Lezama Lima, José 1910–
Lezama Lima, one of Cuba's foremost poets, is also a novelist and essayist. Since the publication of Paradiso, however, he has not enjoyed the favor of the Castro régime.
Twelve of Lezama Lima's best essays taken from Analecta del reloj (1957), Tratados en La Habana (1958) and La cantidad hechizada (1970) are included in [Introducción a los vasos órficos]. The inherent difficulty and hermetic nature of most of them may make the unwary reader wonder if the volume is a literary hoax conceived in the manner of the diligent weaver's cloth in "The Emperor's New Clothes." However, while Andersen's famous tale is based on an invisible and ultimately non-existent, exquisitely fine, imaginary fabric which everyone pretends to see and admire, Lezama Lima's essays are spun in a visible, ornate and carefully woven prose which may well appear to some readers to lack intrinsic meaning. In any case, Introducción a los vasos órficos is an experiment with language that aims to generate emotion through language, as both tool and finished product. Lezama's creative goal is thus supremely ambitious: language as a spinning wheel and a loom, as well as an intricate, fascinatingly rich fabric.
Klaus Müller-Bergh, in Books Abroad, Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 457-58.
[In Paradiso, Lezama] has backslid … into Borgesian labyrinths of "innumerable mirrors that populate the universe" and into a prose larded with oblique and recondite allusions to almost everything from the species of lungfish through Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, a prose decorated with student rhetoric about Mallarme, Hegel, Nietzsche, Augustine, Kafka, Odysseus, the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berri (a prose counterpart of the racial salad of the characters—Cuban, Spanish, English, French, Basque, Indian), a prose often as unreadable as this sentence.
These philosophical, theological, mythological, and historical materials are brought to bear on events in order to squeeze from them a non-consequitive truth—a process that encourages lush elaborations not only of knowledge but of words and images, especially those metaphors that by joining two things irrationally evoke a meaning uncontaminated by cause-and-effect: "the President crossed the ballroom like a nicety on the lid of a cigar box." Whether we trace it to Joyce's purple passages ("Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes") or, as Lezama does, to "a revival of Gongora and the baroque," this complexity should be capable of delighting us: Guillermo Cabrera Infante demonstrated the Cuban facility in this style to English readers in his Three Trapped Tigers several years ago.
But Lezama plays the games with a difference….
Many … semi-intelligible passages are foistered on the characters. As a result they all resemble each other, and their identities are merely verbal. What one says of another is true for all: "He says so much about himself aloud that when his words are extinguished he seems to be a phantom, he's no longer there, he's a cloud's tail." The publishers hint that the novel is autobiographical, but this is surely Lezama's little joke; there's not enough reality here to flesh out even half a life. The publishers also say that the Castro regime has been petulant about the absence of its favorite revolution and the presence of extensive homosexuality. But both absence and presence are obscured in such fog that the objection seems ill-aimed. A novel so often unintelligible needs no further criticism. Down with such decadence, Cubans; raise high the sackcloth banners of socialist realism!
J. D. O'Hara, "From Cuba-Without Life," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 14, 1974, p. 2.
Gregory Rabassa has bravely and helplessly translated [Paradiso]. Helplessly, because nothing short of a major recreation in English—something quite different from Rabassa's patient rendering of the Spanish words on the page—would have made this cluttered and stilted text really available to us.
It is not a question of the translation's missing nuances of the original, losing flavors or marginal meanings. The whole pompous, self-conscious march of the Spanish simply comes out as comic or laborious in English, and I should say at once that I am not convinced that Paradiso, even in Spanish, is the masterpiece that many people take it to be. It is rather, I should say, subject to correction or persuasion by readers who could make me see the text in a different light, a weird and gleaming literary freak, a collapsed monument, a grand, failed landmark sunk in the sands of its author's colossal self-indulgence.
Baroque is the word that keeps coming to mind. Lezama Lima has written brilliantly on Góngora, and a character in Paradiso describes the baroque as "what has real interest in Spain and in Hispanic America." Alejo Carpentier, a distinguished Cuban novelist of Lezama Lima's generation, has said that Latin American art has always been baroque, from pre-Columbian sculptures and codices through colonial cathedrals to the anarchy of contemporary prose. Admittedly Carpentier is offering an oblique defense of his own difficult and ornate style (seen most clearly in Siglo de las Luces, translated as Explosion in a Cathedral), and his sense of the baroque is not at all the same as Lezama Lima's.
Nevertheless, these tastes and these comments point to a large and simple distinction between Cuban novelists of this century and other Latin Americans. The major modern novels of the subcontinent—Cortázar's Hopscotch, García Márquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude, Donoso's Obscene Bird of Night—are metaphors for a vast, encompassing unreality. The narrative games and the drifting characters in the Cortázar, the narrative tone and the little town in García Márquez, the fabulating narrator and the crumbling old convent in Donoso—any Latin American will recognize these conjunctions as versions of his daily experience of the world. This is not the unreality of North America, which is a matter of anxiety, of constant fear that tomorrow will arrive before today is over; it is not the unreality of Europe, which is a question of rotted structures, of buildings and institutions standing there (for the moment) with nothing holding them up. Unreality in Latin America is a sense of the world as a charade, some sort of game or fiction for which history insists on recruiting innocent people as both actors and audience—a sense of having to sit through an omnivorous, unending melodrama.
