Gianni Rodari & other translations
professional literary translation services
Literary translation is the most challenging—and most rewarding—work I do. Often a writer will tell you that translating a work makes you rethink your every word. This is because double meanings, idioms and style cannot be duplicated or "translated" into another language; they can only be interpreted. As both a writer and a translator, I realize that interpreting another author's work requires a great deal of contemplation and reverence. Ask me about book translation. Read my writing/translation blog.
Gianni Rodari is considered the greatest modern children's writer in Italy. His works have been translated into numerous languages, but hardly anything has found its way into English. I'd really like to fix that. These translations include "Polenta Fritta," a story from a collection of tales called Venti storie più una (20 Stories Plus One), as well as "Tonino the Invisible" and "Brif bruf braf." Enjoy!
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you want to publish Rodari in English?
I'd love to help!
Here are some samples of translations I have done of other writers I admire.
The original title of "Mashed Potatoes" is "Polenta Fritta," a traditional staple dish in certain regions of Italy. The translation has been adapted for the US/UK audience and is thus renamed "Mashed Potatoes"—a similar but much more familiar food! Notice that even in translation it sounds completely natural in English.
Once upon a time there lived a king named Waterford the Fourth. His subjects, however, called him the Four-millionth because he was so greedy. He wouldn’t even put on his crown for fear of tarnishing it. Waterford ruled over the kingdom of Murlandia and was fifty-nine years old—that’s one less than sixty.
Illustration by Chiara Rapaccini from the
2003 edition of Venti storie più una, Editori Riuniti.
“Your Majesty, what about that glorious crown of gold we gave you last year?!”
“It was painted gold, but inside it was made of iron—I spotted it right away.”
“And those magnificent white horses two years ago?”
“Those were two donkeys with their ears clipped that you had done up to look like horses.”
“And the silver carriage from three years back? That was real silver.”
“Yes, but it was as tiny as a baby’s carriage. I could never find a way to crawl inside. Forget about all that now. Tell me what you were thinking of getting me this time.”
“But Your Majesty: if I tell you, you’ll know, and if you know, that will spoil the surprise, and even your cake will taste rotten.”
“Then tell me without telling me! Just give me a little hint and not one word more. Figure out a way.”
Count Astute, who already had a plan in mind, thought it best to look like he was mulling things over.
“Well, out with it!” erupted the king, who quickly lost all patience.
“Here’s the thing, Your Majesty. Your loyal subjects had planned, if it would please His Majesty, to present you with a statue.”
“Not bad, not bad. A bronze one?”
“Er, no, you know, I really can’t say. I was to give you a hint and not one word more.”
“Is it marble?”
“You’re cold, very cold.”
“It’s not cement, is it? I don’t want one made of cement because then people would call me blockhead.”
“Don’t worry about a thing, Your Majesty. You’ll have the most superb statue that you’ve ever seen.”
“Will it look like me?”
“Like looking into a mirror.”
“Fine, then. Make it happen, and if the statue truly pleases me I will reward you with…”
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“I’ll reward you with…”
“What exactly, Your Majesty?”
“I’ll reward you with a golden ring.”
“Oh, thank you, Your Majesty!”
“Hold on, hold on, let me finish: I’ll give you what’s inside the ring; that is, the hole. The ring I’ll keep for myself because it was a gift from my grandfather.”
“In any case, very generous, Your Lordship.”
Count Astute bowed down very low and retreated from the throne one foot behind the other while King Waterford rubbed his hands in delight.
You should know that, just a few days prior, Count Astute, out on one of his hunting trips, had stopped off for a snack at the Perched Blackbird Inn, which was just at the edge of the woods. Walking through the door he went completely pale. It seemed that he had come across a certain individual… a very strange individual… with the face of…
“Who are you?”
“I’m the new proprietor of the Perched Blackbird Inn, your Lordship.”
“And the one from before?”
“That was my brother, and he has left me the inn.”
“I get it, very good, you’re the owner. But did you know that you’re the spitting image of His Royal Highness, Waterford the Fourth?”
“Me?! For goodness’ sake! I look like my poor father who was only a kangaroo catcher in Alaska.”
“But in Alaska there aren’t any kangaroos to catch.”
“Exactly. My father didn’t like to work much. That’s why he chose a place without kangaroos, so that he could lay on his back from morning ‘til night.”
