The stories the Cuban writer and ethnographer Lydia Cabrera collected in the legendary Afro-Cuban Tales take place “back in the days when animals could speak, when they were all good friends and when men and animals got along fine.” But even back then, we are reminded, “the dog was a slave.”
Cabrera, who was white, was born in Cuba as the 19th century expired. She settled in Paris in 1927. On a return visit to the island in 1930, Cabrera heard from an old black woman named Calixta Morales many of the stories included in Afro-Cuban Tales; she then put on them her own writerly spin. The result is a work that defies categorization, one that owes a debt as much to Aesop’s fables as to the great European fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers and others. Surrealism and existentialism also shaped Cabrera’s vision. There is also in these tales a penchant for the absurd, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll. And it is impossible not to read some of these stories as Freudian parable. The terrifying opening story of the collection, “Bregantino Bregantín,” is about a tyrannical bull, ruler of the kingdom of Cocozumba, who bans all masculine words not directly related to him and orders the infanticide of all his concubine’s male children.
Afro-Cuban Tales first appeared in French translation in 1936, in Spanish in 1940. The short pieces are often no more than musical prose poems, as sensual and tasty as a coconut nougat. All the longer stories, on the other hand, are memorable and highly sophisticated literary artifacts. “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger,” in which we see the blind “sunning themselves, killing each other’s fleas and munching on them with delight” is so enchantingly whacky that I was sorry to see it end. “Los Campadres” starts as a slapstick tale about adultery and becomes a devastating and horrifying Othello-like tragedy. “Mabiala Hill” and “The Amazing Guinea”—the most magical of these stories—are mind-expanding masterpieces that have the unfettered freedom of dadaism.
When critics discuss the sources of magic realism in García Márquez, the names that most often come up as influences are The Arabian Nights, Kafka, Woolf, Carpentier. After reading this essential volume, it’s clear to me that Carpentier—widely acknowledged as the father of magic realism in the Americas—owes much of his baroque richness, and fantasy, to the tales that the Africans brought with them and fertilized with the languorous eroticism, and music of the elements, that they found in the Caribbean.
It’s hard to believe that American readers had to wait 70 years for the translation of Afro-Cuban Tales to relish this influential, and bewitching, classic. Its belated arrival should be cause for great celebration.
—Jaime Manrique is an associate professor in the MFA program in writing at Columbia University.
Afro-Cuban Tales was published by University of Nebraska Press in December, and was translated by Alberto Hernández-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder.