The old writer draws a picture from a stained folder in the musty wooden cabinet and contemplates the image of her younger, more beautiful self, many years ago, sitting next to Fidel Castro. We draw closer to her, a collective gasp of astonishment escaping us all. We can see the resemblances in her face, her eyes. These two women- the one in the photo and the one holding the photo- are the same person, separated only by half a century’s time. Together, they constitute one of Cuba’s most important writers, a witness to massive upheavals and an unmatched chronicler of history.
Marta Rojas, a Cuban journalist and Revolutionary heroine who exudes an inexplicable brightness of spirit, smiles youthfully as she flips through the pictures of her past life: here she is again with Castro, testifying at a table in the early months of the Revolution, her shapely, wine-dark face in the picture lowered down to speak into a microphone before her; here she is on that picture hung up on the wall, standing there in the black and white photo taken when she traveled to Vietnam to cover the war as a correspondent.
And here is something really special, she says to us, drawing out a packet of inscrutable notes typed up on oil-stained papers: the notes she took as the first journalist to cover the 1953 Moncada Barracks uprising led by then-unknown lawyer Fidel Castro, as the first writer to take note of this corpulent Cuban before he became a 20th century Hannibal, the first writer to witness history in its conception. It was this set of notes, she relates to us, from which she drew to compose her powerful first book, a novelistic rendition of the events of 1953 called El Juicio del Moncada, or “The Trial of Moncada,” which was but the first movement of a storied, decades-long literary career. It is also her favorite book, she concedes to us smilingly, as if she were sharing a secret: her original child, her baby.
Crowded in on the couches and stiff-backed wooden chairs of her narrow, grandmotherly smelling apartment, whose living room overlooks the checkerboard of pastel-colored rooftops of Vedado, a neighborhood of Havana, we listen in fascination- or I do, at least- as Marta Rojas, one of post-Revolutionary Cuba’s most important scribes, perhaps even its unspoken laureate, tells us the story of her life. With our group leader Tracey Eaton stopping her periodically to translate the Spanish, she unravels the story of her journey in an ebullient outpouring of passionate words, as if she herself had entered a trance state in which she was reliving the very moments she was now recounting to us.
She is 89 years old, though her mannerisms easily cut a decade off her appearance. Laying her sixty-four year old notes back on the table, she settles back into her plush chair, gesticulating fiercely with her wrinkling arms as she continues telling her story.
This is a special moment for us. Over the course of this trip we have been meeting a myriad of Cubans whose respective lives each reflect a distinct reaction to the current geopolitical situation in Cuba. But amongst all these, amongst all the artists and publishers and fashionistas, none have borne the magnitude of this frail woman around whom we’re now gathered.
Behind her life story lie the weight of history; indeed, her life and history are intimately intertwined.
She was there when Castro and his band of doomed rebels stormed the barracks on that precipitous summer evening in 1953; she was there in the hall as Castro laid himself so bare before the prosecuting military that the guards lowered their arms and listened in rapt astonishment for hours as he spoke to them of Cuba’s suffering, feverishly exhorting them to revolt.
She was there when the barbudos floated amidst oceans of people atop clattering green tanks as they paraded victoriously into Havana, the city wild with celebration in the wake of Batista’s flight. She was there in the months and years following the Revolution when the island underwent a historic metamorphosis from a touristy casino colony run by the Americans and the Mafia into something else, something different: what has finally become of the island, if one believes in the absurdity that a country can ever arrive at a definitive state of finality and conclusiveness, is a matter that history still seems to be in the midst of untangling- as I myself am, perhaps.
She was in Vietnam when the callous report of gunfire rattled unceasingly over war-torn rice paddies, when the specks of F-4’s loaded with napalm ripped in low formation over jungle flatlands and when the Earth became consumed with fire and bombs and smoke.
She was in Cuba when the behemoth to the North victoriously pronounced that History had ended, because farther off, on the far side of the Atlantic, the Slavic Bear that had been Cuba’s main life support through years of an isolating economic embargo had finally keeled over and died; when in that deep isolation of the 1990’s, an existential solitude articulated by Garcia Marquez and shared by all Latin Americans, Cuba lapsed into an abyss of poverty whose pains almost harkened back to the nightmare of Batista from which they had escaped hardly three decades before.