“And he had your face?”
“Everyone that met him says so. I don’t know. I’ve never seen my father.”
“And has the king seen you?”
“You look like you could be his twin. Trust me, I know, I’m his first minister.”
“Thank you, your Excellency. Would you care for something to eat?”
Count Astute gobbled his meal, glancing from time to time at the proprietor, whose name he learned was Angelo, and whose nickname was Mashed Potatoes.
“Angelo, listen here,” he said at last.
“What is it, your Excellency?”
“How much do you earn here at the inn?”
“Let me do the math: six times eight, forty-eight… subtract the nine… Three pieces of gold a week—if it doesn’t rain.”
“Because if it rains very few hunters pass by: the others are home in bed with the flu.”
“If you do what I ask you, you’ll earn twenty pieces of gold a week.”
“Most assuredly: nineteen plus one. What do you say?”
“Let me do the math: six times eight, forty-eight… subtract the nine… Agreed.”
“Wonderful. Now you’ll have to do this, that and the other thing…”
Count Astute explained to Angelo all that he must do, and Angelo took down every word in his little notebook. He said, “I’ll learn everything by heart so as to be sure not to make a mistake.”
“Bravo,” said Count Astute. “And to help you remember, here’s ten pieces of gold.”
“Thank you ten times, your Excellency.”
At last came the day of His Royal Highness King Waterford the Fourth’s birthday.
It was a big day. The kingdom awoke to the sound of bells ringing and thundering canons that were fired in honor of the sovereign and his sixty years. They blasted sixty times, and the people counted, sighing:
“One shot, one piece of gold… two shots, two pieces of gold… forty shots, forty pieces of gold… sixty shots, sixty pieces of gold.” This was what they had to pay in taxes.
King Waterford awoke to a court full of ministers, dignitaries, administrators, and schoolchildren that waved little flags and sang:
Happy birthday to the king,
Happy birthday to the king
“Enough. That’s enough,” shouted King Waterford, who couldn’t stand that ridiculous little song. “I’m awake already. Where is my present?”
“In front of the palace, Your Majesty,” replied Count Astute.
The king ran to the window. In front of his palace he saw the statue draped in a golden sheet.
“Is it there underneath?”
“Is it nice?”
“No: it’s magnificent.”
“Hurry, get me my shoes, my trousers, my robe—I want to go see it.”
“Might I suggest that today you also wear your crown, Your Highness?”
“But it will get worn out! And if it rains, it will get soaked.”
“The sun is shining brightly today.”
“Then it will burn, smolder, melt.”
“The crown, Your Majesty. On the day of your birth it is AB-SO-LUTE-LY necessary.”
“Relax,” sighed King Waterford, “get me my crown, too.”
In front of the palace, meanwhile, all the people of Murlandia had gathered, waiting to see the statue that was to be given, at their expense, to the king.
“Let’s hope it’s made of wood,” said one Murlandianian to his neighbor, “so that it doesn’t cost too much.”
“If not wood, then stone.”
“If not stone, then cement.”
“If not cement, then iron.”
“Let’s just hope that it’s at least not made of gold!” sighed an old man.
“Let’s hope!” echoed everyone in Murlandia.
It was now the king’s turn to pull the rope releasing the drape that covered the statue. The curtain had hardly reached the ground when an “oooooohhh!” of wonder escaped their mouths like pigeons in flight.
An “ooooooh!” could be heard, and then again: “ooooooh!”
“Stop copying me,” yelled the king. “I said ‘oooh!’ first. The statue is magnificent. It’s more beautiful than I had imagined it. Stu, you’ve done great.”
The statue was marvelous in fact. It rendered the king standing, gripping his scepter with the right hand and pointing up to the heavens with his left, as if to say “I am as beautiful as the sun!”
One by one the king noticed his old clothes. “That was my robe from last year, those are my pants for when I go horseback riding, that is a perfect copy of my crown!”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” smiled Count Astute, bowing deeply.
“It has exactly my face: my nose, my eyes, my mustache, my skin tone.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the count.
“Hey! But how did you color it? It must be made of wax!”
“No, Your Majesty!”
“It’s bronze then!”
“It’s… it’s… gold!”
“Even better than that, Your Majesty: it is a living statue!”
“Living? What do you mean?”
“Look carefully, Your Majesty, it is a statue that breathes.”
