Guillermo Cabrera Infante by Oscar Hijuelos

BOMB 70 Winter 2000
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Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Photo by Daniel Mordzinski.

This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.

In 1964, Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s most famous book, Three Trapped Tigers—an ingenious jazz-rich novel about pre-Castro Havana—brought him to the world’s attention as part of the Latin American boom, but all his works are unique and rewarding. A partial list of the many books he has written includes View of Dawn in the Tropics (1974), Infante’s Inferno (1984) and Holy Smoke (1985). A must for readers of literature, Cabrera Infante’s books are a fantastic distillation of a unique and impassioned—quite Cuban—consciousness. A self-described “writer of fragments,” his narratives about memory, life and history are often funny, always interesting and, from the point of view of the writer’s craft, complex and instructive. As the limitations of space prevent me from the critical appreciation his deeply inventive books deserve, I will speak briefly about the circumstances of this interview. It was conducted by fax, and quickly, due to my own travels and Cabrera Infante’s pressing schedule in London, where he lives with his wife Miriam; we have known each other for ten years. He is a friendly, circumspect, immensely approachable man with a capricious and alert mind. A master writer who, in this context, answers a few questions from an apprentice.

Oscar Hijuelos When you were a child in Cuba what were your first exposures to the notion of narrative?

Guillermo Cabrera Infante As a child I was exposed to the narratives of the movies. But the funnies (or monitos as they were called; in Havana we called them muñequitos) were as important—if not more so. The radio came later, where I heard a series of episodes or comedy programs. I was, by the way, the only one of my friends and/or classmates who read the funnies or could tell the difference between the movies and the serials. From the comic books in Havana I learned that a strip could be a trip, as in The Spirit, where Will Eisner’s heroes were always dressed in blue (blue suits, blue felt hat, blue gloves) and had a sidekick who was a black boy, called Ebony in Cuba as in Ebony Concerto. Serials like The Three Daredevils of the Red Circle (the titles are approximations of the Spanish ones) were exercises in waiting for the Coming Attractions. It is rather baffling—at least to me—that there were more thrills in the funnies than in the movies. I taught myself to read by deciphering the inscriptions in the balloons because my father or my mother was fed up with my insistence on instant gratification by translation. They were all, as it should be, forms of popular art more pertinent than literature then.

OH Were you fascinated by the story content of old Cuban songs?

GI Cuban songs, or rather, boleros, were more important when the tunes carried a message. I became intrigued about what the lyrics could mean that made people sing almost in unison “voy por la vereda tropical!” But the first phrase that conveyed any meaning for me, of all things, came from a movie—some sort of appreciation expressed by Paul Muni in Scarface every time he encountered something that for him was tempting and therefore meant what I later knew was called class. The phrase, which I learned through repetition, was “Expensive, eh?”—more menacing than a direct threat.

OH Can you remember the first time that you were conscious of seeing your name written, as a child?

GI My name was a source of embarrassment, as my father had the grand idea of giving me the first name at home, of “Junior.” In school, Cabrera, my second name became my first. And all because my father was my namesake and nobody was called Guillermo. Within my family I was called Guillermito.

OH Did you know any writers and were there books in your house?

