Guillermo Cabrera Infante
Beyond the Order of the Ordure
It seems Guillermo Cabrera Infante could say like Nabokov he thinks like a genius, writes like a distinguished author and speaks like a child. Infante is a more modest figure than Nabokov in various ways, but when he insists he doesn't like the interview format, one recalls Nabokov's remark. "What sort of interview do you have in mind? Infante says when speaking to Regina M Janes for Salgamundi magazine. I am a much better talker when the interview is written." And yet Infante's prose indicates the garrulous more than the taciturn, perhaps an absurd claim when a writer's purpose is to put words on a page. Aren't all writers talkers in this sense? But there appear to be writers of few words, however long the story or novel, and writers of many. Hemingway and Carver's fiction seems extracted like teeth; others, like Anthony Burgess's and TC Boyle's often suggest a tumbling cascade. In some writers, it is as if the energy comes not only or even especially from the stories they tell but also from the linguistic play the prose affords them. This would be where Nabokov again comes to mind, and where Cabrera Infante reminds us of him. In Cabrera Infante's short story, 'The Phantom of the Essoldo', a character says "...I have a vice...though. Punning. It's my only vice but I'm truly addicted." It is a vice the character and author share, with the character insisting, "I truly deserve the Order of the Ordure." Indeed the combinatory pun would capture well both the author's obsessive wordplay and his characters' often no less obsessive amorous adventures. Whether it is the short story 'A Nest of Sparrows in the Awning' or the five hundred page novel Infante's Inferno, playing around and playing with language is what the characters do, if characters they are since much of Cabrera Infante's work draws on what looks an awful lot like the autobiographical. Offering account after account of the narrator's sexual conquests in Havana, in Infante's Inferno, Cabrera Infante all but acknowledges the exhaustion in the tale by constantly livening up the narrative he tells with the language he uses.
By the end of the book, one feels witness less to a mammoth work of storytelling than a linguistic lesson in how to suspend boredom with the prose. It makes sense that Cabrera Infante is often involved in translations of his work, with Infante's Inferno and his book of film reviews (A Twentieth Century Job) credited as a translation by Suzanne Jill Levine and Cabrera Infante in the former instance, and Kenneth Hall and the author in the second. There are so many puns, alliterations, sibilances and turns of phrase in the English versions a translator working alone would have to show much of the verbal ingenuity Cabrera Infante possesses to translate the work at all. Since so much of the brilliance rests on the language used rather than the tale told, a translator replicating that ingenuity would, ostensibly, no longer be a translator but a properly creative artist in their own right. Cabrera Infante working on the translations into English also makes sense since it was a language he appeared to know well and loved, and Britain was a country he made his home in the late sixties after no longer concurring with aspects of the Cuban government. "I must tell you that the exile was not self-imposed. I left my country because I was forced to..." (The Dalkey Archive) Initially, he tried Spain, but Cabrera Infante was still associated with Castro and the president in power at the time was Castro's polar opposite: General Franco. The Spanish authorities were polite but insisted he leave and Cabrera Infante chose the English capital, though not for the weather, and lived for many years in Kensington.
Yet many writers make another country their home without absorbing themselves linguistically in the culture: whether it happens to be Hemingway in Cuba, Jim Jones in Paris or Lawrence in Mexico, these are writers in self-exile, as if part of that status is an alienated relationship with the host language. At the other extreme, we have what are called Exophonic writers who while ostensibly from one country write in another tongue and master it to such a standard that they become known for the quality of their prose in it. The two best-known examples are probably Nabokov and Conrad, even if their cases are in some ways quite distinct. Nabokov was the Russian aristocrat brought up speaking several languages from an early age; Conrad the seafaring autodidact who didn't learn English until he was an adult. They absorbed English differently but they absorbed it nevertheless. They became English and American authors more than simply or even Polish and Russian ones, but Cabrera Infante remains clearly a Latin American, or Caribbean writer, even if he says, after being asked, "what language do you find most adaptable to your style of writing?", "English, because of my familiarity with it. It is a very different language from Spanish." (The Dalkey Archive) He may have written novels in English like Holy Smoke but there is little sense of him as an English-Cuban novelist.