“Yes, yes, it’s true: I see it breathing.”
“It is a statue that moves.”
Upon hearing those words, the statue lifted a hand and beckoned hello.
“It is a statue that speaks.”
The statue, awaiting just this signal, opened his mouth and said: “One hundred more birthdays to you, King Waterford the Fourth!”
And once again, from all around were heard ooohs! and ahhhs! of absolute amazement.
The statue, of course, was none other than Angelo, the proprietor of the Perched Blackbird, who was also sometimes called Mashed Potatoes. He had agreed to do this work for the love of little gold pieces, but he realized now that, besides the money, he also earned many, many applause, and he was therefore very satisfied with himself.
It was in this way that King Waterford the Fourth got his living statue. And he had gotten it while still alive, while his father had only gotten a statue (not living) only after he died. For this reason Waterford persuaded himself that he was a great king and returned to his palace to devour his birthday cake, happier than he had ever been.
His loyal subjects also returned home to eat cake. Angelo, on the other hand, remained on his pedestal to be the statue. The rules were clear: he was to remain on the pedestal from sunrise until sunset without even a snack; at night, however, he could easily slip away safely because, in this faraway kingdom, everyone slept, even the night watchmen.
At first, things ran smoothly. The king passed by each morning to have a look at his statue, he heard it say: “Good morning, your Majesty!” and he returned to his palace to study his tax collections.
One day, however, things changed. That is, they went very, very wrong. It happened like this. A hunter, who had been away from the city for several weeks, happened upon the statue. He gazed at it very, very carefully, and he recognized him.
“Angelo! Is that you, Angelo? What are you doing up there?”
“Quiet, for goodness’ sake!”
“Why should I be quiet? You look like you’ve gone completely mad. What’s gotten into your head?”
“Oh, yes, I see the crown. But I don’t understand what on earth you’re doing up there with a crown on your head.”
“For crying out loud, quiet! Scram!”
A villager passed by. “What is it? What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” said the hunter, “Angelo is up there acting crazy.”
“Don’t you know Angelo? There’s only one Angelo, and his nickname is Mashed Potatoes.”
“Mashed Potatoes?!? Why is he mashed?”
“Because he only likes his potatoes mashed with lots of gravy on top.”
In short, one villager became two, three, five, fifty. They inquired, they heard the news, they giggled, and they began to holler: “Mashed Potatoes, Mashed Potatoes!”
For awhile Angelo remained calm, patient as a saint. But when the plaza became chock-full of people snickering and laughing at him, he lost his cool: he simply could no longer stand hearing a bunch of riffraff calling him “Mashed Potatoes.” This being the case, he hopped down from his pedestal and began jabbing right and left with his scepter, which was made of lead.
“This is for mashed potatoes, and this is for potato salad.” And he whacked and walloped away.
But the people continued laughing and shouting even more than before: “Mashed Potatoes! Mashed Potatoes!”
When he grew tired of striking blows, Angelo prepared to climb back up his pedestal, but now thought twice. “From here on in,” he said to himself, “it won’t be worth it anymore. I don’t want to stand here forever being made fun of by all the little hooligans in this city.”
In a word, he threw down the scepter, the robe, and the crown, and returned back to the Perched Blackbird to be its humble proprietor.
The king was told that his statue had disappeared under the enchantment of a powerful wizard in the service of some envious enemy king. But no one told him the whole and true story. And it was from that day that his loyal subjects no longer called him Waterford the Four-millionth. He was given a new nickname that the history books have carried down until today, thanks to the indiscretion of Count Astute. From that day forward, the people of Murlandia called their king “Mashed Potatoes.” King Waterford never knew. He died, convinced that the history books would call him “Waterford the Magnificent,” or even “Waterford the Great.”
Brif, bruf, braf
In the quiet of the courtyard, two children played by making up their own language to speak to one another without anyone else understanding what they said.
“Brif, braf,” said the first.
“Braf, brof,” answered the second. And they burst out laughing.
On the second-floor balcony was a kind old man reading his newspaper, and looking down from the opposite window was an old woman who was neither good nor bad.
“How foolish these children are,” said the woman.
But the good man disagreed: “I don’t think so.”
“Don’t tell me that you understood what they were saying.”
“Actually, I understood everything. The first said: ‘What a beautiful day.’ The second replied: ‘Tomorrow will be even better.’”
