From Havana With Love

Translation and Introduction by Steve Dolph

oque Dalton was what you might call an ‘all-purpose revolutionary.’ He taught armchair Marxism and agrarian insurgency, wrote poems and novels, criticism and journalism. He attended the University of Santiago when it was illegal to be red in Chile and, at a time when the CIA would have gladly put a bullet in his head, publicly visited Korea and Vietnam as an emissary, ending up working at a bicycle factory in Hanoi. His numerous and miraculous escapes from under the executioner’s sword are legendary, his assassination at the hands of his own soldiers is infamous even among people who have never read a word he wrote. With Otto René Castillo he founded Círculo Literario Universitario, and later helped judge the Premio Casa de las Américas, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Latin America. And if you’re still not convinced: he was a womanizer and drop-dead gorgeous in the way only a clean-cut Jesuit schoolboy can be, a latter-day Don Byron type with a socio-political sickle to grind. Between 1961 and 1965 he lived in Havana, after leaving Mexico in a big hurry. During this period his study of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory and practice matured in earnest, study he would be forced to put to real use upon his return to his native El Salvador.

But I have to imagine this pale and thin young poet—26 years old then, the same age I am now, as I write this—feeling unsure on his feet the first time he brings a loaded AK-47 to his shoulder under the hard scrutiny of Cuban revolutionary commandos. Maybe the drillers chuckle at this schoolteacher’s awkward handling of the ten-pound rifle, maybe they call him a salvatrucha cherna comemierda. I can’t but imagine him homesick and bored in an interminable Havana blackout, daydreaming of pupusas con chile and a cold Suprema while he assembles and disassembles IEDs over and over until his fingers cramp up. This bookish revolutionary, straining to wring the bourgeois joneses from his body would have looked to his literary heritage for a model. He would not have had far to look. In César Vallejo, Dalton would have seen a man brought up a faithful Catholic, a poet-teacher who supported himself on part-time journalism work, and who, in the end, found himself in the middle of a war begun before he was born. Dalton’s attempt to reconcile his growing militancy with the dubious Soviet aggressions abroad could have been eased through an identification with Vallejo’s own relationship to the Soviet Union and its international influence a quarter-century earlier—in the early 1960s history still seemed on the side of the Socialists.

The section published below is from César Vallejo (1963), a book expanded from a lecture Dalton gave for an event commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of the Peruvian poet, from a series called Cuadernos de la Casa de las Américas. Other books in the series are La familia de Martí, by Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, an Argentine who was an early director of Casa, Hemingway, by Lisandro Otero, a well-laureled mover and shaker in Cuba’s literary scene, Lam, azul y negro, by Edmundo Desnoes, a Cuban expat currently living in New York City, and Eugene O’Neill, by Rine Leal, a theatre critic. The book itself is divided into seven parts. The majority of these are measured yet poignant close readings of sections from Vallejo’s poems, situating him firmly in his European modernist context.

Dalton begins the book by stating, simply, that “César Vallejo is, in our estimate, the greatest poet ever to come from America,” and ends it with seven lessons to be learned from the work of César Vallejo. Just about everything in between is Dalton showing us, repeatedly, the ways Vallejo’s poetry is amazing. But in the fifth section, translated below, Dalton pauses to comment on Vallejo’s biography, starting from his move to Paris when he “embraced” Soviet Communism in response to the “broken” world he saw around him, and ending with Vallejo’s death in 1938, his own body undone by the revolution, and leaving behind a manuscript that would be published later as Poemas Humanos. Dalton could relate—but to an extent that, sitting over his own typewriter in Havana, he could never have understood. There is an eerie, almost Homerically tragic sense in which Dalton was writing his own obituary, which his execution, and the Poemas Clandestinos he left behind, somehow validated.

