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Guillermo Cabrera Infante 1929–-
(Has also written under the pseudonym G. Cain) Cuban-born novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, scriptwriter, editor, journalist, nonfiction writer, translator, and poet.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante is considered one of Latin America's most original and influential writers. Much of his fiction is set in Havana, where...
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- Critical Essays
Guillermo Cabrera Infante 1929–-
(Has also written under the pseudonym G. Cain) Cuban-born novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, scriptwriter, editor, journalist, nonfiction writer, translator, and poet.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante is considered one of Latin America's most original and influential writers. Much of his fiction is set in Havana, where he was raised, and details the repressive and violent social and political climate during the Fulgencio Batista regime prior to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Cabrera Infante was born in Gibara, a small city on the northern coast of Cuba. His parents, Guillermo Cabrera and Zoila Infante, founded the local Communist party and were arrested in 1936 because of their political activities. Cabrera Infante was seven years old when his parents were imprisoned under Fulgencio Batista's rule. Following their release from prison, Cabrera Infante's parents continued to suffer political persecution. Blacklisted and unable to find work in Gibara, Cabrera Infante's father decided to move his impoverished family to Havana, where Cabrera Infante later attended the University of Havana. Cabrera Infante developed an interest in literature and left the university in 1948 to pursue a literary career. He edited the journal Bohemia, founded the literary magazine Nueva generación, and helped establish the Cinemateca de Cuba (Film Library of Cuba). By 1952, Cabrera Infante's writing was censored for its political content, reflecting the author's clandestine activity against the Batista regime. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cabrera Infante became involved with the new government, serving on the Bureau of Cultural Affairs and as the cultural attaché to Brussels. Following Castro's rise to power, Cabrera Infante also became editor of Lunes de Revolución, the literary supplement to the pro-Castro newspaper Revolución. In 1961, Castro disbanded Lunes de Revolución when its editors protested the censorship of a documentary film directed by Cabrera Infante's brother that depicted Havana's nightlife during the height of Batista's rule. Cabrera Infante published his first short fiction collection, Así en la paz como en la guerra (In Peace as in War) in 1960. After leaving Cuba in 1965, Cabrera Infante eventually settled in London.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Cabrera Infante's short fiction primarily deals with Cuba's political turmoil. The short stories in Así en la paz como en la guerra underscore the author's contempt for the Batista dictatorship. “Balada de plomo y yerro” (“Ballad of Lead and Error”), one of the short stories in the collection, takes place in the gangster world of Cuba during the 1950s where political assassination and murders were carried out by the same people the author attempts to provoke in the story. Throughout “Balada de plomo y yerro,” a drunken American sings an obscene song in English and, on the grounds that the foul language was an “affront to common decency,” Batista's censors jail and fine the author. Cabrera Infante later repudiated Así en la paz como en la guerra as overly realistic at the expense of creativity. Vista del amanecer en el trópico (1974; A View of Dawn in the Tropics), the author's second short fiction collection, has drawn criticism because of its similarity in style and subject matter to Así en la paz como en la guerra.
Both as a novelist and short story writer, Cabrera Infante is praised for his narrative skills, vivid imagery, irreverence, and biting insights. Some critics have compared Cabrera Infante's writing style to that of Ernest Hemingway because the author often intersperses his long, descriptive sentences with short, staccato statements. Other critics have compared Cabrera Infante to Josef Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov because he has written and translated some of his works in English, showing facility with a language other than his own. Cabrera Infante's writing fills the reader “with a heightened awareness of injustice and even evil,” said critic Terry J. Peavler.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79
Así en la paz como en la guerra [In Peace as in War] 1960
Vista del amanecer en el trópico [A View of Dawn in the Tropics] 1974
Un oficio del siglo XX [as G. Cain] (criticism) 1963
Tres tristes tigres [Three Trapped Tigers] (novel) 1967
Wonderwall (screenplay) 1968
Vanishing Point (screenplay) 1970
Under the Volcano (screenplay) 1972
O (essays) 1975
Exorcismos de estilo (essays, poetry, and prose fragments) 1976
Arcadia todas las noches (lectures) 1978
La Habana para un Infante difunto [Infante's Inferno] (novel) 1979
Holy Smoke (nonfiction) 1985
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4946
SOURCE: “Guillermo Cabrera Infante's ‘Vista del amanecer en el tropico’ and the Generic Ambiguity of Narrative,” in Studies in the Contemporary Spanish-American Short Story, University of Missouri Press, 1979, pp. 110-120.
[In the essay below, which originally appeared in Caribe in 1977, Foster explores Cabrera Infante's narrative approach in View of Dawn in the Tropics.]
El general preguntó la hora y un edecán se acercó rápido a musitar: “La que usted quiera, señor Presidente”. (p. 99)1
While it may be true that Vista del amanecer en el trópico owes its title as well as many of its narrative segments to material left over from the author's Tres tristes tigres (1967), it is undeniable that the distance separating the two works is great and that Cabrera Infante's most recent work of fiction represents a marked change in his writings.2 The following points constitute basic features of Vista that any adequate characterization of the work—whether seen as a fragmentary novel or as a loosely connected series of stories3—must account for:
1. Narrative texture is the most noteworthy feature. We claim that the texture of a work is the direct manifestation of underlying structures, of its écriture as text. Yet, these considerations aside and to focus on only the verbal substance of the text, it is surprising to observe how Cabrera Infante has left behind the norm-breaking linguistic experimentation that distinguishes his Tres tristes tigres, José Lezama Lima's Paradiso, and Sarduy's Cobra—all of which are eminent examples of what Barthes called reader challenging (if not reader defying) scriptible/writerly texts. The result is a work that seems to be above all lectible/writerly, at least regarding its immediate linguistic expression, which gives the impression of document whose meaning is decidedly transparent. Meaning in the aforementioned novels, of course, is not transparent: whatever meaning that can be purported to underlie the textual enoncé is maddeningly elusive. Since the new Latin-American novel is known for its insistence on the nontransparent text whose play of signifiers impedes access to a realm of text-independent meanings, in order to create—to suggest or to insinuate—meanings dependent on the unstable structures of the textual parole, Cabrera Infante's shift to a form of pseudo-journalistic expression that seems more document than narrative hopscotch is significant.
2. In Vista, we encounter a series of fragments whose interrelationship is tenuous. All extensive narratives (save those that suppress any internal division) are made up of fragments, whether the traditional division into chapters or “scenes” or the more experimental division into blocks of narration that are short as such but are tightly interrelated. Vista follows the pattern of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963) rather than that of Augusto Roa Bastos's Yo el Supremo (1975), which means a narrative made up of a string of fragments that appear to be autonomous in the sense that, rather than following each other in a continuum, each fragment is isolated graphically to the extent that it begins on a separate page and, if it is especially short, is followed by blank space at the bottom of the page and even by a blank overleaf. Moreover, each fragment appears in the index with its opening words by way of a title. Since there are 101 fragments in Vista, the index belongs more to a collection of untitled poems than to a work of fiction. What is particularly significant about this fragmentation—and what sets Vista off from Rayuela, where we can speak of a novel in at least a skeletal fashion, with characters and action-plot trajectory—is that it bespeaks a fundamental ambiguity of genre on Cabrera Infante's part. In other words, it is not clear whether we should speak of an organically structural novel or of a series of short stories, or whether we should speak of fragments that are scenes which, in turn, refer kaleidoscopically to a miscellany of narrative possibilities: an event, an impersonal circumstance, an outstanding individual, even a song or a news item that is spread by word of mouth.
Since the fragments take on the character of autonomous scenes, even when grouped together on the basis of the constant of the trópico in the title, the book stands in the end outside the genre of the novel to which Tres tristes tigres, when all is said and done, does belong, no matter how hard it may be on occasion to know what is happening in the latter in terms of a unified fable. To this extent, Vista cannot be studied in terms of novel-reading conventions but insists instead on a reading of independent vignettes. Yet, at the same time and due to the organization of the fragments under an umbrella title and our natural desire to seek organic structures where there seems to be only chaos and disorder, the reader discovers common denominators among the fragments in order to bring them together into a homogeneous text, one without gaps on the level of its abstract meaning. By departing from the patterns of easily recognized genres, especially the novel that is based on a trajectory of events and the short story that stands apart from the other stories with which it appears in a collection, the author forces us with unusual emphasis to think about such conventions. We undertake to see how they are applicable to the text at hand, to what extent; and, if they are not applicable, what the conventions are that should be brought to bear in order to achieve a coherent reading of the text.
3. As a result of the foregoing generic ambiguity, Vista brings into focus the question of extratextual versus intratextual unity.4 It would be impossible not to notice how the fragments are unified not by the trajectory of persons or events described by the inner action, but by the sweep of Cuban history. This point is made explicitly by the back of the book. But it is also made clear by the internal references of the fragments themselves, where chronological movement and allusions to certain happenings and key figures of Cuba's history are obvious to even the reader who lacks a complete knowledge of the history of the island. It is true that Cabrera Infante can count on a more perfect knowledge on the part of the average reader than would be the case, let us say, if he were dealing with the trajectory of Bolivian history, a country that has not been in the public eye to the same extent as Cuba has been in the last twenty years. It is undeniable that Cabrera Infante's text allows one to read it on various levels, from an approach that what is related is understood as a series of key references to men and events that are part of common knowledge (to which is added “historical fact” in this reading), to a reading where we know that the basis is in history but also that what is narrated is to be taken as history without our having to identify documentarily the points of historical reference. It is probable that an intermediary reading is the most normal or appropriate one, the one that Cabrera Infante counted on implicitly in structuring his stories so as to place emphasis on first what are historically verifiable data and then on what are really fictional elaborations but with a remote and more mythic historical quality.
The end result is a text in which specific extratextual and intratextual knowledge enriches one's reading, but also one in which this knowledge remains more the possibility of concrete historical knowledge and not an obligation imposed on the reader by the author. The effect is at times one of ambiguity or the hint of ambiguity: the reader has the impression that more is going on than he can handle because he has only an imperfect acquaintanceship with Cuban history. Yet, it is an ambiguity that emerges more from the lack of preciseness in the presentation of many of the data, or from a certain obliqueness in the elaboration of the text itself than from the absence of sufficient historical learning on the author's part. One could go so far as to say that such an ambiguity is operant even for the reader who is extensively familiar with Cuban history, since it is an ambiguity that arises functionally from the mode of narration rather than from the formation of the average reader of the text. In this sense, any question concerning Cuban history in Vista concerns more a trap for an adequate reading of the text and not an inherent feature that necessarily defines as such the nature of that text.
4. The use of the principles of intertextuality—references that are both explicit and oblique to other works of history and literature—as well as the fragmentariness that gives Vista its particular character contribute to a situation in which the narrative voice, in addition to being multifaceted like that of Tres tristes tigres, where we have a text that seems to be self-generating (and self-destructive), depends on the intrinsic nature of each segment, rather than functioning as a “presence” that unites the text as a whole. One could refer to the idea of a pseudo-mythic voice that replaces the perspective of a narrator circumscribed by his limitations as the source of data and opinions (that is, the unreliable narrators of new novel texts that suggest the problem of the inaccessibility of knowledge, such as we have in many of the narrators of Borges's stories). Such a mythic voice insists on a gnosiological primacy based on its being the center whence flow the structures of linguistic expression. It controls expression because it encompasses it as the spokesman of an absolute knowledge as regards the phenomena to be portrayed through the agency of the mythic tale. In primitive, “innocent” contexts, we have myths that lack self-awareness and in which self-contemplation is impossible: they stand as witnesses to an absolute faith in the expressive power of the word. In the new narrative, the need to achieve distance between the narrator (as the maker of fictions) and the narrative material, as well as to permit the latter to “speak itself,” as the cliché goes, or to vanish as a non-meaning that cannot be independent from the narration that articulates it, gives new life to the possibilities of mythic expression whereby the text exists only as the product of énonciation by an explicit narrative voice. But, at the same time, in a modern context, where innocence is impossible, where metaliterature—literature that turns in upon itself to engage in self-commentary and self-criticism—becomes an imperative, mythic expression demands dialectics in which the structures of expression embody not only a meaning with an absolute value (the “truth” about something or some experience—in this case, the intrahistorical trajectory of Cuba)—but also an often cutting irony that exposes all of our uncertainties concerning actions, characters, and values that intrahistory represents. In this latter sense, the text can be the expression of a myth while at the same time it bespeaks the strain on myth by modern human ineptness.
Thus, Vista may be using the anonymity of historical facts and figures to create, on the one hand, a mythic setting in which values are what is most important, but also, on the other, to achieve a demythification of a certain canon of received Cuban history by relating it via a fragmentary narration lacking in one controlling voice as though it were unimportant as a specific story, as if anonymity were a reference to relativity, if not to the cyclical and perennial nature, of the national gesta. In this sense, the narration that functions more in terms of the individual fragments than with references to a cohesive voice serves to delineate, rather than a mythic expression that is self-narrating (which is what we associated with epic or mythic texts, characterized by unobtrusive—and, therefore, nonironic—narrators), an ironic and self-challenging text.