The woman turned up her nose but remained silent as the children began speaking in their own language once again.
“Maraschi, barabaschi, pippirimoschi,” said the first.
“Bruf,” replied the second. And both fell on the floor laughing once again.
“Don’t tell me that you understood them this time,” exclaimed the woman crossly.
“Actually, I understood everything,” answered the old man with a laugh. The first said: ‘How happy we are to be in this world.’ The second replied: ‘The world is so beautiful.’”
“But is it really so beautiful?” demanded the old woman.
“Brif, bruf, braf,” replied the old man.
The planet of truthThe following page is copied from a history book used in the schools of planet Mun, and speaks of a great scientist named Brun (note, all the words over there end in "un": for example, you don't say "the moon" but "thun moon", "pasta" is called "pastoon," and so on).
Here it is:
"Brun, inventor, two thousand years old, currently stored in a refrigerator, from which he will awaken 49,000 centuries from now to begin life again.
He was still a child in diapers when he invented a machine to make rainbows, which ran on soap and water, but instead of ordinary bubbles released rainbows of all sizes, which could stretch from one end of the sky to the other, and served for many uses, including hanging the laundry out to dry.
In kindergarten, playing with two rods, he invented a drill to make holes in water. The invention was much appreciated by fishermen, who used it to pass the time when the fish weren’t biting.
In first grade he invented: a machine to tickle pears, a frying pan for ice, a scale to weigh the clouds, a phone to talk to stones, a musical hammer that while pounding nails played marvelous symphonies, and many others.
It would take too long to recall all of his inventions. We’ll mention only the most famous one: the lie-telling machine, which ran on tokens.
For each token you could hear fourteen thousand lies.
The machine contained all the lies in the world: those which had already been told, those that people were thinking at the time, and every other that might be invented later.
Once the machine had recited all the lies possible, people were forced to tell only the truth.
For this reason the planet Mun is also known as the planet of truth.
Tonino the Invisible
There once was a boy named Tonino that went to school without doing his homework and was very worried the teacher would call on him.
“Oh,” he told himself, “if only I could make myself invisible...”
The teacher took role and, when he got to Tonino’s name, the boy replied: “Present!” But no one heard him and the teacher said: “It’s too bad Tonino didn’t come. I was just thinking of asking him about his homework. If he is sick, let’s hope it isn’t anything serious.”
Just like that Tonino was able to make himself invisible like he had wanted. He jumped for joy from his desk and landed in the bin of writing paper. He stood up and went all around the classroom, pulling the hair of this child or the other and flipping over pots of ink. Noisy protests began, fighting that would not end. The schoolchildren accused one another of nastiness, and never even suspected that the culprit was actually Tonino the Invisible.
When he was tired of that game, Tonino left his school and caught a trolleybus, naturally without paying the fare, because the driver could not see him. He found an empty seat and made himself comfortable. At the next stop, a woman climbed on with her shopping bag and walked over to sit exactly in the same seat, which to her eyes looked perfectly empty.
Instead, she sat on Tonino’s lap, who felt himself suffocating. The woman shouted: “What the devil is this? Can’t one even sit down these days? Look, I try to put down my bag and it remains suspended in midair.”
Actually, the bag was lying on Tonino’s lap. This started a loud discussion, and almost every passenger said a few choice words about the city transit authority.
Tonino got off at the city center, slipped into a pastry shop and began to serve himself as he pleased, grabbing the sweet rolls, chocolate donuts and pastries of all kinds with both hands. The salesclerk, who saw the pastries disappearing from the display case, laid the blame on a dignified man who was buying candies for his elderly aunt. The man protested: “I, a thief? You don’t know whom you are talking to. You don’t know who my father was. You don’t know who my grandfather was!”
“I don’t even care to know,” replied the salesclerk.
“How dare you insult my grandfather!”
It was a frightful quarrel. The police came running. Tonino the Invisible slid through the legs of the lieutenant and headed back to school to arrive in time for his friends to finish. He did indeed see them come out, rolling headlong down the steps of the school—but they did not see him at all. In vain, Tonino ran breathlessly from one to the other, pulling his friend Roberto’s hair, offering his friend Guiscardo a lollypop. They did not see him, they did not notice him at all, and their eyes passed through him as if he were made of glass.
