Guillermo Cabrera Infante Essay - Cabrera Infante, Guillermo (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cabrera Infante, Guillermo (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Guillermo Cabrera Infante 1929–

(Has also written under pseudonym of G. Cain) Cuban-born novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, sketch writer, journalist, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Cabrera Infante's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 25, and 45.

Cabrera Infante is a Cuban-born writer noted for his wordplay, his use of humor and sexual imagery, and his opposition to the Communist regime that took power in Cuba in 1959. Initially a supporter of Fidel Castro's revolution and an official of the regime, Cabrera Infante left Cuba in 1965. Two years later he published Tres tristes tigres (1967; Three Trapped Tigers) his most critically acclaimed work. Like most of Cabrera Infante's fiction, the novel has a setting in pre-revolutionary Cuba, and makes extensive use of humorous and erotic wordplay. Cabrera Infante began his writing career as a film reviewer in the 1950s and continues to write essays, sketches, and nonfiction ranging from the whimsical to the somber.

Biographical Information

The son of a journalist, Cabrera Infante grew up in Cuba during the 1930s and 1940s. He attended the University of Havana, and graduated in 1956. By that time he had already begun to publish film reviews under the pseudonym G. Cain, a shortened version of his own name. An opponent of Cuba's dictator, Fulgencio Batista, Cabrera Infante spent a brief period in prison for using "English profanities" in a short story published in the literary journal Bohemia. He later supported the Castro revolution against Batista. After the new government took power in 1959, Cabrera Infante received a post on the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and became director of the journal Lunes de Revolución. In 1961 Castro censored a film by Cabrera Infante's brother depicting Havana's night life during the Batista era and Cabrera Infante's revolutionary fervor cooled. He left Cuba for a diplomatic assignment in Belgium in 1965, and did not return. At about the same time, Cabrera Infante won Spain's Biblioteca Breva Prize for an unfinished novel that would be published, in greatly changed form, as Three Trapped Tigers in 1967. Cabrera Infante, who became a naturalized British citizen, participated in the translation of several of his works, and in 1986 published his first book written in English, Holy Smoke. Most of his work, however, has maintained its Cuban focus.

In 1993 he produced Mea Cuba, a collection of essays and other short fiction pieces on the subject of his homeland. In the same year he presented for the first time in English a collection of short stories called Writes of Passage that he had published in Havana three decades earlier.

Major Works

Cabrera Infante's most well-known work is the novel Three Trapped Tigers, which he described to Rita Guibert in 1973 as "a joke lasting about five hundred pages." Written in the Cuban Spanish vernacular as it is spoken on the streets of Havana, the book is a narrative of the city's night life in the pre-Castro era. It is a tale filled with puns, double entendre, and other forms of wordplay, often humorous and sexual in nature. Cabrera Infante's second novel, La Habana para un infante difunto (1979; Infante's Inferno) also employed linguistic acrobatics, erotic themes, and a semi-autobiographical tale of a youth's initiation into sexual mysteries. Cabrera Infante has published several short-story collections in Spanish and English, as well as a number of nonfiction works. Among the latter are Un oficio del siglo XX (1963; A Twentieth-Century Job), a book of film reviews; Vista del amanecer en el trópico (1974; A View of Dawn in the Tropics), a collection of sketches that chronicles the history of repression in Cuba; and Holy Smoke (1986), a lighthearted look at the history of the cigar. Among his most notable works in the 1990s was Mea Cuba (1993), a collection of essays, criticism, and letters.

Critical Reception

The rich linguistic material in Three Trapped Tigers made it a success with reviewers. Cabrera Infante's portrayal of a nighttime world in the novel earned comparisons to the "Nighttown" episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, and his whimsical use of language invited references not only to Joyce, but to Lewis Carroll. Cabrera Infante's continued reliance on intricate puns in his later work has subjected him to charges of literary indulgence. Alma Guillermoprieto, reviewing Mea Cuba, referred to the author as a "bombastic punster"; and Richard Eder, in a review of the same work, observed that Cabrera Infante's penchant for wordplay "energizes him, perhaps, but it depletes the reader." As one who has written in English and translated several of his works into that language, Cabrera Infante has been likened to Josef Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, and has often been cited for his facility with a language not his own. His outspoken opposition to the Castro regime has invited equal helpings of praise and blame, and even those not overtly sympathetic to the regime have faulted Cabrera Infante for his tendency to use his writings as a platform for his political views.

