World Books Interview: Homage to “The Halfway House”

An interview with Cuban writer José Manuel Prieto about the English translation of the late Guillermo Rosales’s “The Halfway House, ” a powerful novel about exile, revolution, and mental illness.

A once neglected masterpiece of Cuban literature is now available in English

By Bill Marx

Guillermo Rosales destroyed most of his work before he committed suicide in 1993, but the anguished Cuban writer published a short novel during his lifetime entitled “The Halfway House.” Neglected when it first appeared, the book is now considered a modern classic.

Translated by Anna Kushner for New Directions, “The Halfway House” is a masterful kick-in-the-teeth. The plot revolves around a man who, after his release from a Miami psychiatric ward, struggles to maintain his sanity in a hellish halfway house while grappling with his traumatic memories of the Cuban Revolution. An unconvincing note of sentimentality in the book’s final pages doesn’t dilute the story’s gaunt, gut-wrenching impact.

Acclaimed Cuban writer José Manuel Prieto, author of the novels “Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire” and more recently “Rex” (reviewed by World Books) contributes an informative prologue to “The Halfway House.” But his discussion left me wondering why it took so long for Rosales’s savagely beautiful book to be translated, and how he is viewed in Cuba today. I fired off email questions to Prieto, whose thoughtful responses, via the expert translation of Anna Kushner, are below.

World Books: In your introduction to “The Halfway House” you write that the novel is “one of the best Cuban novels of the second half of the twentieth century.” Why was the initial reaction of Latin American critics to the novel so lukewarm when it was published in 1987? What are their estimations of the novel today?

José Manuel Prieto: The reaction was so lukewarm because it was published by a little-known publishing house with small circulation. Another factor was the stigma of living and writing in Miami, which was still very strong back then. You simply wouldn’t pay attention to an author like Guillermo Rosales, he was something lowly, an enemy of the Revolution, which still had a strong mystique.

Today this has all changed, making the book’s acceptance possible. Now you can understand what the book says, what it recounts, understand it’s not made-up. It corresponds to a real situation. And it was written by a real author, a very talented one. This didn’t escape the notice of the jury members who awarded it prizes in the 1980s. The novel, which was praised by the esteemed Mexican writer Octavio Paz, started to make the rounds, although just barely, and slowly it became well-deservedly famous among Cuban exiled writers.

Its stylistic achievements, its brevity, efficiency and its deep artistic and emotional impact can be compared to the work of authors such as Alejo Carpentier, Reynaldo Arenas, or Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

World Books: What particular resonances, political or literary, does this “lost masterpiece” have 20 years after it was published?

Prieto: From a literary point of view, the resonance is enormous. “The Halfway House” is a book that, while very Cuban, is simultaneously universal. As I’ve said, its literary quality is undeniable and its language is very efficient, very “American,” perhaps it’s even worth saying that it’s “Hemingwayesque,” since Rosales expertly internalized the influence of authors such as Ernest Hemingway.

It’s one of the few books which denounces the Revolution’s excesses and psychological damages with great literary dignity. The book never falls into propaganda. Rosales knew how to develop his own alphabet based on his experiences and, undeniably, he had a very powerful story to tell, that of a man whose spirit has been broken, a “loser” who ends up in a mental institution and who is able, once inside, to notice everything, to be a witness to the horror.

World Books: Critics are anxious to view this novel as a dank version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” set in Miami. But you compare it to the fiction of Milan Kundera and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Why the resistance to the book’s vision of totalitarianism?

Prieto: I don’t think it’s a completely mistaken reading, that is, the view of the mental institution replicating the State in which an individual, the patient, fights to maintain his humanity.

My reading, however, takes this into account as a jumping point: that Figueras, Rosales’ main character, comes from a totalitarian state in which the State’s presence is still much larger, incommensurately larger. I get the impression that, despite its seriousness and its reach over the greater part of the 20th Century, the totalitarian experience has yet to be completely understood. In other words, it’s easier to “read” a work like Rosales’ from a more classic, bourgeois if you will, perspective. But as I lay out in my prologue, Rosales should be read in the same vein as Milan Kundera or Primo Levi’s novels, and less in the classic tradition of a “story of madness,” like Anton Chekhov’s novella “Ward Number Six.”

World Books: Do you see any humor in the book – or is “The Halfway House,” in the words of one of its insane characters, “the tragedy of a final melodrama without any prospects”?

Prieto: That’s a good question. Rosales’ vision is quite dark, it doesn’t lend itself to irony nor does it try to be sarcastic. Nonetheless, where humor does play a part, where he allows himself to joke, is in his dreams. I’m talking about those appearances by Fidel Castro who moves around as agile as a mountain lion, dodging bullets, or that scene, which has its roots in Cuban folklore regarding wakes (there are endless jokes on this theme), in which Fidel Castro pops out of his coffin and asks, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, for some coffee. He then says: “Well, we’re already dead, now you’ll see that doesn’t solve anything, either.” These are the moments of subtle humor in the book, but in the immediate reality of the asylum there’s no humor, just suffering, hardship.

World Books: What do you see to be the challenges of translating “The Halfway House” into English? Has anything been lost in this translation?

Prieto: Anna Kushner, the translator, did an excellent job. She is of Cuban descent and is perfectly bilingual; almost all of the reviews mention the high quality of her translation. Anna was able to grasp all of the nuances of Rosales’ Spanish, which, in fact, is fairly direct. Rosales, as his main character says, is a great admirer of Hemingway. He belongs to that tradition of Cuban writers who are removed from the baroque prose styles of Alejo Carpentier or José Lezama Lima. He is closer to a sparse, frugal Spanish literature that has been largely influenced by the English of American authors (another example of this, save for the vast difference in subjects, intentions, etc. would be Jorge Luis Borges).

