Monique Wittig has been praised by Frank Kermode and Mary McCarthy as something like a brand-new kind of writer, and it begins to seem that some women are enjoying or suffering the fate of blacks a few years ago. In both cases, it is said, we are being forced out of older ways of thinking as a writer tells us the truth from what had hitherto been the other side of silence. Now we may be able to hear what we should have been listening to all along. It may even be that the refusal of Wittig’s Les Guérillères to act like much of a novel at all will be taken as a sign of its newness and originality. The book is about a time when women live as guerrillas, by themselves, fighting men, seeking a new age; its techniques are mostly impersonal and their aim is to achieve something like epic distance and grandeur. But though the idea of such a book may well raise high hopes in at least some readers, the book itself turns out to be, sadly, oddly, at times almost maddeningly, quite dull.
Wittig’s first novel, The Opoponax, which appeared here in 1956, is a nonstop monologue about a child growing up. It is so self-absorbed and so locked into its present tense that it seems to pretend that its one apparently arbitrarily arranged series of events is in fact the whole universe. The effect is claustrophobic, a style badly in need of humor, or, failing that, a book in need of a film director good enough to use his camera to make the child’s sensitivity less wearying.
Les Guérillères, Wittig’s second novel, is ostensibly different, but the final effect is similar. It has no confining or even definite point of view, and the form is simply a series of passages, ranging in length from thirty to 500 words; after every fifth or sixth passage is a page filled with women’s names. Little dialogue, no continuing characters; the women we read about may be the same group throughout or they may be different; the action may take place in one spot or many; the time span may be a few months or many years. Take away all the usual novelistic ways and means and the effect almost certainly will seem as undernourished, as unfree, as the most claustrophobic of first-person novels.
But if there is no plot, there is a central fable, and that gives the book whatever newsworthiness it can claim to have. At a time apparently long after our own the women are trying to work out the terms for their own culture, as in this passage, which is a typical complete section:
In speaking of their genitals the women do not employ hyperboles metaphors, they do not proceed sequentially or by gradation. They do not recite long litanies, whose refrain is an unending imprecation. They do not strive to multiply the intervals so that in sum they signify a deliberate lapse. They say that all these forms denote an outworn language. They say everything must begin over again. They say that a great wind is sweeping the earth. They say that the sun is about to rise.
Like any revolutionary group, the women are trying to break with the past, and because their bondage was sexual, so too must be their freedom. In the early sections they are devising self-sufficient symbols of their sexual organs: “According to the feminaries rings are contemporaneous with such expressions as jewels treasures gems to designate the vulva,” and all this is replaced with more abstract symbolism, which usually takes the simple form of an O.
Things begin to change. We hear of fighting, of women in large groups and then in armies, of individual heroic feats. Gradually the women begin to think their faith in their new symbolism is misplaced: “They say that any symbol that exalts the fragmented body is transient, must disappear…. They, the women, the integrity of the body their first principle, advance marching together into another world.” Many women are killed in battle, but their forces finally triumph; some young men come to join the women and are accepted as comrades; the epic battle over, a new age is born when both men and women are free.
If the fable itself does not seem attractive, then the book will seem to drag most of the time; even for those who like the central idea Wittig has not done much to sustain one’s local interest. She seems not to have realized how large a burden she places on her native inventiveness when she gives up character and plot. Each section is forced to stand on its own merits because it is so little tied to anything else. When the world being described has no time or place, when the practical problems of living under guerrilla conditions are assumed to be unimportant or solved, what is going to happen?
Well, there are a few nice details that derive from the joy the women take in their freedom, and there is always the revolutionary rhetoric. But there are no difficulties; there is violence but no pain; there is language but no feeling and little thought. It would take a Dickens, a writer of great and profligate powers, to sustain the enterprise, and Wittig has very little of this kind of talent. That everything seems remote and abstract may be part of Wittig’s design, but in order to create that atmosphere she has given up almost everything that could make the moment-to-moment reading interesting.