Does this not suggest that for all Cabrera Infante's insistence that for him language is the thing, there is a sensibility behind language that dictates a writer's regional or national specificity rather than the prose? Few would doubt that Nabokov was a master of the English language but would we regard him as more an American writer than a Russian one, or is Nabokov a hyphenated figure, a Russian-American? Conrad, however, strikes us as an English writer, that to hyphenate his literary oeuvre doesn't make much sense. The most obvious reason for this is that while Nabokov learnt English before he learnt Russian, he nevertheless wrote a number of his works in Russian before turning to English in 1941 with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Conrad didn't become fluent in English until his twenties and yet wrote all his novels in this second language. However, there might also be a useful distinction between the linguistic and the sensible, between the mastering of a language and the absorption of a culture. Cabrera Infante may claim "I do not think that I am going to lose my language because I live in England. Just the opposite. One day, I discovered that there were too many Anglicisms in my Spanish, so I said, 'Well, consider yourself the only British writer who writes in Spanish.' And that's how I solved it." (The Dalkey Archive) Yet very few would see Cabrera Infante as even a hyphenated one. In contrast, a novelist like Kazuo Ishiguro is first and foremost an English writer who at a stretch might be defined as Japanese-English. In contrast, Chinua Achebe who wrote in English is nevertheless very clearly a Nigerian writer.
Our purpose isn't to try and push a literary notion of nationalism, nor even regionalism, but to escape the tyranny of language over literature, an odd perspective perhaps given that books are made out of words, but taking into account an important essay by Walter Benjamin, 'The Task of the Translator', perhaps words are only the manifestation of the pre-lingual that finds appropriateness in language. As Kafka said, "all language is but a poor translation." Benjamin and Kafka can, from a certain point of view, be seen as representing a position at odds with structural linguistics and the idea that we don't speak language but language speaks us, evident in various claims made by amongst others Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Lacan wondered: "the place that I occupy as the subject of a signifier: is it, in relation to the place that I occupy as subject of the signified, concentric or ex-centric? that is the question. It is not a question of knowing whether I speak of myself in a way that confirms to what I am, but rather of knowing whether I am the same as that of which I speak." ('The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious') Derrida believed "this was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a centre or origin, everything became discourse provided we can agree on this word that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences." ('Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences') Barthes claimed, "we know that a text does not consist of a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them originals blend and clash." ('The Death of the Author') Terry Eagleton sums up Lacan's position, but could also be echoing an aspect of Derrida's and Barthes', when saying, "in gaining access to language, the small child unconsciously learns that a sign has meaning only by dint of its difference from other signs, and learns also that it substitutes itself for some direct, wordless possession of the object itself." (Literary Theory) Whatever the differences between Lacan, Derrida and Barthes, whatever their own changing position in the shift from structuralism (that emphasised the binary system that nevertheless contained meaning) to a post-structuralist discourse that shattered that assumption, the consensus is that the language we use isn't ours, but a system that we become part of as we distinguish one word from another, not based on different things (like cats and hats, cars and bars) but by different phonemes that change one thing into another due to the c or h, c or b that we use. Even though Michael Wood notes in a brief essay on John Lennon's use of language that "a pun is what Durkheim in another context called a logical scandal, it is an escape from linear meaning. It is language on holiday." (Arts in Society), perhaps another way of looking at it, a way consistent with Lacan, Derrida and Barthes in this instance, is that language isn't only on holiday that it can never come home. The pun just shows us language's alienation from the objects to which it refers by turning that relationship into an absurdity that always threatens.
