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The Great Exile

1.

We know Havana mainly through photographs. Its great exile Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in his memories of the city in Guilty of Dancing the Chachachá, uses the kind of images that photographers love: crusted, Pompeian, the city’s Technicolor faded to black and white, its poetry diminished to documentary propaganda, its graffiti to Socialist slogans, while its forlorn palms have waved the same banner to Death or the Fatherland for nearly half a century. But Havana’s music can still be heard through peeling columns, and its folk dancers still wear the frilled costumes from old movies when its style was designed by Hollywood. The city’s features are raddled with nostalgia like Gloria Swanson’s in Sunset Boulevard, its black and white urchins run in a blur like the begging children in Odd Man Out, its shadows parallel those of East Berlin, its sadness scored not by a zither as in The Third Man but by the plangent lament of a guitar.

Havana, for the novelist, journalist, critic, and screenwriter Gabriel Ca-brera Infante, is like a thriller freeze-framed in the Forties with guitar arpeggios dissolving the stasis and releasing memories like pigeons rising to ecstatic and infectious drumming in praise of exiled deities, in rhumba, shango, and Santería. Mea Cuba, Ca-brera Infante’s collection of essays and reviews, published in Madrid in 1992 and in this country in 1994, is dedicated to a fellow exile, the great cinematographer Néstor Almendros.

To the exile, the music of his country must bring the most pain. Imagine then, Cabrera Infante surprised by a bright burst of Cuban music, from a sun-lanced lane in London. He will never return to Havana, a city he has described with such acrid affection in his previous works: the novels Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers), Infante’s Inferno, and View of Dawn in the Tropics; the monolithic monograph on cigars, Holy Smoke; and the collected prose, Mea Cuba. The theme that no exile, however prolonged, can banish is a Habanera, a lament without reconciliation that contains the deaths of friends, many by their own hand, the treacheries inherent in every revolution, and the sordid banality that, Cabrera Infante thinks, has been made of Cuban life.

In a dictatorship there is only one authorized autobiography, the dictator’s. But exile produces what was conceptually forbidden, the “I” that is more important than the surveillance “eye.” Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical collection is called Mea Cuba except Cuba is not his but Fidel Castro’s.

Cabrera Infante left Cuba on October 3, 1965, his flight being a real flight (by plane for Belgium) and a very moving one. His journalism is solid in recounting the horror and the pain of Castro’s Cuba. In the longer pieces he writes with the conviction of a novelist:

Now, outside the funeral home, after the condolences, [the writer Carlos] Franqui came up, conversed and continued then towards the wake. Gustavo [Arcos, the Cuban ambassador to Belgium] assured me that Franqui was crazy. I didn’t know what he meant….

The next day I went to the ministry for consultations with Minister Roa. Roa said to me, after polishing his shoes on his trouser legs several times: “Chico, what’s your opinion of Arcos? Is he or isn’t he a drunk?” I told him the only thing I could tell him: the truth. No, Arcos wasn’t a drunk. I had never seen him drunk. He drank, yes, once in a while some wine with his meals, which is a European custom. “But, you’ve lived in the embassy,” insisted Roa. I never saw him drunk. Not one time, not once. Not even tipsy. “Well,” said Roa, “I was misinformed.”

This seems to owe much, in the purity of its repetition, to the early work of that honorary Cuban, Ernest Hemingway. “I was misinformed” is also a line from Casablanca, when one character says he came to the desert city for the waters.

Under a political tyranny none of us knows for what crime we might be tried. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who translates his own work into English, could be charged with relentless punning. “Silence, exile and cunning” is the well-deep and well-known vow taken by Stephen Daedalus as he leaves his island, Ireland (almost a pun, note), but Cabrera Infante, another artificer and islander, seems to have taken a vow that is almost the opposite of Joyce’s hero, “Loquacity, exile, and punning.” In Mea Cuba he calls the dictatorship from which he fled “Castroenteritis.” Some more:

Fidel Castro, who as a university student was known by his classmates as el Gallego (the Galician), was actually a Spaniard in the works i.e. a “spanner.”

It could not have happened under General Machado—Machado about Nothing.

Sometimes the puns have illuminating flashes: “Castro is a poor Marxman posing as a sniper.”

Even in his journalism he is an incorrigibly outrageous punster, as in a review of two film dictionaries, one by Ephraim Katz, the other by David Thomson, whose book “has even more lives than Katz, but unlike Katz, Thomson is a killer with a deus ex machine-gun.” “We, the sons of Lumière…,” “Paradise is only a pair of dice.” The mental jabbing and its accompanying chuckle can make one feel the irritation of Lear at his Fool. “Sent to Siberia on Iberia.” “The Jews who engendered the Wandering Jew, from among them rose Jewlysses.” In Holy Smoke, his book on cigars: “an everyday phoenix gone astray.”

