A paradigmatic moral witness “is one who experiences the suffering–one who is not just an observer but also a sufferer. ” Carlos Eire, Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, is a moral witness. His book is a memoir of childhood and exile, the recollections of a privileged boy who, at the age of 11, was one of 14,000 children airlifted from Cuba, separated from his parents and, with only a small suitcase in hand, dropped off in a land in which he did not know a soul.
The book is, however, more is a record of suffering endured at the hands of evildoers. As its subtitle indicates, Eire writes in the style of confession. Unlike Elie Wiesel, for instance, he does not mainly register evil and suffering to honor the sufferers and warn future generations or to accomplish an inner catharsis. He probes deeply into the warping that evil produces in the souls of victims and struggles with frightening honesty, born of faith, on a journey of redemption from its sinister power.
So moving, so wildly humorous and yet so stern in its moral judgment, so concentrated on the self but so concerned with others and their redemption, a story so rooted in a specific time and place and yet so universal in import. Evil keeps appearing in the shape of a lizard, and the lizard of lizards is Fidel, who destroyed everything Eire knew as boy, wrecked it “in the name of fairness, progress, the oppressed, and of love for the gods Marx and Lenin.”
Contrary to what one might expect, the redemption toward which Eire is groping bears the face not of a political figure or a social program but of Jesus, who “wept with joy upon seeing all the world’s sins embedded in those mean, raw pieces of wood that meant death for Him at the age of thirty-three. ” A Cuban nun taught him the meaning of redemption. She was wise enough to talk to the orphaned and exiled children not “about their present situation,” utterly dire as it was, but “in universal terms about [their] faults and about redemption from them. ”
In his search for redemption, Eire wrestles with two issues. First, what to do with desire bereft of a precious object, a boy’s desire that yearns for what it could have had as much as for what it lost. “In the past thirty-eight years I’ve seen eight thousand nine hundred and seventeen clouds in the shape of the island Cuba,” writes Eire, an exiled man in his early fifties. Second, how does one make peace with enemies, even more, how does one love them? “My dream of dreams,” writes Eire toward the end of the book, is to “kiss [the lizard] fondly, and let go forever.”
The original title of the book, rejected by the publisher as too offensive, was Kiss the Lizard, Jesus (Jesus Rubio was the main character in that first version of the book, conceived as a novel rather than a memoir). Much of what Eire is after as he sifts through recollections and the emotions stirred by the recollected events can be described as the redemption of memories: “imagine the sound of memories that have nothing to do with Batista or Fidel. ” So how does Eire’s journey toward redemption look?
You must read the book yourself. One thing that will strike you immediately is the style. Here is its unforgettable first sentence: “The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. ” Then there is the perspective. Eire combines a way of seeing the world often associated with magical realism (except that it is “all true,” or “at least 98. 6% of it,” as he told me) with a humor the likes of which I’ve never seen before–a humor that is not garnish but a way of life and itself a vehicle of redemption.
An even more important element of redemption than humor–an element which lets humor do the redemptive work and not just relieve Eire temporarily of life’s burdens–is his robust faith in God. His own peculiar “proofs of God’s existence” (proof no. 5, “the ultimate proof”: desire) structure the whole text, and he repeatedly reads his own story within the framework of salvation history (e. g. , the exiled children of Cuba are the slaughtered children of Bethlehem; as a fatherless boy he sees himself in the image of God’s Son abandoned by the Father).
The aftereffects of that nun’s talk, which left him in a “stupor, wondering what had hit [him],” are felt throughout the book. Can one get no redemption before the dawn of the world to come? One can. Eire writes as a man who has tasted the sweet savor of a new life even as he is drinking from the bitter cup of evil’s memories. He has kissed many lizards, he says. That is why when he condemns Emesto, a lizard slightly trailing Fidel in ugliness and wickedness, the worst punishment he can think of is for him to be embraced by Jesus eternally.
So writes a man who has admittedly not yet been freed from anger but has offered it up to God and is “letting Jesus take care of it. ” Eire’s questions are spiritual: How do we live with memories of irretrievable loss and violation, given that for victims, memories are not so much a solution as a problem? How do we relate to the perpetrators? How do we find healing of losses and redemption from evil? Eire’s answers are religious: we find redemption by having our stories inserted into God’s story and in everlasting life with God, the source of our life and salvation and the telos of all our desires.
“Secular” and “religious” are alternatives, but the ethics of memory and the redemption of memories need not be. The advantage of Eire’s religious struggle for the redemption of memories is that, if pressed, he can integrate the ethics of memory into his perspective. Eire offers redemption of memories–and redemption of people who remember. The story “Kaffir Boy” deals with the agony of racism. In Mark Mathabane’s “Kaffir Boy,” Mark has grown up in poverty. Though Mark is told that he will never amount to anything because he is black, Mark strives for success since he has nothing to lose.
Through a comparison of different reactions to prejudices revealed in the stories, we learn that our choices should be determined by which options offer the greatest rewards and/or the fewest penalties. In “Kaffir Boy,” Mark Mathabane joins his grandmother at her workplace in the big city. Mark is astonished that white people live such extravagant lives while his family can hardly afford food. When Mark and his grandmother reach the Smith residence, Mark meets a white boy named Clyde who has been providing Mark with hand-me-downs.
He tells Mark what the white children learn about in their school. Mark is shocked to hear the stereotypes that the white children have about black people. Mark is greatly insulted when Clyde tells him, “My teacher says Kaffirs can’t read, speak or write English like white people because they have smaller brains, which are already full of tribal things” (Mathabane 237). Both writings have characters that are faced with racist discrimination. However, though they go through similar scenarios of racism, their own situations and reactions to racism are different.
Mark is a child who lives in poverty, but when he is told he will fail because he is black, Mark becomes motivated to prove himself to the world. What motivates people depends on the results they are trying to accomplish. If someone has more to gain than lose from a situation, they will try that much harder to succeed. Mark realized this and since he had nothing, it was all gain and no loss. The opposite is true as well — if you strive for something that will get you nowhere or leave you in a worse position, the best thing to do is not to try.
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