“Paradise with a Serpent:” An Interview with Carlos Eire

Bernardo Aparicio García and Katy Carl

Carlos Eire is now a distinguished history professor at Yale University, but in 1959 he was an eight-year-old boy living in Havana who went by the name of Carlos Nieto. His 2003 memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, winner of the National Book Award, tells the story of that transformation. I first heard of Eire shortly after graduating from college in 2005, when I was thinking of pursuing graduate studies in history. At that time I was intrigued by the title of his memoir—it reminded me of my own snow-deprived childhood in Colombia. I almost picked up the book a year or two later when it was chosen as the featured title for the One Book, One Philadelphia reading project, but other work and other reading prevented me from getting around to it until this spring.

What a surprise it was when I finally did. Halfway through the page-long preamble I started wondering how the book had not come to my attention much sooner, especially when some odd disclaimers started popping up: “All resemblances to actual persons / were preordained before the creation of the world. / It matters little that the names don’t always match.” That was intriguing. Then there was this one: “All the incidents and dialogue come straight from God’s imagination. / As does the author himself. / And the reader.” My interest in Eire had stemmed mainly from my position as a Hispanic writing in English, but these words called to attention a deeper part of me. I don’t mean just the editor of a Catholic literary journal, but something more essential: that part that wonders at the mysterious—at things like free will and Providence and beauty.

If I was intrigued by Eire’s preamble, by the time I got to page four—which features his first, bizarre “proof” of the existence of God—I knew that I would have to interview him for Dappled Things. Here is a Catholic mind at work if I ever saw one, I thought. Here is a work of that mind winning the National Book Award. And here is a work almost entirely overlooked in all those interminable discussions on the state of Catholic literature.

Eire’s voice is one we overlook at our own loss. His memoir, though a work of non-fiction, is suffused with the magical realism of the best Latin American novels. His is the kind of realism that grows out of an understanding that reality is, indeed, magical—full of depth and possibility, sacramental. Eire’s facts are never flat; he can follow the simplest details in surprising directions, all of which lead to either hilarious or deeply poignant conclusions, most often both. For this reason, even as Waiting for Snow succeeds as a memoir of childhood and exile, it accomplishes much more than that. Something solid moves beneath the words. Don’t be surprised at that. It is Augustine, not Rousseau, that Professor Eire is echoing in the memoir’s subtitle: Confessions of a Cuban Boy.

—Bernardo Aparicio García

Bernardo Aparicio: At the beginning of his Confessions Augustine famously says to God: “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Waiting for Snow in Havana is subtitled Confessions of a Cuban Boy. Did you conceive of your work as being in the tradition of Augustine?

Carlos Eire: I did, and very consciously so. Of course no two lives are parallel, but Augustine’s Confessions had an enormous impact on me, which has continued. It’s kind of a bottomless book. I’ve found so many places in the Confessions that I passed over the second, third, fourth, fifth reading, and I’ve gone back the sixth, seventh, eighth time, and it’s wonder and inspiration. I didn’t consciously try to match up what I was doing in terms of structure, just in terms of spirit.

BA: It seems that restlessness and longing are at the heart of [both books].

CE: Yes, but this is where the parallel ends. In my case there’s a rupture, kind of an unnatural rupture that is not in Augustine’s life. My book is centered on this rupture, on the fact that I just suddenly lost my family and my childhood in one day, where Augustine has a more seamless transition from childhood to adulthood and on beyond that to the point where he writes the book in middle life. In my case the rupture is right up front. That’s where parallels are not possible.

BA: Your memoir is deeply rooted in particulars: specific images and moments that somehow seem to define your life as a child. Why do you think these details from the life of a boy growing up in Cuba have the ability to speak so universally?

CE: I stumbled on this, and I didn’t realize I had stumbled on it until much later, when I started having public events to speak about the book. I realized childhood has a certain universal quality to it. It doesn’t matter what culture you grow up in. Childhood and a child’s voice have a sameness to them which an adult’s voice simply does not have. I didn’t know this as I was doing the book—I had no clue. It just manifested itself from the questions people asked me and the letters they wrote even throughout the world. I’d get letters from people who would tell me, “Even though I grew up in Hong Kong, or in Northern Vermont, I can connect to this.” I think it has to do with the fact that childhood is a period when you’re still open to so many possibilities and everything is puzzling and wonderful all at the same time. But adulthood makes you narrower and narrower. Put a bunch of children in a room together and, no matter where they are from, after a few weeks they will be friends. They are universal in a sense that adults are not.