Principal Works

Así en la paz como en la guerra [In Peace as in War] (short stories) 1960
Un oficio del siglo XX [A Twentieth-Century Job] (criticism) 1963
Tres tristes tigres [Three Trapped Tigers] (novel) 1967
Vista del amanecer en el trópico [A View of Dawn in the Tropics] (sketches) 1974
Exorcismos de esti(l)o [Exorcizing a Sty(le)] (prose) 1976
Arcadia todas las noches (criticism) 1978
La Habana para un infante difunto [Infante's Inferno] (novel) 1979
Holy Smoke: Anatomy of a Vice (nonfiction) 1986
Mea Cuba (essays, criticism, and letters) 1993
Writes of Passage (short stories) 1993
Delito por bailar el chachachá (novellas) 1996

∗Under pseudonym G. Cain. English edition published 1992.

†First published in Havana in 1960.

Criticism

Claudia Cairo Resnick (essay date Fall/Winter 1976)

SOURCE: "The Use of Jokes in Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres [Three Trapped Tigers]," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. V, No. 9, Fall/Winter, 1976, pp. 14-21.

[In the following essay, Resnick explores themes of humor and sexuality in Tres tristes tigres.]

Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres [Three Trapped Tigers] continually underlines the interrelation of humor, language and sexuality. The humor in this novel is immediately evident to any reader, and has received some attention in several critical studies, most of which tend to emphasize its linguistic aspects. One article discusses the problems of translating not only the jokes, puns, and anagrams but the whole atmosphere of the novel. Another posits the text as a novel about language and literature in which verbal games serve to point out, among other things, an underlying sexual obsession in which masturbation is a recurrent theme. A third critic suggests the importance of masturbation in its relation to the verbal games in Tres Tristes Tigres but does not develop the idea further. To my knowledge, the only study to attempt an analysis of the humor in its relation to the subconscious or to sexual motifs is that of José Sánchez Boudy, but it is often inaccurate, myopic and unsatisfactory. A few examples will show why this is so.

In a section entitled "Meanings of importance for the understanding of Tres Tristes Tigres" Boudy interprets some of the text's best jokes, but his comments are often misleading. For the expression forro romano [Roman condom] he simply lists beside it foro romano [Roman forum]. This reveals nothing. He does not deal with the play on the two words, where forro [condom] is substituted for foro [forum], although the context shows that the Master of Ceremonies has intentionally used the term. As Siemens has indicated, the opening monologue in which this "joke" appears can be construed as a perverted genesis which from the outset is doomed; he cites the inherent contradiction of a name such as Minerva Eros (a minor character) as evidence. Perhaps this view of the Tropicana Club (where the action begins) as a giant Cuban condom is also a manifestation of the unrealized human potential and of the sterility in the lives of its actors/spectators/characters. The same joke serves to point out another of the great themes of the book, much discussed by the critics: that of traduttori-tradittori [translator-betrayer]. The Master of Ceremonies does not translate his own joke although throughout his monologue he has been providing the English version for the benefit of his American audience. This suggests the constant betrayal which even an author is forced to perform to his own text. On a third level, the joke simply contains an obscene reference to the activities which the darkness of the nightclub facilitates.

Under the category of "Parodies," which he does not care to define, Sánchez Boudy states that La Estrellas's pathetic cry, "Ay, negro, qué dolor, qué dolor" ["Oh, Black man, such pain, such pain"] is a parody of a very popular Cuban children's song, which runs "Mambrú se fue a la guerra, qué dolor, qué dolor, qué pena." ["Mambrú went to war, such pain, such pain, such sorrow"]. That song is French in origin and is common throughout Latin America. But beyond that, what is the sense of making La Estrella's sorrow into a parody? She is physically obscene and emotionally pathetic; are we to believe that she is capable of self-parody? The clarification makes as much sense as stating that "qué dolor" is a free Spanish rendition of Oy veh!

In explaining another joke, Boudy interprets "los melones pal mercado" ["take the melons to market"] as a reference to the green uniforms worn by the Communist forces. Perhaps there is some expression in Cuba in which melons mean Commies, but such a reading is absolutely useless in this particular context. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 76) The phrase is shouted out to Codac as he speeds by a well-lit intersection; next to him is seated Manolito el Toro [Manolito the Bull] who has unbuttoned her shirt and is exposing her huge breasts. The 'melons' are a reference to the size of her breasts; any reader could grasp that without Boudy's help. For Boudy the unconscious is nothing more than a memory retrieval bank; he merely adopts a few Freudian terms, such as 'the subconscious' and cites Freud's work on jokes, but does not apply his theory.

