“I believe in the Cuban people’s cause”: Hemingway’s Politics in Yuri Paporov’s Hemingway en Cuba

Posted on: August 12th, 2014 by Wayne Fraser 3 Comments

During the 1950s Ernest Hemingway became increasingly fearful about suspected surveillance by the FBI & IRS, his suspicions contributing to his depression and eventual suicide. No one believed him at the time, not even his last wife, Mary, but Hemingway was constantly vigilant. The FBI files on him are astounding. In August 1947, for example, agent L.B. Nichols reported that “one of the real danger spots in Cuba was centered around Ernest Hemingway.” “We ought to try and keep close to this development,” reads Hoover’s hand-written comment on one confidential memorandum about Hemingway. Hoover’s agents tracked Hemingway’s activities for decades, even conferring with the doctors at the Mayo clinic about their “problem” patient. Even imaginary fears, it turns out, can be based in reality. During the twenty years Hemingway lived in Cuba, he was watched by FBI agents reporting directly to Hoover. At the same time, America’s most famous author was friends with the American ambassador, who approved Hemingway’s vigil against German U-boats threatening Havana’s harbour during WWII. There are, moreover, reports of Hemingway in the late 1950s supporting the Castro revolution. What were his relations with the US government? With the Cuban governments of Batista and then of Castro’s political revolution?

One unexplored source of information about this topic is Kheminguei na Kube by Russian writer Yuri Paporov. In the late-1960s, early 1970s, Paporov, working in Cuba, interviewed everyone he could find who had known Hemingway. Published in the Soviet Union in 1979 in Russian, these interviews were translated into Spanish in 1993 as Hemingway en Cuba. Twenty years later, this relevant resource has not yet been published in English. Because it has not been made accessible to the great majority of Hemingway scholars, mostly unilingual in English, the book is not widely known. One wonders if Paporov’s book is deliberately being ignored or has fallen victim to the Hoover habit of suppressing anything Communist.

James D. Brasch, co-author of Hemingway’s Library, has made a compelling case for the translation of Paporov’s book in his That Other Hemingway: The Master Inventor (2009). With the help of a colleague who translated one chapter from Paporov’s original Russian edition, Brasch presents the perspective of Hemingway’s longtime friend and doctor in Cuba, Jose Luis Herrera. Hemingway had met Herrera in Spain during the civil war, and Herrera had been exiled to Cuba by the Spanish government after the war. Herrera discusses Hemingway’s health and marital conflicts, and also describes at length Hemingway’s “attitude toward the Cuban revolution.” Herrera “reported that, until he died, Hemingway supported both the Spanish Communist Party and the Communist party in Guanabacoa, the capital of the municipio [township] in which [Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home in] San Francisco de Paula is located.” Brasch provides a tantalizing glimpse into the opinions and information available from Paporov’s research and concludes that “Hemingway’s views on Dr. Castro and the revolution were obviously not comfortable or popular during the cold war antagonism of 1959.” Brasch’s That Other Hemingway was self-published in 2009, so perhaps his discoveries are not widely known.

Paporov’s book provides the views of many eyewitnesses of Hemingway’s political opinions and involvement. Paporov writes, “In relation to Hemingway’s support of the initial faith in the Cuban Revolution we have to consider [for example] the testimonies of [Hemingway’s sometime secretary] Roberto Herrera, the chief Editor of El Mundo, Luis Gomez Vanguemert, [artist’s model] Sara Cheméndez and [journalist] Mario Cuchilán.” (p. 392) After 5 pm, “Papa” frequently visited “El Hoyo” Bar, alone or in the company of his new secretary Valery Smith. He invited people he considered interesting to discuss politics with him. One day he was coming out of the Art Museum when he saw the newspaper headlines stating the victory of the army against the “barbudos”—the bearded men. Hemingway became very angry and said that those were all a bunch of lies. Hemingway further claimed that Batista thought announcing victory in the papers would help him get rid of Castro and his followers. Vanguemert gives a further example of Hemingway’s support of the rebels when at another art exhibition Hemingway expressed his disbelief in the rumour that Fidel Castro had been killed by the army. Hemingway yelled that those were lies published by the newspapers that supported Batista, and that they would not be able to kill Fidel: “They [the revolutionaries] would win no matter what,” declared Hemingway. He financially assisted a revolutionary newspaper in support of the communist cause in Cuba, as expressed by some journalists who came to ask “Papa” for money. Hemingway did not expect or receive any explanation of what the money would be used for.