Furthermore, the central fable itself, as perhaps the quotations above begin to show, is really only an adaptation of standard revolutionary terms and actions. The new life Wittig imagines has in it hand-clapping and feet-stomping, joy, men and women comrades together, a new age, a wind of change, a sun rising—it is embarrassing to make such a list. But look:
They say yes, henceforward they are ready. They say that the breasts the curved eyelashes the flat or broadened hips, they say that the bulging or hollow bellies, they say that the vulvas are henceforth in movement. They say that they are inventing a new dynamic. They say they are throwing off their sheets. They say they are getting down from their beds. They say they are leaving the museums the show-cases the pedastals where they have been installed. They say they are quite astonished that they can move.
If “they are inventing a new dynamic” is the worst phrase, none of the rest in the passage or the book is much better. There will be violence, but there will be joy. A New Something. On and on. Though it hasn’t many more than thirty thousand words, it is a long novel, hard to finish.
The only fit readers of Les Guérillères are those people, probably women in late adolescence, who have not yet discovered that there are ways in which the historical and present condition of women resembles that of other oppressed groups. The analogies are by now perfectly clear, though there are some for whom they are still vague or unknown, and as politics, as ideas, to say nothing of fictional interest, they are of limited validity. Comparing the status of women to that of blacks in modern America or of peasants in the France of the ancien régime is pretty crude, and long before one reaches what is most important or interesting about any of these groups the analogies have become trite, fit mostly for galvanizing sluggish consciousnesses. The blessed advantage of the novel as a form is that it need never exist on their level at all, but when Wittig forgoes the novelistic advantages she is reduced to the trite revolutionary analogies.
At the present time a great many women are really and freely beginning to sense and explore their powers, perhaps more than ever before. It would seem, too, as though the frontiers for those powers are not political but individual, in which case the novel may well be in for one of its important and periodic renewals of energy. A friend of mine recently wrote, on the occasion of her first published fiction, “Like half the world, I’ve always been writing at something, but somehow the writing has a way of getting pushed aside—other jobs, children, the pleasure of reading someone else’s books.” Exactly so, and if the politics of the feminist movement—and it is as a small part of that politics that Les Guérillères must be considered—can be of permanent value, then one of its major achievements will be to encourage women who have much richer talents than Monique Wittig’s to push aside their writing no longer and to reimagine their fate and their possibilities.
G. Cabrera Infante is a Cuban exile who now lives in England; his novel, Three Trapped Tigers, was first published in Spain, and then in France, and it won literary prizes in both countries. Cabrera then got embroiled briefly in a controversy with the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, mostly because Cabrera said that the intelligent and honest man who felt alienated in the communist world had only three options open to him: demagoguery and public acts of contrition, jail, or exile. Cabrera has chosen exile, and was right in what he alleged to the extent that Padilla eventually suffered both the other two options.
All this is certainly not irrelevant to Cabrera himself, and it probably will help to gain him some advance publicity, but it is irrelevant to his novel, which is only marginally political. It is laid in and is about the Havana of Batista, a milieu that is gaudy and empty, where people begin late in the afternoon and go until dawn: bars, joints, modern apartments, a few brightly lit streets.
There is even less story here than in Les Guérillères, less sense of time, sequence, and causation. For the most part the book is monologues given by what at first seems many but then devolves to primarily two speakers, one a photographer named Arsenio Cué, the other a journalist named Silvestre, but in most important respects the two speak in the same voice. There is nothing interior about their monologues; it is not selves but worlds and strategies for living that are evoked; the characters themselves matter, really, no more than in Monique Wittig’s book, though Cabrera’s speak much more animatedly and engagingly.