What does Freud really say about jokes? He first enumerates various models on which innocent jokes are built, categorizing them according to their techniques. Thus he describes such techniques as word or thought condensation, allusion, representation through the opposite, play on words, puns, shift of emphasis, and nonsense. The section of Tres Tristes Tigres entitled "Bachata," and in particular Chapters XVI through XVIII, have an abundance of such innocent jokes. Here Arsen and Silvestre pick up Beba and Magalena and proceed to irritate them by using a language which is incomprehensible to the two women. Arsenio and Silvestre use puns, changes of emphasis, lots of nonsense, shifts into English and even word plays in English:

Banks closed now. Only banks left are river banks, because park bancos are called benches in English. Hold-up impossible. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 373)

Before that they have tried to be polite and sweet:

—¿A dónde dirigimos esta carabela?

—O esta cara bella—dije yo aludiendo a Magalena (Tres Tristes Tigres, pp. 371-2)

["Where shall we direct this caravel?"

"Or this pretty face," I said, referring to Magalena.]

They soon change their approach, and they subject the two bewildered women to two contentless jokes: one is a story which never gets told because the narrators cannot decide who was present at the original event and other is a song which never gets sung although there is a long discussion about its title, name and lyrics. (Tres Tristes Tigres, pp. 387-90)

The most noticeable difference between the jokes presented by Freud and those of Cabrera Infante lies in their particular frame. Each joke cited by Freud depends on a story or brief plot in order to generate or justify the punch line. In the novel, however, we often come across accumulations of 'one-liners' that have a very weak thematic frame to hold them together. It is perhaps for this reason that the readers (as well as the two women who are listening to all this within the novel) often respond with uneasiness, and finally the effect of the humor is diminished and undermined. The joke, in a sense, is on Arsen and Silvestre, for their loquacity has impeded communication with Beba and Magalena: the two women are not seduced.

Other innocent jokes in the novel belong to the type described by Freud as "condensation accompanied by formation of a substitute, which is a composite word." Among these we find all of the created names: Ionescue, Beba Gardner, Ezra Pound-quake, Arsenius Cuetullus, Gary Cuéper and countless others. Arsen and Silvestre make extensive use of nonsense jokes, one of which is rather interesting. It is attributed to their friend Rine Leal as one more of the totally useless inventions with which he is credited: "el cuchillo sin hoja que...

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Ardis L. Nelson (essay date Autumn 1978)

SOURCE: "Holy Smoke: Anatomy of a Vice," in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, pp. 590-93.

[In the following essay, Nelson explores Cabrera Infante's application of a "menippean" form of satire in Holy Smoke.]

An ongoing controversy has been brewing regarding Guillermo Cabrera Infante's outrageously inventive and irreverent writing, from Un oficio del siglo XX (A Twentieth-Century Job; 1963) up to the present, as to whether a given work is an autobiography, a novel, a satire, a collection of fragments, or just a book. With the publication of Holy Smoke, a humorous narrative account of the history of tobacco and cigar-smoking and...

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William L. Siemens (essay date May-September 1979)

SOURCE: "Mirrors and Metamorphosis: Lewis Carroll's Presence in Tres tristes tigres," in Hispania, Vol 62, No. 3, May-September, 1979, pp. 297-303.

[In the following essay, Siemens discusses Cabrera Infante's use of literary devices in Tres Tristes Tigres that are similar to those employed by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.]

In an interview with Emir Rodriguez Monegal, Guillermo Cabrera Infante indicates the way in which he has incorporated subtle allusions to the works of Lewis Carroll into Tres tristes tigres: "Hay un momento en Tres tristes tigres, en el final, en 'Bachata,' en que Cué y Silvestre contemplan una tempestad...

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Stephanie Merrim (essay date Spring-Summer 1980)

SOURCE: "A Secret Idiom: The Grammar and Role of Language in Tres tristes tigres," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. VIII, No. 16, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 96-117.

[In the following essay, Merrim examines the rhetorical forms and figures of speech employed by Cabrera Infante in Tres tristes tigres.]

                          Tú, que me lees, ¿estás serguro de
                                      entender mi lenguaje?
 
