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Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Guillermo Cabrera Infante Essay - Cabrera Infante, Guillermo (Short Story Criticism)

Cabrera Infante, Guillermo (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Guillermo Cabrera Infante 1929–-

(Has also written under the pseudonym G. Cain) Cuban-born novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, scriptwriter, editor, journalist, nonfiction writer, translator, and poet.

Guillermo Cabrera Infante is considered one of Latin America's most original and influential writers. Much of his fiction is set in Havana, where he was raised, and details the repressive and violent social and political climate during the Fulgencio Batista regime prior to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Biographical Information

Cabrera Infante was born in Gibara, a small city on the northern coast of Cuba. His parents, Guillermo Cabrera and Zoila Infante, founded the local Communist party and were arrested in 1936 because of their political activities. Cabrera Infante was seven years old when his parents were imprisoned under Fulgencio Batista's rule. Following their release from prison, Cabrera Infante's parents continued to suffer political persecution. Blacklisted and unable to find work in Gibara, Cabrera Infante's father decided to move his impoverished family to Havana, where Cabrera Infante later attended the University of Havana. Cabrera Infante developed an interest in literature and left the university in 1948 to pursue a literary career. He edited the journal Bohemia, founded the literary magazine Nueva generación, and helped establish the Cinemateca de Cuba (Film Library of Cuba). By 1952, Cabrera Infante's writing was censored for its political content, reflecting the author's clandestine activity against the Batista regime. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cabrera Infante became involved with the new government, serving on the Bureau of Cultural Affairs and as the cultural attaché to Brussels. Following Castro's rise to power, Cabrera Infante also became editor of Lunes de Revolución, the literary supplement to the pro-Castro newspaper Revolución. In 1961, Castro disbanded Lunes de Revolución when its editors protested the censorship of a documentary film directed by Cabrera Infante's brother that depicted Havana's nightlife during the height of Batista's rule. Cabrera Infante published his first short fiction collection, Así en la paz como en la guerra (In Peace as in War) in 1960. After leaving Cuba in 1965, Cabrera Infante eventually settled in London.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Cabrera Infante's short fiction primarily deals with Cuba's political turmoil. The short stories in Así en la paz como en la guerra underscore the author's contempt for the Batista dictatorship. “Balada de plomo y yerro” (“Ballad of Lead and Error”), one of the short stories in the collection, takes place in the gangster world of Cuba during the 1950s where political assassination and murders were carried out by the same people the author attempts to provoke in the story. Throughout “Balada de plomo y yerro,” a drunken American sings an obscene song in English and, on the grounds that the foul language was an “affront to common decency,” Batista's censors jail and fine the author. Cabrera Infante later repudiated Así en la paz como en la guerra as overly realistic at the expense of creativity. Vista del amanecer en el trópico (1974; A View of Dawn in the Tropics), the author's second short fiction collection, has drawn criticism because of its similarity in style and subject matter to Así en la paz como en la guerra.

Critical Reception

Both as a novelist and short story writer, Cabrera Infante is praised for his narrative skills, vivid imagery, irreverence, and biting insights. Some critics have compared Cabrera Infante's writing style to that of Ernest Hemingway because the author often intersperses his long, descriptive sentences with short, staccato statements. Other critics have compared Cabrera Infante to Josef Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov because he has written and translated some of his works in English, showing facility with a language other than his own. Cabrera Infante's writing fills the reader “with a heightened awareness of injustice and even evil,” said critic Terry J. Peavler.

Principal Works

Así en la paz como en la guerra [In Peace as in War] 1960

Vista del amanecer en el trópico [A View of Dawn in the Tropics] 1974

Un oficio del siglo XX [as G. Cain] (criticism) 1963

Tres tristes tigres [Three Trapped Tigers] (novel) 1967

Wonderwall (screenplay) 1968

Vanishing Point (screenplay) 1970

Under the Volcano (screenplay) 1972

O (essays) 1975

Exorcismos de estilo (essays, poetry, and prose fragments) 1976

Arcadia todas las noches (lectures) 1978

La Habana para un Infante difunto [Infante's Inferno] (novel) 1979

Holy Smoke (nonfiction) 1985

Criticism

David William Foster (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Guillermo Cabrera Infante's ‘Vista del amanecer en el tropico’ and the Generic Ambiguity of Narrative,” in Studies in the Contemporary Spanish-American Short Story, University of Missouri Press, 1979, pp. 110-120.