Yet do we accept the absurd premise and play constantly with language, or do we accept that, while language is usually an arbitrary system of signs with little or no existential relationship with the objects to which they refer, we find ways to break open the words and allow meaning to be extracted from them, make them capable of oozing matter revealing to us what words are capable of signifying? When Kafka famously proposed that what mattered was breaking the frozen sea inside us, another way of looking at this is to see that he wanted words to be the axe to do it: to use language in a manner that finds a means by which to communicate between one person and another, to see that literature is an intermediate form by which to do this. A certain perspective like the one we proposed offered by Lacan, Derrida and Barthes, might suggest that such an aim is pointless because we can never get beyond the words, but firstly we wouldn't want to simplify their position and, secondly, the gap between an advertising slogan and a Kafka story might be small from one point of view (they both share an equal gap between the signifier and the signified) but enormous from another. Indeed, Wood reckons there is a big enough difference between John Lennon and James Joyce (Shame's Choice as Cabrera Infante calls him). "It is absurd to compare Lennon to Joyce. Lennon's puns are piecemeal, scattered and unequal. Joyce's punning in Finnegan's Wake is a system, a metaphysics for melding worlds. When Joyce writes of the flushpots of Euston and the hanging garments of Marylebone, the Bible and London really collide." (Arts in Society) If Joyce manages to raise the pun to the level of metaphysical purpose, as Wood suggests, then this presumably rests on making language occupy a space similar to that Kafka manages to unmake. In other words, while Joyce can use language to make us aware both of the words he uses and the images he creates by illustrating how far away we usually are from things as stale language gives us only a general sense of them, Kafka indicates that the things are always things because language alienates us from them. The writer's purpose is to recognise that gap and, almost miraculously, close it. Raymond Williams astutely notes that in a passage from 'The Dead', "already in the first sentence one realises that this writer is not engaged in a mechanical evocation of stock emotions through the evocation of their stock contexts. The form...under the dripping tree is a precise half-vision. The sentence he was conscious of but could not apprehend, in its small scale, suggests a writer who uses words as if writing were an act of discovery than rather than of intoxicated ambition..." (Reading and Criticism) By contrast, Benjamin says of Kafka, "Kafka's real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka's writings are by their nature parables. But it is in their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables." This is why Benjamin does not see wisdom in Kafka's work: "we can no longer speak of wisdom. Only the products of its decay remain." ('Max Brod's Book on Kafka')
Returning now to Cabrera Infante (and well aware that we need to say more about Kafka and Benjamin on language as translation), we might first of all wonder is the Cuban writer more Lennon than Joyce are his puns and alliterations systemic or systematic, an impulsive need to play or an instinctive need to create? It is best to start with a handful of examples from the work that one can break down into puns, alliterations, bi-lingual gags, malapropisms, knowing-nods and tongue twisters. Here are a handful from Infante's Inferno: "promising promiscuity", "I didn't know how I got out of that menace a trois", "How green was my Valli then!" (holding a young girl called Valli in his arms), "vetoing vague vegetarian visions", "never scorn corn because it can be as effective as soap.", "so just as there are Evil Eves, there are ingenuous ingenues in the movies." And to conclude, in an exchange between a possible assignation and that of the central character. "'Okay', she said, 'since you are being so octuse.' She probably meant to say obtuse but she almost called me an octopus: I would be for her all eyes but never hands and limbs." Salman Rushdie reviewing Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers says, "Take the title. Originally, in the Cuban, they were three sad tigers, Tres tristes tigres, the beginning of a tongue-twister. For Cabrera, phonetics always come before meaning (correction: meaning is to be found in phonetic associations), and so the English title twists the sense in order to continue twisting the tongue. Very right and improper." (London Review of Books) There is the bilingual gag on menace a trois, the alliteration of promising promiscuity and ingenuous ingenues, the tongue-twisting vetoing vegetarian visions, the octuse malapropism and the knowing-nod pun on How Green was My Valley.
