Knut Hamsun

The hunger of the Special Period was not a hunger Knut Hamsun, that Norwegian who was awarded the Nobel Prize for telling, among other things, his existence on an empty stomach. Ours was not the hunger to walk around the city surrounded by more or less satisfied people, seeing sausages through the glass of butcher shops or cream cakes through the glass of sweet shops. It was not a disgusting capitalist famine. No sir. It was the neat, organized and egalitarian socialist hunger. They spared you the spectacle of sausages, of gentlemen sitting in a cafe, drinking hot chocolate with biscuits while you drool with pure longing. We were all hungry the same. Where only we saw succulent delicacies was in a movie that had been programmed by carelessness or treachery. Or at the table of a restaurant for tourists, but in that case we had to understand: tourists came from another world, a world with much less capacity for sacrifice, lacking in principles to defend with asceticism. The tourists came —as the great leader explained to us— to leave us the hard currency with which we bought the capitalist powdered milk for the children now that our cows no longer had socialist fodder to consume.

The word “socialist” was everywhere. Like a metal plate with which to cover the leaks that flooded our reality. There was talk of socialist democracy, of the socialist economy, of socialist culture, but —curiously— no leader ever spoke of socialist hunger, even though that is what it was.

Synchronized fasting and then eating the same shit. Potatoes if they were potatoes that touched. Cabbage yes cabbage. turnips One or two things at a time. More than two would be incurring an inadmissible waste.

I remember the night I went to a concert after gobbling up some peas. Plain peas, with nothing to enhance their flavor, after a few batches can be the grossest food on Earth. And we had been eating those peas since childhood. The concert was in an elegant theater named after his first wife by an old-regime millionaire and renamed that of the founder of Marxism. I don’t even remember whose concert it was. I do remember going to the bathroom and seeing, covering the very white ceramic of the sink, the same peas that I had eaten hours before. Vomited by a stomach weaker and more sensitive than mine.

Impossible not to feel at that moment in sync with the undernourished universe that we theatergoers made up with the rest of the country.

Hunger as a collective, choral experience, not as a symptom of capitalist exploitation.

However, certain details came to break this picture of unanimity in hardship.

The first of these was the awareness that the leaders who did not stop making calls for resistance, austerity and sacrifice were much better fed than we are. It was enough to check on the screens of our televisions how they preserved the rosy appearance of always. No sunken cheekbones, dark circles making furrows under the eyes, clothes hanging from the body like a scarecrow. Nothing that reminded us of ourselves.

Stories continually circulated that confirmed our suspicions. Like that of that famous revolutionary hero, a former peasant from the Sierra Maestra, who was awarded a mansion in Nuevo Vedado, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city, as a conqueror’s loot. In that house, there was a patio and in the patio, some dogs. It was said that the former peasant, this Universo Sánchez, fed his dogs with that beef barely remembered by the rest of us. The same meat that if you were caught with a couple of pounds you could spend years in jail. With that meat, the Universe fed his dogs to outrage our sacred hunger.

The story did not end there. It was said that a neighbor denounced such an affront to the national stomachs before some competent authority. Before the competent authority could react, Universe, outraged by the complaint, shot the neighbor three times, killing him on the spot. And of course, no one dared to disturb Universe.

When they told you about it, it wasn’t clear what was more outrageous: the murder, Universo’s impunity, or the fact that their dogs ate better than us.

But the story did not end there.

Universo had a reputation for being fearsome, even before he killed the neighbor. It was said that the police officer in charge of his case was hesitant to proceed against him and spoke with his boss. His boss, in turn, did not know what to do with Universo and spoke with the Minister of the Interior, the murderer’s former comrade-in-arms. He this thought that perhaps the murderer should be arrested, but he wondered:

“Who tells Universe?”

So he addressed none other than Raúl Castro, head of the armed forces and then second in command of the country’s nomenclature, and the latter responded with the same question:

“Who tells Universe?”

And it is said that Raúl Castro addressed his brother and the highest representative of the nation, who in turn agreed that it was wrong to kill neighbors, but “Who tells the Universe?”

And Universe, of course, remained free.

This text belongs to the book Our hunger in Havana (Editorial Platform, Barcelona, ​​2021) that will be presented by the filmmaker Carlos Lechuga and the author on Friday, July 8 at 7:00 PM at the Documenta bookstore (Carrer de Pau Claris, 144) in Barcelona. In the presentation in Madrid, the author will be accompanied by the narrator Orestes Hurtado on Tuesday, July 12 at 7:00 PM at the Alberti bookstore (Calle Tutor, 57).

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Knut Hamsun