The Art and Artifice of Remembering in Steve Fagin’s “The Batista Syndrome”
By Susannah Rodríguez DrissiOctober 1, 2020
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The Batista Syndrome, set simultaneously in 1950s and present-day Havana, is caught in such a struggle. An assemblage of imagined memories caused by trauma suffered under the dictatorship of Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista, which lasted from 1952 to 1959, The Batista Syndrome is an act of disorder, projecting an unruly performance of history onto the present. Here, form and content are inextricable; after all, traumatic memory is neither linear nor chronological.
Except for beach scenes and an interview with the nephew of noted mob boss Meyer Lansky, The Batista Syndrome was shot entirely in Havana’s Rex Duplex, a venue linked to a pre-Castro era and once known for its elegance and refinement. Due to its current ruinous condition, the setting constitutes a kind of necropolis in its own right, a sacred burial ground from which Fagin exhumes and stages — under the natural light of a modern-day Cuba in transition — the remains of days gone by.
The project — written and directed by Fagin and produced by Berta Jottar — traverses several theatrical genres: “musical, vaudeville, verité, drama, dream, and soliloquy.” Through language that is of both the past and the future, the series engages viewers in an intimate tryst with earlier times. From the outset, then, we are irreversibly moved to understand Fagin himself as a devoted gravedigger, not one who digs to bury, but one who digs to excavate.
Episode one, “Sobre una tumba, una rumba” [“Over a Grave, a Rumba”], sets the project’s thematic tone through the performance of a song that shares its name with the episode’s title. Written by Cuban performer and composer Ignacio Piñeiro (1888–1969) and originally performed by María Teresa Vera (1895–1965), the song’s purpose seems to be to assist mourners in the process of mourning, an enactment of melancholy to the life-confirming heart-thumping of a caja china, possibly a quinto (the highest-tuned of the tumbadora family of drums), and a set of cajones. As this interlude suggests, the past, as a kind of theatrical/musical performance, is projected into the future to arrive at a spectacle that is partly Afro-Cuban in content but also wholly Afro-Cuban in aesthetics. “Undertaker, I beg you,” the singer pleads,
that for my sake you sing
when you receive the remains
of what was my love.
And in her resting place,
instead of beautiful flowers,
you might plant a bush of thorns.
To which a chorus replies:
Do not cry for her, do not cry for her.
She was a great bandolera [thief], undertaker,
do not cry for her.
The scene’s rhythmic, vocal interludes betray a syncopated image of loss and absence, of the past’s unfulfilled promises — the material ruins of a failed project — all of which coalesce in the present. The singer’s plea aims to correct selective amnesia of the trauma experienced during the Batista dictatorship and of the dictatorship itself; neither is worthy of flowers.
Appropriately, what follows is the image of ruins: a promenade through Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, one of Latin America’s most important necropolises. Enter Dr. Daniel Santos, a Cuban neurologist who specializes in studying the brain and investigating how people reconstruct their past. According to Fagin, Santos — our man in Havana’s cemetery — was inspired by Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In the book’s titular story, a patient called Dr. P is diagnosed with visual agnosia, an impairment in recognizing visually presented objects. Much like Sacks’s book, Fagin’s project bets on altered perceptions, spontaneous reminiscences, selective omissions, and extraordinary losses. The crown of wires that Dr. Santos uses to replace a funereal crown of flowers echoes the bush of thorns mentioned in the lyrics of “Sobre una tumba, una rumba”; both images suggest the project’s philosophical and theoretical proposition: the past is an unintelligible tangle, a theatrical jumble that must be filtered, translated, and transcribed with the language of the present.
Hereinafter are thrillingly underexplained episodes, by turns incantatory and elegiac, illuminating the life of a disorder. The deeper we move into the syndrome’s labyrinthine imaginings, images of trauma experienced become more pervasive and disorienting: dreamy ballet dancers pliéing to a black-and-white video of a 1958 Russian rendition of Giselle; an anthropomorphic, retrofuturistic jukebox — a kind of psychopomp that can access the world of the dead in exchange for a chocolate coin; a scantily clad Kissing Bug or “Bicho besucón,” the result of a memory transplant. Our bicho, whose incessant panting and kissy lips terrorize a woman in her modern-day Havana palace, remembers selected moments during Batista’s regime: lavish parties where rich Americanos haggle with Havana’s crème de la crème, and a campaign of clandestine leaflets calling for consumer strikes during the 1958 Christmas holidays. “Zero movie theaters, zero shopping, and zero cabarets,” the bicho hollers, echoing the trending slogan promoting the resistance efforts against Batista.
The eight episodes constitute a collective understanding of the past’s lingering into a present never to be fully grasped. Throughout the series, memories appear as visitations, whispers, confessions, and ghostly reveries that assert themselves into the here and now; they launch themselves into the future through musical predictions, generational trauma, and even dreams. The memories are vivid and anxious, like blinking neon signs, and acts of heroism, violence, terrorism, and censorship.
Like Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s masterpiece, Three Trapped Tigers, and its musical revelations — which Fagin confessed to me was the muse for this project — The Batista Syndrome is similarly in the business of music. Through its knack for hypermemory — the opposite of selective amnesia — music throughout the series invokes cultural contact, influence, and exchange. After all, unlike anything else, music remembers the past by constantly moving toward the future.
Ultimately, Fagin postulates the possibility of a different kind of forthcoming, one based on excavated memories and displaced beats, where the sins and efforts of the past are once again a regenerative power. The shock of the musical, the whimsical, and the unexpected among the ruins is the antidote to an era cursed by the stupor of eternal sleep. We finish the series with the eerie feeling that we too are specters of the past, visitations into the present slipping through the cracks of some ramshackle building in Centro Habana — perhaps the Rex Duplex — and like the anthropomorphic jukebox, the dreamy ballet dancers, and the human-sized Kissing Bug, we claim our spot in the future while looking back to the past.
View The Batista Syndrome in its entirety here, using the password LARB.
Susannah Rodríguez Drissi is an award-winning writer, poet, playwright, translator, and scholar. Her novel Until We’re Fish is forthcoming from Propertius Press on October 6, 2020.
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
PRODUCTION COORDINATOR AND LOCATION DIRECTOR
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Jorge Miguel Quevedo Glez
SOUND MIX AND AUDIO MASTERING
Delio Ferrero Moreira
LINE PRODUCER AND CASTING DIRECTOR
LARB Staff Recommendations
Avoiding hagiographical impulses, Tony Perrottet’s "¡Cuba Libre!" remains grounded in the crude texture of everyday life during the Cuban Revolution.
Susannah Rodríguez Drissi talks to Leonardo Padura about his childhood in Cuba, his writing process, and his experience with self-censorship.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!