Interviews

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, The Art of Fiction No. 75

Interviewed by Alfred Mac Adam

Guillermo Cabrera Infante was born on April 22, 1929, in Gibara, a small town on the northern coast of the Cuban province of Oriente—also the birthplace of Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro. Because his parents were members of the Communist Party, the family was obliged to move to Havana in 1941. He grew up with a double interest: literature and cinema. In 1947, he published his first story and in 1951 he founded the Cinemateca de Cuba. Briefly jailed in 1952 for publishing a tale containing English profanities, he had to write under a pseudonym: G. Cain.

Cain became Cuba’s best-known film critic. In 1957, he took part in underground, anti-Batista activities. When Batista abdicated (December 31, 1958), he worked on the newspaper Revolución, as editor of the Monday literary supplement. He traveled in the entourage of Fidel Castro through the U.S. and Latin America. In 1960, he published his first book of stories, As in Peace, So in War. By 1961, his relation with the Castro government had soured: Lunes, the literary supplement, was banned. He was named cultural attaché in Brussels in 1962, the same year G. Cain published his collected film reviews (with a preface by G. Cabrera Infante).

The manuscript version of Three Trapped Tigers was nominated for the Prix Formentor in 1965. That same year Cabrera Infante returned to Havana for his mother’s funeral and left Cuba forever on October 3. He remained in Madrid until October of 1966, when he moved to London, where he lives today.

His publications available in English include: Three Trapped Tigers (1971), View of Dawn in the Tropics (1978), the essay “Bites From the Bearded Crocodile” (London Review of Books, June 1981). His most recent novel, La Habana para un infante difunto (1979), is currently being translated with the provisional title Infante’s Inferno.

This interview took place in 1982, during the spring semester at the University of Virginia, where Cabrera Infante was a visiting professor. It was conducted in the living room of the house Cabrera Infante and his wife of twenty-one years, the actress Miriam Gómez, had rented for the semester—a charming, yellow, mock-Georgian home that belongs to an English professor. It is decorated in a loosely eighteenth-century style, and contains a large collection of books, mostly by eighteenth-century-style British authors.

Cabrera Infante, a devotee of small work spaces, himself a smallish person, works upstairs in a tiny, untidy study adjacent to the master bedroom. When he is not writing or talking on the telephone, he birdwatches, joining Miriam Gómez, binoculars and Peterson Guide in hand among the trees surrounding the house, or peruses tv Guide in pursuit of old movies.

The high-ceilinged living room where we talk is decorated with prints of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress. Outside, a subject of great interest to Naso, the family cat, are large numbers of cardinals, robins, and starlings gathered to eat the seeds Miriam Gómez has scattered for them—her desire to feed and watch birds in conflict with her love for cats. Above the sofa where Cabrera Infante sits, Hogarth’s women crowd around the drunken Rake and provide a curious counterpoint to the interview: their silent brawling mocks our supposedly genteel conversation.

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you write?

GUILLERMO CABRERA INFANTE

Do you mean the position I assume at the desk?

INTERVIEWER

No, no. I mean your writing habits.

CABRERA INFANTE

In fact I don’t really write all that much. I type. Nowadays I type on my brand-new Praxis 35, an Olivetti made in Japan—the old Rome-Tokyo axis now become a merger. The problem is that this typewriter, instead of becoming unruly like all my old typewriters and old girlfriends, started out imitating my wife, Miriam Gómez, by trying to do my thinking for me. It’s like living in a totalitarian state. No wonder they named it Praxis. That’s what Marxists call “thought in action.” Praxis may make perfect for them, but not for me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you jot down notes on the typewriter too?

CABRERA INFANTE

I used to, but the notes became pages and sometimes short stories. I write down notes in my acromegalic handwriting, with letters as big as fingers on a small pocket notebook or on steno pads, which I keep everywhere—on my desk, my night table, in the kitchen. Steno pads should have a better name . . .

INTERVIEWER

What better name could they have?

CABRERA INFANTE

Sterno pads. In honor of Laurence Sterne, digressor.

INTERVIEWER

Sterne? Lots of critics—to say nothing of students forced to read him—attack him because of his digressions.

CABRERA INFANTE

I don’t have to defend Sterne; he is his own defense, the Sterne line. And I certainly agree when he says that “digressions are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading.”

INTERVIEWER

Swift was no less devoted to digression than Sterne. What do you think of him?

CABRERA INFANTE

The digressor as aggressor. The difference is that Swift was all saeva indignatio and that savage indignation was the motor of all his writings. You couldn’t find a less playful writer among his contemporaries. Compared to Swift, Pope was a stand-up comedian.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have an affinity for English eighteenth-century satire—something people might not expect from a Cuban writer. How do you understand satire, as a literary genre?

CABRERA INFANTE

Look, my friend, who knows what to expect from a Cuban writer, or any writer anywhere? Why not Sterne and Swift? Or Armor and Swift? At best, satire is didactic. At worst, political. This means that satires are not ludic or playful but just the opposite. They are the play wherein the satirist catches the conscience of the audience, which is why they are so closely related to sermons, religious tracts, and political pamphlets. Personally, I feel closer to Swift’s motto, Vive la bagatelle, than to his epitaph. Long live trivia! Where he and I part company is the grave, where his satire is most serious, and where I would rather turn that bagatelle into “bag-a-Stella.” Swift wanted to use satire, literature, “to mend the World.” To me this makes writing, which should be an end in itself—literature—into something political. Any literary work that aspires to the condition of art must forget politics, religion, and, ultimately, morals. Otherwise it will be a pamphlet, a sermon, or a morality play. Even the greatest moralist of our century, Joseph Conrad, was first and foremost an entertainer.

INTERVIEWER

What would you say about Solzhenitsyn?

CABRERA INFANTE

Solzhenitsyn is a failed artist but a very successful moralist. His novels are pretentious junk, but his political writing, The Gulag Archipelago books for example, are precious masterpieces of indictment.

INTERVIEWER

Is George Orwell, then, also a failure?

CABRERA INFANTE

Yes, a failure as an artist, but a superb pamphleteer. His political essays, together with Camus’s, are the best written in Europe since World War II. These men are heroes because they fight swords with words—but that doesn’t make them artists.

INTERVIEWER

You raise the difficult problem of reading. How do we read a satirist such as Swift?

CABRERA INFANTE

A critic, or let’s say an attentive reader, reads Gulliver’s Travels and decides that Swift must either be right as an artist and wrong as a moralist or the other way around. But Swift had no such problem: he was concerned with moral issues and with deploying his arguments with the best rhetorical devices he could muster. He succeeds as an artist, but to appreciate that aspect of his work we have to set aside his moral issues. Mind you, deep down he was right about something we are not ready to admit, namely, that man is a beast, a predator, evil without redemption.

INTERVIEWER

What about the fact that Swift was Dean Swift, a cleric?

CABRERA INFANTE

That’s a big problem for Swiftians: Swift believed man to be rotten through and through. For him the only hope for humanity lay in beasts. The whole structure of eighteenth-century faith in the goodness of man collapses at the first whinny of the Houyhnhnm. That’s where the slogan “Four legs good, two legs bad” really originated. But Swift was serious where Orwell was mischievous.

INTERVIEWER

Do you agree with this misanthropic theory?

CABRERA INFANTE

Totally. I think Creation, Evolution, or, what it is probably—Chance—made a mistake. Man is the most dangerous mistake in the universe, a glorious but miserable mistake. He is about to destroy the entire planet, and it’s the rest of Nature that will pay for it. Man, to put it in Swiftian terms Swift could never utter, is the cancer of the planet!

