Severo Sarduy Sarduy, Severo (Vol. 97) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Severo Sarduy 1937–1993

Cuban novelist, poet, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Sarduy's life and career through 1991. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 6.

Sarduy is best known for experimental and linguistically complex literary works that explore Cuban culture and the ways in which language creates and transforms reality. His most famous work, the novel Cobra (1972), for which he received the Prix Médicis étranger, eschews linear narrative logic for a loosely structured series of images and dialogue scenes in which events are repeated with differing outcomes and characters change form and gender. As Julia A. Kushigian observes: "[T]he strength of Sarduy's work lies … in his ability to duplicate the world through the chaotic, creative process—mixing times, histories, cultures, and genders in an effort to stimulate readers through the brilliance and complexity of his prose."

Biographical Information

Sarduy was born in Camagüey, Cuba, where he attended Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza. In 1956 he entered medical school in Havana, where he began writing poetry and advertisements for radio and television. The following year he published a short story entitled "El seguro." During the Cuban revolution Sarduy worked as an art critic for Lunes de Revolución; in the fall of 1959, Fidel Castro's new government awarded him a scholarship to study art criticism at the L'Ecole du Louvre in Paris. Sarduy became aligned with two highly influential French literary groups: one was associated with the literary journal Mundo Nuevo, and the other—which included Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Lucien Goldman, and Tzvetan Todorov—was associated with the radical structuralist and Maoist journal Tel quel; he also studied structuralist methodology under Roland Barthes at the École Pratique des Hautes Études of the Sorbonne. Sarduy's first novel, Gestos, was published in 1963 and was followed by numerous other works, including novels and collections of poems and essays. Sarduy died in Paris in 1993 from AIDS-related complications.

Major Works

Gestos examines life in Cuba just before the Communist revolution of 1956–1959 and attempts to determine what it means to be Cuban. The novel is comprised of impressionistic vi-gnettes, dialogue scenes, and monologues that depict the daily activities of an unnamed mulatto laundress and singer. De donde son los cantantes (1967; From Cuba with a Song), considered by many critics to be Sarduy's most experimental novel, includes three narrative sections; the first concerns a tortured romance between a Spanish general and a nightclub singer; the second depicts the career of a singer named Dolores Rondón, who was the unnamed main character from Gestos; the third section deals with the introduction of Spanish-European culture to Cuba. The title character of Cobra is the star of a burlesque house run by a woman named La Señora, with whom Cobra—whose gender is at times difficult to ascertain—is romantically involved. The fantastical plot of this novel—one that includes such disparate characters as Tibetan monks, a motorcycle gang, and a Tangierian sex-change doctor named Dr. Ktazob who is reminiscent of Dr. Benway from William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch—begins when Cobra and La Señora are reduced to dwarf size by a drug both were taking to make Cobra's feet smaller. Cobra proceeds mainly as dialogue and is accompanied by Sarduy's comments on art and the creative process. Maitreya (1978; Maitreya), a novel many critics consider to be about the theme of exile, begins at the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet when a Buddhist monk, the Master, dies after predicting his eventual reincarnation as the Instructor. The other monks find a young boy being cared for by two Chinese women, the Leng sisters, and declare him the reincarnation of the Master and the next Lama. Not wishing an ascetic life for the boy, the Leng sisters flee to Ceylon and then to Cuba during the revolution. The final section of the book concerns the death of Cuban author José Lezama Lima. Evincing a more traditional narrative structure than some of his previous novels, Colibrí (1984) centers on a house near a jungle where a woman named La Regenta provides wealthy male clients the spectacle of hand-some young men wrestling. Colibrí, a young blond man who has just arrived, defeats an obese Japanese wrestler, El Japonesón, and becomes the hero of the club. After discovering that La Regenta is passionately in love with him, Colibrí flees into the jungle and meets up with El Japonesón; the two become friends and lovers. Once captured, Colibrí is returned to La Regenta, only to escape and be caught again. Upon his return the second time, however, Colibrí is treated like a god and orders La Regenta's house burnt to the ground and rebuilt. Colibrí then takes charge as the new "dictator" of the club. Cocuyo (1990) is an ironic bildungsroman set in pre-Castro Cuba that some critics have found reminiscent of Voltaire's Candide. Cocuyo, whose name means "firebeetle," is torn from his comfortable bourgeois life by a violent storm; he is injured and winds up in a hospital staffed by unreliable and untrustworthy doctors. He eventually flees to a girls' school where he takes a job running errands. Cocuyo's journey towards maturity leads to an awakening of his sexuality, specifically his love for a woman named Ada.