The foregoing are the features that most distinguish Vista's écriture and that set it off from Cabrera Infante's other writings, despite whatever similarity it may have to them on the basis of the constants that underlie any writer's works. To characterize the fragments' specificity as texts, the following passage will be examined:
Al llegar a una aldea grande, los conquistadores encontraron reunidos en la plaza central a unos dos mil indios, que los esperaban con regalos, mucho pescado y casabe, sentados todos en cuclillas y algunos fumando. Empezaron los indios a repartir la comida cuando un soldado sacó su espada y se lanzó sobre uno de ellos cercenándole la cabeza de un solo tajo. Otros soldados imitaron la acción del primero y sin ninguna provocación empezaron a tirar sablazos a diestra y siniestra. La carnicería se hizo mayor cuando varios soldados entraron en un batey, que era una casa muy grande en la que había reunidos más de quinientos indios, “de los cuales muy pocos tuvieron oportunidad de huir”. Cuenta el padre Las Casas: “Iba el arroyo de sangre como si hubieran muerto muchas vacas”. Cuando se ordenó una investigación sobre el sangriento incidente, se supo que al ser recibidos los conquistadores con tal amistosidad “pensaron que tanta cortesía era por les matar de seguro”.
In addition to the seemingly cold or detached narrative voice, this segment, which belongs to the first group of texts that deal with the colonization of the island by the Spaniards and the “hosts” of civilization, lends itself to considerations on the point of reference in any code of knowledge and value. In general, Vista concerns a series of events that satirizes or attacks through satire the official commonplaces of Cuban history (and one will recall that Cabera Infante's political position is both anti-Batista and anti-Castro). Although some of these segments are marked by a truly tragic-pathetic note, Cabrera Infante prefers to focus on his material from a satirical angle where officially propounded pretensions, the kitsch of school texts on Cuban history, and the lachrymose literature of mass taste make up a textual point of reference for the elaboration of his own writing. (For examples of segments of truly tragic-pathetic note, see segment , “Primero me quitaron el taller,” which deals with the injustices of a social and liberating revolution; and segment , “Habian estado jugando,” which concerns the Spanish reprisals against independence movements.) What this means is that Cabrera Infante's text degrades another canonical text, either because it forms part of the written elitist tradition or because it is a part of an oral tradition: both cry out for submission into the critical rewriting of iconoclastic literature. Only in this way can the lies, distortions, and mistakes come to surface.
In the segment quoted, we see very well how the process of constructing a text on the degradation of other texts works. On the one hand, we have a story told with all the stylistic flourishes of public-school textbooks: the slightly journalistic tone, made weightier due to more balanced periods. This tone, worthy of an elevated rhetorical standard, is not used to portray the deliberations of a constitutional convention or some other event where such a standard would be an appropriate vehicle of expression, but to report an episode of startling barbarity and military perversion. It is as though this register were being used in a contemporary context to describe police torture, for the values that justify the style or register are in irresolvable conflict with the meaning they convey, and herein lies the deployment of satire for textual degradation. Moreover, this segment contains a reference to Padre de las Casas's chronicle of the Conquest. This reference does not contribute to the neutral journalistic tone, but constitutes rather a rupture with it, to the extent that it is the only sentence in the fragment that establishes the sense most appropriate to the scene in its use of the simile equating the massacre of the Indians with the slaughter of cattle. This play of language is what defines most categorically the essense of the textually elaborated “view” of the tropics put forth by Cabrera Infante's writing.
Another segment that makes a specific issue out of its own textuality is , “Dice la historia …,” in which there is a hierarchy of references to a slave conspiracy. The segment is made up of four paragraphs. The first one begins with: “Dice la historia …” and is followed by a sentence in quotes. The second paragraph opens with “Cuenta la leyenda que …” and is followed by the complement introduced by que, without quotation marks. The third paragraph, on the other hand, closes the matter with the statement that “En realidad …” And the fourth one consists of the single sentence: “Todos los conspiradores fueron ahorcados.” In this way, the segment juggles a series of versions, so to speak, on a single matter. History and legend are marked by a single quality that allows them to avoid the central issue: the execution of the conspirators. The proposition of “reality” serves in exchange to put that fact forth, which in the end is the most important one. Thus, it is unquestionable that the text bases its écriture on the problematic question of multiple versions of events, versions that disagree with each other, less because truth is relative and unstable, but rather because each version originates in a different understanding of what is important and how it should be presented. The literary text thus defines its own space as a story opposing all other versions and possible texts. See also, in this regard, segment , which addresses itself to patriotic poetry: “Los insurrectos lograron tomar. …”
One other fragment also suggests the question of fiction and reality in the facts it relates. But here, the text occupies a space in which the distinction is no longer valid or is meaningless:
Los obreros haitianos y jamaiquinos enviaron una delegación a hablar con el hacendado. Decidieron terminar la huelga si recibían el aumento. Todo pareció ir de lo mejor y el hacendado propuso hacer una foto del grupo para conmemorar el acuerdo. Los delegados haitianos y jamaiquinos se colocaron en fila enfrente de la máquina, cubierta con una tela negra. El hacendado salió del grupo para dar una orden a su mayoral. El mayoral destapó la máquina y tranquilamente fusiló con la ametralladora al grupo de delgados. No hubo más quejas de los cortadores de caña en esa zafra y en muchas más por venir.
La historia puede ser real o falsa. Pero los tiempos la hicieron creíble.
What is most characteristic about this segment is the fact that it discusses in general terms an event of undeniable injustice and moral irresponsibility, this time one that occurred after independence. And one feature that deserves detailed comment is the rhythm of the text between segments that portray the same type of happening but at different moments and in different times in history (the Colonial Period, independence, right-wing dictatorships, socialist government) that are nevertheless homologous in their implications. That is, to say, the segment at hand describes a strike by slaves and Negro workers, and as such is a repetition of an event that is described in segment , “Dice la historia …,” where the clases de color set out to imitate their Haitian counterparts by rising up against Spanish slave owners. This time around it is the Haitian and Jamaican workers who request better working conditions not by demanding a black republic as part of their revolt (an eighteenth-century Enlightenment solution), but a salary increase as part of strike demands (a twentieth-century remedy). The former are hanged, the latter, shot by a machine gun disguised as a camera, which is a brilliant touch and one that symbolizes perfectly the newly dawned age of technology. And, finally, where history, legend, and reality were categorized, in segment  we are given a circumstance that is ambivalent as to whether it is fiction or history. What is, thus, at issue is a certain parallelism between the two segments in not only their sociocultural meanings—they are accurate vignettes of an emerging people—but also in their écriture, where the tone and essential facts are told as something that is more potentially true than documentarily historic.
This type of segment brings up another question concerning Vista's écriture: how the fragmentation of events and the ambiguity of documentary history result in the participation of figures that are more outlines of a certain form of human conduct than they are independent individuals. It is for this reason that, alongside the ambiguity of historical data, we have the anonymity of historical protagonists. The result is that the personages who appear in Cabrera Infante's stories or texts, many of whom could be easily identified as historical or public names by one type of reader (one certainly in the minority outside of Cuba or a Cuban exile community), do not differ markedly from the sort of character we are accustomed to finding in the nueva narrativa.
In a study on how the character-hero of the literature of the last century has given way to the character-actant (A. J. Greimas's term) of the contemporary narrative, Jitrik identifies nine key processes. The character-actant who exists only to the extent that he intervenes in a fictional text that is not necessarily verisimilar and in a fashion such that we assign him specific structural roles in terms of the overall pattern of the narrative stems from the interest on the part of contemporary fiction in speaking of the world as a structure of circumstances and not as the drama of extravagant personalities. Thus, the character-actant is antithetical to the character-hero, who enjoys a well-defined biographical and psychological verisimilitude that gives him the impression of possessing an extratextual autonomy. Undoubtedly, features of this character-actant, of this nonexistent cavalier, define the role that Cabrera Infante assigns to the great (but often infamous) figures of Cuban history that parade through his texts:
1) Procedimiento de la “grupalización”. […] un personaje que sea un grupo: es la tentativa de romper la “psicología” radicada en lo individual y proponer una figura más amplia en el interior de la cual se pueden producir desplazamientos—que no se explicitan—y que apelan a un nivel más profundo de psiquismo; en el fondo, se trata de volver al momento del mito, más allá del coro que, de todos modos, actuaba como un solo cuerpo aunque de él se desprendieran los personajes. […]: la conjetura se constituye no sólo en cuanto a la “identidad” de los encargados de encarnar la conciencia del grupo, sino en cuanto a la consistencia del grupo mismo, es decir a su posibilidad de ser aprehendido o pensado por lectores acostumbrados a hacer del singular el punto de toda relación con el mundo y del plural una noción que sirve para descripciones de orden general …5
There is no doubt that this procedure of categorization (along with those of levelling, metonymy, and disjunction, which is what leads to a kaleidoscopic effect) defines perfectly both the role of individuals and that of events themselves in Vista: participants as well as facts typify metonymically and synecdochically a plural generalness where one has traditionally spoken of a singular trajectory of historically outstanding men and events.
To close this characterization of the texts that make up Vista and the salient features of their écriture, let us examine a segment that exemplifies how Cabrera Infante sees the participation of the character-actant within a context shown to be eternal and inalterable. It is in the juxtaposition between the human being as type and his equally paradigmatic circumstance wherein we can see the writer's undeniable humanistic preoccupation, despite his conception of the depersonalized role of the individuals in his texts:
¿Es cierto que ningún arado se detiene por un moribundo? Los autos pasaron de largo toda la noche mientras el hombre moría a un lado de la carretera. Deben haberlo sacado de la cárcel a medianoche y vinieron y lo mataron aquí. O tal vez ya estaba muerto, torturado, y un carro lo trajo de madrugada y lo dejó junto al laguito. O [tal vez] lo tiraron, al anochecer, de una perseguidora. Le dieron por muerto y el hombre estaba vivo todavía y se estuvo muriendo la noche entera.
Amaneció como siempre. La luna se ocultó temprano y Venus se fue haciendo primero más brillante y después pálida, tenue. Dejó de soplar el viento de tierra, pero había más fresco que al atardecer. Varios gallos cantaron o un solo gallo cantó muchas veces. Los pájaros empezaron a silbar o a piar o a gorjear sin moverse de los árboles. El cielo se hizo azul y luego regresó al violeta, al púrpuro, al rojo, al rosa y más tarde fue naranja y amarillo y blanco al salir el sol. Las nubes llegaron desde la costa. Ahora olía a café. Alguien abrió una cancela. El tráfico se hizo mayor.
El muerto siguió en la cuneta hasta que a media mañana lo levantó el forense.
Beyond the division of the segment into three parts or “movements,” what stands out is the correlation between the first two: the opening paragraph refers to the cruel lot of a political prisoner, while the second alludes to a gorgeous tropical morning. The third paragraph rounds out the juxtaposition with the impersonal journalistic information concerning what happens subsequently to what is now human garbage. What underlies the interfacing of the first two segments is the transition from the personal (the dead man's lot) to the impersonal (the verbal sketch describing the dawn), from an erotesis (the series of rhetorical questions that serve to mark the stages of the first movement) to a lyrical evocation (the use of allusions, a certain type of “emotive” adjective, the references to pleasurable and simple natural phenomena, the use of polysyndeton to reinforce the latter). This rhetorical procedure involving the juxtaposition of two so different verbal subtexts can be identified as the major stylistic feature of segment  for inscribing the underlying écriture, which in turn concerns the need to structure a portrayal of the violent conflict between the human individual and his socionatural environment.
In the first movement, although there is only one rhetorical question overtly marked with question marks, the subsequent sentences possess an identical interrogative value, as though they were dominated by the abstract clause, “¿Será que …?” Thus, we can identify a series of dubitative structures that stress, on the one hand, the ambiguity of this event lost in the night and unknown to the world of the living, while, on the other hand, it calls our attention to how this fact is ambiguous to the extent that it is paradigmatic, typical of this island (not “vale”) of tears: “Es cierto …?” “Deben [that is, deben de] haberlo sacado …,” “O tal vez ya estaba muerto …,” “O [tal vez] lo tiraron, al anochecer, de una perseguidora.” These four sentences (of the six that make up the paragraph) convey a markedly reserved tone. It is as though it were difficult to establish with any certainty the nature of the events, as though there were too many possible explanations for how a prisoner who has been tortured and is now slowly dying has come to spend the night of his extended agony in a ditch alongside the road.
By way of contrast, the opening sentence of the second movement sets forth, with the authority of a narrator accustomed to executing such verbal portraits, a delightful and eternal scene: “Amaneció como siempre.” The extent to which this text is based on an écriture of juxtaposition is evident: a movement that dwells on a pathetic and ambiguous human circumstance is correlated with one that places that circumstance within the lush context of a tropical morning. Thus, one could say that, if there is one text in Vista that synthesizes Cabrera Infante's perspective, his “view” of non-transcendent Cuban history, it is unquestionably this one.
Vista is an important collection of texts both for the form adopted for the presentation of Cuba's sociohistorical experience and for its particularly unique écriture. This écriture is based on a series of principles that substitute for the cohesive novel and the organic collection of autonomous short stories a textuality based on narrative fragments that are neither completely interdependent nor completely autonomous. There are no characters, no “cavaliers,” and a documentary precision is lacking that would give the reader facile entrance into extratextual meaning. Thus, he is obliged to maintain his distance and to experience the play of allusions and references as dynamic but nontransparent signifiers. Vista is, in sum, a collection of texts whose nature is synthesized by a phrase from one of the segments quoted above : “La historia puede ser real o falsa. Pero los tiempos la hicieron creíble”.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Vista del amanecer en el trópico (Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, 1974). I know of only two review articles: Eloy González Arguelles, “Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Vista del amanecer en el trópico,” Caribe 1:2 (1976):121-23; Matías Montes Huidobro, “Review of Vista del amanecer en el trópico and O,” Chasqui 5:2 (1976):81-84.