[In the essay below, which originally appeared in Caribe in 1977, Foster explores Cabrera Infante's narrative approach in View of Dawn in the Tropics.]

El general preguntó la hora y un edecán se acercó rápido a musitar: “La que usted quiera, señor Presidente”. (p. 99)1

I

While it may be true that Vista del amanecer en el trópico owes its title as well as many of its narrative segments to material left over from the author's Tres tristes tigres (1967), it is undeniable that the distance separating the two works is great and that Cabrera Infante's most recent work of fiction represents a marked change in his writings.2 The following points constitute basic features of Vista that any adequate characterization of the work—whether seen as a fragmentary novel or as a loosely connected series of stories3—must account for:

1. Narrative texture is the most noteworthy feature. We claim that the texture of a work is the direct manifestation of underlying structures, of its écriture as text. Yet, these considerations aside and to focus on only the verbal substance of the text, it is surprising to observe how Cabrera Infante has left behind the norm-breaking linguistic experimentation that distinguishes his Tres tristes tigres, José Lezama Lima's Paradiso, and Sarduy's Cobra—all of which are eminent examples of what Barthes called reader challenging (if not reader defying) scriptible/writerly texts. The result is a work that seems to be above all lectible/writerly, at least regarding its immediate linguistic expression, which gives the impression of document whose meaning is decidedly transparent. Meaning in the aforementioned novels, of course, is not transparent: whatever meaning that can be purported to underlie the textual enoncé is maddeningly elusive. Since the new Latin-American novel is known for its insistence on the nontransparent text whose play of signifiers impedes access to a realm of text-independent meanings, in order to create—to suggest or to insinuate—meanings dependent on the unstable structures of the textual parole, Cabrera Infante's shift to a form of pseudo-journalistic expression that seems more document than narrative hopscotch is significant.

2. In Vista, we encounter a series of fragments whose interrelationship is tenuous. All extensive narratives (save those that suppress any internal division) are made up of fragments, whether the traditional division into chapters or “scenes” or the more experimental division into blocks of narration that are short as such but are tightly interrelated. Vista follows the pattern of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963) rather than that of Augusto Roa Bastos's Yo el Supremo (1975), which means a narrative made up of a string of fragments that appear to be autonomous in the sense that, rather than following each other in a continuum, each fragment is isolated graphically to the extent that it begins on a separate page and, if it is especially short, is followed by blank space at the bottom of the page and even by a blank overleaf. Moreover, each fragment appears in the index with its opening words by way of a title. Since there are 101 fragments in Vista, the index belongs more to a collection of untitled poems than to a work of fiction. What is particularly significant about this fragmentation—and what sets Vista off from Rayuela, where we can speak of a novel in at least a skeletal fashion, with characters and action-plot trajectory—is that it bespeaks a fundamental ambiguity of genre on Cabrera Infante's part. In other words, it is not clear whether we should speak of an organically structural novel or of a series of short stories, or whether we should speak of fragments that are scenes which, in turn, refer kaleidoscopically to a miscellany of narrative possibilities: an event, an impersonal circumstance, an outstanding individual, even a song or a news item that is spread by word of mouth.

Since the fragments take on the character of autonomous scenes, even when grouped together on the basis of the constant of the trópico in the title, the book stands in the end outside the genre of the novel to which Tres tristes tigres, when all is said and done, does belong, no matter how hard it may be on occasion to know what is happening in the latter in terms of a unified fable. To this extent, Vista cannot be studied in terms of novel-reading conventions but insists instead on a reading of independent vignettes. Yet, at the same time and due to the organization of the fragments under an umbrella title and our natural desire to seek organic structures where there seems to be only chaos and disorder, the reader discovers common denominators among the fragments in order to bring them together into a homogeneous text, one without gaps on the level of its abstract meaning. By departing from the patterns of easily recognized genres, especially the novel that is based on a trajectory of events and the short story that stands apart from the other stories with which it appears in a collection, the author forces us with unusual emphasis to think about such conventions. We undertake to see how they are applicable to the text at hand, to what extent; and, if they are not applicable, what the conventions are that should be brought to bear in order to achieve a coherent reading of the text.

