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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,...
(The entire section contains 49863 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106
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.
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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 perdió el mango" ["the bladeless knife, which lost its handle"]. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 383) In a footnote added to his work in 1912, Freud notes that
a similar nonsensical technique appears if a joke seeks to maintain a connection which seems to be excluded by the special conditions implied in its content. Such, for instance, is Lichtenberg's knife without a blade which has no handle.
The function of this continuous use of language games by Arsen and Silvestre can be perceived more clearly if one examines another passage by Freud on nonsensical jokes. He states that such jokes are
presenting something that is stupid and nonsensical, the sense of which lies in the revelation and demonstration of something else that is stupid and nonsensical.
It would now seem that the purpose of the verbal attack is to underline the stupidity of the two women, their lack of imagination, their unsophisticated literalness. Arsen and Silvestre establish their superiority over Beba and Magalena.
Innocent jokes are not the only kind to appear in this section of the novel: many jokes are tendentious; others are obscene. The scene where Arsen introduces the two women to Silvestre already contains sexual references:
Encantado. Mucho gusssto. E un plasel. El busto es mío …
[Delighted. I'm so pleazed to meat you. It's a pleazure. Noo,
I'll meazure you now and pleazure you later]. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 397)
And in the poem recited by the ardent Arsen to Beba we find several obscenities, such as
O si me hicieras un mudrá
Con el dedo del medio erguido, parado,
Y el anular y el otro, índice se Ilamará,
Los dos, los cuatro, todos los demás,
Acostados o postrados. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 398)
[Or if you'd make a mudra for me
with your middle finger upright,
and your ring finger and the other, index it is called,
the two, the four, all the rest on their sides, prostrated there]. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 410)
The function of this kind of joking obscenity is considered by Freud in his description of 'smut' (his translator's term). Freud states smut to be a form of verbal sexual aggression that is necessary sometimes in order to arouse a woman. When a third party is present at such an exchange, he effectively inhibits the woman and keeps her from acquiescing. At this point, the inactive third person (a male in Freud's model) becomes a listener, the recipient of the verbal assault, and "owing to this transformation it (the smutty comment) is already near to assuming the character of a joke." Freud later adds that such a joke will "evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible"; and also that the joke can be consummated only when the woman, who is the object of desire, leaves the room.
We now begin to comprehend the dynamics of the verbal assault on the two women in "Bachata." The hostility of Arsen and Silvestre is initially a form of sexual aggression aimed at arousal. However, Beba and Magalena each acts as a third party, hence neither will succumb to sexual demands in front of the other. Therefore, the two men, seeing that avenue of 'pleazure' shut off, turn to the lesser satisfaction offered by laughter with the added pleasure of showing off their own intellectual prowess. As such, the model is a reversal of the one proposed by Freud since it is women who act as deterrents. This variation may be accounted for by cultural differences, the distinction between Cuban night-people of the fifties and Viennese bourgeoisie at the turn of the century, and by the shift from psycho-analytic theory to literary text.
There is another woman at whom the verbal aggression is also directed: Laura Díaz, the one whom Arsenio had been in love with and whom Silvestre eventually marries. Her importance has been sufficiently studied. She is also the object of their desires, but since she is absent ('has left the room' in the Freudian model) the men indulge in obscene jokes, which would otherwise be directed at her in the form of smut. Laura is present in their minds and therefore in their discourse, although she is not in the car. Beba and Magalena are riding in the car with the two men, but they are absent in and to the discourse. In this situation it could also be argued that, true to the Freudian model, the two men are acting as third parties to each other in their attempts to seduce Beba and Magalena, thus explaining their lack of success.
In Mehlman's reading of Freud, the distinction between innocent and tendentious jokes disappears. He finds the "desire for masked repetition" present in any joking situation that attempts to recapture a feeling of pleasure from the telling itself, rather than from the content of the joke. Thus all the humor spent on the two women becomes perverse, an attempt to attain through other means some of the satisfaction that is unavailable, both because of the presence of the two dull women and because of the absence of the one woman who really matters to both Arsen and Silvestre.
Mehlman goes on to consider the auto-erotic qualities of fantasy and the triangular configuration of the 'sign system' which enables the joke to be actualized. He then points up an apparent contradiction in Freud's thinking. The joke is made by the joker in order to derive pleasure through channels which have not been restricted to him (by the presence of a third party). At the same time, the listener, who is inactive, is the one who laughs at the joke, thus presumably also deriving pleasure from it. The listener's pleasure is self-contained and auto-erotic. Thus the fulfillment of the pleasure of the joker takes place in the silent third party. In Cabrera Infante's text, Arsen and Silvestre are both engaged in giving and deriving pleasure from each other through their verbal calisthenics. This is indeed an act of mutual auto-eroticism, and is supported by the text's own references to verbal masturbation.
Well, I'll talk to myself instead. To masturdebate. In the idiom of the mastur race. Thus masturspake Zarathustra. Make a solution of pollution. The solution of a sage is to pollute a page. Or a pageboy. Bring a boy to the boil. Bugger the little boys that come unto me. It is harder for a camel to enter a needle's eye than to have its prick up your neighbor's asseye. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 391)
What nobody seems to want to point out are the obvious homosexual implications of two willing male adults engaging in mutual intellectual and verbal masturbation.
This implication is natural if we examine some of the predominant types of relationships and characters throughout the novel. Magalena, who may well be mad, accuses Beba and her husband of abusing her sexually. (397-8) Earlier in the text, Codac (a photographer) runs into Magalena and sees her kissing Manolito el Toro, the buxom lesbian. Later on that same evening, Magalena and the woman of a Greek Jew (not identified by name) leave Codac in order to go to the bathroom. Codac has the sudden realization that this woman too is a lesbian; he tells himself that Cuba is the Isle of Lesbos. (pp. 128-9) At this point, Magalena's accusations of Beba and her husband begin to sound more plausible and her madness more understandable. In the third section of "Los Debutantes" ["The Debutantes"], a character named Magalena Crús (clearly the same Magalena) has a fight with another woman. Rodríguez Monegal incorrectly describes this episode as the monologue of a young woman who tells of her mother and her leaving home. In the course of that monologue Magalena denies the mother-daughter relationship:
y por mi madre santa te lo juro que …
[and I swear to you on my mother's grave …]
(Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 34)
Then she relates that the other woman answered
que yo no te voy paral ni ponel freno:
por fines que yo no soy tu madre, me oíte.
[That I won't stop you or rein you in;
After all, I'm not your mother, you hear]. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 34)
The other woman could be Beba; her speech seems to as educated as that of the Beba we encounter later; however, one must keep in mind that this is Magalena's rendition of it, and it could be distorted in that 'translation.' Also, an unspecified period of time has elapsed between one scene and the other: Beba's speech could have evolved. To return to the scene in "Bachata," we have the poem which Arsen creates for Beba, with its spoofs of Martí, Góngora, and Catullus, dedicated to Lésbica Beba (Lesbic Beba) and with references to lesbians and to the Isle of Lesbos.
Laura Díaz too had homosexual experiences as a little girl, according to the first section of "Los Debutantes." Rodríguez Monegal quotes a letter sent to him by Cabrera Infante, in which the author leaves no doubt as to the identity of the two little girls who "play together" under the truck. Thus all the female characters involved in "Bachata," be they present or absent, have had some link with homosexuality.
Laura Díaz' first husband was a homosexual, if we are to believe her ninth psychoanalytic hour and not her seventh. So are several other minor characters: Alex Bayer and his lover, the singer Cuba Venegas, and the unnamed girl with whom she visits Delia Doce. (Tres Tristes Tigres, P. 33) Arsenio and Silvestre indicate their fascination in homosexuals when they go to a gay nightclub to ogle the couples. (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 110) Someone, perhaps Boustrophedon (another important character, although he never appears in direct dialogue or monologue) screams out at two passing women
que sólo las lesbianas acaricien mi cara
[let only lesbians caress my face] (Tres Tristes Tigres, p. 139)
The joking and vicarious thrills of oral-aural masturbation must come to an end as the two men consider their future: Silvestre's future marriage to Laura, their integration into straight society, and consequent betrayal of the carefree friendship between the two men. The joking ends when Laura, the woman who was absent from their discourse, is allowed symbolically to re-enter the room: once conversation centers on her, all joking ceases.
The complexity in the language of Tres Tristes Trigres, and the unorthodox time and plot structures demand what has been known since Cortázar's Hopscotch as a lector cómplice [an accomplice reader], an accomplice of the writer. Cortázar defined the lector hembra [female reader] as one who expects logically ordered progressions towards goals, idylls, marriages; this type of reader would be repulsed by a work such as Hopscotch, and perhaps Cortázar is repulsed by this sort of reader. Jokingly, the term lector macho [macho reader] has been used to refer to the accomplice reader, one who is active and willing to participate in the novel and collaborate with the writer in the final creation of a literary text. If we allow this equivocal use of the word macho, and we apply Freudian theory, we discover that the reader of Tres Tristes Tigres is left to participate explicitly in its ultimate joke. The naive female reader (or passive reader) leaves 'the room' created by the text, allowing Cabrera Infante and his macho readers to engage in mutual and auto-eroticism, a strange new form of vicarious masturbation through time and space.
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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 their presence in popular culture, Cabrera Infante guarantees himself a place in the Menippean mainstream along with such venerable offbeat authors as Petronius, Burton, Sterne, and Carroll. The menippea is impossible to define neatly or to categorize—in this respect it is like a cigar's vitola—but it has a decidedly unique and unmistakably oxymoronic and dialogic thrust. We can also say with certainty that the menippea or anatomy tends toward parody and burlesque in tone, a philosophical or intellectual posture in theme, and the encyclopedic accumulation of fact and erudition in form. Menippean satire is always innovative, but there are certain recurring patterns that reflect an attitude and approach to literature, and to the represented word in particular, that can be traced as far back as antiquity and the original generic features of the spoudogeloios, "serious-smiling." For Mikhail Bakhtin, the seriocomic genres, especially the Menippean satire and the Socratic dialogue, are dialogic, open and questing, in contrast with the serious genres—the epic, tragedy, history, and classical rhetoric—which are monologic and present a closed and stable world.
The serious forms comprehend man; the Menippean forms are based on man's ability to know and contain his fate. To any vision of a completed system of truth, the menippea suggests some element outside the system. Seriocomic forms present a challenge, open or covert, to literary and intellectual orthodoxy, a challenge that is reflected not only in their philosophic content but also in their structure and language.
It is interesting to note that these opposing literary categories are reflected in two major conflicting philosophical schools of thought: the epistemological and the hermeneutic. The epistemological, which corresponds to the monologic, asserts that there is one preferred view of reality (in recent Western history this view has been theological, succeeded by the scientific). The hermeneutic naturally corresponds to the dialogic and holds that there is no specific correct view, but rather that there is dialogue between any number of differing views.
According to Bakhtin, the essential characteristics of the seriocomic realm in literature include a new relationship to reality, which is centered on the living present and motivated by personal experience and creative invention rather than being based on myth and legend. Another essential characteristic is a "radically new relationship to the word as the material of literature" (MB, 108), which encompasses a broad spectrum of stylistic features, all of which reject the monologic nature of the traditional genres. These traits are the source for the Menippean satire and Socratic dialogue—products of the third and fourth century B.C. respectively—both of which have provided a reservoir of vitality for modern narrative. This essay will focus on elucidating these and other more specific Menippean features in Holy Smoke.
If we follow Bakhtin's line of thinking, the oxymoronic configuration lies at the heart of the menippea, with its roots in carnivalistic folklore. The very essence of the carnivalesque involves "the joyful relativity of all structure and order, of all authority and all (hierarchical) position,… the central carnivalistic act [being] the mock crowning and subsequent decrowning of the carnival king" (MB, 124). Beginning with its oxymoronic title, Holy Smoke is prolific in the apparently contradictory, in sharp contrasts and misalliances, both in the verbal pattern of the oxymoron and in incongruities on a number of planes. The noun smoke is entirely justifiable in the title of a book that has everything to do with smoking, but it demands further scrutiny in its titular role. On the one hand, smoke conjures up images of addiction, an unhealthy, profane activity that has upon occasion even been associated with the devil, at least for the Spanish Inquisition. Not surprisingly, Rodrigo de Xeres was thought to have been possessed by the devil when he demonstrated smoking in Seville (HS, 13), for if hell is fire and brimstone, smoke cannot be far away. Negative attitudes toward smoking through the ages represent a monologic viewpoint: the Inquisition sponsored by the Catholic Church was later to be followed by the scientific inquisition of the modern-day Western world, which indicts smoking from a factual, absolutist point of view.
How, then, can smoke be "Holy"? Smoke may suggest the ecstasy of religious ritual, with which it was originally associated in the New World, where the shaman often inhaled smoke from a mind-altering weed. The implication is that smoking in and of itself is divine, and knowing the high value that Cabrera Infante has always placed on memory in his writings, we are inclined to believe that the close association attributed to memory and smoking lends a sacred quality to the latter as well: "What Wilde said of music is also true of smoking: it always makes you remember a time that never was. Though that past sometimes really existed…. [But] memory has no time" (HS, 28-29). Perhaps that is why he insists. "I believe with Casanova that most of the pleasure in smoking is, of course, in the smoke" (HS, 30). Another example of Menippean play is his presentation of the extremes to which people go to live out their favorite vices. The sale of pre-Castro Cuban cigars in New York City in 1983, for example, is described as a "religious experience" for some.
Well put—and better sold. Soon all the cigars were gone (with the smoke?). 'Price estimates in the catalogue,' said the New York Times, 'showed that the auction house expected to get $2 to $12 for each cigar.' Wow! 'But Arlam Ettinger had a wide grin as a bidder who identified himself as Al Goldstein', a true gold nugget of a smoker, publisher of Cigar and, what else?, Screw Magazine, outbid a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred people for the first lot of 25 cigars. His bid was $2,100 or $84 a cigar. The rest was not silence but shaking of hands, rattling of money and rolling of eyes. (HS, 129)
The oxymoronic construct is a natural manifestation of a dialogic relationship. In Holy Smoke we have a world turned upside down, the inversion of hierarchies, a mixture of the high and the low, the serious and the comic. Although the cigar is usually spoken of in relatively glowing terms ("A cigarette is a dangling particule in your lips and the pipe is all clenched teeth and no fury. But a good cigar is like a passion…. A cigar is woman, to smoke divine!" HS, 30-31), it is also described in naturalistic or grotesque terms: "Between the mask or the naked face of the wrapper and the entrails of the filler, the binder is the leaf that keeps the bowels in check. The peritoneum as it were. This vegetal sac contains the guts" (HS, 35). Other manifestations of the oxymoronic pattern typical in the menippea, such as a mixture of genres, dialogic or multivoiced and multitoned narration, are readily identifiable in Holy Smoke.
Inserted genres, including poetry, quotes from historical and botanical texts, letters, films, interviews, newspapers, signs, billboards, books on tobacco etiquette, and literary selections, offer a compendium of information on smoking from every conceivable source. Similarly to Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy, Cabrera Infante here aspires to an encyclopedic approach, with a seemingly haphazard mixture of styles in which history, folklore, and scholarly research on tobacco and film blend with personal stories and commentary. Although the inserted materials are diverse in their original function, their inclusion in Holy Smoke becomes tantamount to homogeneity in that all are subjected to the "double-voiced" effect of irony and parody. These techniques are multivoiced because they introduce into the discourse "a semantic intention that is directly opposed to the original one. The second voice … clashes hostilely with its primordial host and forces him to serve directly opposing aims" (MB, 193). Ironic discourse involves the use of someone else's words to create a hostile effect.
The distancing and humor imparted by the narrator's commentaries on people, films, books, and events throughout Holy Smoke have the dialogic function of providing that irony and parody. Due in large part to the ridiculous and incongruous nature of much of the "impossible" dialogue, the solemn and "finalized quality" of man and his works is thrown into comic relief. Whereas in his earlier works Cabrera Infante's narrators made editorial comments on their own writing, the narrative voice in Holy Smoke comments on the works of other writers, "correcting" Defoe, for example—"Please, let's have an instant rewrite"—and remarking on the latter's discourse on tobacco in brackets: "But I tried several experiments with it, as if I was resolved it should hit one way or the other. [What you would call the hit-and-miss system or Crusoe subject to random.] I first took a piece of a leaf…." (HS, 250).
One of the narrator's many roles in Holy Smoke is just this sort of dialogic relationship with the "external" materials assembled in the text. The first-person-singular narrator is also identified more closely with Cabrera Infante than ever before, as he recounts autobiographical information about himself and his family, including his personal reminiscences on cigar-smoking (HS, 24-31). The conversational tone of the narration gives the sensation of a dialogic relationship between narrator and reader as well, a relationship which is more or less familiar, depending on the context: "Groucho, let me tell you, was not talking of the quality of his cigar but…." (HS, 61; emphasis mine). The setting which comes to mind most frequently is that of a stand-up comedian in a club, entertaining his audience.
Multilingualism offers another aspect of heterovoicing in Holy Smoke, Cabrera Infante's first book written in English rather than Spanish. In this way Cabrera Infante has adroitly converted a practical necessity—because Holy Smoke grew out of a suggested article for a U.S. magazine—into a Menippean vehicle, perfect for a writer who has been known as a master of the pun since his Tres tristes tigres (1964; Eng. Three Trapped Tigers, 1971) Cabrera Infante's capacity for paronomasia is no less brilliant in English than in Spanish, with lots of mixed metaphors, jumbled proverbs, and verbal ideas, techniques all that draw attention to the words being played upon, at the expense of any possibility for a logical sequence of thoughts. In Holy Smoke we learn that although cigarettes have been targeted for warnings by the surgeon general, cigars are not subject to this labeling: "In fact a corona has less to do with a coronary than a piece of buttered toast…. That's cigars and the heart. Now for the cigar and the arts" (HS, 200). Holy Smoke's syntax carries over a distinctly Latinate quality from Spanish, and Cabrera Infante continues his practice of sprinkling untranslatable words and phrases in Spanish, French, Latin, and even Catalan throughout the text, along with offering numerous etymologies. Multilingualism is explicit proof that there is more than one view.
Another variant of "joyful relativity," anachronism—or the oxymoronic juxtaposition of past and present—is plentiful in Holy Smoke. In rejecting the monologic or absolute past of myth and legend, the Menippean subject is presented "in a zone of immediate and even crudely familiar contact with living contemporaries" (MB, 108). Cabrera Infante has always believed that our modern-day myths and heroes are made in Hollywood. In Holy Smoke movie stars are removed from their element and treated informally and out of context, as they are quoted and referenced solely in relation to their portrayal of smoking in the movies. One instance of playful anachronism is when the narrator claims that a movie, Heaven Can Wait, might help sell Holy Smoke: "Charles Coburn at his jolliest: every now and then he exclaims boisterously, 'Holy smoke!' and puffs at his perennial Partagas. The best plug ever for this book" (HS, 200). Although many an actor and actress from the old days is treated with awe in comparison with more recent stars, as heroes they are dethroned and placed in the service of an anatomy of an addiction. Joan Crawford, for example, is said to have had much more class in her handling of cigarettes than Geraldine Chaplin in a 1980 remake of a 1940 melodrama. No one and nothing is sacred. Historical facts and figures are contemporized via a jocular tone, a running punning commentary engaged in continually by the narrator. A quote from a historical source is followed by playful banter, as if it were a humorous reaction to the serious, monologic fact as recorded by history. The narrator's lines represent an imaginative "reader response" to the stilted historical version of a grand event, thus trivialized through layer upon layer of paronomasia, editorial quips in parentheses, inventions on the historical verging on disrespect—in short, total literary license. As a general rule, the first sentence or a paragraph will be a serious statement, followed with a quote, usually referenced. The remainder of the paragraph is anyone's guess, but it is surely an exemplar of the unbridled freedom of invention and multiplicity of style indigenous to the Menippean satire.
The narrative composition of the first and largest section of Holy Smoke is framed by stories about Christopher Columbus, as discoverer of the New World and of tobacco. Columbus, characterized as the first European nonsmoker, is trivialized and contemporized through a tone of impudence and burlesque: "As to cigars Columbus must be praised or blamed for it too" (HS, 2). Treated with less than due respect—"This sailor who couldn't sail … came only for the money. Or rather for the gold"—Columbus is even discussed in terms of "crude slum naturalism": he is said to have reformed a streetwalker and to have been a hustler of sorts, who "ate, drank and pissed gold. (Freud would say later that he defecated it.)" (HS, 6).
The "dialogue of the dead," actually a formalization of the type of anachronism we are seeing in Holy Smoke, is a genre of Menippean origin that brings together people and ideas from different epochs to discuss important issues. Cabrera Infante's narrator conducts just this sort of parodic dialogue with Columbus and other historical figures. Columbus is presented as an ethnocentric and disdainful character in his dealings with the smoking Indians, with Cabrera Infante putting words in his mouth, as it were.
Columbus was instantly mistrustful of the strange artifact with which the witchdoctor made clouds over the meeting. Could he make rain too? It was all a futility rite. Besides, the contraption really looked like a musket! The Admirable Admiral took de Xeres aside to ask concerned: 'Are you sure this thing is safe?' Was he afraid of being blown sky high? De Xeres was about to explain about the safety valve in the brujos's mouth but all he did was to answer his superior almost with disrespect: 'An exploding cigar? Ridiculous!' (HS, 6-7)
Here Cabrera Infante invents an "eccentric" dialogue between de Xeres and Columbus, the type which Bakhtin credits with disrupting the expected and acceptable in human behavior. The inappropriate verbal reaction to the shaman attributed to Columbus is made to appear all the more scandalous because of the following denigrating dialogic commentary of our modern-day narrator: "Columbus leapt like a lizard being smoked out … and gold sounded like God in his Italianate accent" (HS, 7).
As we can see, the oxymoronic bouncing back and forth of the menippea serves as a substitute for character development and plot development, with much more concern for topical or profoundly human issues than for history or legend. In Cabrera Infante's earlier works we have already evidenced a Menippean vision of the world in terms of an ultimate question or issue in life: in Un oficio del siglo XX a film critic examines his career and decides to leave it behind for a more creative endeavor, thus exorcising an aspect of his self-identity. In Tres tristes tigres the idea of betrayal in language, literature, and love is played out as an adventure on all levels of the text. In La habana para un infante difunto (1979; Eng. Infante's Inferno, 1984) the Don Juan figure and his sexual exploits are burlesqued. The narrator of Holy Smoke also fulfills the Menippean function of provoking and testing an idea or truth. Here all aspects of an addiction are discussed by a narrator who presents himself essentially as a seeker of knowledge. As researcher-narrator he may be seen as the wise man who gathers together all supporting evidence and demonstrates its applicability to his theme that smoking a cigar is a way to be somebody in this life. The epigraph that opens the book, taken from Pete Kelly's Blues, is: "Here, have a cigar. Light it up and be somebody!" Or his topic may be seen in Menippean terms as the adventure of an idea—or of an ultimate question in life: to smoke or not to smoke? If you answer affirmatively, he provides the living testimony of experts on how to choose a cigar, how to light it, how to smoke it and when, where and how long to smoke it. If you answer negatively, you will be taking a calculated risk in reading the book. As Enrique Fernandez suggests, "Is literature conducive to substance abuse? I'm here to tell you it is."
As an anatomy of a vice, Holy Smoke has something for everyone. It presents the story of the rise of tobacco: its historical roots, its popularity, and the many forms of use and abuse it has taken; its demise in terms of health-related effects; and its actual and symbolic presence in art forms, especially in cinema and literature. Holy Smoke displays a wealth of dialogic Menippean qualities, thus reflecting the modern thrust toward the hermeneutic and away from the epistemological view and confirming Cabrera Infante's keen awareness of the prevailing spirit of the times.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4606
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 eléctrica tropical y Silvestre—que es el que se supone que sea mi alter ego en el libro—dice que parece un homenaje a un 4 de julio olvidado…. Por supuesto … que el 4 de julio de 1862 fue cuando Lewis Carroll, cuando el reverendo Dodgson … se fue de picnic con [Alicia] por el río Oxford." In recent Cuban prose fiction the name of the game is play itself, and when this comes to mean specifically word play it is not surprising that the name of Lewis Carroll should crop up in some significant context. Cabrera Infante has stated, in fact, "Tengo una enorme admiración por Lewis Carroll. Tanto que creo que es el verdadero iniciador de la literatura moderna como la conocemos hoy dia."
The tone of his novel is set in an epigraph drawn from Alice in Wonderland, which reads, "Y trató de imaginar cómo se vería la luz de una vela cuando está apagada." For Alice in her context the question appears to be one of immortality, for it occurs to her when she is wondering what will become of her if she continues shrinking until she goes out altogether like a candle, but my impression is that Cabrera Infante has in mind a different primary frame of reference for the quotation. He has said on various occasions that he considers his novel to be fundamentally a collection of "voices": this is what gives it much of its peculiar character and has led to several errors in interpretation. In the "Advertencia" at the beginning of the book he remarks, "La escritura no es más que un intento de atrapar la voz humana al vuelo" (p. 9), and it would appear that, in asking the question concerning the nature of the flame after the candle is out, he is alluding to an intention to examine the phenomenon of the spoken word after the sound of the voice is lost.
However, there is perhaps more similarity to Alice's thought than is immediately apparent because the spoken word may be Cabrera Infante's main point of reference in the search for immortality which becomes the major concern of at least three of the characters. Not only does Silvestre feel that Bustrófedon, the principal word-player of the novel, "ahora podia ser inmortal" (p. 318), but he himself accepts Arsenio Cué's characterization of him—Silvestre—as one who means to impose a sort of order on the mortal chaos through the word (p. 334). The whole point for this circle of friends is, as stated by Silvestre, "la sabiduría total, la felicidad, ser inmortales" (p. 318).
Bustrófedon, in point of fact, is nothing less than a logical extension of Carroll's tendency to play with words. Cabrera Infante's opinion concerning his unique style is that, as a stutterer, Carroll "echaba al papel las palabras que le quedaban en la punta de la lengua, o quizá más atrás," and the Cuban has carried the obsession with metamorphic, kaleidoscopic language beyond what the earlier author ever dared. Bustrófedon (whose very name is that of a rhetorical device) "quiso ser el lenguaje" (p. 318), and we have every reason to believe that he achieved his aim, on the basis of his behavior in the section "Rompecabeza." There he takes on the proportions of an antichrist, in that he—in contrast to the "Word made flesh"—is the fleshly man who has become the word. The point is that what began with Carroll as an active obsession with language has culminated in Cabrera Infante with language incarnate.
It is especially in this "Rompecabeza" section that the reader encounters frequent references and allusions to Carroll and his works. When a restaurant proprietor is cowed by Bustrófedon's menacing him and thereby seemingly growing until he reaches the ceiling, the former begins to shrink and finally disappears into a hole which is an "o" or a zero, as the type itself grows smaller and the lines are shortened. Códac, who is the narrator at this point, remarks,
Y me cordé [sic] de Alicia en el País de las Maravillas y se lo dije al Bustroformidable y él se puso a recrear, a regalar: Alicia en el mar de villas, Alicia en el país que más brilla, Alicia en el Cine Maravillas, Avaricia en el País de las Malavillas, Malavidas, Mavaricia, Marivia, Malicia, Milicia Milhizia Milhinda Milindia Milinda Malanda Malasia Malesia Maleza Maldicia Malisa Alisia Alivia Aluvia Alluvia Alevilla y marlisa y marbrilla y maldevilla…. (p. 209)
The form into which Códac puts the incident which leads to the outburst is what Martin Gardner calls "emblematic, or figured, verse: poems printed in such a way that they resemble something related to their subject matter" (Alice, p. 50). He has reference to Alice's imagination of the form of a mouse's "tale" as the shape of his tail, so that the speech is printed in that form.
