Book Fair dedicated to Havana’s City Historian

The 27th International Book Fair, February 1-11 in Havana, is dedicated to Eusebio Leal Spengler. Photo: Juvenal Balán

This latest honor provided an excellent excuse for a conversation with Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler

Feb 2 (Granma) Cuba’s 27th International Book Fair this year is dedicated to Havana’s City Historian. The celebration of literacy, opening February 1, provided the motivation for a conversation with Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, who has made Cuba proud, along with all those who feel and suffer with the island, and know of his efforts.

Listening to him is its own reward. At times, the questioner is absorbed entirely in the harmony of all Leal knows, in the elegance and ardor of the words of someone who, despite being well known, seems to offer a fresh view with every response.

Although I didn’t let him know, Leal the historian or simply Eusebio – as he is known among all his followers – reminds me of Rubén Martínez Villena, always finding something grand to do, possessed of a powerful force in the bottom of his soul that drives him to “conquer mountains and gather stars.”

He would not have accepted the comparison. Eusebio Leal is a straight forward, frank man, one who praise can make blush. He is so modest that he was shocked when he heard the news that he was to be honored at the Fair. One need only take a look at Havana’s central historic district and its incredible transformation, which he has led with his heart, to be convinced that the work he conceived and directed is colossal.

Among this singular man’s most valuable recollections associated with books, is that of his first teacher, who taught him the first letters. The emotion is evident when he talks about that little classroom, where small children sat on wooden benches, “She was a much older woman. One of the strongest memories I have is the day the teacher died.”

All readers have books we hope to read again someday. What is yours? What book would you take to a deserted island?

I have already re-read it two times, Memorias de Adriano, by Marguerite Yourcenar, among the most recent. And then Bomarzo, by Manuel Mujica Láinez. I would take the Bible to the island.

Did you come to reading on your own or did someone inspire you?

I discovered the children’s library where my mother worked, in a house at San Lázaro and N. One day I came across a room where all the books they had were stored and went in. There were books piled to the ceiling; there were several cabinets, all storybooks, with pictures. A little later, once I was in school, I could walk to the Friends of the Country Economic Society. In its children’s library, I registered and got a card and read at home, until I has able to buy.

Eusebio Leal: Havana is a truly marvelous, unique city. Photo: Juvenal Balán

At what time of day do you prefer to read?

I can study during the day, but to read for pleasure, generally I do so laying down, a terrible thing, with a dim light, which is exhausting, but it is the only time I usually have to read. I used to read on the bus, around the triumph of the Revolution, avid to learn. Men would stand when a woman or disabled person got on. Most of the time, there weren’t seats for us. Men got up from their seats automatically and any one who didn’t was a bastard. I read Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick… I read a bit of everything on the bus. I could read anywhere; I read a lot. I believe that today I put what I read in those days to good use.

How did your friendship with Dulce María Loynaz contribute to your love of books?

A great deal, because, as she began to lose her sight, until she became totally blind, she always commented to me, in this regard, that the issue wasn’t just reading, but hearing the text, with that internal voice that always accompanies us. “When you cannot see, if at one time you did, there is an internal light that allows us to recall things and think, think, think…” she would say. Books and reading make you think to such a degree that it has been said that, when she was in agony, she said, “Horrors, I’m dying and I’m still thinking.”

On several occasions, when you have been honored with a prize or distinction, I have heard you talk about teachers. Why?

Because there is no more beautiful vocation in the world than teaching others; what happens is that there can be no blind guides. To be able to guide, one must see, and to be able to give, one must have something. Because no one can give what they do not have.

Martí spoke of the character traits of adults that can be seen in childhood. What characteristics do mature people have that can be noted in the child they once were?

I preferred talking to writing. Some topics interested me more than others, for example, the natural sciences, geography, historic topics, and I liked to expound on them. My mother used to recount that I would go up into the house where we lived, 660 Hospital Street, on the top floor, and stand on an apple or pear box and give speeches about what I had learned in school, in first or second grade.

You are not exactly a writer, but you have many titles to your name, fundamentally collections of speeches and essays. What role to you assign to oratory in the development of a society?

Oratory seems like a very good thing to me, because the voice has a persuasive nature. Words, when they are coherent, when they emerge like a spring from a rock, when they come from the heart of an individual like water from underground, have a persuasive, educational, teaching, pedagogical value. But it is also a pleasure; one of the things that distinguishes humans from other creatures is precisely the gift of coherent speech, that allows us to create philosophy, literature…

You are a particularly singular orator. What value does oral discourse have, in comparison to reading a text?

