Why Did Some Cubans Inject Themselves With H.I.V.?

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SACRIFICIO, by Ernesto Mestre-Reed

Suffering extreme economic hardship, hundreds of Cubans inject themselves with H.I.V.-infected blood in order to gain admittance to the nation’s AIDS sanitariums.

The premise strains credulity, but this is the well-documented factual backdrop of Ernesto Mestre-Reed’s sprawling new novel, “Sacrificio.” From 1986 to 1994, Cuba quarantined people with H.I.V. in sanitariums, which were at first reviled internationally as grotesque human rights violations. But many Cubans came to see them as a refuge. In a totalitarian society suffocating under a U.S. trade embargo and the post-Soviet economic crisis known as the Special Period, the sanitariums offered community, regular meals and air conditioning.

Among those who infected themselves with H.I.V. were the punk rockers known as Los Frikis. In “Sacrificio,” Mestre-Reed swaps punk for politics, giving “los injected ones” a counterrevolutionary agenda. The tale is nearly told by the time the protagonist, Rafael, a young man from the provinces, acknowledges that his injected compadres are also making bombs in preparation for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba. To Rafael’s bildungsroman amid half-cocked terrorists and a love triangle with their leaders, add a spy-novel parody, a kaleidoscopic Christ narrative, a battery of literary references and a portrait of Cuban life under socialism.

The novel starts in medias res: Rafael and Cecilia, a woman from the capital, visit the village that “el pendejo Hemingway had made famous with his little fishing novel.” They’ve come to mourn Nicolás, Rafael’s late boyfriend and Cecilia’s older son. The scene introduces several of the novel’s characteristic modes and methods, among them its mordant satire, its heavy reliance on flashback and its use of more than 1,000 Spanish words with no italics and rare translations. It also sets up one of the novel’s more lacerating remarks. The film adaptation of “The Old Man and the Sea” had to be shot off the coast of South America, Cecilia says, because Cuban marlin don’t jump out of the water as Hemingway describes. “Too passive,” she adds, “just like the rest of us, como cualquier cubano.”

At first glance, “too passive” wouldn’t seem to apply to Cecilia, who works long hours running an illicit restaurant out of her home in Old Havana. By contrast, as we jump back in time, her sons come off as a pair of nihilistic slackers. Nicolás and his brother, Renato, are unwilling to work Cecilia’s tables, and Nicolás picks up Rafael in part to recruit him as a waiter: Let the boy from the provinces serve the tourists.

Besides, why work when you could bring about the fall of Cuban communism by spreading H.I.V. and scaring off the “dishfaced” visitors? So resolved, Nicolás injects Renato, who in turn injects their father before having unprotected sex with Rafael. Nicolás is sent to a sanitarium; after his death, Renato assumes his place leading a band of syringe-wielding counterrevolutionaries who print propaganda on sheets made from used toilet paper and set off bombs during one of the pope’s Masses.

Perhaps more compelling than the plot and its tireless rum-soaked accounts is the novel’s symbolic framework, starting with the toilet-paper propaganda. One of several metaphors for literary recycling, the handmade pages are sourced from the effluent of hotels frequented by Soviet dignitaries. “Perhaps the greatest spiritual need on the Island,” one character observes, “was a blank piece of paper.”

More recycling: “Sacrifice” was the regime’s byword as it called on Cubans to patiently endure hardship during the Special Period, just as the term stands for the Church’s redemption narrative. In the novel, the counterrevolutionary martyrs seize the word for their own hypodermic Eucharist: This is my blood — inject it.

And just as a word or story is appropriated and repurposed, so is every political upheaval. “Revolution,” according to the brothers’ father, “was an infinite series of eruptions against the State, one feeding off the other, one degenerating and the next profiting from the spoils. There was no such thing as triumph. … What we Cubans had was the opposite: the defeat or the betrayal of one rebellion after another, that had been our history.” From all the bloody sacrifices detailed here, what finally emerges is an argument for accepting revolutions as a cyclical feature, not an aberration, of political life. One might even consider scheduling them every four years.

Paul Festa is a writer and filmmaker. He teaches at Bard College Berlin.

SACRIFICIO | By Ernesto Mestre-Reed | 440 pp. | Soho Press | $27

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