Papa in Cuba: Hemingway in an Island’s Imagination

[Note: A longer, improved version of this essay is now available.] When Hemingway is remembered today, 50 years after his death, one usually thinks of the Old World: his time in Paris rubbing shoulders with Joyce, Pound, and the American expats of the so-called “Lost Generation”; his participation in three European wars; his love of Spanish bullfighting and African big-game hunting. Nabokov’s pithy dismissal of Hemingway’s work as being primarily about “bells, bulls, and balls” likewise points to the campanas and corridas of Spain. Cuba, though, is the place where Hemingway lived the longest and where he wrote much of his work. The island is the setting for three of his novels: To Have and Have Not, The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream. Hemingway first went to Havana in 1928, a stopover on his way to Key West, where he took up residence. He returned in 1932, in pursuit of swordfish. As his second marriage disintegrated, his trips to Havana became more frequent, until he became a permanent guest at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. His third wife, Martha Gellhorn, moved him out of the hotel and out of Havana, to La Vigía, a finca at the edge of San Francisco de Paula, a village in the hills to the southeast of the capital. Hemingway eventually bought Finca Vigía with the proceeds of the film rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls. He lived at Vigía from 1939–60, and it was here, for the first and only time in his adult life, that Hemingway led something like a domestic existence. It was here, too, that he wrote some of his most iconic works.

Cuba’s influence on Hemingway goes largely unacknowledged by Americans. But Cubans know that he took his Nobel Prize medal to Cobre, near Santiago de Cuba, where he laid it among the ex votos to la Virgen de la Caridad, the island’s patron saint. This grand gesture (and a thousand smaller ones) consolidated Hemingway’s reputation among Cubans as one of their own. Gabriel García Márquez, who, through his long-time solidarity with the Cuban revolution and intimate friendship with Fidel, is himself something of an honorary Cuban, writes about “Hemingway, el nuestro” in a prologue to Norberto Fuentes’ exhaustive, 700-page Hemingway en Cuba.1 The American writer’s presence can still be felt on the island: at Finca Vigía, preserved just as the author left it; at his old haunts in La Habana Vieja —Hotel Ambos Mundos, la Bodeguita del Medio, el Floridita; in the fishing village of Cojímar; in the memory of countless Cubans who have maintained an oral tradition of stories about “Papa,” many of which are recounted in Fuentes’ book.

Still, despite the lore and good memories, Hemingway’s relationship to the island, its people, and its politics remains enigmatic. A counterdiscourse emerged among the island’s intellectuals, some of whom claimed that Hemingway, in spite of the good will he generated, was a kind of neocolonial hacendado. The best example —and probable origin— of this counterdiscourse is Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), the classic film based on Edmundo Desnoes’ novel.2

Two facts about the film:

(1) The original version of Desnoes’ novel doesn’t include the Hemingway material, which comes from some of his essays. Director Gutiérrez Alea incorporated this material into the film and Desnoes later adapted the scenes we just saw and inserted them into a subsequent edition of his novel.

(2) When René Villareal, the former Hemingway employee and tour guide featured in the clip, saw the film, he loaded a revolver and went looking for Desnoes and Titón (the director).

At any rate, the film seems to have originated the idea that Hemingway lived like a king in his hilltop castle and took no interest in local affairs. Even García Márquez falls into this line of thinking:

[n]o hay indicios de que hubiera intentado alguna vez hacer algún contacto con el ambiente intelectual y artístico de La Habana, que en medio del envilecimiento oficial y la concupiscencia pública seguía siendo uno de los más intensos del continente. (Fuentes 17)

This claim begs for some skepticism—Hemingway was a close friend of journalist and poet Fernando Campoamor and he insisted that another writer, Lino Novás Calvo, undertake the only authorized Spanish translation of The Old Man and the Sea. Another consideration that might serve to temper García Márquez’s claim is that many of Cuba’s brightest literary lights were not on the island during much of Hemingway’s time there.3

The idea that Hemingway remained aloof and disinterested clashes with what is known about his friendship with the fishermen of Cojímar, his permissive and caring attitude toward the children of San Francisco de Paula, his intense interest in the ongoing revolution in the Sierra Maestra, and —some say— his clandestine support for the alzados in the vicinity of La Vigía.

But in “El último verano” Desnoes sees Hemingway’s economic and social position as emblematic of the pre-revolutionary era:

Creo que la revolución ha roto para siempre la posibilidad de que una relación semejante vuelva a producirse en Cuba. Hay aquí una especie de símbolo. No seremos más criados de amos extranjeros, aunque esos amos nos ayuden a vivir con comodidad, nos sienten a su mesa, nos tengan protegidos de las violentas luchas de nuestra época.

Desnoes would probably revise these predictions now that the revolution has run its course and Cuba continues to feel the aftershocks of what Desnoes himself has called the “social nightmare” of the 1990s. But I do think his anti-imperialist version of Hemingway is essentially correct from a structural standpoint that takes into account relative positions of economic power and social prestige, notwithstanding Hemingway’s personal qualities, which may have served to mask this structure. Desnoes’ view is consistent with an intellectual current in Cuba —one that also includes Miguel Barnet and Roberto Fernández Retamar— that came to see culture, rather than political economy, as the battleground of anti-imperialist struggle.4 This view creates obvious difficulties in recognizing Hemingway as in any way “Cuban,” despite the island’s well documented influence on his life and work.