Paporov incorporated into his book an interview with Hemingway from Nov. 1959 by Seattle-based journalist Emmett Watson. Watson quoted Hemingway at length, but a few of his words are the source of my title: “Castro’s movement awakes great hope. I believe in the Cuban people’s cause. . . . I pronounce myself in favour of the Castro revolution, because it has the support of the people. I believe in its cause.” (p. 397) There is great confusion, even doubt, about the existence of this interview. Paporov reported that Castro himself quoted Watson’s interview on Cuban television, while Herrera maintained it was published on the front page of a local newspaper in Idaho. Brasch includes the entire quotation in his book in order “to invite further information on its origin, its authenticity, and its exact contents,” and he concludes, “the possibility that it is a fabrication must be entertained” (p. 128). However, a Google search in January 2014 found evidence of the interview’s existence: the Milwaukee Sentinel of March 11, 1959 published Watson’s “Sun Valley Interview” with Hemingway and much of the wording echoes the language of the passage quoted by Paporov and translated in Brasch. Furthermore, Herrara claimed that Hemingway recorded his views for a local radio station, but “it was suppressed and no paper in the U.S. reproduced the article.” Herrara might have been mistaken, for on January 23, 1959, page one of the Eugene [Oregon] Register-General prominently displayed an article, “Hemingway Defends Cuban Trials,” based on a telephone interview with the writer. Hemingway’s support of the Castro revolution, his political activity while in Cuba, may indeed have been muted in the American press, as Herrara maintained, out of embarrassment or fear or politics, but there is evidence that Hemingway’s views were in the news.

Paporov’s Hemingway en Cuba is not all hero-worship of Hemingway nor entirely a discussion of politics. The book also presents differing portraits of Hemingway’s relationship with Cuban art and artists. The Cuban journalist Edmundo Desnoes expressed in the Mexican magazine, Siempre, that “Fidel Castro was extremely magnanimous when he declared that ‘all of Hemingway’s writings supported human rights’: [Hemingway] lived in Cuba as a retired Englishman in one of its colonies, sympathizing with the Cuban people but looking down on them from La [Finca] Vigía.” (p. 404) Desnoes criticized Hemingway for writing in English and publishing his books in the USA, dismissing him as “just a wealthy traveler, who stayed in the most elegant hotels and drank expensive champagne with black beluga caviar.” In contrast, writer Julio Travieso remembered when he visited Hemingway’s home in the year of the Revolution (1959) and liked his “simplicity and practicality, without any superficial luxuries.” Travieso mentioned that many thought, out of arrogance and contempt, Hemingway rarely had any contact with Cuban writers, but Travieso did not agree with this view. He believed that Cuban writers at that time were “scarce with scant production.” Therefore, why would Hemingway know them? “It is not surprising at all that he would not know the Cuban writers of the pre-revolutionary period.” Furthermore, Travieso believed that “Hemingway did not like to have frequent interaction with American writers and intelligentsia … [this was] the attitude of a cultivated man that neither loved intellectuals nor led an intellectual life.” (p. 416) On the contrary, Paporov’s collection of interviews with so many of Hemingway’s contemporaries and colleagues portrays Hemingway politically and intellectually engaged in lively discussion with the issues and the people of his time and place.

There is much to be discovered in Paporov’s book which then needs to be corroborated by comparison and cross-reference to other material. For example, Norberto Fuentes has published Hemingway in Cuba and Ernest Hemingway: Rediscovered, both readily available from the outset in English. Fuentes’s Hemingway in Cuba, translated from Spanish in 1984, has been criticized by biographer Jeffery Meyers, yet praised by Allie Baker of The Hemingway Project. There are certainly inaccuracies in both books, but the relevant point is that Paporov needs to be translated like Fuentes in order to receive both blame and praise, in order for us to discover the true gen. It was exciting to see, in the Fall 2013 issue of The Hemingway Review, Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera quoting both Fuentes and Paporov in the same sentence in his exploration of the connotations of Cuban dialect for understanding Hemingway’s relationship with the art and people of that island nation. The article highlights the limitations placed on scholarly use of Paporov without a solid grasp of Russian or Spanish.

