A Writer With More Talent Than Fear / Angel Santiesteban

Literature has its decorum, as do those who live by it. José Martí

Nelton Pérez is a Cuban writer who recently won the Alejo Carpentier prize, which is the highest literary award for writers on a national scale, and also the best financially-endowed prize, comparable only to the Casa de las Américas International Prize.

His winning novel “Infidente”, deals with José Martí’s stay at the El Abra estate, on the Isle of Pines, following his release from political prison, when Sr. Sardá, a friend of his father’s, invited him to recover his good health there, while he awaited his deportation to Spain.

Taking as his starting point the limited historical information about Martí’s stay on the island, Nelton recreates, imagines, supposes — and he does it so well that the reader ends up believing that the letters written by the young Martí are real. Once when he visited me in prison, I had the privilege of him bringing me the manuscript.

I admire Nelton for his talent and quiet perseverance. He hasn’t lobbied or asked for concessions of any kind in order to achieve what properly belongs to him based on his genius. In fact, he has passed several years, as patient as a priest, waiting for the Cuban Book Institute (I.C.L) to publish his excellent volume of stories, “Apuntes de Josué 1994” (“Notes of Josué 1994″),which contains some subject matter uncomfortable for the government, i.e. the stampede of the boat people* during the year referenced in the title, from which one can appreciate the pain of the Cuban people–above all that of the young people desperate to try their luck on the Straits of Florida, to achieve their dream of getting to Miami.

Every year, Nelton calls Rogelio Riverón, who acts as the boss and devotes some minutes to excuses, which I assume are meant to be a joke; including that one of the characters mentions my name and the title of one of my books, and that the censors won’t accept it.

I remember that it was Riverón who assembled that anthology with the prizewinners in the Carpentier and Cortázar competitions, leaving out Jorge Luis Arzolla and me; I presume that Riverón was obeying precise orders from the then-President of the Cuban Institute of Books (ICL), the Taliban Iroel Sánchez. But it is best that history take cares of placing everyone in the position they have earned, whether by honesty or dishonesty.

Nelton Pérez once again demonstrates — by means of his own talent — that he is a great writer, and this creative greatness is comparable only to how great a human being he is. In particular, I can assure you that he was the only writer who has visited me in prison, and I was the one who always had my apartment full of friends and colleagues.

On many occasions, Nelton has set out on a journey over land and sea from the city of Gerona, just to see me during visiting hours and exchange a warm embrace. Nelton has never embarked upon a political speech to me. He is not interested in why I might find myself imprisoned, because, being a friend, a brother more than anything, he only knows that one of his family is jailed.

But as if that weren’t a good enough reason, Nelson knows I am innocent. He was always at my side. When a bond was imposed to ensure that I would not travel to the Festival of the Word in Puerto Rico in 2009, he went to the bank to deposit the sum in question, and then, when he found me in prison, when he wanted to pay it, he read in the official documents that the  requirement had in fact been imposed by the State Security, which didn’t even have the modesty to hide its desperate hand, on account of my rebellious attitude toward the dictatorship.

Nelton suffers my imprisonment as much as or more than I do. He is the most honest person, with the finest feelings, of anyone I know. He is himself a prize, as friend, husband and father, who, unlike others, did not keep his distance for fear of reprisals for not accepting the pressures applied by the Culture  functionaries and the State Security officials.

This prize will not be the last we will hear of Nelton Pérez, because his talent includes also writing poetry, songs, and directing a literary workshop in his town, thus providing help to the newest writers.

Brother Nelton, when I learned of your prize, I don’t recall having been so emotional when I won it myself in 2001 for my book, “The Children Nobody Wanted.”

Sending my happiness to you with an embrace.

 Ángel Santiesteban-Prats

January 2015. Jaimanitas Border Patrol Prison Unit, Havana.

*Translator’s note: 36,000 Cubans launched themselves in makeshift boats in the summer of that year, to try to get to the United States.

Translated by GH

16 January 2015

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