By all accounts the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima is a man of immense personal presence, a compelling conversationalist, possessor of an alarming, eccentric, unfathomable erudition; a sort of prolix, tropical, baroque Borges—Borges stood on his head and made to personify luxuriance and excess instead of brevity and asceticism.
Lezama Lima was born in Cuba in 1910, and has published five volumes of verse, three books of essays; has founded and edited four Cuban literary magazines, three rather short-lived and one longer-lived and influential (Orígenes, 1944-1957). Until the 1950s he was known primarily as a poet. He then began to publish chapters of a long, dense, autobiographical novel which was to become Paradiso (the title is in Italian in the original), published in its entirety in 1966 (or 1967—the sources don’t agree). Rumor has it that Castro intervened personally, over the heads of his hesitant cultural bureaucrats, to ensure the appearance of the book. In 1968, another version came out, incorporating revisions by the author and editorial suggestions by Julio Cortázar and Carlos Monsiváis; and it is this version that Gregory Rabassa has bravely and helplessly translated. Helplessly, because nothing short of a major re-creation in English—something quite different from Rabassa’s patient rendering of the Spanish words on the page—would have made this cluttered and stilted text really available to us.
It is not a question of the translation’s missing nuances of the original, losing flavors or marginal meanings. The whole pompous, self-conscious march of the Spanish simply comes out as comic or laborious in English, and I should say at once that I am not convinced that Paradiso, even in Spanish, is the masterpiece that many people take it to be. It is rather, I should say, subject to correction or persuasion by readers who could make me see the text in a different light, a weird and gleaming literary freak, a collapsed monument, a grand, failed landmark sunk in the sands of its author’s colossal self-indulgence.
Baroque is the word that keeps coming to mind. Lezama Lima has written brilliantly on Góngora, and a character in Paradiso describes the baroque as “what has real interest in Spain and in Hispanic America.” Alejo Carpentier, a distinguished Cuban novelist of Lezama Lima’s generation, has said that Latin American art has always been baroque, from pre-Columbian sculptures and codices through colonial cathedrals to the anarchy of contemporary prose. Admittedly Carpentier is offering an oblique defense of his own difficult and ornate style (seen most clearly in Siglo de las Luces, translated as Explosion in a Cathedral), and his sense of the baroque is not at all the same as Lezama Lima’s.
Nevertheless, these tastes and these comments point to a large and simple distinction between Cuban novelists of this century and other Latin Americans. The major modern novels of the subcontinent—Cortázar’s Hopscotch, García Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, Donoso’s Obscene Bird of Night—are metaphors for a vast, encompassing unreality. The narrative games and the drifting characters in Cortázar, the narrative tone and the little town in García Márquez, the fabulating narrator and the crumbling old convent in Donoso—any Latin American will recognize these conjunctions as versions of his daily experience of the world. This is not the unreality of North America, which is a matter of anxiety, of constant fear that tomorrow will arrive before today is over; it is not the unreality of Europe, which is a question of rotted structures, of buildings and institutions standing there (for the moment) with nothing holding them up. Unreality in Latin America is a sense of the world as a charade, some sort of game or fiction for which history insists on recruiting innocent people as both actors and audience—a sense of having to sit through an omnivorous, unending melodrama.
But then in Cuba, to return to my distinction, this unreality is so extreme, and so extremely enjoyable, that metaphors are not even sought for it. The unreality is taken as a license, as a gambling permit for poets, and a modern form of the baroque is the result, a proliferation of language which simply leaves reality to its own devices—except in the case of Carpentier, who adds to the unwinding historical melodrama a profusion of exotic, oddly named natural objects, a dazzling, unreal display put on by tropical reality itself. In this sense, then, not only Carpentier and Lezama Lima but younger Cuban writers like Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy are baroque artists, and it is no accident (to borrow a cagy phrase) that some of Joyce’s most faithful and talented imitators are Cubans.
Joyce, of course, even in Finnegans Wake, didn’t leave reality to its own devices, and is perhaps to be regarded as an instigator of the baroque in others, a writer who opened up new technical territories. Lezama Lima, on the other hand, is a prophet of the baroque who never quite descends to the technical—or rather who inserts a single baroque technique into an otherwise stodgy and classical manner. To put it crudely, his imagery is baroque while his syntax remains unremittingly academic.
