World Literature

Guillermo Cabrera Infante

 

BORN: 1929, Gibara, Cuba

DIED: 2005, London, England

NATIONALITY: Cuban

GENRE: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Asi en la paz como en laguerra: Cuentos (1960, In Peace as in War: Stories)

Vista del amanecer en el tropico (1965, View of Dawn in the Tropics)

Tres tristes tigres (1967, later published in English as Three Trapped Tigers)

La Habana para un infante difunto (1979, Infante’s Inferno)

Holy Smoke (1985)

 

 

Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Infante, Guillermo Cabrera, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

Guillermo Cabrera Infante is considered one of Latin America’s most original and influential writers. Although he lived in exile from his native Cuba from the mid-1960s onward, much of his fiction is set in Havana and details the repressive and violent sociopolitical climate during the regime of Fulgencio Batista—prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959. Cabrera Infante largely eschews traditional literary forms, relying heavily on wordplay and loosely structured, nearly plotless narratives. His satiric, inventive prose has been compared to that of Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, and Laurence Sterne.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Writing Under (and Against) Batista Cabrera Infante was born in 1929 in the oriente province of Cuba. His mother and father founded the local Communist Party and, when their son was seven years old, were arrested and had their property confiscated. The impact of these events on Cabrera Infante’s work can be seen in the political content of his writings. Following a brief period in prison, his parents moved their family to Havana. Cabrera Infante became interested in literature while attending the University of Havana, which he left in 1948 to pursue a literary career. He edited the journal Bohemia, founded the literary magazine Nueva Genera- cion, and helped establish the Cinemateca de Cuba (Film Library of Cuba). In 1952, Cabrera Infante was jailed and fined for publishing a story in Bohemia that contained English-language obscenities. Two years later, he became the film critic for Carteles, one of Cuba’s most popular magazines, writing under the pseudonym G. Cain. Cabrera Infante’s writing at this time was censored for its political content and reflects the author’s clandestine activity against the Batista regime as part of a loose network of revolutionaries.

Fidel Castro Takes Power. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cabrera Infante became involved with the new government, serving on the Bureau of Cultural Affairs and later becoming cultural attache to Brussels, Belgium. He also acted as the director of Lunes de Revolucion, the literary supplement to the pro-Castro newspaper Revolucion. In 1960, Cabrera Infante published his first fiction collection, In Peace as in War. The following year, Castro disbanded the Lunes de Revolucion when its editors protested the censorship of a documentary film directed by Cabrera Infante’s brother, Saba Cabrera Infante, that depicted Havana’s nightlife during the height of Batista’s rule. Leaving Cuba in 1965—in large part because of dissatisfaction with Castro’s regime—Cabrera Infante eventually settled in London.

Living in Exile, Successfully. In 1967 his novel Three Trapped Tigers was published, earning the author international recognition. For several years, however, his income was derived primarily from the writing of such screenplays as Wonderwall (1968), Vanishing Point (1970), and Under the Volcano (1972). Throughout the 1970s, Cabrera Infante continued writing books in Spanish, including Vista del amanecer en el tropico (1974; View of Dawn in the Tropics), Exorcismos de esti(l)o (1976), and La Habana para un Infante difunto (1979; Infante’s Inferno). In the 1980s he traveled and lectured throughout the United States and Latin America, in addition to publishing his first book written in English, Holy Smoke (1985). Over the years, he came to ever more fiercely oppose Castro’s oppressive regime, writing particularly impassioned polemics against the Cuban government in the wake of its 2003 jailing of nearly eighty journalists, poets, and others. Until his London death in 2005, Cabrera Infante regularly published essays in newspapers, popular magazines, and scholarly journals.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Cabrera Infante's famous contemporaries include:

Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973): This militant dictator, abhorred by Cabrera Infante, ruled over Cuba until 1958—when he submitted to pressure from Fidel Castro's guerrilla movement during the Cuban revolution.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927—): Hailing originally from Colombia, this author is one of Latin America's most famous and was recognized for his contribution to twentieth-century literature in 1982, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Fidel Castro (1926—): Recently replaced by his brother Raul Castro as president of Cuba, this revolutionary organized the successful overthrow of Batista's dictatorship, an event that had a major impact on the Cuban revolution.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Argentinian author of unusual works often considered to be the forerunners of magic realism.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977): Renowned Russian- American author most famous for his provocative novel Lolita (1955).

