Memories of Underdevelopment
by Edmundo Desnoes, translated by Al Schaller
Latin American Literary Review Press, 2004
110 pages / $15.00 buy from LALRP
1. Memorias del subdesarrollo. Or call it Inconsolable Memories, which shows up in the subtitles of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film adaptation, and is itself a wish taken from Hiroshima, Mon Amour, one of the narrator’s favorite movies. J’ai désiré avoir l’inconsolable mémoire.
2. I’ve looked up “underdevelopment” in the dictionary twenty times since seeing the film and reading the book. I’m waiting for the definition to say: a better word for this word is subdesarrollo.
3. The film was shown during Revolution in the Air: The Long Sixties.
4. The longer the 60s, the shorter the 50s and 70s.
5. We’re talking about how to get to Cuba the way our grandparents talked about how to get to the suburbs and their parents wondered how to get west. “I already know the United States, but what will happen here is a mystery to me.”
6. The author photo shows Edmundo Desnoes with full white beard, pipe in mouth, arms over his head in a pose of relaxation, not surrender. “The first responsibility of a writer is to survive.”
7. Reading books after seeing the movie. I made this mistake with The Firm. Even though I find Jeanne Tripplehorn attractive, and love typing out her name, Abby McDeere is shapelier on the page.
8. The novel’s first person antihero, Sergio Malabre, has less poise/élan than a Grisham creation (or Tao Lin) and believes himself, like so many first persons, to be the last man. He’s not a drinker but there’s probably something wrong with his liver. With his wife and family off to America he decides to stay in Cuba, an island he calls a trap, and to live amongst a revolution he calls a tragedy. On a crowded bus he feels like slime. “I am 39 years old and already an old man. I feel stupid. More rotten than mature.” The theme of rottenness in Memories of Underdevelopment is slightly less romantic than DeLillo’s “apple core going sepia” at the close of Underworld. Sergio, our rotten and rotting antihero, is play acting through the period drama of the future. His actual life is something Donald Draper will make a Park Avenue Sad Face about. He does not want what he wants. He does not want the historical anchors his country offers him. In protest, he removes the timestamps from his journal midway through the novel because he believes dates are meaningless. July 26, 1953. April 17, 1961. October 14, 1962. He’s a cultured, good-looking, overripe intellectual educated in New York and Paris (he’s done the 90 miles; no matter how far away it is, it’s always the 90 miles) who wants to know less, who wants to be stupider. #bayofpigs #Octobercrisis #CMC #gameofchicken.
9. As self-aware as Ben Lerner’s cipher in Leaving the Atocha Station, who, following the 2004 Madrid bombings, finds the air alive “less with the excitement of a period than with the excitement of periodization.”
10. Sergio, on a walk through the Hemingway house museum: “Americans have an artificial smell, and the Russians stink.”
11. He does not want to be living through a period or in a periodization. His journal (and this journal is the novel, bow-tie fleurons replacing timestamps) is the most important thing in his life. As important to him as staring at his pinky toes. To be vain enough to stare at your toes is to be vain enough to keep a journal is to be vain enough to write a novel. “To say what people know does not require a novel.” He wants nothing to do with magic realism. Madonna In The Sky. Hot & Steamy Cuban Nights. An imaginary journal holding real missiles.
12. The bombs are so real, Castro thought, it’s like they’re in your pocket.
13. Means, Sergio has. He owns a furniture store. He could leave Cuba for New York, a suburb of the revolution, like his friends of means, and his wife of means. Staying in Cuba proves he is for the revolution. 80% of the revolution is showing up. Still, it’s no fun to go to the drug store during the revolution. He’s living on an island that’s losing its products. One day he breaks his comb. He goes shopping for a new one. He can’t find one. The country is out of combs. The country is out of “Yardley hair oil, Colgate toothpaste, imperialist after shave lotion.” Thankfully, his wife left all of her things behind. Left her dresses behind. Left a half-used lipstick. Twice-worn stockings. Left her Chinese jewelry behind. Trinkets kept by the cash register. “Chinese jewelry is the only new thing in Havana.” With his wife in the American suburbs, Sergio lends out her dresses to his new girlfriends. Poor, smoking, Jesus-saved Cuban girls, Hollywood movie star aspirants. More importantly, Sergio wears his wife’s dresses and likes seeing himself in them more than on his mistresses. He’s a cross-dresser and a fink.