Critical Reception

Most critics praise Sarduy's experimental approach to novel writing, aligning him with the avant-garde writers of the South American literary "Boom," post-Boom, and with European postmodern and post-structuralist authors. Sarduy's work is recognized for its distinctive blend of themes, including an abiding interest in Cuban identity and culture, as well as a fascination with Oriental and Western philosophies. Sarduy's work also deals with themes of sexuality and personal identity, offering often outrageous depictions of transvestism, transsexuality, homosexuality, and sado-masochism in an attempt to explore and critique the notion of a unified ego, or singular personality. While critics generally agree that Sarduy's work offers unique and original insights and experiences, most point out that his books are difficult—sometimes nearly inaccessible—because, in addition to the oblique, allusive nature of his writing and his frequent avoidance of linear narrative logic, Sarduy—by his own admission—often included in his works references to his personal life that could have been meaningful only to himself or to particularly close friends. Michael Wood concluded of Cobra: "There is a dizzy freedom in such writing. And while Sarduy has horrible slithers into cuteness and into sniggerings of camp, and while he is far more interested in blood and semen and leather jackets than I am ever going to be,… Cobra remains a remarkable book, a nervous, flighty homage to the life of language."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gestos (novel) 1963
De donde son los cantantes [From Cuba with a Song] (novel) 1967
Escrito sobre un cuerpo: Ensayos de crítica [Written on a Body] (essays) 1969
Flamenco (poetry) 1969
Mood Indigo [with H. M. Erhardt] (poetry) 1970
Merveilles de la nature (poetry) 1971
Cobra (novel) 1972
Overdose (poetry) 1972
Barroco (essays) 1974
Big Bang: Para situar en órbita cinco máquinas / Pour situer en orbite cinq machines de Ramon Alejandro [with Ramon Alejandro] (poetry) 1974
Maitreya [Maitreya] (novel) 1978
Para la voz [For Voice] (dramas) 1978
Daiquirí (poetry) 1980
La simulación (essays and lectures) 1982
Colibrí (novel) 1984
Un testigo fugaz y disfrazado (poetry) 1985
El Cristo de la rue Jacob [Christ on the Rue Jacob] (novel) 1987
Nueva inestabilidad (essays) 1987
Cocuyo (novella) 1990
Pájaros de la playa (novel) 1993
Epitafios, imitación, aforismos (poetry and prose) 1994

∗This volume is in both French and Spanish.

Donald Ray Johndrow (essay date Spring 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Total' Reality in Severo Sarduy's Search for Lo Cubano," in Romance Notes, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Spring, 1972, pp. 445-52

[In the following essay, Johndrow examines Gestos and De donde son los cantantes, exploring Sarduy's use of "pintura gestual" as a device for representing what it is to be Cuban.]

In Paris to study art criticism Severo Sarduy fell under the influence of French authors (such as Alain Robbe-Grillet), artists and critics. Applying techniques involved in the plastic arts, he tries to lead the reader to a higher understanding of a situation by presenting him with a painting whose colors are words and whose canvas is the book,...

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Severo Sarduy with Roberto González Echevarría (interview date Summer 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Interview: Severo Sarduy," in Diacritics, Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer, 1972, pp. 41-5.

[González Echevarría is a Cuban-born American educator and critic who specializes in Hispanic literature. In the following interview, Sarduy discusses the concept of "the baroque" and its significance to his work.]

Severo Sarduy is a young Cuban writer (b. 1936) established in Paris, where he is director of the Latin American collection of Editions du Seuil. He began his literary career as a poet in pre-revolutionary Cuba. After the Revolution, in 1959–60, he was part of the team of writers who published Lunes de Revolución, an active literary weekly directed by the...

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Eugene R. Skinner (review date September 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cobra, in Hispania, Vol. 57, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 606-07.

[In the following favorable review, Skinner discusses the structure of Cobra.]