Exhausted, and a bit dispirited, Tonino returned home. His mother was on the balcony waiting for him. “I’m here, mom!” yelled Tonino. But she did not see or hear him, and she continued to look anxiously all the way to the end of the street.
“Here I am, dad,” exclaimed Tonino, walking inside and sitting down at his usual place. But his father murmured worriedly, “Goodness knows why Tonino is so late. Might something bad have happened to him?”
“But I’m here, right here! Mom, dad!” shouted Tonino. But they did not hear his voice.
Tonino broke into sobs. But what use are tears when no one can see them?
“I don’t want to be invisible anymore,” Tonino cried to himself, his heart in pieces. “I want my father to see me, my mother to scold me, my teacher to call on me! I want to play with my friends! It’s awful being invisible. It’s awful to be alone.”
He went down the stairs and slowly entered the courtyard.
“Why are you crying?” asked an old man, sitting on a bench under the sun.
“You see me?” asked Tonino anxiously.
“Yes, I see you. I see you going to and from school every day.”
“But I’ve never seen you.”
“Ah, of course. No one ever notices me. A retired old man, all alone—why would a young boy ever see me? To you, I’m just like the invisible man.”
Just then from the balcony his mother shouted, “Tonino!”
“Mom, do you see me?”
“I probably shouldn’t look at you. Come now, come up and you’ll have a word with your father.”
“Coming, mom!” shouted Tonino, full of joy.
“Aren’t you afraid of a spanking?” laughed the old man.
Tonino flew over to him and gave him a kiss on the neck. “You saved me,” he said.
“Oh, you’re exaggerating,” said the old man.
Mr. L. E. Fent
by Jairo Buitrago
translated by Benny Zadik
This is Mr. L. E. Fent.
He is just an everyday guy.
One that lives all alone.
Alone when he walks along the street,
when he goes to the supermarket,
when he takes a taxi…
when he gets choked up at the theater
and has no one to tell about the movie he saw.
He is a very different person than everyone else
when he says “Good morning” to the doorwoman of his apartment building,
or when he remembers to leave a little bit of milk
for the cat that came to visit him one time.
When Mr. L. E. Fent’s head starts working,
his heart beats extra fast,
and he’s capable of remembering
those that are no longer with him
…as if they were right there with him.
It’s like his head
never wants to rest for an instant,
because remembering is as important as eating
or as not forgetting to eat.
But he doesn’t only remember nice things:
matching his clothes right, for example
…but he also has time to think about
what isn’t right
and how important it is to love yourself.
Mr. L. E. Fent doesn’t talk much
when he returns home in the evenings.
And, quietly as can be,
he remembers so many little things,
that he probably isn’t so alone after all.
Though sometimes he forgets his umbrella at home.
"Benjamin" (from Les garçons et les filles)
by Grégoire Solotareff
translated by Benny Zadik
Illustration by Grégoire Solotareff
Elephants are often kind, and Benjamin is no exception. He often lends his things; sometimes he even shares his snack. Some say he is too kind, even a sucker. But the girls adore him.
He is, however, often alone. But there is an explanation for that: he contemplates.
Unlike some others.
Fidel Castro and I
By Amir Valle (translated by Benjamin Zadik)
People have asked me: “What does Fidel Castro mean to you?” And in the past few days, since the announcement of his ceding power to his brother Raúl Castro, I’ve lost count of the journalists, colleagues, friends who have, almost unsympathetically, tossed this question in my face.
The curious thing about it is that never, in all the time I have been capable of reason, had I once stopped to think what significance this name—Fidel Castro Ruz—may have in what some might call “my life’s story.”
I remember the speeches. I must confess that, since childhood, I have never felt any interest in these political matters, like other children I saw then and that I see today, mixed up in the repetitive rhetoric of the morning papers, the political acts, looking to gain themselves footing in that emulation in which there has always existed some element evaluating such behavior. Later, over the years, discussing the matter with those who were also once that type of child, I discovered that, yes, they participated in all the fuss simply because their parents pushed them to, because it was a way of standing out in the crowd, or because they saw it as the fashion of the age: one had to shout, like everyone was shouting, against imperialism. They didn’t have a clear concept of what they were doing, that’s obvious. And it must have been normal, since we can suppose that a child at that age is discovering the world through play, and not losing the precious time of his or her development to any such political indoctrination like those typical of Cuban education since the triumph of the Revolution in ’59.
