The Desert of the Real Havana: Translating Jorge Enrique Lage’s Cyberpunk Prose

Cuban writer Jorge Enrique Lage.

I came across Jorge Enrique Lage’s work a few years ago—probably through a hypertext-clicking frenzy when I was looking for new texts for my students to read. At the time, I was intrigued by a seemingly random find, a short story titled “Epílogo con superhéroe y Fidel.” After searching and reading more, I ultimately came across his novel La autopista: The Movie (2014) whose poetic, fragmented, intertextual prose tells a great story: a hyperlocal, divergent experience that divulges secrets about something greater, something universal that is also fractured, chaotic, elusive and yet also (incongruently) whole. This transcendent work had to be translated into English.

Trained in biochemistry, Lage works as an editor in Havana, where he has always lived. He has written many short stories and novels, including Yo fui un adolescente ladrón de tumbas (2004), Fragmentos encontrados en La Rampa (2004), Los ojos de fuego verde (2005), El color de la sangre diluida (2008), Carbono 14. Una novela de culto (2010), Vultureffect (2011), and Archivo (2015). He is also part of Generation Zero, a loose group of young-ish contemporary writers from Cuba that includes Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Erick Mota, Lien Carrazana Lau, Osdany Morales, and Lia Villares—to name only a few. Far from being a monolithic group in any way, these writers do however share and represent a similar experience: life in contemporary Havana. They were born in Soviet Cuba and came of age or were young adults during the hardship and extreme isolation of the Special Period. Now approaching middle age, their work represents the fragmentation and complexity of the contemporary Cuban conditions (yes, in plural because there are in fact many, perhaps infinitely many). Yet, with the exception of a few short stories in literary magazines and a couple of anthologies,  this group of writers—their experience and their work—remains mostly inaccessible outside of Cuba. What’s more, the scarce English translations currently available do not reflect the importance or proliferation of the work of this “generation.”

Lage highlights the complexities and difficulties of his generation in La autopista: The Movie, a cyberpunk novel-in-stories that explores the uneasiness of (Cuban) identity and reality. Set in a mid-21st-century vaguely-dystopian Havana, and laden with scientific concepts and 1990s US pop culture references the novel narrates the bizarre adventures of two misfits: the anonymous narrator, a rather wise, grounded man, and his quirky companion, El Autista. The protagonists attempt to survive and find meaning in the high tech/low life landscape of ruins and debris in a city and nation whose geography has been transformed by the construction of a colossal freeway—a mysterious structure that will connect Cuba and the US across the Florida Straits. They also meet both fictional and historical characters throughout a series of peculiar events. At one point they help the Seminoles—now in decline—look for a lost treasure, presumably hidden by Philip K. Dick in the ruins of Hard Rock Cafe Havana, that contains the key to the Tribe’s survival. Later on, they find work in a sex shop that hosts Spencer Elden, who as a baby appeared on the cover of Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind album and who is now one of the world’s most important and popular porn stars. The secondary plot (The Movie) narrates the elusive filming of a documentary about the construction of the freeway. In the end, the documentary project, the characters’ journey, and the freeway itself, all drift aimlessly into a rather empty (but not unhopeful) unknown.

The novel’s plot and style are fragmented, yet accessible. La autopista: The Movie explores the experience of life on a hyphen. A hyphen that may go beyond Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s, as this one—which might connect Cuba with the world, or Cuba with itself: American-Cuban, Cuban-Global or Cuban-Cuban?—is intertextual, loaded, perhaps omnipotent. This hyphen bridges categories that may appear hopelessly irreconcilable: the body and the machine; post-industrial overdevelopment and post-socialist underdevelopment; Cuba and the US; the plasticity of identity and rigid, imposed categories such as gender, class, and profession; utopian promise and dystopian reality; and foreign influence and autochthonous desire. In addition to the combination and distortion of these categories, the novel refracts the experience of time. Time seems to stand still but also to move in different directions. All this creates a sensation of a complacent confusion.