3. As a result of the foregoing generic ambiguity, Vista brings into focus the question of extratextual versus intratextual unity.4 It would be impossible not to notice how the fragments are unified not by the trajectory of persons or events described by the inner action, but by the sweep of Cuban history. This point is made explicitly by the back of the book. But it is also made clear by the internal references of the fragments themselves, where chronological movement and allusions to certain happenings and key figures of Cuba's history are obvious to even the reader who lacks a complete knowledge of the history of the island. It is true that Cabrera Infante can count on a more perfect knowledge on the part of the average reader than would be the case, let us say, if he were dealing with the trajectory of Bolivian history, a country that has not been in the public eye to the same extent as Cuba has been in the last twenty years. It is undeniable that Cabrera Infante's text allows one to read it on various levels, from an approach that what is related is understood as a series of key references to men and events that are part of common knowledge (to which is added “historical fact” in this reading), to a reading where we know that the basis is in history but also that what is narrated is to be taken as history without our having to identify documentarily the points of historical reference. It is probable that an intermediary reading is the most normal or appropriate one, the one that Cabrera Infante counted on implicitly in structuring his stories so as to place emphasis on first what are historically verifiable data and then on what are really fictional elaborations but with a remote and more mythic historical quality.

The end result is a text in which specific extratextual and intratextual knowledge enriches one's reading, but also one in which this knowledge remains more the possibility of concrete historical knowledge and not an obligation imposed on the reader by the author. The effect is at times one of ambiguity or the hint of ambiguity: the reader has the impression that more is going on than he can handle because he has only an imperfect acquaintanceship with Cuban history. Yet, it is an ambiguity that emerges more from the lack of preciseness in the presentation of many of the data, or from a certain obliqueness in the elaboration of the text itself than from the absence of sufficient historical learning on the author's part. One could go so far as to say that such an ambiguity is operant even for the reader who is extensively familiar with Cuban history, since it is an ambiguity that arises functionally from the mode of narration rather than from the formation of the average reader of the text. In this sense, any question concerning Cuban history in Vista concerns more a trap for an adequate reading of the text and not an inherent feature that necessarily defines as such the nature of that text.

4. The use of the principles of intertextuality—references that are both explicit and oblique to other works of history and literature—as well as the fragmentariness that gives Vista its particular character contribute to a situation in which the narrative voice, in addition to being multifaceted like that of Tres tristes tigres, where we have a text that seems to be self-generating (and self-destructive), depends on the intrinsic nature of each segment, rather than functioning as a “presence” that unites the text as a whole. One could refer to the idea of a pseudo-mythic voice that replaces the perspective of a narrator circumscribed by his limitations as the source of data and opinions (that is, the unreliable narrators of new novel texts that suggest the problem of the inaccessibility of knowledge, such as we have in many of the narrators of Borges's stories). Such a mythic voice insists on a gnosiological primacy based on its being the center whence flow the structures of linguistic expression. It controls expression because it encompasses it as the spokesman of an absolute knowledge as regards the phenomena to be portrayed through the agency of the mythic tale. In primitive, “innocent” contexts, we have myths that lack self-awareness and in which self-contemplation is impossible: they stand as witnesses to an absolute faith in the expressive power of the word. In the new narrative, the need to achieve distance between the narrator (as the maker of fictions) and the narrative material, as well as to permit the latter to “speak itself,” as the cliché goes, or to vanish as a non-meaning that cannot be independent from the narration that articulates it, gives new life to the possibilities of mythic expression whereby the text exists only as the product of énonciation by an explicit narrative voice. But, at the same time, in a modern context, where innocence is impossible, where metaliterature—literature that turns in upon itself to engage in self-commentary and self-criticism—becomes an imperative, mythic expression demands dialectics in which the structures of expression embody not only a meaning with an absolute value (the “truth” about something or some experience—in this case, the intrahistorical trajectory of Cuba)—but also an often cutting irony that exposes all of our uncertainties concerning actions, characters, and values that intrahistory represents. In this latter sense, the text can be the expression of a myth while at the same time it bespeaks the strain on myth by modern human ineptness.

