by Carlos Alberto Montaner
(The Miami Herald) The journalist asked me, “Why did you write Goodbye Again?”
Here’s my answer.
The landmark event of the 20th Century was World War II, with its 60 million dead, hundreds of cities pulverized by bombs and huge masses of humanity gone into exile to save their lives.
Never before had death reached such abominable proportions.
The major horror of that episode was the Holocaust. Never in history has there been a greater atrocity than the selection of an ethnic-religious group, the Jews â and, to a lesser degree, the gypsies â for cruel extermination, all in the name of a deceit: racial purity.
That is the backdrop for my novel. That is where the story unfolds. Mixing fiction and reality, I have told the tale of a brilliant Jew, the painter David Benda, who might very well have existed, who was painting Sigmund Freud’s final portrait when the German Army occupied Austria in what became the prologue to the approaching war.
Freud tells the story, narrating the annexation of Austria. He is in pain because of a cancer that corrodes his mouth. He was operated on 31 times. But he suffers even more because of the anti-Semitism that has seized many of his compatriots. He has been called “f—ing Jew” outside a theater. He knows he has to flee. (Four of his sisters will die in the extermination camps.) He and his family will be saved by a disciple, Princess Marie de Bonaparte. He will pay a heavy ransom.
David Benda also has to escape. He is attacked by Hitler’s mobs but rescued by one of the Jewish resistance organizations that existed at the time. The one in my novel is called Masada. There were several. It is not true that all Jews went meekly to the slaughterhouse. Some died defending themselves bravely.
David loses his first love, swears revenge on the murderer and travels to a remote island in the Caribbean to which thousands of Jews fled from the Nazi barbarians. He arrives in Cuba aboard the Saint Louis â the ship of “the condemned ones” â and is one of half a dozen passengers who manage to disembark. Almost one thousand are returned to Europe.
Fulgencio Batista appears in the book. Not even 40, he is the strongman of that era in Cuba. David paints his portrait, talks with him and penetrates his complex psychology. At the time, Batista was a man of the left.
The painter follows and lives World War II from Havana, watching German submarines prowl the island as if they were steel sharks looking for Cuban merchant ships to devour.
David goes to sea to hunt them in the yacht of an American writer, Ernest Hemingway, both hungry for adventure. They carry a .30-caliber machine gun, a few rifles and lots of bottles of rum. It is a beautiful, mad escapade that later the American novelist will tell in one of his books.
Hemingway does not narrate another fascinating story, however; that of the strange spy Luni, a German agent carrying Honduran papers who was captured and executed in Havana. That episode is for me to tell.
David falls in love again, this time with a very special Cuban woman, intelligent, beautiful and with great character. She still suffers the pain of other failures. Together they find the quiet happiness of a sweet and successful routine.
But again comes violence. Cuba’s communist revolution destroys their lives again, as it did so many others’.
David must flee once more. The United States is his unexpected destination. To return to Europe was unthinkable. That was a foreign world, full of horrible memories.
Throughout his life, the 20th Century had been a succession of blows, falls and beginnings, as if he were denied the miracle of vital continuity. As if, in effect, each life were several lives, each atrocious and different.
In New York, he rises again and falls in love again. He cannot conceive life without a mate. He takes root in the woman he loves. She is an extraordinary woman, also a survivor of misfortune. He had met her several years earlier, aboard the St. Louis. Fate, or whatever, returned her to him marked with scars but still beautiful and full of illusions and fantasies.
Why did I write Goodbye Again? Because it is a great story, real and fictional, that contains many other stories, real and fictional, that are worth telling. Because it is a way to bring before the eyes of readers the terrible 20th Century. Because I like to share with them everything that is, in my opinion, memorable.
Perhaps, I fear, because writing is a blind and inexplicable impulse. I don’t know.