Yet some of Cabrera Infante's linguistic inventions augment meaning and others dement it. When the narrator's lover claims to have put poison in his drink, the narrator reckons: "...martyrs are never forgotten. Martyrs are forever, like Marti. While with me, a mere ephemeron, the death squad, as the newspapers call it, would have a hard time identifying my body. I would have to wait lying there, dead in that dead-end, until the coroner certified me dead a phrase from journalese that has always intrigued me." The pun on Marti is a light allusion to a well-known Cuban writer who died a hero in military battle but the idea here rests on the threat of being no more than an ephemeron, a state given to most humans, a place in the world that won't extend much beyond their own lifetime, while a chosen few will become posthumous, eternal, immortal. By turning the assumption inside out (surely the anonymous need no name while the acclaimed demand various terms), the ephemeron doesn't just become a clever use of language, it opens up space around the word, giving room for thought and a sense of ontological defamiliarisation. The world can be seen differently. But when Cabrera Infante offers a few Shakespeare allusions, one can admire the wit but grow (and groan) weary by the effort applied to the surface of the language and the culture. "This was the summer of my malcontent," "Desdemona became a Yago and I the Othello who knew that Emilia picked up her handkerchief out of love..." he says. Throughout Infante's Inferno there are numerous punning references, including when he speaks of lesbianism and says, "obviously some sort of virago version of the pit and the Podendum" or when he notes a friend called him "Casanovalis and Kirk Egaard." This is much closer to John Lennon as Wood defines it than James Joyce.
Faulkner (Cabrera Infante inevitably calls him Fuckner) once proposed that the writer murder all his darlings (a comment whose source is supposed to be Arthur Quiller-Couch) but Cabrera Infante doesn't only let them live, he gives them the run of the place. Puns, alliterations, absurdist references, inverted quotations can be seen and occasionally heard but page after page of word-play becomes instead exhausting. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but all play and no work can make Cabrera Infante a chore indeed. Yet he is also of course quite brilliant, and Rushdie in his admiration for his work will no doubt be seeing a kindred spirit to his own prose as well as his good friend Martin Amis, who never escaped the influence of that master wordsmith who opened this essay, Nabokov. Yet hovering over any master of language is Kafka's hesitant remark about all language being a translation, and also Benjamin's article on the 'Task of the Translator', one that also returns us to a couple of points earlier addressed. Benjamin says "the basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of the allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language." Superficially, Cabrera Infante observes this when saying "writers rush in where publishers fear to tread and where translators fear to tread. Let me give you one example. I was working with the French translator of Three Trapped Tigers and he was constantly saying, 'We can't do that, that is not French.' Finally I told him angrily, "Listen, this book is not in Spanish, you can't do that in Spanish, but I did, so I assume you can do it as well in French." From then on, we had no problems because he understood what the book was all about. I had the same initial difficulties with the English translation." (The Dalkey Archive) But there is a profound point to Benjamin's observation too when he talks of going back to the primal language, which, Benjamin later in the essay suggests, is where "literalness and freedom unite. For to some degree all great texts contain their potential translations between the lines; this is true to the highest degree of sacred writings. The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation." As Benjamin says, near the beginning of his essay, a literary work's "essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information hence, something inessential." ('The Task of the Translator') It makes sense that Cabrera Infante wished to be involved in translations of his work: how otherwise would he have been able to protect the many moments of wordplay from falling foul to a translator whose literalness might murder all those darlings with clumsy hands?
But this would still appear to be information as Benjamin couches it, and certainly if we are to differentiate the linguistic from the sensible, the words on the page from the spirit that sits within them. Cabrera may have fo many years lived in London, lived there at least as long as he lived in Cuba and he knew English so well that one can put him alongside Nabokov, Conrad and others as a writer who mastered its idioms as effectively as many a native. Yet while we can accept Nabokov as a hyphenated Russian/American writer, and Conrad as chiefly an English one, Cabrera Infante remains stubbornly Cuban. Whatever gift for language he possessed seems finally secondary to a sensibility that passes through and permeates the language the sensibility that gives to words their meaning even if puns and deliberate malapropisms undermine those words as the logical scandal Durkheim proposed, the vacationing of language that Wood suggests.
