Cabrera Infante, G(uillermo) 1929–
Cabrera Infante, a Cuban novelist and short story writer now living in London, writes of both pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba. His fiction is linguistically inventive, brilliant, and humorous. He won the Biblioteca Breve prize in Barcelona in 1964 for Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers).
"Three Trapped Tigers" is a remarkable book. I doubt a funnier book has been written in Spanish since "Don Quixote." Granted, that is not saying much. Literature in Spanish has not been noted for its humor. Yet this, precisely, is one of the book's strongest points: it has savagely refreshed an often portentously solemn heritage. It is also one of the most inventive novels that has come out of Latin America, and that is saying a great deal. The inventiveness of Latin-American fiction since Borges is by now (one would hope) fairly widely recognized.
Finally, its humor is fundamentally linguistic—the pun rate often runs at several per page. First published in Spain in 1964, part of its enterprise is to record the kind of Spanish that is spoken in Cuba—the kind I had imagined to be by definition untranslatable. Not only have Donald Gardner and Suzanne Levine proved otherwise. They have, in collaboration with the author, produced one of the best translations I have ever read. Cabrera Infante's English is known to be excellent—he has written several film scripts in English. What has been done here is to recreate the novel—an equivalent version that is never quite the original but that is rarely inferior.
Superficially, this is a story of night-life in Havana shortly before the revolution. It takes us into most of the nightclubs, strip-joints, barras and cantinas the city could provide—the ones where after-hour chowcitos were staged, where people sang songs as if they really cared, and where one might have seen a Negro woman improvising a rumba as though she were inventing dance.
Cabrera Infante (who left Cuba several years ago and now lives in London) has no illusions about what his native island was like under Batista. The book is full of suggestive glimpses of social injustice. "Three Trapped Tigers" is nevertheless an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt, to quote its Carollian epigraph, "to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out." The nostalgia is not for the poverty most of the characters were brought up in. It is rather (I think) a nostalgia for the once-familiar bar, the familiar singer, the familiar friend, for an intensely local yet richly varied world. The novel therefore is a celebration of the small things that oblivion or time demolishes. (p. 5)
A vastly comic novel. A novel where comedy is a strategy against sadness, against mediocrity, against the limitations of an underdeveloped island. "Three Trapped Tigers" is all these things. But, above all, it is a novel about literature, about language. It is an attempt to capture spoken Cuban, an attempt directed against a literary tradition where the act of writing has always been sacredly solemn, remote from the act of speaking.
Cabrera Infante once said he could see no difference between a writer and a bus-driver. His novel is directed against all those writers—until recently, the vast majority in Spain and Latin America—who have believed that to write is above all to distinguish oneself from a bus-driver, to fabricate sonorous, "beautiful" phrases that carry with them the signature "this is literature." Cabrera Infante not only writes a language that has its roots in speech. He also treats us for contrast to magnificent parodies of seven Cuban writers, whom he makes describe the death of Trotsky, "several years after the event—or before." All of them are obsessed, each in a different way, with the flaunting of their impressive "craftsmanship." (pp. 5, 67)
Cabrera Infante's most unsophisticated characters pun, sometimes unwittingly, the pun having often perhaps "revealed" itself at the moment of writing. Language in the page has turned out to be a more complex thing than when it issues from the mouth. The puns, anagrams and palindromes help to illustrate the treacherously elusive nature of diction, its uncontrollable alchemy. The logic of the pun is for instance often the principal motor behind a character' streams of consciousness—as though he were imprisoned by language's own momentum. The author, too, is driven by the logic of the language in his writing as much as by any premeditated aim.
"Three Trapped Tigers" is a novel that meditates on the nature of writing in general and on the nature of its own writing. Its great merit is that it does so in a manner that never obtrudes on the general reader's enjoyment of the book's more superficial but nonetheless joyfully witty qualities. (p. 67)
David Gallagher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 17, 1971.