INTERVIEWER

Is that exclamatory tone the one you use in the pulpit?

CABRERA INFANTE

All right, you’re right. The tone is too high, but the tune is true. Besides, I share Swift’s love for horses and women. The difference is that I like to play with women and he lacked any erotic vocation. He was sexually active, but I think he spurned intercourse finally because while he liked the foreplay he hated what Sade loved and Yeats lamented—that sex takes place in the site of the excreta. Add to that the idea that sex meant entering a body in the places where foul things were trying to exit. Remember that in the eighteenth century sex was a prelude to venereal disease, or, even worse, the procreation of evil. You know, I think “A Modest Proposal” is meant as much as a form of belated birth control as a comic remedy for poverty and hunger in Ireland. He knew that if horses (the perfect animal) were to survive, man had to cease to exist. The notion that a beast could be more perfect than man was, of course, perfectly un-Christian, so he has to be read as a comic writer or as a madman. We defuse his message by turning him into a humanist, the author of a children’s book.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps we might return to Swift on the matter of digression.

CABRERA INFANTE

We never left it; this was a digression on aggression.

INTERVIEWER

Let me be specific: could you have written Swift’s “Digression in Praise of Digressions”?

CABRERA INFANTE

I’ll answer if you use the Johnsonian “Sir” to ask me.

INTERVIEWER

Just this once then: “Sir.”

CABRERA INFANTE

Thank you. Yes, I could have written most of it, especially the part about having heard of many attempts to write the Iliad in a nutshell and having seen a nutshell in an Iliad. And that quip that people use books as men use lords: They only know their titles but claim their acquaintance. I also like the way he sets up a polemic so he can attack both sides. One fault: Swift begs the reader’s pardon for “digressing from himself” and claims it’s a necessity. This for Sterne would be an excusatio non petita.

INTERVIEWER

What literary device does Swift’s writing hinge on?

CABRERA INFANTE

Parody, sheer parody. If he weren’t a parodist he couldn’t have written “A Modest Proposal.” And Gulliver’s Travels is a parody of travel literature and, of course, Robinson Crusoe. There is an important parodic strain that runs through most of my favorite English writers: Swift, Sterne, even Lewis Carroll. In fact, the three could be said to have written a single book, with chapters called A Tale of a Tub, Sentimental Journey, and Sylvie and Bruno. Their remote ancestor is the Satyricon, with which they share a will to fragmentation and black humor.

INTERVIEWER

None seems terribly concerned with plot, or, for that matter, character.

CABRERA INFANTE

I don’t know what plot and character are. Dickens created all possible (and impossible) characters, so that takes care of character. And plot, for me, belongs in mystery stories and movies. I am concerned with literary space, which is language, and not literary time. When we talk about character, we inevitably drift toward psychology: Choderlos Laclos was the first and the last to use it properly.

INTERVIEWER

You know, you manage to make Swift, Sterne, and even Carroll sound rather melancholy.

CABRERA INFANTE

Mea culpa! Don’t forget we live a heritage of humorless thinkers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, or Sartre. When you have a sense of humor, you can laugh off your philosophic melancholy even when you know the joke is on you. I’ll bet none of those English writers we’ve mentioned really believed in God.

INTERVIEWER

Even Reverend Dodgson?

CABRERA INFANTE

He was too good a logician to believe in so absurd a Maker. I think he believed man was made by the daughter of Chance and Fate, Miss Fortune.

INTERVIEWER

How does all this British misanthropy, parody, satire, and humor relate to your first major book, Three Trapped Tigers?

CABRERA INFANTE

TTT is an English book written elsewhere. It’s not British and it’s not short, but at least it’s nasty and therefore true to life.

INTERVIEWER

The word “sad” is in the Spanish title: why did you excise that hint to the reader in the translation?

CABRERA INFANTE

In Tres tristes tigres, sadness is just a word, part of a tongue twister that means nothing. Three Sad Tigers, at best, sounds like the title of a children’s book. It’s not a happy book, but I tried to make it one because, with Jefferson, I feel man has a right to the pursuit of happiness.

INTERVIEWER

I’m not sure, but I think Jefferson first put the word property where happiness is today.

CABRERA INFANTE

Then like an American Proudhon, I can say that happiness is theft. I should write a sequel to TTT, in which the writer Silvestre would find the actor Arsenio Cué a fugitive from a soap opera, unkempt and unshaved. Before disappearing, Cué would parody Paul Muni’s memorable last words in I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to answer Silvestre’s question about how he was doing and say, “I steal.”

INTERVIEWER

Since you mention TTT, I would like to ask you some questions about your other books. Why have you disowned your first book, the story-cycle Asi en paz como en la guerra (1960)?

CABRERA INFANTE

There’s juvenilia in that book but also some senilia. It was mostly written when I started writing movie criticism in the mid-fifties. I have nothing against the stories. In fact, half a dozen or so may be salvageable. But it’s the book itself I object to.

INTERVIEWER

But why?

CABRERA INFANTE

Because it’s a book not written but collected under the perverse influence of Sartre and his idea that a writer must not only write about a moment in History (like Marx he always capitalized the word), but also comment on his writing as well. Sartre also demands that the writer include all of society. It’s aesthetically hideous, a kind of social realism with a human face or a species of naturalism with a socialist conscience. Believe me, that book was collated with evil glue.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard it said that you actually began writing because after you read Miguel Angel Asturias’s El señor presidente (1941) you said that you could certainly do no worse than Asturias. Is that true, and, if so, where is the story?

CABRERA INFANTE

It’s true; the year was 1947, the yarn was published in the magazine Bohemia, but if you think I’m going to talk about it you’re crazy.

INTERVIEWER

I see, you’re not only modest but discreet. Perhaps instead you’d tell me about the publication history of TTT, how it began life as a book called View of Dawn in the Tropics?

CABRERA INFANTE

It’s a simple story. The book that won the Spanish Biblioteca Breve Prize in Barcelona in 1964 was vetoed by Franco’s censors. That happened while I was forcibly detained in Cuba in 1965. Then I had second thoughts about the book. I began toying with the idea of changing it and wrote what is now the final fragment, “Bachata.” When I finally managed to get out of Cuba, I found out what had happened to the old manuscript. I rewrote it all then and there under the new title, which was its title before it won the prize. There was still some censoring, but there was lots of genuine rewriting.

INTERVIEWER

The way you link the two, it would seem the censor was also a kind of editor.

CABRERA INFANTE

As a matter of fact, that Spanish censor was more creative than my publisher or any of his editors. He made twenty-two cuts, mostly concerning the female bosom, his fondest obsession. Wherever I wrote “tits,” he substituted “breasts.” He eliminated oral indelicacies of any kind—even though such things do not abound in TTT, which is rather a chaste book about friendship rather than sex. But the censor had more than sex on his mind, especially if men were involved, so if a character went to a military academy and turned into a homosexual later on, the censor simply crossed out “military,” making the academy more Platonic than Prussian. At the end of the book, the censor got really creative. The ending is a long speech by a madwoman I had copied down years before and was now using as an epilogue. The old woman talked endlessly, always repeating herself. She was a religious fanatic, damning Catholicism, the Pope, and priests. The censor cut all that and with it all that was repetitious and neorealist in the speech. The last sentence in his version, all in lowercase and without punctuation, was cant go no further. Who could ask for a better ending?

INTERVIEWER

Your readers in English have TTT and the collection of vignettes from Cuban history called View of Dawn in the Tropics (1974) available to them, but they have had little opportunity to read your nonfiction. Would you comment on that other side of your writing?

