“Spunish language” and neo-Baroque Aesthetics: Cabrera Infante and Fuentes


The cover of the U.S. edition of Christopher Unborn

As I’d mentioned in my previous post,  I am in the middle of revisiting and expanding on a chapter whose two central texts are Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  As part of that work, this morning I thought I would re-read the opening chapter of Carlos Fuentes’ 1987 novel Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn), since that section in particular is one of the other texts I take up in that chapter.  In so doing, I realized that earlier remarks about another novel I’ll be discussing in that same chapter, along with commentary by Fuentes himself, will serve to reinforce some of my project’s larger claims about the Baroque and the New World, this time with a focus on literary aesthetics.  All of that, I hope, will tie in (I hope not hog-tying style) with the politics of Martí and Mariátegui that I’ll also be adding to this chapter.

(The perils of “quick re-reads”: This post’s original title, when I started on it two days ago, had in it the phrase “a few quick comments.”  So you see . . . )

Dalkey Archive edition of Three Trapped Tigers.

The other novel is by Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres tristes tigres (1967; translated as Three Trapped Tigers).  Its title (the first line of a Cuban tonge-twister) and its description by its English translators, David Gardner and Susan Jill Levine (with assistance from the author) of having been translated “from the Cuban” alert the reader that it is no ordinary novel.

Its loose structure consists of a collection of vignettes whose plots and characters occasionally meet, all of which, though, create an impressionistic and ultimately sadly nostalgic look at Havana in the late 1950s, just before Castro finally defeats Bautista–a world just about to change dramatically, in other words.  Its kaleidoscopic structure is matched by its punning, playful language and page layouts.  A section titled “Some Revelations,” for example, begins with four blank pages, followed by a page of writing that is mirrored on the page opposite it . . . you get the idea. Beneath the playfulness, though, is a political and cultural seriousness, as in the section titled “The Death of Trotsky as described by Various Cuban Writers, Several Years After the Event–or Before.”  Trotsky’s murder by a Stalinist agent in 1940 was widely regarded in Latin America as foreign meddling in Mexico’s affairs; thus, Cabrera Infante imagines José Martí (who had died 45 years before) comparing Trotsky’s assassin, Jacob Mornard, to Cortés, the killing thus becoming a kind of second conquest of Mexico: “The traveler, one Jacob Mornard, warped and twisted, and accompanied only by his seafaring hatred, had finally arrived in the notorious sanctuary of the Exile whose family name means stone of bronze” (237).  This section at first seems out of place–after all, Trotsky was killed in Mexico, so why imagine Cuban writers, one of them long dead, writing about it?–but Cabrera Infante had by this time left Cuba because of his dissatisfaction with the Castro regime.  Castro himself, so closely allied with the Soviets, represented for Cabrera Infante an equivalent intrusion into Cuban politics; thus, “The Death of Trotsky” becomes an implicit critique of Castro’s permitting another foreign invasion into the politics of Our America.

Fuentes, writing about Tres tristes tigres in his slim volume of criticism La nueva novela hispanoamericana (1969), rightly identifies Cabrera Infante’s novel’s artistic debts to James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and Vladimir Nabokov, but (perhaps out of respect for his own admiration for Castro at the time) says nothing directly about its politics.  However, Fuentes does see in Tres tristes tigres, especially in its deployment of the pun as its chief linguistic weapon, a kind of template for what he argues must needs be the Spanish-speaking Americas’ literary response to the hemisphere’s chief liabilities: “the false feudal founding of our origins, and its equally false, anachronistic language” (31; this and subsequent quotes from this text are my translations).

Our literature is truly revolutionary in that it relegates to the status quo the lexicon the [bourgeoisie] would prefer and opposes the status quo with the language of the alarm, of reorganization, of dis-order, and of humor. In short, the language of ambiguity: the plurality of meanings, the constellation of allusions: the ever-opening reading. (32)

Puns do this work so effectively, Fuentes argues, because they “[destroy] the fatal tradition of the univocality of our prose,” replacing it with words containing “two, three, ten different roots . . . that make, in just one word, a knot of meaning, each one of which can lead to, or unite with, other centers of allusions which also open onto new constellations of meaning, onto new interpretations” (31; emphases are the author’s).  Indeed, Cabrera Infante succeeds so completely in achieving these possibilities that Fuentes exclaims that in Tres tristes tigres, the Cuban “has created his own Spunish language” (31; the italicized phrase is Fuentes’s).

One doesn’t have to squint too hard to see Fuentes’s arguments here for a disruptive literary language as fitting quite neatly into claims I’m working with in this book regarding the Baroque as an aesthetic and cultural model for the New World.  Though he published La nueva novela five years before Cuban writer Severo Sarduy published Barroco, it’s easy to see him agreeing with Sarduy that Kepler’s discovery of the ellipsoid orbits of the planets around the Sun necessarily require as well

[an altering of] the scientific foundation on which rested the entire knowledge of the age [and] create[ing] a reference point in relation to which all symbolic activity, explicitly or not, is situated. Something is decentering itself, or rather, duplicating, dividing its center; now, the dominant figure is not the circle, with its single, radiating, luminous, paternal center, but the ellipse, which opposes this visible focal point with another, equally functional, equally real, albeit closed off, dead, nocturnal, the blind center, the other side of the Sun’s germinative yang, that which is absent.

