimony” (130). It is through gossip, too, that the “true story” of Doctor Magiot’s death becomes known. As Martha says, “The official version is he was killed resisting arrest. [ . . . ] The true story is that they sent a peasant to his door asking him to come and help a sick child. He came out on to the path and the Tontons Macoute shot him down from a car. There were witnesses” (306). But to be a witness is neither easy nor safe: the couple who find Doctor Philipot’s body reveal their discovery only because the shocked peasant woman is unable to stifle a scream. Similarly, when Brown remarks that the servants surely realize that he was involved in moving Philipot’s body, Doctor Magiot reminds him that they would be afraid to talk. “A witness here can suffer just as much as the accused,” he says (100).
This is especially evident in the remarkable, conflicted character of Petit Pierre, who knows everyone and virtually everything, and who presents himself as an information broker for the Port-au-Prince elite. Petit Pierre is disdainful of newspapers, especially foreign ones—“You don’t believe what the American papers say, do you?” he sneers (42)—and equally distrusting of the unsourced rumors that swirl around the city. Gossip, however, is both his stock-in-trade and a form of currency: as Brown acknowledges, Petit Pierre “paid for his drinks only with his pen” (66). Certainly, Petit Pierre’s status as a gossip broker provides him with a degree of power: he can get suitcases waved through customs, and his column is read by government ministers, with Brown attributing the “celerity and politeness” with which officials treat Smith to a flattering line in Petit Pierre’s column (163). Later, in exchange for information, Petit Pierre gossips about the detention of Captain Concasseur in Miami, helps Brown to understand the repercussions of the incident, and uses gossip about Concasseur’s character to help Brown hatch a plan. Petit Pierre begins the exchange with the words “If you would be frank with me [ . . . ] I might perhaps be of a little help” (104), effectively proposing an informational quid pro quo that illustrates both the power he derives from gossip and the hustling, transactional nature of his existence.
Through such deals, Petit Pierre shields himself from the outrages visited upon other Haitians, but also makes himself the subject of gossip. “He was believed by some to have connections with the Tonton, for how otherwise had he escaped a beating up or worse?” Brown asks (41). Petit Pierre’s power seems threatening at times, with Brown remarking that his first visit “was like an interrogation by the secret police” (67). Still, Brown also recognizes Petit Pierre’s “odd satirical courage” in occasionally inserting dangerously outspoken gossip into his newspaper column; in this sense, Petit Pierre becomes a figure rather like a court jester, granted limited and temporary license to transgress—to a minor degree, and not without considerable risk—the norms imposed upon other Haitians. Walking this improbable tightrope, Petit Pierre maintains a comic demeanor—“I had always thought that, when the time came, and surely it must one day come in his precarious defiant livelihood, he would laugh at his executioner,” Brown reflects (41)—yet not one that belies the tragedy of the Haitian situation. “It was as though he had tossed a coin to decide between the only two possible attitudes in Port-au-Prince, the rational and the irrational, misery or gaiety; Papa Doc’s head had fallen earthwards and he had plumped for the gaiety of despair,” Brown states (102–3). In a book full of comedians, of people playing roles, Petit Pierre is the most openly comical character and yet also one with a serious and dangerous part to play.
The real risk, for Petit Pierre and all the characters of The Comedians, is that Papa Doc will take offense at something they say or write. Duvalier is the subject of a great deal of gossip: Brown reports hearsay that suggests “the Baron” is dead or that he has been missing for months, and also records claims that Duvalier likes “to watch personally the slow death of a Tonton victim” (113). To say such things is dangerous; Doctor Philipot’s only crime, after all, was to have “spoken ill of the president” (124). Gossip is, however, the only way to puncture the imposed silence and the bogus reports that emanate from the presidential palace. When the ambassador suggests that “even Papa Doc is a comedian,” Philipot responds: “He is real. Horror is always real” (140–41). It is through gossip, chiefly, that the true horrors of the regime are recorded, reified, and rescued from the unreality that pervades the regime’s official discourse. In Greene’s telling, it is gossip that allows Haitians to peek behind the curtain, behind the costumes and the Vodou posturing, and grasp the real horror of the Duvalier regime.
