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Wit and wile with Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

A MASTER OF WORDPLAY, THIS INTRIGUING CUBAN-BORN WRITER REFLECTS ON HIS TRICKS OF THE TRADE

GUILLERMO CABRERA INFANTE IS RECOGNIZED AS ONE OF THE MOST INVENTIVE OF SPANISH-LANGUAGE WRITERS IN THIS CENTURY. THE AUTHOR OF NOVELS, STORIES, ESSAYS, AND SCREENPLAYS, HE WAS BORN IN GIBARA, CUBA, IN 1929 AND BEGAN PUBLISHING HIS FIRST STORIES AND MOVIE REVIEWS AT THE AGE OF NINETEEN. IN 1965, WHILE CULTURAL ATTACHE WITH THE CUBAN EMBASSY IN BRUSSELS, HE RETURNED BRIEFLY TO CUBA FOR HIS MOTHER'S FUNERAL AND DECIDED THEN TO LEAVE HIS HOMELAND FOR GOOD. HE AND HIS WIFE, MIRIAM GOMEZ, HAVE RESIDED IN LONDON SINCE THAT TIME - GIVING RISE TO THE AUTHOR'S CLAIM TO BE "THE ONLY ENGLISH WRITER WHO WRITES IN SPANISH." HIS BOOKS PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH INCLUDE THREE TRAPPED TIGERS, HOLY SMOKE, A TWENTIETH-CENTURY JOB, INFANTE'S INFERNO, WRITES OF PASSAGE, AND A VIEW OF DAWN IN THE TROPICS. CABRERA INFANTE'S MOST RECENT WORK, MEA CUBA, IS HIS HUMOROUS AND VERY OPINIONATED MEMOIR OF A RICH ARTISTIC AND POLITICAL LIFE - A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS, ARTICLES, PORTRAITS, AND RECOLLECTIONS WRITTEN OVER HIS THIRTY YEARS IN EXILE. ALASTAIR REID, IN HIS REVIEW PUBLISHED LAST FEBRUARY IN THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, REMARKED THAT "CABRERA INFANTE HAS BY NOW EARNED FOR HIMSELF AN UNUSUAL POSITION, THAT OF A SMALL AND FEROCIOUSLY INDEPENDENT OUTCLAVE OF CUBA, SOMETHING OF A CONSCIENCE TO CUBANS, PARTICULARLY THOSE IN EXILE."

CABRERA INFANTE'S FIRST BOOK PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH, THREE TRAPPED TIGERS, APPEARED IN 1971; IT WAS ALSO HIS FIRST WORK TO BE TRANSLATED BY SUZANNE JILL LEVINE. THEIR TEXTUAL COLLABORATION, WHICH THE EVER-CREATIVE CABRERA INFANTE HAS TERMED A "CLOSELABORATION," ALSO INCLUDES INFANTE'S INFERNO AND A VIEW OF DAWN IN THE TROPICS.

LAST MARCH, WHILE HE WAS IN MIAMI, A GUEST OF THE MIAMI FILM FESTIVAL, CABRERA INFANTE AND LEVINE MET, AT THE REQUEST OF AMERICAS MAGAZINE, TO DISCUSS THE MANY ASPECTS AND INFLUENCES OF HIS WRITING LIFE.

SJL: In your latest book, Mea Cuba (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994), a collection of your essays on Cuba from 1968 until the present day, you speak about the exile of another Cuban, the great poet and patriot Jose Marti, who fought and died for Cuban independence at the turn of the last century. You have produced most of your important work in exile, like Marti, as well as like James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, writers with whom you are often compared. Would you say that when you state "Marti's martyrdom was his exile, and his exile was his success," you are also, in some way, reflecting on your own destiny as a writer?