(“Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (trans. Christopher Winks), p. 293 in Baroque New Worlds.  For much, much more on the relationship between the Baroque and its link by association with the New World, see this earlier post of mine.)

Similarly, we find Martinican writer Edouard Glissant covering much the same ground as Fuentes regarding the ultimate inadequacies of the colonizer’s language when seeking to convey the cultural realities of living in this hemisphere.  Describing the Creole-speaking peoples of the Caribbean as “haunted by the deep feeling of being different,” their “handling French” [aside: a fascinating turn of phrase] creates “a forced poetics [. . .] from the awareness of the opposition between the language that one uses and a form of expression that one needs” ( 121 in “Natural Poetics, Forced Poetics,” in Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays).  Glissant, to my knowledge, does not talk about the Baroque in his examinations of Caribbean culture, but it seems clear to me that throughout his work he sees that same essential dynamism at work in our understanding of the world resulting from de-centeredness that Sarduy and Fuentes describe.  Whereas those writers, though, would locate the origins of that decenteredness in, respectively, Keplerian cosmology and sociopolitical realities, Glissant (echoing Alejo Carpentier in his own essay on Latin American writers’ search for a proper literary language) locates it in landscape–and not alone for the Caribbean novel, either:

For us, the inescapable shaping force [author’s emphasis] in our productions of literature is what I would call the language of landscape. [. . .]

[R]ealism–that is, the logical and rational attitude toward the visible world–more than anything else would in our case betray the true meaning of things.  As one might say that a painter at work sees the light on his subject change with the movement of the sun, so it seems to me, as far as I am concerned, that my landscape changes in me; it is probable that it changes with me.

[. . .] The very words and letters of the American novel are entangled in the strands, in the mobile structures [such as “the wind that blows and casts shadows like a great tree], of one’s own landscape. (“‘The Novel of the Americas,'” 145-146 in Caribbean Discourse.)

To reel all this back to Cristóbal Nonato now, Glissant’s language here at first glance seems at something of a remove from Fuentes’ novel’s urban settings.  Yet, it’s in my remembering Glissant’s describing the Caribbean as “not an American lake [but] the estuary of the Americas” (“Cross-Cultural Poetics,” p. 139 in Caribbean Discourse) conjures up for me a figurative description of Cristóbal Nonato‘s opening scene: the love-making of Ángel and Ángeles Palomar that leads to the titular character’s conception.  (The reader needs to know that the entirety of the novel is narrated by Cristóbal while in utero.)  The beach of the doubly-named Acapulque/Kafkapulco (though not mentioned in the scene, Acapulco was one of the ports of call for the famed Spanish galleons that sailed from Manila) becomes a historical and cultural estuary for the world’s (and Mexico’s indigenous) cultures and histories through numerous puns as Ángel and Ángeles engage in foreplay and then coitus.

Given all of this, it does not seem at all outlandish to see Cristóbal Nonato as Fuentes’s own attempt to achieve in a Mexican setting–specifically, a Mexico caught between the years-long recovery from the massive 1985 earthquakes and a then-imagined politically-dystopian near-future of 1992–what Cabrera Infante had achieved for late-’50s Havana.  I could go on regarding the other similarities between these two novels, but I have gone on long enough.  There is, however, one observation I want to make before wrapping this up.

Neither of these novels is plotted conventionally, and I think that this, too, is a feature of the neo-Baroque novel that takes seriously the task of describing life in the New World.  Tres tristes tigres, as I mentioned before, has a kaleidoscopic structure: it’s comprised of numerous stories, some of whose characters meet, but they collectively don’t add up to one overarching story.  Its sense of closure, then, I venture to say, arises from Cabrera Infante’s expectation that the reader, knowing what will happen in Cuba a few short years afterward, will understand that in its outward forms, at least, the world it describes will in some ways cease to exist but in others–the ongoing debate about what it means to be Cuban, for example–will not.  Cristóbal Nonato‘s last page, meanwhile, is Cristóbal’s birth, at which he forgets everything he had been narrating from Ángeles’s womb.  He is the winner of the government-sponsored contest that, in honor of the sesquicentennial of Columbus’s arrival in this hemisphere, will grant to the first boy named Cristóbal on October 12, 1992, rulership for life over Mexico upon reaching his majority.  In the world of the novel, we cannot yet know what Cristóbal will do with that power and responsibility.  We already do know, though, something about the nation he will rule over.  Fuentes has never shied from critiquing his nation’s civic dysfunction and pervasive corruption, and he certainly doesn’t here; but (again, as with Cabrera Infante’s novel) he also uses these pages to affirm the life force as the source of Mexico’s salvation (if it is to be saved).  Both these novels, then, in their rather chaotic playings-out and their felt unfinishedness, model that dynamic uncenteredness at the heart of the neo-Baroque as each author, with the help of his reader, seeks after, as I call it in the chapter I’m working on now, a language: not any previously-existing foreign or indigenous language, but one peculiar to this hemisphere, one created by this place’s still-emerging New World culture.

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