Geometries of everything / 'Galiano St. Variety'

Photo/text detail, Variedades de Galiano pp82-83
Photo/text detail, Variedades de Galiano pp82-83

In 2001 Reina María Rodríguez talked to me about the range of her writing:

What matters to me [. ..] is incorporating everything. In other words, not differentiating between literature and the life that I’m living. I think that conserving it there as the work… it’s like capital accumulated toward our possibility of really achieving a powerful state. Not greater, but broader, a passion or a form. Because in each of my books, what has always mattered is the human form of existence itself. Existing and seeing what is happening.

One of the many everyday impossibilities of translation is rendering everything, especially someone else’s everything, the one experienced by the author.  But it is possible to develop, and communicate, a feel for various registers of knowledge colliding within a work. 

Meanwhile Rodríguez offers a poetics of elusiveness.  That which is desired, needed and pursued will always be displaced from realities at hand, before and after translation.  To process the impact of displacement, the translator must turn and work in the opposite direction from everything, letting go of too much irritable reaching at information.

Published in 2008 by Letras Cubanas in Havana, her collection Galiano St. Variety (Variedades de Galiano) worries emergent borderlines in society.  A few conventional-looking poems are here.  The majority of the texts seem more like essays, or essay fragments gesturing at their own lack of full resolution, steps toward everything that necessarily fail to cover all the terrain.  The texts are accompanied by photographs by Alejandro Pérez Álvarez, and these supposed documentations similarly reveal and occlude the city of Havana.

The book is named after a shop, and Rodríguez turns her texts toward economic changes redefining the geometrical planes of urban psychology.  These factors surface more explicitly in some texts than others. 

The geometries of Galiano St. Variety, more specifically, impact perceptions of belonging and nonbelonging.  Her emphatically personal memories mix into passages charged with public meaning, such as buildings, streets, and parks.  She observes the people who use the places she explores.

In the Info office (again), an elderly vendor of newspapers sits down to watch the Cuban olympiad.  The manager ejects him.  The elderly man with his folded newspapers drifts away.  “This isn’t for the Cuban people,” he says.  This man, having no home or television, appeals to a public space, now dollarized.  He appeals to an older place that “she” gave him (then took away). She is the magus, the coastal witch, the goddess.  “If you don’t have dollars you don’t belong here, you don’t exist . . . There’s no place for you,” reply the clerks, whose parents also sell something.  (“Olympic Newsvendors”)

En el Info (de nuevo), un viejo vendedor de periódicos se sienta a mirar las Olimpiadas cubanas.  El gerente lo saca. El viejo con sus periódicos doblados se retira. “Esto no es para el pueblo”—dice.  El viejo sin casa ni televisor apela a un espacio público, dolarizado. Apela a un antiguo lugar que “ella” le dio (y le quitó).  Ella es la maga, la bruja de la costa, la diosa.  “Si no tienes dólares no cabes aquí, no existes . . . no hay sitio para ti”, replican las dependientas que también tienen padres vendedores de algo. (“Periodiqueros olímpicos,” 79)

While Rodríguez notes historical details, flirting with the notion of creating places for outsiders through references to tourism, hotels, and the Infotur office, her goal is different than replicating classic Caribbean distinctions between insiders v. outsiders, locals v. tourists.  Rodríguez is chasing the gradual motions of social re-divide.  Globalization in the present moment remaps island society under an increasingly segregated economy, while the state tries to navigate and define structural change. 

The magical workings of the deified Cuban state have faded in her Info office, while the potencies of currency and trade have risen.  Galiano St. Variety taps into changing conversations about whether Cuba can be said to have a “public” sphere for “the people” – and if so, where to try looking for it. 

The writer traverses the city, registering where she can and can’t claim its space. 

In the entrance to a hotel where I need to pee, the porter stops me.
          “Why are you here, ma’am?"
          “Why do I have to explain to you, sir, why I’m here?”
          “You can’t go in, ma’am,” the young porter asserts.
           “What do you mean, I can’t go in?  Why, because I’m Cuban?  You all need to tell me!  I want to hear it come out of your mouth. Is it because I’m Cuban?”
          Apartheid between the Info office and the Plaza Hotel, between Faith Park and the doorman’s starched lapels.  (“Olympic Newsvendors”)

A la entrada del hotel donde pretendo orinar me detiene el portero:
          --¿A qué viene señora?
          --¿Por qué tendría que explicarle a qué vengo?
          --No puede entrar señora, insiste el joven portero.
          --¡Cómo que no puedo entrar! ¿Por qué, por ser cubana? ¡Díganmelo!, quiero oírlo en su voz, ¿es por ser cubana?
          El apartheid entre el Info y el hotel Plaza; entre el parque Fe y el portero de solapa almidonada.  (“Periodiqueros olímpicos,” 79-80)

In another piece Rodríguez presents a tale of emotional ownership operating across the boundaries of time, not only space.  She refers to her memories of Havana’s “Sloppy You” restaurant (serving Sloppy Joe sandwiches), having remarked that “nothing is left of the Sloppy, but they say the City Historian’s brigades are going to reconstruct it” (“nada ha quedado del Sloppy que ahora, dicen, van a reconstruir las brigadas del historiador de la capital,” 116).  The title of the essay is “The American Club,” a building still bearing the symbols of various US states but converted into a Spanish society.  More important for her is the place from which Rodríguez looks out at the club. The perspective is established from a café where her own street, Ánimas, meets a major boulevard.  If the right waiter is working, it’s not hard for her to get a table.

I preferred to return to this place, which grafted three Havanas together:  the one belonging to my father, who might or might not ever have gone to the American club (but he did go to the Sloppy with me); mine, where every day I take a seat at a table in the same café looking out at the corner; and the one belonging to those who will come when these places have been thoroughly transformed by tourism.  (“The American Club”)

Preferí volver a este lugar que injertaba tres Habanas:  la de mi padre que no sé si visitó alguna vez el club americano (pero sí el Sloppy conmigo); la mía, que me siento cada mañana en la misma mesa del café que da hacia la esquina; y la de los que vendrán cuando estos lugares se hayan transformado completamente por el turismo.  (“El Club Americano,” 117)

Galiano St. Variety proposes a desire for a specific capability:  to able to distinguish amongst the distinct layers of personal memory comprising a city.  The ideal city-construct would incorporate Havana’s public history too. Among other delineations ebbing and flowing in this book: Spanish colonial rule collides with US neocolonial rule from the early- to mid-twentieth century; again with the revolutionary state’s visions for its citizenry; and especially with whatever the contestations of the early twenty-first century now signify.