Sarduy has participated in several influential literary journals: Lunes de revolución in Cuba and after his move to Paris in 1960, Mundo nuevo and Tel quel. His previous novels, Gestos (1963) and De donde son los cantantes (1967) have earned him recognition in Europe and in Latin America as an important figure in contemporary narrative. To an original sensitivity for the baroque style of his Cuban mentor Lezama Lima, Sarduy has amalgamated the linguistic concerns of...

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Jerome Charyn (review date 9 March 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cobra, in The New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1975, p. 18.

[Charyn is an American educator, novelist, screenwriter, and critic. In the following laudatory review of Cobra, he briefly summarizes the events depicted in the novel and concludes: "Of course Cobra isn't for everybody."]

Cobra is a mystery show staged by transvestites in disturbingly familiar cities that may, for all we know, belong to an alien universe that is about to crash into us. The personae are constellations that explode into various shapes throughout the book.

Cobra, Severo Sarduy's hero-heroine, begins life as a mummy, a wax doll...

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Eduardo Gonzalez (essay date March 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Baroque Endings: Carpentier, Sarduy and Some Textual Contingencies," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 92, No. 2, March, 1977, pp. 265-95.

[In the following excerpt, Gonzalez discusses Cobra and Barocco and explores Sarduy's preoccupation with the baroque style and his postmodern stylistic techniques.]

I rise, O fair assemblage! Andcommincio. Now then, after this introit of exordium, my galaxy girls …

Finnegans Wake

¡Ya! ¡Ya! ¡Una boa! La culebra para no dar a la muerte franco el póstigo de los oídos, por donde el encantador la guíe, cose el un oído con el suelo, el...

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Judith A. Weiss (essay date Spring 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Trail of the (Un)Holy Serpent: Cobra, by Severo Sarduy," in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 57-69.

[In the following essay, Weiss examines various events depicted in Cobra and discusses their significance in terms of the psychoanalytic and semiological theories of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes.]

The serpentine trail of Sarduy's un-hero/ine opens in scenes of decadence and exquisite transvestism in a Hindu lyrical theatre of dolls, dominated by the rivalry between the leading players, Cobra and Cadillac, and by one obsession: Cobra's feet are too big and she attempts to...

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Craig P. Johnston (essay date Fall 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Irony and the Double in Short Fiction by Julio Cortázar and Severo Sarduy," in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 111-22.

[In the following essay, Johnston explores the confrontation of characters with their doubles in Julio Cortázar's "Historia" and Sarduy's "Junto al Rio de Cenizas de Rosa."]

Man's encounter with his Doppelgänger, a meeting between an individual and his animal, mechanical, or human counterpart, often serves as the narrative material by which contemporary writers of prose fiction depict the human condition. In addition to the portrayal of man through the confrontation of an individual with...

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Alfred J. Mac Adam (essay date 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Severo Sarduy: Vital Signs," in his Modern Latin American Narratives: The Dreams of Reason, University of Chicago Press, 1977, pp. 44-50.

[In the following excerpt, Mac Adam examines various levels of meaning in De donde son los cantantes and discusses the "distance" between author and reader and text and reader.]

Severo Sarduy's De donde son los cantantes (1965) may be said to constitute an allegory of language, or more specifically, of the language of Cuba. We should understand allegory in this context not so much as a kind of literature but as a way of reading literature. In the ancient world, in Quintilian for example, allegory is a situation...

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Enrico Mario Santi (essay date Spring-Summer 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Textual Politics: Severo Sarduy," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. VIII, No. 16, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 152-60.

[Santi is a Cuban-born American educator, author, and critic of Hispanic literature and poetry. In the following essay, he examines De donde son los cantantes and Sarduy's use of themes from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.]

One of the assumptions that governs our sense of modern literary history is that progress in literature exists because Modernity allows for a greater and demystified knowledge of reality. The origins of this pretension to epistemological superiority are perhaps located in Romanticism, whose parallel development...

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Gustavo Pellon (essay date Fall-Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Severo Sarduy's Strategy of Irony: Paradigmatic Indecision in Cobra and Maitreya," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 11, No. 23, Fall-Winter, 1983, pp. 7-13.

