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The writer who lost Cuba to win Salamanca

The views of the cathedral of Salamanca from his balcony still captivate Xavier Carbonell (Camajuaní, Cuba). This 27-year-old writer has barely lived on the banks of the Tormes for a month with his partner, Elena Nazco, 21, after leaving his country thanks to his latest book, The end of the game, winner last October the XXV City of Salamanca Novel Award. The 15,000 euros of the award have allowed them to settle in a city where the literary legacy is palpable in every corner. Gone are their families and the pressures they fear that their environment may suffer from the island's regime, upset not only by their flight but also because the author renounced another prize that was awarded to him for the same work in Cuba in order to accept Spanish.

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Carbonell speaks at a slow pace and with a marked accent about the succession of “coincidences” that have made him travel thousands of kilometers and create a new project. His title was one of the 1,263 that were submitted to the Salamancan literary contest and on October 28 the jury, chaired by the poet and editor Luis Alberto de Cuenca, unanimously voted for him. The author, who was already considering a change of scene, remembers that day he saw missed calls on his phone from an unknown Spanish number, which he would call a few hours later because that same date he received news: The end of the game had won the Italo Calvino Prize in his country, awarded by the Cuban Association of Writers. The author, who presided over the international Catholic journalistic association SIGNIS on the island, explains that this award had been awarded in January, but was not communicated until October 28. “It implied the publication of the book and enormous prestige in my nation at my age,” adds Carbonell, who would also take 4,000 euros for it. But the next day he returned the call to Spain and discovered the second recognition, which opened the possibility of picking it up in Salamanca itself. The couple did not think about it: they gave up the Italo Calvino and headed for Europe.

“It has been something impressive, unusual,” says the writer, whose book is a noir novel that “tries to investigate the things in Cuba that help us survive and be happy amid desolation, shortcomings and lack of freedoms.” Eduardo Riestra, head of the publishing house that is in charge of the diffusion, Ediciones del viento, extols the “gothic atmosphere” of some pages that soon seduced those responsible for assigning this long-standing award in Salamanca. “It has served as a springboard,” observes Riestra, who remembers the “surprise” when the court opened the escrow and learned of the youth of the person who signed the work.

The couple, in another street in Salamanca.David Arranz

The young Cuban faced the dilemma of accepting Italo Calvino on the island or seeking a future beyond. Thus, despite the pressure, he decided to renounce Cuba and open hostilities with the promoters of the contest, who forbade him to communicate that he had disassociated himself from this recognition. Carbonell feels uncomfortable because he believes that these powers “reduce and monitor young writers, cut critical initiatives and restrict free expression”, and recalls the strength of the social protests against the Government that broke out on the island last summer, unusual in the last 25 years: “The people exploded because of politics and the lack of respect for human rights.”

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Settling in Spain, laments Carbonell, can lead to those “very subtle pressure mechanisms” in Cuba end up harming their loved ones: “Many masks have fallen, one is afraid and knows there is a risk.” The good reception in Salamanca, he contradicts, has made it possible to soften this change in life stage. His partner is finishing his studies in Philology and has found in the city a focus of peace and culture in which to get lost and fight the nostalgia of his three brothers, who are still on the island. “I don't miss Cuba because I bring the Cuba I need with me,” reflects the young woman, admiring the second-hand bookstores and the color of the charro buildings when the afternoon sunlight bathes them.

The objective that both set now is to obtain refugee status, which would allow them to remain in Spain formally, although they already know that the procedures are “extremely slow”. Spain only provided this international protection to 5,700 people in 2020, just 5% of the requests, according to the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid. These administrative obstacles contrast with the affection they say they have received from the people on the street, those taxi drivers or shopkeepers with whom they chat amicably regardless of their origin, united by the same “language, culture and feeling,” according to Carbonell. The first intention of both was to settle in Madrid, but as soon as they visited Salamanca they changed their minds both economically and, above all, culturally and personally. The Roman bridge, the garden of Calixto and Melibea or the monumental University of Salamanca encourage them to “restart” their vital game. Now they can light up with incomparable views those Havana cigars that they have brought from their homeland to alleviate the longing for the place where the novel that has taken them from there was forged.

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