The Origins of Magic Realism
With Because Cuba is You, Ramón Chao firmly places the origins of magic realism in his native Galicia; a fertile region in North West Spain with a rich tradition of superstition and sorcery. In a recent interview, Chao cited the Galician author Álvaro Cunqueiro as the first magic realist novelist, and reminded us that García Márquez drew the inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude from his grandmother, a Galician. Márquez himself recalls that his grandmother’s house was full of stories of ghosts and premonitions, omens and portents and said that she ‘treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural,’ and was ‘the source of the magical, superstitious and supernatural view of reality.’
In Because Cuba is You, Chao tells the story of his own Galician grandmother. In the introduction to his book The Train of Ice and Fire – in which he chronicles the exploits of the French rock group Mano Negra on a dangerous tour of Colombia (his sons Manu and Antoine were both members of Mano Negra) – Chao tells the following story:
At home I’m considered a bit of fantasist, but my sons’ attachment to the people and music of Latin America confirms my suspicions: my paternal grandfather is not the one that figures in our family tree, but Mario García Kohly, minister in the government of Cuba’s first president Tomás Estrada Palma, and later Cuban ambassador to Spain. My grandmother left Galicia for Cuba, fleeing her quarrelsome drunken husband. She worked as a maid in García Kohly’s house and got involved with him.
García Kohly’s house was a meeting place for musicians and writers. The host himself wrote poems that didn’t make much of a mark, except for the words of the habanera ‘Tú’ that he wrote under the pseudonym Ferrán Sánchez. The composer Sánchez de Fuentes was a regular visitor to the house, and it was he who put the habanera to music. I deduce from all this that the ‘Tú’ in question, symbol of Cuban sensuality, was that beautiful warm Galician lady with blue eyes and rosy cheeks; my sons’ great-grandmother.
‘In Cuba, beautiful island of burning sun,
under its sky of blue,
of all the flowers,
the queen is you.’
The drunken husband who had stayed in Galicia, arrived in Havana one unfortunate day looking for his wife. And since the droit de seigneur brings with it the duty of protection, the man was found with a bullet in his head at the corner of Escobar and Galiano, in Old Havana. I imagine that in Cuba it wasn’t difficult for anyone with influence to order whatever he wanted. My father was born shortly afterwards. His strong likeness to García Kohly, according to a photo of the former ambassador in the Spanish encyclopedia, leaves my detective thesis in no doubt. I don’t want to cast aspersions, but astral calculations indicate that my father was conceived after my grandmother fled Spain and before the arrival of her wretched husband.
García Lorca said that to be a good Spaniard you have to have a Latin American dimension. My sons had discovered that in Paris. Manu reminded me not long ago that as teenagers, he and Antoine got into all sorts of mischief, but when they came home they’d meet someone like García Márquez, and that redressed the balance. I remember one of the first things Manu played on the guitar was a piece by the Cuban musician Leo Brouwer, and the first percussion instruments he and Antoine had were brought from Havana by Alejo Carpentier. For his part, Antoine was musical director of Radio Latina in Paris for a time and now produces Cuban music records, keeping close ties with the island.
The habanera ‘Tú’ ends with the line ‘Because Cuba is you’. This novel of that name is Chao’s homage to his grandmother, to Galicia and to his links with Cuba. By connecting cow pastures to sugar plantations, witchcraft to Santeria, the Independent Party of Colour to the Spanish Anarchists, Chao not only traces his own personal family line, but also a political line from the Spanish-American War to the Spanish Civil War. This is a rich and multi-layered tapestry of a story, populated by a mixture of imagined and real characters that include Diego Rivera, Puccini, Enrico Caruso, Eduardo Pondal, Evaristo Estenoz, Durruti and the dusty exhumed remains of Christopher Columbus.
One night, at a Santeria ceremony at a sugar plantation, the grandmother in the book is blessed with the power of ubiquity: the ability to be in two places at once. It is true that this could be seen as a magical realist device, but on reading Because Cuba is You, it could equally been seen as simply a piece of Galician storytelling.
Because Cuba is You by Ramón Chao
Translated by Ann Wright