By all accounts the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima is a man of immense personal presence, a compelling conversationalist, possessor of an alarming, eccentric, unfathomable erudition; a sort of prolix, tropical, baroque Borges—Borges stood on his head and made to personify luxuriance and excess instead of brevity and asceticism.
Lezama Lima was born in Cuba in 1910, and has published five volumes of verse, three books of essays; has founded and edited four Cuban literary magazines, three rather short-lived and one longer-lived and influential (Orígenes, 1944-1957). Until the 1950s he was known primarily as a poet. He then began to publish chapters of a long, dense, autobiographical novel which was to become Paradiso (the title is in Italian in the original), published in its entirety in 1966 (or 1967—the sources don’t agree). Rumor has it that Castro intervened personally, over the heads of his hesitant cultural bureaucrats, to ensure the appearance of the book. In 1968, another version came out, incorporating revisions by the author and editorial suggestions by Julio Cortázar and Carlos Monsiváis; and it is this version that Gregory Rabassa has bravely and helplessly translated. Helplessly, because nothing short of a major re-creation in English—something quite different from Rabassa’s patient rendering of the Spanish words on the page—would have made this cluttered and stilted text really available to us.
It is not a question of the translation’s missing nuances of the original, losing flavors or marginal meanings. The whole pompous, self-conscious march of the Spanish simply comes out as comic or laborious in English, and I should say at once that I am not convinced that Paradiso, even in Spanish, is the masterpiece that many people take it to be. It is rather, I should say, subject to correction or persuasion by readers who could make me see the text in a different light, a weird and gleaming literary freak, a collapsed monument, a grand, failed landmark sunk in the sands of its author’s colossal self-indulgence.
Baroque is the word that keeps coming to mind. Lezama Lima has written brilliantly on Góngora, and a character in Paradiso describes the baroque as “what has real interest in Spain and in Hispanic America.” Alejo Carpentier, a distinguished Cuban novelist of Lezama Lima’s generation, has said that Latin American art has always been baroque, from pre-Columbian sculptures and codices through colonial cathedrals to the anarchy of contemporary prose. Admittedly Carpentier is offering an oblique defense of his own difficult and ornate style (seen most clearly in Siglo de las Luces, translated as Explosion in a Cathedral), and his sense of the baroque is not at all the same as Lezama Lima’s.
Nevertheless, these tastes and these comments point to a large and simple distinction between Cuban novelists of this century and other Latin Americans. The major modern novels of the subcontinent—Cortázar’s Hopscotch, García Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, Donoso’s Obscene Bird of Night—are metaphors for a vast, encompassing unreality. The narrative games and the drifting characters in Cortázar, the…
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