CABRERA INFANTE

Gladly. I’ll begin with a book called, depending on the reader, O or Zero—O (1975) in Spanish. It’s a combination of previously published pieces and some essays I wrote for the book. The one I like best is “An Innocent Pornographer.” It’s about Corin Tellado, a writer of cheap romantic novels—the kind called novela rosa, or rosy romance, in Spanish. She is the most widely read author writing in Spanish today and has been manufacturing a novelette a week for the past twenty-five or thirty years. I’m proud to say that I was the first person to write about her seriously and that since the time of my essay (mid-1967), she has been the subject of countless articles, interviews, even television programs. Nobody saw that the essay was written with a tongue in my rosy cheek.

INTERVIEWER

Your other book of essays seems closer to your literary writing. Why is that?

CABRERA INFANTE

Exorcismos de esti(l)o (1976) is definitely another kettle of fish. The title is obviously an homage to Raymond Queneau and, at the same time, an advertisement for itself because of its complicated asymmetry. It means many things: the exorcizing of style, exercises in summertime, even the lure of the pen—all in a send-up of Exercises de Style. This is one of my favorites among my own books and it closes the cycle begun in my collected movie reviews, Un oficio del siglo xx (1963). In Exorcismos, I expanded my experience (not experiment, a word I loathe when I see it applied to art instead of science) with Havanese, the idiom of habaneros, who might perhaps be called hablaneros or total talkers. Most of it was written while I was a cultural attaché at the Cuban embassy in Brussels (1962)—and it shows. It contains many messages from an Edmond Dantés, who read his own name as Inmundo Dantesco, the prisoner of Ifs, waiting for some Abbé Faria and passing time scratching graffiti on the filthy walls of his cell. One of the writings on the wall is a piece on Brillat-Savarin (1765–1826), the gourmet and amateur musician trapped by the French Revolution. I also like a short (one page) biography of Stalin’s embalmer, a man the tyrant exiled to Siberia. I can still feel the embalmer’s ghoulish glee as he ripped open the belly of the beast. For a moment I was the embalmer and Stalin had a Spanish name.

INTERVIEWER

Un oficio del siglo xx is more than a collection of film reviews. After all, you write there about your own pseudonym, G. Cain, as if he were deceased. How do you understand the book?

CABRERA INFANTE

As a novel. The prologue, the intermission, and the epilogue are biographical comments on G. Cain, the critic. The reviews, his criticism, are the corpus—that is, his body. The whole book is a rite of passage conducted over his dead body. That’s what a novel is, don’t you think?

INTERVIEWER

If you say so. What about the title though, how would you like it translated?

CABRERA INFANTE

I’m finicky about titles. I’d like it as ambiguous as possible. Not A Trade of the Twentieth Century but A Twentieth Century Job. This gives readers an embarrassing choice: Is it a job lot or Job or just a job? A better title might be Job’s Lot, so everything would go to Cain’s heirs.

INTERVIEWER

I want you to talk about your literary-political writings, particularly “Bites from the Bearded Crocodile,” which appeared in the London Review of Books (June 1981).

CABRERA INFANTE

That article had to be written. Its original title was “Culture in Castro’s Cuba: The Renaissance that Never Was.” Let’s go back in history a bit: the first time I ever attempted to write anything of a literary-political nature was in July of 1968, to answer an interview for an Argentine magazine, Primera plana, that was a combination of L’Express and Time. It caused a scandal. Just imagine: a person (me) whose parents were founders of the Cuban Communist Party, who wrote in his youth for Hoy, the party newspaper, who was brought up in grinding poverty, who struggled to become a writer, who became Cuba’s first real film critic, the youngest editor of a high-circulation magazine, then founding editor of the most influential literary supplement in the Spanish-speaking world, who then becomes a diplomat in the Castro government, who leaves Cuba silently—and all of a sudden shouts from a London rooftop that the mighty king is a naked tyrant.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you feel the time had come to speak out?

CABRERA INFANTE

There are too many people who go around saying that despite shortcomings the revolution has at least done a great job on education and public health. This is like praising Hitler for pulling Germany out of the economic quagmire of the Weimar Republic and exactly like those damned Italian trains that always arrived on time under Mussolini. Those fellow train travelers were saying this time that culture was now a big thing in Cuba because Fidel Castro had taught everybody to read and write. What’s the use of being literate if you lack the freedom to write, publish, and read what you want? The Sforzas, the Gonzagas, and of course the Medicis were upstarts and boors compared to this Cuban condottiere, this self-made patron of the arts and sciences. These were, of course, the lies of the land. The article, by the way, has been widely translated—even into Norwegian and Japanese!

INTERVIEWER

The article on Cuba was a spontaneous response to a political situation, but your essay on the fate of the writers José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera under the Castro regime—a masterpiece in my opinion—is of a different nature. How does it fit in with your other writings?

CABRERA INFANTE

With me you always have to begin with the title. “Vidas para leerlas” may be roughly translated as “Lives to be Read,” but that way you lose the Plutarchian pun, because “Parallel Lives” and “Lives to be Read” sound very similar in Spanish. Understanding this play on words is essential for understanding the whole piece. Here I must refer to another Cuban writer (living in France), Severo Sarduy, a disciple of Piñera and a follower of Lezama, who wrote a book of essays on writing called Written on a Body. The notions of writing on human skin and living lives to be read are complementary and apposite for writers like Piñera and Lezama, who were very different writers, the one writing stark, naked prose and the other composing heavily ornate poems and preciously robed prose. At the same time, they were both very sensual writers, both homosexuals who suffered because of it. I wrote the lives of the poet after the poet’s death, which I think is not different from writing fiction.

INTERVIEWER

The pun is your trademark, but why use it when you are being serious?

CABRERA INFANTE

That’s just the point. Writing for me, even what you call serious writing, is play. Puns, you see, are words whose meaning depends on play; it’s the player who calls the shots. A great player, Lewis Carroll, saw that, but being a reverend he put the words in Humpty Dumpty’s mouth. The question about language is not who is right or wrong but, in the old Hegelian scheme, who is the master and who the slave? Puns are my freedom and my control.

INTERVIEWER

Since you pun in so many of your titles, I suppose we’d better go back to them: please explain why you say your titles are the essence of your work.

CABRERA INFANTE

The title always comes first, to me and to the reader. I’ve written many stories and articles just by doggedly following the title. Sometimes I use a working title, sometimes I find a title suitable for a given subject. Take my most recent novel, La Habana para un infante difunto (1979). It had a different title when I began: Las confesiones de agosto, a clever allusion to confession and to Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I had begun writing the book in August, so that was included as well. Then one day I heard a title, La Habana para un infante difunto, just like that, the same way Saint Augustine heard the voice in the garden. With the new title in mind, I rewrote the whole book.

INTERVIEWER

So you believe in inspiration?

CABRERA INFANTE

Let’s call it embullo, a Cuban word that means easy eagerness, a particularly gracious way of climbing on the bandwagons of the mind. I write every time the Holy Ghost whispers some sweet something in my ear. Of course I also write to meet deadlines, but that’s not really writing. Sometimes it comes just because I sit down at the typewriter.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of inspiration, and a prolonged one at that, La Habana para un infante difunto is almost eight hundred pages long and yet it has outsold all your other books. Why?

CABRERA INFANTE

Filth, my dear Mac Adam, filth. It is the first truly erotic book written in Spanish—a language and a literature that recoils in horror at living filth. That’s what made it a best seller. My first big book, TTT, is about friendship, and La Habana is about love, the biography of a single-minded character’s search for the tamed screw. But in both books disillusion outlasts love. In TTT, friendship breeds betrayal, and in La Habana, before the flowers of sex fade, sex fades.

