Dalia Acosta | [url=http://www.ipsnews.net]http://www.ipsnews.net[/url]
The modest house in the Cuban capital where Jose Lezama Lima wrote “Paradiso,” one of the most outstanding Latin American novels of the 20th century, reopened its doors after a lengthy restoration effort banished the effects of time and mildew.
It took around four years to restore the house-museum due to the deterioration of the building’s plumbing and the persistent humidity which had damaged the walls and filled the house with mildew odors since the time when the writer and his family lived there.
“More and more tourists have been coming,” said Elisa Rodríguez, a neighbour who said she was happy because the restoration had removed “the damp patches that were always there, and that could even be seen in family photos.”
Among Cubans, however, the place is barely known. Lezama Lima’s work is a key point of reference for Cuban literature, but it is relatively unknown among the average Cuban, being largely limited to intellectual and gay circles.
Lezama Lima fell foul of official policies against homosexuality in the early 1960s, and he paid for the international success of his most famous book, “Paradiso”, with ostracism at home. Cuban critics attacked what they considered its “Europeanised” language, erotic scenes and the openly homosexual chapter eight.
The writer died in 1976, at the age of 66, before a new edition of “Paradiso” was printed in Cuba, leaving behind several unpublished works and the unfinished novel “Oppiano Licario.” News of his death was marked by only a few lines in the local press, a state monopoly in this socialist island nation.
“Paradiso” was not reprinted until 28 years after it was originally published. Today, Lezama Lima’s books are among the most coveted on both the official and black markets of Cuba, and fetch a high price.
“I find it hard to believe he lived in such a small house with so much noise outside,” said Ana Saenz, a Spanish tourist surprised by the humbleness of the dwellings and the lack of privacy from the neighbours’ gaze.
The museum, now included in cultural tourism promotion packages, is found near the historic centre of Havana, a few blocks from the seaside Malecon promenade and near the area that was the commercial and business centre of Havana in the early 20th century.
The building could go unnoticed if it were not for the Solomonic columns which were a frequent feature in portraits of Lezama Lima with his air of distinction, accompanied by his inseparable cigar, and invariably dressed in a guayabera—a loose-fitting, lightweight shirt widely used in the Caribbean.
From this Havana street, the author of the book of poems “Muerte de Narciso” (Death of Narcissus) in 1937 marked the literary direction taken by a generation of writers, launched journals like Nadie Parecía (No One Seemed) and Verbum, and found himself at the centre of loud controversies.
“Lezama always lived in the same house on Trocadero [street], rendering it famous for ever,” Cuban novelist and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante—who has lived in exile in Europe for more than 40 years—wrote in “Vidas para leerlas” (Lives to Be Read).
The writer never even left 162 Trocadero street to travel outside Havana, as he always associated journeys with death after his father died from influenza on a visit to the United States when he was just a child.
This house, with its tiny living room where barely six people can sit comfortably, was where Lezama Lima played host to any intellectual visiting the island. Guests included Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, one of his admirers.
The small house also formed a think-tank for leading Cuban cultural journals. In the first half of the 20th century, the Orígenes (Origins) group—including the poets Cintio Vitier, Eliseo Diego and Fina García Marruz—came up with the idea of their publications there.
“He lived surrounded by books, papers, galleys and proofs (from 1937 he was eternally involved in publishing ventures: magazines, books, publications) and his asthma fed on the dust which accumulated on the papers and books,” said Cabrera Infante.
Several wooden bookcases hold around 400 books from Lezama Lima’s original library, a collection mainly made up of books from Spain, France and Mexico, most of which are now held in Cuba’s National Library.
The museum also holds the most valuable exhibition of works by Cuban avant-garde artists renowned since the 1940s, outside the National Museum of Fine Arts.
The paintings and sculptures were given to Lezama Lima over the decades by his friends, many of whom made enthusiastic contributions to the covers and pages of the Orígenes literary journal over its ten-year lifetime.
And until her death three years ago, visitors could walk a few steps up the block to see Nelida Rodríguez Yero, Lezama Lima’s last domestic help, who cared for him and satisfied his appetite for traditional Cuban dishes, especially syrup puddings.
“Lezama liked good cooking, cigars, spending hours conversing and treating everyone with great courtesy,” said Nora Jimenez, a neighbour of humble origins in her 80s, who regularly passed the time of day with Lezama Lima.
Lezama Lima’s enduring fans often come to the building to imagine the years when the poet and essayist dubbed his home “the university of 162 Trocadero street” and was visited by young people to whom he helped open the door to the worlds of poetry and philosophy.
The museum also holds his collection of Asian miniatures and original furniture from the study where Lezama Lima wrote most of his works. Later on, he wrote by hand in the living room, sitting in an armchair facing the front door.
“The house is more than a museum, it is a veritable temple to this inveterate resident of Havana,” journalist Armando Chávez, who specialises in culture, told IPS. The rooms are decorated with sculptures, ceramic plates and figures that were described in “Paradiso.”
Lezama Lima would “wander the city for hours, going from bookshop to bookshop, or sit for lengthy periods of time on a bench along Havana’s Paseo del Prado, with the breeze easing his asthma,” said Chávez.