XX – Opacity

Notes on CubaIn this protracted foraging through the family forest, I’ve been fortunate to count with cousins and friends who find the most wonderful things and generously share them with me. Such was the case last week after I published my note on Severo, which included a reference to Nunú’s notebook, in which she, in turn, alluded to La Carlota, a farm her uncle once “had” in the mountains of Oriente. One of my cousins in Miami — a direct descendant of Severo — found a travel narrative about Cuba with a decidedly nineteenth-century flavor. The author of that book, as if foreseeing the interest of future generations in lost worlds, recounts in great atmospheric detail his visit to a “coffee estate” named Carlotta. A winter rainstorm is fast approaching, and the narrator’s party is desperately seeking shelter:

“Our tired horses were urged to their greatest speed, and, passing through a small valley cultivated in sugar-cane, we came in sight of the Carlotta, a coffee estate, belonging to a gentleman to whom we had brought letters, and galloping up its bamboo avenue, reached the house just as the storm burst on us, and its showers of drifting mists swept into every part of our volante. The estate was under the care of an administrador, a fine-looking, intelligent Frenchman, who received us with much kindness, and under his hospitable roof we soon found all the comforts of a home.”

The Anglicized, or perhaps Italianate, spelling of La Carlota — if that’s what it referred to — was rather romantic. It reminded me of Carlotta Valdes’ lonely tombstone in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, yet another story of lost worlds, or of those travelogues to any part of the Spanish-speaking world in which plazas become piazzas, as if all southern lands spoke one and the same sunny version of Latin. But two long paragraphs are devoted to “the negroes,” who are said to be treated with “due care” to their “comfort and health,” leading the author to conclude: “The French are the best and kindest managers of slaves, and on this place a great deal of order seemed to prevail in all its departments, and to an unprejudiced eye, even with his limited privileges, the negro’s state here would appear a happy one.” So much for the vision and scope of the unprejudiced eye.

But what truly surprised us — my cousin as well as other members of our secret Facebook group — was the uncanny resonance of the “Carlotta” with our own stories of the Vidauds. Our traveler goes inside the house and focuses on the owners of the estate. It’s a peaceful domestic scene: “We spent a pleasant evening with our host and wife, an American lady; they were both well-informed, and the father spoke with pride of his son’s progress in his medical studies in Paris, to which the lady listened with all a mother’s fondness.” With genealogical rashness, it took my cousin and then me just a few seconds to imagine these hospitable folks and self-satisfied parents to be Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne and Charlotte Caignet Hevia, who was born in New Orleans… My cousin immediately pictured Severo as the medical student; after all, there was at least one French-educated doctor in the family, Ernest… The name Carlotta was yet another sign that all this could be ours; Adolphe had surely named his coffee plantation for his French-American-Cuban wife… I was enthralled to have found an altogether original family story — and not just yet another reticent document from the État Civil, but a full-blown narrative, like those of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect, or François Vidaud du Dognon, the priest. Unlike those tales of violence and death, here we had a normal everyday scene — a shameful one, no doubt, but an idyllic picture nonetheless of one day in the life of a family on which a foreign visitor shows up amid “misty scuds” and is offered “all the comforts of a home.”

But our Carlotta was soon gone with the stormy weather. As it turns out, the book in which we read the story, Notes on Cuba, was published in Boston in 1844, which made it very unlikely that Adolphe and Charlotte — born in 1820 and 1830, respectively, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook — could be that blissfully married couple with a grown-up child studying medicine. Moreover, the book’s Carlotta was to be found somewhere near Matanzas, not Santiago de Cuba. Its anonymous author — identified as one F. Wurdiman, of Charleston, South Carolina — never ventured out as far east as Oriente. So, in just a few seconds, Adolphe and Charlotte, along with their son in Paris and slaves and three-hundred thousand coffee trees, vanished into thin air, just like Borges’ Averroes.

We look at the past as if through a glass, darkly, never face to face. The past may not be dead, but it is ungraspable, and therein, perhaps, lies a ghost’s freedom. I’m reminded of Édouard Glissant’s invocation of opacity in his discourse about the Caribbean — the right that we all have to escape understanding by others, to remain in our own unknowability. Adolphe and Charlotte, our dead ancestors, we hardly know you. May you rest in mist-covered peace, if you must.

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