GI There were books around when I was a boy as my father inherited all the books from my great-uncle, Tio Matías’s library; he was sort of an intellectual who wrote in one of my hometown afternoon newspapers called El Gibareña, under the nom de plume Sócrates. He was a great influence on my father’s life, whom he almost adopted when an awful tragedy made him an orphan. My paternal grandfather killed his wife, Tio Matías’s sister, and then he shot himself. My father was only two years old at the time and was raised by his older sister and by my great-grandmother, a terrible tyrant of a woman. It was inevitable that my father would be a communist who in turn made of my mother another communist—though she was educated in a convent. She used to have at home a lithograph of a bleeding Jesus next to a colored photograph of bloody Joseph Stalin! With such knowledge, what forgiveness? My great-grandfather and my great-grandmother on my mother’s side were avid readers of at least two national newspapers. A godsend, for those papers had a supplement of funnies on Saturday and Sunday with Tarzan, Smilin’ Jack, and last and not least, Dick Tracy, which also appeared during the week but not in color, as the X9 Adventures. I was reading Dashiell Hammett without knowing it. On Sundays there was Prince Valiant and the original Tarzan in color drawn by the incredible Hogarth, no kin to the English master and illustrator of Tristram Shandy. My father had the first byline in the family: he was a columnist and typographer for El Triunfo, the other (town) newspaper. He was then also the clandestine responsible for the propaganda of the Communist party—which proved his undoing. Both my father and mother were taken to jail in Santiago de Cuba, and my brother and I were left in the custody of my maternal grandmother. Six months later, they were released for lack of evidence that they were dealing in clandestine propaganda against the Batista regime, then in power for the first time. Nevertheless, two years later they were helping Batista become the legal president—on party orders. That should have been a lesson to them, but it was an unforgettable memory for me. When my father and mother came back from prison, my father was without a job and my mother had to begin working at home as a lace-maker. Two years later we emigrated to Havana, where my father worked as a journalist for Hoy the communist sheet—a legal newspaper with Batista’s blessing. The funniest thing is that Hoy, came on Sundays with Superman as a feature funny based more on Nietzsche than on Marx! I didn’t start to write and have a short story published in Cuba’s leading weekly magazine until seven years later with my name suffering a sea change as I had to call myself Guillermo C. Infante.

OH Was there an author, long dead, who you would have liked to meet?

GI I wanted to meet Cervantes, and I did. My speech of acceptance was, in fact, a dinner date with Don Miguel himself. I could see, from my vantage point, King Juan Carlos of Spain shaking his head in disbelief. (Earlier, he had put around my neck a medal with the writer’s effigy.) But the joke was on me. How dare this uncouth Cuban talk to Cervantes himself?

OH Did you have a favorite movie actor?

GI For a time I believed that Marlon Brando was the best actor I’d ever seen. But of course my favorite actor had to be the cigar smoking, gun-toting and dangerous Edward G. Robinson. I became a sedulous ape, cigar and all. My moment came during the Barcelona Film Festival when the director sat me next to the former Mrs. Robinson. She asked for it. She said to me: “You remind me of Eddy.” And I said, “Who, Eddie Fisher?” She was aghast. Cigars are the best reminders.

OH As your books are filled with puns and word plays, I am wondering who the first punster in your life might have been?

GI My English teacher, Emilio González, was a master punster. No sooner had I taken my seat than he was engaging me in a spelling match and asking me to spell or not to expel or be expelled. He also concocted anagrams in Spanish, as when he asked for la peneta para el patroceto, meaning a quarter (a peseta) for el patronato (school fees).

OH Why is that while reading Three Trapped Tigers I sometimes thought of the writer James M. Cain? Am I imagining that you were intrigued by the more emphatic elements in his work? In any event, what did the works of Cain and other American writers do for you, if anything?

GI As usual I saw the movie before I read the book. One of the reasons I read it was that I was looking for a gorgeous facsimile of Lana Turner in its pages. But she was not there of course. I admired Double Identity (that’s how my typewriter spells “indemnity”) because of Barbara Stanwyck. To watch her coming downstairs and see first her ankles and then her legs. As she wore an anklet on one of them, it was a lesson not in anatomy, but in eroticism. As you know, an anklet is called an esclava in Spanish and I became myself a slave of hers. It was, literally, my first erotic experience in a movie—but not in a moviehouse. At the time I didn’t care for directors or actresses—called actors nowadays. I found a new kind of eroticism in other books, other writers. Like Erskine CaIdwell with his white trash stories or the Faulkner of Sanctuary with wicked Popeye letting Temple Drake have it with a corncob. Yes, Old Cuthbert made me do it: I read The Wild Palms before I could spell Yoknapathapha. Here it was Borges who made me do it. Or rather his translation of The Wild Palmswith a better title, Les plameras salvajes, and a better prose. (Borges would say that I improved the novel by reading it.) After reading Palms I searched for all the novels of Faulkner translated into Spanish—or rather into the Argentine idioms that I then retranslated into Cuban. (As you know God’s Little Acre became La chacrita de Diosbefore I translated chacrita as la finquita when it really meant la pequeña parcela.) Then I discovered Signet Books, where all Faulkner was published in paperback and then Cain came along, not as brutal as Faulkner but more eroticizing. Especially when Cora asks her lover, that is me, the reader, to bite her, to beat her—and I am quoting from a distant memory. But it was all there, on the printed page and it was, like Hugo would have said, “un frisson nouveau.”