Another example of figured verse in Tres tristes tigres appears in the "Casa de los espejos" section, as "una palabra-que sube por ella misma así
elee e (p. 143)
We are reminded of Thomas Pynchon's statement that "words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for," another major author's comment upon the growing autonomy of language.
Carroll's Humpty Dumpty anticipates Octavio Paz and Cabrera Infante in conceiving words as not only having substance and personality, but being rather cantankerous as well. Humpty Dumpty says, "They've a temper, some of them—particularly verbs: they're the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them!" (Alice, p. 269). Paz, for his part, is an admirer of the Marquis de Sade, as we see in the beginning of "Las palabras": "Dales la vuelta, / cógelas del rabo (chillen, putas), / azótalas." Nevertheless, Humpty Dumpty at least concedes that he pays his words extra when he forces them to work extra hard (Alice, p. 270). In the hands of Humpty Dumpty words tend to mean what their users want them to mean, but the next step is that of words acting on their own in the material sphere, and Bustrófedon is born.
The question of whether a word as it arrives within the hearer's perception necessarily has an "accepted" meaning, or whether it has only the meaning the speaker (or writer) chooses to give it, is a fundamental one for both of these writers. In 1852 Gustave Flaubert had already expressed his desire to write a book entirely free of subject matter, and of course our concern is closely related to that—the concept of meaning as dependent only upon the author's intention. "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less'" (Alice, p. 269), and his creator reiterates, "I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorized in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use" (Alice, p. 269). Similarly, Bustrófedon, the character who "empezó a cambiar el nombre de las cosas" (p. 220), had a growth on his spinal column, "y le hacía decir esas maravillas y jugar con las palabras y finalmente vivir nombrando todas las cosas por otro nombre como si estuviera, de veras, inventando un idioma nuevo" (p. 222). Later in Tres tristes tigres, it is mentioned that Bustrófedon may have managed to write a page of a book using only one word (perhaps attaching a different meaning to it each time he placed it on the page), and Cué mentions an antecedent or two. The next page confronts the reader with the lyrics of a guaracha, consisting only of the word "blen" (pp. 331-32).
The "Rompecabeza" section of Tres tristes tigres is largely dominated by Lewis Carroll. Not only does it contain the features previously mentioned but also such Carrollian favorites as portmanteau words, nonsense verse ("Váyala fiña de Viña/deifel Fader fidel fiasco/falla mimú psicocastro/alfú mar sefú más phinas," p. 210), metaphysical play with mathematical concepts (pp. 217-18), and twisted allusions to Carroll's work, as in the case of the comic name "Ruth de Loukin-Glass" (p. 267).
Throughout the book there is a constant use of mirrors in all possible forms. An example is found on the page which Códac has had specially printed for Bustrófedon (who at this point in the narrative is dead and thus on the other side of the mirror): it is an exact mirror image of the preceding page (pp. 264-65). But perhaps the most sophisticated case of the Carrollian use of mirrors is found in the section appropriately entitled "Casa de los espejos." In it Arsenio Cué is invited to come up to the apartment of two girls named Laura and Livia, and he does so. He stresses his ascent up the "metaphysical stairs," as if he, like the author of the Apocalypse, had been chosen to receive a major revelation. And indeed, this is the case, for much of the book has to do with the unveiling of the artificial, and what he sees demonstrates to him just how deep is the beauty of his lady friends. While mouthing one of the novel's refrains about Cué—"No cambias"—Livia places on the bed a set of photographs of herself in the nude, which Cué takes as a disappointing case of substitution. Many of the interpersonal transactions in this passage take place through the mirror, and Cué watches as the two rather imperfect girls are "put together" by the use of more or less cheap cosmetics. When one of them is finished Cué remarks, "De verdad que está muy bien: es otra mujer," and at the conclusion of the chapter he has become a veritable magic mirror. When he is asked, "¿ Verdad que estoy como nunca?" he replies, "Sí, ama, pero en Alturas del Bosque vive Blancanieves." To the repeated remark, "Tú siempre igual"—to which Cué assigns a different meaning than the speaker intended—he answers, "No, en serio estás bellísima. Están bellísimas" (pp. 145-56). The verb ser has been avoided throughout.
The mirror image of the story is related by Silvestre a few pages farther on, in the next section (pp. 165-68). He speaks of a date with another superficial beauty, one who has adopted a garbled version of the name of her favorite movie star and thus is known as Ingrid Bérgamo. The entire story is narrated in cinematic terms ("Veo en big close-up su mano," "a lo Cary Grant," "mi co-star," "la cámara ubicua"). Silvestre manages to spend the night in the same bed with Ingrid, but nothing more happens. In the morning he is startled by the sight of her wig, which he sees lying next to him, "como un abismo de falsedad": she is totally bald. He feigns sleep as she rushes to the bathroom to rearrange herself; Silvestre remarks, "Cuando sale es otra mujer" (pp. 165-68), the last three words being identical to those uttered by Cué. Cué has watched how some Cuban beauties are put together, while Silvestre has seen how they can come apart.
An even more striking Carrollian use of mirror-image experiences is seen in an earlier "Ella cantaba boleros" segment (pp. 75-79). In it Códac speaks first of picking up—at her request—an attractive girl wearing a man's shirt. She reveals that she calls herself Manolito el Toro, and leaves the automobile at a cabaret, where she meets and becomes intimate with a striking girl she refers to as Pepe. Finally convinced of this character's lesbianism, Códac moves on. The narration then proceeds to Códac's encounter with a character named Alex Bayer (also known as Alex Aspirina), a male homosexual who lives with a doctor. The significant point is in the transition between the two mirror-image encounters: Códac meets a black singer whom he knows, and comments, "Rolando se veía muy bein, muy cantante, muy cubano, muy muy habanero all con su traje de dril 100 blanco y su sombrero de paja, chiquito, puesto como solamente se lo saben poner los negros …" (p. 77). This is the transition through the mirror, by way of Códac's meeting with the opposite of what one would normally expect to see—a white man in a black suit.
It should be borne in mind as well that Códac (like Lewis Carroll) is a photographer and tends to view phenomena in terms of light and shadow, or positive and negative imagery. The latter point is evident in the description of his first view of La Estrella, who quickly becomes an obsession with him. It is plain to see here the concerns of Lewis Carroll the photographer, since Códac is very much in the photographer's role in this episode. Not only does he mention in passing his attempt to hide "las manchas amarillas del hipo" (from photo developer's acid), but he is introduced to a girl named Irenita by a dealer in pornographic pictures who apparently feels Códac can provide some free publicity. Códac says the pornographer "sacó a Irena por un brazo come si la pescara del mar de la oscuridad," and describes her as looking like a miniature Marilyn Monroe—that is, very small and blonde. The next portion of the description must be given in full so that the effect may be appreciated: "La rubita se rió con ganas levantando los labios y enseñando los dientes como si se levantara el vestido y enseñara los muslos y tenía los dientes más bonitos que yo he visto en la oscuridad: unos dientes parejos, bien formados, perfectos, sensuales como unos muslos, y nos pusimos a hablar y a cada rato ella enseñaba sus dientes sin ningún pudor y me gustaban tanto que por poco le pido que me dejara tocarle los dientes" (p. 62).
In her subsequent appearances Irenita never simply walks on the scene as would an ordinary person; she always seems to materialize suddenly out of the darkness. I think the allusion is clear: this is Cabrera Infante's tribute to Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, which appears and disappears at will, at times leaving only its smile behind. Cué makes a palindrome of her name and underscores her in-and-out character when he introduces her to Silvestre as "Irenita Atineri" (p. 412).
Códac becomes involved in a love scene with her in the darkness of the night club. As they are leaving he notices something in the light of the stage that he has not seen before: "Era una mulata enorme, gorda gorda, de brazos como muslos y de muslos que parecían dos troncos sosteniendo el tanque de agua que era su cuerpo" (p. 63). In terms of light and shadow this too is a mirror experience: the small, light Irenita, met in the darkness, is about to be replaced by the huge, black Estrella, first seen in the light.
These two characters are opposites, but in the book there are also two sets of characters who seem to reflect Carroll's Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The first pair is formed by Cué's artificial beauties, who are inseparable. Cué remarks, "Livia y Laura eran más que compañeras de cuarto, amigas ahora y salían juntas a todas partes y trabajaban juntas … y acabaron por ser una pareja: Laura y Livia / Livia y Laura / Lauriliva: una sola cosa" (pp. 148-49).
The other pair to which I have reference comprises Silvestre and Cué, who, significantly, are the embodiments of two aspects of Carroll's personality, the mathematical and the verbal. Silvestre is described as a disciple of Bustrófedon and spends a great deal of time in word play as he narrates the "Bachata" section, which makes up the last third of the book. Cué, on the other hand, distrusts words (seemingly because they are so changeable) and puts his faith in numbers. He comments, "Hay quienes ven la vida lógica y ordenada, otros la sabemos absurda y confusa. El arte (como la religión o como la ciencia o como la filosofia) es otro intento de imponer la luz del orden a las tinieblas del caos. Feliz tú, Silvestre, que puedes o crees que puedes hacerlo por el verbo" (p. 334). Earlier Silvestre has asked him," ¿Tú crees verdaderamente en los números?" and received the reply, "Es casi en lo único que creo. Dos y dos serán siempre cuatro y el día que sean cinco es hora de echarse a correr" (p. 312). The irony of the situation is that on the next page he narrates a dream in which he runs, and he runs several more times before the end of the novel.
In the eleventh division of the "Bachata" section are found the "Confesiones de un comedor de gofio cubano" (comer gofio in Cuban jargon means to be a fool), which Silvestre says are Cué's complete works (pp. 321-22). There is a good deal of word play here, since even Cué is attracted to Bustrófedon in spite of himself, but where he shines is in his complex games with numbers, including a magic square with nine numerals which add up to fifteen in any direction (p. 329). His favorite number is three (a very important one for the book as a whole, from the title on), but he also makes the point that "9 sumado por si es 18 y multiplicado por si mismo es 81. Al revés y al derecho, el número en el espejo" (p. 328), which presumably would be doubly pleasing to Lewis Carroll. Silvestre, in contrast, likes the concept of words in the mirror, or palindromes, of which there are numerous examples in the text.
Another aspect of Lewis Carroll's character is revealed in an incident at the beach and also serves to unify Silvestre and Cué in this regard. Cué is speaking to a little girl named Angelita, and Silvestre remarks to his reader, "No me gustan los nifios, pero me encantan las nifias. Me habria gustado hablar con ella, sentir de cerca su gracia" (p. 353). Carroll's own famous comment on the subject is "I am fond of children (except boys)" (Alice, p. 11). The child has given Cué a white stone, and it is worth noting that Lewis Carroll marked with white stones many of his pleasant days spent with little girls.
Códac addresses his two friends as "Silvestre Ycúe" (p. 222), and it appears that they form a parallel with the feminine grouping of "Laurilivia." But it is curious to note that at the end of the novel both pairs are about to be broken up as a result of Silvestre's marriage to Laura (p. 434).
Cué himself, like Alice, has an experience in which he passes through the looking glass to become a different person. He narrates the first part of the experience near the beginning of the text and the conclusion near the end. He arrives at the home of a famous entrepreneur as a poor boy from the country, hoping to be discovered as a writer. As he enters the apartment he sees before him a shabby-looking person; he tells the reader, "Levanté la mano para dársela, al tiempoque inclinaba un poco la cabeza y él hizo lo mismo. Vi que sonreia un poco y sentí que yo también sonreía: los dos comprendimos al mismo tiempo: era un espejo" (p. 54). Evidently this is the meeting with the double which in some Romantic literature was a presage of one's death. Cué is apparently shot by the entrepreneur, thinks he is dead, and is "resurrected" by the man, though as an actor, not a writer. The latter part is told to Silvestre near the end of the book (pp. 423-24), and Silvestre later refers to the entire story as "su muerte y su nuevo nacimiento: su resurrección metafisica" (p. 431). Cué continually insists that he is no longer himself but his Doppelgänger, his mirror image: "Soy mi imagen de espejo. Eucoinesra. Arsenio Cué en el idioma del espejo" (p. 400).
One incident in the novel grows directly out of another in Lewis Carroll's life, and it is interesting to see how Cabrera Infante varies the details to fit it into his scheme. The model case is as follows, described by Martin Gardner: "On one occasion a pretty fifteen-year-old actress named Irene Barnes … spent a week with Charles Dodgson at a seaside resort … [She remarks,] 'His great delight was to teach me his Game of Logic [this was a method of solving syllogisms by placing black and red counters on a diagram of Carroll's own invention]. Dare I say this made the evening rather long, when the band was playing outside on the parade, and the moon shining on the sea?" (Alice, pp. 13-14).
Cabrera Infante is convinced that the man's behavior is rather abnormal. This belief is undoubtedly the basis for one portion of Silvestre's and Cué's evening together as described by the former in "Bachata." From the car they spy two available-looking girls, one of whom—like Irene Barnes—is very young. Silvestre remarks, when Cué stops and walks back to speak to them, "Lo vi alejarse por la acera izquierda, por donde ellas venian en la calle del espejo" (p. 365).
Once they are in the car, the two men make little attempt to seduce them in the normal manner. Rather, they regale them with a series of wild linguistic jokes, at times in multiple foreign languages. Silvestre wonders why, but says, "Ya no habia quien nos detuviera" (p. 384). Later he comments, "No tenian dientes para estas risas. Sin embargo, seguiamos haciéndoles cosquillas, ligando bromas de Falopio, hilarando un chiste-tras-otro. ¿Por qué? Quizá porque Arsenio y yo estábamos divertidos" (p. 386). After a few more pages he wonders again if it might not be easier simply to seduce them, and the four go out—significantly in the light of the Carroll story—into the moonlight, but still nothing happens (p. 391). It gives one the impression that the author is forcing his characters to play the role of Lewis Carroll almost against their will and without their understanding why they must do it.
Thus far we have considered individual cases of references, allusions or other reflections of the preoccupations of Lewis Carroll's work in that of Cabrera Infante. But on a much grander level it becomes evident that the entire novel may be conceived as a pair of roughly antithetical halves arranged each on its respective side of the "mirror" which is the center. In view of the fact that the work has been widely held to have no structure at all, however, it would be well to note a pertinent comment of the author. In introducing a chapter which failed to appear in Tres tristes tigres but was subsequently published in a journal known as Alacrán Azul, he mentions that his original intention had been to include it at the end, but that if he had done so it would have disturbed the symmetry of the novel. As pointed out by Emir Rodriguez Monegal, several stories have their beginnings in the first half and are concluded in the second. An example already dealt with above is that of Cué's "death" and his "resurrection," one of the opposites appearing in each half. Again in connection with his story, Beba Longoria, one of the girls he and Silvestre picked up, disappears from the narration at a point almost exactly the same number of pages from the end of the book as her first appearance to Cué is from the beginning.
Another example of some importance is the unit narrated by Silvestre between pages 36 and 42. Approximately fifteen pages from the end (pp. 436-37) he tells the reader fundamentally the same story but with some significant details not only altered but inverted. Then he comments, "Algún día escribiré este cuento." Obviously by the time of the publication of Tres tristes tigres he has done so, but presumably that comment to the reader was made previous to the writing.
In addition, in that same story, we find the young Silvestre—in an interesting twist on Don Quixote's sale of his land to buy books—selling the family library to be able to attend the cinema (pp. 36-42), while in the second half he is a writer. Furthermore, his opposite number, Arsenio Cué, begins his first-half story in the belief that he is a writer and ends it in the second as an actor.
It is clear that in the second half there are several reversals of situations introduced in the first, not the least of which is seen in the fact that the novel which begins with a great deal of noise issuing from the mouth of the emcee of the Tropicana night club ends with the manifold repetition of the phrase "en silencio" (p. 444).
Moreover, it would appear that the character I have described as the incarnation of Carrollian word play, Bustrófedon, serves as the mirror between the halves. The "Rompecabeza" section, which concentrates on his life and death, occupies the center of the text. Cabrera Infante refers to this character as "the two-way man," a sort of Janus-figure. His name, that of the device of alternating directions in writing, confirms this notion, and it is mentioned that he spends a good deal of time around O Street (p. 139). (While this represents the letter O in Havana's street nomenclature, Cabrera Infante apparently intends it to stand for the zero which divides thesis from antithesis.) Just as Jesus Christ divides history into B.C. and A.D., this "antichrist" divides the world of the novel into two halves which, to some extent at least, are mirror images of each other.
The imagery Cabrera Infante borrowed from Lewis Carroll is of the sort usually associated with modern apocalyptic literature. Tres tristes tigres is unquestionably an apocalyptic novel, reflecting as it does a world poised to receive its death-blow and experience rebirth under Fidel Castro. The term "apocalypse" means "unveiling," not only of some divine plan for the cosmos but also of the hidden sins of a generation. This, I believe, is why certain kinds of imagery are important both to Carroll, living in an age with much to hide prior to its jarring encounter with modern realities, and to Cabrera Infante, who lived in a country created largely for the tourist trade, an artificial paradise whose superficial glamor was about to be exposed. Thus we find the stress on mirrors, which create illusion and bring about a reversal of reality, and the emphasis on the breakdown and rebuilding of language and mathematics, which are fundamental to our understanding of reality. Viewed in this way, the high praise heaped upon the Victorian by the modern Cuban becomes more understandable: both writers were members and prophets of terminal generations.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8709
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?
"La biblioteca de Babel"
Since even before entering the text proper, the reader of Tres tristes tigres [Three Trapped Tigers] is warned (in the "Advertencia") that the whole novel is written in an "idioma secreto," the nocturnal jargon of Havana, it comes as no surprise to find critics saying that "a new language is created in the space of the text itself." This kind of statement, however, tells us nothing in particular: all literary works create private languages; a text is as much a linguistic as a fictional universe. Instead, we should ask what is different and "secret" about the language of Tres tristes tigres? How does it surpass the mere recording of a dialect? What are its rules and grammar? These questions have been difficult to answer because Tres tristes tigres is so disjointed a text, a collage of so many styles and genres that there seems to be no binding force. I believe, however, that there can be found a consistency and development of style which would justify calling this odd pastiche of materials a cohesive language or, indeed, a metalanguage—a comment on the workings of language itself.
Bearing in mind this continuity, I should like to investigate the role of language in the text as a whole by examining the novel section by section in serial fashion, to show that since the theme of language so totally pervades the novel and ties in with diverse themes, each section either captures or further elucidates a different aspect of Cabrera's literary sign or his concept of language and thereby progressively builds—on the scale of the novel—a secret language.
Unlikely as it may seem, the loosely jointed features of Tres tristes tigres do respond to a generic impulse, that of the carnivalesque novel or menippean satire, for since the text's two most direct models, Petronius's Satyricon ("Tres tristes tigres es una traducción fallida del Satiricon") ["Three Trapped Tigers is an unsuccessful translation of the Satyricon"] and Lewis Carroll's Alice novels participate in this genre, one can expect to find carnivalesque traits in Cabrera's novel. It is well known that the structure of a carnivalesque work is characterized by an extraordinary freedom of composition which manifests itself in a multi-generic or collage texture, by the lack of a finalizing authorial presence which allows characters to evolve their own truth in a Socratic conversation of divergent voices, and by an apparent shattering of the customary novelesque logic of narrative, although "the appearance of carelessness that results reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered concept of fiction." By debunking traditional narrative plot and character development and pushing them into the background, menippean satire permits intellectual freeplay—or in our case, intellectual wordplay—to come to the foreground. We shall explore these structural features in the course of this study; for now, I should like to focus on the characteristics of carnivalesque language.
M. Bakhtin, who first elaborated the concept of the carnivalesque as such, believes that the language of the carnival work—characterized by skaz, stylization and parody—falls outside the bounds of linguistics, being a metalinguistic phenomenon, double-edged or dialogical: "A single trait is common to all of these phenomena, despite their essential differences: in all of them the word has a double-directedness—it is directed both toward the object of speech, like an ordinary word, and toward another word, toward another person's speech." In other words, the prime feature of the dialogical word is that it is never equal to itself. Each type of carnival discourse stands in a different relationship to the 'other' word hidden inside it. Skaz, from the Russian skazal (to say, to tell), indicates an orientation towards another person's spoken language: when the author reproduces someone else's speech, not his or her own, this is double-edged skaz. Stylization extends another person's style by means of exaggeration. Faithful to the tones and intentions of another author's style, stylization merely makes that style double-edged by inserting it into a foreign body of work. Parody, on the other hand, "introduces a semantic direction into that word which is diametrically opposed to its original direction." If in stylization the two voices merge, parody sets them against one another in hostile conflict. Considering the wide range of double-edged discourse, Bakhtin concludes that dialogical language lies at the foundation of prose, as versus poetic, language: "The possibility of employing within a single work words of various types in their extreme expressions without reducing them to a common denominator is one of the most essential characteristics of prose. Herein lies the most profound distinction between prose style and poetic style." In effect, Bakhtin is saying that prose language is essentially intertextual, bearing the traces of the other literary contexts through which it has passed.
Monological or single-voiced language is virtually absent from Tres tristes tigres. In order to convert spoken into literary language, Cabrera states, he transferred speech from the horizontal to the vertical plane, increasing the resonances of the word:
uno de mis experimentos … era tratar de llevar este lenguaje básico, convertir este lenguaje oral en un lenguaje literario válido. Es decir, llevar este lenguaje si tú quieres horizontal, absolutamente hablado, a un plano vertical, a un plano artistico, a un plano literario.
[one of my experiments … was to try to turn this basic language—to convert this oral language—into a valid literary language. In other words, to take this, if you will, horizontal, absolutely spoken, language, onto an artistic plane, a literary plane.]
The end product of the transfer was to replace monological language by dialogical skaz, intertextuality, parody, and a further double-edged form, translation, making Cabrera's language eminently self-conscious—literary—referring less to a real context than to an intertext.
It is no accident that while Tres tristes tigres starts off with a barrage of oratorical rhetoric in its prologue, Petronius' Satyricon commences with a fierce diatribe against exactly this same rhetoric. Thinking anachronistically, one might consider the opening chapter of the Satyricon as an implicit response to, and criticism of, the high-blown rhetoric of Cabrera's emcee, which grossly distorts the image of Cuba it sets forth. His is a rhetoric of the old Spanish school—sonorous, romantic, clichéd, with little meaningful connection to the underlying reality. However, when the lights fail to go on, the emcee forgets himself and says "coño": here, then, we encounter the first debunking of canonized culture, an attack on its language which illustrates Tres tristes tigres's anti-rhetorical stance.
There are various kinds of translation in the prologue, and all are betrayals. The greatest distortion takes place in the translation of Cuban reality into language, for the announcer filters Cuba not only through rhetoric but also through stereotypes, the result being a version of Cuba whose only reality is found in the glossy blurbs of travel brochures. Brazil suffers the same misrepresentation, transformed into a Hollywood paradise, the "Brazil de Carmen Miranda y de Jose Carioca" (15). These are actually inter-cultural translations which shape foreign realities to accord with tourists' preconceptions, or rather, misconceptions. Whenever the narrator provides an instantaneous translation from English to Spanish, or vice-versa, he perpetuates the fraud. Passing from one class of false discourse to another, with each 'literary,' and thus non-literal, translation he adds new rhetorical flourishes. At the same time, he is guilty of serious translational boners, through mispronunciation ("Brazuil terra dye nostra felichidade" ), misrepresentation (William Campbell, we learn later, is not the heir to the soup fortune), and mistranslation ("Discriminatory public" ). Oral neologisms, reproducing the announcer's speech patterns, heighten the absurdity of his translations ("Amableypacientepublicocubanoes MisterCambellelfamosomillionarioherederodeunafortunadesopas" ). Yet auguring the change in language which follows the prologue, the narrator concludes by nullifying his own language: "Sin traduccion … without translation … sin palabras pero con música y sana alegria y esparcimiento …" (19).
The emcee has presented the reader with an entirely verbal reality, one which exists only in his words. Accordingly, if not conversely, what assumes great importance is the negative space, what is not said, but will be said later. For behind the eloquent rhetorical facade lies the true language of Cuba, the spontaneous oral speech which dominates the rest of the novel, beginning with "Los debutantes."
Because the narrations of "Los debutantes" appear to be straight monologues with no wordplays or literary allusions, and because, after all, much of "Los debutantes" represents the characters' first steps towards the nightworld, one might be tempted to equate these monologues (and here I am referring primarily to the women's voices, because the men's have more 'literary' features) with monological language. From the very first, however, the language of Tres tristes tigres is dialogical, characterized by polyphony and skaz.
In the carnivalesque novel, the author abdicates to the characters the right to a definitive word or style. Each character becomes a voice articulating one point of view, and in his words coexist two voices: the voice or skaz of the character, and the voice of the author which tries to reproduce the character's voice and which always stands at a certain remove—different with each character—from its object. Similarly, the wide range of verbal textures in Tres tristes tigres, more noticeable in "Los debutantes" than in any other section (since the male narrators of the remaining chapters tend to speak something of a common language), evinces the author's surrender of his voice to other voices as he attempts to faithfully record the oral skaz of each character. Far from monological then, each seeming monologue contains a hidden dialogue between the voice of the author and that of the speaker.
"Los debutantes" most explicitly contributes to the idioma secreto by capturing "los diferentes dialectos del espanol que se hablan en Cuba," ["the different dialects of Spanish spoken in Cuba"], the whole range of Cuban speech. One barometer of its striking assortment of voices is the presence of oral neologisms, created to simulate the characters' oral pronunciation or dialect. Already in the Prologue oral neologisms were employed to produce an ironic perspective on the announcer's rhetoric; here, appearing in greater abundance and variety, they serve to distinguish between the several, often unidentified voices. If, as has been said, Tres tristes tigres combines the detective story with semiology, then these special signs, the neologisms, provide an important clue to (or sign of) the speaker's identity.
For example, although Delia Doce's letter to her friend Estelvina (pp. 28-33) is written, its neologisms derive from oral pronunciation. Most of her neologisms are either simple spelling mistakes playing on the few nonsound/symbol correspondences of Spanish (i.e. interchanging v and b; s, c, and z; Il and y; omitting h's); misspellings based on pronunciation ("rialidá," "yegârá"); or the conjoinings of words according to pronunciation ("Mariasantisima"). In the narrative about Magalena Cruz (34-35) we find the highest incidence of neologisms. While the speech of its mysterious narrator (is it Beba Longorio, who later is seen in Magalena's company and has some peculiar hold over her?) may appear to be the most lower-class or unregenerated, it is nevertheless the most uniquely Cuban, displaying several traits characteristic of Cuban Spanish: exchange of the liquid consonants r and l ("hablal," "coldel"); apocope of the final syllable ("na ma" for "nada" más"); suppression or aspiration of S's ("asi mimo," "etás"); dropping of the intervocalic consonants ("vestia" for "vestida"), and so on. If indeed Beba Longorio is the narrator of this monologue, her next monologue (43-45) reveals a language in the process of transformation. Characterized by the same features of Cuban Spanish just mentioned, her speech has now gravitated towards a more sophisticated tone, acquiring the mannerisms of what she believes to be upper-class speech: a 'feminine' emphasis on words, indicated by italics ("Bueno, menos en eso, Creo"), or their elongation ("ma-rabillo-sa"); creation of high-sounding neologisms ("la visconversa"); use of foreign words ("trusó," "senkiu"), and so on. Here, as earlier in the Prologue, the use of skaz borders on parody, with the author using the character's voice to hostile purposes.
Oral neologisms entail a making strange of language and as such signify the first step towards wordplay. Unfamiliar to the eye and mind, but not to the ear, the distortion of a word's orthographical representation constitutes, in essence, a separation of the signifier from the signified in order to accentuate the word's sound. Unlike the wordplays and allusions which begin to emerge in seminal form with the male narrators' monologues, oral neologisms are pure sound. Their signifiers neither hide nor create unsuspected signifieds; they are self-reflexive, referring back only to the oral dimensions of the word. Orality, therefore, is at the root of all of Tres tristes tigres's neologisms, but in wordplay the neologisms acquire a metaphorical depth, an intra-or intertextual dimension. In sum, this making strange of language indicates the path that the novel will take: by substituting the oral for the written and emphasizing sound over meaning, Tres tristes tigres defines itself as a large-scale tongue-twister.