I do not dismiss anyone, everyone has their own style. There are those who read what they have written and that seems fine to me, I would do it, and it would be more comfortable and less risky, because improvisation always has its risks. At times, you can let yourself be carried away by intimate sentiments, or by a depressive feeling, but I believe that nothing can take the place of the captivating and persuasive power of the word, and it seems like a very good thing to me when one can speak to people, talk with them, look into their eyes, look deep, aware of the different sets of interests that are gathered together, and being able to address every human community.

What condition gives you such oral effervescence? Do you ever get stage fright?

That’s everyday. There is nothing more terrifying than speaking before a large audience. There are moments of tribulation, days when it goes well and days when it doesn’t. What you cannot do is talk for talk’s sake. Words must always have content and more so when it is a political content – I mean cultural – because politics outside of culture is a useless exercise. It must have cultural value – culture is to cultivate – it is the parable of those who sow. When you speak, you are casting a seed that may or may not flower. We may see it (grow) or not, but that is the mission of a teacher, of the orator, of a person who speaks, one who attempts to persuade, to unite, to promote a certain feeling with words.

The city needs people to uplift it, with action, with words. You have done both. Are you satisfied with what you have accomplished?

Any city whatsoever, no matter which one, for me, everyone’s city is the place they were born. At times, the city is a small town, that is no less beautiful for being so. All comparisons are abhorrent to me. Today more than ever, this city, Havana, needs serenades, because we are about to reach her 500th anniversary and no one is talking about it.

For many, you are Havana’s lover. What are the precepts upon which this love is founded?

Havana cannot have old lovers. They must always be young lovers. She has a dignity, a sense.. I am one among a multitude who have sung to her, who have honored a truly marvelous and unique city.

I have seen many cities – and I can assure you – I praise them all, all are wondrous, but Havana is many cities in one, many things in one, it’s her neighborhoods… An imaginative city, creative, her people as well. It is a veritable disaster that unplanned housing is sprouting up, that needs are imposed and we cannot aspire to improve, taking beauty into account.

What part of Havana hurts you? What do you praise?

I have just completed 50 years of work, of which I have dedicated 25, only, to the priorities, trying to preserve the smile of Havana that is the Malecón. It has hurt me that the sea, which I so much love, has irreversibly damaged the Malecón and I will be obliged to witness the demolition of buildings on the Malecón, for which I have struggled so long. What has hurt me most is the necessity of moving the monument of Mayor General Calixto García. I never imagined it. But since the sea will return, any attempt to restore it, for the fourth time, would be useless. The only consolation is that, within a few weeks, work on the new site will begin, and it will be so beautiful, so beautiful… although it will necessarily not be close to the sea.

What privileges does a city on the sea have?

We are an island. Islands are ships. Dulce María used to talk about the conquistadores, the European travelers, calling the continent terra firma, and the least firm is an island. We need the sea, we need a dialogue with the sea. In Havana, in Santiago, in Cienfuegos, repeated a bit everyday is what was done in Venice, when the doge, the ruler of that ancient republic, would go out in theBucentaur – this is what his marvelous barge was called. He would remove his ring and throw it into the water, in a ritual that represented the everlasting marriage of Venice and the sea. We reiterate this link with the sea everyday.

In opinions sent to Granma’s website, every time you appear in our pages, deep affection for you is expressed. How do you feel about knowing you have been useful, about being much loved?

It’s good. Martí said that men are in two bands: those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy. I have always wanted to be among the first.

Is Eusebio Leal someone who puts off his personal life to fulfill his duty to Cuba?

I think so. When for strictly chronological reasons, one is nearing the end, you ask yourself what you would be, what you would do, if you could live again. If I could live again, it would be as a Cuban.

In terms of privacy, is Eusebio an open book?

Sometimes too open.

What really bothers Eusebio Leal?

What pleases you?

The contemplation of beauty.

What day is a celebration for Eusebio?

The day I can take off my grey suit and dress in blue, like today.

What do you do with bad memories, the ones that hurt?

They become ingrained experiences.

In addition to Cuban, what would you be if you were born again?

Forever young.

People say that with the news of the Fair, you were like a boy with a new toy. Is that so?

I am not like a boy… or like one with a new toy. On the contrary! I am frightened by the Fair, above all because I cannot fulfill the duty of going to all parts of Cuba. I was really surprised by the dedication, that comes with the Social Sciences Prize, they had the courtesy and kindness of awarding me. Surprise, and, yes, gratitude. I expressed this sentiment to Juanito, the Cuban Book Institute’s president, but I am terrified.

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