INTERVIEWER

The link between the two books seems to be a very Spanish, very baroque idea, desengaño, the moment when the scales of earthly illusion—friendship, the joys of the flesh—fall away and the protagonist sees both the abyss and salvation before him. Would you say you are part of the neobaroque movement that is so important in Spanish-American and particularly Cuban writing in our times?

CABRERA INFANTE

Certain writers, Borges and José Lezama Lima, have used a complex style it was convenient to call baroque. Other Cuban writers, Severo Sarduy and Alejo Carpentier, have both written about baroque and neobaroque and written in a baroque style. My themes may coincide with the baroque, but they are much more universal than you make them out to be. After all, the main theme of La Habana is not simply love but the pursuit of happiness across the empty space of loneliness. One of the more outrageous scenes is one a critic has called an “Ode to Masturbation.” It isn’t merely the sight of a human worm mating with his other end, but love in solitary confinement. This paean to onanism, with all due respect to Genet and Proust, takes place in a bathroom that is bare, small, and putrid. A cell or dungeon where the loving self conquers reclusion in the Devil’s Island of the body and the mind that we call poverty.

INTERVIEWER

That last word might give the unsuspecting reader the impression that you write in a realist or naturalist style.

CABRERA INFANTE

That’s a coy decoy. But after all, betrayal is the name of the game in TTT: betrayal of life through language and literature. The ultimate betrayal is in translation, of literature and of language, of life. So why not betray the reader’s expectations as well?

INTERVIEWER

I just can’t seem to dissociate these ideas from a baroque vision of the world.

CABRERA INFANTE

I’ll go this far with you: La Habana is my own version of the Don Juan myth, beginning with the protagonist’s complete innocence and ending in his complete guilt, which comes from his knowledge of the antagonist. Like my characters in TTT, these in La Habana are look-alikes, mirror images, ego and alter ego. I’ve given the narrator many of my own traits. For example (remember, my mother brought me to a movie when I was twenty-nine days old), the narrator ends up in a movie, inside a big woman. Not in her womb, but down her vagina. The final phrase of the book—“Here’s where we came in”—could mean that this is just one more movie or just one more woman. But only a few pages earlier, the now amniotic memoirist remembers that Virgilio Piñera told him a similar story as a dirty joke. It’s curious that Virgilio, the Cuban poet, was a pederast, frightened by women, with a horror of the vagina. Curiouser and curiouser! I had published this ending years earlier (it was the first section of the book I wrote) with the title Facilis Descensus Averni, a line I stole from Virgil, also a pederast, who dreaded chasms and considered them to be the moral faults of Mother Earth. May we leave, on that note, the baroque barouche?

INTERVIEWER

Yes sir. Perhaps you’d talk about your work-in-progress.

CABRERA INFANTE

It looks more like a work in regress to me. I confess with chagrin that I’ve been working on the same project since 1968 and even earlier. It’s a long, long book called Cuerpos divinos, which for once you can translate into English without playing hide-and-seek with the reader, as Divine Bodies. This project, which by now seems too vast ever to be completed, has changed form many times, but it has not changed subject. Once more, as in TTT and in La Habana, it is Havana, this time the city and what happened to it between March 13, 1957, and a week in October, 1962.

INTERVIEWER

Why such precise dates?

CABRERA INFANTE

March 13, 1957 was the day the Presidential Palace, in the heart of Old Havana, was attacked by anti-Communist terrorists. It was a suicide mission carried out at three o’clock in the afternoon, doomed, as the terrorists knew, to failure. And yet, they almost killed Batista, they almost seized power in the capital, while Fidel Castro and his small band of guerrillas were a thousand miles away in Oriente Province. Had they won, Cuban history would have been totally different. And by implication, the present and future history of the Caribbean.

INTERVIEWER

And the second date?

CABRERA INFANTE

That’s the time of the so-called Missile Crisis. Kennedy confirmed Castro’s regime—for a second time: the first was in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, when he unwittingly made Castro legitimate. During the Missile Crisis he seemed to know what he was doing. After that, Castro became a totalitarian tyrant and that was the end of Cuba as a free country. That was also the end of Havana as a carefree city. And that’s where my book ends.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds like the literary reconstruction of a historical period some critics denounced TTT for not being.

CABRERA INFANTE

It’s just the opposite. The book evokes only Havana, specifically La Rampa, a street, not really a street, three blocks where El Vedado, which I call the Forbidden City, meets Havana. It’s a street that goes down to the sea in a ramplike incline. I write almost exclusively about that street that never sleeps—in my books that is.

INTERVIEWER

Is it like Damon Runyon’s Broadway?

CABRERA INFANTE

It is, but where Damon Runyon had only parody and repartee, I have parody and paronomasia. The main character in my books, especially this one, is language. The prime task, the objective of my writing is to make the word an object. Not to convey thought, but to eliminate thought with words. Not sound, but words loose upon the world. In any case, Cuerpos divinos is not only anti-Runyon but anti-Thomas as well.

INTERVIEWER

Thomas who?

CABRERA INFANTE

Lord Thomas, Hugh Thomas—the British historian who has written the best history of Cuba to date. It’s a pity he begins with the British seizure of Havana in 1762. But fortunately he ends his book in 1962, just as I do. Cuerpos divinos and Hugh Thomas’s history show how the novel and history-writing converge and diverge. History is to politicians what posterity is to artists, and all politicians, Fidel Castro included, aspire to the condition of history. The difference is that the writer’s posterity can be instant posterity, also known as success—a book that is read. But no politician would ever accept the idea that his posterity is a mere book called History.

INTERVIEWER

Surely you believe in immortality, a niche in that book called literary history?

CABRERA INFANTE

I don’t believe in immortality, either of the body or of the written word, my corpus. Remember, when we talk about those immortal writers, like Homer, we are not talking about the writers but their writing. Dead men don’t write. Dead writers don’t last. Homer exists as a continuous process of rewriting called reading and translation.

INTERVIEWER

And Cuerpos divinos is about the difference between history for writers and politicians?

CABRERA INFANTE

It simply points out the difference between speech and speeches. By the way, Cuerpos divinos has become three books plus a settlement of accounts called Separata, in which three characters, one of them a mulatto midget, talk and talk and talk. Most of the writing is done by the midget, a peculiar sort of writer who has never written a line and who cannot because he cannot really speak.

INTERVIEWER

That’s one paradox too many for me.

CABRERA INFANTE

The midget is very verbal and loquacious, even garrulous. But he, as one of my characters in TTT remarks, tries to turn Spanish into a dead language. He speaks in English, and because his English is not very good, he keeps on making puns and jokes. He is condemned, not to silence but to speaking gibberish. That is the language of Babel, which is what Havana once was, Babelonia, where we spoke in tongues.

INTERVIEWER

Why haven’t you finished it?

CABRERA INFANTE

My life keeps getting in the way. I started it in 1968, as I said, but in 1969, I had to stop to write a screenplay, entitled Vanishing Point. So I went to Hollywood in 1970. In Hollywood, under orders from Richard Zanuck (the man who was Jaws), I wrote a screenplay based on a dime spy novel called The Salzburg Connection that was never made into a film. (The title was, though, under another name, with another plot.) But I earned more money than I had ever seen in my life. In 1971, I went back to the book, but because Vanishing Point was such a success Joseph Losey engaged me to write a screenplay of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I ended up in the loony bin, a.k.a. a bedlam in London. From there, under the power of eighteen electroshocks that practically eradicated what I use most to write (except for my typewriter)—I mean my memory—I went into clinical depression, an insidious illness that has lasted for years. It still lasts—so I must take life with a pinch of lithium salt. In the meantime, subsidized by my points (i.e. shares) in Vanishing Point, I managed to complete, rewrite, or compose a few books. And then I went back to Cuerpos divinos, which I again interrupted to write La Habana para un infante difunto. I thought it would take only a few months, but it took me three years and two different versions.

