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Cuban Dreams
For National Book Award winner Carlos Eire, the road from sixteenth-century history to personal memoir began in clouds.

Carlos Eire’s father remembered living during the time of Christ. When Eire was growing up in Cuba, his father made an elaborate model of the village of Bethlehem and showed Carlos and his brother where he’d lived. Eire’s father also told his sons about a more recent incarnation, when, as Louis XVI, he died under the guillotine’s blade.

Eire’s own historical narratives have usually been more conventional, of the kind that help secure academic jobs and conference invitations. As Yale’s T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, Carlos M.N. Eire ’79 PhD (the surname is pronounced like “air”) expresses his personal story only obliquely in his scholarly work. The son of a man he says was “obsessed with death,” he has written a book exploring the cult of the dead in sixteenth-century Spain. A child of the Cuban Revolution, he specializes in a period of upheaval: in the sixteenth century, he explains, “everything began to be questioned"; the European discovery of the New World and the rupture that split the Church fostered intellectual and religious revolution. “I understand revolution firsthand,” says Eire. But he has never considered writing a scholarly work about the revolution he knows best. The idea amuses him: “Oh God, no! Please. I have no critical distance.”

But, while avoiding the topic of Cuba as an academic, he could not escape the Cuba-shaped clouds that dogged him. “Cuba clouds” would appear without warning. He’d see one pursuing him as he drove home from New Haven along Interstate 95. He’d see them when he traveled, in Reykjavik, in Rome, in Kalamazoo. They seemed to be omens, but of what? He imagined one of the clouds cleaving him with a lightning bolt and killing him. But that was not his scholarly mind speaking, and so he kept Cuba at bay.

Every night, Eire sat at his desk and returned to the world he had not seen for four decades.

Then, in 2000, three coinciding events compelled Eire to relinquish critical distance. His oldest child, John-Carlos, had turned 11, Eire’s age when his parents sent him away—one of 14,000 Cuban children who were airlifted to Florida to escape the revolution. In the winter of 1999-2000, the nation had fiercely debated whether six-year-old refugee Elian González should be sent back to Cuba; in June, the boy was returned to the place Eire calls, in his thoughtful, deliberate delivery, “the worst circle of hell.” And in November, Eire would turn 50, a prospect that occasioned introspection.

That summer, every night, Eire sat down at his desk at home in Guilford, Connecticut, and returned to the world he had not seen for four decades. Over four months, he wrote what would become Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. On November 19, the memoir won the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction. Eire calls it “my first book without footnotes.”

He is a nino bitongo, a spoiled brat, swimming in azure pools, exuberantly shooting off Chinese firecrackers with his big brother Tony, running his fastest in the DDT mist behind the pesticide Jeep; studying under the stern Christian Brothers, alongside President Batista’s sons; pilfering toy soldiers at the toy store (a grenade guy, a kneeling-shooting guy, a standing-up-shooting guy.). In stormy weather, his father, a municipal judge, piles Carlos and Tony into his 1956 Buick Special to go “car surfing”—driving through waves that crash over the Havana sea wall.

After Castro takes power on New Year’s Day, 1959, the televised executions disappoint Carlos; at age eight, he prefers his favorite Viking movie. “It was in color, and it showed you men fighting and dying up close.” Up the street at the Ursuline convent, Carlos can hear the crashing of sledgehammers pulverizing the holy icons. The Italian priests who live across the street cry when they say goodbye. The legless beggar and her drooling child vanish, and when the cobbler resoles his father’s wingtips, he uses tire treads.

One day, Carlos and Tony ridicule the youthful Pioneers in red berets and red neckerchiefs, who march past the house daily at exactly the same time, chanting, "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, Cuba si, Yanquis no." The brothers hide behind the hedges and shout: "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, comiendo mierda y gastando zapato." (One, two, three, four, eating shit and wasting shoes.) When their mother overhears them, she is frightened—“She has visions, the kind mothers get. Flash-forwards rather than flashbacks.” She puts the boys on a KLM prop plane to Miami on April 6, 1962. (“It would take only one brief plane ride to turn me from a white boy into a spic,” writes Eire.) She tells her children they’ll come home soon; Castro can’t last. They live in foster homes and an orphanage, picking up soda bottles from vacant lots in Miami to redeem for pocket change. The boys must wait three years until their mother manages to leave Cuba. Their father never follows.

“My wife said, ‘Don’t look back. Don’t fix anything. Quit trying to explain everything.’”

