Duke University Alumni Magazine

Calvert Casey, The Collected Stories

Translations from the Spanish by John H. R. Polt; edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. 224 pages. $16.95, paper.

alvert Casey's was the kind of life that is typically described as "short and tragic."
Born in Baltimore in 1924 to a Cuban mother and an Irish-American father, he spent an unhappy childhood in Havana, separated from his father and isolated from other children by the violent stutter that plagued him throughout his life.

In his twenties, Casey emigrated to New York, got a job as a translator, and began to write stories in English. Returning to Cuba just before the triumph of the Castro Revolution, he joined other Cuban intellectuals in supporting the new regime, worked for several government publications, and published two books in Spanish, a language he spoke with an American accent. By the mid-Sixties, "La Calvita," as he was known to his friends, had become a popular figure in Cuban literary circles, as well-known for his unusual background as for his writing.

Then, as the regime clamped down on political and sexual dissidents, Casey's homosexuality got him in trouble with the authorities and, once again, he left Cuba. A couple of years later, in Rome, despondent over his breakup with an Italian lover, and in danger of losing his position at UNESCO (apparently because of pressure from the Castro regime), Casey took his life with an overdose of sleeping pills. His suicide note, written in Italian, apologized to the Roman police for any inconvenience caused by the circumstances of his death.

Dead at forty-five, Casey left behind a modest but significant body of fiction--one novella and sixteen stories, all gathered in this useful volume, which marks his first substantial appearance in English. Some of his stories, though quite popular at the time they were first published, will strike us now as somewhat dated. Their portrait of alienated outsiders--"the lonely, the abandoned, the wretched"--smacks too much of the "existential" literature that was all the rage in Cuba (and in the States) throughout the 1950s and early Sixties. The most ambitious among these pieces, "The Master of Life and Death," recounts in crude and excruciating detail a bureaucrat's obsession with the terminally ill. Another story focuses on a man who spends his leisure hours memorizing the inscriptions on tombstones. In a third, someone is arrested, tried, and put to death for a crime that remains unknown.

Casey was at his best, however, when he wasn't trying to become the Cuban Kafka. His philosophical stories, though quite polished in their own way, lack the resonance of his more topical (and tropical) fiction. When Casey tried to be profound, he was often tiresome; but when he limited himself to recording or imagining everyday events, he produced small masterpieces. In "My Aunt Leocadia, Love, and the Lower Paleolithic," the narrator sits at the soda fountain in a Woolworth's (or "Ten-Cen," as these stores were known in Cuba) drinking cafŽ con leche thinking about an aunt whose grand Colonial house used to sit on that very corner. The juxtaposition of past and present, of faded elegance and contemporary tawdriness, movingly makes the point that memory connects, but also isolates. In "Happiness," the furtive meeting of two lovers becomes the occasion for a delicate exploration of the passages that lead from eagerness to remorse (and back).

More generally, Casey's best fiction reflects his relentless search for stasis. In a life filled with vacillations and upheavals, he wrote to settle himself, to gain a foothold. The grounds of settlement could be a language, a city, a family, a way of writing, or a lover's body. But the human need for permanence never changed. In his most famous story, "The Homecoming," a stuttering young man (someone very much like Casey himself) returns to his homeland after years of absence. He relearns his mother tongue, makes new friends, starts on a new career--only to lose his life in the country's civil turmoil. In "Piazza Margana," a brilliant and disturbing tour de force that Casey completed shortly before his death, the narrator navigates in his lover's bloodstream looking for a place to lay anchor, an organ he can call home. And yet the fact that Casey wrote this story in English while living in Rome as an exile from Communist Cuba is already a sign that his dislocation had no remedy.

Ant___n Arrufat, a writer friend, once said that Casey swallowed the words he could not utter. But La Calvita didn't swallow his words; he spit them out on the page, the only permanent residence that he was ever able to achieve. The final words of his last story, which read like one of those epitaphs Casey was fond of, say it best: "This is my private claim, my heritage, my fief. I am NOT leaving."

Those sentences may also be what every exile would like to have etched on his tombstone.