["Three Trapped Tigers," a] camp epic of night life in Batista's Havana of the 1950's, opens wonderfully, with the emcee of the Tropicana, "the MOST fabulous nightclub in the WORLD," delivering his bilingual spiel while the spotlight swings among the tables singling out the fifteenth-birthday party of Miss Vivian Smith-Corona Alvarez de Real and that perfect emblem of sad celebrity, "la bella, gloriosa" Martine Carol. A world is created in five pages, part gritty documentary, part loony fantasy. As a writer, a bongo player, a candid photographer, a small-time actor take turns telling their stories, Cabrera Infante displays ferocious verbal energy, funny expertise in American movies, a sardonic eye for dismal floorshows….
Unfortunately, Cabrera Infante is also a terrible pedant. The second half of "Three Trapped Tigers" dries up into a sandy waste of Joycean punning (what we need least is a Cuban Joyce), heavy literary parodies and assorted monkey tricks of an avant-garde 50 years to the rear (diagrams, numerical puzzlers, a section entitled "Some Revelations" made up of blank pages). The reader impatiently calls for his check before this show is over. (p. 116)
Walter Clemons, in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1971.
Tres tristes tigres (1967, 'Three sad tigers') … is maybe the most original work of fiction to have been written in Latin America, and also the funniest. Yet we must first of all consider an earlier book, Así en la paz como en la guerra (1961, 'In peace as in war'), a collection of short stories of considerable distinction, though in an idiom so very different from that of the novel that they scarcely seem to belong to the same man.
Most of the stories in Así en la paz como en la guerra were written in the 1950s, during the Batista dictatorship, and with deep commitment to the revolutionary cause. The stories add up to a fairly coherent whole, not only because they present a picture of Cuban life that is always coloured by the author's sense of its injustice and corruption but also because interspersed between the stories there are fifteen linking sketches which describe the repressive violence that was displayed against Batista's opponents. Although the stories were probably written at random they are consequently given a coherent structure, their proposition 'this is Cuba' being counterpointed by the proposition 'this is how it is falling apart' offered by the terrorist sketches.
The Cuba that threatens to fall apart is not an edifying one, although the author never strains to spell the fact out. Neither revolution nor repression is mentioned in the straight stories, yet a subtly suggested sense of menace permeates them. (p. 164)
These sketches have, I think, had a great deal of influence on contemporary Cuban writing, although few people in Cuba would admit it now in view of Cabrera Infante's current disfavour there. There is a school of young Cuban writers like Norberto Fuentes, Jesús Díaz, and Eduardo Heras Leon who have derived from him an unrepentantly aggressive language for the depiction of revolutionary or counter-revolutionary violence. Like Cabrera Infante, they write dead-pan, uncensored stories in which no apology is made for meticulous descriptions of the most gory details of violent death. (p. 165)
[Neither] Así en la paz como en la guerra—nor indeed any of the young Cuban writers mentioned—remotely approaches the unprecedented excellence of Cabrera Infante's novel Tres tristes tigres. (p. 166)
On one level …, Tres tristes tigres functions as a documentary of pre-revolutionary night-life, and of Havana in general…. The novel will, to paraphrase Robbe-Grillet, be useful to the archaeologist in some centuries time who chooses to reconstruct Havana in 1958. (p. 169)
Tres tristes tigres is mostly about a Havana that the American businessman, over for a weekend overdose of daiquiris and professional sex, never got to see, a private, almost secret Havana, dedicated to Afro-Cuban rhythms and to the sound of the bongos. Readers who know nothing about Cuban music, and who do not know Havana, will of course miss a great deal in the novel, which in many ways is a local novel—Cabrera Infante has even stated that he wonders how it could be understood in Luyanó, 'a suburb on the outskirts of Havana', so restricted are many of its points of reference to the very centre of the city…. Yet even at its most local, Tres tristes tigres has the widest possible implications. (p. 170)
Most important, in Tres tristes tigres there exists a sense of belonging, of being 'inside', of sharing something which all the characters have and which the reader is able to feel despite his possible ignorance of the specific context. For he too may have experienced a similar sense of belonging and of sharing, albeit in a wholly different context. It is one of the trade-marks of Tres tristes tigres that it conveys the fundamental sense of what it is like to belong to and to recognize as familiar any local situation. And as such it is also very much a novel about friendship, about how friendship is sustained by the existence of a very few, very specific things in common. (p. 171)
