Like so many of you, when I’m not having nightmares, I am an insomniac. Most of the time it’s controllable, an hour or so lost every night. But every once in awhile, the night escapes me, drags on and on as the mind races to a thousand hidden corners. Regrets, memories, fantasies…all anxiously tossing and turning as I search for a place to touch something solid and escape, if only for a couple of hours. And then always the ache of the body, of the hot pillow. And then suddenly the cold light of morning. It’s always a sobering experience to see the sunrise. The fever dream melts away and we are left with what Pynchon calls, “the day, the necessary day, presenting its demands.” The Spanish writer Belén Gopegui’s El lado frío de la almohada (The Cold Side of the Pillow), her fifth novel, published in 2004, is that cold light of morning.
In the capitalist West, it has been “non-negotiable” for almost a century that we buy into the big dream of individual dreams, the Situationists’ “Society of the Spectacle.” In our post-9/11 world, however, living beyond Fukuyama’s end of history, in a time, in fact, when history has returned with a vengeance, in a time of nightmares and restless escapism, such grand narratives are further away from us than ever. Even less so are the personal, individual meanings we pretend to create in our lives beyond this history. Even less so still, almost impossible to imagine, since “there is no alternative,” are spaces of resistance, public commons of collective dreaming, of shared alternative realities of better living, that prove the Zapatistas’ “mundo donde quepan muchos mundos” (“world where many worlds fit.”)
And yet…the EZLN celebrates 23 years of autonomy this year. Gopegui’s novel, at least to the reader trapped within the hegemonic dream machine, is a defiant, materialist repositioning of one of these last, “peripheral” worlds: Cuba and the Cuban Revolution. Because in case we forgot (and it is so easy and dangerous to forget here), there is a small island nation off the coast of a vast empire, that has been under constant attack by the empire, directly and indirectly, for almost sixty years. All because its people (yes, its people and not simply some imposed state apparatus), defied the empire and desired to lived differently, to live better, outside the dream machine. So it is that against the futility and even danger of the personal, of the privatized dreams and lives of twilight, Gopegui reminds us of the fiercely absurd possibility of the realization of communism, collective political and social living, in a place like Cuba.
For the reader skeptical of such potentialities, it should be made clear that this is no rehashed Cold War conflict, but an urgent, fundamental question of our times. Perhaps this is why Gopegui sets the story on the eve of the Iraq War and presents it in the vein of a classic spy thriller (echoes of John le Carré’s novels, Graham Greene’s works, etc.) only to deflate the genre’s tropes. If it’s a tense spy thriller, it’s also a static one, to the point that it feels more like the performance of a spy thriller. The book begins where it ends: chapter 0, with the writing of the novel itself by characters from within the novel, and with the death of one of the two main characters, the young Cuban agent Laura Bahía who believes in and urges on a real future today while knowing she may be unable to support its weight. The story checks off all the right requirements: neutral European setting (Madrid), intimate rendezvous, strangers following in taxis, burner phones, fringe Portuguese ultra-leftists, fake cargos in the Netherlands, the betrayal of the promises of transgressive sex…
And none of it matters. We already know all this, have seen it done before. This story is not about “un fragmento de la Historia, con mayúscula, aunque sí pertenezca a la historia de lo que los hombres y mujeres hacen, conocen, imaginan, procuran” (“a fragment of History, in capital letters, although it does pertain to the history that men and women make, know, imagine, obtain.”) The heart of the novel, what Gopegui wants us to not merely see and feel, but touch, is beyond all this, is an attempt to relocate such high stakes in how these conflicts and their nuances overflow into our daily lives. “¿Crees que los ingleses, los belgas, los españoles, los suizos no saben que su comodidad, heredada o adquirida, en cualquier caso inocente, mata cada día en otros continentes? Lo saben” (“Do you believe that the English, the Belgians, the Spanish, the Swiss don’t know that their comfort, inherited or acquired, however innocent the case may be, kills every day on other continents? They know”) says a character bitterly. “Olvidan lo que saben” (“They forget what they know.”)
It is this forgetting on the part of the privileged few in the name of comfort, in the name of private dreams and fantasy of any form, which Gopegui via Laura equates with Sartrean bad faith and which recurs symbolically in the act of reaching for the comfort of the cold side of the pillow and the false suffering of insomnia. The novel best explores the theme in long conversations like the one from which the quote above is taken and in the epistolary chapters (every other chapter is a letter written by Laura Bahía) which act as commentary on the plot. It is best embodied in the other main character, Philip Hull, the aging, world-weary American diplomat who thinks that his private dreams of adventure and change are what he needs, are a way out to a new life, but who ends up right where he began, if not worse, and at a high cost. It is the novel’s and his own ambivalence towards change through his incoherent, yet exhilarating relationship to Laura and the Cuban operation that centers the novel in a cautious hope while all the while moving us inexorably towards some sort of defeat and pyrrhic victories.
Literature, of course, can be one of those costly, pointless dreams of the elite in these latter days and the letters and conversations in the novel often return to the material, social role of literature in a world that disdains social literature, that conceives of the material only as product, and that defines role as cog. The Situationists described the problem extremely well roughly fifty years ago in their “Response to a Questionnaire from the Center for Socio-Experimental Art”: that art in any meaningful sense died with the working class on the battlefields of the world wars and that it will continue to remain dead until it finds material expression in living, breathing class struggle. Towards a workers’ literature that stops being literature, then, that suppresses itself in order to be realized. More recently, n+1 Magazine argued along similar lines against “World Lite,” globalized literature as bland, rootless, imperial product and for its inverse, an internationalist, political literature. Gopegui strikes me as this second sort of writer, the kind of writer we need. Chapter 0 nearly ends with a character saying, “Si escribo la novela, ¿qué harás con ella?” (“If I write the novel, what will you do with it?”); it’s as if Gopegui is saying that we need a literature that acts, that is not simply consumed, read, or analyzed. If there is to be a literature in this sense today, perhaps in any sense, it must be una literatura comprometida, a politically and socially committed and engaged literature.
So Gopegui presents Philip (and all of us) with a road out of Stephen Dedalus’s “nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” a return to solidarity and action deliberately demonstrated by the Cubans’ collective operation, but God knows if it’s a narrow one, far away, and possibly lost in time and context. There are no easy answers today, no guaranteed victory with the right party line or Trotskyist slogan. “¿Cómo pueden vivir los hombres y mujeres?” (“How can men and women live?”) Laura cries passionately. “Algunos pueden, y no es que sean mejores, es que…se preguntan cuánta escasez pero también cuánto de extraordinario y bonancible habría en un tiempo sin miseria y sin lujos para todos” (“Some can, and it’s not that they’re better, it’s that…they ask themselves how much scarcity as well as how much of the extraordinary and calm there would be in a time without misery and without luxuries for all.”) It’s an immanently political lesson, the kind of hard truth that harkens back to Neruda’s “Explico algunas cosas.” It’s another Latin American/modern canonical poet, however, that the book quotes as an epigram and that, while not explaining anything, gives us the necessary direction to conclude. It’s César Vallejo, saying:
Me dirijo, en esta forma, a las individualidades colectivas, tanto como a las colectividades individuales y a los que, entre unas y otras, yacen marchando al son de las fronteras o, simplemente, marcan el paso inmóvil en el borde del mundo.
I direct myself, in this form, to the collective individualities, as much as to the individual collectivities and to those that, between the two, lie marching to the pace of borders, or, simply, mark immobile time at the edge of the world.