By the standards of almost any other writer, G. Cabrera Infante’s new history of “the five-century-old relationship between the European gentleman and his smoke”—cigarettes, pipes, but above all cigars—is freewheeling, ardently frolicsome. Unfettered by chapter divisions or other organizational fiddle-faddle, the Cuban expatriate writer (himself a beatifically complacent cigar smoker) celebrates tobacco in a blithely disjointed monologue: the ramblings of a cheerful Pooh-Bah who is scholar and groupie, poet and stand-up comic and guru, all in one. Sociological musings give way without warning to vaudeville acts and shards of memoir. Movie synopses and condensed literary anthologies are breezily interrupted for sour polemics (anti-Castro, pro-smoking). Indeed, while the book is formally dedicated to the author’s father (“who at 84 doesn’t smoke yet”), Cabrera Infante tells us that it was a photograph of aloof, anarchic Marcel Duchamp that inspired him, after considerable hesitation, to puff his enjoyment of cigars into a swirl of associations: “Things are in smoke, art is in the rings.” And an even more prominent guardian angel is Cabrera Infante’s favorite Marxist—Groucho, of course, whose sleeping figure (eyes closed but cigar at firm tilt) stretches with passive-aggressive élan around the book jacket of Holy Smoke.
Not that the madcap structure and subversive spirit prevent Cabrera Infante from dispensing a goodly quantity of marginally plausible information, beginning with variant reports on Columbus’s unenthusiastic discovery of smoking Indians and “this vegetal brown gold”—he was looking for the not-so-vegetal yellow kind—on the island of Cuba. After a small orgy of etymology. Cabrera Infante is at his most plainspoken, even a trifle solemn, in following the Cuban cigar from weed to humidor: how a cigar is assembled at the factory—by stemmers (despalilladoras), leaf selectors (escogedoras), and cigar rollers (torcedores). There’s a genuinely fascinating chronicle of the cigar-factory institution known as the lector de tabaqueria: the paid reader who once entertained the torcedores with booming selections from such unamplified favorites as Notre-Dame de Paris and A Tale of Two Cities and who now offers only the Complete Works of Fidel Castro over a microphone. On cigar bands, cigar boxes, cigar cutters, and London tobacconists (Dunhill’s vs. Davidoff), Cabrera Infante is enlightening. On the metaphorical nature of smoking itself, he can be eloquent: “Every man who smokes…is, with a pipe, a cigarette or a cigar, while it lasts, a portable Prometheus, stealing fire from more permissive gods.”
Still, it’s the outrageous Cabrerian tilt, with its verbal tumult, that gives this book a certain nervy presence. “I like my writers,” Cabrera Infante says, “excessive, rhetorical, baroque”—adjectives which unquestionably describe nearly all the most beguiling passages in Holy Smoke. Cabrera Infante delivers wisps of assertion as if they were pronunciamentos: “there are no ugly cigars”; pipes are “utterly phony”; Othello is “the only Shakespearean character who would smoke a cigar if he knew how.” Literary criticism is nonchalantly reduced to cigar counting (Dickens is out-puffed by Thackeray), notwithstanding the acknowledged glories …