14. “An island is a trap, and to stare out at the sea brings no relief.”
15. Maybe the revolutionary is the modern mystic. Spells. Shakes. Sergio experiences psychological torments during the #bayofpigs #CMC. Every sound anticipates the end of the world. Maybe this is why he prefers things to people. “Objects are less ungrateful than people.” He is seduced by the items in his modest apartment: the bed, an armchair, the sugar and the coffee, but he’s never a mosquito Proust about it. He’s just a bored furniture store owner who longs for what Moravia’s bored & wealthy antihero in Boredom longs for: “an unknown paradise where objects cease to be objects.” This is the drug Taipei’s Paul wants, “less an accumulation of moments than a single arrangement continuously gifted.” This is Massman’s overdue feasibility study. Perhaps America offers this! A place where objects become an experience. Where even simple activities become profound. Single-origin coffee. Floating on a mattress cloud. Sneakers. The heartbreaking and supertragic sugar lobby that keeps spoon feeding us soda. Sitting on the divan and listening to the radio. This divan, this apartment, a one bedroom in a 1960s postcard high-rise, is masterfully depicted in the film. The production designer that gives us Sergio’s charming flat gives us one of those fearless interiors that exists only at the movies. The opposite of Jessica Stein’s Manhattan apartment in Kissing Jessica Stein, with the spiral staircase leading to the bisexual bedroom. Peeping other people’s apartments is the reason I go to the movies. You’re staring at a room for 93 minutes and thinking, you know, I could live in this apartment. I like my apartment now, I guess, but this one is better. It is clearer than my apartment. I would be really smart in this apartment. I could conjure in this apartment. I could have written The Recognitions on this divan. I want to blow this French press and pat away the spunk grinds with that very blue dishtowel.
16. “Things fall apart, let them break. The wreckage is a tranquilizer.”
17. He sees his last friend, Pablo, off to the American suburbs. Like most intellectual buddies they can’t stand each other. Pablo has a car, a haircut, he knows how to enjoy life. Pablo is leaving Cuba, leaving the revolution, because he believes everything the “Voice of America” says is true. Pablo is a counterrevolutionary, and like any counterrevolutionary he is obsessed with eating well. The Voice of America does not go hungry. Bloody steaks in every pocket. Salad is for poor people. “In the tropics, everything ripens and decomposes in a day.” Rottenness. The revolution will not be marbled. White meat in every home. Stateside hunger strike negotiations are described by the prisons as very cordial, although you get the feeling schnapps aren’t served. Gastropubs on every corner, nasogastric tubes in every prison.
18. Like the Egyptian commoner’s whine in 2010, when the IMF food index rose 30 percent—they are eating pigeon and chicken and we are eating beans— Cuban underdevelopment is overshadowed by Cuban hunger. “In the 30s, twenty eggs a peseta and not a Cuban peasant that had a peseta.” Like Coriolanus’s angry peasants: “let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price.” Like au bon pain prices in 1774.
19. “Whenever I see a beautiful woman, I cannot keep from looking furtively at her belly and wondering, what has she eaten today?”
20. These 25 points have only briefly explored the puerile objectification of women in the novel, and/or its relationship to Sergio’s cross-dressing. The misogyny serves the narrator as a verbal tic, a journalistic habit, what to say when he can’t think of anything else to say. Of course this is nothing new. A formality of the form. Cuban women are the only “thing” Sergio objectifies more than the USA. No spoilers here on the arc for his doomed mistress. You can just listen to K. West’s “Blood on the Leaves” a few times. It has brassier trombones.
21. Ezra Pound, in 1913, recording vinyl that necessitated a tube being inserted into the mouth.
22. When I watch Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love I am in the mood for love and noodles. When I read or watch Memories of Underdevelopment, I am in the mood for hunger striking. In Steve McQueen’s Hunger the confessor asks hunger striking Bobby Sands if prisoners are still smoking the bible (cf. Hank Moody in rehab). Bobby Sands, Marlboro Red crackling, tells the priest that in this prison, “we only smoke the Lamentations.” 180 gram original-french-pressing hunger strike. By the end of the novel, by the end of his journal, Sergio eats only cold, raw rice and it will not go down his throat.
24. “No serious writer would speak at a conference with a cigar in his hand.”
25. Quotations from the film and/or the book will appear in quotes, like this one, the first line of both: “They are gone now, everyone who loved me, tormenting me to the last.”