GCI: A few years ago there was in Washington a conference of Cuban writers in exile. I was reluctant to attend: I am always a reluctant conferee. One of the organizers (a man whose claim to fame is that he installed a television aerial on top of the tallest tower in the world, the Sears Building in Chicago) called me on the phone in Charlottesville. I was at the time teaching a semester on Cuban literature in exile at the University of Virginia. The gentleman caller, who must remain anonymous because he was, in fact, anonymous, said to me: "You should know that I'm doing this for Cuba" and I answered, "I'll do it for Havana;" he thought I was joking. I don't know why people think I'm joking when I'm utterly serious. Anyway, I went to this conference not for Cuba but for Havana. Cuba barely exists for me and if it does it is like the oyster with a pearl within: Cuba contains Havana as a precious growth inside. Havana is my vademecum not Cuba. I don't take a map of the city with me because everywhere I go I have Havana on my mind. All my writings, including View of Dawn in the Tropics, are visions of Havana. My contention is that by remembering I can rebuild Havana, brick by word, word by word, all guided by my memory. But my memory belongs to Havana and at the same time I can tell her, thanks for the memory. Nostalgia is never neuralgia for me. I use nostalgia to form and inform what I write. She is actually the whore of memory but I've married her the way some people marry money. Call me Mr. Memory.

Exile is success, yes. The phrase sounds better in Spanish, "El exilio es el exito." Oscar Wilde, a writer first talked about in Spanish by Marti, an exile, on the occasion of his visit to New York, said: "Nothing succeeds like success." Exiledom (see under Miami) is success not only for Cuban businessmen but also for every exile who now, no matter how poor, is rich compared to their compatriots left behind on Devil's Island. But this is true not only of the exiles from Castro - they were equally successful in the last century. Exile began for Cubans when they tried to flee from the brutal regime in colonial Cuba. In my essay "Hey Cuba, Hecuba?" from "Birth of a Notion," to be found in Mea Cuba, I demonstrate the monster's treat.

Trick and treaty - and that was the Treaty of Paris. Where Spain, like a jilted lover turned pimp, gave Cuba to the United States in a parting shot aimed at the Cubans. Many returned to a free Cuba but more fell on the road to freedom. Marti, who returned as a fighter, died on the battlefield; others (the poet Heredia, the novelist Villaverde) died in exile. Others yet, like Julian del Casal, perhaps Cuba's greatest poet, died in Havana unable to see the end of Spanish domination. Some others, like the poet Placido, were shot by the Spanish occupation army. The case of Juan Clemente Zenea is a horrible illustration of disobeying Pythagoras's advice that an exile should never return. Zenea, only a poet, convinced himself that he was a messenger of peace. He returned to Cuba to mediate between the Cubans at war and the Spanish Captain General, actually the governor of the island. The Cuban guerrilla chief did not even bother to hear his case, and when he came back to Havana he was apprehended by the Spanish authorities despite a safe-conduct signed by the Spanish ambassador in Washington. Zenea was tried, found guilty of treason - and shot. Pythagoras finally turned into pithy Pythias the seer. I quoted the Greek philosopher as early as 1964, but I returned to Cuba in 1965 for my mother's funeral - and survived. I was, of course, lucky.

SJL: You often speak of yourself as the only British writer who writes in Spanish. Could you clarify this remark - typical of your wily Wildean wit - and also the impact living in London since 1965 has had on your writing. I ask this question also because, as cotranslator of Three Trapped Tigers (or TTT), View of Dawn in the Tropics, and Infante's Inferno, I've noted an evolution from your preference for American English in TTT to your greater use of the British "original" in later works.

GCI: I say I'm the only British writer who writes in Cuban. I also say that I am as British as muffins. I say too that I don't live in England (or for that matter in Great Britain or the UK) but in London. Provocations all to avoid the yawning void. But only the latter is true. I've lived in London since the summer of '66. I've never gone to Scotland or Belfast. As a matter of fact I've never left London. As Dr. Johnson said, "He who is bored of London is bored of life." I've never been bored in London. What was the question?

Ah yes. My preference for American English in TTT was simply because the original was written in Cuban more than in Spanish. The original Spanish edition of 1967 bears a notice claiming that the book was written "in Cuban." As you probably remember, the first translator of TTT was an English poet and he crammed the first draft - not even that, less than that: the first few pages - with a Jamaican singsong to ape my Cuban idiom. All that was left of his contribution was the parody of "The Raven" that, to tell the truth, I never liked because the original was a nonsense poem, not after Poe at all but after Carroll. But there you are and here I am.