INTERVIEWER

Do you really mean that writing the screenplay for Under the Volcano drove you mad?

CABRERA INFANTE

Let’s say it was the final stage of a process. I was writing (this was 1971) Cuerpos divinos when my agent at the time (he must remain anonymous because he’s a powerful Hollywood producer now) casually asked me if I knew of a book called Volcano. I said I had heard of it when it was still called Under the Volcano. “So you know the book?” “Sure.” I lied because at the time I still hadn’t read the book. He then advised me to get on a plane and go to Rome to talk to Joe Losey. “He needs a fresh script.” I was about to leave for Rome when my agent gave me one last piece of advice: “Take the book with you, willya?” I took his advice and the book and read it on the plane. I was so enthralled, so taken by it, so much into the character of Consul Firmin, that we went mad together. This didn’t happen in the plane but back in London, while I wrote the script—a word I have tended to pronounce ever since as this “creep.” If I feel suicidal, I call it simply this “crypt.”

INTERVIEWER

Douglas Day, Lowry’s biographer, says your script is superior to the novel.

CABRERA INFANTE

Douglas Day is kind to me and unkind to Malcolm Lowry. Under the Volcano is one of the truly tragic novels of this century and at moments it may be compared to the best tragic writing of Tolstoy or Dickens. For my money, Lowry’s novel belongs in the same class with a few of Faulkner’s books and with The Death of Virgil. Lowry has an advantage over both Faulkner and Broch in that he is easier to read. It’s a pity Losey couldn’t make the picture because he is that rare bird, a film director who is cultured and, more important, intelligent.

INTERVIEWER

We’ve talked a good deal now about your writing and your fascination with spoken language, especially that of Havana, and with the act of writing, the continuous flow you spin into books. Embedded in your talk about talking there are two other kinds of discourse: images (including pictures and movies) and sound (especially popular music). Could we talk about your life now in terms of those other aspects?

CABRERA INFANTE

The three are inseparable, but let’s try to emphasize images and music this time. As I said earlier, my mother brought me to the movies when I was twenty-nine days old. As a child I watched anything and everything that moved. And even things that didn’t move—the funnies. Incidentally, it was the comic strips that bridged the gap between pictures and words for me because I learned to read by deciphering the words in the little balloons.

INTERVIEWER

What could you have seen in your Cuban hometown?

CABRERA INFANTE

I saw serials with Ken Maynard, Johnny MacBrown, and my favorite cowboy star, Buck Jones. I wept when he died in the Coconut Grove fire in 1941. According to legend, he died trying to save a chorine. According to the press he burned because he was too drunk to move. Like John Ford in the movie The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance, my memory printed only the legend. I even remember Kermit Maynard, Ken’s brother. You name me any 1930s movie, serial, short, or cartoon and I’ll tell you all about it. In Gibara, my hometown, my uncle was the projectionist, so I got in free. In Havana, where we moved in 1941, there were other possibilities. All of that is in TTT and La Habana.

INTERVIEWER

Were the close-up kisses the source of your erotic impulses?

CABRERA INFANTE

The only kind of movie I wasn’t keen on were love movies. Kissing time was yawning time for me. I still don’t care much for romantic movies. Give me a motion picture and you give me emotion.

INTERVIEWER

Did you listen to radio serials?

CABRERA INFANTE

We were too poor to own a radio until well into the forties, but I would listen to the neighbors’, both in Gibara and Havana. With the exception of Tarzan, all my favorite programs were Cuban, even The Spirit, and Raffles, which borrowed freely from the comic strips and the novel of the same title. But those were in the forties. In the late thirties, my favorite programs were “The Red Serpent,” with a Chinese detective, and “The Mad Monk,” a take-off on “The Shadow,” not on Monk Lewis.

INTERVIEWER

So the radio provided another link, words: spoken words, sound effects, and, of course, music.

CABRERA INFANTE

I was a real radio ham. Some of my parodies of radio programs reappear in TTT. And it was radio that led me to love classical music, because Cuban programs could use commercial recordings as background music without paying for them. My early passions were both visual and aural, in the form of movies and comic strips or radio serials and popular music.

INTERVIEWER

That popular music is simultaneously a kind of background to your novels and a code to which your characters allude.

CABRERA INFANTE

Especially the narrative music, the son (beat) and the bolero, which is a Cuban song with a faint rhythm base. I still remember those old songs that talked about the marimba, the musical instrument, as wood blocks that could sing with the voice of a woman. Or even better, a bolero in praise of some dark lady’s eyes in whose shadows you could see palm trees drunk with the wine of sunshine. Good grief! The only reason I didn’t become a composer is that I can’t carry a tune.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever do any drawing?

CABRERA INFANTE

When I was about ten, I would draw all the planes that appeared in the Smilin’ Jack strip and I still remember a particularly elaborate hydroplane that earned me praise from my granduncle. I was fairly good at drawing and as an adolescent in Havana I thought I might become some kind of Cuban painter. That illusion turned to disillusion (engaño vs. desengaño) when my younger brother, who was only twelve at the time, showed me who was going to be the painter in the family.

INTERVIEWER

Was it then, when you were a teenager, that you began to write?

CABRERA INFANTE

I did write a radio play at that time and even taped it on a very cheap, primitive wire recorder. It was modeled on The Spirit, the American comic strip, not the radio serial. A homage to Will Eisner, it wasn’t all that bad. As a matter of fact, I became an amateur radio actor for a while, playing on a Sunday radio program sponsored by a Catholic association. I wrote some of the plays myself: they were all saints’ lives. I took the parts of Arabs, Orientals, and heretics and took my acting style not from Peter Lorre, as you might have thought, but from Jesús Alvariño, a great Cuban radio personality who played Tamakún, a prince who was an Oriental adventurer and an amateur detective. Alvariño became chief of programming for Cuba’s biggest radio station, and it was to him I delivered my first “professional” writing, a pilot for a radio program based on the Sherlock Holmes story “The Speckled Band.” He rejected it flat and saved me from becoming a radio scriptwriter.

INTERVIEWER

Did you only write screenplays later, as an adult?

CABRERA INFANTE

When I was about twenty, around 1949, I wrote a story in the form of a screenplay. It was based on the folklore of my Oriental hometown, Gibara, and it was even published. The title, oddly enough, was “The Howling.” A horror piece, naturally.

INTERVIEWER

What was your first real screenplay?

CABRERA INFANTE

The one I wrote in London in the summer of 1966. It was never shot. I wrote it in English, but the title was El Máximo. Over the past few years there has been a vogue for novels on South American tyrants among my Spanish-American colleagues, but most of those books turn out to be trite versions of the Spaniard Ramón del Valle Inclán’s brilliant Tirano Banderas (1926). I wrote this script about a Caribbean dictator who flees to Ibiza (as Batista fled to Madeira) and there reproduces his presidential palace, complete with bodyguards, honor guards, and receptions attended only by scruffy islanders. I based the story on the life of the late Trujillo, the bloody ridiculous dictator of the Dominican Republic, but my title contained an oblique reference to a still active Cuban bleeding tyrant. The producer got cold feet, of course. I would like to rewrite that script someday because it was funny, but perhaps not funny enough. It had too many paper gags—jokes that work well on paper but fall flat on the screen. When I started writing screenplays, I had to learn that no matter how good your dialogue looks on the page, it sounds different when spoken by actors. It seems unreal because of course it is. Dialogue in fiction is always written to be read in silence. The page is the limit. Dialogue on stage and on the screen is meant to be spoken. The voice is the limit. Dickens discovered this when he started reading his books in front of audiences.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell some more about that 1970 trip to Hollywood?