Again I see the poet, this time steeling himself against a death he feared but also sought. Writing about Vallejo’s death could have been an attempt to come to terms with the sacrifices he would be asked to make, not only as an anti-bourgeois, anti-imperialist, anti-Capitalist revolutionary, but as a writer, as a person. If we look beyond the bluster and propagandist tone of some of the lines (remember that El Che, who loved Vallejo, may well have attended the event, and that this was a young Marxist eager to prove his muster and devotion) we see an ambitious poet subtly but deliberately situating himself into an aesthetic and ideological lineage that began with Rubén Darío and continued long after Dalton fell, swept aside by the same revolution he helped to make.

from César Vallejo, by Roque Dalton (1935 – 1975)


In 1923 César Vallejo leaves his country bound for France. His arrival in Paris will initiate a long string of miserable years constantly menaced by hunger. Years of suffering so intense that, like those of the other brilliant Latin American in Paris, Horacio Quiroga, have become exemplary, classics in their terrible genre. The mestizo returning from Christianity who had initiated the cycle of his own expressive revolution, the rebel against the crushing voices from the outside that reached his small world in Peru, he confronts, face to face and without weapons but those of his exceptional sensibility (suicide weapons, from a practical point of view, under the circumstances), the horror of the Capitalist world which at home he had only known in an incipient form. Because the hunger of Paris in winter, the loneliness of men in bitter and hostile multitudes, their contempt, neglect, and the bleak perspectives Vallejo would soon come to know in all their implacability are just this: Capitalism. This is how Vallejo would come to interpret in his own voice the poor and wonderful man of the first half of the twentieth century: the man broken by Capitalism.

We will not insist here upon the details of Vallejo’s day-to-day pain. Juan Larrea, schematically, has left them faithfully transcribed: “Years 1923, 24, 25” he writes, “numb winters, with intermittent address and uncertain diet, without clothes to wear […] From the window of his hotel room […] Vallejo contemplated Paris with a burning sense of love and every morning he found himself in a second hand, used up dawn, lived and relived, unfitting in any light to satisfy his desire. He climbed and descended every staircase of poverty, accumulating everyday civilities, innumerable troubles and discomforts, hungers of every kind, that sum of deficits that constitute the obsessive ritual of misery when it becomes the axis of a life.” It is interesting to note that in these years Vallejo encounters the path, the truth he sought since his early youth to satisfy his thirst for human and humanizing goodness. The harshness of the Capitalist world rips the last veils from the poet’s eyes, knocks down the final idealistic walls suffocating him, and reveals definitively that man genuinely suffers, here on earth, of causes rooted in men; that it is necessary to bear witness to that suffering and to how the solutions are for us to make, in the daily struggle to materially transform an unjust world into a new one where love directs every sphere of existence. The “Season In Hell” which for Vallejo meant the years 1923 to 28 leave him, in spite of and alongside the wounds and scars, with fecund deposits. Larrea himself refers thus to the final years of this period: “Years 1926, 27, 28, of internal crisis, of choking on another—tougher, so to speak—variety of misery […] Another kind of concern begins to occupy his attention […] the hope of something on the other side, a better world, whose structures do not create victims of individuals or nations. Preoccupations of a socio-political character automatically take up his days and nights […] Through the natural play of his circumstances, Vallejo embraces the cause of the Revolution and, after a meticulous study of its theories, joins the party seeking it by the shortest path.”

In 1928 and 1929 Vallejo takes two trips to the country of new hope: the nascent Soviet Union. These two trips were, according to Monguió, “as crucial to Vallejo’s biography as his imprisonment in Peru […] decisive regarding his adherence to a political philosophy, a political organization,” but for us these trips signify, above all, a ratification in fact of the philosophical principles of the Revolution that Vallejo had already embraced, at least intellectually and, according to Larrea, “after a meticulous study of its theories.”

From that point on Vallejo begins intense revolutionary activity, as much in the development of his work as in his daily actions, to the extent that he was forced to leave France, deported for his “Communist affiliation.” In a Spain waking up to the Republic, Vallejo publishes his proletarian novel, El Tungsteno (1931) and his book of journalism Rusia en 1931, reflexiones al pie del Kremlin. In early 1933 he returns to France where indescribable misery sinks its claws in once again. In spite of this, Vallejo continues fulfilling his greatest task: to write. In the three years between 1933 and 1936, in addition to a large quantity of important journalistic articles, he writes three plays and two books of essays.