Coming back to your assertion I can explain (I always explain) that those three books were originally published in the USA and you translated them with me. I have reasons to believe that TTT was your opera prima as a translator and I remember telling you, after reciting "Good morning, Mrs. Phelps. I have an assignment for you. Should you care to accept it" - or words to that effect because translating TTT was a true mission impossible, which made you a young prodigy cast adrift in a whiny sea of words. Then I proceeded to tell you that I wanted the translation to be closer to a Jewish kind of language, close to your own heart in fact.

SJL: Then call me not Ishmaelillo but Mrs. Claypool, at your service, Dr. Quackenbush.

GCI: So be it. From then on your heart belonged to the Three Daddies: Groucho, Perelman and myself because like them I had puns and will travel with you. Also, to be honest, those books you mention (TTT, View of Dawn and Infante's Inferno) were copyedited in New York, while Holy Smoke (originally written in English, as Fred Astaire sings, "By Myself"), A Twentieth-Century Job (cotranslated by Kenneth Hall, an American who also cotranslated Mea Cuba), and Writes of Passage (translated all by myself), all those books were copyedited in London and the copy editor was a lady more English than I who am as English as the fish and chips I detest. This can explain the British of those books visited by expelling the spelling of color and making it into colour, plow into plough and draftsman into draughtsman. Dreughtful! Be that as it May (though we are in March) I am the same English writer who tries to write in English without really succeeding. I know an English writer who, when you close your eyes, Oxford is speaking. But when you open your eyes he is still an Indian. That should be a lesson if not to you at least to me. As the trapper said, bear with me. I grew up in Havana among Jewish classmates and I could understand Groucho and his brothers (especially Harpo) without having any English!

SJL: Writes of Passage (Faber & Faber, 1993), your recent rewriting in English of your first book, a book of stories (a few of which I translated in the dim past into more "faithful" renditions), is emblematic of what you're always doing as a writer: rewriting. Speaking of which, Jorge Luis Borges, a fellow polyglot, has been an important influence in your life as a reading writer; do you think he has been a little harsh on the Spanish language in his praise of English?

GCI: Borges, I've said it before, is our Cervantes and our Quevedo rolled into one. When I say our I don't mean naturally, or unnaturally, Spain. I mean the Spanish language. Borges has been critical, of Spanish literature, yes. On the other hand, the writing hand, he is the only present-day writer writing in Spanish who will be read one hundred years from now. (I mean readers in the main Western languages.) When I talk of writers writing in Spanish I can safely say that Borges brought to Spanish an English usage of certain adjectives and a sense of sentence construction that he made his own - therefore our own. His use, or usage if you prefer, of metaphysics as a name for a literary game has an antecedent in Lewis Carroll. But Borges went further and made his literary games into a metaphysics. He might have indicted some Spanish writers as frauds, but I believe, honestly or dishonestly, that there has not been in Spanish literature since the death of Calderon in 1681 a writer of Borges's universal stature. For us writing in Spanish from America his epitaph should read, "Here lies our bigoted begetter."

SJL: You are one of the world's greatest living punsters, so your quip "Pavane for a Dead Punster" doesn't apply to you. What initially brought us together as, in your words, "closelaborators," and what marks your writing style, is the irresistible urge to pun, to let words wreak havoc in the house of Logos. I have discussed in my book The Subversive Scribe - devoted in great part to describing how we translated your books - how puns hide pain, as you say. What is the pain that drives you to pun, or is it pleasure, or both?

