Michael Marsian
Carlos Eire will speak about his research on death in 16th-century Spain.

Carlos Eire is really two people — one is an erudite professor of history and religion at Yale University, who teaches classes and writes scholarly books, and the other is a Cuban exile of 47 years ago.

This second Eire is a man with strong emotions, and he is responsible for writing "Waiting for Snow in Havana" three years ago, the story of Eire's childhood in Cuba and his escape to the United States at the age of 11.

Eire, who said he loves both personae, wanted to title the memoir "Kiss the Lizard, Jesus," but his publisher rejected the title, calling it "off-putting and disgusting."

"But the lizards stand for many things," Eire said by phone from his Yale office in New Haven, Conn. "I still have a fear of reptiles. I found a snake in my basement two weeks ago and I thought I was going to die! I just have an irrational loathing of these creatures.

"Actually, they're good creatures who eat bugs and vermin. I did cruel things to them as a child. Life is filled with things like that (lizards) that we think are bad. Death is a lizard, but we learn to live with it."

Eire's lecture in Salt Lake City will deal with death in 16th-century Spain, the subject of his scholarly research. "As a small child, I had a preoccupation with death, so it was inevitable that as a professional historian I would study the subject."

His research in Spain demonstrated that "a belief in the afterlife was very real. ... Death is the ultimate inconvenience, something no one escapes. Yet we're hard-wired as human beings not to be able to look at it for very long. We know it's there. Some, like morticians and doctors, have a switch they use to turn it off when they go home."

But Eire asserted that "Death is the main reason humans believe in religion. The ultimate paradox of religion is that we can't prove there is an afterlife. It's very hard for most of us to imagine not existing. There's also a genetic component, as demonstrated in the book 'The God Gene: How Faith is Hard-Wired in our Genes' by Gene Hamer."

To Eire, it was "almost like dying" when he boarded a plane in 1962 to fly from Cuba to the United States. "When you can't ever revisit your childhood haunts, it's like death. My life ended. I didn't ever see so many people again. Cuba now is more a memory to me than a real place."

No wonder Eire felt compelled to write a memoir. "I was so tired of explaining to people why I left Cuba. One or two out every thousand non-Cubans have no clue what is going on in Cuba. It was the Elian Gonzalez case that pushed me over the edge. It came way too close to my personal history. I came to this country without my parents, and the Cuban government intentionally prevented my parents from coming with me."

His mother was finally allowed to come 3 1/2 years later, but his father was never allowed to come. Yet, Eire remembers being "deliriously happy to be away from Cuba." He hated "having no freedom of any kind, being a slave to the state. Someone told me what to think about everything, even math problems. Even as a 10-year-old child, I felt suffocated."

Eire was deeply offended when an editor from The New York Times called and asked him to write an op-ed piece about the happy demonstrations in Little Havana in Florida when the news came that Fidel Castro was sick. The editor thought there was no justification for demonstrating "when these people left in the '60s with Castro's blessing. What did they have to complain about?"

He regards the editor's assertion as "bigotry" because Eire saw the demonstrators as "genuine children of the revolution — younger people who arrived in the '80s, '90s or even the present decade." Then the editor wanted to know specifically what point of view Eire would take. He was angry that in a country known for free speech, a newspaper editor would make sure he took the right point of view.

When he responded that he would call Castro "Machiavellian" — one who wanted to be both feared and loved, to be known as generous as well as ruthlessly cruel — the editor rejected it.

Now, at 55, Eire said that if he had stayed in Cuba he "would have never cast a real vote." Eire is disappointed that most Americans fail to realize that Castro's regime is "a complete military dictatorship where the people are denied all freedoms."

In fact, Eire's book is banned there. "People have access to doctors, but health care is atrocious. Hitler's Third Reich had universal health care, too! Speaking out against injustice is the right thing to do."

If you go

What: The Great Salt Lake Book Festival

Where: Salt Lake Main Library, 210 E. 400 South

When: Wednesday-Saturday

How Much: Free

Phone: 359-9670

E-mail: [email protected]