For a representative collection of essays on Cabrera Infante's fiction prior to Vista, see Julio Ortega, ed., Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Madrid: Ed. Fundamentos, 1974).
For what the datum is worth, Editorial Seix Barral published Vista in its Relatos series.
Concerning intertextuality, see Julia Kristeva, El texto de la novela (Barcelona: Editorial Lumen, 1974).
Noé Jitrik, El no existente caballero, la idea de personaje y su evolución en la narrative latinoamericana (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Megápolis, 1975).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1576
SOURCE: “Bad Art and Good Intentions,” in The Nation, New York, Vol. 227, No. 15, November 4, 1978, pp. 477-78.
[In the following review, Pardo faults Cabrera Infante's use of the prose vignette form in View of Dawn in the Tropics.]
Guillermo Cabrera Infante's new book, View of Dawn in the Tropics, is a curious example of what can happen when a writer returns to the scenes of his early successes. His admirers will look in vain for the freshness and charm of his first book of short stories or the wild and sometimes exciting verbal experimentation of his first novel. This collection of 101 historical vignettes, printed on 145 largely empty pages, is an attempt, Micheneresque in its audacity and Hemingwayesque in the laconism of its style, to tell the story of Cuba from its geological formation to the present day and for all eternity, but it succeeds only in making one wonder at the immensity of the author's hubris. What, one puzzles, was he thinking of?
The answer lies in Cabrera Infante's earlier work, to which View of Dawn in the Tropics is related by both title and narrative technique. The title was initially used for an earlier novel which won the Seix Barral prize in Barcelona in 1964. Banned by the Spanish censors because of its prorevolutionary passages, it was expurgated and rewritten by the author and resubmitted with a new title, Three Trapped Tigers. It was a great critical success and Cabrera Infante's name was associated by critics with those of Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa as another representative of the “boom” in the Latin American novel. The vignette form is also familiar to readers of Cabrera Infante: he used it in his first book, Así en la paz como en la guerra, published in 1960 and also widely acclaimed by critics.
The fifteen vignettes included in that work recounted some of the heinous crimes committed by the Batista regime against both revolutionaries and nonrevolutionaries. Each was followed by a short story which dealt with Cuban life during the 1950s. The impact of the whole was, at the time, quite powerful. Cabrera Infante was catapulted to fame along with an entire generation of Cuban writers who had turned 30 in 1959. The political and social revolution of the barbudos seemed to be bearing its literary fruits. The atmosphere of the period was, as the cliche goes, electric. Nothing seemed impossible because an impossible revolution had triumphed. Cabrera Infante, the editor of the island's newest and most avant garde literary magazine, Lunes de Revolución, seemed to be securely placed in the very cockpit of history. But in 1961 the revolutionary government closed Lunes down, and Cabrera Infante went to Brussels as a member of the Cuban diplomatic mission. His first novel was not accepted for publication in Cuba and in 1965 he officially defected. He seemed to be exchanging the enviable role of revolutionary writer for the even more enviable one of writer as an anti-Communist exile. Famous and full of promise, he has spent the intervening years apparently producing a mammoth autobiographical novel, Cuerpos Dirinos, the prologue of which was published in 1968.
Only a writer of solid talents could have survived the sort of reputation that naturally grew out of such glamorous historical circumstances. Cabrera Infante has not proven to be such a writer. The passage of time has only served to bring out his weaknesses and sap his strengths. The appearance of View of Dawn in the Tropics in English confirms this. In Three Trapped Tigers Cabrera Infante had shown a marvelous ear for colloquial Cuban Spanish and a lively sense of humor that manifested itself in a seemingly unending flow of puns and absurd situations. He sustained a high degree of dramatic tension by the implied contrast between the corrupt night life of Havana and the struggle in the Sierra. But the years have taken their toll and when one reads Three Trapped Tigers today one realizes that this implied contrast was at least partially a product of the historical period in which it was first written and one is obliged to lament the amputation to which the work was subjected. Perhaps the passages dealing with the revolutionaries gave it the internally generated equilibrium it sorely lacks today.
Cabrera Infante's early book of short stories has suffered the same fate. The notoriety it gained him seems now to have been largely a product of those exciting early years of the revolution. The vignettes he wrote for it and which contributed so much to his fame seem more than ever to give themselves away for what they are, imitations of Hemingway. And his return to that genre in his new book is a mistake that can be explained only if we assume that he overestimated his own understanding of the vignette form.
Only two great books have been written exclusively in this form, La Bruyere's Les Caracteres and Baudelaire's Le Spleen de Paris. One is a work of moral and psychological insight while the other is a collection of prose poems. There is no question of linear progression or chronological development in either. Each is composed of parts which seem to bear no necessary relationship to the other. The genre simply doesn't give a writer room to develop any subject that requires characterization or plot. It is meant for quick soundings of the human condition.
Given the above, one can understand why Cabrera Infante was tempted to use this technique. After all, what he has attempted to demonstrate in View of Dawn in the Tropics is that history is a collection of accidental events, an idiot's tale, and that the true meaning of life lies in the manly stoic virtues that some men and women manifest in their confrontation with it. This is, of course, Papa Hemingway's lesson, and Cabrera Infante is so engrossed by it that he gives us 101 slightly differing versions of it. It is here that one becomes aware of how badly he has miscalculated the possibilities the prose vignette could offer him. He thought that the necessarily accidental relationship between the different vignettes would intensify his basic theme. He goes out of his way to accentuate this effect by eliminating names and dates. But the sequence of the vignettes is chronological. The resulting contradiction destroys the book. On the one hand the reader is expected to derive from a succession of accidentally juxtaposed events the impression that history is absurd while on the other hand he is asked to admire the macho and hembra heroics of a series of Hemingwayesque souls.
The true essence of man, the reader is asked to believe, is ahistorical. The rub is that in order to make the reader see this, Cabrera Infante has attempted to create the semblance of a historical progression. This false history must be there so that the reader can be led to see its lack of authenticity. The prose vignettes then, must appear to be related in a historical manner. Unfortunately the nature of the prose vignette works against even the appearance of a relationship so that the reader is not at all fooled. He has no need to read the whole book in order to understand what the writer is trying to say because the message is apparent from the first pages and it never changes.
But certainly the road to bad art is paved with good intentions, and one's heart does go out to all those tortured, maimed and killed Cubans who people Cabrera Infante's vignettes. They deserved a better fate in literature as well as in their own lives. They are all quite redundantly exemplary, from the immolated Indian chief who refuses conversion to Christianity because Spaniards can go to heaven, to the mother of the anti-Communist patriot who accuses the present regime of inhumanity and cowardice. They pass before our eyes like shadows in a series of fragmented historical events. Some of these are as well known to those familiar with Cuban history as the Boston Tea Party is to Americans. The burning of the Indian chieftain, or the death of Jose Marti are just two of the many that fall into this category. Even the less familiar events of the Batista period lack freshness here if only because they seem to be variations of those with which the author regaled us in his first book. And two decades of anti-Castro propaganda have familiarized us all with the plight of the Cuban refugee. Cabrera Infante has nothing new to say about their sufferings. What then is one to do with such wisdom as the author deigns to communicate in his final vignette, which I quote in entirety?
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 of the Cubans, surviving all disasters, eternally washed over by the Gulf Stream: beautiful and green, undying, eternal.
Yes, one is tempted to add, it will even survive View of Dawn in the Tropics.
One parting comment should be made concerning Ms. Levine's translation. On the whole it is quite adequate. In spite of some stylistic awkwardness and a handful of mistranslations (taller is a shop and not a theatre, a mariscal de campo is a division general not a field marshal, perseguidoras are women persecutors not patrol cars and a turba is a crowd or rabble not a thug) it does the work no disservice.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823
SOURCE: “Fictional Vignettes of Cuba's History,” in Book World—The Washington Post, January 28, 1979, p. L4.
[In the following assessment of View of Dawn in the Tropics, Martin considers the vignettes “austere and bitter,” adding, “unlike the images of a good film whose overall impact is cohesive and cumulative, the impression left by these sketches is random and sporadic.”]
According to Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, he grew up in an atmosphere of “misery, promiscuity and neglect,” one of a family of five living in one room and often subsisting on a diet of coffee and milk. How is it, one wonders, that this grandson of a destitute cane-cutter, son of a militant communist worker and product of impeccable proletarian origin, has evolved into one of the most outspoken foes of the Cuban Revolution?
After the fall of Batista in 1959, Cabrera became the editor of Lunes, the literary supplement of the daily Revolución and possibly the most lively cultural review ever published in Cuba. Its independent policies, however, soon incurred the wrath of orthodox party members, who shut down Lunes in 1961 because of the “paper shortage.” The incident led to the first open confrontation between the regime and Cuban intellectuals, a confrontation that culminated in 1967 with the widely known censorship of the poet Padilla. The last word, as usual, belonged to Castro, who, in his unique style, laid down the line for Cuban writers: “Art is a weapon of the Revolution” and “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” Padilla, who recanted his dissent, remained in Cuba; Cabrera, who flaunted his, went into exile.
Confrontation and censorship notwithstanding, the '60s were prodigious years for the Latin American novel in general and for the Cuban in particular. Among the most astonishing of these novels was Cabrera's Three Trapped Tigers, published in 1967 and banned in Cuba. This work is a dazzling assault on Spanish speech by Cuban street-talk, a delightful dissolving of stony, stodgy Castillian prose into something resembling the nonsense of Lewis Carroll, with the bawdiness of Joyce.
View of Dawn in the Tropics was the original title of a much earlier and very different version of Three Trapped Tigers which won a Spanish prize but was nonetheless banned by Franco's government in 1964 just as Tigers would be banned by Castro's in 1967. Cabrera has since repudiated the 1964 version of View of Dawn by calling it “a book of absolute socialist realism” and emphasizing that “literature must only have to do with literature,” and, presumably, not politics. The question, then, is: Why has Cabrera chosen to write this new version?
Admirers who expect the wonderful exuberance, humor and inventiveness of Tigers will be disappointed. The new View of Dawn is a curiously austere and bitter book, far more reminiscent of the author's early style. His short stories of the '50s (published as Asi en la paz como en la guerra in Havana in 1960) were separated by 15 historical vignettes which reported with exemplary economy and detachment the atrocities of the Batista regime. View of Dawn in the Tropics stretches the same form to the limit with more than 100 sketches tracing the history of Cuba from the dawn of man to the dawning of the Revolution. However, the fragile craft of the vignette sinks under so much intention that one wonders if this is the same writer who warned readers of Tigers that “any similarity between literature and history is accidental.”
The impact of Cabrera's vignettes of the '50s hinged upon the Cuban reader's recognition of the unnamed victims of Batista's atrocities. But what is the non-Cuban reader to make of such cryptic references in View of Dawn as “the son of a Spanish dancer and a mulatto barber,” “the bald little man with the big moustache,” or “the big black general?” Even those somewhat familiar with Cuban history may wonder whether one character is Marti and another Maceo or whether the appalling gangster-style killing reported on page 63 is one in which the young Fidel Castro was allegedly involved.
Perhaps Cabrera does not wish his reader to bother with who is who or what is what, but to read on inexorably towards some grim moral about the unchanging venality and brutality in Cuban history. My suspicion is that the fatalism and pessimism of this version of View of Dawn is the reversal, indeed the mirror image, of the socialist realism and optimism of that earlier version. Instead of the heroic guerillas and liberating progress of 1964, we now have the villainous commissars and despotic regression of 1974.
Nevertheless, some of the sketches (which are very well translated by Jill Levine) have the paradoxical immediacy of good photographs, the illumination of a presence serving to emphasize the shadow of its essence. The vignettes are vivid but, somehow, their ultimate effect is ephemeral. Unlike the images of a good film whose overall impact is cohesive and cumulative, the impression left by these sketches is random and sporadic.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1751
SOURCE: In a review of View of Dawn in the Tropics, inNomads, Exiles, & Emigres: The Rebirth of the Latin American Narrative, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1980, pp. 65-9.
[In the following excerpt, Schwartz describes vignettes in View of Dawn in the Tropics as imaginative and experimental, and provides an overview of the collection.]
Cabrera Infante's latest novel, View of Dawn in the Tropics, is experimental, but is absolutely nothing like his first in style, form, rhythm, size, or characterization. View is a shorter work, only 141 pages, consisting mainly of a series of small, ironic sketches tracing Cuban history from its earliest times to our own. It contains none of the linguistic pyrotechnics (palindromes, anagrams, etc.), the black (or white) pages, diagrams, drawings, parodies, visual poems, and confusing narrative voices of its predecessor. View is a somber work, a serious experience, a sobering jolt after TTT [Three Trapped Tigers]. It contains 103 sections narrated by a single voice (probably Cabrera Infante himself) on history, geography, war, death, and escape. It represents a serious condemnation of Castro's regime.
The series of vignettes contain many cinematic devices. The single unifying pose of the sometimes-elusive narrator is his insistence upon looking at old photographs and interpreting them for us. His reminisences about the wars of 1868, 1898, and 1959 are conceived in cinematic freeze frames that describe a series of usually unidentified protagonists (with one single exception) with the rank of commandant, captain, doctor, or rebel. The length, size, and cinematic style of the sketches are of varying quality, and there are only four literary liaisons or unifying elements between two or three of the 103 vignettes.