In 1936 the insurrection against the Spanish Republic broke out, ending up as a civil war. For Vallejo this event signified as much the tremendous stimulus to unleash his poetic voice, resonating with unprecedented human pain and hope, as the decisive proof that for him words and blood, poetry and emotion, man and art, had become the same through the long and staggering process begun in Peru with Los Heraldos Negros. More than an opportunity to fight with this existential identity, for Vallejo the Spanish war was always the definitive war, the Human war. The war for the human Vallejo, at least.

On two occasions the poet travels to a Spain in all-out war—trips that barely interrupt the desperate fight he maintained in Paris. The first time was in early 1937 and the second in July of this same year for the Second International Writers’ Congress for the Defense of Culture, which began in Valencia and ended in Paris. It was then that, “this man, who since leaving Peru in nineteen twenty-three had not published a single book of poetry, who had barely written any during his years in Europe, now, amid the hectic service he gives, with his vision of a combatant Spain just out of sight, not knowing at all ‘what to do, where to stand; I run, I write, I cheer, I cry, I sense, I ruin, snuffed out, I tell my heart to stop, the good to come,’ breaks forth once again with poetry. In the fall and winter of 1937—many of the poems are dated September, October, November, and December—he writes what will fill a volume titled Poemas Humanos.”

Luis Monguió adds: “Through the poetic effort produced at the end of 1937, a great physical and psychological exhaustion crushed Vallejo. His hunger, his miserable life, his political trouble, his emotions over the Spanish battle had pulled him to pieces.” On March 13, 1938 he takes to bed from an illness that has not been established, and on April 15 of that same year, he dies. Only after his death were the Poemas Humanos published, a series of which, España, aparta de mí este cáliz, were edited as a posthumous tribute from the Latin American Committee to the defense of the Spanish Republic.

Translator’s Note: Dalton quotes from two books in this section: César Vallejo o Hispanoamérica en la Cruz de su razón, Juan Larrea (Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina, 1958), and César Vallejo, vida y obra, Luis Monguió (Editora Perú Nuevo, Lima, 1952).

Michael Emmerich Interview Glossary

By Michael Emmerich, as a supplement to the Interview in Calque 4. Entries are listed in order of appearance in the interview.

Kawabata Yasunari
(1899-1972) Modern Japanese literature burst rather than blipped onto the American literary world’s radar screen for the first time in the latter half of the 1950s. In 1957, Knoph published Kawabata’s novel Snow Country (Yukiguni) in a very beautiful, somewhat tame translation by the recently deceased Edward G. Seidensticker. This happened to be the year that the 29th P.E.N. Congress was held in Tokyo—the first time it was held anywhere in East Asia. “One of the unforgettable faces at the conference was that of Mr. Kawabata,” Elizabeth Janeway wrote in an article in the New York Times. “Delicacy and distinction any reader of ‘Snow Country’ would expect, but Mr. Kawabata’s countenance, under a gray-white mane of hair, expresses also a withdrawn, ascetic strength that makes one think of a small and thoughtful lion.” The small, thoughtful lion became the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. His “House of the Sleeping Beauties” (“Nemureru bijo”), also translated by Seidensticker, is one of the most disturbing—icky is, perhaps, a better description—works of fiction I’ve ever read. The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto), once again translated by Seidensticker, who was awarded the National Book Award for Translation (much regretted) for this work, is perhaps his best-known novel.