BA: As well as a literature of childhood, critics have also connected your book with a general literature of exile. At some point in the book, you identify Cuba with Eden. When you talk about exile, are you talking about more than just exile from Cuba?

CE: Of course, [comparing Cuba to Eden] was kind of an ironic reference because I was careful to point out all the things in Cuba that were not nice. (laughs) But it goes much deeper than that. The geographic place is the first level, but there are many deeper levels, and eventually you go to this basic Augustininan sense of this place from which you came and in which, maybe, you would finally be at home. But the only way we can come close to that, get in touch with that, since we are human and bounded by time and space, is through our place of origin. Without thinking about it, without any reflection, this is one of the things I did. Later I found out from a specialist in earliest childhood development that babies form their identity as much by their physical surroundings as by the people who are in contact with them. He said that children bond with their parent figures, but they bond just as deeply to place. If you move any child before the age of thirteen, even when you move your child with you, you turn your child into an exile because the attachment is that deep. He said that anyone who gets moved around a lot will have problems for that reason. What he said sounded very true and reasonable for me. Cuba with all its defects, the Cuba I knew, is an idea of what one hopes to return to—and it’s about place as much as people.

BA: It’s paradise and it’s home, but it’s paradise with a serpent—or rather a lizard, in your case . . .

CE: (laughs) Yeah, serpents with legs, very much so.

BA: How did the consciousness that you were writing for an anglophone audience affect how you, as a Cuban, described your culture and country of origin? What sorts of challenges did this present?

CE: I had no other audience—this is the thing. This is how I think now; I’m so completely separated from my Cuban roots as an adult that I have no non-anglophone audience in mind. I don’t know how Cubans think, how they express themselves. When people tell me I’m very Cuban, I’m surprised. Now I’m not surprised anymore, but when they started saying it I was. I couldn’t do anything else, at least consciously. I didn’t think I could do anything else. The Spanish crept in as I was writing, because some memory came back with that very specific word. That’s the closest I could get to the Cuban [worldview], but I couldn’t have any other perspective. The challenge really would have been if I had tried to write as a Cuban. Because I didn’t have them in mind—I didn’t have us in mind. Even that way: them, us—I’m both. I’m somewhere in between.

Katy Carl: Besides Augustine, what writers have been most influential for you?

CE: There are several, but they’re a very odd assortment. I won’t put them in any particular order. A lot of people have influenced me. One of them is John Calvin. Another is Guillermo Cabrera Infante; another is Jorge Luis Borges. Raymond Chandler. Charles Dickens. Mark Twain. I actually had Mark Twain very much in mind as I was writing. The first two novels I read, ever, were Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn—in Spanish—and they had a very profound impact on me. In terms of style, at one end is Raymond Chandler and hardboiled detective fiction prose, and at the other end is John Calvin, with all the others in between. Guillermo Cabrera Infante had a tremendous impact on me when I was about thirty. I was reading Tres Tristes Tigres, which has very different voices for every character in the book, but it’s very Cuban. I had that in mind, but not like I would make an outline or anything or tell myself “I have to do this, I have to do that.” Everyone else [I’ve read] was piled up too, like kids in the car, in no particular order.

BA: Let me ask you about another writer that came to mind while reading your work. At various points in the book, you consider films that you saw as a child in Havana. Your description of the movies and theaters, and especially your claim to remember what the weather was like during practically every movie you have ever seen, remind me of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I am therefore tempted to ask: how is Carlos Eire like the novel’s protagonist, Binx Bolling?

CE: Oh yeah, The Moviegoer is in there too. I recognized the main character, Binx Bolling, immediately because I am Binx Bolling. I am! It was the strangest thing to read that novel for the first time and realize there’s—my God!—somebody else like this. (laughs) I had the same kind of relationship between the movie and the day and place in which it was seen. I very much identified with that. But I tried to read other Walker Percy books and could not get the same kind of connection.

BA: Your memoir includes seven “proofs” of the existence of God that would startle many a philosopher, proofs that emphasize surprising resemblances that exist between concrete and tangible things, almost like metaphors come alive. What do your proofs accomplish that is missing in the “five ways” of St. Thomas Aquinas? What do metaphors have to do with God and the human condition?