OH Did you, if memory serves me correctly, write movie reviews for Carteles, under the pseudonym Cain?

GI I used this pseudonym, among others, because I had been put in prison sometime before for writing and publishing under a spreading synonym a short story with “English profanities”—and here came the judge and fined me with the then extraordinary amount of $250.

OH Having first published in Cuba, at a time when José Lezama Lima and Alejo Carpentier were about, did you know them well? Did you like their work? Were they kindly toward you?

GI Lezama was a literary lion but Carpentier was a cowardly lion. Lezama’s prose (I am not qualified to judge his poetry because I don’t read poetry) was like an Orphic testament while Alejo Carpentier became, in Cuba under Castro, too much of a commissar to judge him kindly. (But I can say now that The Lost Steps is a masterpiece—though a Venezuelan one. At the time Carpentier was a Venezuelan according to passport and himself.) If Carpentier looked like an alien and talked like an alien it was because he was an alien. He was born, in fact, in Geneva, Switzerland to a French father and Russian mother. Lezama on the contrary was the opposite of a commissar but he ruled over Cuban poetry (my dyslexic eye almost wrote “pottery” instead) from his siege in Trocadero Street as if sitting in his sedan chair between two poles, poetry and prose. Furthermore, he was a good man, Carpentier was not.

OH Though Cuban writers like Reinaldo Arenas, Calvert Casey and Severo Sarduy have passed on, are there any writers from Castro’s Cuba who you are friendly with, despite the “adjustments of politics?”

GI There are some interesting new writers, all born under the bad sign of Fidel Castro. Among them Zoé Valdés, a little lady with a big hand, and Senel Paz and Abilio Estévez, being homosexuals together—and for that you need a lot of courage, as proven by Senel’s short story whose outlook on life dominates all of Strawberries and Chocolate. Anton Arrufat and Estévez are now openly writing in Cuba and abroad valedictions of Virgilio Piñera, who was crushed by State Security only because he was homosexual and proud of it. Pinera died in obscurity but now his Cuentos completosare published in Spain with a brave introduction by Arrufat and a braver remembrance of his last years in Darkest Cuba by Estévez.

OH That you left Cuba in the 1960s (I believe) speaks for itself, but did you have any conversations with el Líder, and at what time of day did you decide that enough was enough?

GI I knew Castro when he was not yet Fidel in Havana in 1948. He was then a member of a gangsteroid group called the UIR, without an H. The group was leadered by a brave madman called Emilio Tro, who used to avenge past grievances by shooting his enemies—and then placing a sign over their dead bodies which said, “La justicia tarda pero Ilega,” meaning that his own brand of justice could be slow in coming but it always arrived. Castro was about that time a tall young thug who always dressed in double-breasted suits to better conceal the gun underneath. He was accused of killing his namesake Monolo Castro, no kin, but the black humor of a Castro killing a Castro did not escape many. Later, when he was el Maximo Líder I collaborated with him in Revolución (I was the editor of the literary supplement) when he said in a televised speech, “This Revolution won’t be like Saturn,” meaning Kronos,”and it won’t devour its children.” I said loudly, “But it will devour its grandchildren instead.” It was pathetic but it was also prophetic. Saying things like that contributed to the banning of the magazine some time later in 1961. Enough was enough when he closed the magazine and announced his Stalinist credo: “With the Revolution everything, against the Revolution nothing.” And it was only for him to decide when and who were against or in favor of his Revolution. It took me years to extricate myself because you don’t leave your country as if leaving the party—which was over anyway.