Yoshimoto Banana (1964-) The critic Masao Miyoshi describes Yoshimoto’s work in these fiercely enticing terms: “Her output is entirely couched in baby talk, uninterrupted by humor, emotion, idea, not to say irony or intelligence. No one could summarize any of these books, for they have even less plot and character than Murakami [Haruki]’s unplotted and characterless works. There is no style, no poise, no imagery. I have read, or think I have read, all the books she has published, but I don’t remember.” This is the sort of review that makes me want to run out and buy the book. And so I did. Alas, she turns out to be a brilliant writer with a subtle sense of humor, plenty of emotion, a keen sense of irony, and intelligence to spare—a terrible disappointment. The name “Banana” is one she selected herself, after the flower of the banana plant. Yoshimoto’s best known work, even today, decades later, is her first: “Kitchen” (“Kitchin”). One of my favorites is “Moonlight Shadow” (“Muunraito shadou”), which was included in the book Kitchen, translated by Megan Backus, and which I retranslated in 2003. Unfortunately my own translation, published by Asahi Press, is only available in Japan, or from, if you can manage to find it.

Takahashi Genichiro (1951-) One of my favorite writers! An active participant in the student protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he spent time in jail, never graduated from college, and worked for Toyota. (I think it was Toyota . . . don’t quote me on that.) He’s written in various places about how he lost the ability to write, or even speak, when he was thrown in jail, and how it took him a decade to recover. His mind-bogglingly wild, wacky, and painfully brilliant first novel Sayonara, Gangsters (Sayonara, gyangutachi) is the only one of his works to be translated into English so far, apart from two excerpts from two novels included in the 1991 anthologies Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices. Sayonara, Gangsters is the only one of my translations that I regularly reread.

Akasaka Mari (1964-) Born in the same year as Yoshimoto Banana, Akasaka couldn’t be more different as a writer. When she was in junior high, her parents shipped her off all by herself to learn English in California, where she had a breakdown. She returned to Japan, not bilingual, but nonlingual—much like Takahashi. Eventually she recovered. For several years she edited an erotic art magazine called Sale Second (Sale 2) that was devoted to “bondage and thought.” She began writing fiction of her own while she was working as an editor, making her debut in 1995. She has been nominated for all sorts of awards, including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novel Vibrator (Vaibureetaa), which was also made into a road movie.

Matsuura Rieko (1958-) Matsuura Rieko is one of Japan’s most provocative and least prolific authors. Since her debut as an author in 1978, she has published only six books of fiction and three collections of essays. This wouldn’t be a particularly small number for an author writing in English, but for a Japanese writer it’s astonishing. Matsuura is best known in Japan for three works: a collection of three linked stories called Natural Woman (Nachuraru uuman), the novel The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P (Oyayubi P no shugyō jidai), and another novel A Dog’s Body (Kenshin). She isn’t known in English. Fortunately this situation is going to change: Seven Stories Press will be publishing my translation of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P sometime in the nearish future.

Kawakami Hiromi (1958-) Kawakami Hiromi taught biology in high school for a long time. Then, in 1994, she submitted a story to an on-line literary competition and took the prize. She stopped teaching and kept writing. She’s a wonderful prose stylist with a penchant for fantasy (technically she debuted with a single science fiction story that she published in 1980) and a knack for describing food. As far as I know, the only works of hers to appear in English are “The Kitchen God” (“Kōjin”), which appeared in Zyzzyva #71 in a translation by Lawrence Rogers, and “Mogera Wogera,” published in The Paris Review #173 in my translation. I’m currently translating a breathtakingly good novel of hers called Manazuru.

Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) Regarded by many as the great granddaddy of modern Japanese literature, the author of Ukigumo, “the first modern Japanese novel” (which has been translated by Marleigh Grayer Ryan as Japan’s First Modern Novel: ‘Ukigumo’ of Futabatei Shimei), Futabatei was himself a brilliant translator of Russian fiction. From 1899 to 1902 he taught at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages. He also published the first Japanese textbook for students of Esperanto, as well as a Japanese translation of L.L. Zamenhof’s Unua Libro. A very interesting man, wonderful writer. He got modern Japanese literature off to a great start, and it’s been going strong ever since.

Murakami Haruki (1949-) Everyone has heard of Murakami Haruki.