The process of translating speculative fiction presents particular challenges. This novel, as a cyberpunk text, does not create a new world but instead foreignizes a familiar one. One of my tasks, then, was to understand and translate the uncanny effect of the domesticated foreign and the foreignized familiar in the novel: the juxtaposition of Girls Gone Wild, classic 1950s American cars, 1990s grunge, and countless evocations and adaptations of texts and events in the ruins of once-tropical-now-desert Havana. One of the challenges of this translation was handling the use of English words and phrases in the original. In this case, it is not so much code-switching (although there are some occurrences) as it is the seamless insertion of original quotes and concepts in English. For example, the chapter titles are all (except for one) in English: “Breaking News,” “Hard Rock Live,” “Transmetal,” “White Trash,” etc. In the original, the chapters refer to foreign elements that are familiar to a Cuban audience. I chose to keep them in English in the translation but added the Spanish definite article: “Las Breaking News,” “El Hard Rock Live,” “El Transmetal,” and “La White Trash.” Though only a minor change, this attempts to mimic the foreign-yet-familiar effect that these English words have in the original. In addition, some words in Spanish in the original, words like macho and muerto that are familiar to the average English-speaker, remain in Spanish in the translation—also to simulate the effect words in English have in the original.

Similarly, translating speculative fiction offers many liberties. For instance, in “Hard Rock Live,” chapter 2, the reader is introduced to hombres-caimanes,1 the now-extinct fictional swamp people that are the link between alligators and the Seminole Indians. I called them “Cai-Men,” a neologism and play on words that also reinforces other elements in the chapter such as The Caimen—a band playing at a farewell concert in Havana that one of the characters hoped would guide him on a very special quest—or the frequent use of the “cay” sound throughout the chapter in words like Caimanera, Caibarién, and cayos. In the following chapter, “Transmetal,” a mad scientist discovers a way to harness the power of hurricanes and transform it into a mujer huracán, a colossal robot women (this phenomenon only works with hurricanes with female names, as ones with male ones have proved to work differently and their “difference” is not yet well understood). In retaliation for sleeping with his daughter, the mad scientist unleashes this destructive machine, whose name is “Katrina” and dons a tattered babydoll dress in kinderwhore style (think “Courtney Love”), to attack his daughter’s lover. The name “hurricane woman” seemed too noble, too much like an agent of Mother Earth whose purpose is to restore balance in the world. So, I created another neologism: “hussicane,” a name that further highlights the niñita puta quality of the robot’s fashion style and that may also help a young contemporary English-speaking reader visualize the 90s trend and reference to Courtney Love. These neologisms also parallel the ubiquitous wordplay in Lage and his generation’s work.

As delightful as the plot and style may be to read, we cannot ignore the ways in which La autopista: The Movie functions as a representation of a possible Cuban experience in Havana. I do not claim this novel offers the definitive way of representing or defining a city, a generation, or the Cuban condition, but La autopista: The Movie, does illuminate one (or several) of what may be infinite dimensions of lo cubano. The references to US pop culture from the long decade of the 1990s are not insignificant, despite Lage’s statement. The incessant allusions to, and implicit incorporation of, pop culture may reflect the way in which Cuba’s extreme isolation during the late 80s and 90s provoke a curious allure of contemporary US pop culture. Although it is true that US influence is not unique to Cuba—that it is “global oxygen,” as Lage claims—it is also true that the relationship between Cuba and the United States has always been especially peculiar; “ties of singular intimacy,” as Louis Pérez argues. Thus, this novel illustrates the (chaotic and absurd) symbiosis between the Island and the States.

Similarly, the fact that the novel’s mid-21st-century Havana is still in ruins—and now a desert—is also significant. The urban and natural landscape in the novel constantly changes due to great forces—forces that are unknown to its people. The city (or what’s left of it, anyway) is at once seemingly remote and yet crucially central—it is empty, yet whole; present, yet intangible. This is not unlike the way in which Havana (and Cuba) and the Cuban experience are so enticing, so powerful in the US imagination, yet so elusive and inaccessible—the reverse may also be true for Cubans regarding the US. The serenity and poetry in the midst of distortion, disaster, and destruction of this novel is the quality that drew me to this project. Perhaps life in Havana, the place and the experience, is beyond the real, beyond the foreign. Perhaps contentment and beauty in limbo, in uncertainty, is the answer. Perhaps the Cuban condition(s) is the human condition(s).

Lourdes Molina

1 There is no concrete evidence to suggest that these beings are related to the Colombian legend of the hombre caimán.

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LALT No. 6
Number 6

LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series. 

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