The longest entry is a mother's monologue described as a telephone call to the author about the death of her son Pedro Luis Boitel, who died for Cuba under the cruelties of the Castro regime. Cabrera Infante's sketches are, according to the book's dust jacket, “contemporary—vivid and sharp, sometimes cruel and violent, sometimes witty, sometimes sad, frequently deeply ironical, … a personal statement of the strategies of history.”1View portrays presidents, generals, soldiers, blacks, Spaniards, Americans, rebels, and invaders and reveals the cruelties, hypocrisies, and tragedies that have washed over Cuban soil throughout the centuries. It is Cabrera Infante's sardonic humor, combined with his irresistible, remarkable choice of detail, his ability to pinpoint events without identifying them, that makes his “experimental” View intriguing, bitterly amusing, and ultimately quite moving as he traverses the centuries of madness of human inhumanity.
One critic viewed the book as the author's attempt “to elevate to myth his central theme, Cuba … to stop time and capture the elusive moment and endow it with a certain permanence, creating a new form, the ministory or micronarrative, or perhaps even a poem in prose, counterpointing two realities—the photographic with the real, and saw View as an exile's condemnation or vindication of his earlier pro-Castro series of short stories In Peace as in War.”2
As the book begins, we witness the creation of the island of Cuba at the dawn of time; we go through the exploration, exploitation, and evangelization phases of colonization, aware of the heavy impact of Spain and the dark side of the Spanish character, its injustices, brutalities, and cruelties against the Cuban people. We pass through epochs of slavery (stylized similarly to the television documentary Roots), as rebellion against Spain bloodies the island. Early on, Cabrera Infante is making an anti-war plea, demonstrating with continual heavy-handed irony how even the author of Cuba's National Anthem was put to death, how the poets and artists (much like us) died at the hands of a military that is also perceived as “accidentally” heroic. There are bloodbaths of Haitian and Jamaican workers and gangster massacres, Cuban-style. On two occasions Cabrera describes events that were the plots of major Hollywood films, John Huston's We Were Strangers (digging through a cemetery to assassinate a dictator) and Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (describing the “lyrical” death of a rebel by stray bullets from a comrade's rifle as he reaches up to pick a mango). Cabrera's cinematic sense never fails him.
Certain vignettes are elevated to allegorical proportions: a man being chased by “Tyranny,” how “Death” took the “Others.” We witness women losing their entire family, wiping away their tears, and continuing to do their daily wash. Death indeed is a natural part of life in Cuba. We see soldiers machine-gunning mobs of people gathered in front of a national palace by a dictator supposedly to witness his abdication. We view many treacheries and cruelties: young boys single-handedly killing police lieutenants and then handed over to the police by rebel leaders afraid of further retribution; seven men machine-gunned one by one as they leave their cover, giving themselves up to police; the coup de grâce given men after being executed on Christmas Eve. But Cabrera Infante lyrically elevates these last moments of the victims; for example: “Before dying, did the last hostage think he was dreaming?” (p. 70), or “He fell to one side and rolled from the tree down toward the ravine. What was he thinking? Someone once said that we never know what the brave man thinks” (p. 99).
Cabrera Infante graphically describes the ugliness of death, for example, in the comical episode of a homosexual recaught by the police after he had tricked them previously, “found a week later in the gutter. They had cut off his tongue and stuck it in his anus” (p. 78). Or, “… the doctor took out a fistful of feces and among them, shining in the sun, six, ten, twelve sharp little gray pieces of schrapnel: a splinter had hit him, splitting up in the intestinal cavity as it entered, forming a shower of swift razors which perforated his intestines and burst his liver” (p. 92).
Cabrera's intent was to write a serious anti-war novel, with occasional seriocomic glimpses into the Cuban character. He documents, for example, attempted assassinations that were successful on paper but disastrous in execution: ironically, “in the beauty of the gesture, destiny had brought together heroism and failure” (p. 87). He repeatedly demonstrates how the spontaneous act (of escape, for example) is more successful than the well-planned plot.
View of Dawn in the Tropics is chock-full of imagery—soldiers lying dead with holes in their necks, bloody faces in a bucolic setting, ironically compared with Renoir's Picnique sur l'Herbe; photographs that reveal “the image of the dead hero when alive” (p. 119); lyrical images of death: “… the volley or the single shot wasn't heard but the impact is left and he will fall as long as man exists and they will see him falling when eyes look at him and they will not forget him as long as there is memory” (p. 115); “… his gray arm, next to the pale gray chest with the black satin, falling on the black grass, leaning toward the black earth and death forever …” (p. 115).
One incredible story, elevated to the level of parable, demonstrates the dark side of the Cuban character. A father, seeking to correct the nocturnal carousing habits of his son asks his friend, the local Chief of Police, to arrest the boy for a single night. However, fate intervenes, and the Police Chief is killed that evening by a bomb. In retaliation, the police choose ten political prisoners to be killed—and the boy is among them. Although entertaining as a story, Cabrera Infante implies much more about the Cuban mind, its penchant for practical jokes and cruelties, and the tenuous role fate plays in life and death. He also criticizes the Cuban fetish for machismo, having some of his fictional characters liken themselves to bullfighters. The revolution of 1959 was successful in one sense; it changed the Cuban's attitude toward machismo. Ballet dancer Jorge Esquivel recently recalled the time when “people said they'd rather see their sons clean streets than be a ballet dancer. After the Revolution, Fidel went to see Alicia [Alonso], and was so impressed by her that he decided to help her build a ballet company in Cuba.”3 In the main, however, View of Dawn in the Tropics is an anti-Cuban, anti-Castro work.
In a somewhat autobiographical section, sprinkled with imaginative details, Cabrera Infante recalls how they “took my little theatre away from me” (p. 133); the perils of “nationalization”; his own experiences cutting sugar cane; an infection that led him to be sent home, eventually to flee the country. But his most biting critique of Cuba is his description of the death, after twelve years in prison, of Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader who “conspired against the powers of the state.” Here Cabrera Infante takes pot shots at the ineffectiveness of such international organizations as the Red Cross, the OAS, the Commission on Human Rights, as well as of Cubans themselves: “Not a single voice was raised, nothing was said, nobody said a thing to get them to give him medical care … not even the Pope … because never has there been a Cuban, the God's honest truth, who has sacrificed himself for this country …” (pp. 136-137).
View of Dawn in the Tropics is an ironic book. It describes what is really hidden under the exotic beauty of the Cuban landscape. The dust cover carries the picture of a crocodile ready to bite. View is a diatribe against war, against all sorts of tyrannies that are antithetical to the natural Cuban way of life. Or is the real Cuban way of life so full of hypocrisy, guile, injustice, political schemes, see-saw skirmishes over the centuries always ending in petty dictatorships and eventual death? People and plots are the real enemies, says Cabrera Infante. The author depicts nature, not nostalgically but as an impersonal entity, immutable, unchanging, a mute spectator:
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 Cubans, surviving all disasters, eternally washed over by the Gulf stream: beautiful and green, undying and eternal (p. 141).
Certainly, Mario Vargas Llosa would be pleased by Cabrera Infante's latest direction in his pursuit of perpetuating his narrative skill and his imaginative use of storytelling techniques.
G. Cabrera Infante, View of Dawn in the Tropics, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine (New York: Harper, 1978), dust jacket.
Julio Hernández-Miyares, “Cabrera Infante: A Tiger in the Tropics,” Unpublished paper, February 15, 1977.
Michael Robertson, “A Cuban Ballet Star Who Cuts Sugar Cane,” New York Times (July 15, 1979), pp. 19, 24.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4504
SOURCE: “‘Vistas of Dawn in the (Tristes) Tropics': History, Fiction, Translation,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, pp. 548-53.
[In the following essay, Levine, who translated View of Dawn in the Tropics into English, addresses the collection's origin and major influences, as well as its principal themes.]
HISTORY IS A STORY
Vista del amanecer en el trópico (1974; Eng. View of Dawn in the Tropics, 1978) was one of the original titles of the book that became Tres tristes tigres (1964; Eng. Three Trapped Tigers, (1971), a novel that was going to counterpoint Guillermo Cabrera Infante's carnevale to the satyrs and nymphs of Havana nightlife with somber documentary vignettes of history in the making—the revolution against Batista which ended in the victory of Fidel Castro. “Both a chronicle and a Utopian vision of that moment, the original novel was a view of the tropical dawn of Cuba, the dawn of a new historical age,” Emir Rodríguez Monegal wrote in a review for Plural of the work that finally did become Vista del amanecer en el trópico in 1974.1
However, in 1965 the self-exiled Infante, convinced that the revolutionary government was turning into a repressive regime, particularly after the censorship of the film P.M. and after other restrictive measures, disengaged from his work-in-progress the politically engaged vignettes. The documentary P.M, filmed by his brother Sabá Cabrera and Orlando Jiménez, was a vivid testimony in black-and-white to the nightlife in Old Havana, though most of the characters were black or mulatto, dancing to hypnotic cha-cha-chas, rumbas, mambos, and boleros, drinking, and occasionally getting into a brawl.
It was not a vision of the “reformed” Cuba that the regime wished to publicize. Also, it was the first time, GCI noted, that an artistic work was censored in Cuba “not for expressing counterrevolutionary ideas, but because of its form as well as content.”2 What his brother Cabrera was not allowed to show in film, Infante would tell in literature.
Literary or esthetic politics, even more than Cuban politics, motivated the transformation of Vista into TTT, however. The original project followed the formula of GCI's first work of fiction, his collection of “lyrical” stories and “epic” vignettes titled Así en la paz como en la guerra (In Peace as in War; 1958); in a similar fashion fiction and history conjoined to form another total or totalitarian Sartrean fiction, a Utopian project proposing a view of history and fiction as a continuum. The text that finally turned into TTT, however, recognized no other counterpoint than its own verbal music, making history and politics into a barely audible basso continuo.
Several years later GCI collected the vignettes—which now began with the earliest chronicles of Cuba and ended in the early 1970s, since he had continued to compose new vignettes—and, by means of the cinematic technique of montage, he created out of them a book. Or rather, in making a readerly discovery, he was finally able to write the book, as he explains in his 1986 interview with Danubio Torres Fierro.
One day, upon reading the new vignettes, which had been published in places as diverse as Mexico and Czechoslovakia, I realized that they had a common denominator: violence. Cuba's history seemed wrought out of a violence which contradicted its peaceful tropical geography. Using these vignettes and others which I wrote on Cuba's most remote and most recent history, plus actual testimonies (for example, in the last part of the book), another View of Dawn in the Tropics arose, this time turning the exemplary title into an ironic one: History now viewed as a simple story, historical life transformed into mere writing into versions of reality—or rather “reality.”
Completed during somber years for GCI, Vista was also a less joy(ce)ful book than TTT. The vignettes are concise Hemingwayesque glimpses of a moment, an incident, a place, a character, or a text, as William Kennedy observed, “in the tradition of the vignettes of In Our Time.”3 Many of them are descriptions of photographs or engravings—literally moments captured in time in which the still, the visual image, becomes dramatized for an instant, petrifying History in a graphic referent. Some are oral testimonies, transcripts of conversations that actually took place. Inscriptions on photographs, fragments of recorded speeches, national hymns, legends, hearsay, official reports, transcripts—these are the ruins, the textual remains of History which constitute history-as-told in Vista.
The counterpoint between lyricism (Cuba's nature and geography) and the epic (history) had now become a subtle fugue. But Infante—a fanatic subverter of academic or journalistic clichés, even his own—hated the term vignettes. First it seemed because he didn't want to appear to be repeating literary strategies, having used vignettes in his collection of stories. There was another reason, though, suggested in a letter early on in our correspondence concerning the book (I translate).
I promised Prometheus [alluding to a Havana theatre group in the 1950s] not to use that word any more with View of Dawn in the Tropics, but I don't know what to call these fragments: perhaps viewgnettes? And there's a critic in Spain who insists that the book is a novel, with all the generals and the comandantes becoming one captain. What do you think? (4 October 1975)
GCI's main concern here was the vignettes spoiled the structural view (that is, the reading) of the book as a long poem and not as a series of brief narratives—a serious concern from a pragmatic as well as a more purely literary perspective, if such a distinction is necessary. After the Spanish publisher had mistakenly advertised the work as “una serie de relatos,” Cass Canfield Jr. hesitated to publish the book, insisting (correctly) that volumes of stories do not sell well and that View should come out when GCI's new novel was ready to roll too. The editor finally agreed to publish it when GCI carefully went over the book with him and showed him its undeniable unity. GCI writes in a letter dated 18 September 1976 that “Cass had the idea … they were a series of vignettes about Cuba under Batista and not what the book is: a history which denies history and an epic told in lyrical terms about the history imposed upon the geography of that long unhappy island.” These last words long unhappy island allude to Hemingway's passing description of Cuba in a kind of elegy to the Gulf Stream which appears in his book Green Hills of Africa. This elegy, as I'll discuss further, turned out to be the “subtext” of the last vignette of the book.
FROM VISTA TO VIEW
Though GCI participated less in this translation than in that of either TTT or, later, Infante's Inferno—wordplay and excessive elaboration would have upset its delicate balance, the grave contrapuntal effect of its lyricism, understatement, and straightforward violence—he still collaborated significantly. He added some new vignettes which—like one about a black general and another about a failed attack on the presidential palace—underscore an ironic, pathetic view of the “best intentions” of revolution.4 He also maintained a correspondence with me over a period of four years (1974-78), which dealt with all aspects of the translation, from the most practical issues (getting the book published, pondering over its reception) to answering my many translation questions, discussing the concept of the book, and offering numerous corrections and editorial suggestions.
