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Edmundo Desnoes: Memorias del subdesarrollo (Inconsolable Memories; Memories of Underdevelopment)

When first released this book made a considerable impact in Latin America, helped considerably by the superb film of the book. Its success is due to the fact that not only is it a well-written book but was written and published in Cuba but damned the Cuban Revolution, not from the standard anti-Communist US perspective (he also damns the US) but more from the perspective of the Cuban bourgeois who does not quite fit into the revolution. The book consist of a long diatribe by the narrator which is almost entirely negative – about Cuba, the revolution, the Cuban bourgeoisie, his ex-wife, his friends and family, even his new girlfriend. The narrator’s name is ambiguous. On one occasion he implies that the narrator is called Edmundo Desnoes but he also says that his surname is Malabre though note that in the Spanish-speaking world, people have two surnames, their father’s surname and their mother’s (married women will often have their husband’s surname and father’s). He had owned a furniture shop but this had been seized by the Cuban authorities after the revolution and he now lives on the proceeds. He and his wife, Laura, had got divorced and she had gone off to the United States, as had his parents and many of his friends. He has decided to stay. He has decided to write a diary about his life (as much to show his maid Noemi that he is doing something when she is there as for any other reason) and the diary is what we are reading.

What is clear is that our hero did not fit in with the pre-revolutionary era and does not fit in with the new, revolutionary era. There is a telling story he gives us of a visit he and his wife made to New York. There are photos, which prompted his reminiscences, which seem to show him enjoying himself but he states quite clearly that he was just putting on a show and that he was thoroughly miserable. Yet now, he is not happy either. He sees some advantages. He no longer has his car which he sees as an advantage as he does not have to worry about it – filling it up with petrol, parking it and so on and he seems to be happy using the bus. But he still is not happy with Castro’s revolution, not least because he is not a worker but a bourgeois. He does not seem to mind the loss of friends and family. He and Laura were clearly no longer happy. He is critical of many of his friends. There is a story of one who is about to leave and our hero seems happy to see him go. As for his parents, he complains bitterly that he writes letters to them. Their response is to send him chewing gum (which he does not like) and Gillette razor blades (he uses an electric shaver) and to send him only postcards and not letters.

His sex life, however, has not disappeared. He clearly is attracted to Noemi but dares not approach her. Eventually he meets Elena to whom he is initially attracted and they have a fling but he soon tires of her. The result is that he gets a visit from her brother who accuses him of corrupting a minor, claiming that Elena is only sixteen, and that she was a virgin before she met him. His parents are then brought in and the father grabs hold of him and the mother shouts insults him. The result is that he is arrested for corrupting a minor. But we have also seen his early sex life. He had fallen for Hanna and, when she had gone off to New York, he had followed her, with the aim of becoming a writer. But he had not been able to write and had gone back to Cuba, to the furniture business. But, two years later, he had returned to New York, only to find, to his horror, that Hanna had not waited for him but had married a real writer.

Just as it looks as though he has worked it all out and found a girlfriend he might be happy with, the Cuban missile crisis occurs. He cannot believe that Cuba has missiles and the US would target it but he has horrific images in his mind of Havana struck by a nuclear bomb. It really is an excellent novel about alienation, about a man who cannot fit in whatever the political system he is living under. At the end, he admits that words cannot serve, that he needs more than words and, of course, that is how it ends, how it must end.

Publishing history

First published in 1965 by UNEAC, Havana
First English translation 1967 (as Inconsolable Memories); 1971 (as Memories of Underdevelopment)
Translated by Al Schaller (Memories of Underdevelopment), Edmundo Desnoes (Inconsolable Memories)