If we accept the language people write in is secondary to the sensibility out of which the writer comes, one wants to make clear this doesn't suggest a narrow notion of nationalism. Our point is that nationalism (or better still regionalism) complicates the linguistic, and the linguistic complicates any attempt at national reductionism. Is Kafka a German writer, or a Czech one? He wrote in German yet lived his entire life in Czechoslovakia. To call him German feels erroneous; to call him Czech doesn't quite feel accurate either. Yet the Kafkaesque indicates from one point of view a regional specificity as well as a temporal marker: while the vision is enormous and still properly pertinent, the epicentre of the Kafkaeqsque (or the Proustian, the Joycean, the Borgesian) is geographically specific. They are all writers clearly from a particular time and place. That might seem complicated when a writer such as Cabrera Infante spends half his life in one place and the rest of his life in another, and we might also wonder whether literary exile needn't only mean that someone is simply no longer living in their home country, but that the adopted country cannot become their literary home that it cannot easily feed the imagination to generate a hyphenated aspect. Joyce may have lived for years in Italy but nobody would be likely to call him Irish-Italian; ditto Witold Gombrowicz who lived for many years in Buenos Aires. He remained a Polish writer. However, IB Singer was clearly Polish-American Yiddish, Joseph Brodsky Russian-American and so on. How that manifests itself, how a writer happens to be perceived as a writer from a particular place involves much more than words, however paradoxical this might sound. A brilliant short book like Infante's View of Dawn in the Tropics has very little conspicuous word-play as if there was no anxiety of meaning in the writing of it, that it was a book so clearly coming from an understanding of what it meant to be Cuban. Here Cabrera Infante details in brief narratives the history of the country, some pieces so brief they can be quoted in their entirety. "Despite the fact that he was very ill, they took him to the scaffold, not in a carriage but mounted on a donkey. They had to help him down and he was so emaciated that one could barely recognise the lively composer of the march that, a quarter of a century later, would be the national anthem. They almost dragged him to the stone wall." "The General was asked what time it was and an aide-de-camp quickly ran to his side and mumbled: any time you wish, Mr President." "A rebel shouts: 'they killed the general!' and the troops are demoralised. A lieutenant kills the rebel with a shot in the back and stands up. "The general is not dead!" he shouts left and right. "The commander in chief is alive!" The rebels reassemble their forces and advance upon the enemy, winning the battle when it seemed lost." These three briefest of tales possess something of Benjamin's claim for the Kafkaesque, historical parables rather than metaphysical ones but the intent of the content seeing little need to find in language the sort of transcendent aspect Rushdie invokes.
What is perhaps odd reading through some of Cabrera Infante's shorts stories, his collected film criticism (written while reviewing films in Cuba in the fifties but revised and translated into English by Faber in 1991), and Infante's Inferno, where linguistic play is so important, is though the translations suggest more than most that the writer is familiar with English, there is very little that suggests Englishness in the work. Joyce Carol Oates believed that the English novelist is almost without exception an observer of society. (I suppose I mean "society" in its most immediate, limited sense.) Apart from writers like Lawrence (who doesn't seem altogether English, in fact) there hasn't been an intense interest in subjectivity, in the psychology of living, breathing human beings", with Oates adding "we [the Americans] are willing to risk being called "formless" by people whose ideas of form are rigidly limited, and we are wilder, more exploratory, more ambitious, perhaps less easily shamed, less easily discouraged." (Paris Review) Forty years of living in London and it seems very little of the English sensibility comes through in Cabrera Infante's work while at the same time a clear mastery of the language is evident, as if the linguistic, for all Cabrera Infante's efforts, is weak next to the sensible. When in a review of Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday he says, "Tati's trademark is the gaffe and the guffaw", the sentence works very differently in Spanish even if the meaning would remain. Trademark in Spanish is 'marca comercial', gaffe "metedura de pata", guffaw "carcajadas". But central to the pleasure of the remark in English is the play on the consonants of Tati's trademark gaffe and guffaw. Cabrera's texts in English give us a very real pleasure in the language but the meaning still finally lies elsewhere: after all the words are only as good as the insight they can offer, in whatever language. We might even believe that the play on language in English misses a little the point of Tati's work. The guffaw is a loud laugh; Tati's oeuvre is more likely to induce a deep smile. Cabrera Infante's alliterative wit weakens the perception of Tati's humour.