In many ways, Laura's story represents the "other" of Tres tristes tigres, both in terms of point of view—hers is another, outside perspective on the tigers' nightworld—and in terms of its implications for language. Thematically, Laura's story, told through her monologue in "Los debutantes" and through the eleven sessions with a psychiatrist interpolated throughout the novel, supplies both the woman's point of view on the male-dominated novel, and a different temporal perspective, for her first monologue takes place before she has entered the nightworld, and the sessions occur after she has married Silvestre, thereby bringing to a close both their participation in the nightworld. Consequently, her monologues are our only outside view of the nightworld and, importantly, its aftermath, and they form another novel in miniature, a whole other series within this polyphonic novel.
Significantly enough, the novel proper commences with Laura's statement; "Lo que no le dijimos nunca a nadie fue que nosotras también hacíamos cositas debajo del camión" [But what we never told anyone was that we too used to play with each other's things under the truck.] (23). What she never told, simply put, was the truth, because the truth was too shameful for Laura and her friend Aurelita to tell. Instead, they displace what was too shameful to tell, the homosexual nature of their activities, onto a more acceptable form, their story exposing the (heterosexual) activities of Petra and her lover. And further, with each performance of their tale, the two children enlarge upon the details of the story, distorting even that truth. Their translation is thus a betrayal, both of the event and of themselves, and the avoidance of the truth engenders a series of periphrastic lies, lies which come to represent not only a false language, but repression itself. Normal discourse, the truth, is replaced by an "other" language, one with negative connotations.
When we next meet Laura in the first session, the game has become life and the need to tell all that she has repressed is overwhelming. Faced with a stifling lack of communication with her husband, Laura describes herself as "la esfinge ajita de secretos" ["the sphinx that had its bellyful of secrets"] (67) and turns to the psychiatrist in the attempt finally to unburden herself. Yet she has no words to impart her feelings: nothing that Laura says in the first session is her own; she speaks with her husband's words. The inability to speak the truth has installed itself as the center of Laura's life, making her an inveterate liar who translates her life into a series of falsehoods. Only by the seventh appointment does Laura endeavour to undo the lies she has told the psychiatrist ("El viernes le dije una mentira, doctor. Grandisima" ["I told you a lie on Friday, doctor. A really big lie."] (209) Peeling away the layers of falsehood, Laura grasps for a mode of genuine communication, but in the last, eleventh, session, she is on the verge of total breakdown.
"Seseribó" and "Casa de los espejos" further develop the counterpoint between men and women in Tres tristes tigres. While Tres tristes tigres's male characters find an outlet for political and sexual frustration in verbal humor, its female characters are denied that outlet and thereby condemned to madness and artificiality, forced to play Ophelia to the men's Hamlets. Women are seen as dangerous and taboo ("Seseribó") and exposed as fakes of monstrous proportions when they pass through the "cámara del detector de mentiras" [lie detector] which strips them of their disguises ("casa de los espejos"). At the same time, in both chapters whenever women are present, we note a surge of wordplay or "masturhablarse" on the men's part, in defense against the women. This curious attraction and repulsion that the female characters exercise over the males can, on the one hand, be attributed to the fact that the female characters in Tres tristes tigres represent the baser plane of sensuality while the males strive for a higher, intellectual plane. In other words, whereas the closely knit circle of "tigers" postulate the nightworld, largely a mental construct, as a pure space removed from time, their women, who operate on a physical and sensual level, resort to grotesque extremes of make-up and disguises to ward off the ravages of time. Derided and scorned by the male characters (consider, in this regard, also the episode in "Bachata" with Beba and Magalena), the women—disallowed the gift of humor—serve as victims who must be sacrificed in order to preserve the intellectual purity of the nightworld. On the other hand, but analogously, the true surrender of oneself to a woman (as in the case of Silvestre) would bring an end to the nightworld, hence the tigers' insistence on their masturbatory verbal continence which precludes the need for (the opposite) sex.
It is thought that macaronic or polyglot literature, with its monstrous verbal exuberance, may originally have been developed to celebrate the crowning of those real monsters, the carnival king and queen. Be that as it may, there is certainly a carnival impulse in the polyglot nature of Tres tristes tigres, which transforms the normally unilingual stylistic surface of a text into a polyphonic Babel of languages. This plurality of languages echoes the plurality of styles which make of Tres tristes tigres a collage of heterogeneous materials.
Not only different languages, but different kinds of languages—negative and positive—coincide in the novel. The polyglot conversation in English and French of the third section of "Seseribo" where Cué and his girlfriend show off their sophistication is ridiculed: "Ellos dos parecian muy preocupados en demostrar que podian hablar franglés y besarse al mismo tiempo" ["They were both deeply absorbed in showing they could speak French and kiss at the same time."] (94) Eribó complains that the two of them "quieren convertir al español en una lengua muerta" ["want to turn Spanish into a dead language."] (96): the use of foreign languages is one more negative product of Cuba's cultural "barroquismo" and hence receives a parodic treatment in Tres tristes tigres. At the same time, there figure in the text specialized languages or professional jargons, which fulfill a positive function as alternative languages. Already in Un Officio del Siglo XX, the mundo al inverso of movies is equated with its specialized languages, as in the section entitled "La lengua de Cain es el lenguaje del cine." ["Cain's language is the language of the movies."] Here, each tiger chooses a particular art upon which to base his private mundo al inverso, a gateway to the absolute, and each field has its own jargon. Eribó speaks the language of music (in "Seseribó"), Silvestre the language of the movies, Códac of photography and Cué, whose conversation is a weave of quotations, of the theatre. Beginning with "Seseribó," then, and extending throughout the text, we encounter a variety of alternative languages giving voice to the several underground worlds which converge in the nightworld.
To the eye, "Ella cantaba boleros" and the other narrative sections present a smooth narrative surface, unbroken by dialogue, short paragraphs or typographic play. But although the surface may look homogeneous, like all else in Tres tristes tigres it is woven of a heterogeneous body of stuff, encompassing many layers, Codac's narratives avail themselves of the technique, used by Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac, of framing massively long sentences—often the length of a paragraph—into which are drawn many thoughts, sentences, points of view and voices, Dialogue enters only indirectly, without quotation marks, creating, almost imperceptibly, a tissue of alternating voices, such as the following:
y al poco rato el griego que me dice ¿Por qué no saca a bailar a mi mujer? y yo le dìgo que no bailo y él me dice que cómo es posible que hay a un cubano que no baile y Magalena que le dice, No hay uno, hay dos, porque yo tampoco bailo … (129).
[and soon the Greek is saying to me, Why don't you ask my wife for a dance? and I tell him I don't dance and he says, It's not possible, a Cuban who doesn't dance? and Magalena says, There's two of them because I can't dance either … (127)]
Ostensibly a monologue, in reality Códac's narratives are a melting pot of voices, a polyphonic dialogue. Cué's contribution to "casa de los espejos" also partakes of these twisting polyphonic sentences, supplementing the dialogical interplay of characters' voices with literary allusions or quotations. Once again, as with the skaz of "Los debutantes," but in a different way, the monologue proves to enclose a dialogue.
While in "Ella cantaba boleros" there is a little verbal distortion through wordplays, we do find innovative distortion in terms of the sentence. The polyphonic phrases of Tres tristes tigres represent an opening up of language, for certain techniques allow the sentences to continue almost indefinitely. Cabrera employs existing linguistic means such as parataxis, hypotaxis, semi-colons and colons to extend the sentence, while adding a technique of this own—slashes ("un si es no es falsa/trabajada/viril" ).
However, within this framework it is through a more far-reaching means of re-organization that the sentences succeed in perpetuating themselves at such great length. Metaphorical construction is the important and all-pervasive structuring technique of Cabrera's prose and usually takes the form of paradigmatic overlapping—repetition with change:
Y alargaba una pierna sepia, tierra ahora, chocolate ahora, café ahora, tabaco ahora, azúcar, prieto ahora … (66).
[and she stretched out a leg sepia one moment, then earth-brown, then chocolate, tobacco, sugar-colored, black …] (61)
ella puso sus cinco chorizos sobre mi muslo, casi sus cinco salami que adornan un jamón sobre mi muslo, su mano sobre mi muslo … (70)
[she put her 5 chorizos, five sausages, on my thigh, almost like five salamis garnishing a ham on my thigh, she put her hand on my thigh …] (65)
The omnipresent devices of repetition, slash constructions and anaphora also create metaphorical planes of equivalence:
nunca la vi más hermosa que en aquella penumbra—excepto desnuda excepto desnuda excepto desnuda (150).
[I have never seen her more beautiful than she was that evening—except naked except naked except naked.] (150)
fabricó la gana/ el ansia/la necesidad de que la viera desnuda (150).
[/Livia/ was manufacturing the desire, the anxiety, the necessity for me to see her naked …] (150)
Es la salvaje belleza de la vida, sin que me oyera naturalmente, sin que me entendiera si me habia oido, naturalmente … (64)
[She's the savage beauty of life, without Irenita hearing me, naturally, not that she would have understood if she had heard me, naturally …] (my translation)
Most often, several of these metaphorical techniques will appear in conjunction, converting the sentence into a syntactically orchestrated instrumental solo which generates its own varying rhythm of repetitions.
Carrying our investigation beyond stylistic analysis to the narrative organization of the text as a whole, we can point out certain similarities between style and narrative structure which reveal Tres tristes tigres to be what might be called an "aphasic" text. All of its narrative structure obeys a non-traditional, non-linear logic and development. Each section is situated in a time/space different and discontinuous from the next: for example, on page 276, the reader is surprised to learn that Bustrófedon had already died by the time the opening scene of the novel takes place, a fact which implies that the majority of the text deals with the last sparks of the nightworld. Further, as stated earlier, Tres tristes tigres features a collage-like construction, binding together generically heterogeneous materials and obliterating the linear development of a plot. These multi-generic elements (such as "Los visitantes," "La muerte de Trotsky," etc.) are linked to the more narrative sections only through association, for they extend and often define the novel's major themes. In fact, the narrative sections themselves are organized associatively and not linearly, following cinematic techniques of flashback and montage. The end product is a non-linear text which works on a new associative logic, and whose structure reflects Bustrófedon's particular kind of aphasia: a contiguity disorder that impedes the metonymic organization of discourse.
The story on which "Los visitantes" is based is purposely banal and cliché-ridden. Therefore, with the subject matter so trivial, the reader's attention is automatically shifted to how the story is told or presented. And since the story is presented through a series of translations which become travesties of an (absent) original text, it is the process of translation that comes to the fore. Translation, as we shall see, gives rise to a new kind of double-edged word, one in which the translated word struggles to remain faithful to the original voice inside it, but often falls, inadvertently, into parody.
"Los visitantes" explicitly illustrates the problematics of translation with several cases in point in which, at every stage, the traduttore is a tradittori who betrays both reality and language. As in the "Prólogo," there are two kinds of translation to be found here—intercultural and intralingual; as the first is quite obvious, let us turn to the second.
Upon first reading, Silvestre's appears to be a "good" translation; it reads well, the Spanish is colloquial; in sum, the translation seems to stand up as well as an original might. But only when we read Rine's "Pésima" [awful] translation do we realize what has happened. This second translation, and, obviously, the original story, abounds with cultural references, wordplays, and foreign languages, many of which Rine finds untranslatable and resorts to footnotes to explain. (Perhaps this is a comment on the untranslateability of the text itself, which features the same traits.) Then, returning to Silvestre's version, we find that he has merely left out the untranslatable elements, flattening the polyphonic texture into a single dimension. Silvestre thereby sacrifices accuracy for style, achieving a "readable" text by betraying the original.
However, it is a toss-up which translation, Silvestre's or Rine's, is the greater betrayal, for they illustrate the two possible extremes of translation. While Silvestre's version undermines its double-edgedness, being good Spanish, by disregarding the original, Rine's is patently double-edged, a literal translation. In a literal translation the original language shines through, determining the lexicon and syntax of the new product; such translations in effect are little more than a linguistic pony to aid the reader whose knowledge of the foreign language is insufficient, but who nevertheless wishes to sample the original flavor. The paradox, then, is that a literal translation, while faithful to the original language, is a betrayal of the original text and its stylistic integrity. In other words, the most faithful double betrays its own image, as Cué makes clear: "O estabas pensando en la traición o tradicióon o traducción de Rine, siempre leal, al pie de la letra as í?" (440) [Or were you thinking of the treason or tradition or translation of Rine Leal, always loyal, to the letter of the law?] (my translation)
Built into the story itself is another kind of translation, a critique taking the form of Mrs. Campbell's "Reparos" or "Correcciones." Mrs. Campbell criticizes both her husband's style and his portrayal of the events; demanding realism or journalistic accuracy, she unmasks the fictional character of her husband's narrative. However, at the same time as she adopts the stance of a literary critic finding fault with the inaccuracy of his style, she endows her own narrative with a recognizably "literary" style in phrases such as: "Navegamos por entre edificios de espejos, reverberos que comían los ojos … Un muelle se acercó lenta, inexorablemente" (181). [We sailed between buildings that were more mirrors than buildings, reflections that could swallow the eyes of those who gazed at them … Slowly, inevitably, a pier moved toward us.] (185-6) By positing this contradiction, Cabrera seems to suggest that any written form is a style—that there is no "zero" degree style—and that objectivity is simply an illusion. Yet the greatest illusion of all is Mrs. Campbell's mere existence. At the end of the novel we learn that there is no real Mrs. Campbell, that the paper tiger wife of "Los visitantes" is only a fictional projection of the author's personality onto a different persona, as are all characters. In this case, language gives rise to an illusion which betrays not only reality, but also the reader.
Although "Rompecabeza," with its subordination of the narrative to wordplay, seems to stand apart from the body of the novel, it actually comprises a key or scholium as vital to the text as "Bachata." When read word by word, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, this writing that is anything becomes something—more specifically, wordplay reveals itself as the matrix for Tres tristes tigres's idioma secreto. We shall examine, as space permits, certain salient characteristics of wordplay.
Throughout this elegiac text, as we repeatedly see, much is made of the fact that all translation is a betrayal and that any language proves insufficient to carry out Tres tristes tigres's ecological task of recapturing the nightworld lost. Viewed in this light, wordplay appears as a substitute or anti-language evolved in the face of the betrayal of conventional language. As a result of the failure of language to successfully translate reality or a given message, wordplay de-emphasizes the signifier, centering its discourse on the actual physical properties of the sign—its plastic and musical dimensions—and not, as one critic aptly notes, on the conveying of a message:
La comunicación ha sido no sólo pospuesto sino inexorablemente conmutada por una devaluación del carácter racional del lenguaje en una exaltación del la palabra como signos musicales o plásticos.
[Communication has not only been postponed, but inexorably switched, by means of a devaluation of the rational character of language, into a exaltation of words as musical or plastic signs.]
By taking recourse to the signifier and the phonically determined associations of signifiers, this new oral idiom attains to what can be seen as an autonomous, non-referential language, giving (at least) the illusion of an absolute structure, independent of reality and complete in and of itself. Under these conditions, language can no longer be accused of betraying reality or even meaning, since it is faithful only to its own origins—the linguistic code—and any 'meaning' it produces will be found in the relationship between signifiers.
Cabrera's, special wordplays most often combine the characteristics of the anagram and pun, for a single sign (such as "Dádiva" ) proves anagramatically to harbour a series of signifiers (Dádiva—ávida, vida, ida, David) related by sound and not by meaning. Carlos Fuentes has praised Cabrera for destroying "la fatal tradición de univocidad de nuestra prosa" ["the lethal tradition in our prose of univocality"] and for revealing the word as "un nudo de significados." ["a knot of meanings"] Such an opening up of language, in which one word engenders many, results in an excess of signifiers, an "intratextuality" of the word. And this intratextuality, in turn, reveals wordplay as an eminently dialogical form.
Now one of the most serious objections levied against the word-within-wordplay series is that they rupture the metonymic story-telling flow of the narrative. However, a closer look at the relationship between signifiers reveals another structuring principle at work as binding as metonymy. As in the narrative sections, here we encounter the metaphorical technique of paradigmatic overlapping, repetition with change. A good illustration of this technique is the following wordplay progression where the paradigm (Bustro- or Bus-) is added to a (syntagmatic) series of qualifiers:
y nosotros en el más acá muertos de risa en la orilla del mantel, con este pregonero increíble, el heraldo, Bustrófeno, éste, gritando, BustrofenóNemo chico eres un Bustrófonbraun, gritando bustrórriba marina, gritando, Bustifón, Bustrosimún, Busmonzón, gritando, Viento Bustrófenomenal, gritando a diestro y siniestro y ambidiestro (208).
[and we're still there in the hereafter drowning of laughter on the shores of the tablecloth … with this unbelievable public proclaimer BustrophenoNemo, a Bustrofonbraum, crying out loud, Bustyphoon, Bustornado, Bustrombone, out-crying himself, Bustrombamarina, crying to left and right …] (214-15)
The concatenation of names is paratactic and metaphorical, relating disparate terms not through conjunctions but by the prefixation of Bus- or bustro-.
The various properties of wordplay suggested here, which make of it an anti-language, have been criticized as purposeless and self-indulgent. Yet how can they be purposeless when Cabrera has stated that "the book's sense and sound is the book's language and the book's language is the book's meaning"? Given the unsuspected continuity between wordplay and the idioma secreto of the text, might not these self-indulgences be said to comprise a pure core or model of the linguistic axis of the text? If Tres tristes tigres's protagonists are indeed the nightworld and language, the correspondence is exact: world and language/anti-world and anti-language.
Whereas in "Los visitantes," the devaluation of the story's content brought matters of translation to the fore, the fact that "La muerte de Trotsky" repeats the same story in several versions allows questions of parody and style to surface. There are two possible ways of looking at "La muerte de Trotsky": we can consider each story separately as a parody of a particular author, or we can take all the stories globally as a fan of stylistic permutations or translations of a single ideal (and thus absent) story, as an excess of signifiers for one signified. From the first standpoint we shall see that parody functions as a translation of style, to which is added an explicit measure of irony (in translation proper, we repeat, the ironic or parodic element is unintentional, though perhaps inevitable), irony which links up with iconoclasm. With regard to the second standpoint. I believe that Cabrera aspired to include the whole gamut of Cuban literary culture, showing how Cuban writers might adapt themselves to the demands of socialist literature. The result is a series of diverse styles in which each literary language entails another modulation of Cuba's polyglot voice.
While it is truly remarkable that one country should have produced the many, disparate literary voices we find when we take each piece separately, one further tie besides Cuba unites them: representatives of sanctioned culture, they are all debunked by Cabrera's parodies. Parody joins with iconoclasm on more than one front to dethrone the powerful. The task of parody is ridicule and reform, an ironic literary criticism. By attaching this "song sung beside" to the works of all major Cuban writers, Cabrera aims a blow not only at the writers but at the Cuban establishment which sanctions them. Another important factor in "La muerte de Trotsky," this time a thematic one, is that of generational conflict, in which a second generation of revolutionaries kills off the first, symbolized by Trotsky himself. Much the same conflict comprises a defining characteristic of parody: one generation of writers figuratively kills off the previous generation or generations, their parodies furnishing an antithetical completion of the previous writers' works. Lastly, this parodying of a political action, Trotsky' murder, not only mocks but also neutralizes that action. Anything threatening that enters the nightworld must be de-activated, often through humor. Here political action, history, is first transformed into literature and then neutralized by parody: a monological form is rendered impotent by a dialogical form.
There is further irony in the fact that these examples of Socialist literature, a genre so committed to the transparent representation of reality, should here produce so great a variety of styles. That the infinite variety of style represents one of Cabrera's central concerns is reflected in Exorcismos de esti (l) o, "La muerte de Trotsky," and, indeed, in the collage-like structure of Tres tristes tigres. As the similarity in titles indicates, Exorcismos obviously takes its cue from Raymond Queneau's tour de force, Exercises de Style, a unique "essay" on style in which a single, unexceptional anecdote is told ninety-nine different ways. As in "La muerte de Trotsky," in Queneau's text the content of the story remains unchanged while the style permutes itself around a central axis, thereby giving rise, in both texts, to a large-scale configuration of paradigmatic overlapping.
However, there is a cardinal difference between Queneau's exercises and those of Cabrera: while Queneau's work is constructive, forming a unique dictionary of literary styles, Cabrera's is destructive, an exorcism of style. Both authors utilize a process of deconstruction (of discourse into its various components) and hyperbolic accumulation (of a single technique, or techniques in the case of Cabrera) to create a product which is recognizable as a style or écriture. But whereas Queneau's exercises tend more to stylization, i.e. simple exaggeration, Cabrera's fall squarely in the realm of parody. Through parody, like is turned on like as style destroys—or exorcises style. "La muerte de Trotsky" thus mirrors a prime intention of this whole text, which elevates oral language and parodically debunks literary style.
—No puedes oir cómo el viejo Bach juega en la tonalidad en re, cómo construye sus imitaciones, cómo hace las variaciones imprevisiblemente pero donde el tema lo permite y lo sugiere y no antes, nunca después, y a pesar de ello logra sorprender? No te parece un esclavo con toda la libertad? (295)
[—Can't you hear how old Bach plays on the tonality in D, how he builds up his imitations, how he makes his variations always unpredicatable but only when the theme allows and suggests it and never before, never after, and how despite that he always manages to take you by surprise? Doesn't he seem like a slave with all the freedom in the world?] (320)
This remark, a key within a key, tells us certain crucial things about "Bachata," the self-styled scholia and longest section of Tres tristes tigres. Its first sentence refers to Bach's serial compositions, "The Art of the Fugue," along the lines of which "Bachata" is structured. Defining a fugue as,
A polyphonic composition constructed on one or more short subjects, or themes, which are harmonized according to the laws of counter-point, and introduced from time to time with various contrapuntal devices,
we can see how polyphony informs the structure of "Bachata," with its discussions and variations of several philosophical themes. Indeed, polyphony stands out as the foremost characteristic of "Bachata," and especially of its language, for here is found the culmination of the dialogical word, in concentrations of wordplay (intratextual and intertextual) denser even than those of "Rompecabeza." The second sentence of the quote evokes the concept of game, in which the fixing of rules affords the player a special kind of freedom. A key to those special games, the text and the nightworld, "Bachata" clarifies their rules. But, as we shall see with particular respect to language, the principles of the game assert themselves only to fall apart as the nightworld dissolves, because "the center cannot hold."
In "Bachata," where the dialogical word reaches its peak, we encounter the whole range of oral and paragrammatic forms previously discussed. Silvestre, Bustro's most dedicated disciple, carries on his friends' wordplays in homage to him. And a rival "Rompecabeza," Cué's "Confesiones de un comedor de gofio cubano," features number puzzles, projects for aleatory literature and typographical games. Parody plays as important a role as before: Silvestre stylizes Borges' "Tema del traidor y del héroe," and Cué's poem, "Si te llamaras Babel y no Beba Martínez" parodies Neruda's "Bacarola." Cué's specialty as an actor, however, is to speak in quotations. All manner of quotations, be they direct ("Yo soy yo y mi circumstancia"—; deformed (the vast majority, e.g. "El joder corrompe, el joder total corrompe totalmente" ); or disguised ("Pero no quiero conocerla, que no quiero verla" ), figure in his speech, endowing it with a paragrammatic, or plagiaristic texture. Since what Cué plagiarizes are cultural commonplaces, his paragrams acquire a parodic edge through two techniques. First, like puns, they are non-contextual: quoted out of context, the phrases form a kind of bricolage, bits and pieces gathered without regard to their specific function. Second, they are almost invariably distorted, turned into parodic doubles of themselves. If, as Lautréamont said, "Le plagiat est nécessaire," then Cué's speech represents that intertextual dialogue latent in every literary word.
A feast of dialogical language, "Bachata" celebrates the nightworld on all levels, affirming it one final time in the face of ever-encroaching reality. "Bachata," which along with the reference to Bach means "spree," is exactly that, an afternoon-through-morning of carousing, drinking, eating, driving, attempted womanizing and, most of all, conversation. Since in Bustro's "Geometrias del espíritu" a circle symbolizes perfect happiness, the concentric construction of "Bachata"—variations and returns to a theme all the while encircling the Malecón in the car—suggest the characters' desire to keep their happiness intact. But even in the neutralized space of the nightworld there enter threats, both negative and positive, to its existence. Fierce negative images, such as references to death, Silvestre's horror movie fantasies, nightmares of apocalyptic visions, and so on, abound in "Bachata." More and more the nightworld is invaded by a reality of dark, menacing aspect: Silverstre may be going blind, he is unable to write, Cué's artificial posturing alienates his friend, Magalena is either mad or being tortured by Beba, Bustro is dead. On the other hand, betrayal of the nightworld and of each other is imminent as Cué and Silvestre prepare to abandon their Hamlet-like passivity and take positive action, Silvestre by marrying Laura, and Cué by joining Fidel. Its existence rendered extremely precarious by these invasions on either side, the nightworld asserts itself one last time in full force, exposing its true nature as a defense against reality.
As the threat of reality causes the nightworld to affirm itself, so, on the level of language, do the presence of truth and danger give rise to wordplay as a defense. Like Laura, Silvestre is unable to tell the truth and avoids doing so with a series of periphrastic substitutions—not with lies, but with allusions and wordplay. Many of Silvestre's allusions (to Shakespeare, horror movies, literature) are ruled by Laura, with the hidden meaning implied but not stated. Yet allusions do not suffice, for Cué will avoid understanding Silvestre's confession at all costs; unable to convey his message obliquely. Silvestre breaks into compensatory wordplay:
No entendió o no quiso entender. Al entendedor renuente no le bastan las palabras. Hay que hacerle cifras, mostrarle los numeritos. Lástima, podía haberle hablado ahora. Lo haré para mí. Masturhablarme. Solución que es polución. La solution d'un sage n'est que la polution d'un page … (362)
[He didn't hear or he didn't want to hear. Words are not enough for the Pythagorean listener. It needs figures. I'd have to show him some prime numbers. A pity. I could have spoken to him just now. Well, I'll talk to myself instead. To masturdebate…. Make a solution of pollution. The solution of a sage is to pollute a page …] (391)
At other points in the text dense wordplay, either by one character or in a dialogue between characters, is set off by dangerous elements: Silvestre alternates between wordplay and narrative in his meditations on death (343-45); watching Cué look at himself in the mirror after his confession about going to the Sierra reminds Silvestre of the theme of the betrayal of doubles and incites wordplay (348-49); the presence of women, now particularly threatening because it recalls Laura, spurs a long exchange of wordplay between the men, to the exclusion of Beba and Magalena. Here, more than ever, we are given to understand wordplay as an alternate or compensatory language, explicitly called an "anti-lenguaje" [anti-language] (393) by Silvestre.
When, at these points, wordplay does take over, it comprises a fully self-sufficient language with its own structure and logic. In "Bachata" we can see the full-scale workings of Tres tristes tigres's dialogical language in dense pages of wordplay such as those of Silvestre (365-66), which are motivated by Beba and Magalena's entrance. Here any pretensions to a narrative, story-telling logic are abandoned as the discourse moves onto an associative plane ruled entirely by sound rather than meaning. The separation of the signified from the signifier, along with refuge in the signifier found in wordplay, once again manifests itself as the central organizing principle of Tres tristes tigres's language. Effacing, at once, the pole of the signified and the monological word, all the forms of dialogical language which have appeared separately until now, from the intratextual to the intertextual, converge and work together to the exclusion of non-carnivalesque elements. Related by sound, any one dialogical form can induce another or others, for they bounce off each other as well as combine to work together. Though apparently the most "self-indulgent," such pages as this nevertheless represent the culmination and conquest of the text's idioma secreto, its defeat of monological discourse.
