Cabrera Infante, G(uillermo)
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...
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