Quite unobstrusively, the novel … grapples with social realities as eloquently as any socialist realist novel could, more eloquently I think because just as the feel of a local context comes across much more strongly when conveyed from the inside, so does the feel of social injustice when it is an automatic part of what the author is writing from, when it is not something he is strenuously attempting to demonstrate for the sake of propaganda. (p. 173)
It is a novel that endeavours to rebel against the manner in which time can abolish a whole epoch that once seemed so significant, a whole local world that was once so rich in associations. No doubt many critics have made or will make any number of sarcastic comments about a man who can feel nostalgic about Batista's Cuba. They will of course be crassly missing the point, and not only because Tres tristes tigres is a novel about social injustices too. But mainly because Cabrera Infante's nostalgia is directed at the fragile strategems people improvise [against] adversity, at the rich detail of those perhaps trivial and absurd stratagems people have at some point mounted against injustice, but in particular against such fundamental problems as loneliness, mediocrity, and boredom.
Tres tristes tigres is finally, and most importantly perhaps, a novel about language and about literature. For one [thing] the novel is, according to a prefatory note, 'written in Cuban'. This does not mean that Cabrera Infante has emulated the unfortunate linguistic efforts of the regionalist novelists of the twenties and thirties…. Like Vargas Llosa, but more so, he seeks to establish a natural, spoken language as the proper language for literature, seeks to rid Latin American literature of its 'literariness', to free the Spanish language from the pomposities of its conventional written forms, from that obligation that writers of a previous generation seem to have felt to write a language outlandishly different, so solemnly pompous was it, from the one they spoke. (pp. 178-79)
Throughout the book literary excesses are subjected to merciless ironical contemplation. Gorky cannot be forgiven for writing that 'the sea laughed', Faulkner is mocked for writing that August 'like a languorous replete bird winged slowly toward the moon of decay and death'. There are occasional, unannounced parodies of Hemingway, Proust, and Borges, and other passing parodies of such literary panaceas as the perspectivist novel and the psycho-analytical novel. (pp. 179-80)
A clue to the novel's reflections on the nature of language can be found in its use of the pun. The novel is rife with puns, sometimes at the rate of several per page. Like everything else in the novel, the puns are often just funny, gratuitously, defiantly stupid, part of the book's frequent enterprise to be plain ridiculous for the sake of it, a refreshing one in view of the fact that so much Latin American writing has scarcely been notable for its avoidance of pretentious solemnity…. The great inventor Rine invents a space coach worthy of 'H. G. Wells Fargo'…. [We see] what happens when Cuban pronunciation is written down, as when Cubans pronounce the names of famous writers such as Shame's Choice or Andre Yi (the distinguished Chinaman). (p. 181)
Yet Cabrera Infante's puns are more than just gratuitous comic effusions. Puns are words that dramatize the extent to which an author can never be in full control of language, because they demonstrate the extent to which a word can be unpredictably complex. Not only does the spoken word unexpectedly acquire a different significance when written down: the written word itself has implications and associations beyond the control of the man writing it…. [The] streams of consciousness we are offered in this novel usually develop, like those in Ulysses, by phonetic association rather than by association of ideas. (p. 182)
Cabrera Infante has liberated himself from literary cliché, from vacuous sonority, from self-indulgent embellishment, and from taboos about what can be said'—but [language] is also his master, for no word can be pinned down, no word can be neutralized and made to function innocently in a given context, without it pointing to another context, without it escaping in many other different directions. (p. 183)
D. P. Gallagher, "Guillermo Cabrera Infante," in his Modern Latin-American Literature (© Oxford University Press, 1973; by permission of Oxford University Press, Oxford), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 164-85.