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."
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.
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.
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."