The subtle variations of style and language in View of Dawn in the Tropics, and also its demands for documentary authenticity, provided a challenge, whereas its elegant concision made it both pleasurable and more manageable than GCI's more voluminous undertakings. Regarding its deceptive simplicity (in comparison with TTT), GCI warned me in a letter of 12 November 1977 (I translate literally):
View, despite its apparent easiness, has a lot of tricks to it, of style but also language. In the first pages I use many archaic documents mixed into the narration; some of the pages which seem as if they were mine—like that extraordinary graffiti we've already discussed—are really historical documents.
Italo Calvino once said that a real collaboration between author and translator begins with the translator's questions, and that “a translator with no doubts cannot be a good translator.”5 The translator Alastair Reid once pointed out to me an experience I immediately identified with, that of looking up words one already knew—that is, translators have doubts even when they have the answers.
Anyway, my first questions to GCI when I'd already begun to translate Vista were:
Dr. Livingston, I presume that on pp. 13-14 of Vista the quotations from Columbus are from his first voyage, correcto? On p. 17, do you remember from what section of Padre de las Casas' writings comes the quotation? Since both those works are translated, I thought it worthwhile to quote from the translations, if possible. Also, if possible, could you give me a list of the other works you quote from. Most of them probably aren't translated but, if so, I should check into the translations. (My letter, 28 November 1975)
His response, dated 13 December 1975 was prompt, despite protestation to the contrary. (These letters are irresponsibly bilingual, so I've translated most of the Spanish segments.)
Dear Jill, forgive my delay in answering your letter in turn, but yours had gotten mislaid (in this universe filled with papers that is my mundo infame [infamous world], not to be confused please with mondo cane or with inmundo infante [filthy Infante, but a pun, hence a better translation would be: Infante's underworld—underwear, get it?] and I couldn't answer yours without having it in view [in sight]: Land! shouted Rodrigo de Triana from the crow's nest—and you're right the quotation is from Columbus's first voyage, but I don't know if it [Columbus's letter] was translated from the Italian or from hispaniolo antico. I can't tell you anything about Las Casas—called “Bartolomeo” by C. L. Sulzberger!—I got that quotation (like many of the others [dealing with the Conquest and colonial Cuba]) from Portuondo's history of Cuba. All the quotations come from there, and those that don't come from that history, I've forgotten whence they come since I wrote those vignettes years ago. (For example, the one where the general's mother refuses to recognize him because he surrendered and only accepts him when she finds out that he tried to commit suicide first, and others like that vignette. I don't think there are references to other universal works other than the obvious, Borges and Hemingway, for example, both of whom have written about history and about Cuba; remember the “odious rumba The Peanut Vendor.”) [This last quotation is from Borges's Universal History of Infamy, translated into English by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni and Borges as “the deplorable rumba”
(A Universal History, pp. 19-20).)
At first glance, question and answer seem redundant—that is, that most of the historical quotations came out of Portuondo's book was already known. Still, the author 1) confirms this in detail, a comfort to the ever-doubtful painstaking translator, and 2) he underscores the tentativeness of his originals, or rather his translations' origins, since a) Columbus's letters were translated from the Italian or …, and in any case scholars have noted that “Columbus's prose is an imperfect mixture of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese” which, one imagines, the king and queen of Spain—or their secretary—had some difficulty in deciphering.6 Moreover, to begin with, b) GCI has forgotten—unavoidably or conveniently—the origins of his “quotations”; and finally, c) he alludes to the inevitable mistranslations of History (Sulzberger's version of Las Casas's name, and of course Portuondo's “History of Cuba,” an official textbook read by Cuban children in grade school). Infante also mentions in this letter literary quotations: Borges and the pervasive influence of Hemingway, particularly the Hemingway quotation (in the last vignette), which Infante brooded over in a previous letter (27 September 1975).
Do you think that the vignettes (or whatever they're called) are coming out too Hemingwayan in English? I'm worried about that with some of them, particularly the older ones (like those you're translating now, the one with the two generals), that were written around 1963 or even before. It worries me because of the possible American reader (and especially critic). I know that in others they'll find influences of Borges, though in reality they are homages to the Argentinian—or direct quotations, as you know. But Hemingway is really so dead to me that it would be like performing funeral rites to name him among the influences of the book—although I chose for the end a direct quotation from him, this time consciously, since he is one of the few writers who have written on Cuba, not with the immediacy of the revolution in mind but rather the permanence of the island, which is really the theme of View, as you well know.
There is more than perhaps meets the eye in this exchange. The real theme of View turns out to be—via Hemingway—a subversion of the original intention of the heavily Hemingwayesque vignettes: in effect, four centuries of violence are framed by first and last vignettes which speak of the island's permanence. The repeated incidents of violence—though the causes, from conquest to revolution, seem so varied in ideology—also speak of another permanence: the age-old adage, still true, “History repeats itself.”
There is, however, another “transgression” which comes into view here. In my letter I ask what amounts to a metatranslational question—that is, am I to respect the original of GCI's “translation” (original, that is) and quote faithfully, by quoting faithfully the (inevitably unfaithful) translation of that original “pretext” already written in English? Or am I, like him (the author), to rewrite the “original,” quoting “freely,” that is, writing? In his “quotations” of Borges and Hemingway, GCI is really paraphrasing (i.e., rewriting) more than quoting. For example, the phrase “Before dying, did the last hostage think he was dreaming” (VDT, 76) alludes to “Did he … resume his sleep … so that the murderers would be a dream …?” from two sentences in Borges's story “La espera” (“The Waiting,” from Labyrinths), which I've condensed here into one for the purpose of comparison.
GCI was doubtlessly directing me toward the writerly course while at the same time denying (unconscious) influence in favor of (conscious) homage to Borges and Hemingway, two literary Vergils he could not ignore, though he had exorcised at least one of them, Hemingway, through the exorcising (and homaging) device of parody in TTT: for example, in the figure of Mr. Campbell, the supposed author of a supposed story that is parodied through translation. Mr. Campbell, apparently a hack writer, is a silly avatar of Hemingway or of a Hemingwayesque character, the hero or antihero now a kvetching, prejudiced American tourist.
Still, not completely exorcised, the “anxiety of influence” lingers on, now multiplied in the dimension of translation. In View GCI is concerned about the reception of his work in English, the native language of Hemingway. How was GCI to avoid being read as secondary, perpetrating the odious relationship between a mainstream culture and marginal Cuba? He had already been unjustly burned over this issue in John Updike's parochial, prejudiced panning of TTT on the grounds that “we” (the English language) did not need a Cuban Joyce.7
GCI phrases his concern here, however, not as anxiety but as a parricidal criticism of Hemingway, “because of the bad reputation Hemingway has now” (27 August 1977)—i.e., the fact that Hemingway is passé.
The particularly vulnerable zones are those written in Brussels. Those written in London are more mine [my italics]. What was written in 1963 is too much under the aegis of Borges (aside from the textual quotations), and the form of my vignettes in that period owes a lot to Hemingway.
The distinctions between the “derivative,” earlier vignettes and the more “original” later ones (particularly “the originality of paralyzing history in photographs, graphic referents”) certainly concern the writer. (Indeed, what GCI defines as his original, final conception of the book, that of “de-signifying history, converting History into stories,” could also “derive,” in this instance from Borges's “timid games” in A Universal History of Infamy.) Perhaps more relevant to the reader, however, is how histories and fictions are transformed into a text whose originality lies in its critical dialogue with these urtexts.
I would therefore like to retrace briefly the process of translating the last vignette, GCI's “translation” of Hemingway back into its purloined language, in order to give, if not a view, at least a glimpse of how the translation attempts to continue the dialogue between texts that constitutes the original, at the same time that it marks a critical difference, like all effective translations, parodies, and originals.
Let's begin by taking a look at the original's original, not the island of Cuba but Hemingway's now much-prefaced description of the island in the stream. For brevity's sake, I shall transcribe the particular segments of Hemingway's elegy to the Gulf Stream “cited” by Infante, thus unfortunately butchering poor Hemingway, much like the sharks did to the Old Man's big fish. Anyway:
When, on the sea, you … know that this Gulf Stream you are living with … has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that … those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage … spills off its load into the blue water … with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream.8
Now here is GCI's “translation”:
Y ahí estará. Como dijo alguien, esa triste, infeliz y larga isla estará ahí después del último indio y después del último español y después del último africano y después del último americano y después del último de los cubanos, sobreviviendo a todos los naufragios y eternamente bañada por la corriente del golfo: bella y verde, imperecedera, eterna.
The “changes” are interesting: 1) Hemingway's “long, beautiful, unhappy” island becomes emphatically more unhappy in GCI's “sad, unhappy and long”; 2) the “after the Indians” series is translated faithfully (GCI's addition of último is needed to give the dramatic emphasis that Hemingway's rhetorical repetition makes vivid in English), except GCI omits the British—who perhaps played a more minor role in his view of Cuba's history—and adds the Africans—a principal racial group in Cuba, omitted here by Papa Hemingway, ironically in a book about Africa; 3) GCI condenses all the evils into naufragios, literally “shipwrecks,” metaphorically to be taken as disasters, all the shipwrecked explorers and refuges signifying, after all, both individual and historical disaster. “Eternally bathed by the Gulf Stream” condenses all that Hemingway is saying about the beauty, power, and permanence of nature, the stream, in opposition to humanity's waste. More significantly, however, the narrator shifts the focus from the stream to the island, which becomes nature, beautiful, green, lasting, eternal, except that imperecedera is stronger, more active—more directly associated with the history of violence just told—than the tranquil adjective lasting.
GCI is both quoting and paraphrasing Hemingway, thus paying homage but also subtly subverting, switching emphasis, marking a difference by using Hemingway's words to sing not the stream but the island. GCI indicates without saying it that he is not an American adventurer out on his fisherman's yacht, but rather a beached, now-exiled Cuban who has really known this “unhappy” island. Hemingway's nostalgic “long, beautiful, unhappy” becomes more poignant in the words of one who lived it from within.
Here, finally, is the English translation:
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 African and after the last American and after the last of the Cubans, surviving all disasters, eternally washed over by the Gulf Stream: beautiful and green, undying, eternal.
Here one can observe a process similar to the original “rewriting.” Always, like último, is added—or intuitively retraced back to the original's original—for the necessary rhetorical emphasis on permanence that the strong formal future tense gives in Spanish, just as the first sentence is turned around so that “always be there” is stressed at the strongest point, the end of the sentence. “Long, sad, unhappy” becomes “long, sad, unfortunate,” displacing the simple, original unhappy, not only because unhappy picks up other connotations in its passage through Spanish—infeliz by a contiguity of notions means “mis-” or “unfortunate”—but because, unlike “triste, infeliz,” there is no progression between the synonymous sad and unhappy in English, in either meaning or emotional intensity.
Those of us who translate know that y doesn't always translate automatically as “and,” since y can gracefully disappear between two words, whereas and can sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. But here y, as GCI (5 December 1977) insisted, “should be ‘and,’ tying up with the unfinished first vignette”—that is, as the “end” of a long or interrupted sentence, giving the book, again, its “undeniable unity.”
On the question of shipwrecks versus disasters GCI expressed the same doubt as myself: “If we put ‘disasters’ we lose the connection with the waters and if we put ‘shipwrecks’ it's too dramatic, metaphoric. Toss a coin, girl, toss a coin.” I did toss one, a wooden nickle, and came up with disasters, but precisely because naufragios serves a metonymic function: i.e., it literally denotes “shipwrecks,” but it connotes, in common speech, disasters in general, shipwrecks being one of many possible disasters (and a very common one around Cuba, but not the only one, as VDT vividly tells). Again, the general term disasters made more sense in this final “eternal” summing up, a summing up which subsumes Hemingway's list of disasters. The word marks a three-way dialogue involving the English translation, the original, and the original's Hemingway an original, just as “after the last” in the American translation marks the subversion of the “subtext” by accepting the “contamination” of the Spanish “translation.”
GCI seems to have taken from Hemingway's version both what effective writing in Spanish permitted, and what he interpreted—from his view—as the truer version. An act of translation, of criticism, of creation. Hemingway's elegant meditation on nature's truth and human folly is quoted in homage, but the Cuban writer subverts the other's discourse to criticize the “white father's” distanced, estheticized view: the island is finally not a backdrop but very much the foreground. GCI estheticizes too, of course, both in translating and in rewriting Hemingway in his own style. Writing always “falsifies” and/or “magnifies,” Borges once whimsically complained.
The American translation of Vista incorporates, perhaps without intending to, a double vision: Hemingway's original and GCI's interpretation, both by quoting and by misquoting. The linguistic difference—between the original and its urtext—is of course lost in translation, but the critical difference has made its mark.
Hemingway believes he is telling it like it is in his version. GCI's view—critically subsuming Hemingway's—recognizes that all writing is secondary, which may mean that he is closer to telling it like it is. One way to see this view is to look back in laughter at TTT, where Hemingway's influence is exorcised in countless ways. The foreword to Green Hills was—it would seem, but GCI's the only one who can tell us, if he remembers—the source of one of the satiric epigraphs in TTT. Hemingway, taking himself—and realism—quite seriously, writes with humor:
Unlike many novels, none of the characters or incidents in this book is imaginary. Any one not finding sufficient love interest is at liberty, while reading it, to insert whatever love interest he or she may have at the time. The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.