Yet, ironically, this culmination of dialogical language at the same time bespeaks its downfall; deforming a quote from Yeats, Cué remarks, "The Beast lacks all convictions, while the words are full of passive insanity" (354). Cué's and Silvestre's words are indeed suffused with a "passive insanity" which derives from the desperate, ultimately futile, attempt to avoid truth and ward off threats to the nightworld. If before, as in "Rompecabeza," the nightworld and language held strong, here they are crumbling, with the infiltration of reality transforming wordplay into a pathetic avoidance of the truth. To ward off danger (in the form of the two women). Cué and Silvestre contrive to speak a language unknown to the women, thereby purposely alienating them; the men and the women are in effect speaking two different languages, and the Babelic breakdown of communication precludes any seduction of the women. Trapped between two conflicting impulses, of attraction and repulsion, Cué and Silvestre lose command of themselves, uncontrollably persisting in their solipsistic game:
Creo que fue entonces cuando nos preguntamos, tácitamente … por qué hacerlas reír. ¿Qué éramos? ¿Clowns, el primero y el segundo, enterradores entre risas o seres humanos, personas corrientes y molidas, gente? ¿No era más fácil enamorarlas? (391).
[I think it was at this point that we began wondering tacitly … whether it was worth making them laugh. What were we? Clowns, 1st and 2nd gravediggers when we weren't laughing or human beings, common and guarded persons, people? Wouldn't it be easier to make love to them?] (424)
Rather than succumbing to madness, Cué and Silvestre commence their re-entry of reality on positive, though divergent courses. Cué's theory of contradictorios, based on Ortega y Gasset's theory of tragedy, heralds their abandonment of the nightworld. In Cué's conception, contradictorios, who historically were warriors so brave that they were allowed to break all tribal rules in times of peace, are people with the courage to challenge society's norms, or, according to Ortega y Gasset, people who carry their ideal project into the world and defend that project. At first, after exhaustively listing figures whom they believe were contradictorios, Cué and Silvestre confess that they themselves are not. Later, however, Cué admits that Silvestre is indeed: "Un contradictorio. ¿Del cine, de la literatura o de la vida real? O hay que esperar todavía … el último capítulo? Titulado como, Desenmascarado o Evilly the Kid Strikes Back?" (429) [A contradictory. Of movies, literature or real life? Or do we have to wait for the final episode, like in those old Monogrammed serials? Unmasked or Evilly the Kid Strikes Back?] (464) An unmasking, a striking back which would allow Cué and Silvestre to become contradictorios, entails assuming a course of positive action which would carry the utopian core of the nightworld into the outside reality. And while the last chapter falls outside Tres tristes tigres (though perhaps in the realm of Vista del Amanecer en el Trópico), each character's choice represents one pole of a possible ideal project. Silvestre's, personal fulfillment, and Cué's, social fulfillment through political action.
The re-entry into reality also entails an annihilation of the secret language. When at last Silvestre discloses the truth about Laura, he is forced to cut his way through the ruins of the game language:
Me quedé callado. Traté de encontrar algo más que refranes y frases hechas, una frase por hacer, palabras, alguna oración regada por aqu í y por allá. No era ni pelota ni ajedrez, era armar un rompecabezas. (434)
[I fell silent. I tried looking for something better than the usual pat sayings and catchphrases. A phrase to catch. Words and sentences scattered here and there. It wasn't either baseball or chess, it was a seesaw puzzle. Crisscrosswords.] (470)
Eschewing all double entendres, he finally states quite simply, "Me voy a casar con ella" (434) ["I'm going to marry her"] (470) thereby nullifying the periphrases and signalling his re-entry into monological discourse. And although Silvestre's crucial remark, "una frase por hacer," ["a phrase to catch"] symbolizes a search for the word to be carried over into the absent "último capitulo," ["last chapter"] perhaps language's double, silence, will replace the much-sought word: at the end of "Bachata" "en silencio" is obsessively interpolated between the pieces of Silvestre's discourse. Here, as throughout the novel, when language cedes to silence, talk cedes to action.
That madness which Silvestre and Cúe must needs avoid, but whose presence lurks in their words and in the nightworld, gains a voice in the Epilogue. Like Laura's psychoanalytic sessions, the Epilogue takes us, for one final moment, beyond the sphere of the text proper; both inside and outside the novel, it provides a picture of the madness and the language of madness which hover at the extremities of the nightworld. La loca sits in the park and talks to herself; running uncontrollably through the same monologue each time, endlessly, like a pianola score, she is unable to translate the world except into broken scatological images. Fragmented, oral, repetitive, metaphorically structured, ruled by a hermetic and unfathomable logic and thus robbed of its communicative function, her language resembles a crude distillation of wordplay carried to its ultimate extremes—the game become life. A Dorian Gray portrait of wordplay turned to ruin, the epilogue draws the fine line between anti-language and the language of madness.
With this cruel touch, the Epilogue adds one final dimension to Tres tristes tigres's secret language. In the course of our discussion we have witnessed the development of a new language: its inception in the skaz of "Los debutantes," its infiltration of style and syntax, its assuming of various dialogical shapes (parody, translation and bricolage) and progressive acquisition of paragrammatic depth, its culmination and takeover of the verbal space in "Bachata," and finally, the secret idiom's annihilation when threatened by its analogue, the language of madness. Polyphony, emphatic dialogism and metaphorical logic, among other techniques, bind this idiom to the text's grammar, making of the work a cohesive language and of Tres tristes tigres an orderly, if otherly, textual universe.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4701
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 British) writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante as his faithfully unfaithful translator (how else can one translate traduttore traditore?) started out as an exercise of parallel repartees, reparteasing one another in English and Spanish, in a two-faced monologue of compulsive punsters. It all began in London where Cabrera Infante was in the throes of destroying Tres tristes tigres (1965) with his British collaborator in order to create a young Frankenstein, Three Trapped Tigers (1971), a version more than a translation or—as all translations are—another book. The English version of the Joyceful recreation of spoken Havanese had to be written, spoken rather, in American English, an idiom full of sounds more in tune with crude Cuban than bloody British, just as Havana was closer geographically, culturally, even racially to New York than to the island-city of Cabrera Infante's exile, exotic London.
As Aristotle in the Poetics dictates (in the words of his translator), "a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars." If Three Trapped Tigers is a "good metaphor" of Tres tristes tigres, it is perhaps because verbal, stylistic affinities between author and collaborator transcended the inevitable language barrier. As Cabrera Infante once said, I brought to the translation of Tres tristes tigres "that sense of humor characteristic of New York Jews, which is based on play upon words and confronts reality with strict verbal logic." We had Marx in common, Julius of course: our shared language was the city-wise humor of the American movies, as well as Lewis Carroll's universe of nonsense: subversive wordplay was our common, if not sacred, ground. As Francis Steegmuller's Flaubert writes, "Don't we, at bottom, feel just as Chinese as English or French? Aren't all our dreams of foreign places?" ("If you prick us, do we not bleed, etc.?") As translator (traduttora), I was the willing apprentice of Count Dracula Infante, ready to tread upon his dread Transylvania, to follow him unfaithfully (traditora) into that dimension of the Living Dead, the world of writing. To serf on the surface.
A correspondence, a resemblance despite difference, still holds true as we progress through a third translation (the second was View of Dawn in the Tropics, ): La habana para un infante difunto (1979). Literally "Havana for a Dead Infant," it will become in English Infante's Inferno, an opportune title because of its parodical, allusive alliteration: this book is a Dantesque voyage into the Havana of Infante's youth, in search of not one but many Beatrices, in search of love, or rather sex: the dead infante remains caught in the circles of the hell and heaven of Havana, a memory, a book, an infinite Proustian discourse (which began perhaps in Tres tristes tigres) in which the discourse of the memory of Havana (and of the Infante that was) is all that remains. The unfaithful English title is faithful and fateful: Dante ante Infante. On the same note, the treasonous transformation of a female character named Dulce Espina (Sweet Thorn) into Honey Hawthorne alludes faithfully to her essential qualities—sweetness, thorniness, whore(Haw)ishness. "Hawthorne" also brings to bloom other buds; the book's rich allusions to the universe of literature. Cabrera Infante's Inferno can be seen as an ironic comment on the tradition of romance, within which Hawthorne's Puritan fable on the wages of love (or sex) is inscribed. There is Hawthorne, the absurd British agent in Our Man in Havana (the inversion of another absurdist, our Havanan in London perhaps?). And also the thorny motif of the "Hawthorne lane" in the English translation of À la Recherche de Temps Perdu, the locus amenus where Marcel first sees Gilberte, which then becomes a nostalgic refrain throughout the volumes: the whore thorns of love is certainly a motif Cabrera Infante shares with Proust.
The following excerpt from Infante's Inferno is another example (any essay on translation can become an infinite list of examples since theory must be subordinated to practice and since one metaphor inevitably leads to another!) of the seeking of the similar in the dissimilar, where wordplay is inscribed in the language of the translation and yet brings to life the language of the original.
Those were the days when Roberto, born Napoleon, Branly, who joined the group as a specialist in vitreous humor, was said to have a friend named Leo Tiparillo, and another called Chinchilla, and we couldn't tell the surnames from the nicknames, doubting that Chinchilla's hide was genuine and wondering how many matches it would take to light Tiparillo. I remember the day Branly became notably noticed by Olga Andreu. He came to see her bowl of brand new goldfish, and asked with almost scientific curiosity: "Are they adults?" But Olga (christened Volgar by Branly) made Branly's game into a set from her settee, a repartee à la Satie:
"Adulterers"—said Olga. "They're fiendish fish."
"What are their names?"—asked double Branly "Daphne and Chloe?"
"No," said Olga, "Debussy and Ravel."
"Oh, I get it," said Branly, approaching the golden bowl but not bowled over. "Debussy must be the one with the flaxen scales."
"Vegetal filaments that float, vaguely."
"Are they from the impressionist school of fish?" asked Branly.
"Yes, Debussy even composed La mer, an impression."
"Quite impressive," Branly said. "Though I doubt he did it. Nobody at sea composes La mer and a goldfish wouldn't compose The Fishbowl either, I hasten to add."
Olga wanted to scare Branly:
"The other one, Ravel, a composer of waltzes and boleros, wrote the Pavane for a Dead Punster."
Branly pretended not to feel the hook and had the last word-fish:
"I suppose that one afternoon Debussy will write L'après-midi d'un poisson d'or."
Branly and Olga's pasodoble brings again to your ear's attention this book's alluring alliteration. If the pun was the "lowly form of wit" that permeated Tres tristes tigres, the main "game" here is alliteration (the translator's typewriter alliterates, driven by the text to write wet wag instead of wet rag, for instance!). An early structural principle in poetry, alliteration has mostly been employed as an emphatic or comic device, as in Love's Labours Lost. It is generally considered a lowly device in English poetry and proper prose even more so than in Spanish, a language whose musical exuberance encourages such license. In the baroque esthetics of writers like Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, and Cabrera Infante, alliteration and wordplay are part of a Dionysian destruction of language as transparent communicator: to alliterate is to mock conventions of propriety and to glorify words as mysterious objects: subverting the semantic, putting sound before sense, is a kind of liberation.
Alliteration expresses, frees the impulsive, rhythmic nature of language as music—which it is to the child and to the poet. In poetry, feeling is the meaning. In verbal humor, language's impulsive force is what dominates, moving the speaker to express what is repressed. Since Infante's Inferno is about memory, mostly erotic memories, alliteration—a common mnemonic device for fixing our memories, as in founding fathers and dancing daughters—harmonizes perfectly with its erotic content: alliterating words literally copulate with one another: the repetition of sounds produces a sensual effect, making the reader/translator conscious of an unconscious tendency to use language as music, as children or infantes do.
Music, "the universal language," is what poetic writing aims to be; as Cabrera Infante's narrator says à la Walter Pater at one point, "all writers aim to be musicians." Thus he mentions those "great great" impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel and the avant-garde Satie—Dada's enfant terrible avant la lettre—and thus he pays homage to Ravel's title Pavane pour une infante défuncte. Just as Cabrera Infante, a reveling Ravel of the unraveling word, seeks the music in words, the rumbling rumba rhythm of Havana in his books, so Ravel, a musician, reveals the music in the verbal reality of his title. It was not in homage to any dead Spanish infanta, but was chosen for its lilting alliteration, the sonorous beauty of the title reflecting the nostalgic beauty of the parodical pavana.
Maybe Cabrera Infante is a reincarnation of Ravel, Debussy, and Satie all rolled up in one, or perhaps he is their D'Artagnan: he makes fun of Ravel and Debussy in the corny semi-classical Cuban context, because, like Marx and Engels, they could be confused at times, their musical impressions sounding like one long wave—Debussy's Sea bubbling out of Ravel's fountain pen by mistake or Ravel's Valse being a more strident version of Debussy's La plus que lente. But precisely because their parodies or "translations" of popular forms are both carnivalesque and nostalgic is why they have so much in common with the Infante of this Inferno, who mocks the Latin male's Don Juan past and his Doñas, but is nostalgic for a lost paradise, which the past always is. As the impressionists created, paradoxically, a very artificial art in their imitations of nature and of popular art, so is this book about how real memories become self-conscious memoirs, more reminiscent of Casanova or My Secret Life than of life itself. The repartee à la Satie salutes the wit of Satie, the composer as prankster, the unique and eccentric inventor of strange titles, the musician as writer, or vice versa.
This little repartee, filled with those necessary substitutions of one joke for another, of one play of sounds for another, also sums up the continuous battle of words and wits and, metaphorically, of the sexes that is the process of collaboration which we began in Tres tristes tigres. It is no small coincidence that of all the women in Infante's Inferno, one might identify, as traduttora, with Olga Andreu, practically the only female in the book who gets to reveal a knack for verbal wit. Many of the other women are more than a match for the male hunter on the sexual battlefield, and at least one is infinitely more clever in the art of emotional manipulation, but Olga is the only, as they say, "wise guy." She is a distant dissonant and even dissident observer—and one of the few female characters who are not objects of the narrator's often obscure desire. Thus she is a kind of feminine counterpart of the first-person narrator who is more of a near-sighted voyeur than an active participant in his own history as a Cuban Casanova. But more later.
"New forms in art are created by the canonization of peripheral forms"
Since it is at the level of language that the translator can be most creative, inventive, even subversive, I have preferred to translate writers like Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig, and Severo Sarduy, who play with language, exposing its infidelity to itself, writers who create a new literature by parodying the old. Translation, another form of parody, is for a writer like Cabrera Infante "a more advanced stage" of the writing of the book, as Jorge Luis Borges once said. Thus, I have had the freedom to exaggerate the parodical elements (such as alliteration) when translating writers like Infante and Puig, particularly because they have been actively involved in the "subversion" of their originals. (Alliteration is also "contaminating" another book I am translating, Sarduy's neobaroque Maitreya, bubbling with courtly curtseys, mortified mourners, stark stages, and impeccable arecas.)
Though writers like Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa seem more obviously dissident because of their political postures, the more marginal writers, like Puig, Infante, Sarduy, and Reinaldo Arenas, are dissident in a more corrosive manner, digging into the root (route) of hypocrisy, into the very matter in which our consciousness is inscribed, that is, language. Like Lewis Carroll, father of the absurd, Infante, especially the Infante of Tres tristes tigres, twists words inside out, revealing their hollow center. Puig exposes our everyday languages, even the language we dream in, as suspect, as concealing what it most intends to reveal. Sarduy renews the avant-garde tradition of poetic prose and obliges us to read a novel as if it were a poem, to surrender to the pleasure of suggestion instead of seeking sense, dancing as he does between the "earthy feast" of prose and the "lyrical voyage" of poetry.
Marginality and dissidence are also words that have been used to define the feminine place in history and culture. Julia Kristeva sees woman's inevitable marginality as an advantage; she aligns woman with the artist, particularly with avant-garde artists. Kristeva claims importance for woman's privileged contact with the mother's body, with the semiotic impulse preceding verbal development and therefore preceding the phase in which, as Lacanians have put it, the phallus becomes the transcendental signifier (in Hitchcockian terms, the Trans-Siberian Express). The term "mothertongue" is a deceptive metaphor: mother may be the first to teach the infant speech, but she is only passing onto him or her the father-tongue. Once in the realm of verbal discourse, whether or not we are dissident (woman, artist, etc.), we all have to use the "matter and methods" of the so-called patriarchal code, even if our intention is to question, to parody, to destroy, and to make it over. But even though the dissident may contradict or compromise her/himself by using the very discourse of oppression, as Domna Stanton has written, the "feminist eye/I can find dissident strands, and combine them in a texture that exposes the phallic intentionality of … texts." To a certain extent, the same could be said for some dissident writing by men: Puig stands out as a writer who exposes the sexual politics implicit in the linguistic code that manipulates us. Kristeva seems to conclude that while some women writers like Hélène Cixous are trying "to shatter language, to find a specific discourse closer to the body and emotions," the existence of such a discourse is questionable. She finally opts for woman's dissidence, for feminine subversion as process of becoming, of deferring rather than differing: each individual woman must discover the multiplicity of her possible identifications.
Deferral, diffuseness, plurality, openness are some of the terms used to define uniquely feminine (subversive) writing, as in Gertrude Stein's radical re-inventions of literary language or in the Brazilian Clarice Lispector's novelistic portrayals of deferral, of an idealized feminine voice. However, these same terms could apply to the inventions of Laurence Sterne, Macedonio Fernández, Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, and Cabrera Infante. In this sense one could say that the translator of writers like these is producing pluralistic, open, diffuse texts much like the "woman text" of which Cixous has spoken. There is, of course, a difference: Infante's Inferno, for example, is a book in which man speaks while woman merely talks.
III. Men Speak, Women Talk, But Both Chat
In Infante's Inferno, woman is essentially an archetype: the mysterious other, a mirror in which Narcissus reflects himself or a screen upon which he projects himself. The final erotic encounter occurs in the Fausto movie theater, the place of screens, that is, of the silver screen and of "screen women," the phantom women in movie theaters whom throughout the book the narrator is trying to seduce or be seduced by. ("Screen woman" is an expression Shoshana Felman has used to characterize the female character in a Balzac story: the girl is a screen for the male protagonist's narcissistic, incestuous fantasies.) The screen-gazing infante's final encounter is with a woman who suddenly expands—like Alice when she eats the Wonderland biscuit—into a giant. This giant has been foreshadowed in an early chapter by a huge motherly woman whom the skinny adolescent tries to seduce, only to be interrupted by his brother who informs him that "this is where we came in," meaning they had already seen the whole movie. But in this last daydream, which becomes a nightmare, the rite of passage from adolescence to manhood is reversed: the narrator literally enters the vagina, descends into the speculum, crashes through the looking glass, and is swallowed up by this terrifying "sphinx without a sphincter" (to quote Tres tristes tigres). He becomes unborn, a dead infant, to finally be born again upon a "horizontal abyss," into the text, as a writer.
This infinite female is, of course, the mother, the gray eminence ruling over the Inferno. The mother (as Emir Rodriguez Monegal has suggested) is the one who, unlike the apparent austere father (the son finds out, when he's old enough to know better, that the father has a secret sex life), teaches the infante the pleasure of the text, that is, of reading, of movies, music, and conversation. What's more, she gives him his last name, Infante. Just like the mother in Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (also in contrast with an apparently austere father), she is both the source of his language and his introduction to pleasure. If (as Monegal notes) Tres tristes tigres is the adult vision/version of Cabrera Infante's Havana and Inferno is the adolescent vision, then it is also fitting that the silent or absent center of Tres tristes tigres be Laura Díaz, the girl both Arsenio Cue and Silvestre secretly loved, while in Inferno, despite all the visible and naked women, the mother, always in the background, is the unifying chord, the ultimate Beatrice. As irreverent as he may be with himself and the women he desires, he always reveres his mother, his ideal woman in every way (even physically). This adult versus adolescent comparison functions on the level of language as well: while Tres tristes tigres is curiously elliptical in dealing with the actual sex act, Infante's Inferno is unabashedly pornographic, like the language of the adolescent, eager to speak all, less afraid to describe than to experience sex. (One should add, of course, that Tres tristes tigres's elliptical aspect was also the result of Spanish censorship at the time the book was published).
In Infante's Inferno the final manipulation of reality (and women) is through language. Like the mythic Narcissus who rejects Echo's caresses, this modern Narcissus only wishes to listen to his Echo. In this sense Cabrera Infante is explicitly exposing the sterility of the archetypal relationship between man and woman: the narrator is a supremely solitary figure, like the pavo real, the peacock from which the pavane, a courtly and often solo dance, originates. He is enclosed in his book, in his lonely hall of mirrors like King Christophe; the greatest moment of love, or, rather, orgasm, he experiences, as he says, is through masturbation.
Woman's absence, or silence, and man's speech, however, takes us back to the difference between speech and talk. The metaphoric mother-tongue, the language the mother teaches the infant, is actually a "screen" for the father-tongue (just as, on another plane, the father's austerity is a screen for his sexuality, the mother may just be all talk): certainly the Cuban relajo which threads through Infante's Inferno is a proto-male speech. As Hélène Cixous has suggested, man, out of a double fear of his mother, the fear of losing her and the fear of being castrated by her, has relegated woman to silence, metaphorically decapitating her. She has been consigned to being a mystery, a Sphinx; Cixous writes: "Chienne chanteuse ("Watchbitch") the Sphinx was called: she's an animal and she sings out. She sings out because women do … they do utter a little, but they don't speak. Always keep in mind the distinction between speaking and talking. It is said, in philosophical texts, that women's weapon is the word, because they talk endlessly, chatter, overflow with sound …: but they don't actually speak, they have nothing to say" (p. 49). Though the narrator in Infante's Inferno insists that he prefers the talk of women (beginning with his mother's sewing circle chatter), it is clear that it is women's talk and not speech he prefers. Indeed, those who do sometimes speak, like Olga, are too terrifying for words.
As to that other alternative, singing, it is interesting that the most significant female character in Tres tristes tigres is a singer, La Estrella, just as Sarduy's star transvestite is La Tremenda, an opera singer, a Cuban chienne chanteuse. Maitreya swings rhythmically between two poles: singing and "zingando" (fornication in Cuban slang). La Tremenda is either singing hysterically (or being hysterically silent—silence is the mark of hysteria, says Cixous—because her enemies have silenced her) or seeking the great transcendental signifier. Though for both Sarduy and Cabrera Infante the singer and singing are positive signs of the artist and of music as writing, they both satirize the feminine in the form of a singer. The Inferno's Infante mocks women and their words by satirizing, by reversing the archaic mother in the figure of the fatal Faustine who swallows up the infante in the Faust cinema, he perhaps triumphs over his fear of her: the rebirth of the infante as a writer is certainly a resolution of sorts. The word is my apparatus belly (sic) is what the umbilical narrator might be finally saying.
Where does this leave a woman as translator of such a book? Is she not a double betrayer, to play Echo to this Narcissus, repeating the archetype once again? All who use the mother's father-tongue, who echo the ideas and discourse of great men are, in a sense, betrayers: this is the contradiction and compromise of dissidence. Just as Cabrera Infante must use the father-tongue to expose it, to parody it. And … just as he must learn speech to talk. Because more than anything, Infante's Inferno is a chatty, gossipy book. A bumbling Don Juan's jaded talk, the verbal fireworks of Cuban male relajo is silly chatter, defying the codes of formal speech. The narrator of this book—which is really a chain of anecdotes—reincarnates finally his mother, the story teller, the digresser, the pleasure seeker seeking pleasure only in the telling.
IV. Traduttora Traditora
If the metaphor "mother-tongue" is deceptive, so is the myth of the Ursprach, the original speech (explored by George Steiner in After Babel). And just as the existence of that original language is highly problematic, so is the concept of the original text. At least this is what Borges seems to be saying again and again in his fictions, particularly in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote." Cabrera Infante confirms this in his Tres tristes tigres: there are no originals, only translations. Memory is a text translated into another text. If the sign of translation, of betrayal, ruled over Tres tristes tigres, the sign of passage, and therefore translation in a very concrete sense, marks his Inferno. Havana is the past, that is, "another country"; the infant is dead (or there never was one, as in Ravel's Pavane); what remains is the telling or the translating.
That Infante's Inferno is a version, a subversion, is already apparent in the title. What is alive in La habana para un infante difunto would become truly dead in the literal Havana for a Dead Infant. Because of what is lost and can be gained in crossing the language barrier, because of the inevitable rereading that occurs in transposing a text from one context to another, a translation must subvert the original. When the Havana narrator makes the jaded statement "no one man can rape a women," the infernal translator undermines this popular myth with the book's own corrosive mechanism of alliteration and writes; "no wee man can rape a woman." Since La habana para un infante difunto mocks popular sexual mythology, subverts traditional narrative, and sets verbal reality above all others, the more subversive Infante's Inferno is, the better. Verbal logic supplants fidelity when "fines de siglo" is translated not as "turn of the century" but as the "gay nineties," or when "Amor Propio" (the title initiating a chapter in praise of masturbation) is translated not as amour-propre, self-esteem or self-love, but as "Love Thyself." (After all, the Bible is the book of books!) And the text continues to metamorphose blasphemously into another text when the following chapter (about the narrator's pursuit of women in movie theaters) is titled "Love Thy Neighbor" instead of false love, a literal translation of the Spanish saying "Amor trompero" (the original chapter title).
A final example of this crafty craft of transferring metaphors from the Cuban to American English is the translation of the chapter title "Mi último fracaso" ("My Last Failure") into "You Always Can Tell." This section deals with the common theme of an adolescent's sexual initiation, in this case the narrator's misadventures in strip-tease joints and brothels and his final quasi-successful intercourse with a streetwalker. As he takes leave of this girl, she is saying to him that she didn't think she'd have any customers that night, and he answers "you see?" so that she can complete the phrase with the line from a song (in Spanish): "You never know," and then he thinks an answer to her answer, but doesn't say it: it's another line from another bolero: "You will be my last failure." In the Spanish, "My Last Failure," corresponding to the popular theme of the chapter, is the perfect title. In English, however, "My Last Failure" does not have the same resonance, does not evoke a song or singer (in this case, Olga Guillot) that the Cuban reader would immediately recognize in the Spanish version. A literal translation would betray the intention of these words. "Better Late Than Never" was considered since it is a cliché, a popular saying which could epitomize the character's final participation in sexual intercourse after talking about it for 300 pages. "This Is Where I Came In" could also have been a double entendre with a single sense, but neither worked as a casual phrase at the end of the chapter, thus serving as a leitmotive that would give unity to the chapter. Then came the possibility of "You Never Can Tell," which works well as the phrase the girl utters at the end (changing "You never know" to "You never can tell"). But since the final phrase has to be the character's mental repartee, "you always can tell" works well as an ironic echo, the narrator being a constant Echo of his own narcissistic obsessions. Again, "You Always Can Tell" covers a multitude of sins: the character automatically approaches the streetwalker not knowing, but somehow instinctively knowing, that she is a streetwalker, thus, "you always can tell." Second, "Mi último fracaso" is an ironic title because his encounter with her is and is not a failure; like "Mi.último fracaso," "You Always Can Tell" is an affirmation which counterpoints the negative "You Never Can Tell" and the uncertainties of sexual initiation. Finally, "Mi último fracaso" recalls another text, a song, just as the title of La habana recalls the Ravel title, thus asserting the precedence of the verbal, of the literary, over a reality being described. You always can tell, a mis-quotation from the lexicon of clichés, very much emphasizes the telling of this story of sexual initiation in which the narrator tells all he can, and he can always tell (even when he cannot always do): the verbal precedes, substitutes, is the action.
Renato Poggioli expressed most aptly the reason for translating modern works when he remarked that "the modern translator, like the modern artist, strives after self-expression, although the self-expression may well be a not too literal expression of the self." Infante's Inferno, a book whose content is oppressively male, could never be a literal expression of this translator's self. However, translation—an activity caught between the scholarly and the creative, between the rational and the irrational—is a route, a voyage if you like, through which a writer/translator may seek to reconcile fragments: fragments of texts, of language, of oneself. More than a moment of interpretation, translation is an act of passage.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1497
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 of the parts by providing a table of instructions, Cabrera Infante guides the reader by maintaining the same title, the same narrative point of view, and the same mode of speech in all sections of the novel dealing with a given subject. For instance, all sections entitled "I Heard Her Sing" deal with Códac's chronological narrative of Estrella Rodriguez, the nightclub singer. These sections can easily be extracted from the novel to form a short story. The psychiatric sessions are consecutively numbered and may also be put together to form a coherent narrative sequence. Though both "I Heard Her Sing" and the numbered psychiatric sessions are dispersed throughout the work, the point of view and mode of speech facilitate identification of the narrator. Other sections like "Mirrormaze" and "Bachata" consist of ongoing conversations between Silvestre and Cué and serve as a framework for narratives from other points of view. The reader soon becomes aware that there is no traditional plot, no individual psychology, only voices to render the nightclub reality of pre-Castro Havana.
Among the strategies considered previously, negation is one which an author may use to stimulate reader participation. Cabrera Infante uses negation to introduce his reader to his text. In his "Advertencia" he informs the reader that this book is written in Cuban, a Spanish dialect, that it is not a book to be read but one to be heard, thereby putting the reader on notice that his is an unliterary book, a book of the spoken language, instead of a literary one. The fact that he stresses that it is written in a dialect announces to the reader the author's antirhetorical stance. By denying literariness, Cabrera Infante predisposes the reader to counter the negation and substitute a positive view, to discover the potential of the spoken language as literature.
In her perceptive article on Three Trapped Tigers Stephanie Merrim stresses the polyphonic qualities of the novel and points to features belonging to the carnivalesque novel:
It is well-known that the structure of a carnivalesque work is characterized by an extraordinary freedom of composition which manifests itself in a multi-generic or collage texture, by the lack of a finalizing authorial presence which allows characters to evolve their own truth in a Socratic conversation of divergent voices, and by an apparent shattering of the customary novelesque logic of narrative….
Citing Mikhail Bakhtin, Merrim points to another feature of the carnivalesque novel, skaz (from the Russian to show or to tell). According to Bakhtin, skaz is "first of all the orientation toward the speech of another person … and as a consequence of that fact is also the orientation toward spoken language," Josefina Ludmer refers to the language used in some sections of Three Trapped Tigers as parodic skaz. Parodic skaz is an appropriate denomination, for often the author introduces into the speech of the character a semantic direction which is opposed to the original one.
There are different levels of parody in Three Trapped Tigers: a style of speech, a person's social and cultural manner of seeing, thinking, and speaking, and literary styles of well-known writers are parodied. Bakhtin observes that " … parody can be more, or less, deep: one can parody only superficial verbal forms, or one can parody the deepest principles of the other person's word. Furthermore, the parodistic word itself can be employed by the author in various ways: parody can be an end in itself (the literary parody as a genre, for example) … "In Three Trapped Tigers parody of different verbal forms and at varying levels may very well be the most salient tool for inciting reader participation. The work begins with a skillful parody of the Master of Ceremonies in the Tropicana Nightclub. Most readers are familiar with this stereotype. No doubt most have seen and heard him in the nightclubs of Vegas, Atlantic City, New York, London, Paris, or on a television special. Stylization will instantly provoke laughter in the reader. For instance, the exaggerated intrusions of English into the Spanish dialect will incite laughter and a questioning attitude. Exaggeration, an important aspect of stylization, essentially distorts reality, and distortion is the very essence of parody. This distortion conveys the author's critical view of the hybridization of the native tongue.
The language of Bustrófedon, the novel's absent character, incorporates several ingredients present in parody: humor, distortion, and satire. Though Bustrófedon is physically absent, his vocal presence permeates the novel in the form of tape recordings reproduced by Códac and the quotation of his ideas and opinions by Silvestre and Cué. His iconoclastic attitude toward language is expressed in endless verbal play and in parodies of the literary styles of consecrated Cuban writers. According to Merrim, wordplay centering on the physical properties of the sign de-emphasizes the signifier. By divesting the sign of semantic direction and converting it into a sonorous nonreferential sigh the author creates a parody of language as a means of communication. This is confirmed in the parodies of the literary styles. In narrating one event, "The Death of Trotsky," in the literary styles of seven writers, Cabrera Infante not only parodies their styles but also communicates the ambiguity of language. The possibility that one event will provoke such different versions sustains his view that language is fraught with deception. This pervading view provokes in the reader a continuous questioning attitude toward language.
In literary parody the author reveals his role as reader and writer, for in parody he must read (decode) and write (encode). He is both critical and sympathetic toward his target. Because Cabrera Infante parodies style instead of meaning, his intention differs from that of the literary parodist whose intent is oriented toward distortion of meaning. Cabrera Infante's parodies underline the extent to which the style of these writers has become part of the oral tradition: for what he stylizes is rhythm, vocabulary, syntax. For instance, in "Los hachacitos de rosa," a parody of José Marti's style, he distorts the title of a well-known children's poem, "Los zapaticos de rosa," published in La edad de oro, a magazine dedicated to the children of America. Instead of parodying the poem, he imitates Marti's modernist ornamental style. Trotsky's assassination, retold in this familiar style, provides, because of its political associations, an opening for other interpretations besides that of debunking literariness. Merrim posits a second possibility: that Cabrera Infante aspired to "include the whole gamut of Cuban literary culture, showing how Cuban writers might adapt themselves to the demand of socialist literature." This is quite probable, but within the tone and attitude that prevail throughout the book the parodies are essentially an attempt to demythify literature, divest it of exclusivity and integrate it into the linguistic system of Cuba. It is not surprising that Códac, commenting on Bustrófedon's taped parodies, says that he is now returning them to their rightful owner, folklore.
The incorporation of Bustrófedon's tapes into Códac's narrative and into Cué's and Silvestre's dialogues and the comments of all three protagonists about what Bustrófedon says, make them listeners and writers as well as protagonists. Códac, Cué and Silvestre, by mirroring Bustrófedon in their speech, also reflect and comment on his oral text, thereby inviting the reader to formulate his own views on the text. In so doing, the reader begins the creation of his own metafiction.
Bustrófedon is an appropriate mask for the author who, like him, negates written reality. Therefore, it follows that the section entitled "Some Revelations" consists of blank pages: for Bustrófedon, "alter ego of the author, never wrote a page: he only spoke them, in the same way that the novel attempts to speak …"
When Cabrera Infante uses the blank page to signify "revelation," he is using graphics to parody and attributing an aesthetic function to the page. The page and its graphic form an inseparable part of the overall design. Because of this view, Cabrera Infante incorporates graphic design into his novel to help the reader visualize form and meaning. In addition to visual images (graphic and verbal), he uses auditory images (verbal) to orient and stimulate reader participation. Indeed, the mode of speaking of each of the four protagonists (Eribó, Cué, Códac, and Silvestre) is characterized by a predominance of either visual or auditory images. Throughout his work, Cabrera Infante reveals a penchant for stimulating the reader through sense perceptions.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774
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. [Cabrera Infante] might be called the Bach of memory, and each of his texts adds variations to the central fugue. Borges, in a poem that re-creates the house of his childhood ("Androgué"), calls memory the fourth dimension, and it is into this realm that we travel with Cabrera Infante.
For those of us born into English, it is appropriate to consider Cabrera Infante in light of the prose of James Joyce. Indeed, there has been in this century a fascinating correspondence between the history, the exploration of language, and the sheer exuberance of imagination in Ireland and in Latin America. Cabrera Infante has reversed the order of Joyce's texts. He published his own Finnegans Wake in his first major novel, Tres tristes tigres. The importance of Joyce's stories in the collection Dubliners is assumed by Vista del amanecer en el trópico. Cabrera Infante's Habana para un Infante difunto presents the work that in Joyce's canon is paralleled by Ulysses. For Joyce, the only mode of entry into his world was through words, words that soared into epiphanies.
Joyce forced us to realize, for the first time in English, that prose has all the weapons in the arsenal of poetry, and he taught a whole generation of writers—Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald—to use the entire arsenal. Nowadays, we who inhabit the realms memorialized by these poets of prose are more likely to see their inheritors' work at the movies than in other written texts.
In the cultural world that arises from Spanish, Cabrera Infante reminds us of the delightful conversations between dogs in Cervantes, of Sancho's island, of the words that become dragons and windmills. Quevedo's dust is as long lasting as are the images from the movies. Cabrera Infante founds his poetry upon images no less gritty than Machado's interior country. Within Spanish America, Cabrera Infante must be considered as a member of the group of founders who insist that reality must endure a new foundation in the word itself. In Borges's Sur and in his infernal library, in García Márquez's Macondo, in Cortázar's Paris, in Fuentes's Terra Nostra the world is begun again, and each new founding rests on a shimmering surface of words.
Another Irishman, Seamus Heaney, has written a fine essay on the sense of place (included in Pre-occupations: Selected Prose, 1968–1978), in which he explains:
Irrespective of our creed or politics, irrespective of what culture or subculture may have coloured our individual sensibilities, our imaginations assent to the stimulus of the names, our sense of the place is enhanced, our sense of ourselves as inhabitants not just of a geographical country but of a country of the mind is cemented. It is this feeling, assenting, equable marriage between the geographical country and the country of the mind, whether that country of the mind takes its tone unconsciously from a shared oral inherited culture, or from a consciously savoured literary culture, or from both, it is this marriage that constitutes the sense of place in its richest possible manifestation. (132)
Cabrera Infante places his Havana in the heart of the universe, in Conrad's heart of darkness, and through the hypnotic speech of his characters he dares us to enter his labyrinth. His inferno constantly reminds us of another Commedia, wherein Dante was recognized in Hell itself by the Florentine accent of his voice (Heaney, 137).
As Heaney maintains: "We are no longer innocent; we are no longer just parishioners of the local. We go to Paris at Easter instead of rolling eggs on the hill of the gable…. Yet those primary laws of our nature are still operative. We are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we make homes and search for our history" (148-49).
In his memorial history Cabrera Infante gives us a priceless gift: his own island, his own Havana, his own epiphany. The joy of words exchanged among friends, sung in boleros, and transformed into images on the screen—this joy survives the tragedy of history, of change, of death itself.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8548
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 center, these writers, to a greater or lesser degree, passed through various languages, making their relation to them a major theme of their works. Having fled the "maternal house" of their own language, they came to dwell precariously in an "international hotel" of languages containing many rooms, entrances, and exits. Steiner chose three authors—Nabokov, Borges, and Beckett—as models of this class of writer and pointed out that they were possibly "the three representative figures in the literature of exile—which is, perhaps, the main impulse of current literature." Moreover, he dedicated the first three essays of the volume to them, and the title of the collection was inspired by none other than Nabokov himself. Steiner concluded his titular essay with this paragraph:
A great writer driven from language to language by social upheaval and war is an apt symbol for the age of the refugee. No exile is more radical, no feat of adaptation and new life more demanding. It seems proper that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism which has made so many homeless, which has torn up tongues and peoples by the root, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language. Eccentric, aloof, nostalgic, deliberately untimely as he aspires to be and so often is, Nabokov remains, by virtue of his extraterritoriality, profoundly of our time, and one of its spokesmen. (11)
Rereading these lines, it occurred to me that they applied not only to Nabokov but to Guillermo Cabrera Infante as well and that the relations and contacts between the two, which had always seemed evident to me, remained, to the best of my knowledge, generally unexplored. After examining the text for a while, I discovered that the connections and convergences between the Cuban and the Russian-American were so numerous and so complex that they deserved a study of greater depth than I was able to undertake at that time. The pages that follow should be considered as providing, at best, merely an approach to the theme, one that has vast implications and requires a rethinking of Hispanic American literature within the broader context of comparative literature and an understanding for what it truly is: namely, a literary language that has been fertilized by opening itself up to contact with other contemporary languages. In simultaneously overcoming the fate of the regional imperative and the fear of using the most radical forms of verbal invention—two superstitions that have long dominated a certain narrow "Hispanic" focus—this "extraterritorial" literature not only denies the inevitable character of the objective world but also questions internally the act of creation and even the creator himself. This supreme irony of imagination is based on our knowledge of language and on what we know of ourselves through language, a knowledge whose esthetic, moral, and ideological repercussions cannot be ignored if we are to understand literature as an activity that will continue to hold meaning for us at the end of the twentieth century.
I believe that a fundamental question which lies at the heart of all of Cabrera Infante's work is that of identity. I refer as much to authorial identity as to textual identity. This has as much to do with the relation he maintains with his books as with the relation his books maintain with us and with their own characters; these relations could not be more ambiguous and deceptive, because the yo or "I" of his stories, whoever it is, is always a precarious and suspicious identity that is reflected in others of equally questionable credibility. Cabrera Infante's texts always pose the same question—who really is this "I" who says "I"?—but never resolve it irrefutably, and what's more, from this reticence they create a game, an artifice, or a scheme whose validity lies in its uncertainty. There are many passages and texts in which Cabrera Infante has made clear the importance the matter has for him as a writer. There is one passage in Exorcismos de esti(l)o, however, which seems to me the most pertinent here; it is almost a poetic discourse on the literary persona and begins with a litany of questions.
¿Quién escribe? ¿Quién habla en un poema? ¿Quién narra en una novela? ¿Quién es el "yo" de las autobiografías? ¿Quién cuenta un cuento? ¿Quiénes conversan en esa imaginada pieza de sólo tres paredes? ¿Qué voz, activa o pasiva, habla, narra, cuenta, charla, instruye—se deja ver escrita? ¿Quién es ese ventrílocuo oculto que habla en este mismo momento por mi boca—o más bien por mis dedos? (Who is writing? Who speaks in a poem? Who narrates in a novel? Who is the "I" in autobiographies? Who tells the story in a short story? Who converses in this imagined room with only three walls? What voice, active or passive, speaks, narrates, tells, discusses, instructs—allows itself to be seen in writing? Who is this hidden ventriloquist who is speaking at this very moment through my mouth or, better yet, through my fingers?)
The passage concludes with an affirmation corrected by a new query.
Una segunda mirada sonora, escuchar otra vez ese silencio nos revelará—a mí en este instance; a ti lector, enseguida—que esa voz inaudita, ese escribano invisible es el lenguaje. Pero la última duda es también la primera—¿de qué voz original es el lenguaje el eco?
(A closer, second look, listening again to this silence, will reveal to us—to me at this moment, to you, reader, momentarily—that this extraordinary voice, this invisible scribe, is language. The last doubt, however, is also the first: of what original voice is language the echo?)
This means, I suppose, that the author does not speak in the text, but rather that the text speaks through him or, better yet, that his words speak through him, that the author is a medium or instrument that operates with the forces of language, thereby creating a generative entity of meaning. The first invention of the author is the author himself, that word to which all other words of the text are attributed. He who writes is a phantasmagoric figure, a verbal echo of the person who emanates from his mouth (or better still, from his fingers or the typewriter, as he suggests) and says "I."
When this "I" operates within a text, it proceeds like omnivorous machinery which reactivates every memory, act, idea, or understanding that pertains to the real subject, converting it into imaginary reality and, more concretely, into words that capture lived experience and shape it into a story.
Cabrera Infante's stories are usually situated somewhere near the intersection of autobiography, memoir, and fiction, without corresponding exactly to any of these categories. To say that they are "autobiographical fictions" or "novelized autobiographies" does not help much, not only because these expressions present the problem of determining the proportion to which each element intervenes in the text, but also because these expressions seem to suggest a dependence between the story of a life and the real referent to which they allude, something quite beyond Cabrera Infante's intention; for him everything is a kind of word game. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to invoke here a single literary genre, that of the "imaginary biography," with the added element that in his case the biography is, or appears to be, his own. Instead of narrating his life by trying to find the correspondence between the one who revives experience and the one who writes about it, Cabrera Infante frequently speaks of himself as if he were someone else and others him. He does not tell us his life story but instead draws from his life to invent yet another and writes about it—or, to be more precise, he writes about the life he lives while he is writing it. Certainly the antecedents of this genre are well known: Laurence Sterne, Marcel Schwob, Gertrude Stein, and of course Borges. I would like to add, with regard to Cabrera Infante, another illustrious name: that of Nabokov, whose work maintains in this respect interesting parallels with the Cuban's.
Nabokov must be one of the most ambiguous and astute (almost shrewd) writers of our century: his books always offer us some kind of trick, whose delicateness and artful skill can very well be likened to the net with which the lepidopterist catches a butterfly—a tenuous disguise that acts as a mortal prison, a mesh that allows us to see the beauty of the prey it destroys. Nabokov's novels usually betray their appearance, frequently their readers, and even their protagonists; one must expect from them the unexpected. The suspicious nature of their fictional world is underscored by the fact that many of them adopt a narrative mold which appears to coincide with the story of a life. We realize immediately that this life is completely imaginary (after all, these books are presented as novels); but sooner or later we discover that this life reflects the life of the narrator in a sort of somber parody and also like a lighted mirror before which he examines and recomposes passages of his own life. There is no autobiographical confession per se; what exists is a false biography composed as a pure esthetic object, whose secret function is that of recounting and giving meaning to certain moments already lived. It is the mediation of art that allows—or promises—the illumination of a truth that life has apparently left forgotten; outside of that, it is nothing. The memory of what was lost is one of the great obsessions of the imaginary world of Nabokov and serves as the principal reason for his predominant tone, which is both nostalgic and elegiac. This I shall try to illustrate by first using the novelistic model offered by Pnin (1957).
The book essentially narrates the North American academic life of Professor Timothy Pnin, a Russian exile whose physical appearance and domestic misadventures give him an air of resigned nobility not lacking in comicalness. The story is a fairly objective and detailed account related by a third-person narrator who remains anonymous almost to the end. The narrator not only knows Pnin's life in depth (in reality, what he is doing is telling us Pnin's life story or what appears to be such, anyway, with the detail of a professional biographer), but he also knows details about him not even Pnin knows or perhaps cares to remember. In a word, he is in absolute control of the other's existence. This is noticeable from the beginning: Pnin is seated in a train coach and is on his way to a lecture. In describing the situation, the narrator comments: "Thus he might have appeared to a fellow passenger; but except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself."
This poses a dual question: if there is no other person in the coach, who and where is this narrator who is able to view the protagonist without being seen? The deceptive narrative perspective uses the approach of the detective novel: an anonymous figure knows all of Pnin's secrets and dispenses his information in a calculated manner. What immediately follows after the passage cited above reveals the first mystery: "Now a secret must be imparted. Professor Pnin was on the wrong train" (P, 8). Later we learn that the truth is even worse: Pnin has also placed in his pocket the wrong lecture and is headed straight for disaster. The only one who knows this is, again, the narrator. Progressively, several suggestions from the text bring to light that the narrator is a friend of Pnin, is probably Russian, most likely helped him emigrate to Europe, et cetera. The coincidences between the two lives and the objective distance the narrator tries to maintain have the paradoxical effect of making us feel—as Dabney Stuart says—that at work here is "a first-person point of view masquerading as the third."
Skillfully, the narrator finds a way to alternate the details concerning Pnin's present situation with frequent flashbacks to certain scenes of the Russian life of the protagonist. These scenes alter or parody facts and dates known perfectly well to be pertinent to the real life of Nabokov. For example, he informs us that Pnin's birthday was "on February 3, by the Julian calendar into which he had been born in St. Petersburg in 1898," which he no longer celebrated because, "after his departure from Russia, it sidled by in a Gregorian disguise (thirteen—no, twelve days late)" (P, 67). It is well known that Nabokov was born in that city on 22 April—or on the tenth or the twenty-third, depending on what calendar is used—in 1899, which would make him one year younger than Pnin. In the prologue to his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) Nabokov refers to this circumstance in an ironic tone: "I find 'April 23' under 'birth date' in my most recent passport, which is also the birth date of Shakespeare, my nephew Vladimir Sikorski, Shirley Temple and Hazel Brown (who, moreover, shares my passport)."
Similarly, Pnin's memories, which are awakened by the physical contact with a book, by the sound of a word, or by a fragrance, appear constantly to allude to the personal recollections of Nabokov. The final chapter of the book, however, provides a great surprise to those who have been attentive to certain clues which the story has disseminated. Here we find out that the narrator has known Pnin from childhood, when the latter's father took care of him as a doctor in St. Petersburg. The narrator's recollections of this period are still accurate, suspiciously accurate, we could say, for Pnin himself, who has no memory of them, categorically denies them. Is the narrator inventing Pnin's life? Is he a reliable witness or at least disinterested? Whom should we believe? With a certain elegant cynicism, the narrator reveals to us that Liza had been his lover before becoming the wife of Pnin, whose conjugal misadventures have been one of the principal themes of the story; that Liza discussed with him Pnin's marriage proposal to her; and that he still keeps the love letter containing that proposal. Pnin, on the other hand, relates to another character his opinion concerning the narrator's credibility: "Now, don't believe a word he says, Georgiy Aramovich. He makes up everything. He once invented that we were schoolmates in Russia…. He is a dreadful inventor" (P, 185).
The final six pages of the novel imply an even greater change concerning the value of the information we had received in the preceding chapters: the narrator informs us that he is going to inherit the position at Waindell College they had just taken from poor Pnin, and we begin to understand that the image the narrator has projected of him is tied to so many complex interests and profound tensions that there is no way of believing in the portrait he has traced. Instead of reconstructing Pnin's life, he has invented one that is caricaturish and certainly vile. In the final scenes that caricature is multiplied: a colleague of Pnin, Professor Cockerell, takes advantage of a meeting with the narrator to perform cruel imitations of "Pnin teaching, Pnin eating, Pnin ogling a coed" (P, 187). This duplication or falsification, which seems so much like the narrator's own story, is reiterated by Pnin himself, who again pretends to be someone else when he answers the telephone just before leaving so as not to be humiliated by having to talk to the narrator. The last scene presents the narrator and Cockerell eating breakfast, with the latter telling the former something that causes the reader to recall the very beginning of the novel: "And now," he said, "I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women's Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture" (P, 191).
Cockerell's crude imitation, as well as the insidious image of Pnin composed by the narrator, is not Pnin. That Pnin's past is full of memories which belong to the real Nabokov makes things more ambiguous. What the book seems to be telling us is that there is nothing beyond the words that makes up for a life (real or imagined), that he who tells it substitutes its subject and imposes his prejudices and points of view, making it completely improbable, fictitious—an art object. Words always betray the facts, and there is no biography that could be innocent.
This narrative game which creates an ambiguous relation between the textual "I" and the presumed referential "I" is basically the same one we find in La habana para un infante difunto. Critics have argued at length the nature of the book: is it an autobiography that is not explicitly presented as such, or is it a novel that freely re-creates events from the personal life of the author? What exact purpose do memory and imagination serve in the book? How do the two interact in the text, and how does the reader perceive them? The argument, although interesting, is perhaps a bit academic, for it is precisely this ambiguity that appears to be an essential part of Cabrera Infante's literary intent, of which the very beginning of the story can provide a good example. La Habana opens with the following scene:
Subí, subimos, la que era para mí entonces suntuosa escalera. Era la primera vez que subía una escalera: en el pueblo había muy pocas casas que tuvieran más de un piso y las que lo tenían eran inaccesibles. Este es mi recuerdo inaugural de La Habana, ir subiendo unas escaleras con escalones de mármol…. Están, además un jardín elaborado y una casa de rocalla, al pasar, que luego se revelarían como otra estación, la estación de policía, lugar de cuidado, por lo que tiendo a olvidarlo. Así mi verdadero primer recuerdo habanero es esta escalera lujosa que se hace oscura en el primer piso (tanto que no recuerdo el primer piso, sólo la escalera que tuerce una vez más después del descanso) para abrirse, luego de una voluta barroca, al segundo piso, a una luz differente, filtrada, casi malva, y a un espectáculo inusitado.
([I went up, we went up, what was for me at that time a sumptuous staircase.] It was the first time I climbed a staircase. Few houses in our town had more than one floor, and those that did were inaccessible. This is my inaugural memory of Havana: climbing marble steps…. Before the staircase there's the memory of the bus station and the Plaza del Vapor market across the street, both arcades, but there were colonnades in our town too. Thus, my first real memory of Havana is of this sumptuous staircase, which is dark until you reach the second floor (so that I don't recall the first floor, only the staircase winding once again after the landing), opening beyond a baroque whorl onto the third floor, into a different, filtered, almost mauve light, and an unexpected sight. [II, 1])
At the outset, the unprepared reader can take the phrase "Subí, subimos" (I went up, we went up) as a simple and natural reference to the fact that the narrator is not alone but is instead accompanied by his family, which is immediately clarified afterward. To be content with this interpretation of "Subí, subimos," however, would be to ignore the subtle composition of the passage and the ambivalent narrative focus it introduces. In the first place, "Subí, subimos" proposes, already in the first line of the book, the duplicity of the voice that narrates: the yo of memory is not exactly the same yo who writes, in spite of the fact that the subject of those memories constitutes the life of the same person. The dual perspective of the one who recalls what he lived and the one who relives what he now recalls are implied by this plurality, which separates at the same time that it unites the respective subjects. The self-referential character of all autobiography is negated by the breach that is opened there: he who contemplates himself from the perspective of the present is not really referring to the person he was, but rather to the person who exists right now in the present of the narrator. The question of identity introduces here, as in the case of Pnin, the problem of time and memory: to write about oneself is to play constantly with those two elements and to rework them in accordance with esthetic standards that question one's own reality and accuracy.
The selection and reporting of memories therefore become crucial. The narrator not only manages both with a very clear intention but also transforms them into a subject that is discussed explicitly within the story. Shortly after having begun to tell his story in the manner we have seen, the narrator very clearly indicates what his book is not going to deal with and, by doing so, again evokes the initial scene.
Pero no es de la vida negative que quiero escribir (aunque introducirá su metafísica en mi felicidad más de una vez) sino de la poca vida positiva que contuvieron esos a os de mi adolescencia, comenzada con el ascenso de una escalera de mármol impoluto, de arquitectura en voluta y baranda barroca. (H, 15)
(But I don't want to write about the negative life [though its metaphysics will intrude upon my happiness more than once] but about the bit of positive life contained in those adolescent years, begun when ascending a solid marble staircase of convoluted design and baroque banisters. [II, 3])
Apart from the fact that it is precisely here in this passage in which appear for the first time the paronomastic segments that characterize Cabrera Infante's creation ("impoluto," "en voluta," "baranda barroca")—which underscores the ritual and literary nature of reconstructed memory—the quote allows us to know with precision that the subject of the book is only one of the many sides to the narrator, his "positive" side: that is, that which has to do with pleasure and eroticism. This other life does not coincide with chronology and has its own time frames, which the narrator also points out in great detail. The introduction of the erotic life is like a second birth of the evoked yo, a re-creation of itself in which its imagination intervenes, just as it intervened in the past in order to make the discovery of sex an adventure of fantasy and individual conscience, what the book directly associates with the discovery of a city by a provincial youth. What the long list of women obsessively maintained in the mind of Don Juan Habanero tells us is something nostalgic and mysterious: they help make him the adult he is now and who writes. In the first chapter, significantly titled "La casa de las transfiguraciones" (Eng. "The House of Changes"), the narrator notes:
Muchas personas hablan de su adolescencia, sue an con ella, escriben sobre ella, pero pocos pueden se alar el día el que comenzó, la ni ez extendiéndose mientras la adolescencia se contrae—o al revés. Pero yo puedo decir con exactitud que el 25 de julio de 1941 comenzó mi adolescencia. (H, 12)
(Many people talk, dream, or even write about their adolescence, but few can pinpoint the day it began, childhood expanding into a shrinking adolescence or vice versa. I can say precisely that on July 25th, 1941, my adolescence began. [II, 1])
The erotic life is presented as a life chosen as much on the level of "real" existence as on that of literary experience, a dual invention that the work continually reiterates, as when it declares: "That Sunday of expectations and revelations (it had to be Sunday, and if it wasn't, memory declares it a holiday)" (II, 11). The allusion to "revelations" is suggestive because it refers to another discovery of adulthood and fantasy: that of the cinema, a new invention that parodies literature with its fictitious images of reality. The cinema is the model—in the dual sense of stimulus and esthetic standard—that the narrator follows to revise his life and give it form; like a film director, the narrator creates a montage from the testimony of his own memory, which leaves a trace of its intervention through cuts, flashbacks, diversions, and self-criticism of the narrative flow. More than a writer who has already chosen a secure course, the narrator proceeds as a film editor or arranger of his erotic life; we experience, more than the product, the creative process. Moreover, this force is a constant desire to re-create memory freely without losing the thread that connects it to the past. In a passage from chapter 5 the presence of a certain Virginia is evoked, and, creating a similar effect to that of the zoom lens, the old memory is placed directly in the present, modified by the same act that revived it.