"Kagekiyo" One has too few chances in the U.S. to see nō plays, but fortunately many have been translated, and translated well, and they often read very well. Arthur Waley’s versions are still well worth reading, and Royall Tyler’s translations—both those in the Penguin Classics Japanese Nō Dramas and the more experimental efforts in Pining Wind and Granny Mountains—are even better. The introduction to the Penguin volume will tell you all you need to know about nō. It’s not known who wrote the thrilling, action- and poetry-packed warrior play “Kagekiyo,” which is based on an episode in The Tales of the Heike, but whoever it was, he knew what he was doing. See the literary magazine Conjunctions #38 for my translation.

Yamada Taichi (1934-) Yamada has been writing scripts for television dramas since 1970, sometimes as many as three or four a year. He’s also written plays, collections of essays, and novels. His novels feel like they were written by an experienced author of TV dramas: they’re tightly constructed, fast-paced, and suspenseful. Yamada is known in the English-speaking world for a gripping, intense trilogy that deals with supernatural themes: I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While (Tobu yume wa shibaraku minai, translated by David James Karashima), In Search of a Distant Voice (Tōku no koe o sagashite, translated by me), and Strangers (Ijintachi to no natsu, translated by Wayne Lammers). Only the last of the three has been published in the U.S., by Vertical Inc.—Faber & Faber did the first two.

Murasaki Shikibu (late 10th-early 11th centuries) A 1928 review of Blue Trousers, the fourth volume of Arthur Waley’s glittering (literally: the covers were gold) six-volume translation The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) suggested, correctly, that “In future generations, for an Englishman or an American not to have heard of The Tale of Genji will be inexcusable.” Of course, people do inexcusable things all the time. The whole history of the human race is, I sometimes think, inexcusable. The real error, then, is not “not to have heard of The Tale of Genji,” but not to have read it. Or rather: not to have read it at least twice. It’s excusable, perhaps, but such a waste. Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji. She also wrote The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu (Murasaki Shikibu nikki). 2008 has been declared, somewhat randomly, based on the diary, the one-thousandth anniversary of the creation of the tale. What better time to read it, or read it again?

by Ruxandra Cesereanu

from Crusader-Woman (Black Widow, 2008)
Translated from the Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin and Claudia Litvinchievici with the poet with an Introduction by Andrei Codrescu


Descending to halfway through my days,
I learned what it means to caress with a knife.
I sketched a life map on my skin
and the blood cast polished rubies out of me.
The knife is a glittering animal, my silver house,
an angel to slice mirrors, a tamer.
In heaven a knife-tree grows
with serrated leaves redolent of fall,
and when it withers, shedding its leaves,
the saints shuffle their soles and trickle droplets over the fields.
Oh death, you have stainless-steel wings!
I held the knife against my left breast
and it warmed itself from my heart.
My metallic ventricles would suddenly open—
I’d feel myself dazed by a blow of black light.
Once in the holy times of my youth
I intended to cut off my hair with it and become a nun.
The knife was my father.
He taught me chopping devils to pieces,
sang for me on the cold nights when loneliness slapped my face,
even shouted when I would nibble from always-commonplace death,
I am the life, do not fear.
I loved him sweetly-sourly.
The knife stayed alive in frozen regions of the brain,
a pilgrim through lands without a star.
Those who hear this story will pray for a very long time,
they will call me the executioner’s little girl and cry out:
Viper, you have talons like a cross thrust in the ground.
Girl-child, you’re heretical from sunrise to sunset!
A knife was the doll I fed and cared for in the pack of childhood,
my sharp life, my cutting mountain,
the same knife I balanced on my head
when I was a bride with white teeth.
From it I would make candles for the dead.
One night I gave birth to knife and he cried like a haunted son,
Mother? Father? A silver tongue licks your forsaken love.
Those who hear this story will mutter for a very long time
in their midnight rooms.
Wearing a white nightgown I kneel and pray,
knife makes his nest in my delirious vertebrae.
I myself am he, his steel, the shiny god.