[In the following essay, Pellon examines how Sarduy creates irony by disrupting the narrative flow of the text and utilizing the technique of "paradigmatic indecision," which destroys images and meanings "by a change of tone, a personal comment, or a violently contradictory sentiment."]

He answered every keon with a belch, a Bronx cheer, or the facile aphorism, "samsara is nirvana." Maitreya

In Cobra and...

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Julio Ortega (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Cuba With a Song," in Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative, University of Texas Press, 1984, pp. 173-79.

[In the following essay, Ortega examines how the structure and literary style of From Cuba With a Song contribute to an examination of "Cubanness."]

From Cuba with a Song, by the young Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, is a novel that carries radicalism of form to a new level in the Latin-American novel. It is a novel, an antinovel, and a scrapbook of a possible novel. It strikes the reader first as a jumble of innovations, but it actually possesses a self-induced program within its obstinate will to transgress. This...

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Rene Prieto (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ambiviolent Fiction of Severo Sarduy," in Symposium, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 49-60.

[In the following essay, Prieto focuses on the characters in Sarduy's Cobra and Maitreya, maintaining that destruction—"the prodigal squandering of self"—becomes the "gateway of change" for the transformation of the characters.]

To say that ambivalence, exaggeration and multiplicity play a major role in the recent novels of Severo Sarduy is to belabor a point for reasons which only the temper of these very works can justify. Saturation and redundance, even critical, are as topical to Sarduy's fiction as transformation and evolution are typical...

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Roberto González Echevarría (essay date January-June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sarduy, the Boom, and the Post-Boom," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 15, No. 29, January-June, 1987, pp. 57-72.

[In the following essay, González Echevarría focuses on Maitreya and Colibrí and examines the self-reflective, autobiographical character of Sarduy's writings.]

In his recent books, Sarduy loses himself in the extravagance of his previous works, in the gallery of mirrors that reflects back the texts already written. He again performs a rigorous analysis of the Latin American tradition within which he creates his work and to which he now adds a reflection about his own life as a writer. What does being a Latin American writer...

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Steven Moore (review date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Maitreya, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 242-43.

[Moore is an American writer, editor, and critic. In the following review, he assesses the plot, literary influences, and structure of Maitreya.]

Severo Sarduy is the most daring and innovative of the socalled Boom writers—García Márquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, et al.—but has never won the large audience these writers command. Maitreya, his fourth novel (originally published in 1978), guarantees to continue both his high reputation and low readership. His novels are more difficult to read than those of his compatriots and require not only a...

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Joan M. De La Cova (essay date December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Kind of Games Are These Anyway?: The Metafictional Play and Politics of Cobra and Juan sin tierra," in Revista Hispanica Moderna, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, December, 1990, pp. 206-17.

[In the following essay, De La Cova examines Sarduy's Cobra and Juan Goytisolo's Juan sin tierra (1975). She contends that, while both works are neo-baroque and "abandon linear narrative for spacial form," Juan sin tierra's "new realism" and Cobra's parody act to disguise and represent a variety of political themes.]

In 1972 and 1975 respectively, the Cuban Severo Sarduy and the Spaniard Juan Goytisolo, expatriate friends in Paris, brought...

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Thomas E. Case (essay date Autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cocuyo, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, pp. 676-77.

[In the following review, Case claims that Cocuyo exhibits a "dense, multilayered, and distinctly neobaroque style, parody, and metaphoric structure."]

Severo Sarduy is a writer of many talents. He is a recognized art and literary critic and a member of the Tel Quel group as well as an accomplished novelist, essayist, and poet. Born and raised in Cuba, Sarduy studied medicine before moving to Madrid and subsequently to Paris, which he made his home. His first novel, Gestos (1963), blended avant-garde techniques with Cuban sensitivity; De donde...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bush, Audrew. "On Exemplarity and Postmodern Simulation: Robert Coover and Severo Sarduy." Comparative Literature 44, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 174-93.

Compares Sarduy's work with that of Robert Coover. Bush examines similarities between North American postmodernist fiction and South American literature after the so-called "Boom" of the 1960s; he focuses in particular on the relationship of each school to developments in French structuralist and post-structuralist literary theory.

Champagne, Roland A. Review of Cobra, by Severo Sarduy. Modern Language Journal 60, Nos. 1-2 (January-February 1976):...

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