CABRERA INFANTE

In Hollywood I felt like a visitor from outer space. When I checked into the Chateau Marmont Hotel, I called my agent. Before I could recite my full name, his secretary asked me if I were Hungarian. First I said no, but when I thought about how many Hungarians had triumphed in Hollywood—Michael Curtiz, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi—I said I was from Buda but no pest. The secretary just giggled. That was my welcome to Hollywood. What I did mostly was to explore Raymond Chandler’s territory. You know, I hope, that one of the models for TTT is The Long Goodbye.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any experiences there like those we associate with Fitzgerald or Faulkner, those high-pressure story conferences?

CABRERA INFANTE

I never attended a story conference. The Chandler, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner days were long gone when I arrived. Mine was truly a pleasant stay—all expenses paid. The only thing like a story conference that happened to me took place when I met Richard Zanuck. He asked me what the title Vanishing Point meant, and I told him all about linear perspective and the end of a man as a convergence of life lines. He thanked me and that was that. The only suggestion came from Big Boss Darryl Zanuck himself. I was flattered and surprised that the eighty-year-old man would even bother to read the script. I wrote in what he suggested, a small, connective scene, but my director never shot it. At the end of that year, the old man kicked his son out of the studio and came back. In Hollywood, old pros die with their kicking boots on.

INTERVIEWER

Was your director axed by Zanuck the elder?

CABRERA INFANTE

He succumbed to his own lack of talent.

INTERVIEWER

Is the translation of your script into visual images in Vanishing Point the same sort of displacement you describe in noting the difference between written and spoken dialogue?

CABRERA INFANTE

What the spectator sees on the screen is the mirror image of my screenplay. Vanishing Point is my script as seen on the white mirror of the screen, in De Luxe color, at an aspect ratio of 1:85, running at twenty-four frames per second, in stereo sound—much more than I ever wrote or could write. That’s a movie. I just wrote the screenplay. Thanks to John Alonzo, a cinematographer of genius, my screenplay is now a piece of Americana, a cult film, and a very successful movie. I wrote a motion picture about a man with a problem in a car. My director made a movie about a man in a car with problems. Cars in the film are actors and the movie may be taken as a paean to cars or to death by car. By the way, I don’t drive.

INTERVIEWER

Would you ever do another screenplay?

CABRERA INFANTE

Sure. Not for the glory but certainly for the money. I’d like to do Conrad’s Nostromo because it’s the best of Conrad’s novels and because I’m in the perfect position to make a good script of it. I even talk English with a Polish accent.

INTERVIEWER

What about film reviews? After your brilliant reviews in Un oficio del siglo xx and the equally stunning essays on Welles, Huston, Hitchcock, Minelli, Ford, and Hawks in Arcadia todas las noches (1978), it seems a shame that you would give up film criticism.

CABRERA INFANTE

Flattery will lead this interview nowhere, you know. Early in 1960, I realized I couldn’t go on reviewing films in Havana because the Eastern-bloc films they were showing were beyond criticism. In fact they were beneath contempt even. So when Carteles, the magazine where I had started writing film reviews was closed down (in June of that year), I decided my time was up. Besides, I was beginning to burn out as a reviewer. I was no longer capable of going to the movies just for fun because I had to be a critic all the time.

INTERVIEWER

You felt you were intellectualizing too much?

CABRERA INFANTE

Are you kidding? I just got tired of being a critic. But I understand what you mean because I have always been a staunch defender of Hollywood against charges of commercialism and vulgarity. Hollywood is commercial and vulgar—and a purveyor of popular entertainment. And I refuse to make distinctions betwen high and low culture, between art and pop art. Movies are for people to enjoy. Films, to make a distinction, are for snobs and pretentious critics. I don’t like films: you can have Godard, Antonioni, Bergman, Bertolucci, and all the German auteurs. Give me the directors I wrote about in Arcadia todas las noches, and if you can’t, give me Spielberg, De Palma, Romero, or Scorsese—even Blake Edwards now.

INTERVIEWER

What? Do you actually like Julie Andrews as a sex symbol?

CABRERA INFANTE

She’s as appetizing as a eunuch in drag, but I like the comedies her husband has been turning out. Well, perhaps not Victor/Victoria so much, but SOB is such a ruthless comedy about Hollywood that if Blake Edwards were to make one about Washington, Bob Hope would be playing the White House—and not as a stand-up comedian.

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to return to literature if I may. Ever since Borges shared the Formentor Prize with Beckett in 1961, Latin American literature has been the dominant force in the Spanish-speaking world. Do you feel you owe anything to your Latin American elders?

CABRERA INFANTE

First let me say that I despise the term “Latin America.” Better call us Mongrelia. We are mongrels, a messy mix of white, black, and Indian. Second, aside from the elements I absorbed from the culture I grew up in I owe nothing to those “elders” you mention, especially if they wrote in Spanish.

INTERVIEWER

What are you talking about?

CABRERA INFANTE

Well, Borges, an elder I admire, writes in Borgese, a private dialect composed of quaint and formal English that condescends to employ Spanish words with Anglo-Saxon syntax. I owe him a lot, but I owe nothing to his Spanish.

INTERVIEWER

Do you owe your—I hate to say it—Latin American contemporaries anything?

CABRERA INFANTE

Not even money. For me there’s Borges and the rest. They are the rest, a silent majority for me because I can’t hear a word they’re writing.

INTERVIEWER

But you are a part of the boom of the Latin American novel of the sixties!

CABRERA INFANTE

Like hell! They were only a sonic boom, a wake. But since you press me, I confess I have a debt with Carlos Fuentes.

INTERVIEWER

What is it? A theme—Fuentes’s interest in film?

CABRERA INFANTE

I met Carlos in Mexico City in 1959. He entered my field of vision waving a hand and smiling as he crossed a screening room. It happened at Producciones Barbachano Ponce. I was there with Manuel Barbachano and Luis Buñuel, whose only claim to fame then was Los olvidados (an utterly forgettable film). We were watching rushes of Buñuel’s latest picture, Nazarin, which he made for Barbachano. Watching your rushes in private can be very boring so we were keeping Buñuel company. Suddenly the door opened and in came Carlos with a small metallic object in his hand. I thought it was a derringer, but he rubbed his face with it! His smile turned into a grimace as he stretched the skin on his jowl and rolled up his eyes. Carlos was much more entertaining than Nazarin. Actually, he was shaving. I had never seen a cordless razor before and I couldn’t wait to buy one. Back in Cuba, I used it thinking, “If Carlos could only see me now.” That’s my debt to Carlos Fuentes.

INTERVIEWER

That’s your debt?

CABRERA INFANTE

That’s it. But it’s a lot more than my debt to Cortázar, who didn’t have to shave at all when I met him. Vargas Llosa wore sideburns in those days and shaved with a cutthroat razor. And García Márquez had a mustache when I met him in Havana back in 1961. I met Donoso, the only true gentleman of the bunch, in London in 1970. Too late for the two of us. You see, he had the longest beard I ever saw, and I wore a goatee. Barababoom!

INTERVIEWER

Don’t you think you’re being a little bitchy?

CABRERA INFANTE

Yes, because I don’t want to get lost in the crowd. We all write on our own, and I want to be read on my own. Feeling better now?