La jumătatea vieţii coborînd
am aflat ce-nseamnă să mîngîi cu un cuţit,
desenam pe piele o hartă a vieţii
şi sîngele arunca din mine rubine şlefuite.
Cuţitul e un animal strălucitor, e casa mea de-argint,
un înger tăietor de oglinzi şi-mblînzitor.
În cer se află un arbore al cuţitelor
cu frunzele zimţate, mirosind a toamnă,
atunci cînd se va scutura,
sfinţii îşi vor tîrî tălpile picurînd peste cîmpii.
O, moarte, ai aripi de inox!
Ţineam cuţitul lipit de sînul stîng
şi el se încălzea de inima mea,
mi se deschideau dintr-odată ventricolele metalice
şi-atunci mă tulburam lovită de o lumină neagră,
cu el voisem cîndva să-mi tai părul
şi să mă călugăresc în sfintele vremuri ale tinereţii.
Cuţitul era tatăl meu.
El mă-nvăţase sfîrtecarea diavolilor,
îmi cîntase în nopţile reci cînd singurătatea mă izbise peste chip,
tot el îmi strigase cînd muşcam din preaobişnuita moarte,
– eu sînt viaţa, nu te-nspăimînta.
Îl iubeam dulce-acrişor,
cuţitul era viu în zona-ngheţată a creierului,
pelerin prin ţările fără stea.
Cei ce auzi-vor această poveste mult timp se vor ruga,
fetiţa călăului îmi vor spune şi vor striga:
– năpîrcă, ai gheare în formă de cruce, înfipte-n ţărînă,
fetiţă eretică de la răsărit la apus!
Cuţit a fost păpuşa pe care o spălam şi o hrăneam în haita copilăriei,
viaţa mea ascuţită, muntele tăios,
acelaşi cuţit l-am pus la căpătîi
pe cînd eram mireasă cu dinţii albi,
lumînare făceam din el pentru morţi,
apoi, într-o noapte l-am născut şi el ţipa ca un fiu bîntuit,
mamă, tată? limbă de-argint linge dragostea voastră uitată.
Cei ce auzi-vor această poveste mult timp vor bolborosi
la miezul nopţii în odaia lor.
Pe cînd în albă cămaşă de noapte stau în genunchi şi mă rog,
cuţitul îşi face culcuş între vertebrele delirate.
Eu însămi sînt el, dumnezeul lucios, de oţel.

*The original Romanian does not appear in the published book.

• • •

Ruxandra Cesereanu has firmly established herself as one of the most important and exciting Romanian writers of today. Born in 1963 in the city of Cluj-Napoca, the traditional cultural center located at the heart of the region of Transylvania, Cesereanu began publishing poetry in literary reviews in 1981, but her first novel, Voyage through the Looking-Glasses, came out only in 1989, the year Romanian communism was overthrown. She has published nine books of poetry, five books of fiction, and significant essays on the Romanian gulag and political torture. She lives and works in Cluj, where she is an editor at the cultural magazine Steaua (“The Star”) and Professor at the Faculty of Letters (Department of Comparative Literature) at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. Cesereanu’s collections of poetry include Garden of Delights, Live Zone, Fall Over the City (which won the Poetry Prize of the Cluj Writers’ Association), Schizoidian Ocean, Crusader-Woman, Venice with Violet Veins, Letter of a Courtesan, Kore-Persephone (which also won the Cluj Writers’ Association Poetry Prize), and Lunacies. Her prose works include Tricephalos, Nebulon, and Birth of Liquid Desires. She recently published The Forgiven Submarine, a book of poetry, written collaboratively with Andrei Codrescu which will be published in English in 2009.

Adam J. Sorkin’s recent volumes of translation include three 2006 books: Magda Cârneci’s Chaosmos, translated with Cârneci (White Pine Press), Mihai Ursachi’s The March to the StarsPaper Children, done with various collaborators (Ugly Duckling Presse). Other books include Daniela Crăsnaru’s short stories translated with the author, The Grand Prize and Other Stories (Northwestern UP, 2004), and Marin Sorescu’s The Bridge, translated with Lidia Vianu (Bloodaxe Books, 2004)—the winner of the 2005 Corneliu M. Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation of The Poetry Society, London. Sorkin is Distinguished Professor of English at Penn State University, Delaware County. His work published in Calque can be accessed by clicking [me].