Horror, in the Kurtzian sense, is a key facet of Greene’s work and, as Dash explains, of the traces it has left in the public (or at least American) perception of Haiti. “Just as Joseph Conrad had earlier supplied the dominant images of Africa in the European imagination, in the 1960s Graham Greene performed the same dubious service for Haiti in the Western imagination,” Dash writes (Haiti and the United States 101). Greene’s “essentially anti-modernist narrative” achieves this in part, Dash writes, by emulating “the travelogue, the eye-witness account, the diary” (115)—all forms that, in their intimacy and promise of inside knowledge, bear comparison to gossip. Greene’s text is not as filled with gossipy anecdotes as Cabrera Infante or Arenas’s works; still, Dash notes that it is “lurid and melodramatic” (108), “seductive,” and above all “familiar and disturbingly memorable” (110)—which is to say that it deals, directly or indirectly, in the same scandalous, exoticized and othering details that are the stuff of gossip. Greene writes for a foreign audience that expects Vodou and tropical chaos, and he meets their expectations, offering up colorful Haitian episodes just as carefully and deliberately as Arenas catalogs his nocturnal (and diurnal and crepuscular) liaisons.27
Inescapably, in so doing, Greene’s writing is marked by his status as a neocolonial, or at least expatriate, outsider; reading The Comedians, one senses a writer enthused by his novel subject but at the same time removed from it. Rather like Brown, whose concern about the potential loss of his hotel pales into insignificance compared to the suffering of the Haitians, Greene is insulated from the events he describes. There is, in fact, a perverse enjoyment—even a kind of schadenfreude—to Greene’s treatment of Haiti’s woes: while, like Brown, he relies on local informers to explain the Haitian situation to him, his writing is calibrated to appeal to the sensibilities of a predominantly British and American readership already primed to view Haitians as ignoble savages. But while The Comedians is written by an outsider and lacks the deep commitment and understanding that a local writer might bring, Greene is not merely pandering to his readers’ prejudices: the text is also marked by a didactic impulse and a desire to expose Duvalier’s excesses before a global audience. Greene’s work, in Dash’s reading, gave rise to a new genre of our-man-in-Haiti accounts, in which foreign writers “set out to prove to a scandalized audience the extent to which Haiti had slipped away from the values of the civilized world” (111). Writing in 1969, Bernard Diederich and Al Burt channel Greene when they offer up “scandalous hearsay” and use “details that are either deflating or comical, such as a Communist writer’s nasal voice; Duvalier’s drooping eyelids; a houngan’s diarrhoea in the National Palace” to forge narratives about Haiti that are based both on actual knowledge and “the imaginative accumulation of unsavoury details” (112). The parallels to gossip—with its love of the detailed, the personal, the revelatory—are readily apparent in such texts, a point Greene himself makes in the foreword to Diederich and Burt’s volume, which he asserts contains “material [ . . . ] for a Suetonius” (vii).28 Just as apparent, though, is the explicitly adversarial approach through which such details are marshaled to puncture the public image of Duvalier and his regime: the gossip of writers such as Greene and Diederich is not simply a narrative flourish but rather a critical source of information, and therefore a weapon in a battle to define Duvalier (and Haiti) in the global public sphere.
Duvalier and Graham Greene: Démasqué
Part of the reason that Greene’s words were so effective at riling Duvalier, in fact, was that they served as a reputational attack, operating on a register that Duvalier understood only too well: the deliberate leveraging of the personal, the gossipy, the scandalous. Gossip, in the Haitian context, is often understood as a calculated act. The Creole word zin (also written as zen), which broadly refers to news circulated through gossip, is understood, according to Michel S. Laguerre, as a pliable form that serves many uses in many contexts, not least the realm of military intelligence gathering (Military and Society 139–42). Crucially, Laguerre makes clear, zin is less concerned with its own truthfulness than with advancing an agenda: it can be circulated to test the loyalty of the listener, to spread misinformation, to disseminate accurate information, or as a means of luring the listener into disclosing information of their own. The boundaries between gossip and related forms such as rumor and slander here grow indistinct: zin can be intimate gossip in the classic sense, but it can also be a politically motivated act of slander, a deliberate effort to mislead, or the circulation of rumors for personal gain.
These, certainly, were among the roles that gossip played for François Duvalier: as Paul Christopher Johnson notes, Duvalier actively encouraged gossip about his more outlandish activities, real or imagined, as a means of controlling his public image. Did Duvalier really commune with spirits from a bathtub in the presidential palace or receive intelligence from the severed head of a former enemy? The point is moot, Johnson argues. “All of this is spectacular rumor. But what is clear is that Duvalier himself fomented the circulation of these kinds of rumors through gossip networks,” he writes (427). “Even Duvalier’s actual violence, usually perpetrated by the VSN [Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale], was spectacular and staged, designed to generate stories. Even killing was zin, designed not merely to eliminate opponents but to foment the circulation of stories about the gruesome fates that awaited dissidents” (433). Gossip also allowed Duvalier to refract his own public image and to be different things to different people; he could publicly present himself as a Catholic, for instance, while also “circulating by reputation and gossip his implicit and well-established support of Vodou and his vehement opposition to the anti-superstition campaigns of the Church,” Johnson notes (430).29
Gossip, therefore, was both a tool and a weapon for Duvalier. This being the case, he felt all too acutely the risks of allowing Greene’s novel—or, worse still, its 1967 film adaptation—to define him in the public sphere. To prevent this, Duvalier launched a reputational attack against Greene himself. In 1968, Duvalier’s foreign ministry published a remarkable bilingual tract called Graham Greene Démasqué: Finally Exposed that sought to destroy Greene’s reputation and to reveal his novel, and the subsequent film, as a CIA-sponsored plot aimed at building international support for a US invasion. On the orders of Foreign Minister René Chalmers, a series of cultural officers and other officials composed heavily researched essays purporting to show Greene “finally himself just as he is, and has always been” and alleging him to be an “unbalanced, perverted writer” with “sadistic instincts” (7), a “chimerical racist” (33) in the pay of other racists, a drug addict always “stuffing himself with opium, cocaine, and marijuana” (61), a spy and “former torturer” (77), and a communist “little stool pigeon” (9) with “money problems” (13) and a “bent for lucre” (9).
