There are not many documents providing an intimate and candid look at José Lezama Lima. There is little more than his correspondence with José Rodríguez Feo (1945-1953), a few notes from his diaries (1939-1949 and 1956-1958) and the letters he wrote to his sisters Eloísa and Rosa, in exile since 1961.
This family correspondence, which lasted until his death in 1976, contains some of the greatest letters in the history of Cuban Literature. Aside from the anthology-worthy status of many of the letters, these missives also weave a whole family novel and a chronicle of an era: the sisters' departure, the first Christmas with his family divided, the lines and the shortages affecting life daily in Cuba, the pleas for basic items from his exiled family, the arguments amongst the siblings about who ought to be with their mother, the reunion plans that were frustrated by the official travel ban placed on the writer, the Padilla Case, the critical success of Paradiso, censorship, ostracism...
The Cuban-American director Adriana Bosch, who has written and directed biographical documentaries about Ulysses S. Grant, Ike Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, the Rockefellers, the Churchills and Fidel Castro, and has won an Emmy, a Christopher, and two Peabody Awards, is now working on these letters and preparing her documentary Cartas a Eloísa (Letters to Eloísa), having launched a campaign to raise funds to finance the productionof that work.
Adriana, how did you discover Lezama Lima, his name and his work? And Lezama Lima's letters to his sister Eloísa?
Actually, I found Lezama Lima through Cartas a Eloísa.... I had seen the first international edition of Paradiso in the year ‘72 or ‘73, at a girlfriend’s house, and later, after the publication of the translation into English, but I had not paid attention to it, since, like so many readers, I found it difficult to read after the first pages, in which Cemí remembers his childhood.
It was not until many years later, when I was making a documentary about Fidel Castro, that the letters reached my hands in the edition that Eloísa Lezama Lima created, I believe in the year '79. I can say, without a doubt, that I found it the most revealing testimony I had ever read about the relationship between the Cuban State and intellectuals. A testament against totalitarianism worthy of Hanna Arendt, and as important as the letters of Anne Frank against the Holocaust.
I immediately thought about making a documentary based on those letters and then I began, with workmanlike discipline, to read about Lezama and finally, Lezama himself.
I will not say that I have managed to decipher all his mysteries, but some I have, including his profound humanity and sensitivity, which ended up becoming his main vulnerability, exploited by his oppressors...
Tell me about the presence of that humanity and sensitivity in Letters to Eloísa.
They appear there in the most everyday thing – his description of how to extend the lives of the razors he received from Eloísa by sharpening them on a Greek vase from his collection – to the most profound, when he describes the sound of his own lungs at the end of his suffering, in January 1976, during his confinement at Trocadero.
The letters reveal not only the physical and moral deterioration of his surroundings, described, following a phrase from Nietzsche's Zarathustra, "like a desert that grows," but also that of a soul beset by loneliness, terror and the most important loss of all: that of his family and friends.
You traveled to Havana in search of images for your documentary. Were you able to film at Trocadero 162?
On my first trip to Havana, in 2011, the Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas granted me access to Cuba's institutions, which included the Trocadero 162 Museum. Due to restrictions imposed by the museum I was not to film there, although I was able to take photographs, for which I used a D5 digital camera.
I returned to Cuba in 2013, and at that time the house/museum was closed for repairs. Later, it was possible to film the scenes that appear in the crowdfunding campaign, featuring quality production features and direction, and an actor who really looks like Lezama.
And I hope to return to get more images and scenes in the house, if possible.
Did Deputy Minister Rojas know that you were going to work on Lezama Lima's family letters?
I didn’t really specify the details of the work. I simply spoke of a biographical documentary about Lezama Lima, to include the period of his death and his censorship. As a documentary maker, I believe that each individual contributes what they can and what they want to history, and I didn’t go to Cuba with the purpose of inciting a confrontation or pushing an agenda.
Actually, my intention was to obtain from Cuba I could, and to find witnesses of Lezama's life, his friends and followers, both on the island and off it. What I did not want was to make a documentary about Lezama Lima exclusively from a perspective of exile, as Lezama lived and died at his home, in his city, and on his island.
Aside from all these considerations, the letters, at the end of the day, speak for themselves.
That's for sure. These letters are the only volume of Lezamian writings that has not yet been published in Cuba. The regime fought them when they were published for the first time by Verbum, in Madrid, arguing that they were false, that Eloísa Lezama Lima had invented them, and expedited the publishing of Lezama Lima texts sympathetic of the 1959 Revolution, in order to offset the impact of these letters.
I have to add that in Cuba I was surprised that the problems of intellectuals and the State were spoken about so openly, although I realized that the answers were generally limited to the so-called "Five Grey Years", as referred to by Ambrosio Fornet – although always qualified by the observation that "it was not five years, nor was it grey".
I understand that, in your work, you initially faced the challenge of not having any Lezama Lima footage. As far as I know, there is one minute and a half of a meeting at UNEAC, without sound, and nothing more. How did you overcome this difficulty? And what other difficulties did you encounter?
