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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 mainly Havana, an excited, talkative, many-layered city, a scene of mauve and yellow light, of trolley cars and the gleaming sea, of rainstorms and stopped traffic and palm trees and a seemingly endless supply of stunning girls. As early as 1894, I learn from an old and rather prim Encyclopaedia Britannica, the city was famous for its hectic pursuit of pleasure:

Cafes, restaurants, clubs, and casinos are both exceedingly numerous and largely frequented, forming a good indication of that general absence of domestic life…which surprises the European visitant.

The sentence might be an epigraph to Three Trapped Tigers, a celebration of Havana’s interminable nights on the town. In Infante’s Inferno, we do see something of Cuban domesticity, the other side of a busy coin, and spend a lot of time in the city’s myriad movie houses.

Cabrera Infante was born in 1929, in Oriente province, which also nurtured Batista and Castro. His parents were committed communists, and he himself was active in the early days of Castro’s revolution. He had already by that time become a film critic and founded the Cuban cinematheque—later he wrote the script for a very good American film, Vanishing Point. From 1959 to 1961 he edited a magazine called Lunes de Revolución, and a volume of stories called In Peace as in War (Así en la Paz como en la Guerra) brought him a substantial Cuban and European reputation. With Three Trapped Tigers he won a major Spanish prize, and entered the front rank of Latin American novelists. The book belongs with Cortázar’s Hopscotch, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, works that opened up a whole culture both to us and to its isolated or unwitting possessors, and made the later modernist offerings of most of the rest of the world look rather skimpy. Cabrera Infante had meanwhile fallen foul of the censorship in Castro’s Cuba, and been sent out of harm’s way to be cultural attaché in Brussels. Later he severed all connection with the Cuban government, and became a British citizen, or subject, as we still quaintly put it.

He likes, he told Rita Guibert in Seven Voices, Bogart’s trembling hands in The Maltese Falcon, Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, “Conrad’s rancid prose,” “Carroll’s dream-language,” “the radiance of the city in some pages of Fitzgerald,” the music of Bach, Vivaldi, Wagner, Mozart, “the exact moment when Charlie Parker begins to play a solo,” and “above all, the privilege of memory, without which none of the things mentioned above would have any meaning….”* I am selecting what I hope are representative items from a much longer and very lively list. Characteristically, one of Cabrera’s complaints against Castro is that he has forced a loquacious people to become laconic.

He didn’t understand,” the writer in Three Trapped Tigers says of a friend’s response to a story. “He didn’t understand that it was not an ethical fable, that I told it for the sake of telling it, in order to pass on a luminous memory, that it was an exercise in nostalgia. Without rancor towards the past.” Cabrera uses the last phrase earlier in the book, and it is a clue both to the particular qualities of his longer works of fiction (Three Trapped Tigers and Infante’s Inferno) and to the pleasure that reading them provides. Both seem aimless and unstructured, the second even more so than the first, but they don’t produce the irritation or boredom such appearances often promise. This is partly a matter of the frantically active language, to which I shall return in a moment, but it is also a matter of the tone of remembrance, the way in which the imagination is used to animate old places and distant people.

Rancor toward the past is very common, and if we feel it we either can’t talk about the past or can’t look at it straight, can’t stop rewriting it. Sometimes we are in love with the past, as Proust was, but then we almost need to be Proust in order to prevent it from slipping through our over-eager fingers. Cabrera is not anxious about his past, and he has nothing against it. His impulse is not exactly nostalgia, even though that is what his character in Three Trapped Tigers claims. His attention to the past is brighter and more energetic than nostalgia usually manages to be. He treats the past simply as if it were the present, as if it had never been away, as if all those now demolished movie houses and now dispersed friends, and if Havana itself had found a permanent home in his prodigious memory. His master is surely not Proust but Nabokov—“odor or ardor,” Cabrera wisecracks at one moment on the subject of his difficulties with loved women who give off too high a smell—for whom the past came when it was called, obedient, more than presentable, all its magical details intact. “The Past,” Van Veen writes in Odor, or Ada, “is a constant accumulation of images. It can be easily contemplated and listened to, tested and tasted at random….” And without rancor.

This kind of tender, circumstantial recreation is even more a feature of Infante’s Inferno than of Three Trapped Tigers. “She flew away,” Cabrera writes of one girl, “and into my memory”; and of another he says, “It wasn’t the last time I saw her—it’s never the last time one sees anybody.” The book begins,

It was the first time I climbed a staircase. Few houses in our town had more than one floor, and those that did were inaccessible. This is my inaugural memory of Havana: climbing marble steps…. A breeze moved the colored curtains that hid the various households: even though it was midsummer, it was cool in the early morning and drafts came from within the rooms. Time stopped at that vision…. I had stepped from childhood into adolescence on a staircase.

