More Than a Dream
By Rafael Contreras, Cuba Free Press
Pinar del Rio-Alfredo the librarian lived a life as beautiful as a book. I am sure that he would have loved to read this comparison I make between a life and a book. His entire life was to be in that State Library where he worked. He was a librarian all his life.
He was past retirement age but continued to work. One day he confessed that it had become impossible for him to live without the smell of the bound walls of the Library. In August 1994 Alfredo’s only son fled into exile. It was a departure which gave the old man no time to prepare himself. He decided to confront the sadness of the separation with the consolation found in books.
One afternoon some State functionaries from the Ministry of Culture arrived at the city Library. They reviewed current regulations and State implemented censorship. They produced a large list of books considered forbidden. Alfredo, the librarian, could not remain silent in conformity and spoke.
“A book should never be prohibited, much less considered an enemy.”
Right then Alfredo sealed his own fate as he spoke. Four days after the visit from the functionaries, the old man was summoned to the office of the Head Librarian. They started by trying to convince him to finally retire. He was over sixty years old had earned a rest. That’s what they said to him. Alfredo expounded on a thousand reasons not to leave. The library was his life. The Head Librarian didn’t listen to Alfredo’s arguments and decided to retire him.
We ran across each other some days after he was retired by them. We began to meet more routinely. Then we would spend hours talking of beautiful books and great writers. One afternoon Alfredo spoke of his project.
“I want to make a library in my house.”
I proceeded to explain that this was a censured dream in Cuba. The State didn’t tolerate private libraries. There was a sickening will to control all types of literature, and in a private library this would be out of the hands of the official censors. Alfredo wasn’t listening. He smiled and dreamt out loud.
“Anyone who wishes could come into my home and ask me for books. My house is large like a library. People could read in my living room, in my patio, in the hallways. It will be a beautiful library.”
Alfredo was beautiful like a book. He was full of dreams and his library was one which he began to make a reality. All beautiful things are difficult at the beginning. Alfredo’s independent library was not an exception to the rule. Few people would visit Alfredo’s house in its new role as a library. Some close friends did. I counted myself among those friends. My visits where frequent. Alfredo and I would spend long hours among books and anecdotes. He spoke much of Jose Ingenieros, Vargas Vilas and of another Vargas whom he met years ago when he had been in Havana. I speak about Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer who had won the “Casa de las Americas” Prize and was now forbidden on the island. It was during one of these conversations that Alfredo told me the beautiful quote by a censored writer, very famous and with a name both difficult to pronounce and remember. The quote is “every old person who dies is like a library that burns down”. I was saddened by the realization that Alfredo was a library that we would undoubtedly lose one day to the flames of time.
One morning I saw the cars arrive at the old man’s home. They where Government automobiles. Three men knocked on his door, three more stayed on the sidewalk. Sometime later they began removing books from the house, Alfredo silently watched them taking his books, and he would do nothing to help them. I realized then what was happening.
Later, after the men in the cars left I learned the whole story. The police had confiscated all the books. Alfredo’s library had been closed forever.
From that very moment I knew that Alfredo was dying slowly, day by day, little by little. I was not wrong. Two months later the old librarian was leaving us like a beautiful Library, consumed by the flames of an unstoppable fire.
Three months after Alfredo’s death a group of friends, mine and his, decided never to let the old man die. The best way to make a man immortal is to allow his ideas to breathe free every day. We wanted an independent library named after the old librarian.
We had said it before, all beautiful things are difficult at the onset. The library is frequented by few people, we know more will come. We also know that it will be taken from us one day by the authorities. But we are convinced others will be born. There will always be a man like Alfredo, there will always be a Library, there will always be a book. And that, to Free men, is more than a dream.