                                                 —Borges
...

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Suzanne Jill Levine (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Translating Infante's Inferno," in Substance, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1984, pp. 85-94.

[In the following essay, Levine describes the difficulties of translating Cabrera Infante's linguistically complex work from Spanish to English.]

A romantic is usually afraid, isn't he, in case reality doesn't come up to expectations.

                  —Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana

I. Word Play

"Faithful poetic translation is an exercise of parallel reveries in two languages," it has been said. My collaboration with the Cuban (and now...

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Lydia D. Hazera (excerpt date July-December 1985)

SOURCE: "Strategies for Reader Participation in the Works of Cortázar, Cabrera Infante and Vargas Llosa," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XIII, No. 26, July-December, 1985, pp. 25-28.]

[In the following excerpt, taken from an essay comparing Cabrera Infante's works with those of two other well-known Latin American authors, Hazera investigates Cabrera Infante's use of "fragmentary structures".]

Like Cortázar, Cabrera Infante resorts to a fragmentary structure to provoke reader participation. While Hopscotch is a collage of written texts, Three Trapped Tigers is a collage of spoken texts. Unlike Cortázar, who orients the reader in the arrangement...

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Mary E. Davis (essay date Autumn 1987)

SOURCE: "The Mind's Isle: An Introduction to Cabrera Infante," in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, p. 512.]

[In the following essay, Davis offers a short introduction to the study of Cabrera Infante's work with reference to several other writers, most notably James Joyce.]

As the twentieth century draws to an uneasy close, we can begin to consider the novels, poems, movies, music, architecture, and celebrations that are its artifacts, and we are immediately struck by the persistence of memory (to steal a phrase from Dalí). As our understanding of history has become fainter, our dependence upon interior history, memory, has grown more obsessive....

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José Miguel Oviedo (essay date Autumn 1987)

SOURCE: "Nabokov/Cabrera Infante: True Imaginary Lies," in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, pp. 559-67.

[In the following essay, Oviedo explores "connections and convergences" between Cabrera Infante's work and that of Vladimir Nabokov.]

Around 1970, in the prologue to his collection of essays Extraterritorial, George Steiner recognized that the language revolution that immediately preceded and followed World War I—particularly in Central Europe—had produced among certain contemporary writers a phenomenon which he called unhousedness, a term we could paraphrase as "linguistic uprooting." Almost as if they had lost their sense of a...

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Nicholas Rankin (review date 20-26 January 1989)

SOURCE: A review of View of Dawn in the Tropics in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4477, January 20-26, 1989, p. 54.

[In the following review, Rankin highlights the poignant qualities of the tales in View of Dawn in the Tropics.]

View of Dawn in the Tropics is a brief and poignant history of Cuba, related in 117 sections. These vignettes, fables and snapshot descriptions vary in length from a paragraph to four pages, and their first lines are logged in the index as if they were prose poems. This post-modern technique of making a history from a mosaic of fragments has been employed by the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano in his epic trilogy Memory of Fire,...

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John King (review date 6 March 1992)

SOURCE: A review of A Twentieth-Century Job, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4640, March 6, 1992, p. 17.

[In the following review, King establishes the relevance of the film essays in A Twentieth-Century Job.]

Readers acquainted with Guillermo Cabrera Infante's major works—Three Trapped Tigers, Infante's Inferno, Holy Smoke—will be aware of his pervading interest in film. As a young man, he had a regular movie column in Cuba, first in the journal Carteles, 1954–60, and later in the short-lived but extremely lively magazine of the Revolution, Lunes de Revolución, 1959–60. The bulk of A Twentieth-Century Job (which first...

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David Elliott (review date 20 September 1992)

SOURCE: A review of A Twentieth-Century Job, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 20, 1992, p. 15.

[In the following review, Elliott takes exception to aspects of A Twentieth-Century Job, but commends the book as a rare collection of reviews that one can read "in large gulps."]

American film reviewing has widely become a fandango of fools, of wagging thumbs and swaggering blurbs. Guillermo Cabrera Infante's A Twentieth-Century Job arrives like a bottle tossed into the ocean of film 30 years ago, one with a message for anyone not taking their film pleasures seriously: Wake up, stupid.

This bracingly smart ensemble of reviews...

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Will H. Corral (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Mea Cuba, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 342-43.

[In the following review, Corral criticizes Cabrera Infante's penchant for wordplay, as well as his attacks on Castro's system and other intellectuals.]