Every evening, at bedtime, Eire would read the previous night’s work to his family: his wife, Jane Ulrich, a religion and literature graduate student when they met during his second teaching job, at the University of Virginia; and John-Carlos, Grace, and Bruno, then ages 11, 9, and 5. He read them the list of milkshake flavors at the Tropicream: Ciruela. Frutabomba. Guanabana, guayaba, naranja … He read about the neighbor’s pet chimpanzee, decked out for special occasions in lederhosen and a fedora. He also read the scary parts: how Jesus terrified him in dreams, crown of thorns on his head, blood trickling down his face, staring with piercing eyes through the dining room window. He read them the chapter he calls “a bad acid trip,” in which one image flows into another and then another; he has studied enough about mysticism to imagine hallucinating. “It’s the story of my life,” he says. “They need to know it.”

Sometimes, Eire would ask his wife if the work was any good. Yes, she told him, it’s your best work yet. “Her advice to me was, Keep going. Don’t look back. Don’t fix anything. Quit trying to explain everything. And that was just such good advice, because I kept moving.”

Eire sees his work without footnotes as a reversal of his scholarly work, which builds from facts and data, and uses images only as embellishments on theory and analysis. But a friend and former colleague who is a professor at the University of Virginia, historian H.C. Erik Midelfort ’64, ’70 PhD, sees a connection between Eire’s scholarly work and Waiting for Snow in Havana. As a historian, he says, Eire excels at explaining worldviews that are alien to most of us: for instance, his book War Against the Idols argues that sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts smashed stained glass and statues in churches not because they were destructive thugs but because the artwork deeply disturbed them; they believed that images distracted worshippers from true contact with God. Similarly, in his memoir, Eire transports us to a world we could not otherwise know. “We see in the memoir the same sorts of talents that Carlos brings to his work as an historian: the ability to bring to life a world that seems alien to us, the world of childhood as well as the world of Cuba.

Re-entering that world of childhood constituted a parallel existence for Eire during those months. After a day teaching summer term and finding his footing as the new chair of the religious studies department, he would return home to spend the evening in the ordinary rituals of family life. Then, when he sat down to write, he was filled with a strange energy. “I could feel there was something out of the ordinary going on. I used some part of my brain I’d never used before. I realized we comprehend the world in a totally different way through images and symbols. The world is a very complex jumble of contradictory things, and the greater the coincidence of opposites, the closer you are to truth.”

So he let the images lead him, from one to another. As in Chapter 23: It is 1959, and he sits in the cool of Miramar Theater watching Vikings on the screen— Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis. He longs to be a Viking, to have a Viking funeral, “my corpse set out to sea on an empty ship” drifting into the sunset. “A pale Nordic sunset, mind you, not a bright tangerine Cuban sunset.” He sees real death on the television screen, as Castro’s men line up Batista supporters against walls and shoot them with “industrial efficiency.” His father watches complacently. Why didn’t he take the family and flee? “What was going through his head? Hadn’t he learned enough from that sorry experience in 1789?

“The greater the coincidence of opposites, the closer you are to truth.”

Nearly two decades later, his father will die, and Carlos will hear of the death too late: “How I wish I could let go of the images I have of the death I never witnessed and the funeral I never got to attend, let go of what doesn’t belong in the core of my soul.” He begins speaking to the long-dead medieval Christian mystic Johannes Eckhart, who sought Gelassenheit, “letting-go-ness.” Which means even letting go of God. But Eckhart is a German, seeking God “in the dead of a dim northern winter … Can a Cuban ever let go? Sorry Meister Eckhart, it must be that sunlight.” Eire concludes, “Love hurts … Pain and joy are the same.” He longs for northern latitudes: “All that white ice, all that snow … So pure, so good … Northern was better. Definitely. Greater tolerance for pain, great valor and no lizards on top of it.”

But he won’t be rescued from passion. “I yam what I yam,” the chapter ends. "Soy Cubano. Cubanus sum. And even in New England I wait for snow.”

That fall, Eire sold his “novel” to Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. “I wrote it as a novel, and I wanted to publish it as a novel,” he says. “This is peculiar for a historian, but part of the reason was that I thought it would have a greater impact as fiction than as a memoir. I thought that fiction is an art and somehow has a greater power to transform. But the bottom line is I didn’t want to expose my life to the world.”