-- Gustavo Perez Firmat

Perez Firmat is a professor of Romance studies at Duke and the author of several books, including Life on the Hyphen and Next Year in Cuba.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

By Richard Zimler '77. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1998. 318 pages. $24.95.

he historical setting of this novel, a best seller when first published in Portugal in 1996, is factual and exotic. Its story unfolds against the sixteenth-century background of Portugal and Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire. The main characters are no less exotic and reminiscent of reality. They are "New Christians," or Marranos, Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 who found their way to Lisbon, where they were forcibly baptized in 1496.

Part exotic apocalypse, part historical novel filled with Iberian local color, part murder mystery, part thinly veiled allegory for Hitler's genocidal war against the Jews, part Zionist ideology condemning the hope of assimilated life in Diaspora, part wish-fulfilling dream of Israeli-Arab rapprochement, part Enlightenment attack against aristocracy and established religion, part Nietzschean humanism, and part allusion to the horrors of ethnic cleansing, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon provides something provocative and revolutionary for everybody. There are even occasional episodes of raw sexuality.

Berekiah Zarco, the lusty hero and narrator of the tale, becomes Pedro. He is a healer, an artist who illuminates Hebrew manuscripts, a detective, and always a kabbalist, a Jewish mystic. He meditates to calm his anxieties, clearing his mind to achieve insight and solve practical problems. Like most of his kinfolk in the novel, Berekiah-Pedro lives publicly as a Christian while secretly preserving and practicing Judaism.

The tone of the novel is angry and oppressively apocalyptic. Heavenly visions and revelations abound. Duplicity and dissimulation reign supreme. All sorts of things come violently to an end. Drought and plague lead the "Old Christians" of Lisbon to blame the "New Christians" for these terrors. A bloody riot ensues, and a pogrom explodes. During the confusion, Abraham, Berekiah's uncle and mentor, is brutally murdered in the secret cellar that hides his scriptorium and synagogue. Flagellants, orphans, beggars, and disfigured corpses fill the streets. A demon is ritually exorcised from the body of girl.

The innocence of Berekiah's faith is shattered. Early on in the novel, he begins to feel that "history had taken off on an errant path unforeseen by God Himself. All of us in Lisbon--Jew and Christian alike--were now dependent only on ourselves for survival." Chilled by this Nietzschean thought, he speculates "that there never was any God watching over us. Even at its kabbalistic core, the Torah is simply fiction. There is no covenant. I have dedicated my whole life to a lie." On the eve of his departure from intolerant Christian Europe, Berekiah is the last kabbalist in Lisbon. Dramatically symbolizing all of these violent ends, God's name is blotted away, inked out of a Bible. The desecrated Bible is burnt to ash after Berekiah throws it into a fireplace.

As is to be expected from an apocalypse, the central plot is a mystery intentionally wrapped in an enigma: Who killed Uncle Abraham? There are six possible suspects. They include victims of the Spanish Inquisition, a former rabbi, and a ritual slaughterer of kosher meat. The suspects are all Jews or New Christians, members of Uncle Abraham's clandestine mystical society, book collectors and smugglers, or extortionists. Berekiah stalks them with the supernatural help of amulets, talismans, and incantations. He is aided by the uncanny earthly powers of his lifelong companion and one-time lover, Farid, a poet and deaf-mute Muslim who earns his keep by weaving tapestries and whose father, Samir, was killed by the deranged and indiscriminate mob of Christian rioters. Adept at solving mysteries, Berekiah eventually discovers the murderer and sees that justice is done.

Having captured his readers' attention with a story from the past and allusions to the immediate present, Richard Zimler might be hoping that they do not overlook Berekiah's paradoxical vision of the "new era...a world defined by history texts, not the works of God." In this "secular landscape," there will be no rabbis or priests. It will be "populated only by mystics and non-believers." The mystics will live knowing that human beings are "God's self-portraits," that God only dwells inside the human soul, waiting to hug and be hugged.

What the non-believers will live knowing, neither Berekiah-Pedro nor Zimler has yet to say. Reading this book makes one wonder what it is they might say, as well as what the rabbis and priests might reply. Reading this book also shows what Zimler considers to be important about politics, religion, and society. His book invites us to share his vital concerns.

--Kalman P. Bland

Bland, who teaches Judaic studies, is an associate professor in the department of religion at Duke.

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