The figure of Fidel compared with that of the other greats. They were gods, incorruptible, perfect beings. I remember that one of my primary school teachers reprimanded me one day when it occurred to me to ask a question, out of absolute innocence, when they were teaching me in history class about the installations at Sierra Maestra, the armory, the little school, the hut from which Fidel gave his commands… My question paralyzed the teacher: “And where were the bathrooms, Ma’am? Because I imagine that those men, too, had to do their business.” I spent the whole morning facing the wall, sat in a chair, until my mother, a teacher at the same school, came to get me. She gave me a whack and told me never to lack respect for the teacher, nor for our heroes.
Since then, Fidel was the great inquisitor, even if I didn’t know it or couldn’t define it. But they had compelled us to be like him, who was the most perfect, greater even than Ché, more enlightened than Martí. That’s what they said. And it was maddening. I was a kid that sailed through classes, that never needed to study, and really I never did study back then because I preferred to read from the fantastic library that my parents had at home rather than force myself to follow a series of conventions meant to “emulate our pioneers,” to be just like someone for whom, moreover, I had to stand hours and hours forming part of the human chain of pioneers at the numerous assemblies that had to be put together to welcome oh so many African, Asian, or socialist countries’ presidents whom that man would invite to Cuba. Or to be like a man who, on more than four occasions, forced me to listen, in sun and rain, standing, to incredibly lengthy speeches that the child I was back then didn’t understand, even if I found comfort in performing the routine with my little friends when Fidel paused and the teacher would say, “Now, boys!” so that we would yell out, “Go on, Fidel, give it to those Yankees! Carter, Tarrú, Fidel Cojónú!” (Carter’s a sissy, Fidel’s the man!), and the countless other slogans that everyone knows already.
Back then Fidel was also that man my father would listen to sitting in front of the television, even while I cried my eyes out because that day they wouldn’t be showing the puppets on TV, or because the speech was on another channel and my father would say, “I’m going to listen to the speech, understood?” and there was no discussing it.
But my father was on Fidel’s side. He has his story. He took part in the Revolution and continues believing that it is still pure and possible. Blindness. Or perhaps determined not to see that he has thrown his life away, that Fidel has betrayed him, because half a century has passed fighting for something that has yet to arrive, despite all the supposed effort.
I say this because Fidel, as I see him now, is guilty for the fact that a shadow has been cast over my relationship with my father, that sometimes we distance ourselves from one another, that we have preferred not to speak of Cuba, nor the country, nor our day-to-day, because all those things can precipitate into a discussion that continues pushing us apart. At first he didn’t believe me when I would speak to him and tell him what they did to others, to those that had decided to prioritize their values differently. There had been no repression, he would say. There had been no subterfuge during the Revolution, he would say. It’s a clean enterprise, he would say. And he had to see up close everything that they did to me for saying what I thought, for confronting those who wanted to predicate my intellectual success on my participation in the errands of the Revolution, with those that didn’t believe I would respect and defend the friendship that united me with many “dangerous dissidents,” like Raúl Rivero, Manuel Vázquez Portal, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, just to name a few. When he saw all the disgraces, all the censorship, all the legal tricks to “make me invisible,” including the ministerial resolutions that branded me an “enemy agent,” “mercenary,” among other qualifications, I thought that he had opened his eyes. But he said: “Fidel doesn’t know anything about this… It’s the work of middling officials who think themselves masters of absolute power.”
I wanted to tell him—I remember this well—that I had seen a film about Nazism in which an old woman, when they took her to a concentration camp and showed her what had been done there, said: “The Fürhrer doesn’t know anything about this. It certainly wouldn’t have happened if he had known.” But I didn’t want to open the wound any further.
A few times I was near Fidel. A few. Very near. And I even dared to write the screenplay about his life in that documentary by Estela Bravo which, afterwards, I went disappearing by the graces of the dirty schemes of that journalist and her husband. I was never interested, like so many others, in getting close to him to say: “Comandante, comandante… My name is…” Sycophants. As if he wasn’t just a man, a human being with virtues and defects, with triumphs and failures (both colossal for his responsibility before the people and history).
