Physical Dramaturgy: Ein (neuer) Trend?

Dramaturgie im zeitgenössischen Tanz ist ? positiv gemeint ? ein heißes Eisen. Idealerweise sind Dramaturginnen und Dramaturgen während der Erarbeitung eines Stücks die besten Freunde der Choreografen. more more



When crime fiction is a crime

Amir Valle's journey from success to exile - a Cuban destiny. By Knut Henkel

There is nothing to distinguish the turn of the century building with the number 304 from its neighbours on the Calle Rayo. For long years the pockmarked facade has seen neither plaster nor paintbrush. A typical building in a typical street in Centro Habana, the run-down district in the centre of Havana. The quarter is reputed to be disreputable, and dangerous. And here in the Calle Rayo, on the edge of the touristy Chinatown not far from the famous restaurant "La Guarida," where the Spanish kings dined, is Amir Valle's flat. His computer is still there, now used by his stepson, and the many documents he gathered about the neighbourhood and the life there are piled on shelves in the living room.

Amir Valle (right), with Cuban author Lorenzo Lunar (left) and Spanish author Jose Carlos Somoza. All photos courtesy Amir Valle.

Valle knows the neighbourhood and its inhabitants like the back of his hand, whether they're salespeople, street vendors, dealers, prostitutes, criminals or line-toeing workers. They are the dregs of society, and the major source of inspiration for his detective novels. Amir Valle has his commissioner Alain Bec investigate on this other side of Havana, full of drugs, black markets, squalor, lethargy and crime. However Bec is anything but up to the task, because he comes from cream of Cuban society and is a racist to boot. So he is unfamiliar with the rules of the foreign environment, Valle explains with a broad grin. Commissioner Bec has to learn a lot and fast, because the cases that land on his desk are increasingly explosive. In the first, Bec is faced with organised child prostitution, in the second with intolerance at homosexuality, and in the third with the resurgence of organised drug dealers.

In Cuba all of these topics are politically explosive, and Valle knows this all too well. But like his Cuban colleagues Leonardo Padura Fuentes and Lorenzo Lunar, rather than avoid them he has committed himself heart and soul to the Cuban reality. Born in Guantanamo in eastern Cuba, Valle studied life in Centro Habana at close range. At the end of the 1990s he and his wife eked out a living selling croquettes in the streets around the Calle Rayo. This work as a street vendor allowed him to established contact with the local milieu. He saw how young bullies began to deal first cigars and then drugs. Some of his stepson's friends were among them, Valle admits.

Amir Valle at the grave of Bertold Brecht in Berlin.

The 17-year-old son of his wife Berta is now living alone in the flat in Centro Habana, because Amir Valle has been a persona non grata in Cuba since July 2005. That's when the writer and his wife travelled to the Spanish town of Gijon, as they had done the year before, to participate in the Semana Negra crime fiction festival. But the couple were denied permission to return to Havana, explains Valle in his flat in Berlin with a glum look. The flat was part of a stipend offered him by the German PEN centre. Since August 2006 Valle has been a "writer in exile," and the small signs with the German words taped to all the objects in the apartment show he doesn't expect to go home soon. His name is cursed in Havanna, he says, just as those of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas were cursed in the past.

And Valle, a practising Christian, makes no secret of why. Very early on he had begun to distance himself from the system and sought independence so as to avoid the corruption, dishonesty and the diverse censorship mechanisms. He began looking into the prostitution milieu in Havana at the beginning of the 1990s. The resulting study, "Habana Babilonia," became an underground bestseller in Cuba, and provided the background for the investigations of Commissioner Bec. And after the first Cuban literary awards, prizes followed in Colombia, The Dominican Republic and Spain, as well as publishing contracts in Spain and Germany. Valle became more independent, and soon counted among the best-known authors in Cuba. Most of his books are published in the country, although in small editions.

In 2002 came the first caesura: Culture Minister Abel Prieto warned publishers to be careful in their dealings with Valle at a national meeting. At the time Valle was working for the Puerto Rican publisher Plaza Mayor, supervising their Cuban collection. But as the company belonged to Patricia Menoyo, the daughter of a well-known Cuban opposition figure, Valle was considered suspect, despite the prizes received by his literary work. The trained journalist first heard of the Culture Minister's thunderbolt through a publisher, and - as opposed to many of his colleagues - took the offensive, immediately writing to Abel Prieto asking him for a statement on his comments. He never received an answer. Not one to shy away from a conflict situation, Valle made no secret of his views abroad, at home, and to the political establishment, openly declaring his solidarity with Raul Rivero Castaneda, the poet and journalist who was arrested in 2003 and given a stiff prison sentence, and who now lives in Spain.

In Cuba this was a taboo, and Valle intentionally transgressed it. The place of an intellectual is on the side of the government. In going against this dictate, he placed himself squarely in the opposition, Valle admits. Yet he never dreamed he would be barred from returning home, and he harbours firm intentions of going back to his stepson in the apartment on the Calle Rayo. His own son, the six year old Lior, has long joined his father in Germany. Valle wrote to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian friend of Fidel Castro, as well as to Cuban intellectuals and politicians, threatening an international scandal if his son was not allowed to leave. A few days later Valle's father in Havana received the papers necessary for the boy's departure. The permit is limited to two years, after which Valle too hopes to be allowed to return. Until then he wants to put the time to good use by writing - also about his experience with the Cuban revolution: yet another taboo Valle has no bones about breaking.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 27, 2007.

Knut Henkel is a freelance journalist.

Translation: jab.

