PBS Presents Documentary About Cuban Author Lezama Lima

VOCES by Latino Public Broadcasting on Friday, October 15, 2021, 10:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. ET

By Sheyla Hirshon

HAVANA TIMES – “Lezama was elitist in a mass revolution, Catholic in a Marxist country and homosexual in a homophobic regime. He was also a writer who believed deeply in freedom as the necessity of art, poetry and truth. This is how the filmmaker Adriana Bosch describes the famous Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima (1910 – 1976), the protagonist of his new documentary Letters to Eloïsa which airs on PBS on October 15th.

In 60 minutes, the film takes us through the life of this imposing literary figure, caught up in the tumultuous events of six decades in Cuba. Lezama was celebrated in Cuba, then ostracized, then revered after his death. He was never allowed to experience the international prestige he earned, but today he is one of Cuba’s most famous literary figures. The house in which he lived for 47 years, and was essentially imprisoned for five of them, is now a Havana museum.

In Letters to Eloïsa, we hear Lezama’s voice mainly through letters he wrote to a younger sister, who left the island in 1961. There are also brief passages from his poetry and acclaimed novel Paradiso. The tone of these segments is warm and intimate, contrasting with the harsh news snippets of the events that engulfed Lezama’s beloved country and ultimately his life.

Jose Lezama grew up in a former, impoverished, upper-class family, with a widowed mother and three siblings. Asthma haunted him all his life. Although he attended law school, his real passion was literature and the life of the mind. “Lezama was interested in an exquisite, very refined literature, which was in a very deep way the antithesis of the culture that the revolution wanted to create”, declares Peruvian author Mario Vargas-Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature 2010.

“My generation has continually sought the roots of Cuban identity in its celestial and terrestrial manifestations,” said Lezama. He founded the literary and artistic review Origens in the 1940s and by the time the revolution came to power in 1959, he had made a name for himself as a poet, thinker and essayist.

Lezama was initially enthusiastic about the Cuban revolution which he considered “the triumph of Cuba’s best aspirations”. Although generally opposed to politics, he collaborated with the government and was appointed director of literature and publications. His presence served to strengthen Cuba’s reputation as a new type of socialism, where culture and diversity could flourish.

However, as the Revolution hardened its position, things began to change. The vision of the leaders of socialist life centered on training, heterosexual youth, in good physical shape, disciplined, ready to serve and defend the Revolution at any cost. Art and literature had to reflect and advance this model. Homosexuality was seen as a deviation, and those who practiced it needed forced re-education.

Lezama came into direct conflict with all of these values ​​when his novel Paradiso – hailed as an extraordinary and complex literary achievement – rocked Cuban society with explicit homoerotic descriptions. The book was removed from shelves in Cuba and all further publication was discontinued. Protected by his growing international prestige, Lezama himself continued to influence decisions regarding literary awards and publications. Despite the tensions, he celebrated his 60e anniversary triumphantly in 1970, surrounded by friends and with a number of his collections of poetry and essays destined for publication.

In a few months, his world fell apart. He was betrayed by a friend, who publicly accused him of “being ungrateful to the revolution and making private jokes against it.”

It was the culmination of a series of other small clashes, but the allegation was his ultimate loss. Lezama has been officially ostracized – his banned books, his home and communications under constant surveillance, essentially a prisoner in his own home. Friends abandoned him. He was refused an exit visa to take advantage of the international prestige his work had earned.

Silenced and deprived of the human contact he desired, his pain and desolation filled the pages of his letters. On the death of Lezama in 1976. Granma only marked his death with a short sentence: “a regrettable loss for Cuban letters”.

Letters to EloïsaFocuses on Lezama’s confrontation with the Revolution. This can be seen as a simple indictment against government control over art, and an argument for artistic autonomy. Yet at other times it intrigues us with allusions to many other stories that have remained untold.

First, the images of Lezama himself. Photo after photo, he sits slumped in a chair, his clothes disheveled, his expression somewhere between serious and moody, often smoking a huge cigar. Even when he smiles, he rarely looks happy. Depressed? Frustrated? Just trying to sound serious? No answer is offered.

Then there’s the obvious fact that he was 47 when the main events of the documentary took place. We are only given the quickest glimpses of his adult life before the revolution. Although he is often referred to as a homosexual, it is unclear whether he has ever had clandestine romantic relationships or if he has been in the closet forever. The role of his Catholicism, also condemning homosexuality, is unexplored.

Equally unexplored are the lives of the three women so central to his life: his mother, his sister Eloisa and the faithful secretary he ends up marrying. What about their life? The sister he writes letters to is a ghost: you never know why she left, or where she went, or what she thought, although she has the briefest of cameos at the end. At the age of 53, Lezama married his devoted secretary who would stay with him for the rest of his life, but we have no idea his motivations and his story.

Meanwhile, the implicit question is open. What should be the role of a writer interested in classical purity of language within a social revolution?

These aren’t really reviews of the movie. It is rather to the honor of the documentary that it piques our interest so much for a literary figure largely unknown in the English-speaking world. “We hope this film will lead to a rediscovery of his work and remind us of the importance of creative and personal freedom and the plight of today’s artists who work under oppressive regimes.” says Sandie Viquer Pedlow, executive producer of VOCES. “Letters to Eloïsa”Does this very well.

Meanwhile, Cuba is once again shaken by artistic censorship crises, this time involving the San Isidro group. It’s really hard to imagine neo-baroque José Lezama, in pursuit of stylistic perfection, in the same room as former hip-hop Denis Solis or imprisoned performance artist Luis Manuel Otero. Yet they are joined by a shared belief in “freedom as the necessity of art, poetry and truth”.


Adriana Bosch’s film, “Letters to Eloisa”, features Alfred Molina in the voice of Lezama and the music of Arturo Sandoval. It will premiere as part of Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES on Friday, October 15, 2021, 10 p.m. – 11 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, pbs.org and the PBS Video app. Below we release the trailer.

Read more about Cuba here on Havana Times

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