Paradiso is both the story of a Cuban upper-middle-class family during the first quarter of the twentieth century and a Bildungsroman that traces a young man’s path to artistic creation. Although the novel focuses on the protagonist, Cemí, and begins with a description of an asthma attack that he suffers in early childhood, from chapter 2 to chapter 6 it tells the story of his parents’ families, their meeting, and his father the Colonel’s early death at the age of thirty-three.
The death of the Colonel is the event that endows his widow, Rialta, and his son Cemí with a spiritual mission in life. She becomes convinced that the loss of her husband cannot have been meaningless and that her son, in some way, will fulfill his father’s truncated destiny. Cemí seems to accept that destiny without question, but he does not know how he will fulfill it. Through a series of mystical experiences precipitated by Cemí’s intense observation of objects and by his meditation about a particular image or idea, he comes to realize that he will make his contribution through the cultivation of poetry and the search for poetic images that will lead to truth. Poetry fills the vacuum left by the death of Cemí’s father, and it endows that seemingly purposeless death with meaning.
The rest of Paradiso follows Cemí’s education in art and in the ways of the world. Leaving behind the safety of family life, Cemí enters the outside world first at school and then at the university, where he is introduced to the allure of sex and the life of the intellect. In this stage of his education, his guides are his friends, Fronesis and Foción, and with them he explores all the vital issues that the embalmed lectures of the university professors never broach.
Having survived the dangers of this phase of his education (the pursuit of wanton eroticism and the abuse of intelligence as an instrument of power), Cemí is ready to undertake his poetic apprenticeship under the guidance of Oppiano Licario. This enigmatic character appears at several crucial moments in Paradiso. Licario, the only one present when Cemí’s father died, accepts the Colonel’s dying request: “I have a son. Get to know him, and try to teach him something of what you have learned through your travels, suffering, and reading.” Licario becomes Cemí’s poetic mentor and by the time he dies has led the young man to the very threshold of artistic creation. As Cemí sits alone, late at night in a café, he remembers his mentor’s assurance that he is now prepared for poetic creation, and Paradiso ends with Licario’s words: “We may now begin.”
José Lezama Lima’s masterpiece novel, Paradiso, is an amalgam of Caribbean and Latin American culture. The narrative is a dense, poetic, and mythical portrayal of a young Creole man in search of his family, individual, sexual, and cultural identity, which he plans to make the foundation of his artistic accomplishment. Family cohesion, death and transcendence, and the Fall of humanity and its resurrection through artistic creation are some of the novel’s underlying themes. The title alludes to Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s story of his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Lezama Lima’s Paradiso relies heavily on allegory, Christian symbolism, baroque imagery, and arcane cultural allusions, creating an immensely complex text that is daunting to general readers.
The novel opens with its protagonist, José Cemí, at age five, having an asthma attack. The family name comes from the great god of the Taino Indians, the inhabitants of Cuba at the time of the Conquest. The first name identifies the protagonist with the author, whose life story the novel loosely follows. Through José Cemí, Lezama Lima assumes as his own the cultural heritage accumulated in his country from pre-Columbian times to the twentieth century. José Cemí is also an Everyman plotting his steps on an allegorical world stage.
The novel continues with the sudden death...
(The entire section is 1,064 words.)