The “action” of which the “work of the imagination” falls short, by the way, includes the glorified slaughter of African animals by the stoic, heroic Great White Hunter. Why GCI would wish to bury the American patriarch under numerous parodies would not be difficult to understand. GCI writes a row of nonsequiturs in his TTT epigraph.
The characters, though based on real persons, appear as fictional beings. The proper names mentioned all through the book must be considered pseudonyms. The facts are, at times, taken from reality, but are finally resolved as imaginary. Any similarity between literature and history is accidental.
GCI is pulling everybody's leg—seriously—including Hemingway's. The first sentence is pleonastic play, perhaps making fun of the movie industry's fear of lawsuits. The second sentence is a half-lie, since some of the names are real (like Rine Leal, René Jordan, Jesse Fernández), but a pithy lie, since names (particularly Infante, which means “speechless”) are linguistic conventions: even when “real,” do they really signify? (But let's leave Derrida in peace.) The third sentence makes quite clear that GCI is questioning Hemingway's privileging of the real over the imaginary, and the fourth mocks not only Hemingway's machismo but also Marxist social realism. GCI takes Hemingway's text (and cinematic and sociological clichés) and—as in dream speeches—repeats the words but gives them a different meaning, revealing language's elusiveness despite all intentions to the contrary.
The epigraph “got lost” in translation; neither GCI nor his editor considered it funny enough to clutter up the front of the book, perhaps. Also perhaps, View of Dawn in the Tropics carries over what GCI is saying (despite language's nonsense) in TTT, but this time the joke is dead serious.
Both GCI and I were fairly content—and I suppose relieved—with the translation when it finally came out. Among his comments toward the end of the translation process: “What is coming out very well is the tone, between ironic and factual and often deadpan écriture—how do you like the polyglotism?”
Emir Rodríguez Monegal, review of Vista del amanecer en el trópico, in Plural, Mexico City, May 1975, p. 66. See also WLT 50:1 (Winter 1976), p. 123.
Danubio Torres Fierro, “Guillermo Cabrera Infante,” in Memoria plural: Entrevistas a escritores latinoamericanos, Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1986, p. 87.
William Kennedy, “Island of Luminous Artifact,” Review, 25-26 (1979), p. 136.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante, View of Dawn in the Tropics, New York, Harper & Row, 1984, pp. 42, 86. Subsequent references use the abbreviation VDT.
Italo Calvino, “Statement on Translation,” Translation, special issue on the Italian book in America, Columbia University, 1986, pp. 109-10.
Noticias secretas y públicas de América, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, ed., Barcelona, Tusquets, 1984, p. 32.
New Yorker, 29 January 1972, p. 91.
Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa, New York, Scribner's, 1935.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3518
SOURCE: “Cabrera Infante's Undertow,” in Structures of Power, edited by Terry J. Peavler and Peter Standish, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 125-40.
[In the following excerpt, Peavler compares Cabrera Infante's short fiction with his more popular works, and asserts that “in Así en la paz como en la guerra he published some of the finer short stories ever penned by a Spanish American.”]
Guillermo Cabrera Infante's declarations (and declamations) on the subject of politics, particularly vis-à-vis the writer, are perhaps only slightly more extensive than his denials of its importance in his own writings. Scholars, for the most part, follow his suggestions on how to read his works, stressing their apolitical nature, while acknowledging the political content only of Así en la paz como en la guerra, a book that the author himself has faulted repeatedly for being misguided (nonetheless he recently collaborated in the English translation, Writes of Passage, which omits only the highly charged vignettes of the original). Even though the historical sweep of Vista del amanecer en el trópico is widely recognized and commented upon, it too is generally discussed in aesthetic rather than social or political terms. Nonetheless, if one accepts the idea that even highly aesthetic literature may seek to advance a social agenda, although that agenda may be presented indirectly (e.g., the depiction of a situation that can no longer be endured), then Cabrera Infante is as blameworthy (or praiseworthy) as any author, including in the pages of Tres tristes tigres and La Habana para un Infante difunto.
Such an affirmation does not contradict Cabrera Infante's insistence that literature can never aspire to be anything other than literature: “… la literatura debe exclusivamente tener que ver con la literatura. Cualquier otra preocupación es totalmente extraliteraria y, por tanto, desde mi punto de vista actual, condenada al fracaso” [literature should be exclusively about literature. Any other concern is totally extra-literary and therefore, in my present way of thinking, condemned to failure (Rodríguez Monegal, 64)], nor, for that matter, the Cuban's perception that literature should never seek to be anything other than play: “Literature can never be experimental. Literature can and must be a game” (“Cain by Himself,” 9). Rather, it acknowledges that while the primary purpose of Cabrera Infante's writings may indeed not be messianic—“No creo que el escritor sea un misionero, ni siquiera creo que el escritor tiene deberes como tal. El único deber, si hay uno del escritor, es escribir lo mejor posible” [I don't believe that the writer is a missionary—I don't even believe that the writer as such has any obligations. The only obligation, if a writer has one, is to write the best he can (Rita Guibert in Ortega, 19)], some of his purportedly most apolitical works offer strong critiques of the societies in which they are set.
Of course the author acknowledges the political intent of some pieces, but apparently only for the purpose of the harshest imaginable repudiation: Vista del amanecer en el trópico (not the collection of vignettes published in 1974, but the original version, which, once purged of its political demons became Tres tristes tigres) “es un libro que yo moralmente repudio” [is a book that I morally repudiate (Rodríguez Monegal, 66)]; “Personalmente lo [Así en la paz como en la guerra] considero total y absolutamente fuera de mi canon, que debe comenzar con Un oficio del siglo XX” [Personally, I consider it totally and absolutely outside of my canon, which should begin with Un oficio del siglo XX (“Viaje verbal,” 54)]. The works that the author most values are, in his mind, free from political taint. His masterpiece, Tres tristes tigres, is in fact “the most apolitical book ever published by a Spanish American author” (“Cain by himself,” 10).
The reader, under such heavy-handed guidance from the author, can easily, too easily perhaps, envision a rather shy, somewhat reclusive Cabrera Infante, living comfortably and contentedly in London, crafting his pyrotechnic puns. The truth of the matter is, or at least seems to be on the basis of each of the author's texts, including Tres tristes tigres and his more recent success, La Habana para un Infante difunto, that Cabrera Infante suffers deeply. He suffers most certainly from exile, most probably from solitude, perhaps from a sense of grief and guilt at a grand political experiment gone sour, and quite possibly from what seems to be a sort of writer's block: the promised books never seem to materialize. Cuerpos divinos, for example, has been promised since 1968, and a book of essays has been underway for several years.
Meanwhile, some of the more interesting writings may well be the overtly political outbursts (most of which have been collected in the very recent Mea Cuba) that have appeared from time to time on the pages of Vanidades, or Vuelta, or El País. The “literary” offerings seemed for many years to be filled with the same tired puns—was he capable of mentioning Karl Marx without a Marx brothers pun? True, La Habana para un Infante difunto (1979) seems fresher than O (1975) or Exorcismos de esti(l)o (1976), but its repetitions of its own cleverness also become somewhat wearisome—should the hero not go blind after the first few dozen pages?
Cabrera Infante's meticulously sculpted chronologies (“a la manera de Laurence Sterne”), readily available in a number of books and special issues of journals dedicated to the author, clearly demonstrate his preoccupation with his political past, and with the historical events that shaped his future. More than half of the entries covering the 55 years chronicled in “(C)ave Attemptor!” contain specific references to historical and political events, and clearly reveal his concern with the poverty and injustices of his youth, as well as those events, particularly in Cuba, that have continued to affect him and his Cuban friends.
His successes in literature and in film have brought him financial security and international recognition, which, coupled with his biting sense of humor, have spared him from many of the ravages of exile. Yet he has remained keenly aware of the plight of his countrymen, both at home and abroad, as his preoccupation with the deaths (particularly by suicide) of fellow Cubans attests.1 One senses the presence—the passion, the frustrations, the anger—of the real Cabrera Infante more in his spirited rebukes of Gabriel García Márquez (“Nuestro prohombre en La Habana”) and Hermann Bellinghausen (“El escritor y la aspereza”) or in his compassionate portrayal of Nicolás Guillén (“Nicolás Guillén: Poet and Partisan”) than one does in his often vacuous word plays.
In a stirring commentary, written some fifty years after the murder of Federico García Lorca, Cabrera Infante, who had had the foresight and the common sense to flee political oppression, chided the Spaniard for his romanticized vision of Havana:
I could have told him that I've known all kinds of poets in Cuba. Poor poets and sick poets, poets pursued and poets in prison, dying poets and dead poets finally: all dead as the dodo in the end. Poets I've known who were treated not like princes but like scum—called scum, in fact. Called worms also. Poets as pariahs on the island. Poets considered untouchable, poets suffering from political leprosy. But Havana was for Lorca a moving feast, and I don't want to rain on his parade of beauties. I don't want to contaminate his poetry with my experience.
(“Brief Encounter in Havana,” 522)
Furthermore, whether Cabrera Infante likes it or not, in Así en la paz como en la guerra he published some of the finer short stories ever penned by a Spanish American. A few, such as “Josefina, atiende a los señores,” “Abril es el mes más cruel,” and “En el gran ecbó,” are superb. While it is true that “Resaca,” which suggested the title for this essay, is coincidentally not only one of the more political but also one of the weaker stories, and that a number of the more heavy-handed vignettes may not be worth saving, their presence hardly justifies throwing out the whole lot. “Josefina,” for example, is both one of the best and one of the most political. In fact, it bears a strong odor of “socialist realism,” a type of literature that the author would come to abhor, although he admitted that “I am not so much against socialism as I am realism. …” (“Talent of 2wo Cities,” 18). …
Only after Cabrera Infante found refuge in London and turned his energies to writing film scripts did he seem to lose the edge on his humor. His “literary” books (O, 1975; Exorcismos, 1976) were filled more and more with empty and repetitive puns, while his “political” writings were increasingly devoid of humor.2Vista del amanecer en el trópico, in many ways the most political book yet,3 provides a sort of watershed between the author who was sometimes angry, sometimes merely frustrated, but always keenly involved in historical and political events, particularly in Cuba, and the creator of verbiage for its own sake that seemingly flows through many pages of O and Exorcismos.
Vista is a very significant book.4 It apparently began as a sort of therapy: Cabrera Infante had sunk into a deep depression while working on a film script for Under the Volcano. During his recovery, which included shock therapy, he received the devastating news that his old friend, Alberto Mora, had committed suicide in Cuba. The book, dedicated to Mora and to Pinio Prieto (another friend, who had been executed in 1960) is a sort of catharsis, a hymn to Cuba and its violent history. Though absolutely devoid of humor, it is the author's most poetic work, and may someday be judged to be one of his best.
Significantly, Vista is in many ways a throwback to Así en la paz, the book Cabrera Infante would like to purge from his canon. While it is even more “committed,” it is somewhat cleansed by being made more abstract, more epic. Vista is devoid of the short stories of its predecessor, which served, frequently, as a respite from the horrors of the vignettes. Instead it offers a series of 100 such horrors, stretching from precolumbian Indian tribes that sought to dominate and destroy each other, to scenes of imprisonment, torture, and murder under Castro.5 Numbers 99 and 100, which relate the death by hunger of a prisoner of some twelve years and the agony of his mother respectively, are hauntingly reminiscent of vignettes in Así en la paz, making it perfectly clear that the atrocities commited under Castro are indistinguishable from those under Batista. In fact, the mother's monologue, presented as her half of a telephone conversation that is cut off abruptly (one supposes by Castro's henchmen), is disturbingly like the ravings of the madwoman in Tres tristes tigres, or the rambling account of the young girl in “Un rato de tenmeallá,” in Así en la paz. All three reflect a sense of helplessness and despair brought on by constant suffering and repeated abuse by those in positions of authority.6
Through the pages of Vista run Cabrera Infante's old obsessions, including racism and suicide. And for those readers too insensitive to decipher the book's message, the final vignette provides a poetic gloss:
Y ahí estará. Como dijo alguien, esa triste, infeliz y larga isla estará ahí después del último indio y después del último español y después del último africano y después del último americano y después del último de los cubanos, sobreviviendo a todos los naufragios y eternamente bañada por la corriente del golfo: bella y verde, imperecedera, eterna. [And there it will remain. As someone said, that sad, unhappy and lengthy 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 Cuban, surviving all the shipwrecks and forever bathed by the gulfstream: beautiful and green, imperishable, eternal].
While Vista del amanecer en el trópico may never challenge Tres tristes tigres for a place atop Cabrera Infante's canon, one cannot but sense in its pages that the author cares and cares deeply about his homeland, his people, and his profession. In that regard it is of a piece with Así en la paz como en la guerra, Tres tristes tigres, and Un oficio del siglo XX. His insistence that he wrote it not for political, nor parochial, nor historical, but for aesthetic reasons (Hernández Lima, 141) is also true of the other volumes mentioned, probably including Así en la paz in its time.
In another ostensibly “nonliterary” piece, his introduction to Carlos Franqui's Family Portrait With Fidel, Cabrera Infante is preoccupied with an “official” Cuban photograph, one with two versions. The first shows Castro speaking into a microphone held by an unidentified man, with Carlos Franqui in the background. The second version has the same Castro speaking into the same microphone, held by the same unidentified man—but Franqui has “disappeared,” thanks to some anonymous but “official” Cuban censor. The cause of this disappearance was simple: Franqui, like Cabrera Infante before him, not only worked for Revolución—in fact he was its founder and editor—but also fled the revolution when he saw it turning sour, and was consequently, in that (ig)noble soviet tradition, “erased.” Cabrera Infante's dread of erasure also appears in vignette 85 of Vista del amanecer in which a photographer dodges away7 a face in order to make the photograph more compact. The face is that of a comandante who is later “eliminated.”