But Marta Rojas, like most all the Cuban’s I’ve met- on both sides of the Gulf Stream, on opposing camps of the ideological chasm that now torments the island- remained strong and still does to this day. Quintessentially Cuban, she’s a writer and woman who has endured.
And now she is here, in 2017, as the previous thaw with the U.S. begins to freeze up anew under the Trump administrations resurgent belligerence, sitting at 89-years old with a group of American students in her stifling hot apartment, telling the story of her life. If Cuban history as an abstraction could be boiled down into something tangible, something that speaks, I imagine it would have dark wrinkled skin and a mane of black hair and would talk with fierce gesticulations from thin wrinkled arms; it would, in another words, look a lot like Marta Rojas.
“As a little girl,” she says, “I had always wanted to become a doctor. I would go to the library and pick out as many books as I could on the anatomy of the human body. And I would sit there, in my house, memorizing all the parts. I wanted to understand the mystery of the body. I wanted to uncover its secrets.
“I discovered as a student at the University that I had neither the natural penchant to complete nor any real desire to undergo all the science courses required for becoming a doctor. But I still loved writing. And books. And I wanted to be curious, to unravel stories and mysteries. So instead of a doctor, I became a journalist.”
On July 26th, 1953, she tells us, she was at a carnival with her friends in the town of Santiago when they heard the first report of gunshots echo out in the dim evening twilight.
“We looked at each other and asked ‘What the hell is going on?’ But we were budding journalists at the time; we were always on the lookout for stories. And so we began to run towards the gunfire.”
Several months later, she sat in the courtroom where Castro rose to deliver his “History will Absolve Me,” speech before an audience of guards hypnotized by his words. Whether anyone knew that that moment would mark the rise of a Revolution that would turn the U.S.’s most subservient vassal into its most detested enemy is a question probably beyond answering. Upon concluding his speech, Castro returned to his prison cell and Rojas stowed away her papers, unsure of what would become of them.
Fast-forward ten years: the world has turned upside down. The imprisoned have become the leaders, the leaders have gone into exile. As the trials significance has been amplified by history’s ex post facto power, Rojas, who in the proceeding years had been making quiet climb in the world of Cuban journalism that ran parallel to her clandestine work as a revolutionary activist, dredged up from her files her stack of aging notes, her manuscript.
All of it came back to her: the lofty hospital corridor in which Fidel gave his defense speech, the line of guardsmen swayed into inexplicable silence by the power of the future comandante’s elocutions. That scene, she now understood, would flame with controversy in history’s annals for a very long time, if not all time, and she then understood she would have to immortalize it in her book. She rushed into a flurry of work and very quickly fashioned the pulsing, cinematic narrative that emerged out of her garbled notes, which fell into clarity after several years distanced her from the event: the result was a 360-page impression of the fate of a country, and of a continent, in the balance. El Juicio de Moncada was rushed into print and became an instant bestseller.
Written in the same novelistically-charged strain of non-fiction literature as Capote’s In True Blood or Saviano’s Gomorrah, “The Trial of Moncada,” is tinged with such romanticizations of the rebels, with such inclination to glorify the crucifixion of the Moncadistas, that it might be deemed as irrelevant propaganda, were it not already rooted in the backbone of Marta’s firsthand experience of the event.
Marta’s biased inclination towards Fidel is quite clearly demonstrated by the way she speaks of him during that trial, and of his years during which she knew him rather intimately as the Comandante en Jefe. As if proud herself to have shared in the experience of the rebellion, she relates with a demurely humorous, downcast smile how Fidel, who was always anchored by his self-confidence in his destiny, deftly turned what was supposed to be an uneventful judicial proceeding on its head, turning the prosecutor’s into the prosecuted by putting the Batista regime on trial. In doing so, he delivered a searing oratorical expose of the crimes of dictatorship.
With every memory she relates to us students, you can see the events flash ever-so-briefly in her eyes: the eyes which, despite the decay of the wrinkling body in which they are contained, refuse to lose that richness; the eyes that have seen so much.