Then his publisher called. “They asked ‘How much of this is true?’ I said, ‘Well, about 98 percent; I made up a little bit of dialogue.’ They said, ‘We can’t publish this as a novel. It wouldn’t be honest.’ They were convinced it would have a much greater effect if people knew that this had actually happened. A lot of reviewers have praised the book for its magical realism, which makes me howl with laughter. It’s not magical realism: it’s real life!”

Eire’s brother Tony hasn’t read the book. “He told me, ‘I don’t need to read it. I’ve lived it.’ He was crushed by this, by all of it.” At 56, Tony lives in a nursing home suffering from ailments he won’t discuss with his brother.

“Reviewers have praised my book for its ‘magical realism.’ It’s not magical realism: it’s real life!”

Eire’s mother will never read his book. Now 83, living in Chicago, she doesn’t speak English. Although the book had sold 16,000 copies by mid-November and been translated into Dutch, German, and Finnish, “I do not have a glimmer of a hope of having a Spanish-language edition published soon. It’s politically incorrect.” Eire is incensed by people who ask if his anger isn’t just the regret of the elite robbed of a comfortable life. He finds that condescending, even racist. “The suppression of all human rights counterbalances any social program. It’s exactly like saying Mussolini made the trains run on time. You know, the Third Reich had socialized medicine.” Even people who have been poor for generations have joined the exiles, he says.

Despite the hardship of his dislocation and his abandonment by his father, Eire still believes in God. “There was always something good happening. Simply being here in the United States, no matter how awful things were, was better than being there. I felt my soul was being sucked out of me in a system that wanted me to think a certain way and act a certain way. I’d gotten out, I’d escaped. It was great.” (In the book he says that Castro’s psychological power over young Cubans resembles “slicing off their heads ever so slowly, and replacing them with fearful, slavish copies of his own.”)

Eire coped with the traumas of his new life through prayer. In the years immediately after his exile, he read formulaic prayers from illustrated prayer cards. “It made me feel that there was somebody looking out for me,” he remembers. And he says the single book he was allowed to take from Cuba, forced on him by his family, saved his life. Reading The Imitation of Christ at age 14 confirmed his belief in God. The spiritual guidebook, attributed to fifteenth-century priest Thomas a Kempis, “is all about redemption through suffering,” he says. “It tells about emptying yourself, getting you out of your own skin and dedicating yourself to living for others, serving others. It’s a perfect hippie handbook in a way. Not worrying about material things, living for your neighbor, peace, love, equality. But it tells you there is a God, that everything that happens, happens for a good reason.” These meditations sustained Eire.

Two weeks before he turned 15, his mother arrived, and she and Carlos and Tony lived in a basement apartment on the north side of Chicago. Eire could never find a way, during the monitored three-minute telephone calls they were allowed, to ask his father why he remained in Cuba. “I’ll never know,” he says. (His father’s disconnection has made Eire determined to stay close to his own children. He skips the most important conference for sixteenth-century scholars every year because it falls around John-Carlos’s birthday.) Their mother’s arrival brought no respite from poverty. She found odd jobs as a dressmaker, and at a social worker’s urging Tony dropped out of high school to work. Eire washed dishes at night, by day attending Senn High, a school so rough that going to the boys’ room meant risking physical harm. He studied history and theology at Loyola University, five blocks from home.

Although his mentor at Loyola warned that there were no jobs in academia, Eire knew he wanted to teach. He wrote about iconoclasm in Protestant Europe for his doctorate at Yale, and after a stint at St. John’s University in Minnesota and 15 years at the University of Virginia, returned to Yale in 1996. Eire is working now on “a history of the impossible”—about miracles, including levitation, flying, and bilocation (being in two places at once)—in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. And he is writing a survey of European religious history from 1400 to 1700. Whether he is teaching about iconoclasm or funeral practices or mysticism, Eire says, “all my work is informed by one large question: What is the relationship of belief to behavior?”

Writing the memoir and opening himself to imagination, Eire says, has allowed him to “figure out the world” in a new way. His original title for the book used a metaphor that signifies to him the process of accommodating to life, with all its beauty and horror: kissing a lizard. Lizards—slithering across a ceiling, suddenly landing on a shoulder—horrified him when he was a boy in Cuba. Now he sees the lizard as an image of life. “Sometimes it seems, not necessarily evil, but certainly not good,” he says. “There’s a lot in life that you have to learn to love. Or else you’ll be miserable.”  the end


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