We know quite a number of things about the book without going any further. It is very well written, the work of a stylist; we may get a faint whiff of rancid Conrad in the prose (“Only the young have such moments,” he says in The Shadow Line). It is well translated—by Suzanne Jill Levine in collaboration with Cabrera, who has cut out large chunks of the Spanish text, and embroidered all kinds of additions, mainly jokes but sometimes afterthoughts, on the English. When Rita Guibert asked him if he corrected much, he said, “eternally.” Its focus is a personal past, historical in the widest sense, but likely to bear only tangential, or accidental, resemblances to what we usually call history. Carlos Franqui appears frequently, for example, as an old friend of Cabrera’s, and a great mover in his Havana circle, but the overlap between this character and the political activist is very slim. The book’s main character is a boy from the provinces, dazzled by the big city, and we learn before long that he will always be dazzled by it, is dazzled even now as he writes, and that if the city is no longer the heroine, as it is in Three Trapped Tigers, it is still a major character. “The city spoke another language,” the boy thinks. “The streetlamps were so poor back home that they couldn’t even afford moths.”

Infante’s Inferno—the title is a new gag to replace the untranslatable La Habana para un Infante Difunto, which relies not only on Ravel but on the similarity between pavane and Havana, and the fact that the French for infanta is infante—presents the discursive erotic memoirs of a character much like Cabrera himself, a Cuban Casanova, at least in longing and memory, and occasionally, it seems, in practice. This resemblance, Cabrera would no doubt say, is not accidental, but it is not crucial either. He is remembering and inventing, not confessing. He is twelve when he arrives in the tenement with the imposing staircase, in his twenties and married by the end of the book. Cuba still belongs to Batista. Cabrera encounters girls and women among his neighbors, discovers surprising homosexual inclinations in a respectable man, glimpses sexual paradise in a window across a passage, thereby anticipating a later career as a (near-sighted) voyeur. He writes lyrically of masturbation, comically of his first fiasco in a brothel, associates Debussy with various dreams of seduction, describes in baroque and at times moving detail his pursuit of women in cinemas, his high hopes of clutches and nudges in the conspiratorial dark.

My finger brushed the back of her seat, a few centimeters—less, millimeters—beneath the girl’s bare back…. I again passed my finger from left to right along the surf of her skin, going a little higher but not enough for her to feel the shadow of my hand. I don’t remember her hair nor can I say why I didn’t stay until she got up…but this back that night in the Alkazar pleasure palace presents itself as a unique vision. Surely life has mistreated her, time soiling, spoiling her splendor, the years disfiguring her face, but they can’t age the memory: that back will always be on my mind….

He wasn’t always as discreet as this at the movies, and the book ends with a brilliant fantasy on the subject, a mixture of Rabelais, Jules Verne, and a schoolboy joke. Groping in the lower depths of a woman in the appropriately named Fausto Theater—a free-ranging exploration, unlike many other “sour gropes,” as Cabrera calls them—he loses first his wedding ring, then his watch, then his cuff links. They have fallen into the well of loneliness, and Cabrera, flashlight in hand, goes in after them, Gulliver in another country, a journey to the center of the birth, and wakes from his dream, if it is a dream, with that old moviegoer’s cry: “Here’s where I came in.”

Cabrera and his Havana friends, once out of adolescence, were “crazy for culture,” he says, and always making puns, “suffering insufferably from paronomasia as not only an incurable but contagious disease…mad echolalia.” The disease is clearly permanent with him, and he unrepentantly mangles language and hops from one tongue to another like a frog released from the throat. Some of these jokes are so terrible that they seem heroic, make S. J. Perelman a sedate defender of the dictionary. “There was an old saw back home that said, ‘The grass is where it’s green.’ It must be a rusty saw by now because I haven’t heard it in ages (perhaps because I haven’t been home in a coon’s age)…”: Groucho Cabrera Infante. “Whatever Zola wants, Zola gets,” “lecher de main,” “Daguerre c’est Daguerre.” Others are so cumbersome, so fiendishly worked for, that the noise of grinding machinery deafens all chance of laughter. He admires Alida Valli, and finds a young girl who resembles her. This permits him to say “How green was my Valli.” He likes the proximity of glance and glans so much that he mentions it twice. The “aisle of Rite” will perhaps be intelligible to people who have looked at maps of the south coast of England recently, and “a coup de data to abolish chaff” depends on Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” turning into English (abolish chance) halfway through.

Still other gags seem wildly compulsive, a form of fiddling with the text, a buzzing that can’t let things be, and they are a genuine distraction then. Why would we want to think of a “baptism of pale fire,” or associate vacillation with Vaseline? At other times the gags make wonderful, surprising sense, and whole worlds come tumbling down on top of each other, as they always do in the best of puns: “pathetic fellacy,” “a fugitive from the gym gang.” It is as if Humbert Humbert had got hold of all Nabokov’s prose and wouldn’t let go. This means that Cabrera Infante can’t achieve Nabokov’s irony—“you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”—and must at times seem like a précieux ridicule rather than a ridiculer of preciosity. The trouble with dropping names, however frivolously, is that you have to pick them up in the first place.

But the book is a mixture of passionate memory and reckless spinning in the echo chamber of language, time regained in an avalanche of associations. “Our works,” Carlos Fuentes wrote, thinking of Cabrera Infante and one or two contemporaries, “must be works of disorder: that is, works of a possible order, contrary to the present one.” Cabrera Infante’s disorder is that of the intelligence overwhelmed by gags that go to the head like drink; his possible order is that of the evoked past, a period that comes so thoroughly alive that its squandering by the present is itself a judgment on the reigning power, the reproach, without rancor, that literature makes to history.

  1. *

    Knopf, 1973.

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