Cubans, however, have remained fascinated by Hemingway, and have continued to read and study him. A number of documentaries about the writer have been produced since 1962. Norberto Fuentes published his monumental study in 1984. One recent publication explores Hemingway’s friendship with Campoamor; another (written by an Italian) gives a culinary tour of every known restaurant that Hemingway visited in Cuba and elsewhere, complete with recipes.5

The early work of one major writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, stakes out a different relationship to Hemingway, one that starts with imitation and ends in parody.6 Likewise, Desnoes has acknowledged his early admiration for the American, whom he tried to “assimilate.”7

Since the mid 1960s, though, two opposing positions have dominated Cubans’ reception of Hemingway: on one hand, a popular, hagiographic narrative (which was adopted by Fidel and the Party) and, on the other, a critical assessment undertaken by Cuba’s writers and intellectuals, initiated by Desnoes and Gutiérrez Alea.

This began to change in the 1990s, like so many other things, with the film Strawberry and Chocolate (1994), directed by none other than Gutiérrez Alea (with Juan Carlos Tabío as co-director). Hemingway is mentioned briefly in a long list of famous people who were gay, at least according to Diego, one of the film’s major characters. The shift here is notable: Hemingway is no longer a titanic figure who must be reckoned with aesthetically or politically, but one cultural reference among many. More recently, prominent fiction writers like Leonardo Padura and Abilio Estévez have appropriated the North American author in creative ways that elude the once-dominant opposition of hagiography and critique.

Padura does this most systematically, devoting an entire novel to Papa. In Adiós, Hemingway (2001),8 Conde, the protagonist of Padura’s sucessful detective novels, investigates the murder of an FBI agent whose body has been discovered at Finca Vigía. Against the grain of the putative evidence —ballistics indicate that the agent was shot with one of Hemingway’s firearms— that points to the American as the killer, and facing his own animosity toward the rich, arrogant American, Conde discovers the truth: the FBI agent was an incompetent whose drunken carelessness while surveilling the old writer led to a confrontation that ended when Hemingway’s employees shot the agent to protect Papa. In this novel, Padura brings together the popular and anti-imperialist versions of Hemingway while also synthesizing two moments in Cuban detective fiction: the formulaic, social-realist paradigm that prevailed prior to the late 1980s, and the more critical, hard-boiled variety practiced by Padura himself, which focuses more on the island’s internal social problems than on imperialist aggression.

Abilio Estévez, in Inventario secreto de La Habana (2004), reflects on the odd contrast created by the austere manliness of Hemingway’s image and the house at La Vigía, decorated to match that image, and Papa’s obvious zest for life and sensual pleasure.

De [Hemingway] me molestaban su ridículo machismo y esa actitud ante la vida que no sé si llamar «heroica»; al propio tiempo, me fascinaban su voluptuosidad, su hedonismo. Por un lado, el rechazo al personaje-héroe que como actor se había creado; por otro, la admiración hacia el sensualista. (232)

Estévez dedicates just 3 of his book’s 343 pages to establishing this contrast that, although interesting, would be unremarkable if not inserted into a work which establishes opposing spheres via certain antitheses, some of which are family/nation, barrio/exile, proximity/distance, love/violence, cemetery/museum (oddly, cemetery represents the positive pole here), life/death, and so forth.

The Hemingway figure, with its unresolved polarization between sensuality and austerity, is a point of cleavage at which these spheres touch, yet remain unreconciled. In my dissertation, I argue that this separation of spheres reveals (and critiques) the separation of life and labor qua abstraction, and that Hemingway’s personal contradictions are turned back against a state now engaged in the commodification and museumification of life. By this, I mean that as the island restores its colonial architecture, cleans up its beaches, and modernizes its hotels, most Cubans now (again) face the reality of labor —as  hotel workers, builders, taxi drivers, tour guides, musicians, cooks and, yes, as prostitutes and hustlers— in an economy in which luxury, that sensual side of life so admired by Estévez, remains just out of reach.

  1. Norberto Fuentes. Hemingway en Cuba. Havana: Letras Cubanas (1984).
  2. The novel first appeared in English as Inconsolable Memories, rather than Memories of Underdevelopment.
  3. Alejo Carpentier, Nicolás Guillén, and Virgilio Piñera, for example, were living abroad in real or self-imposed exile for most of these years.
  4. Due to time constraints —this is, after all, a version of a 15-minute talk—  I don’t elaborate here on the vicissitudes of theories of imperialism and underdevelopment in Cuba. I hope to take these topics up in future work.
  5. See Osmar Mariño Rodríguez, La Habana de Hemingway y Campoamor, and Guido Guidi Guerrera, Paseando con Papa Hemingway.
  6. See William Rowlandson, “Cabrera Infante and Parody: Tracking Hemingway in Tres Tristes Tigres.The Modern Language Review 98.3 (July 2003), pp. 620-633.
  7. “La duda radical y la certeza ridícula: entrevista a Edmundo Desnoes.” La Habana Elegante 22 (Jan. 2003). Web.
  8. The 2001 edition of Padura’s novel was published simultaneously in Portuguese, by Companhia das Letras, and in Spanish, by Ediciones UNIÓN. The Havana edition also includes a shorter work called “La cola de la serpiente.” The first stand-alone Spanish edition of Adiós, Hemingway was published by Grupo Editorial Norma, in 2003.