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles. - let's talk european.

More articles

No one is indestructible

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TeaserPicA precision engineer of the emotions, Peter Nadas traces the European upheavals of the past century in his colossal and epic novel "Parallel Stories", which was published in English in December. The core and epicentre of the novel is the body, which bears the marks of history and trauma. In his seemingly chaotic intertwining of lives and stories, Nadas penetrates the depths of the human animal with unique insight. A review by Joachim Sartorius
read more

Road tripping across the ideological divide

Wednesday 1 February, 2012

TeaserPicThe USA and the USSR should not simply be thought of as arch enemies of the Cold War. Beyond ideology, the two nations were deeply interested in one another. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov were thrilled by the American Way of Life in 1935/6, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa praised the sheer vitality of the Russian people in 1947. Historian Karl Schlögel reviews a perfect pair of travel journals. Photo by Ilf and Petrov.
read more

Language without a childhood

Monday 23 January 2012

TeaserPicTurkish-born author, actor and director Emine Sevgi Özdamar was recently awarded the Alice Salomon Prize for Poetics. Coming to West Berlin in 1965, Özdamar first learned German at the age of 19. After stage school she went on to become the directorial assistant to Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff at the Volksbühne in East Berlin while still living in West Berlin. Harald Jähner warmly lauds the author's uniquely visual sense of her acquired language and her ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable dividing line through the city.
read more

Friendship in the time of terror

Monday 9 January 2012

Nadezhda Mandelstam's personal memories of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, her intimate friend, offer a unique and moving testimony to friendship and resistance over decades of persecution. Published only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the text is still unavailable in English but has recently been translated into German. A unique historical document, celebrating an intellectual icon in an age of horror. Portrait of Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
read more

Just one drop of forgetfulness

Thursday 8 December, 2011

TeaserPicThis year is the 200th anniversary of the death of German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.
read more

German Book Prize 2011 - the short list

Tuesday 4 October, 2011

TeaserPicEugen Ruge has won the German Book Prize with his novel "In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts" (In times of fading light), an autobiographical story of an East German family. The award is presented to the best German-language novel just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here we present this year's six shortlisted authors and exclusive English translations of excerpts from their novels.

read more

Torment and blessing

Wednesday 28 September, 2011

Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu escaped into exile in Germany in July this year. His new book about his life in Chongqing prison has just been published in German as "Für Ein Lied und Hundert Lieder". Both book and author have a life-threatening odyssey behind them. I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu is here with us and not at home in prison. By Herta Müller
read more

In the vortex of congealed time

Monday 12 September, 2011

No other European city suffered more in World War II than Leningrad under siege, when over a million people lost their lives. Russian literature delivers a rich testimony of the events which have been all but forgotten by the West. Only a few works, though, also do the disaster aesthetic justice. By Oleg Yuriev
read more

My unrelenting vice

Tuesday 6 September 2011

In this apology for the vice of reading, Bora Cosic describes the magnificent and fantastic discoveries of one of its practitioners – revealing how texts contain what we bring to them, how we sometimes read without reading and how books are not only found in books but many other places. 
read more

Potential market, no buyers

Monday 4 July, 2011

The most successful Croatian book of 2008 sold exactly 1,904 copies. Not what one could really call a market, although together the successor republics represent a single language community. A look at the situation of publishers and authors in the former Yugoslavia. By Norbert Mappes-Niediek.
read more

Head versus hand

Monday 27 June, 2011

TeaserPicThis year's German International Literature Award goes to "Venushaar", a Russian novel that starts out as a dialogue between an asylum seeker and an immigration officer, and opens into a vast choir of voices. A conversation with its author Mikhail Shishkin, a literary giant in his own country, and his German translator Andreas Tretner. By Ekkehard Knörer. (Image: Mikhail Shishkin © Yvonne Böhler)
read more

Cry for life

Monday 20 May, 2011

Algeria's youth: Frustrated, isolated and in the stranglehold of clandestine political structures. Young Algerians are rebelling against being locked in traditional political and social structures, but have no chance of a national uprising like that in Tunisia, says Algerian author Boualem Sansal. An interview with Reiner Wandler.
read more

Witness to intellectual suicide

Tuesday 3 May, 2011

TeaserPicOn what would have been Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran's 100th birthday, Suhrkamp has published a volume of his essays from the 1930s, "Über Deutschland". Effervescing with enthusiasm for Hitler and fascist ideas, they cast a dark shadow over his later writing. Fritz Raddatz wishes he'd never had to read such abominations and bids a former companion a bitter farewell. Photo: E.M. Cioran © Surhrkamp Verlag
read more

RIP Andre Müller

Wednesday 13 April, 2011

TeaserPicAndre Müller Germany's most insightful and most feared interviewer is dead. Elfriede Jelinek said of him in her obituary: "Andre Müller goes all the way into people and then he makes them into language, and only then do they become themselves." Read his interviews with Ingmar Bergman and Hitler's sculptor Arno Breker in English. Photo courtesy Bibliothek der Provinz
read more

A country on the edge of time

Monday 4 April, 2011

TeaserPicSerbia was the country in focus at this year's Leipzig Book Fair – its extensive literature seems to be bound up in the straitjacket of politics. Serbia is having a hard time with Europe, and Europe is having a hard time with Serbia. Although there are signs of a softening stance, the country is still locked up in the self-imposed nationalist isolation into which it manoeuvred itself as the aggressor in the Yugoslavian war of secession. A visit there inspires mixed feelings. By Jörg Plath
Photo: Sreten Ugricic
read more