Hoy se veía bella, con su melena corta, rubia y lacia (sí, ya sé: me contradigo: antes dije que tenía permanente, pero es con el pelo corto y lacio como yo la recuerdo esa segunda vez que la vi: tal vez nunca Ilevó permanente, tal vez nunca tuvo el pelo lacio, pero tengo que ser fiel a mi memoria aunque ella me traicione.) (H, 278)
(I saw Virginia again, of course…. She looked beautiful that day with her short, straight blond hair. [Yes, I know I'm contradicting myself: I said before that she had a permanent, but I remember her with short, straight hair the second time I saw her. Perhaps she never had a permanent or straight hair, but I have to be faithful to my memory even though it may betray me.] [II, 136])
The epilogue of the book, appropriately titled "Función continua," (Continuous Performance), offers an admirable example of how these different levels of autobiographical narration function. It is a passage that presents a revealing contrast with the previously mentioned scene at the beginning: here as before, the narrator attributes his second and true birth to his arrival in Havana to initiate there his sentimental education. In the epilogue we attend another kind of birth, one that is like a grotesque and parodic culmination of all erotic fantasies: in a movie house we again meet Margarita, possibly the woman with whom the narrator has come to establish the most intense personal relationship, and through a complicated and delirious erotic handling of matters he returns to the uterus; he returns to be born from the same body as that of the woman he loved.
The scene is certainly worthy of analysis. As it opens, the narrator mentions that he sees a girl buying a "ticket to paradise" ("to the gods" in the English edition, p. 392—Tr.), which certainly alludes to the movie but also, in a more disguised manner, to the access to her body that she will allow him to realize later. Further along, he parodies the insult that someone casts at her with the play on words, "Me voy a la miel—dando a entender que perseguía, que seguía aquella dulzura, bombón o caramelo que entró en ese recinto encantado que es un cine" (H, 690; "I was pursuing … Ambrosia Belle Candycunt—both entering now the charmed circle of the cinema" [II, 393-94]). The parallel nature of the actions—the present of entering the cinema and the future of entering the girl—is certainly ironized by the placard the narrator sees at the entrance to the theatre house: "INFANTES NO ADMITIDOS" (Infants not admitted). The narrator initiates his advance, descent, or entrance by painful force, by which he ultimately loses his wedding ring, watch, and cuff links. Guided by the light of a flashlight that the girl herself loans him and which serves as a rough imitation of a movie projector, he discovers that her entire body has become a kind of uterus, which he describes as a cave that is both welcoming and frightening at the same time and from which he knows he will be expelled: "Al recorrer el salón paso a paso y trazar su topografía supe que estaba en una pieza en forma de pera. Mi éxito será mi salida" (H, 704; "Upon carefully examining the area, bit by bit, and tracing its exact topography I knew I was inside a pear-shaped salon…. My success would be my exit" [II, 404]). Suddenly he discovers not the objects that he has lost but something inexplicable: a book that contains a travel log that is like an epic version of his own interuterine adventure. The logbook is signed only with the initials A.S., a mystery the narrator tries to unravel: "¿Esas iniciales no serían acaso …? ¡Claro! ¡Eso era! ¡Ábrete Sésamo! La A y la S eran una indicación de Arriba la Salida" (706; "Weren't those the initials of—Of course! That was it! Why didn't I think of it before? Open Sesame! [In Spanish, naturally: Abrete Sesamo]" [II, 405]).
The book/birth connection should cause us to recall that the narrator associated one with the other at the beginning of his story: the objective of an autobiography is not to relate a life story but rather to create a book that can create its own protagonist. On the final page of the novel the narrator tells of (though it would be more appropriate to say that he dreams about) his own birth, the one event that is always denied to someone who writes his autobiography.
Otro temblor todavía mayor me acostó sobre una alfombra acogedora. Luego hubo otro espasmo en la caverna y otro y otro más, cada vez más fuertes. ¡Era un cataclismo! Mi cuerpo (y yo con él) comenzó a moverse, a desplazarse sobre el suelo, primero a la derecha, luego a la izquierda, después volvimos a su centro para resbalar enseguida hacia adelante y finalmente salir despedidos con fuerza de despegue—¡hacia atrás! ¡Santos cielos!, ¿adónde iremos a parar? (H, 711)
(But the tremor had now laid me out upon a cushioned carpet. Then there was another wave in the cavern and yet another, each time stronger. It was a cataclysm! How many richters had it reached? Now, believe you me, my body [and I with it] began to move along the floor! First to the right, then to the left, then we returned to the center—to immediately slip forward and finally fly out, as if we were, yes, airborne! I had always longed since childhood to fly on a carpet, but I was far from elated flying all by myself—backward. Good heavens! Where will we end up? [II, 409])
Observe that again the story uses the first-person plural (volvimos, despedimos, iremos) in order to accommodate the duplication of the narrative subject indicated by the phrase "Mi cuerpo (y yo con él)" (My body [and I with it]): he is simultaneously inside and outside the uterus, witnessing and describing his birth. The narrator tells us that at this precise moment he loses the travel log but not the flashlight and that he finally falls "libremente en un abismo horizontal" (H, 711; "freely into a horizontal abyss" [II, 410]). The last phrase of the novel is "Aquillegamos" (H, 711; "Here's where I came in" [II, 410]; lit. "Here's where we came in—Tr.). This is exactly the same phrase Eloy Santos, a character who introduces the narrator to the world of the cinema and to the mystery of the continuous performance, proclaimed "that Sunday of expectations and revelations," to which I referred earlier. "Aquillegamos" signals the end of the movie and the beginning of its rerun, just as the epilogue concludes with the biological birth of the narrator and brings a final end to his fictitious interuterine adventure. One well understands then the ironic play on words in the title: La Habana is a pavana for an infante difunto, a new-born whose preadolescent life does not at all figure into this book.
This is not the only case in which Cabrera Infante buries one life while inventing another, as he proves in Un oficio del siglo XX (A Twentieth-Century Job), which collects the film criticism he wrote for Carteles and Revolución under the pseudonym G. Caín. The book is far more than a mere compilation of magazine articles, for the author uses the work as a vehicle to practice his habitual inventions of narrative voices and characters. In the first place, one must note that the book's cover declares that the work has two authors: Cabrera Infante and G. Caín. In addition, the latter appears in a larger typeface along with the dates 1954–1960 printed below; these dates refer to the period during which the notes appear, but they also seem to suggest the chronological limits of a fictitious life that partially coincides with the active life of the author. The chronicles of Caín are grouped into two large sections divided by three plates of color pages (blue, yellow, pink) in which the author speaks in order to establish his ambiguous relations with his alter ego, to relate to us passages from the life of one of the two or both, and to pass judgment on his critical work. Caín is not, then, a mere pseudonym; it is a yo that is complex and difficult, different and even the opposite of its creator—a living and autonomous being whom the other (Cabrera Infante) habitually mixes with his Habanero friends. In reality, it is Caín himself who demands, for the sake of his intellectual reputation, that the author write those texts that serve as prologue to and commentary for his chronicles. The resultant text is a transaction of the two wills.
¿Sería mucho decir, decir que este prólogo se debe no tanto a la insistencia de G. Caín en que lo escribiera como a mi resistencia a complacerlo? Hay un hecho cierto: toda relación es siempre un doble camino. Entre Caín y yo … siempre ha habido el mismo violento intercambio que entre el verdugo y su víctima, César y Cleopatra, el café y la leche, Roldán y Caturla. (13)
(Would it be too much to say that this prologue owes less to the persistence with which G. Caín wrote it than to my resistance to accommodate him? One thing is certain: every story is a two-way street. Between Caín and me … it has always been the same violent exchange as between the executioner and his victim, Caesar and Cleopatra, coffee and cream, Roldán and Caturla.)
These frankly hostile relations become more complicated because the alter ego never uses the first person in his chronicles, but rather the third person (14)—that is, he writes as if he were someone else, as if it were the other one. Caín is a literary thief, a usurper who does not respect the pact with his creator.
Caín fue un maestro del enga o literario, un artífice de la mentira inocente, un aficionado a la bola fantástica, un fanático de la falsificación audaz y siempre imaginativa, y un pésimo artista del fraude, porque cultivé el hoax que regaba con su ingenio fecundo y abonaba con su brillantez verbal. (23)
(Caín was a master of literary deception, a craftsman of the white lie, an enthusiast of the fantastic rumor, a fanatic of bold and always imaginative forgery, and a very bad con artist because he cultivated the hoax, which he sprinkled with his abundant inventiveness and fertilized with his verbal brilliance.)
As a critic of Caín, Cabrera Infante is equally severe; he confesses that "con el tiempo he llegado a detestar estas crónicas: tengo de ellas no una opinión justa, pero justiciera" (38; "With time I have come to detest these chronicles. I don't have a very just opinion of them, but rather one that is righteous"). As a person, Caín usually inspires disdain in Cabrera Infante: "Detestaba la suficiencia de Caín, su pedantería elefantina, su empe o en la mentira organizada, su juventud y su egolatría—su constante referirse a sí mismo en tercera persona no es más que un formidable disfraz de su egoismo" (39; "I detested Caín's arrogance, his elephantine pedantry, his systematic lying, his youth and self-idolatry—his constant reference to himself in the third person is nothing more than a formidable disguising of his egoism").
These opinions are constantly present in the notes the author places in his chronicles to clarify, point out discrepancies, or deny authority to Caín: "Las notas, pues, tendrían que revisar las crónicas—fue así como muchos textos pacientemente construidos se vinieron al suelo por una sola frase mía" (38; "Thus the notes would have to review the chronicles—this way many texts patiently constructed fell to the ground because of one single phrase of mine"). The notes question or oppose the chronicles in order to emphasize how different the writers are from each other and how their initial affinity—Cabrera Infante was once G. Caín, whose name is wrought from the former's—has been transformed into an uncomfortable coexistence which seems closer to enmity and distrust: "Quizás yo sea un Caín para Caín…. No puedo sustraerme a la influencia de Caín, que cual sombra en pena puebla mis sue os y mis días…. Quizás este dilatado prólogo sea la muerte de Caín, pero ¿y si fuera a su vez mi propia muerte?" (46; "Perhaps I am Cain to Caín…. I cannot get away from Caín's influence, which inhabits my dreams and my days like a haunting shadow…. Perhaps this extensive prologue marks the death of Caín. What if it were, however, at the same time, my own death?")
The third section, signed by the author and titled "Requiem por un alter ego," is precisely that: the final farewell to a creature with whom its creator no longer wants to be associated. By parodying and inverting biblical history with cold irony, Cabrera Infante acknowledges the death of Caín.
Creo que nadie mejor que yo para despedir a Caín: si le vi nacer, bien puedo verlo morir…. [Caín] ha decidido suicidarse en el silencio: Caín muere para que viva su alter ego, que tiene cosas más importantes que hacer. (468-69)
(I believe that there is no one better than I to bid farewell to Caín. If I saw him being born, I can well see him die…. [Caín] has decided to kill himself in silence. Caín dies to ensure the survival of his alter ego, who has more important things to do.)
Later he adds a revealing detail: upon his death, someone comments, "Era un hombre extra o" (470; "He was a strange man"), and he reflects: "Entonces entendí nombre por hombre" (Then I understood nombre [name] for hombre [man]). That is, both levels (name and being) are interchangeable in his intention, because Cabrera Infante does not want to publish a book of G. Caín's film criticism, but rather to fictionalize his alter ego as much as his chronicles; he treats them as literature, as a dialogue between different texts, voices, and authors without making a distinction between those that are invented and those that are real, or those that are a mixture of the two. As the author explains: "It is not a novel because the main characters—there were several in the book, many more fictional characters by now, including myself, a false biographer—were real. At least the reader believed Caín to be a real critic. His criticism had been published without any fictional connections, and he had a name. To name something is to bring it into reality. As Adam shows us."
This close relationship between the real and fictional characters and the names that designate them, which allows for the textual games and allusions on the order of Caín/Cabrera Infante, is a major element in Nabokov's work. For Nabokov too, nombres are hombres and words shape destinies both on and off the page. In a passage from Speak, Memory he writes that he represents a fine case of "colored hearing," which is produced "by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline" (34). Nabokov later explains the precise characteristics of the phenomenon.
The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind …) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivorybacked mirror of o take care of the whites. (Ibid.)
This long lyrical passage demonstrates something more than the sensuality with which Nabokov perceives the sounds and physical suggestions of words: verbal reality is for him a form of magical perception, filled with nostalgia and memories, which he grants the same consistency as living beings and therefore the properties of the subjects of fiction. It should not seem surprising, then, that immediately afterward, the memoirist (Nabokov prefers to use the term sunesthete) evokes a scene from a time when he was seven years old: he was trying to build a tower with a set of alphabet blocks, only to discover that "their colors were all wrong" (SM, 35), for they made no sense with regard to the perceptions of form, sound, and chromatic values which he associated with letters. Words (their tonality and emotive aura) are what create memories and not the opposite. Therefore, in the first line of Speak, Memory the author declares, in a way very similar to Cabrera Infante, that the book is less the story of the facts of his life than its artistic composition—literally, an imagined autobiography: "The present work is a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections" (SM, 9). In the first chapter there is an episode which reveals that in a book of memoirs Nabokov also disposes his motifs much like a novelist or a musician. In this episode a character entertains a young boy with some matches; many years later, when the latter's father flees from Russia, a disguised man asks him for a match, and the stranger turns out to be the same man from happier times. Nabokov comments, "What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme. The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography" (SM, 27).
The way that language interacts with memory and identity, the curious portrayal of the characters through their names, can also be observed in other books by the two authors. Bustrófedon of Tres tristes tigres offers a good example. More than a character, Bustrófedon is the incarnation of the parodic and ludic powers of language; in a certain sense, he is language itself, a living verbal archive always in action, and therefore embodies the creative energy of the novel. Due to his constant linguistic games and his burlesque intention, he appears to be a new version of G. Caín, who was distinguished by the same traits. Since his nature is verbal, the secret of his identity resides in his own name, which alludes to the reversibility of the written word, as if it were read in a mirror.
¿Quién era Bustrófedon? ¿Quién fue quién será quién es Bustrófedon? ¿B? Pensar en él es como pensar en la gallina de los huevos de oro, en una adivinanza sin respuesta, en la espiral. Él era Bustrófedon para todos y toda era Bustrófedon para él [énfasis del autor]. (207)
(Who was Bustrófedon? Who was he, who will he be, who is Bustrófedon? B? To think of him is like thinking of the chicken that laid the golden eggs, a riddle without an answer, a spiral. He was Bustrófedon to everyone and everything was Bustrófedon to him [author's emphasis].)
The reader will immediately call to mind the tautological Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1955), a name whose comic duplication makes about as much sense to those who have read the novel and which Nabokov has described as "a hateful name for a hateful person." No less evocative is the name Lolita itself, which provokes the first outburst of sensuality in the novel, a waterfall of alliterations that reminds us at the same time of Three Trapped Tigers: "My sin, my soul. Lolee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta" (L, 11). In Pale Fire (1962), perhaps his most elaborate and ambiguous novel, Nabokov plays this game on many levels. Once again we have the story of a life told by a man who knows it better than the one who lived it, but the difference is that he does so through an extensive commentary of a poem by the latter. The commentator and critic is named Charles Kinbote, and the name of the poet is John Shade. One must pay attention to these names because throughout the story we learn that the critic expects Shade's poem to reflect the passionate flight of Kinbote as a fantastic émigré from the fantastic kingdom of Zembla. Shade is, in effect, Kinbote's shadow, in the same way that the latter shares, to a certain degree, the real destiny of Nabokov. One again thinks of the pair Caín/Cabrera Infante, camouflaging the one in the other. In an unfinished draft of the poem, also titled "Pale Fire," there is a passage that reads: "I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost 'man' / In Spanish" (PF, 174).
Shade is quite a ways from having satisfied the aspirations of Kinbote, who thinks that the poetic text without his scholarly annotations is not worth much: "Let me state that without my notes Shade's text simply has no human reality at all" (PF, 28). If Shade is merely a vaguely fixed projection in a somewhat confused text, the identity of Kinbote, who maintains with him a relation similar to that of the narrator and Pnin, is even more disquieting: in reality it hides another personality, that of Charles the Beloved, the last king of Zembla. This adds an intriguing touch to the novel, which culminates with the assassination of Shade due to a confusion of identities: his assassin takes him for another person who physically resembles him (PF, 267). In the same conversation among professors in which this fact is mentioned, we find out the other secret the name Kinbote conceals.
Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine."
Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla"—sarcastically stressing "Nova"—.
"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in you language?" asked my dear Shade.
"Yes, a king destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that). (PF, 267)
Kinbote's name contains, then, multiple possibilities: it is a symbol of his exile, an obscure premonition of Shade's tragic ending, and alludes (in code) to his assassin. At the same time, the name of the latter, Gradus, gives rise, like Bustrófedon's, to a series of analogies and phonetic games that allude to his criminal activity: some of his aliases are "Jack Degree, De Grey, D'Argus, Vinogradus, Leningradus" (PF, 307). As is customary with Nabokov, references of this kind weave a system that extends from a particular book to other parts of his literary production. For example, the poet-commentator relation that is established between Shade and Kinbote is symmetrical to that established between Pushkin and Nabokov in the latter's famous annotated English translation of Eugene Onegin, published two years after Pale Fire; and if one reads an old poem by Nabokov, "An Evening of Russian Poetry," one will find verses that seem to project from that novel: "My back is Argus-eyed. I live in danger. False shadows turn to track me as I pass" (Lolita, 322).
Examining all this does not exhaust the theme of the similarities and connections between Nabokov and Cabrera Infante. Apart from the fact that GCI has acknowledged that the origin of "To Kill a Foreign Name" (published in this same issue of WLT) is a quote from Nabokov, "who is always right in terms of literature," there are other paths to explore, paths I can only point out here. Still to be studied is the influence of film, especially the so-called commercial cinema (Hitchcock above all), in their respective works and its connection with erotic sensibility: the importance that both concede to translation, pastiche, academic language, and the clichés of modern civilization as providers of images of almost constant irony; the invention of cities from memory based on real cities—Havana of the fifties, St. Petersburg at the beginning of the century—in which they continue to live through imagination; polyglotism, which includes translation (and even retranslation) of each of the writers and the acquisition of new literary languages (proof of which for the Cuban came with the original publication in English of Holy Smoke, 1985); the interest in Cervantes which they share and which is reflected in the novelistic composition of double fondo (double frame), which characters who are readers of their own adventures, or books that imitate or contain books (like The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941); the reiteration of certain geometric figures as symbols of the human adventure, especially the spiral, with its suggestion of reiteration and change; the pedantry common to many of their characters, filled with illustrious quotes, erudite ridicule, and bookish echoes; the ideological intransigence toward the revolutionary processes which, by denying them a country, altered forever their relations with their respective languages, cultures, et cetera.
Perhaps if at some time these common lines are traced and studied, one could prove not only that the literary works of Nabokov and Cabrera Infante have profound similarities, but why they do. We would understand, finally, that their works coincide because their literary lives are, at more than one point, parallel, in spite of the world of differences that exist between the tropical Havana of the one and the frozen St. Petersburg of the other. Imaginary lives, parallel lives, or perhaps, as Cabrera himself would say, "lives worth reading."
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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, but in G. Cabrera Infante's hands the method is also reminiscent of the Extraordinary Tales collated by the Argentines, Borges and Bioy Casares. Here factual history is worn down into fictive myth; the clutter of names and dates and elaborate particularity have been polished away to leave emblematic figures such as "the black general", "the old soldier" and "the comandante", whose violent fates are laconically described.
Key to the book is the first word of the title. As one would expect from this pun-loving writer, "view" has several meanings. In the sense of "opinion", the exiled Cabrera Infante's view of his native land since Fidel Castro took power thirty years ago is clear: Cuba is a tyrannical dictatorship, a black joke far from any "dawn" of progressive enlightenment. Many of the vignettes are distanced by a cool style ("the senator was eating bread when they killed him, and his white linen suit was stained with blood and spilled coffee") which pretends to objectivity. Other sketches are already at one remove, being verbal descriptions of scenes depicted in other media: engravings, a map, photographs, a film. It is an exile's perspective, contemplating the leaves of a scrap-book of oppression and failed revolutions. And in the long view of Cuba's dire history—colonization by great powers, massacre of Indians, enslaving of blacks—the latest régime, with its persecution of dissidents and homosexuals, is regarded as quite consonant with what has gone on before.
The tone of the book does change, however, as chronology brings us up to date. The dead bodies and the gaol-bars become more bitterly personal than ironically picturesque. Three of the last nine vignettes have first-person narrators: a fugitive on a plank-and-tyre raft; a hungry convict in a labour camp; and a "disappeared" prisoner's mother raging with grief. The book is dedicated to one man who was shot by a firing squad and to another who shot himself.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante is perhaps the only naturalized British author who writes in Spanish. Vista del amanecer en el tropico, originally published in 1974, is here translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, but has been revised by the author. His hand is apparent in the English puns ("a joke is closer to a yoke than you think"), but they are fewer and less laboured than usual; appropriate to a book about a land which appears more sombre than sunny:
And it will always be there. As someone once said, that long, sad, unfortunate island will be there after the last Indian and after the last Spaniard and after the last African and after the last American and after the last Russian and after the last of the Cubans, surviving all disasters, eternally washed over by the Gulf Stream: beautiful and green, undying, eternal.
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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 appeared in Spanish in 1963) is made up of film criticism for those years, signed with the pseudonym G. Cain (G, CAbrera INfante). These pages are framed by the comments of another narrator who is, supposedly, the editor and annotator of the collected works and who criticizes and engages with his friend Cain. Alter egos or, as Cabrera Infante would have it, alter egotists.
The fictional frame allows Cabrera Infante the punster plenty of scope. Just the title of the book and the pseudonym of the author take us into a world teeming with allusions: Cain of biblical fame, East of Eden, Citizen Kane, sugar-cane (he's a Cuban after all, although he has lived in Britain for nearly thirty years). Film criticism is very much a twentieth-century job, but it requires the patience of Job to select the best of all those movies. There is a lot of fun, mixed with serious comment in these sections, which are written in Italics, and the device allows Cabrera Infante to get some critical distance from the enthusiastic film critic of the 1950s. The translation throughout is extremely good: Cabrera Infante himself, in collaboration with Kenneth Hall, makes the best of the association of ideas and the phonetic association that the English language can offer.
But it is the collection of film criticism, however ironically framed, that commands the reader's attention. How well does this stand the test of time; why translate this book after nearly thirty years? There are many levels of interest. Students of Latin American cultural history are given an engaging portrait of Cuban intellectual life in the 1950s. Cabrera Infante's colleague and fellow movie fanatic from the 1950s, Néstor Almendros (who is now perhaps the world's most inventive cinematographer), has described Cuba in that decade as a privileged place to see movies. "First, unlike the Spanish, the Cubans knew nothing about dubbing, so all the films were shown in their original versions with subtitles. Second, since this was a free market with almost no state controls, the distributors brought in many different kinds of films. I got to see all the American productions there, even the B movies…. I also saw Mexican, Spanish, Argentine, French and Italian films…. Havana was paradise for a film buff, but a paradise with no critical perspective." It was this critical perspective that Cabrera Infante, Almendros and other friends such as Germán Puig and Ricardo Vigón fostered by opening a film society and a Cinemathèque and by attempting to raise the status of film to an art form. Their mentors were, among others, André Bazin and the early Cahiers du cinéma critics such as Truffaut and Rivette, as Cabrera Infante acknowledges: "We had talked a lot about Truffaut, about his reviews in Cahiers…. We, like him, believed that American movies, Hollywood and all those classics were the most important cinematography in the history of cinema, he and we fought for all the films maudits, for the forgotten directors, for the new directors with talent and against false reputations, the literary cinema and the lies of the technicians." Cain's film criticism, like Cahiers', was conscious of raising the level of cinema in general, and North American cinema above all, by considering directors as artists, as auteurs rather than metteurs en scène.
There is also in this volume a great deal for the film buff to enjoy. Cabrera Infante, in short notes or in longer reviews, charts the development of movies in the 1950s and earlier. He deals with key directors: Welles, Huston, Hitchcock, Hawks, Minnelli and Wilder as well as the comic genius of Chaplin and Jacques Tati. A range of Hollywood genres from the musical to the Western are also considered. He shares in the excitement of the New Wave cinemas of the 1950s, the decline of neo-realism and the rise of European directors. Some reference is also made to Spanish and Latin American films, in particular the work of Buñuel. He retells and recreates the films through evocative descriptions and finely-drawn portraits. Here is Rio Bravo:
the wait in jail and the growing tension; the rounds of the town, charged with humour and fear; the arrival of Lou Burdette, dashing on his white horse, the unpolluted villain; the song played by the mariachis, Spanish and terrific, that one of the characters explains is "El degüello", the tune that Santa Anna ordered played day and night before crushing the American resistance at the Alamo: its wailing sound in the night, its repeated macabre insolence; the fatal glass of beer in which the blood of the fugitive killer falls, when Dude is just about to let himself give in to the alcohol and the exacting death of the outlaw in the old style, updated here by that geometry of suspense that one thought Hitchcock had cornered for himself and that is now seen transplanted with easy success to the country of the six-shooter and the stagecoach.
Only on rare occasions do the observations seem threadbare, dated, or just wrong-headed, as when Cain steamily reviews Cacoyannis's The Girl in Black: "The widow is still young, and need and loneliness have made her clutch at sex with the desperation that reaches women when they are near to the death of sex that is the menopause."
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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 is from the Cuban novelist who since the 1960s has lived in London in voluntary exile from the land of The Beard. As a young intellectual, Infante, now 63, planted this garden of barbed flowers during the waning Batista era, and then briefly during the ruddy dawn of Castro. His hopes for a free cinema died quickly.
A Groucho Marxist, funny and impudent, Infante brought to these pieces the vervy bravura of an Otis Ferguson, François Truffaut, Dwight Macdonald or Pauline Kael. His reviews have a slash and scintillation that are grounded in thought. Though at moments preening or purple-prolix, Cabrera was a master of swift delight and demolition. Of the latter, savor his sinking of wooden, water-logged Howard Keel in "Floods of Fear": "Wouldn't it have been easier to provide Esther Williams with a moustache?"
Infante clearly had one eye on the Parisian pot of Cahiers du Cinéma during its '50s ferment. He shared many of its American enthusiasms (for Vincente Minnelli, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich) but seldom fell into auteurist fever at the drop of a name. This cinephile knew how to toss hot pepper into torpid eyes, but also had the maturity to campaign for worthy favorites and to revise judgment (downward with "The Red Shoes," movingly upward with "La Grande Illusion"). As in Truffaut's collected reviews, here is a true critic, wings radiant, right out of the chrysalis.
