Heberto Padilla, Cuba’s foremost poet, an early supporter of Fidel Castro and later one of his fiercest critics, died Monday in Alabama, where he was a visiting professor at Auburn University. He was 68.
Padilla was found dead, apparently of natural causes, at his home near the campus after he failed to show up for three classes, a university spokesman said.
Afflicted with a tragic sense of life, as his melancholy poetry and his passion for Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Robert Lowell revealed, Padilla found his initial fervor for Castro, whom he had known since adolescence, withering in the face of mounting ideological and cultural conformity.
“All Padilla’s qualities--irritability, skepticism, broad reading, intellectual curiosity, restlessness and a suicidal outspokenness--were bound to exasperate monomaniacs like Fidel and Raul Castro,” wrote the Times Literary Supplement (London) in a review of Padilla’s 1990 memoir, “Self-Portrait of the Other.”
Born in 1932 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Padilla was the grandson of a tobacco grower. Before the family business fell into bankruptcy, he spent his mornings as a young student reading French and German authors and slowly falling in love with American literature. He began writing early, publishing his first volume of poems at 17. After studying journalism at the University of Havana, he became a script writer.
Like many in his generation, Padilla was opposed to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and moved to the United States in 1957, where he worked as a radio commentator in Miami and as a language teacher in New York.
After Castro overthrew Batista in 1959, Padilla joined other Cuban intellectuals and returned home hoping to remake their society.
For a time, those hopes flourished. Along with Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Pablo Armando Fernandez, Padilla founded the literary magazine Lunes de Revolucion, a weekly cultural newspaper supplement.
Socially conscious, bohemian in spirit, fiercely independent, Lunes was devoted to an eclectic and heady mix of literature and politics, featuring among its contributors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But it quickly fell afoul of Castro’s more rigid view of the artist’s role and ceased publication.
In 1962, Padilla published “El Justo Tiempo Humano” (“The Just Times of Man”), a volume of poems that is still regarded by many critics as the greatest book of Cuban poetry. Later, Padilla worked for Prensa Latina, the Cuban news agency, reporting from London and Moscow. The experience did not make him sanguine about the future of socialism.
By the late 1960s, his differences with the Castro regime had grown, and in 1968 he was dismissed from his job as foreign correspondent and called home. Nevertheless, that same year a courageous jury of Casa de las Americas, the official state publishing house, awarded its first prize to Padilla for his book of poems “Fuera del Juego” (“Out of the Game”).
Padilla’s difficulties with the authorities continued to mount. On March 20, 1971, he was arrested in Havana by the secret police and jailed. His release was secured only after he issued a statement “confessing” his errors. His abject humiliation, replete with an appearance before the Cuban Writers’ Union in which he accused himself of “many, many errors,” including counterrevolutionary activities and friendships with “CIA agents,” set off an international protest.
The event, so reminiscent of Stalin’s Soviet state, alarmed intellectuals all over the world, especially in Western Europe and North America, who had previously been sympathetic to the Cuban revolution. More than 60 writers (among them Sartre, De Beauvoir, Alberto Moravia, Heinrich Boll and Susan Sontag) signed an appeal on Padilla’s behalf. The Padilla case also set off a wave of disillusionment with the Castro regime among Latin American writers.
Reached in New York on Tuesday, Sontag recalled Padilla’s arrest and treatment as the occasion for a major break with the Cuban government by former supporters.
“It was,” she said, “a huge event in the history of the terminal disenchantment of well-intentioned, justice-loving people who had hoped that small countries might somehow develop a third way of development,” neither capitalist nor communist.
Throughout the 1970s, Padilla was unable to publish in his native country.
He survived by doing translations (notably, Spanish versions of the English Romantic poets) and ghostwriting.
Although most of Padilla’s family had long since been allowed to move to the United States, Padilla himself had always been refused permission to leave Cuba.