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Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Photo by Néstor Almendros. Photo courtesy the artist.

OH Speaking of Cuba, what are your favorite Cuban songs? And what was your favorite orchestra? Did you waste part of your youth in Havana night clubs? Did you ever meet Desi Arnaz, or for that matter, Miguelito Valdez, or Beny More?

GI Not a Cuban song but a Mexican bolero called “Perfidia” not to confuse with porphirria, a hereditary illness. It was, of course, in the middle of things in the Havana night life of its heyday from 1954 to 1958. (Please read my I Heard Her Sing in Spanish—or Rather Cuban: it was called then Ella cantaba boleros.) I knew everybody worth knowing from Ignacio Pineiro to Cachao and Beny More. I saw Chano Pazo when I was a boy, all in white dancing with Los Dandys de Belén as the vanguard of his comparsa and shared a Turkish bath with Bola de Nieve. (It was here that Bola asked me a question as sort of a confession: Can you tell me what does dialectics mean?) If I didn’t know them they weren’t worth knowing. I wrote an article as early as 1956 in which I wrote, for the first time, what Cuban music was all about. Don’t pay any attention to Ry Cooder, with his slide guitar alien to the Cuban tres, or to the Wim Wenders documentary. Those are Greeks bearing gifts to the gifted or bringing coal to Newcastle. When you have heard the chords of Peruchín, you know where Rubén González came from: Peruchín was there before. He was there first to teach how to play piano with the black keys only: a master of the lost chord between silences and hesitation rhythms. Peruchín died after being utterly humiliated for saying aloud what others in the orchestra (it happened in the Tropicana) didn’t dare. He was forced to paint with a white brush the footpath to the cabaret, old chum. This ruined his hands but didn’t break his spirit. He left behind a treasure trove with his three records now sold abroad by the same people who chastised him so cruelly. Desi was a comedian called Cuban Pete in Hollywood and Mr. Babaloo in Manhattan though he was singing the songs Miguelito Valdes sang before with the Orquesta Casion de la Playa in the early ’40s. Miguelito died pour la gloire in Bogotá, Colombia. A step or two before falling dead, muttered, “I’m sorry. Excuse me, but…” He was singing “Babalu Aye.” But one word or two before he goes. Arnaz, together with the formidable Lucille Ball, made it possible to conceive an Anglo house where a Cuban held his own. He was also, but nobody knows, a gracious Cuban writer, as seen in his autobiography, where the Cuban chapters are funny while the rest of his performance is, as in I Love Lucy, self-deprecatory to become later, in The Mask, a celebration of sorts. A funny man still funny in the toon by a tune. A Cuban Pete after all. I met Errol Flynn in Havana at the Jamanitas film studio in 1958, when he was directing and acting in a movie that later became Cuban Rebel Girls. But that morning he was very kind to me, though I could see in his face the ravages of too much sun and too much sex the night before—of revel ’til reveille-with five rebel girls. (I have a photograph, a fake signed by him to prove it with his signature, posing as a family man!)

OH If Jesus Christ were suddenly to appear in your living room, what would you ask him?

GI To perform again His miracle of preparing a meal of bread and fish. (In London it would have to be of course fish and chips.) And then ask Him, “What about dessert?”

OH What do you think about the “Boom” writers? Do you feel that it was a fabrication, started by marketing geniuses? Do you consider yourself part of that “Boom”?

GI The “Boom” was created by the Uruguayan critic Emir Monegal in Paris and then appropriated by an Argentine magazine down the Argentina way. It was actually a gentleman’s club, the members were not writers but self-publicizing gents. There was a square table and five chairs, pronounced “shares” by the Argentine. Four chairs were occupied by writers of the leftist persuasion. The fifth chair was given sometimes to José Donoso, who wrote a book about his experience. I became in fact the odd man out while the other writers enjoyed being geniuses together. Three of them were my friends at the time when they lived in London but kept their distance when I wrote my Argentine interview which made some noise—that sounded more like, let’s say a bomb. It was the, as Nietzsche would put it, dynamite and the echo was heard in Madrid, Paris, and London like a distant trumpet.

