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 of Gogol’s preoccupation with other forms of tobacco: Dead Souls is “Vanity Fair with snuff.” And when Cabrera Infante’s passion for American films intersects with his oral fixations, his prose can occasionally take on an almost abstract energy—in feverish impressions of movie smokers from Edward G. Robinson to W.C. Fields (“Can’t you see that for this man a cigar is like a flower?”) as well as more elaborate meditations. Just as one doesn’t need to know the subjects of William Saroyan’s bizarre show-business necrology to become enveloped in his indecorous Obituaries, one can safely remain in the no-smoking section while responding to the similarly intense rhythms of Cabrera Infante’s fiercest free associations:
Never chew your cigar’s head off to spit it out of frame, like Murray Hamilton did in The Graduate, where he played Mr. Robinson, a man disgraced by Dustin Hoffman and his own ways with a cigar. If you do what Hamilton did you are bound to end up not only as an unhappy cuckold but also as the very, very worried mayor of Amity in Jaws, with a big white shark eating his job away the way he did with the tip of his Havana. Cigars can be a metaphor, you know.
While readers new to Cabrera Infante may be struck by his jokey abandon, those familiar with his works of autobiographical fiction—Three Trapped Tigers (1971) and Infante’s Inferno (1984)—are likely to be both mildly disappointed and faintly disturbed. Slapdash and unabashedly weightless, Holy Smoke is minor Cabrera Infante, and no cause for complaint as such. More worrisome is the fact that, by his own standards, Cabrera Infante’s incorrigibly playful style is far less commanding—and far more earth-bound—this time. Despite a few inspired bubblings, the stream of consciousness that brimmed over in Three Trapped Tigers and Infante’s Inferno now seems oddly stagnant.
Part of the problem may be that, linguistically, the Cuban-born, London-based writer (now a British subject) is for the first time working without a net. His previous books have been written and published in Spanish, then refashioned into English with the help of a translator or co-translator (usually Suzanne Jill Levine). The resulting texts, finding dazzling Anglo-American equivalents for elaborate Spanish double-entendres, have strongly signaled Cabrera Infante’s mastery of his second language and its transatlantic idioms. And, written directly into English (“undoubtedly the language of smoking”), Holy Smoke confirms that Cabrera Infante can be witty and poetic, as well as fluent, in his adopted tongue. Nonetheless, there’s also an uncharacteristic stiffness in much of the phrasing here, with hints that Cabrera Infante’s unbuttoned muse is being subtly inhibited.
Furthermore, though Cabrera Infante’s intertwined enthusiasm for cigars and American movies is unmistakably genuine (and sporadically infectious), these affinities are pale stuff when compared with the fevers and yearnings that underlie Three Trapped Tigers and Infante’s Inferno: sexual nostalgia, political disillusionment, aching memories of Cuba before Castro. While the verbal frenzies of these novels are fueled throughout by autobiographical fervor, only a few vignettes in Holy Smoke (there’s one about the young Guillermo’s first cigar) benefit from the ardor of reminiscence. Similarly, the new book lacks the natural backgound, the built-in justification, that came with the setting in Tigers and Inferno: Havana in the Forties and Fifties—multilingual, multicultural, soaked in Americanisms.
Cabrera Infante’s compulsive punning, for example, though always uneven (and the source of considerable tut-tutting even from admiring critics), has usually seemed to be a legitimate mainspring for his verbal attack. All those puns have registered as an almost inevitable reflection of the possessed author’s tragicomic vision, generating lyricism and intellectual complexity as well as fairly consistent laughs:
Her laughter tinkled among the prowling panthers and still flamingoes. Flaming. Goes. All green shall perish. Perish the thinker. Perishcope. I looked at her with my only eye. She sat back again: to look at me: see me better. Gradiva, what green eyes you’ve got! Proud she was. Maria Marga meeting a most lazar-like Lazarus near San Lazaro: have faith and ye shall rise again! Lazy Daisy kissing leopards. Lepers. Mist metaphors….
In Holy Smoke, on the other hand, the surfeit of puns seems to arise not from mania (not even Perelmania, one might say), but from a mere tic. Or, worse yet, from a computer program—mechanically thorough, deaf to crucial nuances in spoken English—that turns up similar-sounding phrases (more or less). To a far greater extent than ever before, in pun after pun, Cabrera Infante appears to be insensitive to the matching of speech rhythms and vowel colorations that can make even the most strained gag a low delight. Some movie actors’ behavior is called “obscene even if it is off scene”; “harm and egos” is meant to echo “ham and eggs”; we’re told that “Lonsdales can give you lone dallies.” Elsewhere, the lack of ear for idiom is dismaying: whereas cigar rollers happily smoke their own product, “brewers won’t hold their bier when they die.” (Compare Flann O’Brien’s comment—a classic groaner—about the pious fellow who has already made his own coffin, sleeping in it nightly: “A terrible man for his bier.”) And the combination of imperfect sound effect with contorted fabrication occasionally becomes downright surreal, though not, one fears, intentionally so: “Hollywood loves tautology like the Pope loved mambo.”
Such lameness, however, is less persistently disheartening than the texture—limply reflexive, perfunctory instead of spontaneous—of the prose twitchings throughout Holy Smoke. Cabrera Infante’s eclectic, side-of-the-mouth allusions can be refreshing in their indiscriminate embrace of low and high culture; more often they seem self-indulgent and pointlessly obscure. (American readers will find references to British television commercials particularly unstimulating, and only film buffs will appreciate “Never give a Zucker an even break.”) A single wisecrack based on one of literature’s most overparodied phrases—“a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”—might be tolerable; between pages 125 and 304 Cabrera Infante offers, out of laxness rather than any discernible pattern, four, none of them inspired, Groucho Marx very much manque. Worst of all, many of these pages are thickened with pseudostylishness that’s more word-fill than wordplay, derived less from Joyce than from what used to be known as TIME-ese. Relentless alliteration is one hallmark of this manner, along with enervating intimations of light verse. (“In Elmer Gantry doubtful, dutiful Artful Kennedy smokes cigarettes in a sly way, while ruseful, rueful Burt Lancaster savours a cigar whenever he has the chance.”) Another is the bland, automatic sort of allusion that’s too mild to be considered full-fledged punning: an Ottoman ruler is “a Turkish delight,” and Pope Urban VIII promulgates “a raging Bull.”
Holy Smoke, of course, is nonfiction, a casual anomaly. So it’s reasonable to expect that his future novels will return to the higher stylistic level of his best work Flashes of prime Cabrera Infante—including some choice puns, most of them neat multilingualisms like “ipso fatso“—are plentiful enough to suggest that the move into translatorless English won’t necessarily impair his verbal fireworks for very long (though comparisons to Conrad and Nabokov will probably continue to seem overgenerous).
But even allowing for the special nature of this improvisatory trifle, one has a recurrent sense that Cabrera Infante’s reliance on linguistic play may be in danger of becoming more habitual than impassioned. And it’s significant, perhaps, that by far the funniest sequence in Holy Smoke—the one that most wittily cements the cigar/Hollywood connection—involves virtually no wordplay at all. Cabrera Infante, after repeated musings on Citizen Kane and the cigar-smoking Joseph Cotten, imagines a series of television commercials for a new brand of cigars: “Rosebud, the cigar that goes up in smoke forever!” The blend of satire and whimsy, reminiscent of Donald Barthelme or Max Apple, is both hilarious and darkly nostalgic. Without the constant intrusion of showoffy one-liners, the unfolding of comic ideas is relaxed yet serious—briefly introducing a Cabrera Infante who could turn out to be even better company than the dazzling, erratic performer.