Walter Houk, a diplomat at the US embassy in Havana from 1949 to 1952 whose wedding reception was hosted by Hemingway at Finca Vigia, stated in a recent interview in the Boston Globe, “The Cuban years are not well known because the great biographers didn’t go there.” (Boston Globe, May 4, 2013) Mary Hemingway arranged for Carlos Baker to visit the Finca after Hemingway’s death, not once but twice, but Baker cancelled both times at the last minute. One wonders why he did so. Brasch’s theory is that Charles Scribner, on the board of Princeton at the time, suggested support of Hemingway’s life and interest in Cuba would be in poor taste given the politics of the times. Canadians, in contrast, have enjoyed a relatively open relationship with Cuba, in great part because of the influence of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who developed a friendship with Castro, went to Cuba on an official state visit with his wife, who especially was admired by Castro, and their infant son, and later returned on private visits. Castro attended Trudeau’s funeral in 2000, sat alongside former President Carter, and consoled the family, notably Trudeau’s son Justin, current leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and possibly the next Prime Minister. Being Canadian allowed Brasch and Sigman to gain Mary Hemingway’s support to visit the Finca to catalogue the library; she wrote a letter directly to Castro asking for his permission, which he granted.

Are past and current American politics barring access to valuable information? So many of the FBI files on Hemingway are redacted to this day. Norberto Fuentes, once a friend of Castro, fled Cuba and resides now in the USA and has published anti-Castro articles and books. Perhaps both factors contribute to his successful publication in English. In contrast, Paporov was a citizen of the Soviet Union, a former KGB agent, a biographer of Trotsky, and to my knowledge he is a resident of Russia today. Paporov doesn’t have the American connections Fuentes has or the political correctness acceptable to Americans. Does the Cold War fear of the USSR, of Communism, lurk and hover over Paporov and his book? Cuban-American relations today do seem to be improving. Barack Obama significantly shook hands with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Current co-operative ventures between the Finca Vigia Foundation and Cuban colleagues with regard to preserving and restoring Hemingway’s home, his library and his papers are encouraging, but publication of Paporov, with its reminders of past political animosities, might cause embarrassment and upset these fledgling joint undertakings.

Politics, past or current, should not hinder the free exploration of literature and ideas, but alas, it happens everywhere. Consider the publication history of Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed (1930): it was criticized for presenting an unflattering picture of Canadian troops in WWI, and the novel was ignored until its re-publication in 1970. The title was briefly parodied in Hemingway’s story “The Natural History of the Dead.” Consider also the fate of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote Prussian Nights, a long poem describing the Russian rape and slaughter of East Prussians in January 1945 which he witnessed as a captain in the Soviet Red Army. He was banished to the Soviet gulag for years. “Politics,” says Canadian author Margaret Atwood, “is everything that involves who gets to do what to whom. . . And politics also has to do with what kind of conversations you have with people, and what you feel free to say to someone, what you don’t feel free to say.” Do we have the freedom today to reveal and study the politics of Hemingway during his long tenure in Cuba?

Such intriguing political questions were the motivation and background when my wife, Dr. Eleanor Johnston, and I created a novel about Hemingway’s last days in Cuba, Hemingway’s Island, to our knowledge the only fictional treatment of Hemingway’s politics in Cuba. Our young narrator, a Canadian Doctoral candidate in American Literature, explains to his friends in Cuba all about Paporov’s book and his desire to see it translated: “I have this goal to get it published in English because then it will be easier to use Paporov’s ideas in my thesis. Imagine, a book written by a Russian about Hemingway in 1950’s Cuba! It’s my silver mine.” Our narrator is wrong: Paporov’s Hemingway in Cuba would be a gold mine for us all!

3 Responses

  1. Michel DRUJON says:

    Emmett Watson related how he got the “Sun Valley interview” and summarized it in the Seattle Times, july 6, 1999 : “Hemingway’s Writing, At Its Best, Made His Literary Audience Care.” (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19990706&slug=2970248)
    His piece for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4 1959, is reprinted in his book “My Life in Print”, Lesser Seattle pub, 1993.
    See also Erik D. Mickelson, “Seattle by and by: The life and times of Emmett Watson”, University of Montana 2002, p. 31-33. (http://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6077&context=etd)
    By the way, did you keep a copy of the Milwaukee Sentinel article, March 11 1959 (Google search in their archives is no longer available)?
    Best, MD

    • Wayne Fraser says:

      Michel, thank you so much for your response to my article and for sharing the information about Emmett Watson. I am shocked to learn that his interview with Hemingway for the Sentinel is no longer available online. I have a screen shot of it, but for some reason it will not upload to this website. I’ll try to send you a copy via email. Thanks again. wf

  2. Andrew Feldman says:

    I’d love that Emmettt Watson Screenshot if you’ve got it?

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