OH Do you still count certain of these writers as friends?

GI Only Mario Vargas Llosa remained a friend and a neighbor who had—and still has—his shop around the corner.

OH Do you like Cortázar’s Hopscotch?

GI It was Denoso himself who gave Hopscotch its due. He asked me apropos of nothing, “have you read Rayuela lately?” I said no and he said, “I beg of you not to do it now. It will fall from your hands.” What a falling out there was! But Cortázar will not be best remembered for his short stories. I even wrote a screenplay based on his Autopista del Sur which I transformed into The Jam, the movie that never was.

OH Do you like critics?

GI I believe that Gertrude Stein said it all when asked by a French critic: “What do you expect from me?” Retorted dear old Gertrude, the woman who always retorted, “praise, praise, and praise…”

OH Style seems to me a way of conveying a personality; I am thinking of the eccentricities of Kafka, the verbal densities of Joyce, the baroque lyricism of García Márquez, etc. The best books seem to allow the reader the chance to “crawl inside” the heads and hearts of writers. And what do you make of finely stylistic writers who never seem to let one inside their hearts? Or for that matter younger American writers like Richard Powers (Gain) or David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) who seem to have followed up the work of American postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon?

GI There are writers who have a void for a core. What you call “baroque lyricism” is a surface thing, all sound and fury signifying exactly nothing. The best of the South American writers was and still is Borges, who instead of a baroque who went for broke became a classic in fact. There has not been in Spanish a writer like him since Calderon who died in 1680 or ’81. I don’t know as much about American writers as I did when I was young, but I believe that Pynchon is a hard act to follow. Of course not as hard as Salinger. That’s the reason, I think, for them becoming recluses.

OH Did you ever meet Hemingway?

GI Oh yes, I even went fishing with Hemingway on his boat the Pilar. He was after the big marlin he never caught, just the opposite of his Cuban counterpart, Santiago.

OH Did Moby-Dick do anything for you?

GI Hemingway catching the big white marlin was not too far from Captain Ahab’s lunacy. You could call me Ishmael, the US male. I read Moby Dick once and I am glad I did so as to not have to read it again. For me the great American writer of the 19th century was Mark Twain for the same reason I believe that Sterne was the greatest English novelist. Humor was flowing from their veins, into the pen and onto the page. But reading now a fine biography of Swift, I tend to believe that Joyce was right when he called Sterne Swift and Swift Sterne.

OH I know that you have written films like Vanishing Point, which I saw once in a Wisconsin drive-in. Was that a good, or funny, or insane experience? What did you think of Titanic? And do you have a top-ten list of films. Mine begins with Sons of the Desert.

GI Vanishing Point was a dreadful experience but not as you might think, because the system still in 1969 was tumbling down. Though the movie was produced by 20th Century Fox, it was all made, literally but not literarily, on the road. The problem was not the producers but the director. I wrote a movie about a man with troubles in a car but he made a different kind of movie about a man with a car in trouble. Nevertheless they paid me handsomely and I stayed three months at the Fox Studios. One standing joke was that they gave me an office, a casting couch and all in the Old Writers Building. I came back to London with a piece of the action, points that still make me some money. Titanic was about two star-crossed lovers. In fact it was Romeo and Juliet in a sinking ship. I enjoyed not the plot with the same old anecdotes about the Old Gentleman telling his valet to dress him properly, the orchestra playing until the last chord, cowardly men disguised as women. But of course I loved the special effects. How did they do it? It was all done with mirrors—including the mirror of the sea. I had my list of the best or worst movies published in A Twentieth Century Job. I have also written a short story, published in the New Yorker, about a man gone crazy with lists. The title was—what else?—”Lists.”

OH Now if you were walking around Madrid in the early afternoon, looking for guitar shops, which fictional character from a novel would you like for company?

