Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005)
"Murió sin patria, pero sin amo." —Miriam Gómez
The Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante died in London yesterday, at age 75. I first discovered Cabrera Infante in college, when I used to browse the Latin American section of the USF library stacks. I read several of his essays from Mea Cuba (1992) for a research paper I was writing and ended up becoming entranced by his inimitable prose, full of strange puns, allusions to classic Hollywood films, psychedelic tinges and a brutal, eloquent critique of the Castro regime.
It wasn't until 1994, when I purchased Tres tristes tigres (1967) at Tampa Libros, that I realized the full range of his genius. That book became a touchstone for me and it remains so today. Its evocations of 1950s Havana nightlife and its inimitable use of Cuban slang in a type of autobiographical prose I had never encountered before made his work an obsession for me. As I read that novel, I began to look at Tampa in a different light, learning how a writer can mythologize his surroundings and pick up on the epic qualities of life in the city, any city.
His other great novel, La Habana para un infante difunto (1979), which I read soon afterwards, extends this exploration of Havana (this time in the 1940s) as a self-contained universe which the writer reconstructs from his home in London. Cabrera Infante was obsessed with the English language, translation and classic Hollywood films. (And, more specifically, with actresses. His second wife and life-long companion is the Cuban actress Miriam Gómez.) He knew that Cuban and American culture are intertwined and cannot be understood without each other. He was involved in translating most of his books into English and his work often dealt with the vicissitudes of translation (of the text and of the self). His collaboration with Suzanne Jill Levine on the translation of La Habana para un infante difunto resulted in the astonishing Infante's Inferno (Faber, 1984). His English was just as strange and entrancing as his Cuban Spanish, loaded with puns, dark humor, sensuality and a poetic nostalgia that never veered toward self-pity:
"A few days after our arrival in Havana, the first visitor from home appeared. Or rather, almost from home because he was a guajiro, a hick from Potrerillo, the sugar-cane farm near town. Like all farmers he was melancholy but had transparent yellow eyes that saw—or at least looked at—everything. He was one of those farmers whom my mother, in her proselytizing zeal, had converted to Communism. But I feared that he was in Havana not for party reasons but for partying reasons—that is, he was after my mother, who was then a Communist beauty. This hick found a new sport in the big city: like us, he had never known tall buildings, and now he amused himself on the balcony by spitting at the wayfarers passing below. Fortunately his spittle was off target but in spite of his bad aim he insisted on practicing each time he saw someone approaching on the sidewalk. My mother never managed to convince him that this wasn't done (he was a real montuno type and even the word portrays primitive nature in all its splendor), that he could make trouble for us if someone was hit. To which the spitting image of a bombadier responded that he'd dare 'em, meaning he, muy macho, would challenge the other to a machete duel, so frequent in the Cuban countryside. He had forgotten that he had left the machete in his hut in Oriente, but just the same he would challenge whomever to a punching match—he was made of what gauchos, cowboys, and Mexican rancheros are made of: stud stuff."
Infante's Inferno goes on for more than 400 pages of dense, hilarious episodes, not merely describing Havana in the 1940s but bringing it to life with such style and grace that the reader is left awe-struck.
Cabrera Infante was often ostracized by European and North American intellectuals for his sustained and bitter critique of the Castro regime. The essays in Mea Cuba, for instance, attack the foundational myths of Castro's seemingly-endless dictatorship. Cabrera Infante was close friends with many of the comandantes who rose to power with Castro and for several years he edited the influential literary journal Lunes de Revolución. His books have been banned in Cuba since he left Havana in the mid-1960s but they continue to be read on the island and they've become legendary symbols of intellectual resistance to the the puritanism of the Castro regime. Cabrera Infante has written about a break-in at his London home by Cuban secret service agents in the 1980s, who searched through his manuscripts looking for who knows what. It is thanks to those brutal and lucid essays in Mea Cuba that I was able to rid myself of certain adolescent illusions I once had about the Cuban revolution.
Of all the Latin American writers from the Boom generation, Cabrera Infante's work stands out as the most innovative, the most cosmopolitan and, strangely enough, the most attuned to North American and European literary sensibilities. And yet, his central theme was always the universe that is Havana. He understood that city as an allegory of all cities and his prose not only described its stories, people, buildings and avenues but rebuilt them on the page. Tres tristes tigres, La Habana para un infante difunto, Mea Cuba and Delito por bailar el chachachá (1995) (all available in excellent English versions) are books that represent some of the finest literature ever produced in Latin America. The short stories in the final book listed above were translated by the author a few years ago and published as Guilty of Dancing the Chachachá (New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001). In three masterful short stories, which repeat variations on the same plot, Cabrera Infante sketched out his reasons for opposing the murderous and puritannical Castro regime. The protagonist of the stories (as always, a fictional version of the author) sits in a Havana restaurant in the early 1960s and talks to a government official, an acquaintance of his who is trying to convince him to stop criticizing the recently-established revolution. Cabrera Infante's protagonist replies:
"You ought to ask me what I mean, so that I can answer that the chachachá, like abstract art, like beatnik literature, like hermetic poetry, like jazz, of course—all are guilty art forms. Why? Because in a Communist state, everything and everybody is guilty. Nobody, nothing is free of guilt. Not even art, especially not art."
(The Guardian, El Universal, BBC)