After the Revolution she partook in the highly publicized hearings during which the crimes of the Batista regime were accounted for in the ledgerbooks by a series of testimonials by witnesses, supervised by the Castro government.
She rose in the Cuban literary scene in the years to come, slowly branching out from pure journalism into historical fiction. But her fictional efforts remained nonetheless rooted in the same deep ambition that marked her earlier reportage: to plumb into the depths of the Cuban psyche and illuminate the soul of an island. With her pen, she sought to do for a certain Latin American people what Diego Rivera had done with his murals: to animate the struggles of a nation perpetually forgotten by history.
She tells us how she spent many years in deep labor of research to produce Inglesa por un Año– “Englishwoman for a Year,” roughly translated- a novel which regarded the period when British invaders briefly occupied Havana in 1762, during the Seven Years’ War, through the eyes of a fictional society woman. An exemplary illustration of the power of her works, the book is a meditation on an unsung story in Cuban history, animating with great life a movement that would normally be consigned to the dusty pages of an unread history textbook.
As if suddenly arriving at a thought that she herself had heretofore been unaware of, she rises mischievously from her plush chair and pads off excitedly down the hallway, returning a few moments later with two copies of “The Trial of Moncada,” reprinted by the government in these newest additions to honor Fidel’s recent death at ninety. For a friend and I, who have been asking a notable amount of questions, she scrawls out a short note on the inside from cover of each of the books, finishing them off with the virtually unreadable arabesque of her signature. She places one of the books in my hands, her two frail hands clasped over mine- frail, wrinkly, yet nonetheless strong hands that have endured over the years- her firm eyes locked in a brief, ephemeral gaze with mine. A gift from her to me. A token connecting worlds.
Back in the Spartan office where she has penned the majority of her works, she talks more about her life as a writer, though there is an overwhelming sense that many in our group are quietly succumbing to mid-afternoon exhaustion.
Lining the glassed-in shelves of her polished wood bookcase, which spans three sides of the room, lie voluminous copies of Neruda, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Conrad, Hemingway. Like any good writer, she appears extremely well read. I ask her what her favorite book is.
“But of course,” she says, as if the same enthusiasm that drove her to show us her writing cave was reinflamed by my interest, “that would be none other than the Quixote.”
She opens a door in the bookcase and draws a worn copy of Cervantes’ legendary novel, the pages evidently folded in on many parts and protruding with sticky-notes. “I try to reread it at least once every few years.”
Don Quixote, Cervantes’ sixteenth century novel, which has become so ubiquitous within the Spanish world that it is merely referred to as “the Quixote”- much as the Bible is merely referred to by many as “the Book”- recounts the saga of a middle-aged dilettante who becomes so infatuated with his books of chivalry that he decides to become a Knight himself- despite the fact that Knights haven’t existed in Europe for centuries. Fired onward by the mad yearning for immortality, which results from a life lived on a higher, more divine, existentially charged plane of human existence, he sets forth on his horse Rocinante alongside his squire Sancho, traversing Spain in search of adventure and justice.
Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish philosopher, wrote that to live like Quixote is the highest aspiration of human existence, and that life- because we are doomed to death no matter what we do- is an essentially quixotic act. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer, wrote in one of his vignettes that the discord between Quixote’s visions of knightly heroism and the collective shrug of those with whom he crosses paths is ultimately rendered useless by time, erased, leaving Quixote to be remembered as the Knight he always sought to be- that he always was- despite the seemingly unimportant time and place in which he lived.
I cannot help but think, as she sees us off following a generous helping of platanos, that Marta Rojas is a quixotic figure- a woman plowing through the male-dominated world of Latin American literature, a writer seeking to evoke the soul of a country perpetually quashed by the boot of history. Pugnacious, ebullient, she has refused to stop writing through her eighty-nine years of life.
I take a last look at the Soviet-era apartment building in which she lives before we continue on with the day. I imagine she is looking over the pastel rooftops of Havana, over the rising blue of the ocean in the distance. I imagine she is returning to her writing chamber, returning to work on her next book.