Traveling to Mexico and New York, more often ducking into the cool dark of Havana cine-clubs and movie houses, Infante negated provincialism. Today, we can envy his calendar of films, the storm front of his enthusiasm. He swooped down hawkishly (Hawksishly in a rousing defense of "Rio Bravo"), seizing the French New Wave's treasure and that of the last classic Hollywood, that "immense factory of gilded pills," but also Mexican documentaries, Garbo revivals, the arrival in Cuba of Soviet films.
Infante, whose mind is a cyclotron of pun-and-stun wordplay, uses the framing device of a narrator. "Job" is the friend, editor and sparring alter-ego of "Cain" (Infante's old nom de critique, alluding to the Bible, to filmdom's most famous citizen, and to Cabrera Infante). Job cheers and jeers, sniping at young Cain's "execrable egotism," excoriating a "vile phrase," or commending a prophetic insight. His italicized intrusion, a postmodernist gig that often giggles up its sleeve, is lively but pretentious.
Why the revisionist stunt work? These reviews stand well alone and rarely seem old; some dated comments are part of the value. Job, a picador jabbing his torero, lays on many bad jokes (such as "robbing poor Borges blind") and becomes a pest. Young Cain devours light from the screens of Old Havana, while Job the jaded wise guy hangs out in the lobby, picking popcorn from his dentures.
No book of reviews can be read straight through, but Infante's can be consumed in large gulps. His calling Hitchcock's Vertigo the first romantic work of the century is a tab of excess worth paying to savor his vertiginous thrill with the film (which pulled him back on three more nights). Infante's demolition of The Old Man and the Sea is Carthaginian, and has there ever been a funnier rave than his squib on The Court Jester?
In one howler, Infante declares that in Paths of Glory director Stanley Kubrick "puts away his technical brilliance." Far from it! More easily forgiven is the four-page ramble around Around the World in 80 Days, which rather smartly restores to interest the dumb rush generated by Mike Todd's vast whimsy. And with the fabled work like The Gold Rush or an obscure one like Wind Across the Everglades, Cain achieved true poetry of praise.
There are some blind spots about actors. To write so well on The Horse's Mouth but ignore Alec Guinness is perverse (and why so little on James Dean in East of Eden?) Yet Infante also sagely noted that Guinness in Father Brown acted "with the scant sympathy Lutherans feel for Catholics" (never mind that Guinness later became Catholic), and plumbed in Rock Hudson "the defect of saying his lines as if he were an actress and not an actor."
Ever the skeptic, Infante brought sympathy of rare grace to Bresson's The Diary of a Country Priest. Though Latin, he disliked bullfighting, until Torero stirred him with its bloody mystique. Not a sentimentalist, he yet wrote of La Strada with a tender gravity worthy of Fellini. As with the best critics, in the celluloid DNA of Infante's soul is a generosity born of hope and dreams, not the fuddy "correctness" of a culture commissar.
Despite some squirming from Job, this book is the open diary of a romance recollected in lust: Man pursues movies, man "gets" movies, man marries movies to smart criticism. Shortly before exile, Cain eagerly believed that Truffaut's The 400 Blows would spark a new era, would change the show for good and forever. He was largely wrong about that, but the zeal of his hope is cherishable.
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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 biographies of Cuban authors), and "Vida única" (on Cuban and other topics)—the book is really a passionate, albeit flawed biographical assessment of Cuban cultural politics since the midsixties. Inimitable in style, obviously self-revealing, full of information, insight and gossip, hilariously combative, Mea Cuba may well become a definitive view of one side of the t(r)opic that Cuba has become.
When this book was published in mid-November 1992, Juan Goytisolo praised it in the Spanish press as an ironic homage to Fidel Castro, the "real" father of all Cubans, whether they be in Cuba, the cemetery, prison, or exile. This sort of obsession, akin to arguing that José Marti might be the only true Cuban-American, is the source of Cabrera Infante's greatest strength and weakness in the collection. From its allusive title (which can refer either to whatever faults the author represses or to a bodily function command that his homeland is carrying out without his ranting and raving) to the now tiresome infinite play on words, these texts cover a wide and pathetic state of intellectual affairs and persecutions.
Cabrera Infante's book includes divisive propaganda parading in the guise of concerned essayistic discourse. In this sense, it is no different from the concerned scholarship published in Cuba and in the United States. However, the difference is that Cabrera Infante would never entertain a dialogue. His texts are monologues, and frequently lengthy onanisms whose irreverence is also tiresome. Thus, in the second section of the book, his portraits of Lezama Lima, Virgilio Pi era, Lydia Cabrera, Labrador Ruiz, Carpentier, Almendros, Arenas, and others are vehemently negative. It is difficult for Cabrera Infante to see wholesomeness or goodness, even among those he considers friends. The piece on Calvert Casey, for example, is representative of the homophobia the author dare not speak. Nevertheless, the telling of these unparalleled lives is the best part of the book. In spite of the author's wishes, his texts read as the ideal format for what is bandied about the United States as cultural studies. Despite one's differences with his politics, Cabrera Infante's knowledge of Cuban literariness is the broadest, liveliest, and nastiest to date.
In this regard, if we limit ourselves to the many and still ongoing imbroglios about the infamous Padilla affair, Cabrera Infante's "Mordidas del caimán barbudo" (Bites from the Bearded Crocodile) is the fullest accounting of that fiasco. This essay, the longest in the first section (and the book), shows Cabrera Infante at his best, his cruelest, and his poorest—poorest in that his puns, which somehow work better in English, have now been retranslated. Thus, many of his Groucho Marx borrowings will be lost to the general Hispanic reading public that may buy Mea Cuba once the academics are done with it. Among the various immigrant groups in the U.S. the reaction could well be dame un break, chico, since of the many Latin phrases with which he sprinkles his text, in situ (as in his not being in Cuba for twenty-seven years) never appears. The first part of the book is as historically schizophrenic and myopic as Arenas's recent sexual autobiography Antes que anochezca. Cabrera Infante traces and reviews (at times supplying contemporary addenda to pieces published in previous decades) his problems with Castroite Cuba. Trying to decide between self-hagiography and diatribe, he opts for both, with frequent dashes of invective. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that his mastery of the Spanish language is always present, but it could be put to better use. One can sympathize with his protestations, and academic Cuban exiles may be the first to rush to his defense; but he doth protest too much, in the worst way. Nevertheless, his own defense of Latin America's "Hispanicity" in the third section of the book is well wrought and incontestable, especially from one of the only tried-and-true bilingual authors Spanish America has produced and read.
Mea Cuba is a Who's Who, What's What, Where's Where of contemporary Cuban letters. The author's eyewitness (and hearsay) account of what many of us are still fighting and writing about is difficult to circumvent or ignore. Cabrera Infante, star-struck, provides his readers with a cast of thousands; but some, like Carpentier, are struck by millions of his poisonous writerly shards, and the evidence could not be more damaging. Much like the main crystal in a kaleidoscope, Cabrera Infante manages to direct that cast of thousands for our and his enjoyment, and pain. From the very start, and throughout his book, the author states that these texts are political in nature. In this sense, paradoxically, I cannot think of a better overview of what Jorge Edwards has called "Cuban messes," but I also cannot think of a better or more personal collection of cheap shots on which to waste an extraordinary amount of talent and black humor. One will miss the exclusion of Cabrera Infante's morsels about Spanish American soap operas, popular music, or his troubles with Spanish censors (winked at here), but Mea Cuba should be read, if only to see how its protagonist became an inorganic intellectual, the author of really one well-known novel. This is so because, in naming or calling names, either feigning discretion or showing cowardice, he is seductively selective, and at times convincing.
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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 Bull's Eyes", is also trouble; and the author's description of his detention inside El Principé Castle prison, for publishing a fiction peppered with "English profanities", is chilling. Banged up with a group of veteran rebel detainees, Infante finds his story—about a botched assassination attempt—has been taken literally by the convicts who upbraid him for its inaccuracies: "You don't know what you're talking about, man. That's not how you go about knocking off the opposition."
The "Ballad' itself seems almost unremarkable, as do many suppressed literary texts after the context of suppression has changed. A posse of political thugs sets up a routine murder which goes wrong when an innocent man is shot. Their only misgivings are over the amount of time wasted. In the build-up to the bathetic bullet, police officers and drifters track in and out of shot—Infante the screen dramatist is never far away—and a drunk, American tourist sings an obscene ditty before waddling away into the night. It is, Infante implies, pointless looking for any special degeneracy; the real offence, committed equally by convicts and the secret police, lies in denying a fiction its right to connote rather than denote. In this kind of closed mythology, everything must refer (and defer) to one thing: the state or the self. The problem is that Infante himself is implicated in this monomania, or "imprisoned by his own myth" as he might put it. The island of Cuba, that territorial expression of the ego from which there is no escape, brings him home every time on its "immovable raft".
The island is the anti-hero of the collection. A sense of the geographically implacable under-pins each story. In the first, "Gobegger Foriu Tostay"; a six-year-old girl prattles artlessly as her family faces eviction and her sister, Marieantonieta, resorts to prostitution to save the home. Terrible passions are caught up in the naming spree of infantile observation and Infante's camera weighs elation and dejection alike with the same photographic rigour.
Yet the family stays in place—an irony Infante makes sure we do not forget, and a frustrated pose which the best story, "Josefina, Take Good Care of the Senores", turns into paralysis. Its narrator, a ghastly madame equal parts Grendel and Sweet Sue, gushes puns and malapropisms in praise of her prize whore, the permanently sedated amputee, Josefina. Popularity with a US senator guarantees Josefina's continued employment, but her choices are circumscribed by disaster. She cannot move from her bed and has gone mad after aborting a monstrous foetus. Even so, notes the madame, "she came to be called Josefina of her own violation".
Other stories seek to relieve the tension of island-bound immobility. A woman in desperate straits, hemmed in by her abusive brothers, wrecks her house chasing flies. Parched with thirst and anger, she is revived by a storm—relief rainfall; of course—and finds a fly dead in a glass of milk. In another narrative of interrupted cadences, an English teacher strips naked for her student before resuming instruction. There are also rites of passage dealing with familiar, comic themes of adolescence and infatuation, although these, too, are fretted with yearning: "All I wanted", murmurs a lovesick medical student, "was memory, the fragrance of memory."
One sympathizes. Like his miraculous narrative collage View of Dawn in the Tropics, Infante's Writes of Passage is essentially a photo-album of culture and memory stuck in the developing tray. There seems no way off the island of image reproduction; nothing really develops at all. And yet Infante exerts himself to break out of the photographic background with word-play that announces his continuing proficiency as a virile linguist. This would be fine if he did not also acknowledge the age of these stories in an introduction which snubs literature without pedigree: "I, who used to search and devour, read so very few modern novels. Otherwise I'd have to use a stomach pump." Language is Infante's business, no doubt of that. But is repackaging?
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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, musicians and filmmakers placed themselves anyway. It was also libertarian, ungovernable and unrestrained. Its voice was found most particularly in "Lunes de Revolucion," the weekly literary supplement of the newspaper Revolution, whose director, Carlos Franqui, embodied the violent idealism of the revolution's first years.
In its brief life, Lunes was a meteor, and by far the most vital literary publication in Latin America. Its editor, a young novelist, critic and hopeless Hollywood buff, thought of himself as an "anarcho-Surrealist." That amounts to cultural gourmandizing; the equivalent of sitting through a triple feature with chocolate peanuts as well as popcorn and butter.
It took less than two years for the chill of repression to be felt in other aspects of the Cuban revolution; for Castro's totalitarian elan to devour his revolutionary elan—allying itself at first with the Communists and then devouring many of them as well. Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes in Mea Cuba of the months in early 1961 when the freeze reached the artists and closed down his "Lunes."
His brother and a collaborator had made a short feature, "PM," that toured the smoky bars and dives of Havana in the best bittersweet film-noir manner. The authorities banned it as decadent. "Lunes," with the support of dozens of artists and writers, was about to publish an indignant protest when the government organized a three-day meeting to forestall it. President Osvaldo Dorticos urged the intellectuals to speak their minds without fear; Castro made a speech assuring them that "within the Revolution all things are possible."
Virgilio Piñero, a timid, shrunken, flamboyantly gay writer, made his way hesitantly to the microphone. "I only want to say that I'm very frightened. I don't know why I'm so frightened but that is all I have to say."
As it turned out, there was not much more to say. Lunes was shut down, ostensibly for a shortage of newsprint; Revolucion lasted only a little longer. Franqui went to live in Paris, Cabrera Infante was given a diplomatic job in Brussels, and a number of Lunes writers found brief employment in the government cultural agency.
It was gradual but relentless removal from the intellectual and artistic life of the country. Except for homosexuals—among whom were a number of the most talented Cuban artists—there were few harsh individual measures (the jailing of the poet Heberto Padilla was a notable exception). The punishment was exile or silence.
Mea Cuba gives the silence a clamorous voice: eloquent and powerful at times, and at others wordy, repetitive, strident and eventually hoarse. It is steadily obsessed with the wreckage of Cuba's material, moral and cultural values by one man's will to power; whose various manifestations the author refers to with such epithets as "Castro Convertible" and "Castroenterology."
Cabrera Infante, who has lived in London since breaking with Castro and publishing his satirical novel Three Trapped Tigers (a favorable review was one of the things that landed Padilla in jail), is addicted to puns and word games. It energizes him, perhaps, but it depletes the reader.
There are more serious weaknesses in Mea Cuba. It is a collection of about 60 articles written over a quarter-century and printed in a number of different periodicals. Many of them borrow or repeat from each other; no effort has been made to edit the repetitions out. Furthermore the translation, in which the author took a hand, is clumsy; at times ludicrously so.
It is a pity because it makes Cabrera Infante's strengths less accessible. Through the personal recollections, portraits, polemics and accounts of the recent and more remote past, he has put together something of a history of the Cuban imagination and character.
There is an exploration of Cuban suicide, for example. Castro's hopeless attack on the Moncada fortress early in his revolutionary career was virtually a kamikaze action. The author mentions the suicide of an opposition politician as climax to a radio speech (he didn't realize that the station had already switched to a commercial), and of a mayor unable to fulfill a campaign promise. He writes of the suicides of Haydee Santamaria, one of Castro's closest associates, and of Dorticos, whom Castro had deposed. Could 35 years of putting up with revolutionary decline amount to a national suicidal instinct? Far-fetched, perhaps, but suggestive.
His polemics range from petty—his anger at the pro-Castro Gabriel Garcia Marquez is such that he calls him an inferior writer—to splendid. Even better are some of his portraits.
He gives evocative accounts of Lezama Lima, the defiantly decadent writer whom the government all but starved, of Piñero and his timid valor, of Nicolas Guillen, proud of his official favor until one day Castro, perhaps in passing, called him lazy. "He's worse than Stalin," the shocked Guillen complained to the author, who was still in Cuba at the time.
The most memorable portrait is of Gustavo Arcos, the man who would not bend. He fought with Castro during the Moncada assault, joined him in Mexico to prepare the Sierra Maestra campaign; today, after many years in prison he is one of the country's much-persecuted civil rights leaders.
It is an extraordinary story of a man who lost favor with Castro because of his insistence on speaking his mind. Named ambassador to Belgium, to get him out of the country, he was being considered for the Rome embassy when he was arrested. Released, he tried to leave Cuba to see his desperately ill son in Miami. He was sentenced to 14 years more; at the same time, Castro brought his family back, lodged them in a luxury hotel and got the finest available medical care for the son. At one point he offered Arcos his freedom if he would promise not to try to leave. Arcos refused and served many years longer.
In exile, Cabrera Infante worked hard but in vain to enlist literary and intellectual figures in a fight for Arcos. The trouble was tha the wasn't a writer, an artist or an intellectual. And Cabrera Infante concludes brilliantly with an account of refusing an invitation to a London human rights conference entitled, with would-be mordancy: "They Kill Writers, Don't They?"
"I told them that the title was not true. I told them that in totalitarian countries like Cuba, the last thing they kill is writers. They kill workers, peasants, leaders of the clandestine movement, Jehovah's Witnesses, whites and blacks. Everyone. But what they least kill is writers. Those shut up or get scared or their silence is bought with a house and a car and several trips to Europe. Or they leave the country as exiles. They don't kill writers. They kill, precisely, men without imagination like Gustavo Aroos. They kill their heroes."
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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 reader might wail—endlessly punning. The titles of the sections and essays are a fair representation of what our man from Havana is up to: "Hey Cuba, Hecuba?"; "Have a Havana"; "Quiet Days in Cliché"; "Castroenteritis," and so forth.
The earliest essays gathered in Mea Cuba date from shortly after the author left his job as a cultural attaché in the Cuban Embassy in Brussels and, declaring himself an exile, settled in Europe in 1965. (He now lives in London.) The most recent essay is from 1992. The subjects of most of them, and certainly of the most interesting, are the lives, travails and various exquisite martyrdoms of Cuban intellectuals under the regime of Fidel Castro, as reflected on by the author for an eclectic assortment of publications, including Octavio Paz's magazine Vuelta and The London Review of Books.
Cuba, an island of lush growth and claustrophobic politics, could be expected to produce only the hothouse variety of intellectuals. With rare exceptions (or perhaps none, if one does not consider Nicolas Guillén a major poet or Virgilio Piñera a genius of the theater), the highest achievements of Cuban literature are baroque. From Paradise, by José Lezama Lima, to The Lost Steps, by Alejo Carpentier, to Three Trapped Tigers itself (or even El Monte, the ground breaking study of the religion of Santeria by Lydia Cabrera, which Mr. Cabrera Infante terms "anthropoetry"), plots and sentences twist back upon themselves and spiral and branch out in an attempt to reproduce the intricate density of the world.
It is an intricate and a mannered life the intellectuals lead, too, and—at least in Mr. Cabrera Infante's telling of it—it is dominated by those he calls, in hothouse fashion, "pederasts." (Rarely the gentleman, the author is nevertheless discreet in his treatment of Lydia Cabrera, the anthropoet, referring to her female lover merely as a "constant companion.") The subject of homosexuality and its repression in revolutionary Cuba has recently surfaced in a number of ways (outstandingly, in the great Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea's latest film, Strawberry and Chocolate).
There are reasons why the subject is compelling. Gay intellectual life in Cuba was once not a simple matter of attraction to the same sex, or of creating paintings, or of reading books and writing them, but an elaborate routine that encompassed orchestrated social encounters, devout attention to fashion or willful sartorial neglect, intricate, passionately literary conversations, defiant crossing of class boundaries, and extravagant, or extravagantly frustrated, sex. In 1959, gay intellectual Havana was perhaps one of the last great holdouts of the romantic vision. Then Fidel Castro came to power.
Early on, the revolution decided to round up homosexuals into camps. Although the camps were shortlived, the macho persecution of homosexuals endured. In what is perhaps the finest essay in this book, Mr. Cabrera Infante traces the fate of two homosexual writers under the revolutionary regime: the playwright Virgilio Piñera and the poet and novelist José Lezama Lima, the author of Paradiso. Piñera was skinny and fey, Lezama Lima ponderous and large. The playwright made it a point of pride to have no books in his almost barren beachside house; the poet's library was legendary. Piñera went for rough trade and Lezama Lima went after effete young men. Unlike a great many other writers, gay and straight, who wanted with equal desperation to be loyal to the revolution and to themselves, and who were caught like hares in the headlights of the regimie's nighttime advance on their freedom, both Piñera and Lezama Lima were, essentially, apolitical. Both were suffocated by the revolution.
Piñera was arrested with a ludicrous display of force one day in 1964, and released thanks only to the intercession of his more respectable friends (Mr. Cabrera Infante included). Following this traumatic event he obtained permission to travel, but in Paris, Mr. Cabrera Infante writes, "he insisted that he wanted to go back to Cuba, that it didn't matter to him what could happen to him, that he could stand confinement, prison, the concentration camp—but not being far away from Havana. I understood his attachment to this city, that was once like a spell." Back in his beloved city, Piñera turned into a wraith, skinnier, less productive and more terrified each day, until death caught up with him in 1979.
Lezama Lima was never arrested; his reputation matched his enormous girth, and protected him. His artistic murder was more subtle: his masterpiece, Paradiso, has been out of print on the island since shortly after it was first published, in 1966. (According to legend, Government agents were deployed to Havana bookstores to buy up the first edition.) Mr. Cabrera Infante says that Lezama Lima was also systematically denied permission to travel abroad even as his health worsened. "His life became more difficult than it had ever been, and after writing steadily more pathetic letters in which he asked his sister for medicines and communication with the same rhythm, not hesychastic but indeed asthmatic, he died of a pulmonary edema in a nondescript hospital, in an anonymous room, without being recognized as the greatest poet Cuba has produced."
Mr. Cabrera Infante narrates these crushing events with a sober fury that serves him, and his subjects, well. Topics that wound him less deeply get the full fireworks of his brilliant carnivalesque style, and they are entertaining. Referring to the Colombian poet, Porfirio Barba Jacob, he writes: "The mention of a mariner, even a metaphorical one, leads us to the great amorous transport of Barba. It is said that the poet of Modernist decadence found his sinning sailor when he, literally, covered the waterfront. Littorally they found each other on the docks. The sailor became the lover of the pederast and pessimist rhymester … and, beneath it all, a poor poet. It was 1930 when the bard Barba was showing off his freshly caught mariner."
But despite the dazzling writing—in an occasionally lumbering, sometimes inspired translation by Kenneth Hall and the author—the style sometimes overwhelms the chronicle, and one finds oneself wishing for a respite from the shrill delivery and the endless petty settling of accounts. In a polemic against Argentine leftists, Mr. Cabrera Infante notes that the daughter of the leftist intellectual David Vinas was "disappeared" by the murderous right-wing dictatorship of the Argentine generals. He says, "Another patriot of those times who now are not the same was David Vinas, who did not dig his grave … but that of his daughter, to take refuge later—who would have thought!—in the capitalist paradise."
At his worst the bombastic punster's salvos are not meaningful but mean. At his best, he provides a moving chronicle of love and despair for the country he lost to Castro. "Mea Cuba," says Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose words never have a single meaning, or even a single language. Where he has written "My Cuba" one must read, in Latin and Spanish, My Country, My Potion, My Measure, My Guilt and above all, vaster than all the puns in the title of this collections of essays written with the blood of exile, My Love, Cuba, My Love.
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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 island, among them most of the country's intellectuals. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Cuba's Finest novelist, has lived in exile in London for nearly thirty years. Reinaldo Arenas, the best of the younger novelists who started writing under Castro, escaped to Florida among more than 100,000 boat people who fled from the Cuban port of Mariel in 1980. He subsequently committed suicide after ten years in exile. Through all this, Castro, whom Cabrera Infante has described as the only free man in Cuba, survives and thrives. In just these past few weeks, while the US administration was ordering the occupation of neighbouring Haiti allegedly to restore democracy, it was at the same time practically begging Castro not to allow any more Cubans to leave. Castro graciously agreed, after savouring the panic of US immigration officials.
Despite the spectacle—just before that agreement—of thousands of boat people trying to leave the island, no one seems to regard Castro as a monster. People may think of him as garrulous, a bit mad perhaps, but not really evil. He is apparently perceived as being so much larger than life that he is simply not to be judged by normal standards. People talk about "Castro's Cuba", as though it were quite natural for a man to own an island. Many Western intellectuals still idolize him, in exchange for the lavish hospitality he reserves for them. Gabriel García Márquez, for instance, remains rigidly loyal to his Cuban Caribbean holidays.
Recently, despite the US embargo, Cuba has become a destination for tourists and, more remarkably, for foreign investors, who talk and act as though Cuba had become fashionably post-Communist, like the Czech Republic. In the meantime, the millions of Cubans who are unable to leave have become so hungry that cats and dogs have almost disappeared from the island. So how does Castro deploy such a relatively benign image? Churchill and Nixon were hams, but "Churchill was a great ham and he knew it". De Gaulle was the finest French actor since Molière. And Castro? In Cabrera Infante's words, Castro is "perhaps the best television actor in the world", an important asset if you want to control your people. He is like a "Circe in uniform", whose most gullible victims are Western journalists, although there is recent evidence of even supposedly hardened Miami exiles being seduced during their exploratory visits to the island. Some of them have ended up investing in Cuba, doing "deals with Castro".
Though neither Mea Cuba nor Arenas's Before Night Falls are novels, they could only have been written by novelists. Mea Cuba is a selection of occasional pieces written over a period of nearly thirty years' exile. Although self-confessedly political, they are memorable for their intimate, nostalgic and often bravely comic anecdotes of the private life of Cubans under Castro. Before Night Falls is Arenas's posthumous autobiography: an account of his peasant childhood in rural Cuba, an early homosexual awakening, a brief, boyish flirtation with Castro's guerrillas, a period of Communist indoctrination, and finally his struggle to become a writer under a regime which despises literature and relentlessly persecutes homosexuals. Arenas incurred the regime's wrath by allowing friends to smuggle his manuscripts to France, as well as by his defiantly promiscuous homosexuality. He went into hiding, and although the whole Cuban police force seemed to be looking for him, Arenas managed to remain concealed for several months in the woods of Lenin Park. A few trusted friends took him food under cover of night. Following his inevitable capture, he was submitted to various stages of imprisonment over several years. He did a stint at the brutal Castillo del Morro, the colonial fortress by the sea that is one Havana's picture-postcard landmarks. He was then moved to Villa Marista, the secret police's torture centre, and later to an open prison. He was finally released in 1976, and took the boat from Mariel in 1980.
Many of the memorable anecdotes told by Cabrera Infante and Arenas are not necessarily political. In one splendid essay on the two homosexual writers José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, Cabrera Infante describes a chance meeting between them outside a plush male brothel, just opposite Havana's baroque cathedral. In another anecdote, the mulatto poet Nicolas Guillén has to put up with a mob shouting outside his house that he is lazy. The rent-a-mob assembles following a public complaint by Castro that Guillén's poetic output is too low (one poem per month) to justify his salary. Cabrera Infante also evokes some magnificent scenes from a four-month visit he made to Cuba in 1965, after spending three years away as cultural attaché in Brussels. He arrived just in time to attend his mother's funeral. In only six years of Communism, Havana has already suffered a mutation. The streets are dingy. There is nothing to buy. Roses have been torn out of elegant Vedado gardens and replaced with bananas. The language has changed. Public beaches are now called "Workers' leisure circles", buses are "rolling units".
One of the most moving stories Cabrera Infante tells is of Gustavo Arcos, a hero of Castro's revolution, who had participated in the assault on the Moncada barracks in 1952. Castro seems to have always held a personal grudge against him. Arcos was arrested in 1966 for no discernible reason and given the opportunity to confess, but he declined on the grounds that he couldn't confess to a crime he had not committed. Arcos spent twenty-two years in prison. Maybe he initially fell into disfavour because he did not stand the test of the so-called parametraje. According to Arenas, Cubans live in dread of being "parametered" or being told that they no longer "fulfill the necessary parameters" for the job they hold or the room they use or the freedom they have been enjoying.
Cabrera Infante and Arenas describe various stratagems to deal with Castro's tyranny. One of them is humour. Cabrera Infante has long been the wittiest writer in the Spanish-speaking world. Arenas writes a brutal, desperate prose which is not at all funny, but he too values humour and sees it as a last refuge against the revolution. He also understands that for the revolution, humour is a threat, as is anything spontaneous:
One of the most nefarious characteristics of tyrannies is that they take everything too seriously and destroy all sense of humour. Historically, Cubans have found escape … through satire and mockery, but with the coming of Fidel Castro the sense of humour gradually disappeared until it became illegal. With it the Cuban people lost one of their few means of survival; by taking away their laughter, the Revolution took away their deepest sense of the nature of things. Yes, dictatorships are prudish, pompous, and utterly dreary.