It is true that there is only a short video of Lezama, which has forced us to exercise some creativity in terms of the images in the documentary. After long deliberations we discarded the idea of a documentary based on recreations featuring actors in favor of a story where the only "recreated" character is Lezama Lima, played by an actor who writes, smokes, and simply exists within the confinement of his house in Trocadero.
These images were shot after transforming the cold Trocadero 162 museum into the house that the poet actually inhabited. We also shot images of Havana in order to capture the context of the city during Lezama's life - some real, and others, metaphorical.
The interviews conducted to date suggested images. Reynaldo González, for example, describes a tense vigil for Lezama with Maria Luisa, with the body at a funeral chapel, and the many officials who approached, including from State Security. After Lezama's death, Alberto Lauro Pino states having found, among the piles of papers lying about at Trocadero 162, the original manuscript of Paradiso, which he hung out to dry on the patio clotheslines...
However, the most precise and marvelous suggestions are in letters themselves, whether in Lezama's daily descriptions, or in references to his state of mind. Lezama's suffering is deep and explicit, and the letters are full of references to it. Lezama's very breathing, affected by asthma, becomes one more voice: his inhalations, sleepless nights, the clock that marks the passing hours, and a tea prepared for a visitor that never arrives, and grows cool on the table.
We also include many photos, spanning from his childhood to his last days and letters; written, of course, in his own hand, whose originals were donated by Eloísa Lezama Lima to the Library of the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection
There is a film of Lezama Lima's burial, footage apparently ordered by the director of the ICAIC, Alfredo Guevara, which we hope still exists and that may come to light one day. It must be in the ICAIC or State Security archives at present.
As I understand it, there are some images and files of Lezama at State Security, but I didn't know that the funeral had been filmed, and certainly not that it was ordered by Alfredo Guevara. I'm very excited about the challenge of trying to get that recording...
Before you mentioned Reynaldo González. Who are the interviewees in the documentary?
In Cuba, besides Reynaldo González, I interviewed Roberto Méndez, Margarita Mateo, a very accessible Expression teacher; Enrique Saínz, who spoke about Origins and Lezama's literature; and I also did a very strong and emotional interview of César López.
In the USA my two main interviews were with Emilio Bejel, author of Gay Cuban Nation and Poet of Image, about Lezama Lima; and with the historian Lillian Guerra, who, although she is not a "Lezamian," spoke very well of his political and historical context.
And, of course, I have spoken off camera with countless people, and so far these interviews have served to promote the work.
Eloísa died and Rosa Lezama Lima had died before, but nephews of Lezama live in Miami or another place of exile, I suppose. Did you contact them? Has the Lezama Lima family helped you?
I met Eloísa and had a long conversation with her in Miami. She was a wonderful woman, very polite and cultured. Unfortunately, she died before I could interview her.
I also met her son Orlandito, and I have been in contact with the descendants of Rosa Lezama Lima, and I have even visited the house. I have those interviews pending.
Lezama's letters to his sisters contain tremendous phrases. I remember this one, which speaks of some strangers who, stuck with him in the long money exchange lines, showed his mother some kindness: "I saw the great Cuban kindness so close that it almost scared me". It is a phrase worthy of a Dostoevsky character. If you had to choose some phrases from those letters, what would they be?
"If there is no freedom, there is no possibility, there is no image, there is no poetry. If there is no freedom there can be no truth".(September 1963)
"The most insignificant things become gigantic. An onion peel can be as rare as an Etruscan coin"(September 26, 1966)
From a letter of April 1971, following the trial and self-confession of Heberto Padilla, in which Lezama Lima was accused of being "counterrevolutionary": "I stayed to face the terrible fate of the disappearance of our family... You will understand what I have suffered. I live in fear and the most devastating melancholy. Recent weeks have been the most tragic and desolate that I have ever experienced... "
From August of 1974, these phrases flatly refute the notion that Lezama did not leave Cuba because he did not like to travel: "I am at a moment in my life when I need to travel, see some other landscapes. The resonance that my work found abroad would allow me to do this, but Ananke, fatality, is there with her fixed, Cyclops eyes."
This is a letter that always makes me cry, because it comes after several letters in which Lezama talks about the many times he has been denied the right to leave...
And finally, this one that he wrote to his sister in October 1972: "I am writing to you from the Los Jazmines hotel, located in the Viñales Valley, which, as you will remember, is one of the most beautiful places in Cuba (...) the valley shines in all its splendor and slender grace. To contemplate it is to feel the weight of the whole history of Cuba, and all that which never happened, but rather remained just a possibility...
"That which never happened, but rather remained just a possibility..." "Adriana, thank you for this interview, and good luck on your documentary, which we look forward to seeing.
Those interested in contributing to the production of the Letters to Eloisa documentary can find the fundraising campaign here.
There are various editions of José Lezama Lima's family correspondence. The most recent is in paper and PDF: Letters to Eloísa and other correspondence (Verbum, Madrid, 2013).