In his introduction to Franqui's book, Cabrera Infante observes that Cubans have managed to create their own unique prose, distinct from Spanish or even South American prose. The authors he mentions, with the single exception of Martí, all wrote after the revolution. Some (Lezama Lima, Carpentier, Piñera) died in an at best uneasy relationship with the government that was forced to recognize them while holding them under great suspicion, if not in outright contempt. Others perished in exile—some by suicide (the ultimate expression of impuissance). All have been “erased” to at least some degree. Their fates have weighed heavily on Cabrera Infante, who has written many articles on suicide, particularly among his countrymen.8
Cabrera Infante himself, however, has been incredibly active and visible. In fact, his pen has rarely been still since he left Cuba. In addition to writing numerous screenplays (including “Weekend,” “Vanishing Point,” “Under the Volcano,” etc.) and essays, he has published nine volumes since 1971 (one, Holy Smoke, on cigars and cigar smoking) and has collaborated on several translations. Not only is he a prolific writer, he has been vitally important to the advancement of Cuban prose. His irreverence, his humor, and his biting insights have also made him one of the most innovative and significant authors of the “Boom.” Unfortunately, he is also a man who seems at times to be drowning in frustration and helplessness, whose bitterness becomes so great that rather than writing, as did Machado de Assis, one of his literary idols, with “a pena da galhofa e a tinta da melancolia” [the pen of mockery and the ink of melancholy (Machado de Assis, 23)], too often he manages to grasp only the same tired language games. When he is at his best, his barbs fill the reader not only with laughter, but with a heightened awareness of injustice and even evil; when his anger exceeds his creative powers, as has been the pattern in recent years, then he seems all the more impotent. He would no doubt argue that his situation and that of his homeland allow room for nothing but bitterness; his devotees might reply that that is all the more reason to distance himself and to treat the issues with a generous dash of humor.
See especially Alvarez-Borland, “Viaje verbal,” 56, and “Entre la historia y la nada: notas sobre una ideología del suicidio.”
See especially Alvarez-Borland, “Viaje verbal,” 56, and “Entre la historia y la nada: notas sobre una ideología del suicidio.”
For a concatenation of the vignettes and their historical antecedents, see Hernández Lima.
For a fine analysis of the book's more literary aspects, see David William Foster's “Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Vista del amanecer en el trópico and the Generic Ambiguity of Narrative” in Foster, Studies in the Contemporary Spanish American Short Story.
For a correlation between the vignettes of both books and specific historical events see Hernández Lima, 112-140.
“por qué me va a imponer su ley su asquerosa ley” [“why are you trying to sic your law on me your dirty law” (TTT 451/487)]; “Ésta es la vida … ésta es la libertad en este país” [This is life, this is liberty in this country (Vista 227)]; “y el hombre le dice que no la coja con el que no tiene que ver nada y que el hace lo que le mandan y que para eso le pagaban y mama le dijo que estaba bien que ella comprendia todo pero que si no podian esperar un mes mas y el hombre dice que ni un dia y que mañana vendrian a sacar los muebles y que no oponga resistencia porque seria peor porque traerian a la policia y entonces los sacaraian a la fuerza y los meterian en la carcel” [and the man says to her not to get on him about it he doesn't have anything to do with it and he just does what he is told and that is why they were paying him and mama said to him ok that she understood and all but couldn't they way one more month and the man says not a day and tomorrow they were coming to get the furniture and not to put up a fight because it would be worse because they would bring the police and throw them out by force and put them in jail (Así en la paz, 14)].
Dodging is a darkroom technique by which a photographer removes unwanted material from a photograph. Light rays are blocked after they leave the negative, but before they fall on the print paper. A skilled darkroom technician can effectively “erase” any portion of a photograph without leaving any evidence that it was ever present on the original negative.
The most extensive piece is “Entre la historia y la nada: notas sobre una ideología del suicidio,” which was followed by “Más sobre el suicidio en Cuba.”
Alvarez-Borland, Isabel. “Readers, Writers, and Interpreters in Cabrera Infante's Texts.” World Literature Today 61 (1987): 553-58.
Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. Así en la paz como en la guerra. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1971.
———.“Brief Encounters in Havana.” World Literature Today 61 (1987): 519-25.
———. “Cain by Himself: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Man of Three Islands.” Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 28 (1981): 8-11.
———. “(C)ave Attemptor! A Chronology (After Laurence Sterne's).” World Literature Today 61 (1987): 513-19.
———. “Conversación de Tres tristes tigres.” With Rita Guibert. G. Cabrera Infante. By Julio Ortega et al. Caracas: Fundamentos, 1974. 19-46.
———. “Entre la historia y la nada: notas sobre una ideología del suicidio.” Vuelta 74 (1983): 11-22.
———. “Guillermo Cabrera Infante.” With Emir Rodríguez Monegal. El arte de narrar. By Emir Rodríguez Monegal. Caracas: Monte Avila, 1968.
———. La Habana para un Infante difunto. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1986.
———. “The Invisible Exile.” Literature in Exile. Ed. John Glad. Durham: Duke UP, 1990. 32-40.
———. “Más sobre el suicidio en Cuba.” Vuelta 79 (1983): 50-51.
———. Mea Cuba. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1992.
———. “Nicolás Guillén: Poet and Partisan.” Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 42 (1990): 31-33.
———. “Nuestro prohombre en La Habana.” Vuelta 78 May 1983: 51-53.
———. “Portrait of a Tyrant as an Aging Tyro.” Family Portrait with Fidel. By Carlos Franqui. Trans. Alfred MacAdam. New York: Random House, 1984. vii-xix.
———. Un oficio del siglo XX. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1973.
———. “Talent of 2wo Cities.” Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 35 (1995): 17-18.
———. Tres tristes tigres. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1970.
———. “Viaje verbal a La Habana, ¡Ah vana!” With Isabel Alvarez-Borland. Hispamérica: Revista de Literatura 11 (1982): 51-68.
———. Vista del amanecer en el trópico. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1974.
———. Writes of Passage. Trans. John Brookesmith, Peggy Boyars and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Foster, David William. “Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Vista del amanecer en el trópico and the Generic Ambiguity of Narrative.” Studies in the Contemporary Spanish American Short Story. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1979. 110-20.
Franqui, Carlos. Family Portrait with Fidel: A Memoir. Trans. Alfred MacAdam. New York: Random House, 1984.
Hernández Lima, Dinorah. Versiones y re-versiones históricas en la obra de Cabrera Infante. Madrid: Pliegos, 1990.
MacAdam, Alfred. “Seeing Double: Cabrera Infante and Caín.” World Literature Today 61 (1987): 543-48.
Machado de Assis, Memórias Pósthumas de Brás Cubas. 5th ed. São Paulo: Editôra Cultrix, 1968.
Moliner, María. Diccionario del uso del español, Vol. 1. Madrid: Gredos, 1966. 2 vols.
Ortega, Julio et al. G. Cabrera Infante. Caracas: Fundamentos, 1974.
Pereda, Rosa María. Cabrera Infante. Madrid: EDAF, 1979.
Siemens, William L. “Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the Divergence of Revolutions: Political Versus Textual.” Literature and Revolution. Ed. David Bevan. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989. 107-19.
Thomas, Hugh. Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3946
SOURCE: “The Apprentice Storyteller,” in Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Islands, Many Worlds, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 47-56.
[In this excerpted chapter from Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Islands, Many Worlds, the author traces Cabrera Infante's development as a writer, and provides insight into his first book, Así en la paz como en la guerra.]
Of all Cabrera Infante's activities in the 1950s, creative writing was the least consuming and the most casual. His first story, which was born of an idle boast and a dare, was successfully published and richly compensated for, a fortunate circumstance for such a young writer. Although that initial attainment undoubtedly stimulated his interest and confidence, if for no other reason than for the financial reward he received, it is perfectly human to distrust success when it comes too easily. He was, of course, in the process of finding his own voice by experimenting with different forms and by adapting various narrative styles, and between 1947 and 1960 he composed some twenty stories and submitted several of them to national literary contests. Many of these works appeared in journals like Bohemia, Carteles, Ciclón, and Lunes de Revolución, but his career as a creative writer at that time was random and unfocused. This was not the case in the film reviews he wrote for Carteles during the same period—there the reader finds a more assured and confident voice. In the movie criticism there is a direct relationship between productivity and the evolution of a personal aesthetic sensibility.
Cabrera Infante's first book, Así en la paz como en la guerra, is a collection of fourteen stories and fifteen vignettes written between 1949 and 1960. Thirty-three years would pass before the English translation, Writes of Passage, appeared, and when it did the vignettes were expunged from the text. He has repudiated the Spanish edition on several occasions and would prefer that it receive the kind of perfunctory greeting accorded an infrequently seen acquaintance, politely acknowledged and quickly forgotten. Critics who tarry too long with this collection are usually accorded a response similar to that extended to Dr. Frankenstein after his resurrected creature had run amok among his neighbors. Cabrera Infante regards the form of the collection as too consciously artistic and contrived, a position difficult to counter. Several of these works would be only first drafts if he were composing them today.
He has declared Así en la paz como en la guerra “a book I disown: a Sartrean book. Not the content of the book (a few stories and vignettes) but its form, even if apparently influenced by Hemingway, was inspired, if I may use this verb, by Sartre's tenet on realism. There was more of Qu'est-ce que la littérature? than of In Our Time in this slim volume of mine.” Like Mario Vargas Llosa, he has rejected his early enthusiasm for Sartre. Cabrera Infante's comments on form concern the interweaving of vignettes on the political struggle against Batista with stories about other aspects of existence. Interestingly, this format was used, and in due time abandoned, in the first drafts of Three Trapped Tigers. The vignettes in that manuscript eventually provided the basis of another text, View of Dawn in the Tropics. In the “Prologue to English Readers” of Writes of Passage, Cabrera Infante declares: “My writing … springs up not from life but from reading.” This claim, which is reminiscent of Borges, carries more weight without the presence of the vignettes, those intrusions of unsavory realities into the realm of the imaginary.
Cabrera Infante also condemns the social realism that inspired his first book: “As a matter of fact, I am not so much against socialism as I am against realism: the creepy-crawlies on the blank page are symptoms of the delirium tremens suffered after having drunk two pints of the milk of human kindness spiked with a dash of hope, a pinch of faith and a spoonful of charity, stir well while adding some salt of self pity.” In these remarks he is expressing an abhorrence of sentimentalism, particularly when combined with political doctrines that provide accurate diagnoses of societal ills, but disastrous and sometimes fatal remedies. Cabrera Infante always has guarded against sentimentality in his works, precisely because he is given to that emotion. His remarks also reveal a strong distrust of committed literature. On another occasion he declared: “The worst thing about the book is the fact that my attitude when I wrote it was very negative. I was completely under the influence of Sartre, because I accepted the premise that a book should be a comprehensive critical act. So not only did I have to include reality, which is an idiotic pretension, but I also had to have criticism of reality and of the work itself.”
In spite of the author's reservations, Así en la paz como en la guerra enjoyed considerable success. By 1964 it was in its fourth printing in Cuba and had appeared in France and Italy in translations published by Editorial Gallimard and Editorial Mondadori. It has done equally well in Seix Barral editions published in Spain. The fifteen vignettes in the collection deal with the brutality and moral corruption of the Batista regime, and most were written in 1958. Surprisingly, he attempted to publish some of them in Bohemia and Carteles, but the editors had the good sense not to jeopardize their own security and his safety. The vignettes are effectively rendered in a laconic and realistic style. Seymour Menton has commented that “what makes most of the vignettes so effective is the Hemingway-like objective use of the third-person point of view. Sentences are relatively short, the preterit predominates, and there is no editorializing. In fact, the only vignette that clearly violates this last general principle, number 14, is undoubtedly the weakest of all.” However, the vignettes in this collection are devoid, for the most part, of the irony and humor found in View of Dawn in the Tropics, and there is little variety in their content. As soon as the reader becomes attuned to their substance, the reaction is apt to be a resigned shrug as yet another killing appears in the text.
One of the few exceptions is number 10, in which an officer reports to his superior about a successful ambush made possible by an informer. In what is cast as a telephone conversation, a technique that would be used with great success in Three Trapped Tigers, the officer finds himself caught between his contempt for the traitor and his general's decision to reward the informer with a major's commission. The officer reveals his true feelings about the betrayer, whom he considers a coward and a homosexual, as well as his abject subservience to his superior. The one-way telephone conversation (we only hear the officer's voice, a technique most likely garnered from film or radio) exposes the distortion of values and the corruption of basic decency that characterized the Batista dictatorship. Although violence is not the main focus of the vignette, there are enough details of the ambush, including bullets hitting flesh and the informer vomiting after seeing scattered brain tissue, to remind one again of the cruelty of the regime. Many readers are attracted to the vignettes in Así en la paz como en la guerra because of the historical immediacy they convey—these brief narrations are the product of moral indignation, and their macabre motifs provide ample justification for the revolution. The author's commitment to revolutionary change and his desire to cast off the past also are expressed in the introduction to the collection.
