Odor and Ardor

Infante’s Inferno

by G. Cabrera Infante, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine with the author
Harper and Row, 410 pp., $18.95

Any resemblance between literature and history,” Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote some years ago, “is accidental.” He meant, of course, to offer the familiar disclaimer of fiction, particularly since his novel Three Trapped Tigers (1967), the work to which the remark was attached, mixed the names of living persons with those of transposed or invented characters: a Havana hodgepodge. But he also meant to offer a provocation, a sly and long-armed distinction. History for Cabrera is the domain of power and preening ambition, a nightmare into which countless people can’t wait to hurl themselves, and from which many will escape only into death. Is there such a thing, he wondered in an article published last year in the Mexican magazine Vuelta, as “the tedium of power,” a weariness of history’s heights? The question was rhetorical since he was suggesting that suicide has become a political ideology in Cuba, the result of a combination of hubris and disappointment. “Absolute power disillusions absolutely.”

Literature on the other hand is a form of freedom, not because it deals with the imaginary, but because it reconstructs the real in the mind, which is a protectable playground, a place that can be whisked, if necessary, out of the clutches of political practice. “Do you believe in writing or in scripture,” a character asks in Three Trapped Tigers, “en la escritura o en las escrituras?” “I believe,” his writer friend answers, “in writers,” “en los escritores.” He believes, as Cabrera himself says, in Infante’s Inferno, in “the flesh made Word.” But then this makes the writer a very curious creature, a voluntary inhabitant not of Dante’s hell but of Derrida’s limbo, a paltry, scribbling Plato to a host of rambling tropical versions of Socrates. He is important not because he can write, but because he can listen, and his job, Cabrera says, is “to catch the human voice in flight.” The epigraph to Three Trapped Tigers comes from Alice in Wonderland: “And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after it is blown out….”

There is pathos in this project, as Cabrera well knows, since the human voice cannot be caught in the crowded silence of a page, and two extinguished voices, that of a manic, memorable joker and that of a great black singer whose only record provides no trace of her gift, dominate Three Trapped Tigers. They are ghosts, whose thin, second, textual life is plainly a shadow of their garrulous first existence. They are doubly dead, since they die in the story, and in any case could only be whispers in a book, the flesh made alphabet. Yet this same sad tale, of course, may be a triumph of memory and continuing affection, the only life that is left, and a means of preserving treasures where history sees only trash. It is very much in this spirit that Cabrera Infante, in exile first in Brussels and now in London, reinvents his Cuba, which is …

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