GCI: There is no pain in puns, though one man's pun could be the next man's pain. What Freud did for humor other people, obviously less qualified, do for puns. But at least Freud took the trouble to write an essay. The enemies of puns are also the enemies of fun, but all they do is to sigh like Perez Prado in a mambo: Uggh! Who's got the pain when I'm doing a pun? Invariably the humorless, the pretentious, and the stupid. All those people who give points to a joke and divide jokes into good or bad. The exclamation "What an awful joke!" is never said of other forms of speech. For me, humor is where you laugh. There are no bad or good jokes. There are only jokes. It all depends on your character, of course. Unamuno, a very serious writer indeed, wrote an essay on the tragic sentiment of life. He couldn't see of course that there was also a comic sentiment of life. You have the Greek tragedy but at the same time you have the Greek comedy. Puns come from the tensions between the spoken and the written. But there were puns before there was a written word. Christ, the epitome of the serious punster, said to one of his disciples called Simon, "You are Peter and upon your stone I'll build a Church." The pun here comes from Peter and petra, stone. It can be clearly seen in Spanish: Pedro, piedra. But it becomes perfect in French: Pierre and pierre, a stone. You yourself wrote that I punned only because I came into English from left field. . . .

SJL: You mean because I'm left-handed and pen with my south paw only?

GCI: . . . What about my punning in Spanish? You can say that Perelman's and Groucho Marx's puns came from the German or Yiddish they spoke at home. You can even claim that Flann O'Brien came from the left field of Gaelic. But what about Joyce? What about, then, Lewis Carroll? And what about the greatest English punster of them all, Shakespeare himself? The poet who created a character, Mercutio, who is not only a punster but dies with a pun in his bleeding mouth: "Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man." Another one among many of the puns written by Shakespeare is the beautiful song in Cymbeline: "Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweeps, come to dust." Please observe that these puns are all about death but not grave at all. It should be observed by you that a perfect pun was called in Latin a traductio. Have pun, will travel.

SJL: Traveling south back to Borges, he once insisted that English words lend themselves more to portmanteaus (even though it's a French word) than the more polysyllabic Romance vocables . . . but in any case, like you, and like Joyce and Shakespeare, he was always in search of the music in words. Writers aspire to be musicians, you quoth not pater but Pater. I remember that you gave me the advice, when I was translating La habana para un infante difunto into what became Infante's Inferno, that I should listen to Debussy and Ravel as I translated. Though you were joking, there was some truth there. Is music in the air when you write? How does music sway your writing?

GCI: Constantly, as Walter Pater diagnosed. I was educated at the movies, with a radio on and, of course, listening to popular music. You wouldn't expect me to be the Mozart of Cuban literature but I was addicted to music from age three, a true child prodigy among listeners. I remember songs my mother sang and songs that other people sung even late at night in serenades and early in the morning as dianas and the retretas a brass band played in the evenings in a main square. I still remember a particular diana that woke me up when I was five. I know I was five because of the street where we lived at the time. (My mother was constantly aspiring to move to a better house.) Much later, when we moved to Havana, yet another move, a moving move, I started paying attention to the music coming from the radio though we were too poor to afford a radio then. I distinctly remember one particular occasion, when I was studying to enter the bachillerato with a particularly beautiful but serious girl, that I heard my first bit of symphonic music. The radio was on when I arrived at her house. Because her mother was the lover of a communist capo they always heard Mil Diez (or one thousand ten on the dial), the communist station, and that day she was listening to a series called Captain Nemo. On every turn of the plot and in the intermissions they played symphonic therefore dramatic incidental music. I was in a rapture! Not because of the twists of the plot borrowed from Jules Verne but by the music, borrowed, I learned much later, from Sibelius. Enraptured I didn't pay any attention to the no longer enticing girl but I was all ears for the beautiful music! Now, every time I hear those intoxicating bars from Sibelius's Number One, I'm violently yanked back to that parlor, to that music on the radio that filled the sunlit drawing room.

Oh yes! Music, all kinds of music is music to my ear and to my eyes and to my writing hands. When I write I always try to make the sentence, the phrase, and the word sound right to me. I of course pay more attention to sound than to sense. If the sound, the written sound, is right don't particularly care about the sense. In fact, if there is no sense, more power to the prose. All it can become is nonsense.

SJL: You abhor, rightly so, the cliches of academic thinking (like calling literature "experimental"), among them the tendency to categorize you as a Latin American writer, to which you retort that you are a Cuban, indeed a Havanan writer. What is particularly onerous about being pegged a Latin American writer?