While the personal attacks in Démasqué are presented, breathlessly, as hot gossip, many of its supposedly damning anecdotes are actually lifted directly from Greene’s own autobiographical writings. One essay promises to “underline some traits of the character inherited from a consanguinity and a rather loaded heredity” based on Greene’s own comment that he “was a Greene on both sides” because his parents were cousins (9). Another dives into Greene’s drug use, reporting that while writing one of his novels he “would begin his day by swallowing a benzedrin tablet to be followed by another one at noon” and quotes Greene’s own work to note that he was rendered “totally impotent” for months, and resorted to habit-forming “sexual experiments” that ultimately wrecked his marriage (13, 17). The pamphlet also dredges up a libel suit brought against Greene by 20th Century Fox over a 1937 movie review commenting on the sexualization of Shirley Temple; Greene saw Temple as “a woman-child fit for kindling the evanescent desire of aging gentlemen” and was bankrupted by the subsequent lawsuit, the pamphlet claims (17).30 Another essay, written by protocol officer Yves Massillon, relays gossip from double agent and defector Kim Philby, noting that over caviar and cognac, Philby passed on “new fascinating revelations,” including details of his past work with “such unheralded British spies as novelist Graham Greene” (61). Other attacks are unsourced: we learn that Greene had a “morbid” adolescence and obsession with death and that during the 1920s he indulged “daily in a game of Russian roulette” (9).31 His brief membership in the Oxford Communist Party is also made the subject of eager speculation: “Who knows? He may have done so in view of some spying activities!” (9). A similar tone marks the pamphlet’s treatment of Greene’s conversion to Catholicism: “For some time he becomes the talk of a group of acquaintances. They wonder at his conversion. A bothering of his conscience, some say. Heresy, others retort. Self-advertisement and impudence, the most clearsighted whisper” (11).
The pamphlet’s aim, clearly, is to stir up scandal: Démasqué is, above all, a reputational attack. Throughout, its writers draw direct contrasts between the “infamous name” of Greene (27) and the “eminently intelligent” leadership of “the Chief of the nation, Physician, Ethnologist, and Sociologist, Dr. François Duvalier” (19). Greene’s novel is held up as an attempt to “slander a nation” (75) and “blemish the reputation of a country” (77)—an attempt the pamphlet insists has failed. “Graham Greene’s work [ . . . ] far from besmirching the transcendent personality of the Leader of the Duvalierist Revolution, has increased the love of the Haitians for their chief,” one essay asserts (77). The Comedians is presented as revealing only Greene’s personal depravities: “Greene defines only himself” and “reveals only the Greenian sensibility, that of the unsatisfied” (57). One essay explicitly deals with Greene’s reputation and “appreciable audience” abroad, reporting that “a discreet inquiry made among bookshop-keepers, professors, students, and quite a few members of the Haitian intelligentsia—reputed for their insight as well as their rather exacting judgment and critical minds—revealed that such audience in Haiti was confined within very narrow limits; only to the few who would think that the moon was made of blue cheese” (59). It further reports, in a gossipy aside, that Greene made an egotistical tour of Port-au-Prince bookshops trying to spot copies of his own works, only to be bitterly disappointed when none were to be found. “Anyway, in Haiti, Graham Greene was noticeably humiliated by the merely polite welcome he was given on purpose,” the author claims (61).
The Duvalier government’s extraordinary document bears numerous similarities to Cabrera Infante’s literary assault on Greene: it uses Greene’s religion to diminish the credibility of his work, cites his connection to Philby, lingers over his having played Russian roulette, and so forth. But Cabrera Infante, as we have seen, never takes his reader’s acquiescence for granted; he works to earn it and to seduce his reader into complicity. The Duvalier pamphlet makes no such attempt: it is gossip without seduction, without charm, and thus ultimately without much ability to generate the sense of complicity upon which gossip relies. Drawing so heavily on recycled gossip taken from Greene’s own memoirs, the pamphlet couldn’t claim to be delivering much in the way of inside information either. Certainly, the assault proved easy for Greene—an outsider with no personal ties to Haiti and no specific reason to fear Duvalier—to shrug off; indeed, he evidently welcomed the publicity the pamphlet engendered and actively worked to disseminate it. “The first I heard of Duvalier’s literary assault was in a letter from Graham dated 20 February 1969, which I received in Mexico City,” Diederich reports. “He could hardly conceal his excitement and mirth. ‘Have you seen his book about me in French and English called Graham Greene Démasqué (Finally Unmasked)? If you haven’t seen it get somebody to ask for it from the embassy in Mexico City. It’s a treasure’ ” (124).