But then in Cuba, to return to my distinction, this unreality is so extreme, and so extremely enjoyable, that metaphors are not even sought for it. The unreality is taken as a license, as a gambling permit for poets, and a modern form of the baroque is the result, a proliferation of language which simply leaves reality to its own devices—except in the case of Carpentier, who adds to the unwinding historical melodrama a profusion of exotic, oddly named natural objects, a dazzling, unreal display put on by tropical reality itself. In this sense, then, not only Carpentier and Lezama Lima but younger Cuban writers like Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy are baroque artists, and it is no accident (to borrow a cagy phrase) that some of Joyce's most faithful and talented imitators are Cubans.
Joyce, of course, even in Finnegans Wake, didn't leave reality to its own devices, and is perhaps to be regarded as an instigator of the baroque in others, a writer who opened up new technical territories. Lezama Lima, on the other hand, is a prophet of the baroque who never quite descends to the technical—or rather who inserts a single baroque technique into an otherwise stodgy and classical manner. To put it crudely, his imagery is baroque while his syntax remains unremittingly academic….
Lezama, as he says of one of his favorite characters in the novel, can't live without similes, and yet the similes he chooses are all fussy and self-advertising, mere gesticulations that never come together into that intense and intricate decorative fabric which is the mark of the successful baroque. And apart from its similes and periphrasis, Lezama's language is arch, cumbersome, and mercilessly solemn. Here is the university: "The classes were tedious and banal, open assignments were broadly simplified, and there was no extensive offering of quantitative material from which a scholar might extract a functional knowledge to apply to reality and satisfy immediate goals."
Here is a son responding to his parents' accusation that he won't talk to them: "It's not that I don't want to talk to you, but things have happened and you don't talk to me, you will always remain silent in an unfeeling muteness. Certain zones of our everyday relationship have become mute." Here is a poet thinking about his craft: "When his vision gave him a word in whatever relation it might have to reality, that word seemed to pass into his hands, and although the word remained invisible, freed of the vision from whence it had come, it went along, gathering a wheel on which gyrated incessantly its invisible modulation and its palpable modelization; then between intangible modelization and almost visible modulation, he seemed finally to be able to touch its forms, if he closed his eyes a little." I repeat that such passages are neither exceptional nor incidental, and that Rabassa is in no way to blame for their unfortunate comic flavor, which is only slightly less striking in Spanish.
Lezama himself doesn't appear to lack a sense of humor, and he writes at times as if he knew what irony was. But he has found no literary form for either irony or humor. Narrator and characters alike in Paradiso all speak in the same lofty, abstract, erratically imagistic, stylistically undifferentiated jargon that I have illustrated above, and while it would be absurd to think that Lezama is aiming for ordinary realism, for an imitation of the sounds and surfaces of ordinary life, the text does make disconcerting references to itself. People remark on the strange language others are using, are abashed at their own loquacity. Yet the language that causes the surprise is no stranger than the language which registers the surprise, and abashment at a loquacity that is a regular, if not an uninterrupted, event hardly makes any sense.
People are repeatedly said to be speaking ironically, yet there is nothing but the author's assertion to make that irony accessible to us. We can't read it in the tone of the supposedly ironic speech, since that tone is indistinguishable from the tone of the rest of the book….
Paradiso is an enormous act of creative memory, a genealogical excavation, a digging up of long-dead family members to find them encrusted with fantasies and associations which belong properly to the excavator—as well as with such of their own attributes as the excavator can recall or intuit. It is a slow entwining, as Lezama says about the habits of thought of one of his characters, a rich complication of the past, a world of aunts, uncles, grandmothers, exile, rebellion, school, university, repeated sudden deaths, the discovery of sexuality, and long discussions of Nietzsche and the Church Fathers. It is a huge poem in prose, a personal mosaic of Cuban history, and has more than one point of resemblance, mutatis mutandis, with Mann's Magic Mountain. Its total effect is more impressive than the effects of any of its parts, and for Latin American readers and writers, it is now there—like the Alps, in or out of Mann's novel.
And yet, it seems to me, it is a garish, Alpine sideshow rather than a real mountain, a curiously timid and reactionary work hiding behind the skirts of an apparent boldness. It is less a modern novel than a garrulous, old-fashioned treatise about a modern novel which hasn't been written yet (or at least not by Lezama Lima); and the reasons for this state of affairs are fairly clear. It is a novel written by a certain kind of poet, with all that kind of poet's slavish devotion to the belief that only images matter. All the riches and invention in Paradiso have gone into its figurative language, leaving tone, syntax, and the whole craft of prose to fend for themselves. Four hundred and sixty-six pages of writing by a man who doesn't care enough about the form of writing he has chosen guarantees an astonishing monotony, a clanking commitment to the most unimaginative prose cadences—almost a record of stamina for staying so long on the wrong bus.
Michael Wood, "Purgatorio," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), April 18, 1974, pp. 14-16.