GCI: It could be the right place for a writer to be. Where on the map can you find a land called Latin America? Nowhere. That is some kind of Erewhon for fools. The trouble with that continent is that it doesn't have a content. That Latin tag was invented by a Frenchman called Chevalier. Unfortunately he wasn't the singer but some sort of imperialist spokesman who sold the idea to Napoleon III. As you remember, this tinhorn emperor was about to embark not himself but poor Maximilian on his Mexican adventure that ended with him being shot at dawn and Empress Carlota singing "La Paloma" forever in Belgium - to make it the first Top of the Pops tune. Sometime later the United States, about to steal the surname America from its co-owners, revived the little Latin lilt. It was, as you might surmise, tags at reveille. Besides, even if the moniker were revoked, I wouldn't recognize myself as a South American writer. I am not a Central American writer either. I am not even a Caribbean writer, for Chrissake! I am, I was and always will be a Cuban writer. I'm not a Latin from Madrid or from London and I don't call myself Hispanic. On the other hand, the left hand, there are professional Latin Americans. Some of them even believe they are writers. The pain in the pun is that some readers believe it too.

SJL: Another cliche you poke puns at is the term novel, and you insist that you write books, not novels. Is this because, in Borgesian spirit, all your fiction books are essays, just as your essays tell stories?

GCI: That's only because I don't want to deceive my readers. I don't think my books are fiction; what is fiction is the way I write my books. Some of them, quite justly, are called autobiographies and in a way my critics are right. Even a book like View of Dawn is a biography of Cuba, my island, my self. Holy Smoke is an autobiography written with smoke, cigar smoke but also cigarettes and pipes and even snuff. (The last isn't exactly smoke.) But my publishers and their booksellers, who actually control all books, insist on calling my books novels. My books are in fact made of voices, sometimes in counterpoint, as in TTT, sometimes in close harmony, like View of Dawn. But the bass, which is violence, forms a progression crammed with dissonances. Infante's Inferno is a hell with women and sex and songs. When I say songs you could read classical music, where even good ole Debussy has composed a symphonic poem to be used as accidental music to a coitus interrupted by what Satie called salt-water music!

SJL: I would like us to close with what is a very rich subject in your life and in your writing: film, or rather, the movies. Your book A Twentieth-Century Job (1963) is both a collage or collection of all your film reviews from the fifties as well as a fictional elegy to the film critic that was and a preview of the "novelist" to be. You've continued however to write about film, and furthermore have written screenplays, among them successes such as the cult film Vanishing Point. You are, indeed, a celebrated connoisseur in the international film community. Could you talk about the part movies play in your writing, or, if you prefer, in your life, and what your latest screenplay is about?

GCI: I was born, truly, with a silver screen in my mouth. Or rather with the screen in my eyes. When I say that I was taken by my mother to see a movie when I was twenty-nine days old, I'm only stating a fact. You, who have read TTT closer than anybody else except Miriam Gomez [GCI's wife], know that the whole fabric of that book is made of celluloid: transparent but brittle and crammed with images, mostly coming from all kinds of movies. If A Twentieth-Century Job, which came first, can be called the author as critic, TTT is the author as moviewatcher, le bon voyeur. But all of them are moviegoers. Nighter or niter runs in my veins. I can say with Nietzsche that I am dynamite. But Nietzsche was talking about a cure for syphilis while I talk about cellulose nitrate with which all old films were made. I am highly flammable!

But turning to my life behind the screen, I only write screenplays on request, and the considerable amount of money that film companies pay me I use later to finance my books. My last script, requested by Andy Garcia, is the story of the owner of the best known cabaret in the world and how he copes with life, sex, and a family whose only name spells trouble. But the real protagonist of the movie is music. Therefore The Lost City is not a movie but a culture.

Suzanne Jill Levine is professor of Latin American and Iberian Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Graywolf Press, 1991) and is currently at work on a biography of Manuel Puig. (For Americas interview with Levine, see the September/October 1994 issue.)
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Title Annotation:interview with Cuban-born writer
Author:Levine, Suzanne Jill
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Words:4048
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