Facing mockery in the foreign press over his government’s pamphlet, Duvalier next sought legal remedy, launching a 10-million-franc libel suit in France against the producers of the film adaptation of Greene’s novel. A report in a state-controlled Haitian newspaper made clear just how personally Duvalier had taken Greene’s text: damages were due, it reported, for harm done “to Duvalier, admired as a man of letters and ethnologist. To Duvalier, as a learned doctor. To Duvalier, as an eminent statesman to whom the great personages of this world [ . . . ] have paid visits. To Duvalier, the president of Haiti, incarnation of the Haitian state” (qtd. in Diederich 134). In an unusual move, the Haitian foreign ministry circulated memos, both to its own diplomats abroad and to the heads of foreign diplomatic missions in Haiti, condemning the “frankly hostile character” of the film version of The Comedians. The memos further warned that “the acrimonious tone of each sequence in which the most unlikely facts are supposedly true to life, [and] the high price paid for the staging of the film permit to infer that Graham Greene’s novel and the film drawn from it are part of a vast plan tending to prepare international public opinion for an action that might be carried out on a larger scale against the Republic of Haiti” (Démasqué 97). Even allowing the film to be screened, the memos warned, would be considered an act of indirect aggression against Haiti.
The libel suit was a modest victory for Duvalier: a court in Paris prevented the screening of The Comedians in France but mockingly awarded him a single franc in compensation. Still, the Haitian press declared the ruling a “Great National Victory” in front-page headlines, with an editorial pronouncing the ruling “a political and moral victory” against “an organized defamatory action” based on “slanderous propaganda.” The editorial, surely published with the oversight of the presidential palace, continued: “Graham Greene and his accomplices managed to get off cheap, because on a simple order from President Duvalier he (Greene) could have been shot down like a wretch in any corner of the universe. As was said by a man greater than we in a memorable circumstance: ‘For that we need only a stout-hearted man, and we have thousands of them’ ” (qtd. in Diederich 136–37). Duvalier’s regime shows less subtlety than Arenas and Cabrera Infante attribute to Castro’s government, which they portray as having a clearer strategy and a sophisticated propaganda machine. Duvalier, by contrast, uses cruder and more forceful methods: threats, diplomatic pressure, and lawsuits, with slanderous gossip serving as a secondary and less skillfully executed aspect of his approach.
Despite this, the Duvaliers were largely successful at silencing gossip in the literature of Haitian writers both on and off the island, leaving it to foreign “comedians” such as Greene to fill the gaps. While Greene, like Arenas and Cabrera Infante, may have somewhat overestimated the power of his words, it is undeniable that he did at least manage to anger and unsettle the Haitian dictator. In a speech rejecting foreign interference in Haitian affairs, Duvalier famously declared: “They know that bullets and machine guns capable of scaring Duvalier do not exist. [ . . . ] I am already an immaterial being. No foreigner is going to tell me what to do” (qtd. in Jallot and Lesage 28). Later, in his Mémoires d’un leader du Tiers Monde (1969), Duvalier links the film adaptation of The Comedians—screened across the Western hemisphere “with the exception of General Francisco Franco’s Spain,” he carefully notes—to a “shadowy maneuver” that led to criticism of Haiti’s human rights record before the United Nations (135). “Napoleon used to say: ‘No ifs and no buts; one must succeed.’ I myself have triumphed over a vast international conspiracy,” Duvalier insists (138). Despite his claims of victory, however, Duvalier revealed through his embittered and very public literary battle with Greene that even an immaterial being could be roused to anger by reputational attacks. And despite Duvalier’s efforts, Greene’s words helped shape the enduring public image of Papa Doc and his regime. They succeeded, in short, in scandalizing Haiti’s recent history and thereby bringing a new understanding of the country’s plight to a global audience. In a fitting postscript to the saga, a few months after Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti, the film adaptation of The Comedians finally opened in Port-au-Prince cinemas. Gossip, in a sense, returned to Haiti, if it ever left; indeed, as will be shown in the next chapter, Haitian writers are now beginning to recognize gossip as a valuable narrative resource for engaging with the legacy of the Duvalier dynasty, and the long silences that have marked their literature and national history.