The Magazine

The Voice of Cuba

Exile couldn't silence a master of the Spanish language.

Mar 21, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 25 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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ON FEBRUARY 21, THE Cuban exile author Guillermo Cabrera Infante died, at 75, in a London hospital. His passing was an immense loss not only for the anti-Castro diaspora, but for Spanish literature, of which he was one of the greatest recent exponents.

He was a unique representative of Cuba's cultural history. Although such a time now seems part of an improbable fantasy, and as distant as a long-past geological age, Cabrera Infante entered the maturity of his career 40 years ago, when the Castro dictatorship was the only Moscow-line Communist state that seemed to encourage unrestrained experimentation in the arts.

In the rest of the Communist world, at that time, cultural modernism was extremely scarce. Poland had produced brilliant films like Andrzej Wajda's Kanal (1957) and the spectacular Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the latter with an anti-Communist terrorist as its antihero. Roman Polanski was known to the world only for his absurdist short film, Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), and an existential, erotic tale, Knife in the Water (1962).

A handful of Soviet motion pictures, in which the typical propaganda lines were understated, or absent, had been released in the West, but were hardly daring in their presentation. In Prague, a small group of literary scholars had undertaken the bold project of defending Franz Kafka and James Joyce. Yugoslavia, considered outside the Soviet bloc, encouraged artistic modernism, but relatively little of its product, aside from a school of "naive" painting, was exported.

Beginning in 1959, Cuba had been notably, if briefly, different. Cabrera Infante, mainly known as a film critic, was one of several brilliant, independent-minded journalists who joined the Castro movement. Early in the revolution, Cuban newspapers and magazines were lively and original, even as Che Guevara was recruiting fascist sympathizers of Juan Perón from Argentina for terror missions across South America, and Castro was preparing to welcome nuclear missiles sent by Nikita Khrushchev.

Yet even before the 1962 missile crisis, Moscow-style conformity was on the march in Havana. Cabrera Infante was the son of prominent members of the Cuban Communist party, and he knew all the worst details of Stalinism's history on the island, including its involvement in the murder of dissident leftists and its cooperation with Castro's predecessor, the dictator Fulgencio Batista. In 1960 Cabrera Infante published his first book, Así en la paz como en la Guerra (Thus in Peace As in War), a collection of articles published in leading magazines, and some short texts describing the criminal and political violence of the Batista era.

Cabrera Infante became a leading figure on the staff of Lunes de Revolución, the weekly cultural section of the Castro organization's official organ; but the supplement was shut down in 1961. The suppression of Lunes followed the first major act of censorship against Cuban culture: Along with his brother, Sabra, and the filmmaker Orlando Jiménez Leal, Cabrera Infante had coproduced a film entitled P.M., a documentary of Havana's notorious nightlife. P.M. was judged by the new rulers to be an offense to socialist morality, and the closing of the Cuban mind had begun.

Diplomatic postings for inconvenient intellectuals are an old habit in Latin America, and Cabrera Infante was sent to Brussels as cultural attaché, where he remained until 1965. He published his second book, Vista del amanecer en los tropicos (View of Dawn in the Tropics), which won him a Spanish literary prize and acclaim in Cuba. But after a trip to the island following his mother's death, he went into exile, first in Spain and then in Britain. His mind set free, he composed his first classic, Tres Tristes Tigres, published in English as Three Trapped Tigers, in 1971.

The few foreigners interested in Cuban revolutionary dissidents at that time were breathless with amazement at the full revelation of Cabrera Infante's talent. Three Trapped Tigers was a miniature encyclopedia of Cuban sexuality, humor, and idiomatic invention. The great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa put Cabrera Infante in a unique class, along with Lewis Carroll and Joyce. Indeed, Cabrera Infante was the only Spanish writer to bear serious comparison with the author of Ulysses.

Three Trapped Tigers began with an unforgettable display of bilingual fireworks, setting the stage for a novel that worked as a circus and carnival as much as an epic of political satire. It was set in Havana's best-known attraction, famous for its gorgeous dancers: "Showtime! Señores y señoras. Ladies and gentlemen. And a very good evening to you all, ladies and gentlemen. Muy buenas noches, damas y caballeros. Tropicana! the MOST fabulous nightclub in the WORLD--el cabaret MAS fabuloso del mundo "