North of Hell by Miguel Correa Mujica

About Miguel Correa Mujica: Born in 1956 and originally from the Las Villas province of Cuba, Mujica studied Russian Language and Literature at the University of Havana, later leaving aboard one of the many ships that crossed the Straits of Florida in 1980 as part of the well-known mass exodus of Cubans from Mariel. In 2002, he received his Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Hispanic American Literature from the City University of New York (CUNY). Although he was a writer all his life, he was unable to write what he wanted to in Cuba, so he did not actively pursue his work until arriving in the States. In 1984, he published Al norte del infierno and subsequent editions were published throughout the years, including a 2008 English translation of North of Hell (Green Integer). In 2006, Pureplay press published Furia del discurso humano. Being part of the Mariel Generation, Mujica possesses an almost caustic, tragicomic, and eloquent sense of humor, with a verbal nonchalance that rescued Cuban literature from the tedium of the time. He currently lives in Weehawken, not far from the sea, near Manhattan, his other island.

Miguel Correa Mujica’s North of Hell is a slim though unique novel that captures the essence of ‘living’ in an authoritarian regime. In this case, Castro’s Cuba, but the experiences are more universal than that south-of-heaven island, as it were. Essentially plotless and characterless, it’s mostly a novel of voices, stifled or megaphoned, whispered or omnipresent. It opens with the Cuban government rallying its people and declaring how they’ve not only met their goals for the year but have surpassed them, a hyperbolic circle jerk in which the audience is compelled to clap lest they out themselves as a dissident. As it’s described in a later chapter:

“Our function is to put our hands together, these little useless hands that have done nothing worthy in life, and applaud them, amplify the echo of their heroic acts, their sacrifice, their concern for us. They take care of us, they are responsible for keeping us breathing, […] they sign for us if a paper requires our signature, they wipe our noses after we sneeze.”

In the first chapter, the lying ‘voice of the people’ is textually interrupted by the thoughts of an audience member who isn’t buying the bullshit. The almost palimpsest style mimics the claustrophobia of the crowd forced to clap in the overwhelming heat, the section boiling over into a localized climax that touches on the often unacknowledged Cuban propensity to subjugate and even execute homosexuals. As Mujica put it in The Hudson Reporter back in 2007, “You hear about the political prisoners, but nothing about the gay Cuban community. It’s a crime to be gay today in Cuba. You can pay with prison or with life. I want to give a voice to this silenced community and here is that attempt in text [referring to his second and untranslated novel, Furia del discurso humano], despite whatever consequences it brings to me.”

The chapters in North of Hell are like flashes of fiction connected by feelings of oppression and “porcine desperation,” the suffocating atmosphere of tension and hopelessness that comes from deluded and dim-witted yet still very dangerous despotism. The paranoia percolates to such a degree that one voice even claims that inanimate objects can see and hear you, that they’re there to inform on you at a moment’s notice, bringing to mind the inanimate objects in Wendy Walker’s The Secret Service, even if those were ostensibly used for good:

“And it isn’t only the bugs: the trees and calm-looking stones, the delicate streams are informing left and right, the flowers are also terrible, unpaid spies, voluntary spies. […] A parrot by now is an agent of the Secret Police. They inform all the time. And they tell all. The motherfuckers snitch. They tell all. They fill in reports and memos while one is asleep. That’s why I don’t feel love for nature anymore, all nature is an accomplice, all nature informs on you, collaborates with them. That’s why whenever I can burn a forest or kill a mouse, a centipede, a caterpillar; whenever I can tear a spider’s web, or throw a huge rock on a creek to divert it; or poison dogs, cats, birds; or asphyxiate a rodent on its tree trunk; or chop lizards in half; or step on ants—the worst informers; or cut all the grass that grows around this house, I just do it, period.”

This anthropomorphobia is an absurdist type of humor that’s easy to laugh at in our privileged positions but could be just as real and terrifying for us as it is for the speaker if we were living under such oppressive conditions. The only hope is to leave, except there are few ways of doing that. One person is known for trying to leave via the help of animals, animals who could be unpaid spies like the parrot or the bugs: “He’d already tried to escape this country on top of a manatee, and they were caught—yes the manatee as well—and sentenced to five years in prison. Nobody knows this, but the manatee in the aquarium was the one he escaped with, and now there it is, imprisoned. Because he won’t give up the habit of leaving.”

It’s worth noting that the novel isn’t all absurdism in this vein. Some of the monologue chapters are achingly real in their sincerity and hysteria, in their fragmentation, including a section in which a woman addresses a lieutenant, going on and on about how much of a criminal she is, how much of an undesirable element, listing her sins in the hopes that she’ll get deported to America à la Tony Montana or anywhere else for that matter. She also tries to bribe the lieutenant with access to pig meat, ironically ending with the sentence: “I’m a decent woman.” Another too-real chapter is the voice of a father pleading about how his family needs a contact all the way up to the top because their revolutionary-minded son wouldn’t heed his father’s warnings and was apprehended by the police.

While people do escape and people are deported, that doesn’t stop the ones who remain from feeling trapped in the most merciless limbo:

“It’s about the desire to run away, escape, and not being able to see myself again. That’s it. To escape from everything, even from God. Because God is precisely the one we don’t want. I couldn’t care less for what He is offering, I couldn’t care less for Eternal Life. Because by now we don’t want any kind of life, neither in Paradise, nor in hell. The most terrible thing about life, this life, is its unavoidability, with its Paradise or its Hell ambushed behind it. We could really use a God that granted us the joy of not existing anymore….”