The puns are not like those of Finnegans Wake. They are not multi-layered and not a language of their own. Punning is based not merely on familiarity with a language but on something close to contempt for it. Perhaps even the self-contempt of immigrant embarrassment. He writes:

In another place, in another book Borges speaks, not without reason, about how a synonym is only the intent to change ideas merely by a change of sound. He ascribes it to Spanish and the Spaniards, but that pretence, I well know, occurs in other languages. (Or at least in the three languages that I can read without moving my lips.)

Every sentence carries an echo and that echo is to some extent a pun since its exactness has a different pitch and another function, even if it carries the same meaning; every written word has its shadow, and it is in this territory, Borgesian but less literary and more cinematic, that Cabrera Infante is both amusing and frightening.

In an essay on the opportunism of the painter Jacques-Louis David, Ca-brera Infante writes of how David depicts Napoleon as he “daringly crosses the Alps on a spirited charger—what was actually a short crossing by mule.” The magnification from mule to horse by the fiction of paint is a sort of pun. This may be as true for Cabrera Infante’s David as it is for García Márquez and his glorification of the Napoleon of the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro. Obscene as sycophancy is, it has been practiced by court poets or even tribal ones since the birthday of power.

Alongside his reportage on Castro’s Cuba, as we read it, is a margin of fear, a shadow parallel to the sad text, the soundtrack of a written documentary in which issues are seen in black and white. For the honesty of its details, Mea Cuba is inestimably important. There are some writers in whom the combination of journalism and fiction contains an indistinguishable excitement: Hemingway, Dickens, Naipaul, Greene, and Cabrera Infante. The power of Cabrera Infante’s journalistic prose is that it is not polemical dissent but devastating common sense that makes authority absurd. Its relentless testimony against Communist catechism—the catechism’s polysyllabic pomposities, its concrete, inflexible syntax—is richer than Orwell’s dissent in its humorous pitch, its giggles of disagreement, and its pitch of continuous parody, which seems to me particularly Caribbean, but also particularly Spanish in its picong, the Trinidadian word for satire. This is the source of Cabrera Infante’s insatiable punning. Its consequence is that it drives pomposity crazy; the revolution is not taken seriously, and such irreverence, as it is in any orthodoxy, including the Roman Catholic Church, is a blasphemy that has infernal consequences—such as banishment.

Cabrera Infante’s parents were founders of the Cuban Communist Party. A portrait of Stalin hung next to the effigy of Christ in their living room. In pre-Castro Cuba, Cabrera Infante was an editor, screenwriter, and film reviewer. Although he was a supporter of the revolution and a cultural ambassador under Castro’s regime, his magazine was censored, then shut down by the government. When he went into exile, Cabrera Infante became one of the earliest and most outspoken of Castro’s Cuban critics. In London he claims to be “the only English writer who writes in Cuban.” In 1997 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

2.

His new book, Guilty of Dancing the Chachachá, is a multifaceted portrait of the city he left so long ago and a provocative stylistic experiment. In his prologue, Cabrera Infante explains how the collection should be approached:

The short stories you are about to read should comprise a reader. The three are trying to become, like the Trinity, one. This is not a demented holy writ, but the stories do form an anthology of sorts. They seem to converge because they actually share the same space at the same time: an impossibility in physics but not in fiction. Two are set in a Cuban restaurant at the end of the fifties. The third restaurant is more prestigious and more expensive, could cater to a coy and cozy clientele—richer yet poorer.

…The narrator is always looking into a rearview mirror. All his literary reflections come from the same book found in the Lost and Found Department. And the city is always the City.

Do I have to tell you that it is called Havana?

All three stories start with the same nameless man and woman eating together in a restaurant in late-Fifties Havana. All three are linked by Ca-brera Infante’s incorrigible punning and keen cinematic descriptions. The first and second stories, “The Great Ekbó” and “A Woman Saved from Drowning,” are very obviously of a piece, sharing much of the same dialogue and covering much of the same ground. But each of the three stories plays off their common premises to underscore very different sides of the man, the woman, and the city.

All arts aspire to the condition of popular music,” he writes, and so these three stories are orchestrated to three different rhythms: “The Great Ekbó” to the Santería, “A Woman Saved from Drowning” to the bolero, and “Guilty of Dancing the Chachachá” to, of course, the chachachá. All three stories have the simultaneity of Cubist painting, of the same event or image seen from different angles at the same instant, of the one story told from different perspectives as in Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, to which the man in “The Great Ekbó” alludes.

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