Two on One: I Gave You All I Had by Zo

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Two on One    

Cuban Revolutionary?

by Achy Obejas and Gustavo Pérez Firmat

The Story: The novel, set mostly in Havana just before and after the Cuban Revolution, follows young Cuca — not coincidentally, Cuban vernacular for female genitalia — and her obsessive, nostalgic love for the slick Juan Perez, who deflowers her, deserts her and later returns only to commit the same sins for the same selfish reasons.

OBEJAS: Zoé Valdés’ I Gave You All I Had, about one of those tragic love affairs so familiar to Latin American literature, is the Cuban writer’s second attempt to break into the U.S. market.


Her first shot, Yocandra in the Land of Nothing, or La Nada Cotidiana, &#151 with one of the worst translated titles in existence — did poorly but touched on all the things she’s known for: graphic sexuality, easy politics, vaguely disguised portraits of real people.


I Gave You All I Had is better translated and seems to be a better story in some ways. It’s more literature than memoir, but it goes overboard with some of the other elements: considerably more sexually graphic, it’s also infinitely less erotic. Its politics come down with a heavy thud, and it evidences so much self-referential material — this time to Valdés’ other work — that it loses some of its vibrancy.


PÉREZ FIRMAT: For once we agree about something. (I’m worried!) You’re right, I Gave You All I Had isn’t nearly as hot or as moving or even as outrageous as some of Zoé’s other novels. It goes on too long, the inside jokes about her and other Cuban writers’ work tend to be annoying, and the sex all but disappears after the first few chapters — giving way to an account of the protagonists physical and spiritual disintegration. (But perhaps we should be grateful for that — I can’t imagine that sex scenes involving a toothless woman would have been particularly arousing.)


The problem, if it is a problem, is that anger isn’t sexy, and this novel oozes rage. Zoé is too pissed off — can you say “empingada”? — to do anything but vent. That’s why I think that the “you” of the title isn’t really a reference to Cuca’s lover but to the revolution, to the way it has chewed up and screwed up so many lives. Valdés has said that in Castro’s Cuba the moment of orgasm is the only time anyone is really free; it follows that the way to avoid being fucked over is to fuck over and over.


That’s what people do in her other novels, and what gives these books their vibrancy and their vibes: sex becomes a tool (oops, sexist metaphor), I mean an instrument, a resource, in the struggle to carve out a little piece of life that is not controlled by the state. In I Gave You All I Had, no such margin of freedom exists. That’s what the title suggests, and I’m not sure why.

OBEJAS: Hmm . . . So you find her other novels hot, moving and outrageous?


Because, to be frank, I think she’s mostly hot air, a fantastically timed phenomenon that serves a lot of different purposes, none of them literary.


I find her novels graphic but not especially arousing. Even in Yocandra, just as she was getting somewhere with me, she’d blow it with some sudden deep or much-too-political revelation. I got warm, I even felt ticklish, but I never got hot. (And I read it in one day, aloud, alternating chapters with my girlfriend, at dawn on the malecón, on a sugary beach outside Havana, and on a bench in the park in front of the presidential palace with a sprinkling of summer stars in the sky — in other words, perfect setting and timing.) With I Gave You All I Had, I had the same problem. Plus there were just enough explicit references to venereal diseases to make me want to vomit.


I find a lot of her work infuriating — if you read Yocandra carefully, you realize her biggest complaint about the “Special Period” was that there wasn’t enough electricity to turn on her computer. (And in real life, Zoé spent those years in Paris attached to the Cuban embassy.) I Gave You All I Had — with its relentless misery and blame and its never-ending catalogue of scarcities — seems a deliberate response to those critics who assailed the first book precisely on political grounds.


Zoé strikes me as a political marvel. She shows up just when the exile community needed someone from inside to contest the revolution on its own authentic terms. She doesn’t sound like our parents’ generation, nor like us.


But, unlike others of her generation in Cuba, she doesn’t write for Cuba but for the audience outside — to the fascinated Spanish readers who hear more and more about Cuba as a place of Socialist wonder in disarray, a cheap sexual arcadia where they are masters, a land where — for once — someone’s beating the yanquis at their own game of exploitation and profit. She confirms all those stereotypes of Cubans as sexually insatiable


Conveniently, Zoé lives in Paris, not Miami (which makes it easier for Europeans and anyone anti-American to love her). But by casting her own exile in political terms, she gives those Europeans a way to think they’re part of the liberation, and she has the approval of her fellow expatriate Guillermo Cabrera Infante (to whom she throws embarassing bouquets, especially in I Gave You All I Had.)


She is, I think, less pissed off at Cuba than pissed off at the idea that anyone would think she’s not pissed off enough (follow me?). Rage can be a fuel for tremendous eroticism, but because it’s rage that is so calculated, it fails.


I agree with you about the title — the “you” is the revolution, not her lover.