CE: Well, uh, I don’t know if I can do justice to that question (laughs). In a way the proofs are also not proofs. They’re simultaneously a yes and a no. They’re ridiculous and it’s their ridiculousness that makes them so serious. Coincidence of opposites is at the heart of the matter, which is the way we think and what we can actually know. It’s unknowing as much as knowing—if you’re going to know and intuit the divine, which is totally unlike us, it has to be through something that is both a proof and a denial, all wrapped up in one because that’s how our minds work. Why do we even need proofs of the existence of God? Our brains tell us at the very same time, “Look, that can’t be,” and “Yes, it must be”—and we’re sort of stuck with this.

So, the proofs are ridiculous. But I think there’s something about them beyond that. They are not so much metaphors as odd coincidences that are too baffling not to be something other than mere coincidence. One of the proofs I have is the Jewish family I lived with in Miami. They’re a proof. Why are they a proof? It was so totally odd that I would end up with a Jewish family. I thought because I was living with a Jewish family I had it made—I wouldn’t have to go to church again. Church terrified me. (laughs) But they made me go to church and gave me money to put into the collection basket. This is just totally beyond—it’s a joke, a great cosmic joke which teaches me so many things on so many different levels. I am who I am just precisely because I ended up in such a bizarre situation. That someone who was brought up in a very sheltered kind of 98-percent-Catholic environment ends up with a Jewish family, is forced to go to church, and, as a result, stays in touch with a side of himself—I mean, I could have very easily lost all that. It borders on bad fiction writing.

BA: But it’s not just a question of probability, so much as a bizarre thing that happens to have this real sense of meaning in it somehow.

CE: Very much so. And I think coincidence and metaphor—they both point to something beyond themselves. Human beings are not only capable of reading deeper meanings into things but seem to be drawn to deeper meanings in everything. In my case again, going back to the rupture, it’s the question: in a totally alien environment, how does one make sense of what is alien and what is familiar? Metaphor, if you want to think in Platonic or Augustinian terms, is a way of remembering the ideal or getting close to the ideal which is manifested through something lesser or other than itself. Or not necessarily lesser, but different.

BA: Which is also very much a sacramental view of the world.

CE: Now that you mention it, yes: things pointing beyond themselves. Very much so. And the oddest things can turn into sacraments. I had not thought of it that way.

BA: So much of the book is about particular details, particular little things. Sometimes I was just surprised at where you took something—I never saw it coming.

CE: I didn’t have to work at that—it’s just the way it happened. There was no plan; I just expressed what is normally going on in my head. Ultimately the greatest paradox of all is that we’re kind of stuck in temporal existence, where things decay and pass away and are taken from you and just disappear, but every one of those things is also full of the divine presence, and you have to adjust to the intensity of the present and to the very real possibility that it’s all evanescent and just—poof—disappears. That’s why I spend a considerable amount of time [in the book] going over the theme of attachment and detachment, which has always been a problem for Christians. It’s one of these conundrums where you’re supposed to find God in the world and through the world, but also . . . well, yes and no. Some people stress the yes and some the no, and in the end you’re left feeling a little dizzy trying to figure it out.

BA: Yes, you’ve mentioned in interviews how The Imitation of Christ is an important book for you. Stay away from the world and don’t stay away from the world: there is a tension there.

CE: There is that tension in my life. There’s no artifice there.

BA: You originally wrote this book as a novel. How did this affect your writing? How did the book change after you decided to publish it as a memoir?

CE: It didn’t really change at all—only the names changed. Nothing else changed. The “novel” freed me completely from being self-conscious [as I wrote]. I thought, “whatever is going to be published, no one will know it’s me, because it’s going to be published as fiction”—when in fact I wasn’t fictionalizing at all, except maybe when I tried to recreate conversations. That’s an imaginative reconstruction of certain sentences. So when I found out from my publisher that I couldn’t publish it as fiction—well, I begged, “please let me do it as fiction.” Then I begged to be able to take out many things that made me look very bad. But my editor said no. She said, “It becomes more real, the more flawed and human you are.” That’s where the subtitle, Confessions of a Cuban Boy, came into play. I’m putting myself out [in the book] in the way that I would in the confessional. I’m describing things I’ve done that I’m really ashamed of. Then I said, “Fine. Let it all hang out.”