Thus, Vista may be using the anonymity of historical facts and figures to create, on the one hand, a mythic setting in which values are what is most important, but also, on the other, to achieve a demythification of a certain canon of received Cuban history by relating it via a fragmentary narration lacking in one controlling voice as though it were unimportant as a specific story, as if anonymity were a reference to relativity, if not to the cyclical and perennial nature, of the national gesta. In this sense, the narration that functions more in terms of the individual fragments than with references to a cohesive voice serves to delineate, rather than a mythic expression that is...

(The entire section is 4946 words.)

Mateo Pardo (review date 1978)

SOURCE: “Bad Art and Good Intentions,” in The Nation, New York, Vol. 227, No. 15, November 4, 1978, pp. 477-78.

[In the following review, Pardo faults Cabrera Infante's use of the prose vignette form in View of Dawn in the Tropics.]

Guillermo Cabrera Infante's new book, View of Dawn in the Tropics, is a curious example of what can happen when a writer returns to the scenes of his early successes. His admirers will look in vain for the freshness and charm of his first book of short stories or the wild and sometimes exciting verbal experimentation of his first novel. This collection of 101 historical vignettes, printed on 145 largely empty pages, is an...

(The entire section is 1576 words.)

Dolores M. Martin (review date 1979)

SOURCE: “Fictional Vignettes of Cuba's History,” in Book WorldThe Washington Post, January 28, 1979, p. L4.

[In the following assessment of View of Dawn in the Tropics, Martin considers the vignettes “austere and bitter,” adding, “unlike the images of a good film whose overall impact is cohesive and cumulative, the impression left by these sketches is random and sporadic.”]

According to Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, he grew up in an atmosphere of “misery, promiscuity and neglect,” one of a family of five living in one room and often subsisting on a diet of coffee and milk. How is it, one wonders, that this grandson of a...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Ronald Schwartz (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: In a review of View of Dawn in the Tropics, inNomads, Exiles, & Emigres: The Rebirth of the Latin American Narrative, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1980, pp. 65-9.

[In the following excerpt, Schwartz describes vignettes in View of Dawn in the Tropics as imaginative and experimental, and provides an overview of the collection.]

Cabrera Infante's latest novel, View of Dawn in the Tropics, is experimental, but is absolutely nothing like his first in style, form, rhythm, size, or characterization. View is a shorter work, only 141 pages, consisting mainly of a series of small, ironic sketches tracing Cuban history from its earliest times...

(The entire section is 1751 words.)

Suzanne Jill Levine (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘Vistas of Dawn in the (Tristes) Tropics': History, Fiction, Translation,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, pp. 548-53.

[In the following essay, Levine, who translated View of Dawn in the Tropics into English, addresses the collection's origin and major influences, as well as its principal themes.]

HISTORY IS A STORY

Vista del amanecer en el trópico (1974; Eng. View of Dawn in the Tropics, 1978) was one of the original titles of the book that became Tres tristes tigres (1964; Eng. Three Trapped Tigers, (1971), a novel that was going to counterpoint Guillermo Cabrera...

(The entire section is 4504 words.)

Terry J. Peavler (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Cabrera Infante's Undertow,” in Structures of Power, edited by Terry J. Peavler and Peter Standish, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 125-40.

[In the following excerpt, Peavler compares Cabrera Infante's short fiction with his more popular works, and asserts that “in Así en la paz como en la guerra he published some of the finer short stories ever penned by a Spanish American.”]

Guillermo Cabrera Infante's declarations (and declamations) on the subject of politics, particularly vis-à-vis the writer, are perhaps only slightly more extensive than his denials of its importance in his own writings. Scholars, for the most part, follow...

(The entire section is 3518 words.)

Raymond D. Souza (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Apprentice Storyteller,” in Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Islands, Many Worlds, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 47-56.

[In this excerpted chapter from Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Islands, Many Worlds, the author traces Cabrera Infante's development as a writer, and provides insight into his first book, Así en la paz como en la guerra.]

Of all Cabrera Infante's activities in the 1950s, creative writing was the least consuming and the most casual. His first story, which was born of an idle boast and a dare, was successfully published and richly compensated for, a fortunate circumstance for such a young writer. Although that...

(The entire section is 3946 words.)