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Would You Like to Have Coffee with this Author? Part III

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

I invite my history students to have coffee with several other Caribbean authors -- metaphorically, of course. Rather than historians, most are literary figures whose careers straddle between fiction and nonfiction (and between poetry and prose); authors like Nobel laureates V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad) and Derek Walcott (St. Lucia), Carlos Franqui and Nancy Morejon (Cuba), Luis Munoz Marin and Esmeralda Santiago (Puerto Rico), and Edouard Glissant (Martinique).

"Why assign works of literature instead of historical monographs?" you may ask. Reading, I believe, should be pleasurable; but much historical writing is insufferably dry, not to mention preachy and intellectually arrogant. In all honesty, there are fewer and fewer historians with whom I'd like to have coffee (metaphorically and literally), or even cross paths with at the annual meeting of the Association of American Historians.

In my Caribbean history class, we read V.S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian writer of Indian descent who I consider one of the 20th century's finest English-language pens. We read and discuss "The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited" (1962), his first work of nonfiction, a travelogue based on a visit to Trinidad, British Guyana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica in 1961. It has the critical tone of Jamaica Kincaid's "A Small Place," but the wrong politics, of the sort that can kill any author's career. Based on his politics alone, I would have not cared to have coffee with Naipaul -- tea as he would have it. But his mastery of the English language, his authentic Caribbean cadence and rhythm, and his poetic prose (bitter and biting as it may be) make me change my mind.

Naipaul orders a cup of tea. "I'll have tea as well," I tell the imaginary waiter with an uncharacteristically meek voice that comes naturally in the face of a living legend. I would have ordered Cuban coffee instead, but I am in the presence of a tea drinker; tea drinker for being West Indian by birth, Indian by ancestry, and British (a knighted one at that) by choice. No sugar in his tea, I suspect. "Sugarcane is an ugly crop," he wrote in "The Middle Passage," "and it has an ugly history."

That is the kind of rhetorical twist with which Naipaul regales his readers in "The Loss of El Dorado" (1969), his only book of history where he describes colonial Trinidad as a place that had "dropped out of history," where "nobody came to raid or trade"; and at its lowest point "no one wanted to be governor." It was so sparsely populated that "20 people are a crowd; a hundred make a city"; when a smallpox epidemic struck, "even the monkeys died."

But Naipaul hits his most acerbic notes when talking about the contemporary Caribbean, which he scorned as inhabited by "mimic men"; a region with "no scientists, engineers, explorers, soldiers, or poets" where the cricketer "was our only hero-figure." I disagree and offer his own prolific body of work as exhibit No. 1.

High tea with Naipaul turns out to be enjoyable. Listen to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech and discover the sharp contrast between his severe prose and the way he speaks, in a pleasant, sweet, surprisingly humble voice, like that of a grandfather who reads a bedtime story to a 2-year-old.

Enough with the tea! How about coffee? Black and sweet, the way Cubans have it, often served as coladas in thimble-sized plastic cups that remind me of Protestant Communion. Coffee with Carlos Franqui, a Cuban revolutionary who broke with Castro in 1968? Of course. Not an imaginary coffee, as I actually had coffee with him in 2003, during an interview in his San Juan apartment, surrounded by walls full of fine art: a Sandy Candler, a cubist portrait of Jose Marti, a Joan Miro abstraction scribbled with an equally abstract inscription: "Thinking with my feet is my way of walking."

 

In my Cuban history class I assign Franqui's brief introduction to "Diary of the Revolution" (1976) not for historical information -- as there are a few inaccuracies -- but for the quintessentially Cuban way in which he speaks: playfully, musically, with a generous dose of Cuban-brand chauvinism (tongue-in-cheek, with a smile or a wink): "The first rocket was invented by a Cuban," Franqui boasts, but "only on a postage stamp."

"Cuba is an adventure without fear of the unexpected, the magical, the impossible or the unknown." Franqui, (frankly) I agree. What other nation would have embarked (se hubiera embarcado), wink, on a socialist revolution, as Fidel Castro once said, "under the nose of the United States."

But it's the music in Franqui's prose that makes me want a second, a third cup: "Cuba is not Indian. Cuba is not white. It is neither black nor yellow. It is mulatto, mixed, whitish-black, and tobacco-hued."

More coffee and books in next week's column.

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Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History" and "Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba." Readers can reach him at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.

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