In 1981, however, new efforts were made on his behalf, notably by Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, who urged Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to enlist the aid of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Bernard Malamud, president of the American P.E.N. Center, also appealed to Castro for Padilla’s release. These efforts were successful, and Padilla was expelled, arriving in New York on March 17 of that year.
Despite his harsh treatment by Castro, Padilla refused to engage in reflexive Cuba-bashing.
“He was always an independent spirit,” Silvers said. “He didn’t throw in his lot with the anti-Castro community. He was for recognition of Cuba but fiercely opposed to the oppressiveness of the regime. He was very much his own man.”
In Cuba, Padilla had made memorable Spanish translations of poems of Keats, Shelley, Byron and, most notably, William Blake, besides more modern poets such as T.S. Eliot.
Padilla’s familiarity with, and love for, English poetry intruded noticeably on his own poetry in Spanish. He wrote out of a shifting and curious lyric intelligence, moving easily between ironic observation and passionate involvement, in a fertile variety of forms and manners. His best poems, as J.M. Cohen observed in the New York Review of Books, sparkle with “a barbed economy and originality of phrase.” His ear for satire was acute.
The brief “Alchemists” is a good example:
When magic was in bankruptcy,
in those days when the crows
seemed to have given up the work
(and the philosopher’s stone held
no more augury),
they took an idea,
a furious formulation of life,
and they made it spin
like the astrologer’s globe;
thousands of brazen hands
making it spin
like a whore returned to rape men,
but, as for that idea,
only its enemies remain.
In the United States, Padilla taught literature at several institutions, including Princeton, New York University (where he was made a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities) and the University of Miami.
In 1984, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published “Heroes Graze My Garden,” the novel that Cuban police had sought to confiscate in 1970 and that Padilla smuggled out of Cuba. He also published a volume of poems, “Legacies,” and in 1990 a memoir of Castro’s Cuba titled “Self-Portrait of the Other.”
Still, Padilla found exile difficult and never seemed to fully recover his psychological equilibrium.
Reached in London, where he lives in exile, Guillermo Cabrera Infante said upon hearing the news of Padilla’s death:
“I never saw myself writing Heberto’s obituary. Four years younger and a sturdy man, he was the picture of good health and bonhomie. But after being in jail in 1971 and being forced to confess to crimes he never committed, in public, at the Writers’ Union, he drowned in shame. He recited a rosary of guilt obviously concocted by State Security during his internment at the sinister Villa Marista.
“He never was the same man again. Though he tried to be after innumerable whiskeys (or rum or whatever). He became an alcoholic in Havana and in his long sojourn as an exile in New York, perhaps due to his retrospective shame, plus the avatars of exile. All this and hell too led him to a premature death.
“I grieve more before his literary heirloom than over his dead body: He was already dead a long time ago. I don’t know if he will be mourned in history as a dissident in extremis, but I know that he will be considered a poet by literary history.”
Padilla, in the end, was a man unable to escape his own shadow. He knew this about himself, in one memorable poem writing:
Don’t you forget it, poet.
In whatever place or time
You make, or suffer, history,
Some dangerous poem is always
He is survived by four children, a sister, a brother and his companion, Lourdes Gil.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
“The Sleeping Beauty”
Unpublished work by Heberto Padilla
It’s going to be hard to wake her, so deep she is in her dream,
in which the young princes of her girlhood attend her,
caught in the lights of passing cars,
like the oily eyes of the streetcars.
Useless to blow the horn by the lattice
of the window. She won’t lean out.
Hands complaining on the horn are not enough
to startle in the least her gentle eyelids.
They have surely by now slipped into sleep.
As a child, she slept over the noise of the loudspeakers,
in the glare of the neon lights.
It’s going to be hard to wake her,
so used she is to dissonance.
The noisier it is, the more her inner life,
the more precious her dazed and distant state.
Hard for ourselves to get to sleep,
to get back where she is, in the gardens of childhood,
with witches running wild in her hair.
Who do we think we are, coming to wake her?
-Translated from the Spanish by Alastair Reid