INTERVIEWER

I think we’ve exhausted that topic. Perhaps exile might be our last subject. Here in the United States we’ve seen a tidal wave of Cuban exiles pour onto our shores in recent years. How did you leave Cuba?

CABRERA INFANTE

By plane. I was a lucky exile, unlike those who left on the Freedom Flotilla. I left on a Cubana flight with my two daughters (by my first marriage), a Raymond Chandler novel, and little else. The tickets came compliments of the Cuban government. The man who is now number three in the regime, who had known me since I was a boy and who fancies himself a literary critic, figured it would be better all around if I left in good standing. He probably thought the rigors of capitalism or the cold climate would drive me home.

INTERVIEWER

Were you sad to leave Cuba and Havana for good?

CABRERA INFANTE

I left that pitiful place feeling pity. Actually I was grinning like Paul Muni when he escaped from the chain gang.

INTERVIEWER

Your writing is full of nostalgia. TTT even has an epigraph, taken from Alice in Wonderland about imagining the light of a candle after the candle is blown out. Don’t you ever feel homesick?

CABRERA INFANTE

Show me a man who longs for jail and I’ll show you a warden on his day off, spent at the zoo, of course. I had become, to use the regime’s metaphor, a gusano, a worm. That was Fidel Castro’s invention, although Goebbels really had the copyright when he referred, in 1933, to Jews as Ungeziefer (vermin). I was no Gregor Samsa; I was leaving Kafkaland behind, so I took my metamorphosis in stride.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking now about the total phenomenon of Cuban exile, how do you understand the Mariel phenomenon?

CABRERA INFANTE

An event without precedent in the history of diplomacy. In less than seventy-two hours eleven thousand people took refuge in the Peruvian embassy in Havana. Mariel took place so that Fidel Castro could cover up his own blunder, his having removed the Cuban guards from around the Peruvian embassy.

INTERVIEWER

So it was a coup de théâtre?

CABRERA INFANTE

Yes, with the greatest producer making everyone play his part. Some, like the novelist Reinaldo Arenas, were expelled because they were known homosexuals—there are no gays allowed in clean-cut Communist Cuba—but others had to swear they were pederasts, prostitutes, or parasites to be let out.

INTERVIEWER

Are you friendly with these recent exiles, like Arenas?

CABRERA INFANTE

I have the most cordial relationship with several. Carlos Franqui, the former editor of Revolución, is an old friend. He showed me I could be a writer. Reinaldo Arenas is a new friend who shares my passion for writing. Heberto Padilla I’ve known for many years and is another good friend.

INTERVIEWER

Padilla is a rather special case in the history of Latin American and Cuban literature.

CABRERA INFANTE

Around 1970, Padilla said a lot of ugly things about me and others in print, so I retorted. He had written them under pressure from the Cuban police, who viewed him with distrust. Later he was jailed, tortured, and forced to make a public confession, now famous, in which he denounced a few friends in Cuba and abroad, me included. He also confessed some minor literary crimes—like writing a couple of mildly critical poems the Security Police deemed subversive—and abominated himself and his wife Belkis, also a poet. Fascist states like Cuba just don’t like dissidents, real and potential. Padilla was about to become a historical enemy. Homosexuals, it seems, are natural dissidents, strangers in a Communist paradise.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that you all constitute a Cuban “Lost Generation”?

CABRERA INFANTE

I don’t think even the Lost Generation was a real generation. They were never lost, only drunk. All I can talk about is the writers, painters, and musicians who gathered around Lunes, the Monday literary supplement to the newspaper Revolución, a cultural wonder created by Carlos Franqui that became the most popular and powerful paper in Cuban history.

INTERVIEWER

Was Lunes as successful?

CABRERA INFANTE

We were a knockout, in more senses than one. Imagine a literary weekly that prints a quarter of a million copies, in a country in revolution, distributed along with the official newspaper. There were some really talented people working on Lunes: Virgilio Piñera, then almost sixty, was the oldest and Severo Sarduy, at twenty, was the youngest. In between there were Oscar Hurtado (his last name means “stolen” and he was a bit of a plagiarist); Walterio Carbonell, a Paris-educated, black Marxist ideologue; José Baragano, a surrealist poet (deceased); Padilla; Pablo Armando Fernández, who returned from New York to take part in Lunes, as had Padilla. There was Raúl Martínez, an abstract painter who did our covers and layout; Natalio Galán, a composer and music critic who now lives in New Orleans. Calvert Casey, who learned his art of literary economy from Virgilio Piñera. Antón Arrufat, today back in precarious favor after being persecuted with Padilla. José Triana, the dramatist, who now lives in Paris. What a cast! But we chose the wrong production, of course. Mind you, Revolución gave me my only chance to be a war correspondent.

INTERVIEWER

When was that?

CABRERA INFANTE

At what you call the Bay of Pigs and what the Cubans call Playa Girón.

INTERVIEWER

Would you care to talk about it?

CABRERA INFANTE

Why not? On the night of April 18, 1961, I went down to the editorial offices of Revolución to volunteer to be a war correspondent and pick up my ID card. I didn’t have to go, but I was curious and held the mistaken belief that war is good for writers. It was an adventure. Anyway, Carlos Franqui had a problem: too many war correspondents and only one war. He even had foreign correspondents. While I was there, I also found out about the international situation. One of the Prensa Latina people was down there and we asked him how things were going on the international front. He said everything was shipshape except for a spot of trouble in New York. It seemed the fellow in charge of the agency in Manhattan had left town in such a hurry that he hadn’t even bothered to lock the office door. We asked him who that was. “Oh nobody, just a Columbian journalist, of no importance, named García Márquez.”

INTERVIEWER

You’re joking.

CABRERA INFANTE

No. Anyway, I left and headed for the front at about three o’clock in the morning, driving my Austin-Metropolitan convertible. The Bahía de Cochinos goes inland (as bays will) to form the Cienaga de Zapata—Zapata Swamps (not named for Marlon Brando’s look-alike)—and you reach it by driving east along the Central Highway across Havana and through Matanzas Province, looking for the Jaguey Grande road that you hit at the end of the province, where Matanzas meets Las Villas Province and the swamps. President Kennedy chose the landing spot, apparently for humanitarian reasons. The original site on Eisenhower’s landing plans was near Trinidad, a small colonial city decaying in isolation at the foot of the Escambray Mountains, where there had been peasant uprisings against Castro since 1960. The landing place was a strip of sand between the swamp and the Caribbean.

INTERVIEWER

You drove out there alone?

CABRERA INFANTE

No. Walterio Carbonell, the brilliant Cuban Marxist who was a lawyer and once the leader of the Young Communist League, was with me. Carbonell was expelled from the Party in 1953 after he sent a telegram to Fidel Castro, a friend from university days, but then in Batista’s prison. The telegram simply congratulated Castro for surviving the Moncada Barracks attack, but Carbonell sent it right to the jail and signed it. The Party was terrified Batista might link them to the plot, so out he went. Fausto Canel, a young film director and Revolución’s movie critic, and a very young writer and tv critic (also my former brother-in-law) named Luis Aguero were also in the car.

INTERVIEWER

The Austin sounds more like a Greyhound.