The allusion to Dante in the title of Paradiso is as weighty and portentous as it sounds (the initials of the book’s chief protagonist are JC, his principal companion is called Fronesis, meaning wisdom, and there is a recurring incarnation of Icarus, a warning figure who materializes at crucial moments in JC’s history). A basic device in the book is decorative periphrasis and simile (in the manner of the baroque), so that beer becomes “bacchic intake” (incorporación báquica), and death always involves a visit to Proserpine or Persephone or gloomy Erebus. An arrogant and disorderly cook is described as “encased in a silence as impenetrable as Egyptian diorite,” and later as “hieratic as an Iranian pottery vendor.”
Stepping up the literary pace a little, we get JC’s great-grandmother “raking her words with little bubbles of sticky saliva, with the irritation of a non-agenarian Viking beating the water with a harpoon,” and a mild winter’s day “prancing like a sorrel ridden by the young Babylonian prince Balthasar.” Fronesis’s nose is identified as having “something of an Athenian sentry refusing to pet a Persian cat or to read a secret missive from Artaxerxes.” These are not isolated moments in the text, they are characteristic instances of Lezama Lima’s style, and I am choosing passages that lose relatively little of their impulse and bombast on their way into English.
Lezama, as he says of one of his favorite characters in the novel, can’t live without similes, and yet the similes he chooses are all fussy and self-advertising, mere gesticulations that never come together into that intense and intricate decorative fabric which is the mark of the successful baroque. And apart from its similes and periphrasis, Lezama’s language is arch, cumbersome, and mercilessly solemn. Here is the university: “The classes were tedious and banal, open assignments were broadly simplified, and there was no extensive offering of quantitative material from which a scholar might extract a functional knowledge to apply to reality and satisfy immediate goals.”
Here is a son responding to his parents’ accusation that he won’t talk to them: “It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you, but things have happened and you don’t talk to me, you will always remain silent in an unfeeling muteness. Certain zones of our everyday relationship have become mute.” Here is a poet thinking about his craft: “When his vision gave him a word in whatever relation it might have to reality, that word seemed to pass into his hands, and although the word remained invisible, freed of the vision from whence it had come, it went along, gathering a wheel on which gyrated incessantly its invisible modulation and its palpable modelization; then between intangible modelization and almost visible modulation, he seemed finally to be able to touch its forms, if he closed his eyes a little.” I repeat that such passages are neither exceptional nor incidental, and that Rabassa is in no way to blame for their unfortunate comic flavor, which is only slightly less striking in Spanish.
Lezama himself doesn’t appear to lack a sense of humor, and he writes at times as if he knew what irony was. But he has found no literary form for either irony or humor. Narrator and characters alike in Paradiso all speak in the same lofty, abstract, erratically imagistic, stylistically undifferentiated jargon that I have illustrated above, and while it would be absurd to think that Lezama is aiming for ordinary realism, for an imitation of the sounds and surfaces of ordinary life, the text does make disconcerting references to itself. People remark on the strange language others are using, are abashed at their own loquacity. Yet the language that causes the surprise is no stranger than the language which registers the surprise, and abashment at a loquacity that is a regular, if not an uninterrupted, event hardly makes any sense.
People are repeatedly said to be speaking ironically, yet there is nothing but the author’s assertion to make that irony accessible to us. We can’t read it in the tone of the supposedly ironic speech, since that tone is indistinguishable from the tone of the rest of the book. A student hails another, “Bona lux, as the Etruscans greet each other,” and the narrator adds that he covers this “loving pedantry” with a smile. It seems to me that, without applying any fierce Jamesian canons about showing forth, the reader of a novel is entitled to see that smile rendered in language in some way or other—quite apart from the fact that I wouldn’t mind being spared such loving pedantry altogether. Paradiso just goes on, hieratic, shall we say, as an Iranian pottery vendor.