GI But we already did that together with the Castillo brothers. Don’t you remember? I was the third man in Madrid. You bought a guitar and I remember wondering why you didn’t buy a tres? Did you know that the best tresero alive is the Puerto Rican called Nelson González? His tres was given to him by Arsenio Rodriguez himself as a momento moriae, (moriae, an Erasmoid joke.)

OH There is much discussion about the “dumbing down of America.” Living in London, do you see this as being true? Or do you think that an old truth is just finally coming out?

GI It is not a dumbing down but a dumping ground. Gertrude Stein once said that the glory of England was their literature of the small village. She was probably referring to Jane Austen, but that no longer pertains. English literature lost, at least for me, with the death of Burgess, Waugh and Wodehouse, what was known as the English sense of humor. Now is the time of the Anglo-Indian with Rushdie, Seth and Indian women writers. Of course the best of them is V.S. Naipaul, a master of the English language. Was it Napoleon who said, “England is a country of Indian shopkeepers?”

OH In the states, it’s suddenly “the time of the Latino!” How does this strike you?

GI I wrote a long article on the Latinos and Ladinos in Hollywood, where it all started, way back in the ’20s. When Louis B. Mayer bought a novel by Blazco Ibáñez for the debut of Greta Garbo. His name was not only above the title, but the movie was advertised as Ibáñez’s glory The Torrent. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was also written by Blazco and it catapulted Rudolph Valentino to fame, and originated the tango craze. Cuban music was present since the coming of age of sound with the actors dancing the conga played by the curious Catalán named Cugat. Remember Groucho asking the ample Raquel Torres, a dusky beauty, “Do you rhumba?” with an itch and an ache. Who’s got the pain when they are doing the mambo? The Homeric adjective phrase, “tall, dark, and handsome” was said not of Cary Grant but of Cesar Romero, to Jose Marti’s grandson!

OH How does living in England make you feel? Borges had a great affinity for the English, admiring, I believe, their Senecan reserve and bookish ways. Is that way of life a source of joy to you… Do you like crumpets and sausage rolls? And can one get some good tostones in London?

GI I like to tease interviewers saying that I am as English as muffins. (Or words to that effect.) Actually I am as foreign as I could be and to boot a Cuban in Saudi Kensington. Naipaul who lives in the same Gloucester Road but down the road, said that exiles must despise the country they live in. I hate English food, except for roast beef—that used to be my staple before the mad cow’s disease. And about tostones, Miriam Gómez makes the best ones, called by her chatinos, to rhyme with latinos.

OH What is your apartment like?

GI My apartment is not an apartment but a flat, a ground floor flat in a building built in 1830 and converted from a terrace house into an enormous room, a mixture of a living room, study and dining and kitchen areas, with a bedroom in the back. Miriam Gómez rebuilt it and redecorated it to look like our apartment at El Retiro in Havana. The visiting area is dominated by a library and there are books everywhere. A Chilean boy who lived upstairs came into our flat one day and said to his mother, “Look mom, a book house!”

OH I’ve been told that you won’t travel without your lovely wife Miriam… Is she your muse?

GI I don’t go as far as the corner without Miriam Gómez. She’s my memory, my sense memory and my Nmemosine, mother of the Muses and the goddess of remembrance.

OH (The root canal is almost over.) On a final note, have you ever thought of “your legacy”—a term that I find as charming as “root canal.” Does it interest you to be remembered 100 years from now? Or is it the work that you are doing now that always counts the most?

GI I am convinced that in a hundred years time the only writing remembered in Spanish will be Borges. I told him so at our last dinner at the Brown’s Hotel, telling him he shouldn’t worry about getting or not getting the Noble Prize. I then added, “Of course you’re not interested in the money from the prize.” And he smiled and said, a sudden Argentine: “No crea, no crea.”

Originally published in

BOMB 70, Winter 2000

Featuring interviews with Ruben Ortiz, Juan Manuel Echavarria, Susan Baca, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Jose Cura, Adelia Prado, Ernesto Neto, Mayra Montero, Claribel Alegria, Francisco Toledo, and Juan Formell. 

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