CABRERA INFANTE

Well, we were all underdeveloped. At dawn, still on Central Highway, we were detained for more than an hour by traffic—not all of it war correspondents. There were hundreds of trucks, tanks, jeeps, even motorcycles jamming the narrow highway. I remember thinking that a single enemy plane could have blown the convoy sky high—and us along with it! Fortunately the inefficiency of our army was matched by an absolute lack of contingency-planning by the enemy: Cubans at war. We skirted around Treasure Pond and headed for Jaguey, which looked like a border town in the Old West, with people peering through half-closed windows at war as if it were a showdown. At the end of the town the road was blocked by two jeeps and four soldiers. Only when I waved my ID card—which Franqui had concocted the night before with the printers—did they let us pass. There was no more traffic, only a solitary, very forbidding road to war. We all looked back. To go on might mean death, but to go back would mean a loss of face. We chose war. Near the coast we met a group of very young soldiers, mere children, jumping up and down and shouting “Dia-lang! Dia-lang!” They weren’t Cuban Vietcong, but uncouth youths trying to say “Díaz Lanz.” They thought they had caught Díaz Lanz, the former head of Castro’s air force, who was (and is) a defector in the U.S. But Díaz Lanz never came. They had found a U.S. Army camouflage parachute, whose former owner was probably drowned in the swamp or devoured by the infamous alligators of Zapata. We went on to the beach, Playa Larga, where the first landing took place. It looked like a Bacardi commercial: There was nothing on the beach except what God created and the tracks where the enemy had placed their heavy artillery. There was not a single weapon to be seen.

INTERVIEWER

You mean they took everything back off?

CABRERA INFANTE

There were no bodies, no blood, no empty shells, no weapons of any kind. Maybe they practiced retreating too much and advancing too little. The only enemy we could see was about four miles offshore—several American warships. They looked like big gray rocks made of solid lead. Reversing the shot, I tried to imagine what they might see through their binoculars: four tiny civilians (the tallest only five-feet-seven) standing around a tiny British sports car painted white, parked on the very spot where their invading surrogates had been such a short time before. We must have been a bizarre or sorry sight! I was the only one dressed in something vaguely military: my milicia uniform—olive green trousers, blue mesclilla shirt, and black beret and boots. Fausto had on a short-sleeved shirt and slacks, as did Aguero. Walterio Carbonell was wearing a pinstriped black double-breasted one hundred percent wool suit he bought at Aquascutum in London. He did take off his vest and dress shirt and replaced them with a yellow Lacoste—a concession to the climate. Then, problems John Wayne never had—my car wouldn’t start. But an army jeep came by and in it was an old friend of mine from journalism school, Angel Guerra, a good name (Angel of War) for a very martial-looking lieutenant. He offered us a lift to war, just like that.

INTERVIEWER

Was there really a front? Were you far from it?

CABRERA INFANTE

Not very far, but what mattered was fear: fear of not getting to the war and fear of getting too much into it. On the side of the road there were two cows grazing peaceably, as we sped by on a two-lane blacktop highway recently built for tourists. Then we stopped near a house and a dark, heavy man in fatigues, sweating and dirty, came up to us gesturing and shouting like mad: “Are you in command here?” He was talking to me. All I could reply was, “Come on man, I come from Havana.” Then Angel jumped out of the jeep and calmed the hysterical sergeant down. The sergeant went back into the din and confusion and I got scared. Bombs started falling and I ran for cover in the shack by the road. All hell broke loose and I found I was blasted down (I know it sounds illogical) to the floor. There I was “biting the dust”—the house had a dirt floor. Punishment came from above, a clap of thunder and a pair of boots.

INTERVIEWER

What boots?

CABRERA INFANTE

A pair of boots with feet in them, all connected to legs and the whole thing pressing against my head and shoulders. I looked up and saw who it was: a young black soldier trying to dig a foxhole with his bare hands and fear for a spade. I decided it was better to be killed by a bullet than let this young Othello make me into an urbane Turk and smite me thus, strangling me like an uncircumcised dog of war. I went out and found Angel calmly smoking. He told me never to go into a house during a bombing raid because pilots always attack what they can see—houses for example. I headed for a sheltering tree where I found César Leante, another minuteman from Revolución. I asked him how far we were from the front and he told me we were at the front. I was suddenly Fabrizio del Dongo at Waterloo without knowing it. Fausto joined us and I woke up Luis Aguero, who was having a rather improbable nap, to tell him we were pulling out. Suddenly they were shelling our rear! We found out that the shelling was the product of Núñez Jiménez: he was a geographer Castro had made head of the Agrarian Reform Office. He was a nature lover now turned into an artillery officer. He wasn’t so hot with a howitzer, because the shells were landing away from the beach—and on our way out. We were confused—so was everyone else—but we jumped on a truck leaving the war zone. We reached the newspaper late that night and found that the war was over.

INTERVIEWER

What about the others?

CABRERA INFANTE

There was a major crackdown after the Bay of Pigs. A documentary, P.M., shot by my brother Sabá, was seized and banned by the Censorship Board. Lunes protested and was suppressed. Then Franqui was made to take a trip to Europe and was later fired as editor of Revolución. I was sent as cultural attaché to Belgium. Carbonell was named ambassador to Tunisia and got in trouble when he accidentally ran down a Tunisian Jew. He happened to be with a buxom blond French girl at the time and the Cuban Communists turned the event into a scandal. He was recalled and came home to write a brilliant, truly Marxist essay that demonstrated that Cuban literature had a slave culture for background. For this he ran afoul of the Stalinist literary commissars. Then he got into even more trouble by explaining to a delegation of French writers invited by the Cuban government that there was no freedom of speech in Cuba and telling all about P.M. and Lunes. He was called to the Writers’ Union to recant, but delivered a scathing speech instead. He was expelled from the union, of course, lost his job and made destitute. Then he tried to form a Black Power movement in Cuba: that got him four years at hard labor.

INTERVIEWER

And the others?

CABRERA INFANTE

Fausto married a French girl, left Cuba, and is now a (divorced) Frenchman, working in Spain as a film director. Luis Aguero tried to leave through the Writers’ Union, but ended up in the slammer for two years. César Leante became a socialist success. He was Cuba’s cultural attaché in Paris, then a successful novelist in Havana, and later a high official in the Ministry of Culture. In 1981, he was sent to East Berlin. The plane stopped in Madrid and César asked the security man aboard permission to stretch his legs. Permission granted. He stretched them all the way to immigration to ask for asylum!

INTERVIEWER

No other happy endings?

CABRERA INFANTE

Well, when I got back home that night, I expected a hero’s welcome from my consort Miriam Gómez. All she did was banish me to the bath to remove all the soot that had turned me into a kind of Cuban Al Jolson. Then we went to bed.

INTERVIEWER

Now, after you left Cuba, when you lived in Spain and later in London, how did you live?

CABRERA INFANTE

As I’ve always lived: by my wits, which is the lowest form of wit and not, as Addison says, the pun. I was not permitted to work—either for pay or for free—at all when I first got to England. But a clever lawyer told me that writing was not working. I agreed then and I still do. He meant that I could concoct stories, articles, screenplays—whatever—and that these would constitute a product I would manufacture and sell.

INTERVIEWER

Surely you were shocked at the idea of not being allowed to earn a living.

CABRERA INFANTE

Not really. You see, I’ve always had friends. I merely lived on the charity of my closest ones. Two Cuban writers in exile, Juan Arcocha and Calvert Casey (who later killed himself in Rome) lent me money through my French publisher at that time, Gallimard, to create for the Home Office the illusion I was receiving income from abroad. Later I wrote for Mundo Nuevo, the most important Spanish-language literary magazine of the late sixties, which was then edited by Emir Rodríguez Monegal (who now teaches at Yale) in Paris. He is a dear friend. I entered the jungle of exile when I was barely thirty-six and officially left it at fifty, when I became a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Now, I’m the only English writer who writes in Spanish.

 


Author photograph by Jerry Bauer.