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...a sweatshop of moxie

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Guillermo Cabrera Infante


Never heard of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, you say?

Well if he weren't such an outspoken critic of El Comandante-en-Jefe, maybe just maybe, those of you outside of the Hispanophone world might have, as assuredly you have of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Pablo Neruda. Heck, even a second-rate hack like Paulo Coelho is more famous than he ever was.

But when you're on the wrong side of the intelligentsia's pet topics, the plaudits don't come as easily, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ultimately found out.

I had the pleasure of meeting Cabrera Infante on two different occasions in England, where he had exiled himself after leaving his adored Cuba in 1965. Both occasions were Oxford University events; one formally at the Randolph, one informally at the Freud Café.

When meeting the famous or the well-heeled, it's up to you to make them feel comfortable in those situations, since after all, you know them, but they know nothing about you.

So to break the ice on approaching him, I mentioned how my mother had just sent me a new watch, a Longines. He gave a sideways smile, not knowing where the conversation was going, so I continued, "Look, it can tell the time in London, New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and La Souwesera".

[Note to non-South Floridians, La Souwesera or Southwest Miami is the Spanglish for Little Havana]

It took some moments before he composed himself from laughing so much, and two years later in 1997, when we met again, he remembered the anecdote fondly.

"La Souwesera!", peels of laughter anew.

To my mind, Cabrera Infante's cinematographic critiques were amongst the finest in any language ever, although they sometimes masqueraded as something else, like his punning opus, Holy Smoke.

But to call his writing critiques is to do them a severe injustice, since they had such depth of understanding that they illuminated your entire vision of life, never mind just the film, cigar, or dance experience at hand. It's like meeting a human encyclopaedia, with more savoir faire than any of those dry tomes could ever hope to have.

This Premio Cervantes winner, which has been called the Nobel Prize for Literature of the Spanish language, was quite fluent in English, although with an accent, as he told me sheepishly.

I told him that certain accents improved languages, but he replied, with the true honesty all Cubans share, "yes, but Spanish is not one of them".

Later in that conversation, he referred to himself as "medio chinito", or a little bit Chinese-looking, which made me like him that much more. The best people are always the ones who never believe themselves to be more (or less) than they are.

Cabrera Infante wore that frankness effortlessly, but uncompromisingly, so much so that I realised how it was impossible for this one-time Communist, and ex-friend of Fidel Castro, to have stayed on in a Cuba rent with lies, a Potemkin village island. For he and his withering tongue, it was only a matter of time before they banned him...or worse.

Well, his exact contemporary lives on in this Caribbean Pais de Maravillas, and Cabrera Infante died in exile in London on Tuesday, never having seen his beloved Havana, or the Oriente province of his birth again.

But somewhere out there, I know Cabrera Infante's close-set eyes must still be glistening, because his legacy is more honest, holds up truer against the looking-glass than anything left standing in Wonderland.

QPD/RIP, chinito.


  • Lovely remembrance, how fortunate you were to have met him.

    There was quite a nice special section on Cabrera Infante in yesterday's El Pais btw.

    By Blogger patricio lopez, at Wed Feb 23, 11:05:00 pm GMT-5  

  • Thank you, Patricio. I suspected you of all people might appreciate this blog piece, and indeed, appreciate the works and life of Cabrera Infante.

    And what a (sad) coincidence that you and I lost two personal icons within the space of a few days!

    You Hunter S. Thompson and I, Cabrera Infante.

    I suppose you and I have to acclimate ourselves to a life a little less richer intellectually now.

    Pues asi es la vida, mi vida...


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Wed Feb 23, 11:32:00 pm GMT-5  

  • Very touching. Any recommendations for the non-Hispanophone?

    By Blogger JSU, at Wed Feb 23, 11:35:00 pm GMT-5  

  • Thankfully their zest for life lives on in their books.

    I have the El Pais ish. hanging around, if you like I can mail it to you.


    By Blogger patricio lopez, at Thu Feb 24, 02:04:00 pm GMT-5  

  • From The Paris Review circa 1983....

    What [do you think] about the fact that [Jonathan] Swift was Dean Swift, a cleric?

    That’s a big problem for Swiftians: Swift believed man to be rotten throughout. For him the only hope for humanity lay in beasts. The whole structure of eighteenth century faith in the goodness of man collapses at the first whinny of the Houyhnhnm. That’s where the slogan “Four legs good, two legs bad” really originated. But Swift was serious where Orwell was mischievous.

    Do you agree with this misanthropic theory?

    Totally. I think Creation, Evolution, or, what it is probably–Chance–made a mistake. Man is the most dangerous mistake in the universe, a glorious but miserable mistake. He is about to destroy the entire planet, and it’s the rest of Nature that will pay for it. Man, to put it in Swiftian terms Swift could never utter, is the cancer of the planet!

    Dale Andersen

    By Blogger Playwrighter, at Thu Feb 24, 04:47:00 pm GMT-5  

  • Apart from the Holy Smoke book I mentioned on the blog itself, JSU, I highly highly recommend reading this masterpiece, called by all who read it, one of the XX century's best:

    Tres Tristes Tigres, also known in the English translation currently out-of-print from Amazon, but surely available in public libraries, "Three Trapped Tigers".

    There's also Mea Cuba, a pun on mea culpa, obviously, and I have to tell you, stay away from Cabrera Infante if word-play isn't your thing. I love punning -- a cultural legacy. ;)

    Do read it, and let me know what you thought of the Latin American-Faulkner, JSU.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Feb 24, 08:28:00 pm GMT-5  

  • Patricio, with grateful thanks I decline, largely because I have access to News Cafe's huge store of foreign papers. :)


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Feb 24, 08:30:00 pm GMT-5  

  • There's much of the misanthrope in many intellectuals, Dale. Cabrera Infante had to deal with disillusion so many times, that I know he was cynical about man, without even reading your wonderful excerpt.

    When you doubt, you often feel you have control over a world that is uncontrollable, whereas when you believe in mankind, you open yourself to disappointment a million times over (as you do to hope).

    Lovely piece, Dale, thanks!


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Feb 24, 08:32:00 pm GMT-5  

  • It's my understanding that when Infante moved to Spain, then Britain,he was harassed by the leftists because he had committed the heresy of criticizing Castro, who, to this day, is worshipped by all good liberals.

    By Blogger Count Nomis, at Tue Oct 25, 07:28:00 am GMT-4  

  • Where can I to learn abt it in detail?

    By Anonymous Octavio Justin, at Tue Jan 03, 11:13:00 am GMT-5  

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