Like any great dictator, Castro has reached the status of the New Testament God, in which his subjected subjects can’t escape even in death, or at least that’s how they’re made to feel, because even in the Old Testament, those who died, died, fortunate enough to avoid the later threats of hellfire and unctuous bribes of heaven proffered by Jesus meek and mild.

If someone does manage to have any hope for another life, then the legal gateway lies with the embassies, which are on a perpetual lunchbreak when anyone approaches the front doors. There are a couple of embassy-centric sections that continue the absurd humor, including a monologue that addresses the embassy as if it were a being who could be pleaded to, practically placated.

In this context, north of hell is of course America, and a somewhat continual first-person perspective is maintained in later sections once we follow someone who is able to emigrate, only to find out that America isn’t exactly what was promised or hoped for, yet it doesn’t matter: “And the more they speak ill of that country here, the bigger I picture it. […] And here they don’t realize that the worse they speak about that country, the bigger the need of wanting it and loving it.” This reflection is in spite of, or even because of, a rich man who is throwing away steak after steak, as well as every cigar he lights up. After all, they’re north of hell, where one can do something like this without consequences or compunction, where emigrants can aspire to do it too, even if “[patriotic] goals here have nothing to do with the fury with which you work,” something that’s as liberating as it is reducing, from the collective to the individual as just that, an individual.

Translated from the Spanish by Alexis Romay and published by Green Integer in 2008 (almost a quarter of a century after the original Spanish publication), North of Hell (Al norte del infierno) belies its 130 pages and offers the reader a distilled dose of Kafkaesque content executed in an accomplished style. I hope his second novel, Furia del discurso humano (Fury of Human Discourse), gets Englished one of these days, but we can get a glimpse of it through the semi-inept grace of Google Translate, slightly edited by yours truly. This section is titled “Polifemo” or “Polyphemus”:

The boy had been born with an extravagant physical defect: he had an extra eye, conveniently located at the back of his skull. At first, the doctors tried to remove it but the third eye was connected to the other eyes by the same optic nerve: to remove it would have left him blind, so his extra eye was left while he was periodically observed. The boy’s parents were two peasants who had even become famous through the anomaly of their only son.

The doctors studied the case for several years until they were able to verify that the vision of the third eye was even better than that of the facial eyes. The only inconvenience that the third eye had brought him was an uncomfortable nickname that the boys and the citizens of the neighborhood shouted at him: everyone knew him as Polyphemus and that is how the medical texts of the country referred to him, the only one in the world who had become such a strange specimen. For the rest, the third eye (without eyelids and permanently open like those of a fish) was extremely useful to him: the boy was always on guard, alert to the slightest annoyance, even when he slept. His favorite pastime was catching the flies that fluttered absentmindedly behind him. It was practically impossible for his parents to surprise him with an unexpected slap. The extra eye became his best defense against betrayal and hatred.

However, the case of Polyphemus ceased to be famous years later, when the first batches of children with third eyes, third ears, and even gills were born. The only coherent explanation for these phenomena was provided by an old Darwinian scientist: nature was genetically adjusting itself to the needs of the new society.

With its kaleidoscopic structure, Furia del discurso humano seems to be composed of even more fragmentary fiction than Mujica’s first novel. In the same Hudson Reporter article mentioned earlier, Mujica explains part of his artistic temperament: “I opposed the linear preferentiality of our Renaissance masters by which they take characters by the hand. I wanted to get in the book the unexpected and unpredictability of life. You take a novel from the 60s or the 70s and [the character] always has a predestined life. I oppose this.” After all, what is linearity, what is destiny, other than more despots to do away with?

In a presentation titled “El texto como exorcismo” (“The Text as Exorcism”), Mujica spoke about his debut novel at the McNally Robinson bookstore in New York (date unknown). Google translate comes to our aid again so that we may read the highlights of this public reflection:

“I wrote the first and only version of the book in about 8 months, all in 1982. The manuscript barely had a syntactical revision. Since my departure from Cuba through the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the characters formed an enormous hubbub and tumult in my mind, unbearable noises, unspeakable uproars, veritable riots of beings who apparently just wanted to tell their truth and explode, as if their lives depended on the mere fact of the enunciation of their cries.

[…]

Some time ago, a poet friend made me see something strange in North of Hell: the characters are in the air, he told me, they don’t have a space to hold on to, they don’t have a platform to pick them up, there is no demarcated or described setting where the plot action occurs. Indeed, the characters in this work are in the air. After analyzing my friend’s observation, I have come to the conclusion that he is absolutely right: the book does not stop at the formation of a literary space where the characters can exist. But they don’t have it because the characters don’t need it, because they are nothing but screams, voices, willies, souls that flutter in the summer wind, in weightlessness, in the stupor of an unhealthy time, perhaps from an elusive Beyond. This is a book where the literary space is built by the reader (not the narrator) from the speeches emitted, from the textuality, by the voices.

[…]

I wish the book would lose all the actuality that has always characterized it. Hopefully soon the events it narrates will be something of the past. And that the book loses all its validity. I pray to God that it be so. Because I belong to the group of those who think that literature is not more important than man.”

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.

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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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