(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 455 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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 of the boy’s father. Making sense of the loss becomes an obsession for...

(The entire section is 421 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Hassat, J. J. Assimilation/Generation/Resurrection: Contrapuntal Readings in the Poetry of José Lezama Lima. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997. Lezama Lima’s prose often contains striking poetic images. Although this volume does not deal directly with Lezama Lima’s fiction, it is a valuable resource for understanding the way Lezama Lima’s poetry and prose influence each other and interact.

Pellon, Gustavo. José Lezama Lima’s Joyful Vision: A Study of “Paradiso” and Other Prose Works. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. A definitive study of Lezama Lima’s novel, it is an excellent full-length study that places his book within the context of his other works. Includes an index and a bibliography for further reading.

Pollard, Scott. “Canonizing Revision: Literary History and the Postmodern Latin American Writer.” College Literature 20 (October, 1993): 133-147. Pollard examines the literary histories of Alejo Carpentier, Lezama Lima, and Carlos Fuentes. He argues that these writers revise Western literary history in order to enhance the position of Latin American narrative within it. Of the three authors Pollard discusses, he particularly credits Lezama Lima with differentiating Latin American history from European history in his fiction.