The memory of Thebes

The memory of Thebes

It rains pouring in Madrid. I enter an imposing building on Claudio Coello street –the same one where Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer lived and died at number 7– and ask for the elevator. I am accompanied. The man who waits for me on the sixth floor is elegant and solid, like an old boxer, and he is over 80 years old. He offers me a glass of Navarrese pacharán, an after-dinner drink, and we begin to talk.

He fought at the Bay of Pigs; lost. The fate of that remote and essential battle, which he tells me in detail, pains him as if time had suddenly slowed down in 1961. The story of a war, no matter which side, always arouses sympathy. Unlike books, which look down on the clash from above – like someone calling out the positions on a chess board – a soldier’s narration is visceral.

He and his companions, rifle in hand, disembarked on the Matanzas coast confident that the planned attacks on Castro’s airports had already been launched. Defeated the aviation, the fight on the ground remained, the old-fashioned combat, looking into the face of the enemy. The objective: to fight long enough to justify the arrival of a provisional government, also formed in exile. It did not happen like that, as is known. The troops were trapped between the beach and the air, with the ferocious Havana bombers dropping projectiles over their heads and the US navy stuck at sea.

Castro had never been as defenseless as that day, but after the invasion he became invincible. The propaganda machine hasn’t stopped since then.

It is the biggest betrayal that they have done to the Cubans, he stresses. Castro had never been as defenseless as that day – he bit his nails, walked from one side to the other, calculating defeat – but after the invasion he became invincible. The propaganda machine has not stopped since then.

Imagine –says my interlocutor, pouring himself another drink of pacharán– how the story would have gone if we had won. The October Crisis would not have been possible, those executed would not lie in their graves, no one would have had to go into exile and we would not be so far from home, in this apartment in Madrid.

The propaganda concealed the trauma that Girón meant for the national memory. The formula of calling exiles mercenaries was imposed in the schools and that is how those who were born later learned it. Hardly any writer on the Island dared to violate the story of the invasion established by Castro and those who did so through the symbol –like the late Antón Arrufat– paid dearly.

It is true that The seven against Thebes, which I reread last night, is not limited to the horror, betrayal and fratricide of the Bay of Pigs. But it is already impossible to read it without remembering that expedition whose emblem, for Arrufat, is the siege of the legendary city. The exiled Polynices marches against the tyrant Eteocles. They are brothers; their confrontation is for that reason more regrettable. Someone told Fidel Castro in 1968 – I doubt he read the work himself – that he was Eteocles and that the others, the Girón invaders, were Polinice. Someone made him believe that he was “the hero who saves the people by gesturing firmly.”

The parliaments of the choir and the caudillos – at least until the end, when Arrufat yields to the dead tyrant: “your work is in us; we will know how to continue” – are still shuddering. Where do Eteocles’ harangues come from if not from Castro’s voice, from his code of authority?: “Obedience to a single head engenders the event that saves”; “Thebes is no longer the same; our madness founds something in the world”; “Somehow we will stop justice, with a blow, with a kick, with a scream.”

What worries him most is the fate of his library, which encapsulates a life. Thousands of books about Thebes, about the struggle and the loss of the homeland

As for Pollinice, to all her tragedies -we must not forget that he and his brother are the children of Oedipus- add that of exile: “Wandering through strange places, writing and waiting for letters, while faces, names, columns melt into the memory”. Against his will, he says, he goes off to fight Thebes. The greatest tension is that of his shouting dialogue with Eteocles: “You will achieve nothing,” he cries, “with a barefoot people who wield old spears and rotten shields.”

Before the seventh gate of the city, Polynices is the mirror of Eteocles and asks him to lay down his arms – “abandon the government and leave in silence” – so that Thebes may be saved. In a last moment of clairvoyance, whose discovery Castro would not have tolerated, the tyrant reflected in solitude: “I know now, women, that it is not my brother that matters. I am not advancing against him, but against myself: against that part of Eteocles who is called Pollinice”.

I return to the rain, to the pacharán and to the low light of the flat on Claudio Coello street, where the voice continues to evoke the invasion. In the end, the defeated returned to exile and rebuilt their lives, Thebes was definitively lost. But the memory, the language, the smell of the quagmire and the gunpowder, the drone of the planes before bombing, have never left. In exile we are dying – he affirms – and what we were will be nothing.

What worries him most is the fate of his library, which encapsulates a life. Thousands of books about Thebes, about the struggle and the loss of the homeland. What will happen to them? Who will preserve the memory and complexity, without fanaticism or indoctrination, of the last decades? Sad people, the ones from Cuba, behind the son and the tobacco. “We did not want anything other than to live, to inhabit the earth and distribute the bread, and we engendered hatred and revenge, resentful eyes, resentful lips.” I look out the window at the Madrid sky. It still doesn’t clear.


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