Around the middle of the novel, JC’s mother makes a speech to him which ends in an odd clue to the nature of the whole work. A Cuban critic, Armando Alvarez Bravo, following what looks like a hint from Lezama himself, and with an innocence of Freud no longer available to many of us, has suggested that the profound theme of Paradiso, indeed of Lezama’s whole opus, is Lezama’s relation to his mother—his father died when he was ten, his mother died only ten years ago. Certainly Lezama remarks in Paradiso that a man’s old age begins the day his mother dies, and the book has a sentimental, Balzacian passage about what “only mothers” can do: “Only mothers possess that glance which contains a sad and noble wisdom, something unknowable, something that requires the regal accompaniment of the mother’s look. Only mothers know how to look….”
This would help to account for the narrator’s finding in a windy and unremarkable monologue by JC’s mother “the most beautiful words [JC] ever heard in his life after the ones he read in the Gospels,” but it doesn’t explain the mother’s postscript to her beautiful words. “Some doubters,” she says, “will think that I never said these words, that you invented them….” She is a mother in a future novel, worrying about realism before the novel is ever written. Her speech is meant to go into a book, into this book. It doesn’t matter much whether Lezama Lima’s mother ever said some such words to him (I take it she did). What matters is that the true place of the words is in a book, and nowhere else—tout au monde, Mallarmé said, existe pour aboutir à un beau livre.
In this complicated certification of their reality we can see the shape of Lezama’s whole project: to reconstruct, as if in paradise, the angelic, ultimate reality of beings who lie scattered, opaque and dying, about the material world we know. Hence the elaborate and artificial manner of the novel. Only in this way, only in this high unreality can the Platonic dream of a real reality hidden in the familiar world become visible. Only in this stiff, unlikely language shall we hear what our mothers really said, as distinct from the actual words they uttered in fallen time.
I remain unconvinced, though, partly because I always feel dazed when people start to talk about the visibility of the invisible (the image, Lezama has said elsewhere, is the reality of the invisible world), but mainly because I seem to see a startled Lezama rising up on every other page of his novel, surprised that anyone could find his language unreal, since that is how he talks himself, and how he hears other people. I keep thinking of Henry James, accused by Edith Wharton, I think, of not providing a solid material setting for the characters of The Golden Bowl. “My dear,” James said, aghast, “I thought I had.”
Paradiso is an enormous act of creative memory, a genealogical excavation, a digging up of long-dead family members to find them encrusted with fantasies and associations which belong properly to the excavator—as well as with such of their own attributes as the excavator can recall or intuit. It is a slow entwining, as Lezama says about the habits of thought of one of his characters, a rich complication of the past, a world of aunts, uncles, grandmothers, exile, rebellion, school, university, repeated sudden deaths, the discovery of sexuality, and long discussions of Nietzsche and the Church Fathers. It is a huge poem in prose, a personal mosaic of Cuban history, and has more than one point of resemblance, mutatis mutandis, with Mann’s Magic Mountain. Its total effect is more impressive than the effects of any of its parts, and for Latin American readers and writers, it is now there—like the Alps, in or out of Mann’s novel.
And yet, it seems to me, it is a garish, Alpine sideshow rather than a real mountain, a curiously timid and reactionary work hiding behind the skirts of an apparent boldness. It is less a modern novel than a garrulous, old-fashioned treatise about a modern novel which hasn’t been written yet (or at least not by Lezama Lima); and the reasons for this state of affairs are fairly clear. It is a novel written by a certain kind of poet, with all that kind of poet’s slavish devotion to the belief that only images matter. All the riches and invention in Paradiso have gone into its figurative language, leaving tone, syntax, and the whole craft of prose to fend for themselves. Four hundred and sixty-six pages of writing by a man who doesn’t care enough about the form of writing he has chosen guarantees an astonishing monotony, a clanking commitment to the most unimaginative prose cadences—almost a record of stamina for staying so long on the wrong bus.
For that matter, even a trip on the right bus would be dull if the bus didn’t move. Imagine Joyce’s Ulysses written entirely in the style of any one of its sections. Imagine The Magic Mountain written entirely in the language of Settembrini. Or more cruelly, and closer to home, imagine Remembrance of Things Past written not by Marcel, or by someone very similar to him, but by Marcel’s pontificating school friend Bloch.
April 18, 1974