From, “The Transparency of Time,” Leonardo Padura, 2018. Unauthorized translation.
[Mario Conde is the lead character in a series of novels by Padura. Conde, a frustrated writer, started as a policeman, then entered the second-hand book trade. Rabbit and Candito are lifelong friends. La transparencia del tiempo is the 12th of Padura’s novels, some of which do not feature Conde].
After they had gotten barely 100 meters from the street, which had once been paved, the outsiders understood that they were moving into another universe, as if they had gone through a black hole into a different time-space dimension. The world of invisible people, Conde dubbed the territory they were entering. The alleys of trodden earth, steadily narrower and more tortuous, irregularly laid out, were molded by precariousness and improvisation. On each side of the pathways, covered with with ridges that made it impossible for any vehicle but a military tank to pass, were dwellings whose physical structures decayed as they followed some of the many rough tracks that split off from what appeared to be the main artery of the settlement.
Going deeper into the slum, they saw some masonry, cement-block houses, but improvisation and poverty soon took over everywhere: Rooms built with a few blocks and bricks, others with termite-ridden planks, some with zinc sheeting in various states of deterioration, and even pieces of cardboard in others. The places seemed to be covered with the most dissimilar materials for protection from rain and sun: roofs of zinc or wood, others covered with waterproof paper, to the precarious extreme of coverings with tarpaper or pieces of lighweight plastic affixed to a chunk of stone or an iron bar. The laws of urban development, of architecture and even of gravity were unknown in this hive of miserable lodgings, which made up a chaotic and suffocating sprawl.
Conde, who walked through Havana every day in search of books to buy, had thought he knew the most run-down places in the city, the old proleterian neighborhoods, always poor, like the very place where he’d been born and still lived. In other circumstances, he had had occasion to visit a “settlement” of eastern immigrants close to his own area, an informal bunch of houses built in an empty lot between two urban neighborhoods. There, he had seen overcrowded houses that shared walls, built with no order or plan, with walls that had never been plastered. But they fit the definition of houses. By his lights, that could be called poverty. Now he was witnessing jubilant misery, underground Havana: the catacombs of the catacombs.
“What the hell is this, Conde?,” Rabbit asked him, looking from one side to the other as if he didn’t believe what his eyes were showing him.
“Underground life,” Conde said, attempting to define the environment surrounding them. “This is another life. But it is also real.”
“This is life?,” Rabbit said, doubtfully.
“Yes, Rabbit, though it’s supposed to be invisible,” Conde said. “I’ve told you: There’s always someone who’s worse-off…Worse off than me, for instance.”
“And how is that there are people who are so fucked? Here, in this country? By now?,” Conejo asked, alarmed. He continued: “This looks like Haiti, Africa…or hell. And remember, I was born in a crappy place, poverty-stricken, but, fuck, compared to this, my house was the Taj Mahal, man.”
“You don’t know what poverty is, Rabbit,” Candito finally said, moved to emerge from his silent observing.
The outsiders would soon find out that people had begun to settle the place in the 1990s, when the Crisis began. A group from the country’s East, looking for any possible solution to their misery, had emigrated to the capital. The explorers had hoped to find a way to survive, and, out of necessity and spontaneous generation, had happened upon this unpopulated area, a sort of no man’s land in which, stubbornly, they established themselves, with the stony obstinacy that grew out of their situation: This was life or death. With cardboard, pieces of wood and zinc sheeting, the pariahs had built the first dwellings and dug the first pits for their bodily wastes.
Then began a silent battle for survival of which most of the country’s inhabitants were never informed, because there was no news about it, as if the island’s Palestinians* didn’t even rate that much. Given that this was an illegal ocupation of State land, the various agencies involved, including the Police, had started to to harass the occupants, trying to drive them out.
But every attempt at eviction was followed by the return of the displaced, accompanied each time by new, desperate familiies who kept coming from all parts of the country to join the founders. Overnight, they would rebuild their rustic houses where the old ones had been torn down, and they would build new ones on nearby lots, and there they would plant their flag, like the conquistadores they were.
Responding to repeated attempts at expulsion, the residents of the unnamed slum started to raise barricades of necessity against offensives by the forces of legality. Cordons of children and women – if they were pregnant so much the better – were designed to block police cars, as well as the pitiless bullozers manned by squads of builders who had become demolishers.
The fight went on for several years, maintained by the absence of other options for people determined to survive, without water and sewer service, electricity, and even without the little book that guaranteed the nation’s citizens a subsistence diet at subsidized prices.
It was a fight in which the people under assault had nowhere to retreat. So they stayed determined and strong. Thanks to all that perseverance and desperation, they won a pyrrhic victory: Up against the impossibility of offering them any alternative that included conditions of even minimal dignity, someone had decided to look the other way and let them maintain their insecure existence, on condition that they remain invisible.
*Cuban slang for people who come to Havana from Cuba’s eastern provinces.