Perhaps there is often a linguistic anxiety in a writer who feels they do not quite know where they stand because they aren't quite sure where they live. If one's life in is London and one's soul is in Cuba, does one emphasise the mastery over the language in the country in which one now lives, or attend to the spirit that is elsewhere? It is a question exiled and Exophonic writers have dealt with differently, and no doubt during different parts of their writing life. "You claim that you write in Cuban, not Spanish" an interviewer announced in discussion with the writer in the eighties. Cabrera Infante replied "but that was true only of Three Trapped Tigers, and I have since stopped this practice. It was a bad habit. With my book Exorcismos de esti(l)o, I took the Cuban language further than I could, and that's when I stopped. Another novel of mine, Infante's Inferno, is written in a variety of standard Spanish, which might even be called mid-Atlantic Spanish." But for all the writer's stress and fret, for all his ingenuity and exertion, Cabrera Infante remains stubbornly Cuban, the writer in exile rather than the hyphenated figure who straddles two nations and indeed two continents. It is an act of gymnastics very few writers achieve, a sort of cultural splits that may have much to do with the language one uses but even more the sensibility one imbibes.
Earlier we wondered whether Cabrera Infante is more Lennon than Joyce, and Wood, some years after his article on punning in the New Society, wrote on the Cuban in the London Review of Books. He quotes from Infante's Inferno this passage from the very beginning of the book: "It was the first time I climbed a staircase. Few houses in our town had more than one floor, and those that did were inaccessible. This is my inaugural memory of Havana: climbing marble steps.... A breeze moved the colored curtains that hid the various households: even though it was midsummer, it was cool in the early morning and drafts came from within the rooms. Time stopped at that vision.... I had stepped from childhood into adolescence on a staircase." Wood rightly sees this as brilliant writing, yet none of it relies on wordplay and it very vividly brings forth an image of Cuba. Later in the review Wood, without invoking either Lennon or Joyce, comments on Cabrera Infante's fascination with puns, saying, "the disease is clearly permanent with him, and he unrepentantly mangles language and hops from one tongue to another like a frog released from the throat. Some of these jokes are so terrible that they seem heroic, make S. J. Perelman a sedate defender of the dictionary." He also proposes that the Cuban's fascination with "'the flesh made Word'...makes the writer a very curious creature, a voluntary inhabitant not of Dante's hell but of Derrida's limbo, a paltry, scribbling Plato to a host of rambling tropical versions of Socrates." (London Review of Books) It is less a thin line between the playful pun and the profound paronomasia; it is about the difference between finding in the prose the possibility of what lies beyond it and within it, versus the linguistic frivolity of an aesthetic escape. We might remember after all that Freud wrote about the pun and could see both that it was the weakest form of comedy and also a useful means of displacement. Puns "pass as the lowest form of verbal joke, probably because they are the 'cheapest' can be made with the least trouble. And they do indeed make the least demand on the technique of expression, just as the play upon words proper make the highest." ('Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious') But the pun is also an easy way to evade a problem rather than face it and we can find in Cabrera Infante's work numerous examples where an observation isn't deepened by the play on language but allows him to trivialise the emotion he explores. When he says, "the next day I was to have an exam in logic, which was both easy and difficult", and says he was "enjoying the jism in syllogisms", this suggests language has gone off on a package tour. However, when the language is integrated into the prose, when Cabrera Infante uses words to suggest less the exile who knows how to play with them, than the homebody who conjures them up to remind us all about what he has been forced to miss, Cabrera Infante manages to be more Joyce than Lennon. He can even, in View of Dawn in the Tropics, suggest, just a little, the Kafka Benjamin so admired.
© Tony McKibbin