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, ever the punster, has gathered here articles, essays, notes, speeches, and letters published in various international newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. They cover the period 1968–1992 yet do not include or represent all his cultural or political writings. Divided into three sections—"A propósito" (on his role in Cuban culture), "Vidas para leerlas" (purportedly...

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Will Eaves (review date 22 October 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Writes of Passage, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4725, October 22, 1993, p. 22.

[In the following review, Eaves critiques Writes of Passage, a translation of a story collection first published in Cuba in 1960, as "repackaging."]

"Language is my business", writes G. Cabrera Infante in an explanatory epilogue to this, his first book of short stories, published in Havana in 1960 but hitherto unavailable in Britain. The Chandleresque pose may be safely assumed to be ironic: language, as far as Batista's secret police were concerned in 1952, when the literary journal Bohemia carried a short story called "A Ballad of Bullets and...

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Richard Eder (review date 27 November 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Mea Cuba, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 27, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder cites weaknesses that blunt the impact of Mea Cuba, a book he calls "powerful at times."]

For the first two years after Fidel Castro's triumphant entry into Havana, Cuba's artistic and literary life bubbled vigorously. It had not really been stagnant under Fulgencio Batista, who took no interest in what artists did unless they engaged in political resistance; nevertheless, the dictator's overthrow released an exuberant energy.

It was an energy of the left, of course, since that was where most writers, painters,...

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Alma Guillermoprieto (review date 27 November 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Mea Cuba, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. CXLIV, No. 49,893, November 27, 1994, p. 9.

[In the following review, Guillermoprieto commends Cabrera Infante's profiles of several gay Cuban poets who became victims of the Castro regime, but also notes his "endless petty settling of accounts."]

Those who are familiar with the Cuban novelist and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (his best-known work in this country is the novel Three Trapped Tigers) will be pleased to find him in full form in this collection of essays: irritable and irreverent, generous and catty, indignant and wistful and harsh, and of course—of curse! a desperate...

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David Gallagher (review date 30 December 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Mea Cuba in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4787, December 30, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Gallagher cites examples of repression by the Castro regime in both Mea Cuba and Reinaldo Arenas's Before Night Falls.]

How does Fidel Castro get away with it? He has presided for thirty-five years over one of the most oppressive regimes ever known, only a few miles off the coast of Florida. Until recently, he seemed to be surviving thanks only to subsidies from the Soviet Union, but there are no obvious signs of his imminent demise. This despite the fact that life in Cuba is so awful that about one-fifth of all Cubans have left the...

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Alastair Reed (review date 2 February 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Mea Cuba, in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 2, February 2, 1995, pp. 14-16.

[In the following review, Reed chronicles Cabrera Infante's career, and praises him for "stand[ing] quite obstinately apart" from "the literature of frustration" employed by other Cuban exiles.]

To be Cuban is to be born in Cuba. To be Cuban is to go with Cuba everywhere. To be Cuban is to carry Cuba like a persistent memory. We all carry Cuba within like an unheard music, like a rare vision that we know by heart. Cuba is a paradise from which we flee by trying to return.

In Mea Cuba, Guillermo Cabrera Infante gathers together all...

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Adan Quan (review date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Mea Cuba, in Antioch Review, Vol. 53, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 494-95.

[In the following review, Quan faults Cabrera Infante for failing to note "the positive aspects of the Cuban revolution."]

This wide-ranging collection of essays, articles, talks, and book reviews is by one of the foremost Cuban writers of this century. Written after his defection from Cuba in 1965, these pieces cover such topics as Lorca's sojourn in Cuba, a speculation on what the world would be like had there been no Columbus, and the acting careers of famous politicians. The principal topic, however, is the cultural politics of Cuba after the 1959 revolution. These...

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Cesár Ferreira (review date Autumn 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Delito por bailar el chachachá in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, Autumn, 1996, pp. 921-22.

[In the following review, Ferreira takes issue with Cabrera Infante for his numerous attacks on the Castro regime, which Ferreira says belong in a memoir rather than a collection of stories.]

It is no secret to any reader of the works of Guillermo Cabrera Infante that, although he has lived in exile in London since the 1960s, the center of this Cuban writer's fictional universe has always been Havana. In fact, his masterpiece, Tres tristes tigres (1967), is a vast exploration of that city's once-upon-a-time intense bohemian nightlife. But...

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