But I’ll tell you the difference between the first draft, which I sold, and the second draft, which is the book. I didn’t make any changes as I was writing: none. The only chapter I changed was the one where I talk about Disneyland and Disney World. The original version was a little too anti-Disney. The only other change was the reduction by about twenty percent of the text—in the first draft, anytime I used a metaphor, I would explain it, and that made up about twenty percent of my book. I had to strangle the professor and just let the metaphors speak for themselves. After the third or fourth chapter, everything became very easy. I knew what the editor was going to tell me to take out, and I realized, “That’s what is wrong with this text. I just need to let go.” The professor was done away with.

BA: Complaints about a supposed current dearth of quality Catholic writing are common in Catholic media outlets that have an interest in literary culture. Commenters often point back to the good ol’ days when writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were winning national awards like the O. Henry Prize and the National Book Award. So far, I have not seen your book mentioned in a single one of these discussions, despite the fact that it is thoroughly suffused with a sacramental vision of the world and that it won the National Book Award in 2003. Why do you think so many of those Catholics who would be particularly interested in your memoir have remained ignorant of it thus far?

CE: Maybe it’s the publisher? You know, it’s just a trade book, and no one has made any kind of publicity of it to promote it as a Catholic book. As I said, I don’t move in Catholic circles. I teach among the infidels here at Yale. (laughs) I’m not in a Catholic place. So no one’s noticed. You know, it’s a funny thing, because Cubans didn’t pick up my book for almost a year. They didn’t know about the book. Eventually it caught on by word of mouth. But there was no effort made to market or promote it. Cubans just picked it up and discovered it. Catholics have not discovered it because it’s not an obviously Catholic book. And the only Catholic publication that reviewed it, Commonweal, the reviewer hated it—he thought the prose was completely overdone and stupid and wrong and God should have been smarter than to create me and to put me in the world. (laughs) . . . [Some have thought] that I am not a good Catholic because I associate with people who are not religious at all. When I got the chair of Catholic studies at Yale, a colleague said, “Why did they give you the Catholic chair? You’re not Catholic.” I said, “Yes, I am.” Her jaw dropped, and she said, “But you’re so tolerant!” So, the old anti-Catholicism is out there, too.

Also, I wonder if it is because I am a historian not a theologian—because I work on both the Protestant and the Catholic Reformation, because I have this denomination-blind approach in my work. When I’m writing about Anabaptists I get into their mindset; when I’m writing about Puritans I get into theirs. When I write about Catholics—well, I am a Catholic and I see anything I see as a Catholic would.

KC: What would you say to the (presumably Catholic) reader who might be put off by the repetition of “Jesus H. (adjective here) Christ”? It seems that there is a highly specific purpose in these repetitions, and that they are not intended to be irreverent—that you had a purpose so strong that it compelled you to take the risk of being read as irreverent. Can you talk about that?

CE: That’s the Jesus prayer, pure and simple. I’m hoping, in a very jesuitical way, to—as St. Ignatius of Loyola would say—to go fishing. He used to go “fishing for souls”—that’s what he would call it. He would go [out] and he’d corral people on the street and try to talk to them in their own language, and he’d sometimes start by being irreverent to hook them in. Fishing for souls. I had that very much in mind with “Jesus H.” There’s a way in which this is the ultimate irony—that people in our culture have this very brittle, extremely brittle, notion of Jesus as totally serious and totally serious about himself—which I think is so wrong, so utterly wrong. All you have to do is look at a crucifix and you realize, “My God, this is a reversal of all values.” . . . If God became a human being to suffer and be like us, it’s because there’s something so wrong here that needs to be fixed. It’s the ultimate emptying, kenosis—and that has to be taken so seriously. So if I joke about Jesus in a lighthearted way, it’s not out of irreverence, it’s out of the deepest possible reverence, hoping that in the same way as the Incarnation—against reason—it might actually get the message across to someone who doesn’t like Christianity. That there’s something in there that accepts the humor and the mocking and the self-abasement. What such people think Christianity is all about is the church lady on Saturday Night Live. I wanted to go the opposite direction from the church lady. (laughs) I may actually at some point do a book called “Jesus H.” It’ll be sort of a meditation on the passages of the Gospels with all the most ridiculous things Jesus does. Jesus H. Fish-eating Christ. Jesus H. Whip-making Christ. All these things that Jesus does that are somehow bizarre.

