Sunday, March 08, 2015

"José Martí: A Revolutionary Life" by Alfred J. López


Let not this be mistaken as my review of Alfred J. López's José Martí: A Revolutionary Life (University of Texas Press, 2014). This work which became, immediately upon publication, the first and only professional biography of Martí, deserves better of me than this cursory note. To have reached that preeminence before López's biography required little more than to include an index, footnotes and bibliography. All these are missing without exception from previous attempts in Spanish and understandably so, since most of Martí's so-called biographies are prose poems that chronicle the author's particular devotion to him and do not require that fact to be documented. In English, there have been biographies which contained the requisite academic apparatus but whose text made it abundantly clear that these resources, if consulted at all, had been misunderstood or subordinated to a grand plan to distort Martí's life and thought and drive him into a political rut which he had always consciously avoided. López's effort is notable, and, indeed, singular, because it is neither hagiographic nor tendentious; it gathers the facts, from the widest range of sources, and presents them objectively and in concert. No aspect of Martí's life is slighted in favor of another. No subject is avoided because it does not rise to the gravitas which is usually imposed on Martí. The facts are enough to give Martí his proper stature and they do. It is not López's driving concern to instill in you love and admiration for Martí; but love and admiration you will feel, after reading this book, even if you had never heard of Martí before.

It is remarkable that no friend or close acquaintance of Martí's — not even Gonzalo de Quesada, who was nearest to being his Boswell — ever attempted to write his biography. We owe to his disciples only reminiscences of Martí short on facts and long on praise, which assure us of the reverence which he inspired in life but do not bring us closer to the man himself. This is indeed most unfortunate but perhaps inevitable: those who viewed him at the closest proximity were most aware of how truly daunting was the task of capturing for posterity the full extent of his genius and his humanity. To have attempted and failed to do him justice was simply a risk that none of them wished to take out of regard for him and fear of damaging their own reputations.

It is also to be lamented — and López laments it, too — that Carlos Ripoll, who wrote more than 20 books on Martí and hundreds of articles and pamphlets on every imaginable aspect of his life, never attempted a comprehensive one-volume biography. It was not from want of encouragement. All his friends, including me, suggested it to him. Indeed, I tried to convince him that he had already written such a biography and published it serially, if not sequentially, over 40 years. All he had to do was to put all his articles in chronological order, eliminate any repetitions and create transitions when necessary, and the biography would be a fait accompli. Of course, such a task of condensation would have baffled if not defeated even the editors of Reader's Digest. But time was precious to him and he wanted to use what little remained to continue exploring other facets of Martí's life and searching for the new and unknown, which was his life's passion. Ripoll was always too occupied making new discoveries about Martí — that is, changing and augmenting the facts of his biography — to actually write his biography, or, rather, to take a cache image of something that was always in flux thanks to him. But now that his pen is stilled, it is possible, indeed essential, for someone to synthesize his discoveries and give us a biography of Martí that incorporates them, which, by virtue of that fact, will be the definitive biography.

I will not say that this is the biography that Ripoll would have written if he had had the time and inclination. I will say, however, that it is the closest approach that we will ever have to a one-volume biography by Ripoll. Moreover, López's admiration for Ripoll is the surest guarantee of his intellectual honesty and his impeccable lineage as a martiano. We quote from the Acknowledgments page of his book: "Astute readers will note one particular name that figures prominently in this book's bibliography. Carlos Ripoll (1922-2011) was the preeminent Martí scholar of his time, a tirelessly prolific researcher whose work on Martí remains unmatched for quality and range of vision. Although I have not always agreed with Ripoll's conclusions regarding certain aspects of Martí's life, I owe him a great debt for the substantial contribution his lifetime of work has made to this book."

No one who knows how vilified Carlos Ripoll was and still is among the official falsifiers of Martí's legacy in Cuba could imagine that praising him in such terms would ingratiate López to Ripoll's enemies and allow him free access to Cuban archives, which cannot be consulted without prior authorization from the Council of State. In fact, López, who was born in the United States, has never set foot in Cuba. And it is just as well, because the regime has decimated those archives, selling their choicest items to collectors abroad and not even bothering to preserve Xerox copies which would be proof of their sordid business. Ashes and sackcloth is all that awaits future historians in Cuba. To write about Cuba's past they will have to search the world for documentary evidence because nothing of value will remain in Cuba (fortunately, much of our history is in foreign archives).

Castro, quite literally, has robbed us of our present and our past; and those who have reconstructed that past, like Ripoll and López, have performed a service for our country. Of course, there have also been opportunists, like Louis Pérez and Laura Lomas, who, without compunction of any kind, have placed themselves at the service of the Castro regime and been rewarded for their obeisance (Pérez with a medal and Lomas by having her error-filled book mercifully ignored in Cuba). López should not be classed with them. Certainly his detractors should not announce before judging him that they have not and will not read his book, nor should they condemn him by association because they dislike some of his old college professors. They should read the book so that they can realize that a pernicious influence is harmless to a superior mind, and that the truth remains the truth even if mishandled by others before finally reaching unsullied hands. We are condemning ourselves to irrelevance if we dismiss by intuition what merits cognition, and what's more, recognition.

Before the publication of his book, López confided to me that he feared that it would become a target for hardliners on either side of the Florida Straits. I assured him that no reaction would be the most likely reaction. The official historians on the island, whose greatest shame is that in 56 years they have not been able to produce even one original biography of Martí, will likely remain silent if only not to call attention to that fact. As for the exile community, we have no official body to regulate the dissemination of Martí's works, as in Communist Cuba. I told López that he was free to write whatever he wanted without fear of retribution or even of criticism, since our veneration of Martí is too ingrained to take seriously anybody else's affirmation or denial. He was surprised that his book has indeed received a most cordial reception among Cuban exiles in Miami, not the death threats and firebombs which he expected (his old college professors, who lived in fear of assassination for reasons which they alone know, had no doubt warned him not to put himself in the crosshairs of their erstwhile bogeymen). So all had indeed gone exactly as I predicted to him, and López was convinced that toleration was now the order of the day among Cuban exiles, contrary to all he had heard from our critics, when, like a bad dream, the old specters from the past came out for one last bow.

It was my old nemesis Babalú which chose to dump on López's biography, after making it clear as a point of honor that the author of the blog post as well as the commenters had not read the book under review (except for perusing the illustrations). It is at times like this that I feel I did not waste two years of my life documenting in a thousand essays the shortcomings of that blog (which, incidentally, are much less today because I shamed all its principal writers into retirement). But I, like Ripoll, must move on, now only stopping to right the injustices that literally roll at my feet, as this one did.

Please note the crazy spelling of the URL below:

http://babalublog.com/2015/03/06/jose-marrti-a-revolutiofnary-life/

3 comments:

Vana said...

Manuel:

Must be a good read if you tell us so, I shall have to read it myself.

Thank you my friend for bringing it to our attention.

P S. My head is not in a good place right now, will write you about it.

Christian C. said...

Thanks for the heads up--hopefully this book will relieve me of my pitiful state of ignorance on the subject of Martí's life (a state I imagine most people are in).

I also happened to come across a tattered $1 copy of your book of translations. My Spanish reading comprehension is shamefully poor so the side-by-side format is ideal.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Christian C.:

Good to see you commenting again. Tattered copies of my books are always my favorites. It's the pristine unopened copies that make me sad since my translation was published 15 years ago.

Alfred J. López's biography has my highest recommendation. You will be a better Cuban for having read it.

It has caused quite an uproar among those who review books without reading them. I direct your attention to:

Babalú's Auto de Fe for Martí: A Revolutionarty Life