There is scarcely a line in [Paradiso] that could be mistaken for anyone else's writing—or for prose in any familiar sense of that word. The skilled translation alone must have been a monumental task. Depending upon your taste or tolerance for elaborate diction, you will find Lezama's style either intoxicating or repellent, but you will not have a neutral reaction to a sentence such as this one, chosen because it is typical: "When we lift our faces he is no longer there, he is in the whirlwind of his joy, there to attract us again like a firefly, a geometric point, the eyes of a cat, the look of a mother, to converge in the night on a tree, a blackboard, a bedroom, on the unchanging ground in front of the lowered eyelid."
Lezama's language is reckless, voluptuous, sly and unrelentingly sexual. Those scenes in the book that are literally sexual (and there are many juicy heterosexual and homosexual interludes) are no more charged with bristling erotic energy than any other moment. At every point words are courting or stroking or probing the banal facts of everyday life (the stated intention of "Paradiso" is to portray "as closely as possible the daily life of a Cuban man and his family")….
Lezama not only has the power to create absorbing and memorable images; he has also placed these images into a vast network of philosophical and mythical significance. Like Proust he is intent upon defeating time and submerging it into the eternity of art, but Lezama has recaptured the historical as well as his own personal past. Lurking just beneath the surface of his prose, and sometimes breaking through it like leaping dolphins, are references to the great hermetic traditions of Egypt, Europe, Asia and pre-Columbia America.
His central vision is of a spiritual unity that preceded terrestrial multiplicity—a unity that is reconstructed in the final pages of "Paradiso." Seen in this light, his bizarre metaphors turn out to be parabolas that trace the hidden correspondences between visually rhyming things that only appear to be unrelated (the glowing tip of a cigar and a distant star, for instance). The tale of a boy seeking his father and finding wisdom becomes a parable in which Adam attempts to regain Paradise….
There are many readers in the United States who have a mystical turn of mind and a few, I suppose, who also have the inclination and erudition to track down "Paradiso's" allusions to Pythagoras, Plotinus, St. Augustine's "De Musica," Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship," Rimbaud's "Illuminations" and Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching." I am not one of those readers. For me, the proof of the greatness of "Paradiso" is that for the last two weeks I've been walking around New York seeing things through Lezama's eyes. When I went past an office building in Midtown I stopped to watch goggled men slowly sweeping flaming acetylene torches across the cracks between stone slabs of a huge, windy plaza. Instantly they became angels performing a sinister task—regretfully, sadly.
Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974, pp. 27-8.
By all accounts [Lezama Lima] is … an immensely erudite poet.
"Paradiso" has no discernible story. The narrative can best be described as a complex web of experiences. Caught at the center of the web is the hero, José Cemí (note the initials). Embedded at various other points are Cemí's parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and school friends. On the outer filaments there are Indian soothsayers, Mexican troubadours, insolent domestics, octoroon prostitutes, secret homosexuals.
At its best "Paradiso" has the "leaps of imagination" which have come to be associated with the best contemporary Spanish literature. In one vignette a malodorous blue cloud escapes from the armpit of a traffic policeman and lodges itself in the armpit of an innocent, passing salesman. This nearly ruins the salesman. For merchants are suspicious of salesmen who have vile-smelling blue clouds hovering under their arms. Countless baths cannot drive away the cloud and the salesman begins to lose his wits. When the traffic policeman is finally able to reclaim his awful stench he does so with a mixture of pride and tenderness. To him the cloud is a beautiful, runaway child—an intimate and inseparable part of his being. This is a fine conceit. But unfortunately, moments such as this are rare….
The problem with "Paradiso" (though some will consider it the book's charm) is Lezama Lima's stilted (or baroque) use of language. Characters do not die, they are spirited off to "Persephone's gloomy vale." Nietzsche, Zeus, Cranach, Shakespeare, Hecate, Cagliostro, Cellini, and even the likes of poor Stavrogin are constantly being dragged into the prose. The fiction ends up being strangled in direct proportion to Lezama Lima's allusiveness. Put another way, the reader feels he is not in Havana so much as he is visiting a cultural jumble sale.
For every luminous, tropical moment there are hundreds such as this: "The essential characteristic of Diaghilev was his spermatic ability to agglutinate."
If there is any point at all to fiction, it is to unmask culture—not merely recapitulate it.
Jack Friedman, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), April 25, 1974, pp. 23-4.
José Lezama Lima, Cuba's major poet, wrote Paradiso to render "as closely as possible the daily life of a Cuban man and his family," a statement that has no connection with the novel I have just struggled through, although Paradiso does follow a character named José Cemí from childhood through school days….
Paradiso can pass as on one's daily life. Lezama, a name some Americans know from a quotation Cortázar uses in Hopscotch, is a disciple of the baroque poet Góngora and a remarkably wide reader (he is a leading critic in Cuba) who has assimilated the total recall of several lifetimes worth of serious reading. In Paradiso he seems to have two main purposes: to dumbfound us with his erudition and to extend Góngora's euphemisms into a baroque novel. He succeeds in both, but the novel is impossible.
John Alfred Avant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 15, 1974, p. 27.