But while the moment of orgasm may have its political connotations in Cuba — what doesn’t? — I think the real reason people fuck all the time on the island is much more mundane than hot blood or declarations of freedom. With only three hours of TV a day, no newspapers or Internet and most entertainments unaffordable to the average Cuban, there isn’t anything else to do.

PÉREZ FIRMAT: Hey, Achy — that’s more like it. I figured it wouldn’t take much nudging from me to get you hot and bothered.


Zoé has her good and bad days (like you obviously), and I Gave You All I Had represents one of her not-so-good days. But at her best — as in certain parts of Yocandra or the untranslated Cafe Nostalgia — she is a terrific writer: inventive, irreverent, supple, with a truly wonderful ear for the rhythms and nuances of Cuban Spanish (in this she does resemble your idol Cabrera Infante). Oh, and yes, very sexy.


That you find her work infuriating only shows its power to arouse. But it is certainly simplistic to say that her objections to the special period come down to the fact that she couldn’t turn on her computer. For one thing, if, as you say, she was living in Paris at the time that the action of Yocandra takes place, then she isn’t Yocandra. For another, that novel and I Gave You All I Had portray the misery of all kinds of people who are not writers or intellectuals. Remember what the narrator says about Cuca? “The future for her consists of tomorrow’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Change one letter in Cuca’s name, and you get the name of the country where you and I were born. That’s the reason I find Zoé’s work moving. What is true of Cuca is, sadly, also true of Cuba.


And as for Zoé’s anger being faked — how do you know? To me her anger is no less genuine than yours, and in fact they may well be more connected than you realize.

OBEJAS: Mi socio, I should have known your first note’s easy tone wouldn’t last long. You went for the little personal digs quicker than I would have guessed.


But back to Zoé: I agree, she has a pretty good ear for Cuban speech, though I’m not sure, in translation, how much that comes through or can be appreciated by the English reader.

(I Gave You All I Had in translation is way better than Yocandra. In fact, I think I Gave You All I Had is substantially aided by the translation.) Anyway, it’s not exactly a secret that Yocandra is thinly disguised autobiography. Go back and read the thing — in the middle of the worst economic crisis Cuba has ever faced, Zoé’s characters aren’t concerned too much with day-to-day existence. As I already said, Yocandra got a lot of heat precisely for being elitist (contrary to your assertion, it is primarily about artists and intellectuals); I Gave You All I Had seems like a response to that criticism. I don’t think her anger is fake — and I didn’t say that — I think it’s calculated, like the sex in her books, for a particular political and marketing effect.


Sexy? Some, yes, particularly Cafe Nostalgia, as you mentioned. But much of it, especially in this new one, is just graphic effusion, a rather gross cataloguing. I don’t think the white line of infectious cunt goo left on a banister added much to the story, or to the eroticism. I find her work sensationalistic much of the time — and that’s what I find infuriating, because if she’d just relax and tell the story without all the excess, there might indeed be something quite wonderful there.


Also, Cuca as Cuba is wonderfully sentimental but, frankly, too simplistic. I can’t fathom that kind of fidelity even in metaphor, although I realize certain sectors of the Cuban exile community have been polishing just such an image for about 40 years.


It may comfort the folks in Miami — in all the mental Miamis as well — to think the people on the island are waiting to be saved, just like Cuca waits for her exiled Juan. But I think most Cubans on the island, even the biggest Castro haters, gave up that hope long ago.


In its place, I think, is a terrible fear that they’ll be swallowed whole by the North, in a strange new post-Fidel world that they may or may not be able to adapt to. (The Cuban government, always adept at propaganda, has been broadcasting news about the Russian mafia and all the attendant poverty since the fall of the Soviet Union.) There is longing for change, yes, and it is ardent, but there is also tremendous apprehension.


You know, Gustavo, maybe you should go to Cuba and finally see things for yourself.

PÉREZ FIRMAT: Sounds like a night’s sleep did you some good, Achy.


I’m relieved to hear you now concede that Zoé has the potential to be wonderful, and I’m glad that you liked Cafe Nostalgia, though if you actually think that I Gave You All I Had is better in English, then you need to go to Cuba even more often than you do.


And about Cuca as Cuba, the point is precisely that she can’t be saved by her lover from el norte, any more than Cuba can be saved by the return of exiles like (and unlike) you and me. Didn’t you finish the novel? If not, read on: Zoé agrees with you!


One last thing: you keep repeating that you don’t find Zoé’s sex scenes sexy. Okay. I believe you already. But many others, myself included, do take various sorts of pleasure from her writing. As we used to say in pre-Castro Cuba, to each his own: your “gross” may be my grease, your “graphic effusion” may be my orgasm, and what you call “sensationalistic” may be, for me, simply sensational.


That’s it. What else is there to say? I gave you all I had.

©1999 Achy Obejas,