A brief and likely redundant lesson in history:
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s decimated the Cuban economy. With drastically reduced access to imported food, fuel, and medicine, the population of the island was forced to adopt techniques of subsistence farming to supplement the meager rations allotted them by the government. Epidemic overcrowding in Havana stretched the city’s weakened infrastructure to its limits.
It is against this backdrop, known widely as the “Special Period” (en), that Antonio José Ponte launches his taut and measured criticism of Fidel Castro’s regime. In his recent work, La fiesta vigilada (Anagrama, 2007) – which would literally, awkwardly, translate to The Party, Surveilled – Ponte examines the coercive force exerted by the Cuban government, particularly with respect to the writers and artists living in the country. The form of the book aligns beautifully with the questions it raises – at once memoir, essay and novel, La fiesta vigilada offers a kaleidoscopic array of images borrowed from personal experience (which is always held at something of a remove) and from canonical sources. One moment disparaging Jean-Paul Sartre’s inability to see past the aesthetic during his stay on the island, the next seeing the ruins of Havana (a favorite subject of Ponte’s) through the eyes of Georg Simmel, Ponte evokes, with a beautiful sense of balance, the tension between Cuba’s place within a global system and the country’s deep-seated isolationism.
Some have said that the book drags in places. I, for one, did not find that to be the case. I don’t think that Ponte would have been able to achieve the subtle disjunctures and evocative parallels he does had he structured the work in any other way. The work has not yet been translated into English, but it should be.
An extensive database of Castro’s public addresses can be found here.