George H. W. Bush (1924—): The forty-third president of the United States.

 

Works in Literary Context

Writing Fiction During the Cuban Revolution. Cabrera Infante’s fictional works typically deal with Cuba’s political experience in the twentieth century. The short stories in In Peace as in War are written in the mode of social realism and convey the author’s contempt for the Batista dictatorship. Cabrera Infante later repudiated this work as being overly realistic at the expense of creativity. In the novel Three Trapped Tigers, widely regarded as one of the most important works of contemporary Latin American fiction, Cabrera Infante abandoned social realism for a humorous narrative developed through a series of monologues. Written primarily in Cuban street vernacular and narrated by several characters, Three Trapped Tigers depicts a society descending into physical and spiritual confusion; language itself becomes grotesque as it is reshaped by people struggling for new means of communication.

In View ofDawn in the Tropics Cabrera Infante again explores pre-Castro Cuba. Similar in structure to In Peace as in War, this book is a compendium of over one hundred vignettes tracing the entire history of Cuba. Jorge H. Valdes has contended that the collection depicts Cuban history ‘‘as a repetitive and often accidental course of events always leading to an unhappy ending.’’ Set in Havana, Cabrera Infante’s next book, Infante’s Inferno, chronicles the sexual initiation of a youth who bears many of the author’s biographical traits.

Wordplay. A trademark of Cabrera Infante’s work is his abundant wordplay. This is seen in everything he writes, but especially in Three Trapped Tigers. This work, which chronicles Havana nightlife on the eve of Batista’s fall, abounds with puns, parodies, and wordplay. As with his novels and short stories, Cabrera Infante imbues his nonfiction works with verbal exuberance and rich evocations of Cuban society. Of the nonfiction book Holy Smoke, the first book Cabrera Infante wrote in English, John Gross has noted, ‘‘[Joseph] Conrad and [Vladimir] Nabokov apart, no other writer for whom English is a second language can ever have used it with more virtuosity.’’

Writing for and About Films. Cabrera Infante worked on screenplays for several films during the 1970s and 1980s, one of which—Vanishing Point—is considered a classic by many viewers, including writer- director Quentin Tarantino. Cabrera Infante published two collections of film criticism, A Twentieth-Century Job (1963) and Arcadia todas las noches (1978), which critics have praised for their judicious insights into the work of American and European filmmakers. John King has additionally noted that A Twentieth-Century Job provides ‘‘an engaging portrait of Cuban intellectual life in the 1950s.’’ Holy Smoke is a factual account of the history of the cigar and contains an anthology of famous smoking scenes from literature and film.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Revolutionary moments in history are often accompanied by a flurry of artistic output, an expression of the different possibilities brought about by monumental changes in political and social structures. As the formerly oppressed struggle to find their voices among competing ideas and drives, questions of national and personal identity collide in the wake of falling order. Cabrera Infante's unique style captures the uncertainty of such moments. Other works that explore the uncertainty of revolutionary moments include:

Democracy in America (1835), a nonfiction work by Alexis de Tocqueville. Written during a period of intense cultural and political transformation in America, this frequently studied work discusses democracy as the preferable means of negotiation during revolutions of all kinds.

Dubliners (1914), a short-story collection by James Joyce. This famous collection of short stories explores revolutionary moments, or epiphanies, within the individual.

The Order of Things (1966), a nonfiction work by Michel Foucault. Exploring revolutionary moments from the perspective of post-structural theory, this work explores how the conditions of discourse—what kinds of communication are possible—shift from one "episteme," or historical-conceptual paradigm, to another.

 

Works in Critical Context

Writing That Defies Categorization. As aptly noted by author and critic Ardis L. Nelson, with books that defy categorization, Cabrera Infante has inspired a wealth of critical response and conjecture. David P. Gallagher asserts that Cabrera Infante aims to demolish literature as a solemn and pretentious art form by using everyday spoken language and by parodying writers, among other techniques. Since Cabrera Infante denies that he writes novels, there is an ongoing debate as to the genre of his works. While Isabel Alvarez-Borland argues that he writes short stories, vignettes, and essays, combining them in a fragmented mosaic, Emir Rodriguez Monegal contends that his work is largely autobiographical.

