The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

All readers of Paradiso are struck by Lezama’s unusual characterization. No matter what their social rank, age, or education, his characters all seem to speak in the same manner and with the same vast erudition. In fact, they all seem to speak exactly as the author himself does. In Paradiso, Lezama makes a total departure from the psychological character portrayal of the traditional novel. Lezama himself has explained that his characters are really metaphors that became too developed for poetry. That, he claims, is what led him to write his first novel, Paradiso.

The title Paradiso proclaims the author’s tribute to Dante’s The Divine Comedy and furnishes a clue to the proper understanding of Lezama’s characterization. The characters of Paradiso, like those of The Divine Comedy, have an allegorical meaning. José Cemí, the protagonist, represents the search for the poetic image and truth. His last name is the word used by the Indians of the Caribbean for the images of their gods; at the same time, it seems to be a pun on the Greek work for “sign,” an appropriate allusion in the case of a poet whose tools are letters and words.

Oppiano Licario, Cemí’s mentor in the art of poetry, is described in the novel as the new Icarus who attempts the impossible. Licario plays a role in Paradiso similar to that played by Vergil in Dante’s Inferno. Like Vergil,...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

José (Joseíto) Cemí

José (Joseíto) Cemí (hoh-SEH hoh-seh-EE-toh seh-MEE), the protagonist, at the novel’s opening a five-year-old, skinny asthmatic. After his father’s death, he is drawn to his Uncle Albert, whose language skills enchant Cemí. He is thin but lithe and has a pale, sadly ironic face. At the age of eighteen, he studies law at Havana University, though his vocation is poetry. His friendships with Fronesis and Foción at the university help him to define his emotional needs as a poet: Fronesis’ poem for him is crucial in his development, and Oppiano’s instruction is a climactic fulfillment for him and the novel.

Colonel José Eugenio Cemí

Colonel José Eugenio Cemí (ehew-HEHN-ee-oh), his father, a man with a short neck and ruddy skin; he is merry and severe, with intellectual discipline. A respected engineer and much-admired Cuban army officer, he dies from influenza while on military assignment at Pensacola, Florida, at the age of thirty-three.

Rialta Olaya de Cemí

Rialta Olaya de Cemí (rree-AHL-toh oh-LI-ah), the wife of the colonel, a delicate woman widowed at the age of thirty. She lives with her children and mother in Havana. She poses her subtle charm against the sad fate of her admired husband’s early death. At the age of forty, she tells Cemí what she hopes for him: not to avoid danger, but always to try what is most difficult.


Leticia (leh-TEE-see-ah), Rialta’s petulant sister, with frosty gray eyes, who takes sleeping pills and dampens her forehead with cologne to control her nerves. She introduces Cemí to Fronesis while Cemí is visiting her home.

Alberto Olaya

Alberto Olaya, Rialta’s spoiled brother, a free and easy, self-possessed Cuban with a graceful walk, a reddish face, and a weakness for alcohol. The same-aged school friend of the young colonel, he was rescued by Oppiano during an adolescent fling in a Havana bar. He is killed in a car accident during a drunken brawl with a Mexican guitarist in Havana after he hears of his mother’s fatal illness.

Doña Augusta

Doña Augusta, Rialta’s mother. She has a majestic, noble head and is noted for her trenchant proverbs. Her story about her father’s body being exhumed strongly affects Cemí. She dies of cancer while Cemí is at the university.

Andrés Olaya

Andrés Olaya (ahn-DREHS), Rialta’s father, with a thick baritone voice, exiled from Cuba to Jacksonville, Florida. He dies at the age of forty-four, heartbroken by the death of a musically talented son, before Rialta’s marriage....

(The entire section is 1199 words.)