Given that, the book seems to be an ideal candidate for translation into English. Remember that even the title of the book in Spanish was in English. It is called “Boarding Home.” Great thought was given to changing the title since a “boarding home” isn’t exactly a mental institution. Thus, as paradoxical as it seems, a novel that already had an English-language title, which seemed ready to go with its original English-language title, had to be changed because the title didn’t work in English. An irony.

But this doesn’t diminish the book’s impact in the least. The English version maintains, as I’ve already said, all of the power and elegant brevity of Rosales’ writing.

World Books: In your introduction you also argue against an autobiographical reading of the book – but doesn’t Rosales’s troubled life, which ended with suicide in 1993, explain his deep understanding of mental illness?

Prieto: The descriptions of the mentally ill, the world that Figueras finds in the “halfway house,” are undeniably taken from real life. By the time Rosales wrote this novel, he had spent many months confined in these types of institutions and was unquestionably ill, a man who was seriously mentally disturbed.

What I argue against in my preface is reducing the book to a simple autobiographical novel by a mentally ill person, viewing it as a sort of memoir. I think that it is a book, on the contrary, that is thought through to the tiniest detail, a real work of art, a novel in the strict sense of the word. Indeed, the narrator’s illness is not the book’s main subject, the narrator is completely lucid: he sees and “reads” everything happening around him with utmost clarity, he passes definitive and weighty judgments. His observations, furthermore, are informed by his reading, he is more of a literary being than an insane man.

We could look at it from another angle: we are not introduced to a world of hallucinations in which we need to fight against ghostly emanations. A bit like the “cloud” that always hangs over the Indian in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The world that Rosales describes is completely real, tangible, and even terribly lucid. That is the book’s power. If the narrator were truly “crazy,” then we’d have a distorted “impressionistic” image of reality, we would hear voices, etc. I believe that at no point was Rosales looking to paint a subjective picture, reality as seen through the distorted prism of a mentally ill mind, but rather quite the opposite, he wanted to paint an objective picture in a mentally ill milieu. Thus his main character is, perhaps, the sanest person with the greatest aptitude for critical thought in the whole book. It’s something that really stands out. And that’s what leads to the book’s combination of deep emotional impact and unquestionable veracity.

World Books: One of the characters in the book, a woman Figueras falls in love with, is an artist. Does Rosales draw links between art and madness? Does he idealize the connections?

Prieto: Rosales is interested in highlighting that there is salvation through art. The only person who is not completely out of it is Frances, the woman with whom Figueras falls in love, another patient. She is able to create, to leave a record of the horror. This is also the most urgent task that Figueras imposes upon himself. He is a man of letters, a writer… In fact, one is left with the impression after reading this book that Rosales always thought of himself as an artist, very conscious of the responsibilities and the trade of a writer.

In exile, he found the possibility of putting into writing not only the story of his life in the asylum, but also—and this is the most important thing about the book, to my understanding—delivering a harsh and critical judgment on two things. First, the abandonment of a certain sector of the exiled, a denunciation of the cruelty of the American dream, but also, secondly, of his life within the Revolution, of his revolutionary past in Cuba. To speak of the effect on him and on his country that a figure like Fidel Castro had, whom he “interrogates” in his dreams.

The artist is the person who is capable of articulating his ideas, of leaving testimony of something that would otherwise happen without leaving a trace. And who is able to articulate it not only intellectually, but emotionally. One of the virtues of this book is that it is memorable, that Rosales, in a short expanse and with a reduced, deliberately reduced, alphabet of situations and expressions, is able to transmit such a powerful message, which cannot leave the reader indifferent.

World Books: In your latest novel, “Rex,” literary history plays a pivotal role – in what ways has Rosales influenced your writing? On the surface you appear to be very different writers stylistically: he is a minimalist, you a maximalist.

Prieto: No, Rosales hasn’t influenced me in any way. I read him relatively recently, he was unknown to me previously. His style and his concerns are very different from what I set out to do with a novel like “Rex,” which is a book that does not aim to be a portrait of reality, but rather, a literary game, or to put it in plainer language, perhaps even precisely Nabokovian or Proustian. I see the novel as a vehicle not only for telling a story, but also for contributing reflections that go beyond the plot, that can cover essays, philosophy, etc. I’m more interested in, I’ve always been more interested in, that type of book.

Nonetheless, if there’s something in common between my book and Rosales’ book, it’s that it relays the circumstances of a survivor of totalitarianism. In both “Rex” and “The Halfway House,” the characters have left behind a traumatic experience, of life within a Revolution, in the universe of mirrors that a totalitarian country is. In the case of Rosales, the experience has damaged him deeply. Figueras tries to save himself, he makes optimistic plans with Frances, but he fails. The ending is pessimistic; I would call it dark.

For the main character in “Rex,” just as for the ones in the other two novels in my Russian Trilogy, the experiences were less traumatic, the tone is different. Nonetheless, the protagonist is conscious, and it’s very obvious in, for example, the “Encyclopedia,” that he has a very critical attitude of living life under a harsh regime like that. I would have loved to have given “Rex” to Rosales for him to read, to have heard his opinion about it. I am sure that I would have learned a lot.

Translated by Anna Kushner

Tags: New Directions, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, Rex, The Halfway House, World Books

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