Another stratagem to cope with dictatorship, certainly its prudishness and dreariness, is sex. In an essay called "Reinaldo Arenas, or Destruction by Sex", Cabrera Infante points out that for centuries, tyrannies have tried to curb Cubans' love of sex. A royal decree condemned their licentiousness as early as 1516, citing their excessive bathing as particularly dangerous. In Infante's Inferno (1979), Cabrera Infante's narrator has one blissful sexual adventure after another. No woman is able to resist him. Before Night Falls is Arenas's homosexual answer to Infante's Inferno. Arenas claims to have made love to "some five thousand men". Sometimes he has "ten, eleven or twelve" at a time. According to Arenas, homosexual activity proliferates in Cuba all the more for being banned by Castro (concentration camps were set up for homosexuals within a few years of Castro's takeover.)
Another stratagem favoured particularly by Cabrera Infante is the deployment of memory, to keep alive all that the dictatorship seeks to obliterate. In his novel Three Trapped Tigers (1967) he tried to bring to life a whole world that the puritan regime had suppressed: the life of pre-revolutionary Havana by night. Many of the writers and friends whom Cabrera Infante's memory rescued from oblivion chose the ultimate stratagem against the dictatorship: suicide (It would seem that suicide is many Cubans' last best hope.) Maybe in a collectivist society, it is the one free, individual act the regime cannot stop. There is a mind-boggling number of suicides in the two books. Arenas, who killed himself at the end of a long battle with AIDS, had already made several attempts to commit suicide when still in Cuba and healthy, and he describes each of them in Before Night Falls.
It remains for one to wonder what fate could be in store for Fidel Castro himself. How will the great actor go? In considering his options, Castro may occasionally think of his friend, the former Chilean president, Salvador Allende, who shot himself with a machine-gun that Castro had given him. Will Castro be able to beat that?
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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 the separate writings on Cuba—articles, essays, memoirs, portraits, reflections, prepared talks—that he has produced since October 3, 1965, the day he left Cuba on a flight to Belgium (where he had been serving as cultural attaché) on the understanding of the authorities that he would not return for two years. His own understanding was different. As the plane passed the point of no return, he says,
I knew then what would be my destiny: to travel without returning to Cuba, to care for my daughters and to occupy myself by/in literature. I don't know whether or not I pronounced the magic formula—"silence, exile, cunning"—but I can say that it is easier in this time to adopt the literary style than to copy the lifestyle of James Joyce.
Cabrera Infante's exile has lasted just short of thirty years by now, in the course of which he has become an enduringly original literary presence, unquestionably Cuba's most important living writer, and one who, more than the other Latin American writers of his generation, has intruded himself into the English language, writing occasionally in an English as startling and original as his Spanish, and masterminding the translations of his own work into English.
Inevitably, since Mea Cuba is as personal as its title suggests, its underlying theme, its underlying reality, is that of exile. When Cabrera Infante left Cuba, he first came to rest in Spain, but, denied permanent residence there, he moved to London, where he has lived steadily since 1966, in about as un-Cuban a setting as can be imagined. In an interview he gave a few years ago, he said: "I inhabit three islands: the British Isles, of which I am now a citizen; Cuba, which is always in my being and my memory; and the top of my desk, which is my active, everyday island." Most tellingly, however, exile for him meant exile from his language, not just Spanish, but Cuban Spanish, with its quickness of tongue, wryly admired in Spanish America. In the short memoir, "Two Died Together," in Mea Cuba, Cabrera Infante writes of Cubans talking:
A tasca in old Madrid on a November afternoon in 1976. Two middle-aged men are talking seated at a table. One of them is an imposing black who could easily play Othello, the other is white, short, with protruding eyes that seem to see everything. He could be played by Peter Lorre in Casablanca. Both are Cuban, both exiles and they have been talking louder than the Madrileños around them—and that's saying a lot…. They are, from right to left, Gastón Baquero and Enrique Labrador Ruiz. They are talking their way downhill. When there is a clearing in their conversation, one hears an unusual thunder: the whole tasca applauds. They are still applauding the two Cubans who talked. They heard them as one hears rain at first, then they listened attentively, then they applauded deafeningly. The Madrileños, who know about tasca talk, recognized the two foreigners for what they were: masters of conversation…. The two friends in the tasca were both exiles and the only thing left to them in life was their art. In which figured, prominently, conversation.
There are many parallels between his situation and that of Vladimir Nabokov—it was in his writing, too, that Cabrera Infante could recover and keep alive the country he had left, with no prospect of returning. Without choosing, he had become, to himself, an outpost of the Cuban language in London, something like a literary embassy, without portfolio. As a consequence, language became his reality. Language, insofar as he could keep it alive, was all he had of Cuba, all that he could take with him.
Born in 1929, three years younger than Fidel Castro, Cabrera Infante, whose parents were founding members of the Cuban Communist Party, came of age with the Revolution. In Mea Cuba, in the long essay "Bites from the Bearded Crocodile," on the effect of the Revolution on Caban writers, he recalls its first days:
When Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959 like a larger Christ (as Severo Sarduy wrote from Paris with love), some of us saw him as some kind of younger, bearded version of Magwitch: a tall outlaw emerging from the fog of history to make political Pips of us all. However, the outlaw never became an in-law, only a law unto himself: the Redeemer was always wearing a gun on his hip.
Almost immediately Cabrera Infante was appointed editor of Lunes de Revolución, the literary supplement of the newspaper Revolución that served as the main voice of the new government. As editor, he gave the necessary support to his brother Saba to complete a short documentary film, P.M., an excursion into the night life in the bars and clubs of Havana at the time. Submitted to the official censorship, the film was accused of being counter-revolutionary, and banned. Outraged, Cabrera Infante used Lunes to protest, and brought down on his head something of a show trial, at which Fidel Castro himself addressed the assembled intellectuals on their duties to the Revolution. Soon afterward, Lunes was closed down, and Cabrera Infante found himself in the kind of limbo many Cuban writers of his generation were to inhabit in succeeding years, forbidden to publish. "Within the Revolution, everything! Against the Revolution, nothing!" as Fidel "thundered like a thousand Zeuses." It was the fate that was to overtake the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971, when he was forced to make a ludicrous public confession of the anti-revolutionary bent of his writing. His case caused many writers throughout Latin America to break openly with the cause of Cuba.
Cabrera Infante was sent to Brussels as cultural attaché; but when he returned to Cuba in 1965 to attend his mother's funeral, he was made to realize the precariousness of any continuing Cuban existence under an imposed silence, and he accepted the inevitability of exile. The greatest deprivation of exile for Cabrera Infante turned out to be his isolation from the living, shifting language of everyday Havana; but that very circumstance did much to form his prose from that time on. The work-in-progress he carried with him when he left Cuba, the book later published as Tres tristes tigres in 1967, was written almost exclusively in a spoken language, spoken Cuban.
Cabrera Infante has resisted calling it a novel. It is a vast linguistic flight through the nightlife and night-happenings of a group of young Cubans, as meticulously set in a real Havana as was Joyce's Ulysses in Dublin, a spontaneous native Havana-by-night that would soon be forced underground. Its antecedents are the Satyricon of Petronius and the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses. The events, encounters, characters, conversations, arguments, and musings of five Cubans pass through all manner of linguistic modes, and the characters play throughout with many forms of public language—literature, advertising, popular song, local legend, propaganda, the movies, the comics. The spoken language, with its jokes, puns, antic quotations, and irreverent parody, is also playing with the dire realities behind it—the point is that in the spoken language alone the characters are alive and have their being. Living speech, free to run wild, is life-giving; the pathos lies in the inevitable return, at the night's end, to silence.
It had been Cabrera Infante's intention when he began the book to offset the passages of nighttime extravagance and excess with scenes from Cuba's new daytime reality, the revolutionary zeal that ran directly counter to the irreverences of the night: he would thus suggest the contradictions he lived through as a writer in Cuba. Once in exile, however, he saw that the life of his book lay in the spoken nighttime exuberances of his characters, although the Revolution is ever-present as backdrop and circumstance; and he finished the book accordingly. None of the very substantial novels that were being published in Latin America at the time came anything close to its originality and verbal agility; and few works in Spanish are as hilariously and irreverently funny. It is literature as performance—it can be read on different levels of attention, although language itself is its constant subject-matter. It is also a book to be heard as well as read.
Tres tristes tigres is Cabrera Infante's seminal work, and it greatly helped to set for Cabrera Infante the mode and manner of the writing that was to follow, as he faced the blank silence of exile. In many passages like this one from Tres tristes tigres, the Revolution intrudes into reverie:
He made a muffled sound. What does a sound look like in its muffler? Idiocy of the folk. Muffled noises. Empty vessels make muffled sounds. Sounds to all deaf. Deaf words falling on silk purposes. Till deaf do us part. The early bird catches the first post. You can lead a horse to the water but you can't make him think. (Though you can make him sink.) Too many cocks spoil the brothel. We need a revolution among proverbs, for God's sake. Proverbs a la lanterne. Anyone who says a proverb should be shot. Ten sayings that shook the workers. Marx, Marx-Mao, Mao-Mao. It's a Mao's world. Soldiers, from the height of this sentence twenty centuries and Big Brother are watching you. Wiscondom of the folk. A phantom is hunting Europe, it is the phantom of Stalin. Crime, how many liberties have been taken in thy name. One must tend socialist man, as one would tend a tree. Ready. Aim. Timmmmmbeeerrrr! A call of duty is a beast forever. Isn't it true? Isn't it true? Isn't it? True.
The sheer fact that spoken language shifts constantly, makes sudden connections, plays with itself, asks and answers with a rapidity and an immediacy that a written language is at slow pains to match led Cabrera Infante to write from that point on deliberately in a spoken language, a language of sheer nerve, one that was free to play, to pun, to make spontaneous connections, to tease a subject, to go at times where language led, to perform a written language that at every point drew attention to itself as language, deceptive and unreliable as it might be clarifying. As a writer, he chose to become a speaking voice, varying between the reportorial and the wry, as here, in an essay called "Actors and Sinners":
Fidel Castro is perhaps the best television actor in the world, with a mastery of the medium and an absolute control not only of his voice and his gestures but of his temper. I remember having seen him one day in the waiting room of a television studio about to go on the air. Meanwhile, he killed time joking, strolling around calmly as he slowly smoked his habitual Havana, talking about cows and green pasturage and milk production, smiling satisfied: the agreeable agronomist. But no sooner had they introduced him to the well-lit studio and the camera had focused on him, than he came on the air transformed into a true Zeus thundering terrible traumas against an invisible opposition. He was not the elder Marx but the young Jupiter.
At the same time, however, Cabrera Infante was living in English, entering the language, writing (in English) the screenplay for the film Vanishing Point, and supervising the enormous task of turning the untranslatable flights of Tres tristes tigres into English, becoming in fact a bilingual being. As happened in Nabokov's case, exile had the effect of intensifying and heightening language for him, and the books he wrote from now on were all destined to have an English existence, masterminded by him. He wore both languages easily, and they cross-fertilized each other. In England especially, his command of the language has brought him both respect and attention.
In 1981, he published in the London Review of Books his long essay on Cuban writers, "Bites from the Bearded Crocodile," his first deliberate writing in English (he had later to translate it for the Spanish edition of Mea Cuba, as he did the hilarious memoir, Holy Smoke, which he wrote soon after in English). He did not, however, follow Conrad and Nabokov in becoming an English writer, although he was already wittily present as one. Cuba was still what he was composed of, and he determinedly remained a "writer of Cuban." All his work, consequently, skirts on autobiography, but while it feeds freely on past realities, it also sends them up, burlesquing them, peering at them from new and startling sides. In Infante's Inferno, the picaresque erotic memoir he wrote of his earlier years in Havana, puns abound, ever more energetically, each one a tugging reminder that we are at the mercy of language and the surprise turns it takes.
Mea Cuba gathers together pieces written irregularly over twenty-four years, close to seventy in all, some of them long, free-ranging essays, some of them short and pithy retorts to critics, some of them written addresses, some of them short reflections. The cast of characters is vast and recurring—friends and colleagues dead or exiled or silent, or caught up in the mechanism of the Revolution. Since Cabrera Infante was bent on preserving his Havana in writing, the detail is sharp, although the ironies are never far away, the tone increasingly sardonic as the book progresses. As opposed to its gleeful predecessors, Mea Cuba is in a sense a reluctant book, one that he would hardly have chosen to write had it not more or less accrued through time.
When he first settled in England, Cabrera Infante kept silent on matters Cuban for some time (silence, exile, cunning). In August of 1968 he was officially expelled from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, as a traitor to the revolutionary cause, and he simultaneously broke his silence on Cuba, in articles and interviews in the press, in Spain and Latin America, and also in occasional lectures. He asks in his preface,
What's a man like me doing in a book like this? Nobody considers me a political writer nor do I consider myself a politician. But it happens that there are occasions when politics is intensely transformed into an ethical activity.
The voice throughout these pieces is an essentially ethical one, withering and sardonic in its denouncing of human wrongs, bitter in its ironies, fierce in its dismissals. At the same time, however, he chronicles his time and situation in Cuba with enlivening recall, and peoples it with the lost friends and enemies who defined him then, particularly the writers who inevitably found themselves in the same stifling position that had forced him into exile, wondering whether anyone in Cuba would see their work. In an address he delivered in Madrid in 1990, reprinted in Mea Cuba, Cabrera Infante makes the observation:
According to an English writer who visited Havana last year my books were the object of a strange cult among the ruins. Smuggled into the country, they were sold under the counter for the price of—ten tins of condensed milk! La habana para un infante difunto was then on the list of the best milked books. In the first slot, uncomfortably placed, was a book about perestroika (which in Havana is pronounced "la espera estoica"—the stoic wait), its author called, he is still called, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was the first time that in Communist Cuba a Soviet author collected his officially tax-exempt royalties not in pesos but in barter.
Asides on the ambiguous state of exile are threaded throughout the book.
Cuba is the country that has produced the most exiles during more than a century and a half of American history … for us Cubans this is the century of exile…. A million and a half Cubans have already taken the landless road.
Such a diaspora has made inevitable an outpouring of writing on Cuba over the last thirty years, a whole literature of frustration. It seems to me that Cabrera Infante stands quite obstinately apart from that writing, in his stoical acceptance of "the violation of geography by history," and in his sardonic independence of mind and manner. It is the island of his desk that is his true territory. His fierce exercise of his freedom to write more than compensates for the pain of exile, and the accompanying running guilt at being "here rather than there."
Most of the essays in Mea Cuba re-create the characters and lived circumstances during the years of descending limbo in Cuba, between 1959 and 1965, and the two people who figure most prominently in these chronicles are José Lezama Lima, the poet of Gongoresque density who was acknowledged as master of Cuban letters at the time of the Revolution, and Virgilio Piñera, the Cuban playwright, both of who served as mentors to Cabrera Infante. Both were homosexual; neither of them was at all adept at reading the changing political climate of the Revolution. They were doomed to be its victims, driven to a kind of internal emigration, to an enforced silence.
Cabrera Infante's re-creation of them, affectionate in detail and abundant in anecdote, dramatizes painfully and compassionately their inevitable suffocation. When the hearings against Lunes were being held, attended by Castro himself, Lezama Lima, who had himself been attacked in Lunes, nevertheless made a speech invoking the eternity of art and the permanence of culture. This was a characteristic imprudence, since Castro followed by denouncing all cultural divergence in the name of art (which applied even to long hair), by excoriating homosexuals in particular, and eventually persecuting them actively. Anything at all that smacked of the "degenerate" Cuba of Batista, any vestige of the nightworld Cuba Cabrera Infante was at such pains to document and preserve in Tres tristes tigres, had to be obliterated, cleansed, rehabilitated by the Revolution, and writers and artists, dangerously unreliable in such a light, had no choice but to surrender their lives, in one sense or the other.
Since this realization set clearly and implacably in Cabrera Infante's mind, his position on Cuba has never wavered. Cuba has been since the Sixties a tyranny, the Revolution long since perverted and betrayed. Illusions about the regime and justifications for it are to be revealed and exploded. He has also kept strenuously clear of the factionalism of Cuban exiles. His own stern and sardonic eye has been enough for him. Literature, the act of writing, has been for him life-giving, life-sustaining.
Cabrera Infante's writings stand out sharply from other writings on Cuba from the outside. They are fiercely personal and they have no particular case to make, no cause to argue. The numerous lives they summon up are anything but case studies—they are real people, rounded out and intricately remembered. Scorn there is in abundance, most of the rampant ridicule reserved for Fidel Castro, whom Cabrera Infante knew and observed in adolescence. In Mea Cuba, he is mostly referred to, for simplicity's sake, as The Tyrant. He is variously to Cabrera Infante a figure become prehistoric by now, an actor who has totally consumed the stage, but who has survived in power only through creating a web of informers so vast as to sow distrust into the texture of everyday life in Cuba. In a long review-essay on Robert E. Quirk's biography of Fidel Castro, Cabrera Infante writes:
Nevertheless Fidel Castro went on swamping the land with slogans concocted by this Maximum Publicist. See some samples: "Join the War Against All Weeds," "Land or Death!" To bigger billboards urging all Cubans to the joys of "Artificial Insemination—Not One Cow Left Barren!" It was a campaign that lasted two generations of Cubans. Not two years ago he exhorted all good men and true to do battle for the potato. "This is a battle we must win," he said on the May Day parade. "We will win the battle for the potato." It was more Groucho than Karl: "Potatoes of the country, unite! You have nothing to lose but your roots!" Potatory.
One of the studies in the book that show Cabrera Infante at his very best as a chronicler is his account of the life and times of Capablanca, the Cuban chess master, which begins with a three-year-old Cabrera Infante being taken by his mother to see the catafalque of the Great Cuban. The unwinding of Capablanca's character, career, and chess prowess through anecdote and aside, the range of reference and analogy Cabrera Infante sneaks into the text, the relish in the prose, give the whole essay the quality and completeness of a film.
Could Fischer have defeated Capablanca? Fischer sought always to demolish his opponent, physically and mentally. The only way that Fischer would have been able to finish off Capablanca would have been to take advantage when Capa pressed the button of his timer to have, behind Fischer's back, a parade of chorus-girls, models and stripteasers to distract the naked eye of the Cuban.
There is a richly funny essay, "Actors and Sinners," on politicians-as-actors-as politicians. There is also a moving essay of farewell to Néstor Almendros, the Spanish cinematographer who had become an "honorary Cuban" in Cabrera Infante's eyes, and who remained a constant friend in all Cabrera Infante's close ties with cinema. The pieces in Mea Cuba can so often shift in mood, go grave or antic by stages, turn a subject on its ear, reduce a gravity to absurdity, that the reader has to remain on his toes.
In bringing his work into English, Cabrera Infante has had the collaboration of a variety of translators, the most notable and durable of them being Suzanne Jill Levine, who translated Three Trapped Tigers, View of Dawn in the Tropics, and Infante's Inferno. She elaborates on the experience in her own book, The Subversive Scribe, a careful and exuberant account of the meticulous exchanges with the author in bringing certain complex passages, certain treacherous titles, into a satisfactory English equivalence. The translator of Mea Cuba, Kenneth Hall, has also performed valiantly. Comparing the English and Spanish versions, I find many small instances where a figure in the text, generally a pun, apparently untranslatable, has been neither lamely rendered nor dropped entirely, but has been recast so as to produce an almost equivalent effect in English. The ability to do so is the stamp of the master, and that stamp is everywhere recognizable in the pages of Mea Cuba.
Whatever the deprivations and invisibilities of exile, and quite apart from the remarkable literature he has produced, Cabrera Infante has by now earned for himself an unusual position, that of a small and ferociously independent outclave of Cuba, something of a conscience to Cubans, particularly those in exile. His view of Cuba is as clear as it is relentless, and he has Cuba at heart. His writings reveal that he is a Cuban to be trusted. It is not every Cuba-in-the-making these days that will be able to look a book like Mea Cuba in the eye.
"After scientific analysis only prophecy, it seems to me, is left," he writes in the essay "And of My Cuba, What?"
When tyrannies succumb they leave behind the enormous weight of the past and no visible, foreseeable future—only the present can be creative. Thus one will have to extend the present of all Cubans to the immediate future, tomorrow, to wonder, and of my Cuba, what? To hear the echo that answers as if a sonorous mirror, "What Cuba?"
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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 political essays offer much fascinating detail about the lives of Cuban intellectuals. Many of the pieces will be of interest primarily to area scholars. Nevertheless, the book contains many gems of interest to the general reader, and the author's characteristic and always entertaining wordplay is faithfully translated.
From 1959–61, Infante served as editor-in-chief of the literary supplement of the Cuban government's official newspaper, Revolución. Differences with Castro led to his removal from this position, and eventually he was assigned as cultural attaché to the Cuban Embassy in Belgium. Returning to Cuba in 1965 for his mother's funeral, he found revolutionary Havana had become "like the wrong side of hell." He defected that year.
Not surprisingly, many of the essays criticize Castro's regime, and there are many poignant histories of exile, imprisonment, and suicide among Cuba's writers and artists. Infante never misses a chance to point out the social problems and hardships in post-revolutionary Cuba. Although his insights into these problems cannot be denied, he studiously ignores the positive aspects of the Cuban revolution (in health care and education, for example). Nevertheless, he convinces us that Castro is indeed a first-rate tyrant. A frequently recurring theme is the writer in exile; according to Infante, Cuba has produced more than its share of exiles in this century, and Cuban literature was born in exile. As with José Martí, exile has spurred Infante's productivity, leading to such novels as the masterful Three Trapped Tigers. At least, he can thank Castro for that.
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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 whereas in Tres tristes tigres memory and nostalgia play a major role in the portrayal of Cuba's capital in the 1950s, a bittersweet tone permeates Cabrera Infante's latest sentimental journey to his homeland, Delito por bailar el chachachá.
The book is a collection that includes a brief prologue and epilogue along with three short stories: "En el gran ecbó," "La mujer que se ahoga," and the title story, "Delito por bailar el chachachá." All three could be read as samples of the writer's unique uses of language: in the first two stories a brief, minimalist style reminiscent of Hemingway's best dialogue; in the third story an exuberant, transgressive prose.
In the prologue and epilogue Cabrera Infante points out that all three texts originate from the same scenario: a couple dining at a restaurant in Havana in the late 1950s, with music's playful digressive virtues serving as the hidden motif of all three pieces. For example, the intense emotions that Cuban bolero music evokes, such as passion, guilt, and betrayal, serve as the backdrop for the first two stories. These are brief pieces, in which amid the tightly crafted dialogue between the characters Cabrera Infante includes carefully described symbolic elements that define Cuban identity. However, more often than not, santeria, food, and tobacco overshadow the psychological tension between the couples who converse in the restaurant. The presence of music and other elements of everyday Cuban life is manifest, and even the witty use of language for which Cabrera Infante is well known partially comes alive. In the long run, however, in spite of the author's early attempt to justify his work, "En el gran ecbó" and "La mujer que se ahoga" are flat, trivial narratives that diminish the book's coherence.
One possible explanation for such a problem is Cabrera Infante's real intention behind the project: to expose the faults of Fidel Castro's regime, the focus of "Delito por bailar el chachachá." This is a lengthy piece, occupying over half of the volume, and, unlike the previous two, is narrated in the first person. Its anonymous protagonist (a Cuban intellectual) is arguably the author's alter ego. As he awaits the return of his lover at a restaurant, the narrator describes his surroundings inside and outside the restaurant. He soon reveals himself as an odd voyeur of the communist regime in the early days of Cuba's revolution. As he observes many women enter and leave the restaurant, commenting on their physical attributes, he also disinterestedly holds interviews with bureaucrats of the regime, individuals who prove to be nothing but caricatures.
The protagonist's obvious disenchantment with the political environment that surrounds him leads to candid reflections about Cuban society. Amid an imaginative and humorous prose, the reader is confronted with a variegated commentary on Cuban cultural identity, history, literature, film, music, and sex. At center stage are the author's recurring, sarcastic views on the limitations of Marxism, an ideology he sees as foreign to the problems of Cuba, one as simple-minded as the bureaucrats who try to implement it. Perhaps this is Cabrera Infante's personal delito here: trying to express his ideological differences with Castro's regime in a narrative that would have been better served in a memoir rather than in a collection of short stories.
Delito por bailar el chachachá is Cabrera Infante's attempt to bring together his many voices through the use of history, politics, and music. However, in all three stories his best prose flows in an uneven manner, leaving the reader with a disappointing glimpse of the Cuban author's true talent.
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Feal, Rosemary Geisdorfer. "Works Cited." In her Novel Lives: The Fictional Autobiographies of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Mario Vargas Llosa, pp. 170-75. No. 226, North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures. Chapel Hill: Department of Romance Languages, University of North Carolina, 1986.
An extensive bibliography of works about Cabrera Infante and Mario Vargas Llosa.
Janes, Regina. "Ta(l)king Liberties: On Guillermo Cabrera Infante." Salmagundi 82-83 (Spring/Summer 1989): 222-37.
Discusses Cabrera Infante's career, his opposition to Castro, two of his novels (Three Trapped Tigers and Infante's Inferno), and aspects of his personality.
Alvarez-Borland, Isabel. "La Habana para un Infante difunto: Cabrera Infante's Self Conscious Narrative." Hispania 68, No. 1 (March 1985): 44-48.
Provides a framework for understanding La Habana para un Infante difunto as a series of episodes that "oscillate … between [the narrator's] collective" and "individual" experiences.
Feal, Rosemary Geisdorfer. "The Duchamp Effect: G. Cabrera Infante and Readymade Art." Criticism XXXI, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 401-20.
An examination of Exorcismos de esti(l)o, with an attempt to show similarities between Cabrera and the artist Marcel Duchamp with regard to their "attitude of indifference … toward 'high' art and literature…."
Fox, Lorna Scott. "Castration." London Review of Books 16, No. 22 (24 November 1994): 22-23.
A review of Mea Cuba, as well as Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, which highlights ways that both writers dramatize tyranny under Castro.
Horne, Philip. "Wasps and All." London Review of Books 10, No. 22 (8 December 1988): 22.
In a review of View of Dawn in the Tropics Horne commends Cabrera Infante for keeping "the pun count … pretty low" and "doing justice to each sufferer" he depicts.
Janes, Regina. "Speaking with Authority." Salmagundi 100 (Fall 1993): 86-96.
Briefly discusses Cabrera Infante in a review of works by Edward Said, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and P. J. Marshall.
Kadir, Djelal. "Stalking the Oxen of the Sun and Felling the Sacred Cows: Joyce's Ulysses and Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers." Latin American Literary Review IV, No. 8 (Spring/Summer 1976): 15-22.
Examines Three Trapped Tigers, James Joyce's Ulysses, and Homer's Odyssey as works that embody "the Spirit of Literature" and put their readers to "the task of decoding accumulated stores of eclectic materials which often extend much further than the authors might have been aware."
Malcuzynski, M.-Pierrette. "Tres tristes tigres, or the Treacherous Play on Carnival." Ideologies & Literature III, No. 15 (January-March 1981): 33-56.
Applies theories of Mikhail Bakhtin on "carnivalization of literature" to a study of Tres tristes tigres in light of Cabrera Infante's anti-Communist political perspective.
Mitchell, Phyllis. "The Reel Against the Real: Cinema in the Novels of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig." Latin American Literary Review VI, No. 11 (Fall/Winter 1977): 22-29.
A discussion of Cabrera Infante and Puig as writers who, despite their differences in style, both owe a debt to the cinema for its influence on their work.
Perez, Gilberto. "It's a Wonderful Life." The Nation 256, No. 11 (4/11 January 1993): 24-28.
Perez, who teaches film and grew up in Havana, reviews several film books, including A Twentieth-Century Job.
Prieto, René. "A Womb with a View: Sex and the Movies." World Literature Today 61, No. 4 (Autumn 1987): 584-89.
An investigation of La Habana para un Infante difunto as a work which illustrates a particular relationship of literature, film, and the erotic as established by Roland Barthes and others.