Cabrera Infante's debt to Ernest Hemingway is most apparent in the stylistic rhythm of some of the stories, especially in the mixture of long, descriptive sentences with brief, staccato statements. This influence is most apparent in “Mar, mar, enemigo” (“The Sea Changes”), in the stylistic rendering and in the portrayal of the ocean as both an adversary and an ironic symbol of freedom and death. In this work a woman, who had been educated in a convent, awaits the arrival of a man she has been involved with for ten to fifteen years. She is on an island and knows that he is carrying out an illegal activity that he believes will be lucrative. When he never arrives, she reluctantly concludes that he has failed and is most likely dead. Her religious background and his subversive endeavors provide an ethical counterpoint reminiscent of the contradictions in the author's family. The story may articulate, in a vague and indirect manner, a desire to exorcise a negative paternal influence.
In the September 1956 issue of Ciclón, a cultural and literary journal, Cabrera Infante published an amusing account of a gala affair held in the gardens of a brewery and sponsored by the producers of Hatuey beer and Bacardí rum to celebrate Hemingway's winning of the Nobel Prize. The commentary reveals his knowledge of Hemingway's works and the sardonic humor that would later characterize his own creative writings. The narration begins with a brief quotation from a terse and factually based newspaper report that conveys little about what really went on. In Cabrera Infante's account, Hemingway is portrayed as gracious but bewildered and harassed by the aggressive antics of his enthusiastic admirers, many of whom have not read his works. They embrace, jostle, and torment him with their excessive attention. Publicity hounds crowd into picture-taking sessions, trying to grasp a moment of fame in the shadow of the celebrity. Everyone seems to want an autograph on the special pamphlets prepared for the ceremony. The gaudy mementos contain a photograph, which Hemingway detests, of the writer in a bathing suit and quotations from his works that mention Hatuey beer. The commercialization of literary fame is conveyed by a pun in the article's title, “El viejo y la marca” (“The Old Man and the Seal”). The playful rendering of the name of Hemingway's novella transforms “sea” into a commercial label.
In a song sung by Amelita Frade, the Nobel laureate is characterized as “a ‘tiger’ writing,” which evokes the title of Cabrera Infante's first novel. Hemingway's announcement that he is going to donate his Nobel Prize medal to Cuba's patron saint leaves some observers nonplussed, wondering about the origins of such sentiments in a writer whose works are anything but religious. Hemingway's disclosure is the ultimate incongruity in the bizarre affair. The portrait of Hemingway and his tormentors brings to mind a laconic observation in Jorge Luis Borges's “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote” that “fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst.” In many respects, Cabrera Infante's remarkable account foreshadows, more than the stories of Así en la paz como en la guerra do, the future course of his work, and it demonstrates that he is at his best when responding to real events and people. Of course, in the process he transforms them into something uniquely his own.
The fourteen stories in Así en la paz como en la guerra are notable for their variety of techniques and content. Some are elaborate and long, close to being mature works. Others are brief and function as literary jokes, directed either at one of the characters, as in “Jazz,” or at the reader, as in “Cuando se estudia gramática” (“Grammar's for the Birds”). In the first-mentioned work, a character toys with a friend, offering him some marijuana. When the cigarette is declined, the tempter refuses to acknowledge whether the offer was a subterfuge or not, slyly retreating into an ambiguous play on words. “Grammar's for the Birds” relates what happens between a young man and woman during a study session. At one point he asks her to disrobe and she willingly complies with his request. After staring at her for a while, he tells her to put her clothes back on and they resume their studies. An examination of the workings of language turns into a similar inspection of human anatomy—all theory, no practice. Occasionally a story relies excessively on a surprise ending; in “Abril es el mes más cruel” (“April is the Cruelest Month”), a young woman unexpectedly jumps to her death during her honeymoon. The dramatic and theatrical ending made it attractive for adaptation to a television program directed by the author, photographed by Orlando Jiménez and featuring Miriam Gómez.
The social panorama of the characters in the collection is extensive and includes, among others, a wealthy businessman, an unfortunate seamstress, a lonely mortuary worker, a callous bordello madam, destitute children, cane field workers, an actress, and a writer. Narrative technique also varies greatly. “Un rato de tenmeallá” (“Gobegger Foriu Tostay”) consists of a thirteen-page sentence narrated by a six-year-old child who barely understands that the family's impoverishment is compelling an older sister to sell her virginity. The narrative is reminiscent of Joyce's Molly Bloom and Faulkner's Benjy in its portrayal of the flow of consciousness and its ability to combine an aura of innocence and degradation. The introduction to the volume relates this story to the author's personal experience in a room in a tenement, most likely 408 Zulueta, and mentions the small quarters and days without food.
More obvious personal associations appear in “El día que terminó mi niñez” (“The Day My Days as a Child Ended”), written as a Christmas story for Carteles. Many elements in the story parallel the author's life. These circumstances include references to a town by the sea, an absent father looking for work in a distant city, a younger brother, an uncle who expects children to ask for a blessing during a visit, and a mother who gives her oldest son instructions on how to behave in the presence of the aloof relative. However, as in much of Cabrera Infante's autobiographical writing, factual truth is less important than the persuasiveness of the account. A completely different narrative mode, one with several literary connections, is evident in “La mosca en el vaso de leche” (“A Fly in a Glass of Milk”). This work is a naturalistic portrait of the eroding sanity of a desperate seamstress. Her descent into madness is conveyed by the way her mind fastens on bizarre details in her environment. The portrayal of solitude recalls other characters tormented by estrangement and loneliness in Flaubert's “Un Coeur Simple” (“A Simple Heart”), Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily,” and Enrique Labrador Ruiz's “Conejito Ulán” (“Little Bunny Ulán”).
The most accomplished pieces in Así en la paz como en la guerra are “Josefina, atiende a los señores” (“Josefina, Take Good Care of the Señores”) and “En el Gran Ecbó” (“The Great Ekbo”), one of the most anthologized stories from the collection. In the first work, which was published in Ciclón in May 1955, a woman who runs a brothel talks about her establishment, attempting to pass herself off as a compassionate entrepreneur, devoted to the well-being of her girls and clients. She addresses the presumed listener in a colorful oral language, full of colloquialisms and trite sayings, and in the process she reveals herself as completely insensitive to the sordidness that surrounds her. In fact, she can be accused of being thoroughly alienated from humanity's finer qualities. This becomes distressingly evident when she tells the story of her most popular girl, the one-armed Josephine, who became a prostitute unwillingly through the manipulations of a lover. Josephine's ineffectual attempts to rebel against her situation include an attempted suicide and drug addiction. Her physical deformity is a sign of the emotional damage that is being inflicted on her. Josephine's desperation is only matched by her employer's greed and indifference. What makes the story so successful is the author's ability to use vernacular language effectively. The narrator betrays herself and her occupation with her own words. “Josefina, Take Good Care of the Señores” indicates that Cabrera Infante was learning one of the essentials of narrative art, the importance of showing rather than telling.
“The Great Ekbo” is the finest and most sophisticated story in the volume. Two lovers spend part of a rainy day in Havana together, dining and then attending a lucumí religious ceremony of African origin (“Ekbo” refers to a religious gathering of all the saints). The man tries to be cavalier and ironic in an attempt to resist the melancholy guilt that is seeping into their relationship, but his efforts do little to counter the remorse of his lover, an actress. Her guilt is intensified by photographs of his family, which he carries in his wallet, and by an unknown black woman's admonition at the ceremony that she stop living in sin. There is little action in this story, which depends on fine description and the evocation of mood for its success. In the introduction to the volume, Cabrera Infante remarks that the main character “is an upstart … it's as if the Silvestre of ‘The Doors’ and ‘A Nest’ had purchased an English sports car.”
Although the male protagonist in “The Great Ekbo” is unidentified, it is of more than passing interest that he should be associated with other characters named Silvestre. Indeed, that name is used in five of the stories in Así en la paz como en la guerra and it is, of course, the designation given to the author's alter ego in Three Trapped Tigers. The Silvestre in the novel and the main character in “The Great Ekbo” share an obsession with time: they both look at events in the present with an eye to how they will be remembered in the future. Although the central character in the story is anonymous, there is a playful reference to his identification in two lines that allude to the origin of his name in Cabrera Infante's experience with popular culture: “Delante, a la izquierda, por entre la lluvia fina, apareció deslumbrante un pequeño cementerio, todo blanco, húmedo, silvestre. Había en él una semetría aséptica que nada tenía que ver con la corrupción y los gusanos y la peste.” (“Ahead of them, to the left, a small graveyard shone all white and wild through the rain. Its sterilized symmetry belied any thoughts of maggots and foul corruption”).
In the narrator's mind, the cemetery is associated with a denial of death and corruption because he is most likely thinking of “a wry, adult comic book hero,” the “back-from-the-dead criminologist Denny Colt,” better known as the Spirit. Created on 2 June 1940 by Will Eisner, The Spirit was a “weekly seven-page feature, part of a comic book Sunday supplement.” The words “cementerio” and “silvestre” in the original version of the short story are oblique references to the Spirit's hideout, Wildwood Cemetery, which appeared in Spanish editions as “Cementerio San Silvestre.” This is the fanciful origin of the name of one of the three memorable characters of Three Trapped Tigers. The young Cabrera Infante was particularly intrigued with the artistic quality of The Spirit, an admiration he maintains to this day, and its incorporation into his narratives is an acknowledgment of a passion from his adolescent years. Silvestre is an illuminating example of Cabrera Infante's utilization of an element from popular culture, one of an abundant number of such references in his works. It also speaks to his playful disposition as well as to the circuitous nature of the creative imagination.
Looking back at the original episodes of The Spirit, it is not difficult to see why he was so intrigued with Eisner's work. An episode published in 10 August 1941, for example, begins with a quotation from Michel de Montaigne and concerns a scientist who has successfully condensed time into a liquid element. Through a series of chance occurrences, an unsuspecting individual is able to see the future consequences of his criminal actions. Michael Barrier, in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, quotes John Benson, who has commented that “‘like Alfred Hitchcock, Eisner shows his stories instead of telling them. And Eisner's pictorial sense, like Hitchcock's, is so integral to his sense of narrative that it's often overlooked: the type of story favored by the artist is more likely to be recognized—the “Hitchcock story” or the “Eisner story”.’” Benson also points out that Eisner was a master of indirect portrayal and showed the result or reaction to an act rather than the action itself. Cabrera Infante would make ample use of this technique in Three Trapped Tigers, especially in the psychiatric sessions of Laura Díaz.
Although Cabrera Infante is not fond of Así en la paz como en la guerra, the book does indicate some of what was to come. The collection demonstrates, for example, his capacity to employ a variety of narrative styles, ranging from the purely objective to the intimate rendering of a flow of consciousness. His ability to re-create vernacular language as well as his successful assimilation of various influences, like that of Hemingway, also are evident. Even early in his career, it was apparent that he had a natural gift for imitation. A less satisfactory adaptation is the interweaving of highly different narrative modes, particularly the mixture of the stories with the vignettes. That strategy was most likely acquired from Faulkner's The Wild Palms, a work whose success is equally debatable. Cabrera Infante's first book attempted to accommodate contradictory tendencies, political commitment and a will to fragmentation, and it is fair to observe that this accounts for the book's deficiencies as well as his dissatisfaction with it.
Several of the characters evoke others who would follow. The actress and her lover in “The Great Ekbo” are suggestive of Laura Díaz and Silvestre of Three Trapped Tigers. “Un nido de gorriones en un toldo” (“Nest, Door, Neighbours”) contains a child-woman whose penchant for role-playing leads her and those around her into labyrinths of illusion and deception, much as the formidable Amazon of Infante's Inferno and Laura Díaz of Three Trapped Tigers do in those novels. The superficial and cynical Solaún of “Ostras interrogadas” (“Oysters Helping with Their Inquiry”) appears briefly in Three Trapped Tigers. These and other elements, such as stories cast in an autobiographical mode, point to the future, but they do not foretell it. It would be a mistake to claim that the major themes and strategies of his artistic maturity can be found in these first works, but it is fair to say that the collection contains experimental variations that enabled Cabrera Infante to explore options during his search for his own voice and that some of these variants would appear again. With the exception of two or three outstanding stories, the volume can be termed a collection of readable works, most likely to interest readers intrigued with historical referents or specifically concerned with Cabrera Infante's career.
Although he is an author who works from fragments, writing segments and eventually expanding them into texts, Cabrera Infante has not produced many short stories, at least in the contemporary understanding of the term. It should be mentioned, however, that many pieces, such as the portrait of Pepe Castro, “My Unforgettable Character,” are conceived as stories by Cabrera Infante. He uses such a classification because he feels that once something disappears into a text, it becomes a fiction. For that reason, even works that purport to be historical accounts are fictions, a position that undoubtedly causes some readers difficulty. The fine line between the imaginary and the real is often a problematic distinction in Cabrera Infante's works—what we read is undoubtedly an illusion, but at the level of meaning there is frequently authenticity. Despite the author's misgivings, the stories and vignettes in Así en la paz como en la guerra are acceptable works, not equal in quality to his later writings, but undeserving of oblivion.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86
Alvarez-Borland, Isabel. “Readers, Writers, and Interpreters in Cabrera Infante's Texts.” World Literature Today 61, No. 4 (Autumn 1987): 553-58.
Describes Cabrera Infante's works published between 1964 and 1974, including View of Dawn in the Tropics,as “fictions of interpretation.”
Additional coverage of Cabrera Infante's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 29; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 25, 45; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; Hispanic Literature Criticism; Hispanic Writers; and Major 20th-Century Writers.