What is remarkable about Three Trapped Tigers has nothing to do with characters, or with sequence, and little to do with setting. The life here is in the surface, in the language itself, considered first as an extraordinary language and then as a badge for a style of living. On the title page it says, “Translated from the Cuban by Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine in collaboration with the author,” and the cover of the French edition says “Traduit de Cubain par Albert Benoussan avec la collaboration de l’auteur,” but never were such innocent acknowledgments more deceiving. What Cabrera has really done is to write, presumably with the help of his translators, three similar but different novels in three different languages. The characters, scenes, and sequences are all the same, but these, as I’ve indicated, are not terribly important anyway. It is not easy in a short quotation to show how Cabrera has done all this, but the following may indicate the kind of operation he was intent on performing. Here, first, is the Cuban:
…y se exaltaba con la poca diferencia que hay entre alegoría y alegría y alergia y el parecido de causalidad con casualidad y la confusión de alienado con alineado, y también hizo listas de palabras que significaban cosas distintas a través del espejo
Roma / amor
azar / raza
aluda / adula
otro / orto
risa / asir
One’s Spanish (or Cuban) need not be terribly good in order to see that someone is terribly excited about the possibilities of word play, and quite obviously no translation can work if it attempts word-for-word equivalents. Apparently when Cabrera was putting his book into French he relied on the similarity of the two languages a great deal, perhaps not yet seeing what else he might do:
…et il s’émerveillait du peu de différence qu’il y a entre allégorie et allergie, entre casuel et causal ou de la confusion entre aligné et aliéné, et il fit aussi une liste de mots qui signifient des choses différentes à travers le miroir:
AMES / SEMA
AIR / RIA
FOL / LOF
COR / ROC
SEIN / NIES
ECART / TRACE
MON / NOM
But now the English, which looks almost as though only here had Cabrera warmed to the possibilities for writing and translating:
…and he went crazy over the simihilarity between allegory and allergy and causality and casualty and chance and change, and how easily farce becomes force, and he also made a list of words that read differently in the mirror:
Live / evil
part / trap
flow / wolf
diaper / repaid
reward / drawer
drab / bard
Dog / God!
This is a minor example, and in any event only one of hundreds that show Cabrera’s remarkable inwardness with three languages: “simihilarity” and “diaper / repaid” are hardly great wit, but they are just the kind of thing one would never expect someone not to the manor born (as it were) to be able to do at all. And the English version is some thirty pages longer than the French, which is in turn ten longer than the Cuban, and so far as I can see the increase is entirely the result of adding new puns and word plays, each of which is unique to its own language.
The play of language, then, represents something like a total investment for Cabrera; the example above may be trivial in one sense, but the “he” it refers to is one Bustrófedon, whose playing with words eventually drives him mad and dead, and he is something like the patron saint of the novel. Whatever life is created is not something we see around or behind the endless play of and with words, but there, in the play, or not at all. For puns Cabrera would not gladly lose the world; they are his way of gaining it. Let me quote another passage, this time one where there are people, and a scene: Cué and Silvestre are in a bar; it is late and both are drunk:
Somebody was hissing at us from the far end of the bar.
—Shut your fucking mouth, Cué shouted.
—Shutvestre Moutherfucker at your service, sir, I said, playing the Cid Conciliador, loud but not loud enough.
—I was speaking about life, viejo.
—Yes, I know, but you shouldn’t shout like that, mon viux.
An unmistakable sign of alcoholissimo. Galvanized French spoken here. Volta turns on his batteries and out comes alcohol. How many amperes has ma mere? Sixte ampere. French scientist of Spanish stock & exchange. The name was originally written Ampérez. His grandfather, Grampere, emigrated to France crossing the Pyrenees on the back of an elephant in search of Liberty Valence (I, chloride ion in HCL eq. Nacl.=Nacional) and died in Paris. He died poor. He died in Pairs. Pompée funebre and attendant gogo circucisms. Ohm y soit qui mal y pense. I honestly think I’m going to be sick. Let foreigners invent! Unamuno said as he watched the Ampersand family crossing the Basque country. Encyclopaedia Tyrannica.
—It’s impossible to speak in this country.
—You weren’t speaking, you were shouting.
—Shit, it’s not the form that matters, but the content. Or so they say.
—Hadn’t we agreed you weren’t going to talk about politics.
But Cué insists he will talk about politics, and even announces, “I’m going to join Fffidel” in the Sierra.
This is closer to a straightforward serious moment than most, but its way of dealing with “the serious” is characteristic. Silvestre knows Cué is not just speaking drunkenly when he says, “I was speaking about life, viejo,” and the retreat into the reverie about peres and amperes is his way of avoiding Cué’s seriousness. Put that way the word playing begins to seem like an evasion, but Three Trapped Tigers is a novel that seems to assert, if it asserts anything, that speaking seriously about life and going to the Sierra may be an evasion of the obligation to play with words and to live the style of that play rather than, as another phrase has it, vice versatile. The source of that obligation is not the fear of boredom or the pursuit of the decadent or the trivial, but, in an often rather moving way, Havana, a city inundated by America but created by Spain; a city filled with racial mixing, tolerance, and prejudice; a city where fast bucks move much faster than the newcomers from the provinces can follow.
