Monday, December 30, 2019

Our Man West of Havana

In 1957, as Castro's rebels fought both government troops and communists in the east of the island, Norman Lewis was dispatched to Cuba by Ian Fleming in order to sound out Ernest Hemingway on the developing situation there.

The creator of 007 was thoroughly despised by his own publisher Jonathan Cape, who refused to even meet him. Yet 
Fleming was one of those tortured genre writers who craved to be taken more seriously and hankered after the company of poets and authors of genuine literary repute. 

Hemingway was also published by Jonathan Cape in London and Fleming had tried unsuccessfully to engage him in correspondence. At this time Foreign Manager of the Sunday Times, he was also probably still connected with the British intelligence services, so the uprising in Cuba presented a further opportunity for bothering the American writer, not just in the name of journalism, but also as a way of indulging his fantasy that Hemingway was, as Lewis put it, 'an extremely subtle and successful undercover agent'.

The Times's emissary duly turned up in a notably violent Havana 
— 'most beautiful city of the Americas' — and checked into the Seville Biltmore, which was also Graham Greene's favourite hotel in the city. (Though the Inglaterra has a bigger part to play in Our Man...)

At first Hemingway was hard to get hold of as the editor of the Havana Post had challenged him to a duel after the Nobel Laureate had whipped off Eva Gardner's pants and waved them around at a party thrown by the British ambassador.

So Lewis set off for the Oriente in order to gather the impressions of ordinary Cubans. On the roof terrace of the Casa Granda hotel in Santiago's Cespedes Square (where, on April 19, 2012 I watched Chelsea beat Barcelona 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions' League semi-final) Lewis observed an extraordinary gun battle between Fidel Castro's 26 July movement and local communists...

'By custom, the first shots were precisely at 10pm, giving the citizens the chance of a quiet stroll in the end of the evening before the bullets began to fly. With a half hour to go, and all the street lights ablaze, the promenaders began to stream out of the square and make for their homes, where they clustered at their doors like gophers ready to bolt for the shelter of their burrows when the shadow of an eagle fell upon them. Then as the cathedral clock struck ten, all the lights went out, and the streets were cleared for battle'. 

It had become clear to Lewis that at this stage Fidel's lot were middle-class rebels with no meaningful grasp of Marxist doctrine and that the 'reds' in Cuba wanted rid of them.  

Meanwhile Hemingway was writing to the Havana Post to decline the duel on behalf of his readers - he owed it to them not to endanger himself in this manner.

Lewis travelled out to La Vigía to meet him.

'At sixty years of age he looked like a man well into his seventies and he was in wretched physical shape...there was an exhaustion and emptiness in his face. This was an encounter which might have been dangerous and undermining to any young man in the full enjoyment of ambition and hope, because it presented a parable on the subject of futility. Hemingway's mournful eyes urged you to accept your lot as it was and be thankful for it...after all his conquests he seemed ready to weep with Alexander, and, looking into his face, it was hard to believe that he would ever smile again.'
Lewis did not find him forthcoming on the uprising.'How do you see all this ending?' 'My answer is that I live here,' was the novelist's slightly cryptic reply.

Back in London Lewis, one of the great British travel journalists of the last century, reported back to Ian Fleming: 'Finally I saw the Great Man, as instructed. He told me nothing, but he taught me a lot.'

(The original, long-form version of this tale appeared as an article entitled Mission to Havana by Norman Lewis.)

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