BA: All the things you are saying about humor and about things all coming together reminds me a lot of Chesterton, actually. He was all about how Christianity’s genius was to bring opposites together. Stand things on their heads, and they balance.

CE: I think there’s a very strong and ancient tradition of this, going back to the Gospels themselves. If you read in a certain frame of mind, you can’t miss that there are very funny things in there. One of my children asked me about three months ago, “Dad, when you read the Gospel in church, why do you always find something to laugh about?” For example, Jesus saying “Who touched me?” And then the apostles: “With all these people around, you ask us who touched you?” Of course, he knew! Whatever the gap is between what happened and what the writer wrote, I think the writer had a very humorous situation in mind and saw it as a very funny thing. Of all the things that could have been written, this was included.

KC: Like Peter walking on the water. . . . and the very fact that, out of everyone, it was Peter who was chosen as the rock of the Church.

CE: This is proof that out of all other texts, the Gospels are different. It’s his [Peter’s] buffoonery that makes him number one—and he’s the rock. “Some rock,” people would say. Even in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is not making much of an effort to make Peter look better. He may be doing wonderful things, but he’s also always screwing up and making mistakes. Rationally, this is what makes me believe that these texts are more than just simple texts, that they’re not like any other texts. There’s not this disjunction between what one would think would be a rational proof of the divine origin of something and the very human acknowledgment of failure as a means to salvation. It’s paradoxical enough to me, in my mind, to be the only thing that makes them acceptable as of divine origin rather than merely human. Because no human who was self-consciously trying to promote some cause would be putting these incidents in there.

KC: What’s your advice to emerging writers?

CE: Another big [question]. You know, I get yelled at by high school teachers [laughs], especially because I tell [students] that I had no outline and I didn’t rewrite anything. But behind all that is the whole process of practicing. Practice makes perfect. And I always go back to a turning point in my life: I was working on my dissertation and having trouble with the writing process itself, and I started to read a lot of fiction just to get away from it. It’s from the fiction reading that I learned how to write, and it wasn’t really until I got to the strangest fiction of all that you would not think would help anyone at all with scholarly writing—it was the hardboiled detective fiction, with its very simple sentences. I read everything Raymond Chandler wrote. I even read a letter he had written to someone who asked him: “How did you get to write the way you do?” His advice was “Copy shamelessly.” Copy shamelessly. It’s been my guideline ever since. Eventually you’ll find your own voice. That’s what the bottom line is, to find your own voice and to be true to that voice. Not to try to be someone you’re not. A voice can have very different modulations. At times in fiction, you come to have a voice as someone else. But the closer you get to something that’s inside of you, who you are—that will make any fictional character come to life. For all the difference in the characters she created, Flannery O’Connor, I think, is all of the characters even when they’re in opposition to each other—all this while being this bizarre character she was herself, a Catholic in the South dying of lupus. This makes her so much better than Walker Percy. There seems to be a certain sameness in his characters, which is why I couldn’t read past the second or third book of his. I think all of us have very complex personalities. The truer you are to all these complexities, the better the writing.

BA: Final question: It’s been a few years since Waiting for Snow. Might we expect a new book without footnotes?

CE: Yes, not any time soon but yes. I have a book with footnotes coming out in the fall, but it has a high degree of personal dimension to it. It’s called A Very Brief History of Eternity and is about the development of the concept of eternity. It’s coming out from Princeton University Press. I would not have written that book without first writing Waiting for Snow. Then I’m working on a history of the Reformation period, and then I’ll turn to something else. Without footnotes. Not about my life, I think. Something else. The rest of what follows my childhood is not very interesting and not the same. If anything else is going to come out like that, it will also have to be unplanned. The book is what it is because it is unplanned. . . . When I sat down to write Waiting for Snow, nothing was developed. It was an act of total desperation. I needed to get across several things at once—but primarily what a great mistake the world was making in thinking something like the Cuban revolution was a good thing, when of course it was such a bad thing. . . . Like almost all other important things in my life, it was accidental rather than carefully planned. I hope I can come up with something else, because it’s so much more fun to write that way.

Bernardo Aparicio García is president of Dappled Things. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he recently completed a master’s program in the Great Books.

Katy Carl, the editor-in-chief of Dappled Things, is an editor and writer in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Her freelance writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register and in St. Louis magazine, among other publications.