Three Trapped Tigers established Cabrera Infante’s reputation as a writer of innovative fiction, a reputation that only some critics find justified by his other works. Playing with words is an important part of Infante’s Inferno and his nonfiction work, Holy Smoke. Unlike the nearly universal acclaim received for Three Trapped Tigers, critics were unable to reach a consensus on these two works. While some praised Cabrera Infante’s continued use of puns as innovative, others had grown tired of the Cuban’s verbal contortions.

Infante’s Inferno and Holy Smoke. Commenting on Infante’s Inferno in the New York Review of Books, Michael Wood complains that Cabrera Infante’s relentless punning ‘‘unrepentedly mangles language and hops from one tongue to another like a frog released from the throat. Some of the jokes are ... terrible.... Others are so cumbersome, so fiendishly worked for, that the noise of grinding machinery deafens all the chance of laughter.’’ New York Review of Books contributor Josh Rubins has similar problems with Holy Smoke. He comments, ‘‘In Holy Smoke ... the surfeit of puns seems to arise not from mania... but from a mere tic. Or, worse yet, from a computer program.’’

‘‘A Good Writer, but a Bad Revolutionary’’. Other reviewers are not so harsh in their criticism. In Enrique Fernandez’s Voice Literary Supplement review of Infante’s Inferno, for example, the critic observes that the novel is written in ‘‘an everyday Cuban voice, unaffected, untrammeled, [and] authentic.’’ John Gross of the New York Times hails Cabrera Infante as a master in the use of language. Commenting on Holy Smoke, he claims: ‘‘Conrad and Nabokov apart, no other writer for whom English is a second language can ever have used it with more virtuosity. He is a master of idiomatic echoes and glancing allusions; he keeps up a constant barrage of wordplay, which is often outrageous, but no more outrageous than he intends it to be.’’

Cabrera Infante’s works have been criticized by some for their lack of ideological commitment, but they have been lauded by many for their genius. Since Three Trapped Tigers, his works have been forbidden in Cuba, where he is widely considered to be ‘‘un buen escritor, pero mal revolucionario’’: a good writer, but a bad revolutionary.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Summarize the picture of Havana portrayed in Infante’s Inferno. What emotional response(s), if any, did you feel as you were reading? Explain your reaction to Cabrera Infante’s choice of literary style.

2. Discuss the influence of Cabrera Infante’s political experiences on the content of his writings. Make sure to support your discussion with examples from both his fiction and nonfiction works.

3. Explain how Infante’s study of James Joyce’s Dubliners, which he translated into Spanish in 1972, may have influenced his works.

4. Cabrera Infante rejects the idea that his writings, including his most famous work, Three Trapped Tigers, can be categorized as novels. If you had to assign a genre to Three Trapped Tigers, what would it be, and why? Use examples from the book to support your opinion.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Diaz Ruiz, Ignacio. Cabrera Infante y otros escritores latinoamericanos. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1982.

Feal, Rosemary Geisdorfer. Novel Lives: The Fictional Autobiographies of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Mario Vargas Llosa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Gallagher, David Patrick. Modern Latin American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Guibert, Rita. Seven Voices. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Hernandez-Lima, Dinorah. Versiones y re-versiones historicas en la obra de Cabrera Infante. Madrid: Pliegos, 1990.

Jimenez, Reynaldo L. Guillermo Cabrera Infante y Tres tristes tigres. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1976.

Nelson, Ardis L. Cabrera Infante in the Menippean Tradition, with prologue by Cabrera Infante. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1983.

Pereda, Rosa Maria. Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Madrid: Edaf, D.L., 1979.

Souza, Raymond D. Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Islands, Many Worlds. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

________. Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976.

Tittler, Jonathan. Narrative Irony in the Contemporary Spanish-American Novel. New York: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Volek, Emil. Cuatro claves para la modernidad: Aleixandre, Borges, Carpentier, Cabrera Infante. Madrid: Gredos, 1984.