The Fidel that travels with me—because, in some way we Cubans all bear him with us—is also responsible for the fact that my classmates at university are separated today: some in exile (Lidia, Sandra Marina, Valesy, Ivette), others in official posts where they are in some way reviled for having to respond to government orders censoring their colleagues (Rosa Miriam, Grisel, Rubén), and others in the saddest of all silences: the invisible and middling drudgery of the provinces (the rest of the class that graduated that year).
As a frustrated journalist, I had wanted to ask Fidel my first questions: Why was I sanctioned when I covered the finishing work on the oil refinery in Cienfuegos and wanted to write that it was impossible that it would go off well like the Granma had reported and Fidel had promised in a speech that year? Why did they force me to remain silent about many unusual things, many lies and many irregularities that I saw and wanted to report while as a journalist I was covering the construction of the nuclear power plant at Juraguá, also in Cienfuegos? Why, when I decided to write my important journalistic work about the jineteras, every Cuban institution shut its doors to me because my investigation did not fall under the plans of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation? Why did they never reply to the letters I sent everywhere when the Minister of Culture, Abel Preito, and the president of the Cuban Book Institute, Iroel Sánchez, in collusion with other powerful pseudo-intellectuals, decided to erase my name from every anthology, every cultural program, every event, every editorial, owing to my independent position, the opinions I gave to the foreign press, my books about the social reality in Cuba, my collaboration with allegedly “dissident” magazines and publications, and many other truths that I had told them face-to-face? … and so many other questions.
I used to hope that, someday, life would give me the opportunity to ask him in a public setting, under the banner of democracy that all of us aspire to, some of these questions:
Does being part of the left mean that one is against divergent views, the
plurality of beliefs and opinions, the diversity of criteria for how to channel
Why, in order to be considered a clean and honest person, must I follow the orders of those who cling to power and assume the right to want to think for me?
Why is it that thinking differently, that feeling different, that considering different paths than those established by the Revolution, is considered a sign of treason, and those who think differently, that feel differently, and consider other paths, are called unpatriotic, worms, mercenaries of imperialism?
Why—if with my books I have gathered the resources and the intellectual prestige to do it—am I not allowed to have the literary journal I have always dreamed of, and am required, in order for it to happen, to have the journal directed by an official government institution?
What reason of national security or otherwise justifies the fact that I must ask permission to enter and exit my own country?
What genuine reasons impede Cubans from developing their own private initiatives, assuming the risks, the challenges, and the social responsibility that all businesses take on?
By what principle does the Cuban state give itself the right not to allow my children to travel with me anywhere in the world if I could secure them that voyage?
When will the day come in which the country’s supposed economic growth translates into the wellbeing of the population?
When will the day come in which it is understood that it is possible to maintain national sovereignty while still respecting individual rights?
Why did a Revolution that was born pure—that awakened the hope of all the world’s poor, that claimed to be a Revolution for everyone—covered with blood and suffering those who began to criticize it, who tried to put it back on track, determining what each citizen ought to do with the society in which he lives?
Why did a popular Revolution transform into a totalitarian society, repressive and stagnated in its own hatreds and its own fears?
In order to construct a world more just for everyone, this world that we all want, must we defend ourselves against those who don’t want it with the same unclean weapons with which they attack?
Why hide the defects of the Revolution if everywhere it is written that a Revolution is always imperfect?
But Fidel Castro, just as they announced, appears to be sick. Very sick. And those of us who know him well know that it must be true: in no other way would he give up even a shred of his power, a man that has himself become sick with power.
I’ve been asked a lot what will happen when, sooner or later, Fidel Castro dies one day. It will be a sad day, I’ve said. Because, as a Christian, anytime a human being dies, whether he has done good or wrong, one must have respect for the person that has passed away, and whose absence, whether we liked him or not, will leave a wake of sadness for those that loved him, for there are always those.
With Fidel an era will end, an era, unfortunately, of betrayed dreams. I only hope—I said this in some interview once—that at that time we Cubans will be able to put aside our fears, our caviling, our doubts, our accumulated hatreds, and our differences. The answer we give from that moment on will depend upon the reconstruction of our island, with liberty, independence, and without the interference of anyone. As a man of the left, then, I think we will be able to observe and retake with democracy the lost road toward that best possible world for everyone, a road which Fidel Castro abandoned sometime ago without ever, to this day, having told anyone the reasons why he did it.
That explanation, I am certain, is one which we will never receive.