The late night scene is where this is most true and heightened, where the essential and most interesting facts are not sexual or financial but stylistic and where the great styles can assimilate and celebrate all the mixed and confusing styles that crudely can be sorted out into “Anglo-American,” “Spanish,” and “native.” Silvestre tries whenever possible to locate his surroundings according to some American film of the Forties. La Estrella is a singer everyone adores because she is authentic, Cuban, black, and sings with no accompaniment, but those qualities that make her genuine will also, in assimilating Havana, kill her, a truth Cabrera ensures by having her weigh 300 pounds. Conversely, a tinily and tinnily talented tramp takes the name of Cuba Venegas and makes it big. Bustrófedon is loved and doomed because he, the opposite of La Estrella, cuts himself loose from the real world and rises in his balloon of words.
The whole trick is to take and love Havana for the made up thing it is, to take on not just the American commercial culture but English and American literature too, to be as au courant as any existential Parisian, to love whatever one sees, like La Estrella, that is genuinely Cuban—and to do it all playfully and gravely and sadly. So we hear of T. E. Lawrence and his dune bugger, of Christopher Marlowe, our wholy father who is in Hellen, of someone doing a Somersault Maugham so he can talk about the physics of Edward Fortune Teller.
In such an enterprise, with such a task, there can be no lasting triumphs, only sustained effort, and the world seems to be under a death sentence with the execution stayed indefinitely; the end, when it comes, will be with a whimper. On their long last night, Silvestre finds a moment to tell Cué that he is getting married, and to an old girl of Cué’s:
E. M. Forster was wrong, he thought that London was the swinging world and the Thames the Seven Seasons and saw his friends as the hole of humanity. Who would betray his fatherland or his motherland (Sumatriarchy is the father cuntry of us humiliars) to keep a friend, when he knows he can betray his friends and still preserve them like canned fruits, in a humanidor? Arsenio DelMonte and also Silvestre Libbys. But why shouldn’t I say it truly amigos Havana is a cigar and not the capital of Cuéba. Call us Ismailiya. Small isle. The Assassinners. Sevener Elevener. Imam / Mami. Like Boustrophedon I decided to join the Silent Majority. My-majority.
Bustrófedon dies, Silvestre is getting married, Cué may be going to the Sierra, but it all comes to the same thing; outside the sphere of this language and its possibilities is the majority, and it is silent.
Whatever else, Three Trapped Tigers is a very interesting book, one of the few I know that weds itself to a limited idea of a verbal medium and turns that wedding into a real marriage. If I had to try to make a simple statement of the book’s limitations I would point to the obvious fact that it is a long book and finally much too long. It isn’t simply that the endless punning is wearying, but that those places where it works best stand as a criticism of the many others where the attempt to gain real expressiveness is there but the achievement is not. Having finished the book one can see that the first hundred pages, which tell us of a number of people first coming to Havana, have only a structural interest, and that, for most purposes, it is only Silvestre’s and Cué’s last night that shows Cabrera at his best. But that night takes up 160 pages, and is wonderfully sustained. To the argument that we need what precedes it to show us fully what is at stake the best reply is that that is much too long for what seems finally like preparation.
Cabrera himself in an interview in Paris reveals that his pretensions are almost unlimited, and obviously he thinks he needs all his near 500 pages to fulfill his ambitions. Fortunately, though, that pretentiousness is felt inside the novel itself mostly in the fact that it is so long. To anyone skeptical about the very idea of a good book being written that is so self-consciously made up of words, I would suggest beginning with the last section, called “Bachata”; it may not work, but there is almost nothing in what precedes that one really needs to know in order to make one’s way, and it is quickly apparent that one is in the presence of a fascinating writer.
Cabrera’s novel is backward-looking, nostalgic not just for Batista’s tawdry Havana but for a pre-political world where Western culture held true, if in bizarre ways. His characters are all enormously well read, well versed in the accouterments of popular culture, and committed to the possibilities of taste, delicacy, and care. Three Trapped Tigers is a modern novel, thus, not a contemporary one; it seems often like something written in the Twenties. But there is much more news in it that looks as if it will stay news than in anything that can be found in Monique Wittig.
December 16, 1971