Have you ever looked into a mirror and not recognised, or not liked, what you’ve seen?
I saw a young man opposite me (he was to one side of me as I entered, but I turned around), tired-looking with ruffled hair and hollow eyes. He was badly dressed, his shirt was filthy and his loosely knotted tie hung free of his collar, which had no button or clasp. He needed a shave and a limp unkempt mustache drooped round the corners of his mouth. I raised my hand to shake his, bowing slightly at the same time, and he followed suit. I saw he was smiling and sensed I was smiling too: we both got the message at the same time : it was a mirror. (p48)
Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s “Three Trapped Tigers” holds a mirror up to Havana, and pre-Revolution Cuba, and what is seen is not always as expected. A common theme throughout, the mirror appears in the waters of the bays, in the skies, in many many scenes, a book that presents a distorted, or is it a realistic?, view of Havana.
Originally published under the Spanish title “Tres Tristes Tigres” in 1965, the title translates literally as “Three Sad Tigers” but the traditional tongue-twister would be lost in translation, hence to English title. This is a complex and multi layered work and to simply review the whole novel by presenting the narrative plot line would not do the work justice, nor would it to explore all of the themes (I don’t have time to write a thesis!!) so I’ve taken a look at a few high level interesting components, …. And the recurring use of the mirror.
Opening with a “Prologue” it is “Showtime”, from the “Tropicana! the MOST fabulous nightclub in the WORLD”. Our MC introduces not only the players on the cabaret stage but also the audience, “ENORMOUS American audience of glamorous and distinguished tourists who are visiting the land of the gay senyoritas and brave caballeros”, even individually calling out a number of guests. Cuba is the melting pot of external influences.
Our novel essentially follows Cúe the actor, Seseribó the musician, Silvestre the writer and Códac the photographer, all of them chasing art, hunting down the ultimate rhythm, the missing word, the conclusive image. Besides these four “core” characters we have Bustrófedon, whose word plays feature heavily throughout, and La Estrella, a huge singing talent, both coming into and out of focus. But these are not the only players here, this is a novel that is peppered with rich local characters, the melting pot that is Havana figuratively coming into the readers view page after page.
As we were walking along we saw the Cripple with the Gardenias coming out of the dark opposite, with his crutch and his tray of gardenias and his good evening said so politely and with such courtesy it seemed almost impossible he could be so sincere and crossing another street I heard the harsh, nasal and relentless voice of Juan Charrasqueado the Sing-Singing Charro singing the single verse of the lottery which he always sings and repeats a thousand times, Buy your number and buy your number and buy your number and buy your number and buy, meaning they should throw money into his sweaty sombrero as he forcibly passed it around, creating an atmosphere of mock obsession which is poignant because everyone knows he’s incurably mad. (pp74-75)
Billeted as the Cuban “Ulysses” this novel uses a raft of literary techniques to portray a place that is in decay, “twenty-year-old beauties and total hunger are too much in competition with each other for the prize of Havana” (p148). We have first and third person narratives, word games, blank and totally black pages, a sequence of tales written by imagined writers about the assassination of Trotsky, single sentences that cover many pages, as the driver is speeding through the streets, emulating the rush, pictures and a whole lot more…The influence of James Joyce on Guillermo Cabrara Infante is obvious, as is the homage to a city and the compressed time frame.
We talk : about my birthday which wasn’t today but in three months’ time, about the anniversary two weeks back of the day when Bloom’s moll sitting on the bog had let flow a long stream of unconsciousness which would become a milestone, a mill-stone in the shape of a solid shit turd in literary history” (p150-151)
A novel where the cultural references come thick and fast, a work where a reader who is not au fait with music, film, and book influences of the 1960’s and earlier, will require google to be handy. I am sure a magnificent Spotify playlist could be made of the Cuban (and Latin American) musical references;
He didn’t say because I had forgotten Kuérkegaard the next minute and was remembering Count Dracula instead, the unforgettable Bela Legosi” (P363)
Readers of Camus would immediately understand the opening line reference to the section “I Heard Her Sing”;
Bustrófedon died yesterday, or is it today?
Is life a concentric chaos? I don’t know, all I know is my life was a nocturnal chaos with a single center that was Las Vegas and in the center of the center there was a glass of rum and water or rum and ice or rum and soda and that’s where I was from twelve o’clock on, and I turned up just as the first show was finishing and the emcee was thanking his charming and wonderful audience for coming and inviting them to stay for the third and last show of the night and the band was striking up its theme song with a lot of noise and nostalgia, like a circus brass band but changing from the umpa-pa to the two-four or six-eight beat of a charanga trying out a melody: the noise of a ragtime band coming on like a Kostelanetz string orchestra, something which depresses me even more than knowing I’m already talking like Cué and Eribó, and all the other six million soloists of this island called Tuba and while I’m rubbing the glass in my hands and digressing that sober little man who sits inside me and speaks so low nobody but me can hear him tells me I’m losing my footing and as that genie of the bottle I am has just said very softly now Cuba, and Hey presto! there she was greeting me, popping out of nowhere to say, Hi there honey and at the same time giving me a kiss just where the cheek meets the neck and I looked in the mirror, mirror on the wall (of bottles) and I saw Cuba, every inch of her, bigger and more beautiful and sexier than ever and she was smiling at me so I turned around and put my arm around her waist, And how’re you Cuba baby, I said and kissed her and she kissed me back and said, Be-au-ti-ful, and I don’t know if she was okaying the kisses she was testing with that sex sense she carries on the tip of her tongue or if she was extolling her soul, as Alex Bayer would say, because her body sure didn’t need any padding. Or maybe she was simply glowing over the evening and our chance meeting. (pp292-3)
There’s the mirrors again, only a few pages earlier we had; Bustrófedon, he…”has taken a trip to the other world, to his opposite, to his negative, to his anti-self, to the other side of the mirror”…(p284), we then have a full page of mirrored text!!!
Ending with a large section where our characters descend into melancholy, a night of drinking, driving and incessant word game playing, the disintegration of a cultural identity becomes more and more evident.
Art (like religion or science or philosophy) is just one more attempt to focus the light of order on the gloom of chaos. (p361)
Complex, difficult, playful, engaging and enlightening, this is a masterful work of literature, amazingly a fringe player on the world stage, it pre-dates a number of Roberto Bolaño’s themes (the diagrams were hauntingly familiar), whilst paying homage to great maters such as Proust, Kafka and Joyce;
Besides, I haven’t the slightest reverence either for Marcel Proust (which he rhymed, distinctly, with pooh), or for James Joyce (Cué pronounced it Shame’s Choice) or for Kafka (it sounded like caca in his otherwise well-behaved voice). This is the Holy Trinity, whom you must adore if you are to write in the twentieth century – and as I wouldn’t be able to write in the twenty-first… (p352)
There are so many themes one could follow here, from the opening Epigraph from Lewis Carroll and “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” and a paragraph that gets “smaller and smaller and smaller and yet smaller”, or the list of characters, or a listing of all the musical references – you could follow hundreds of threads. Another book for those who like their works to challenge, savour the use of language, the word play, the mish-mash of cultural references, Guillermo Cabrera Infante has held a mirror up, he is separated from his country, his culture, his youth, it appears as though he doesn’t recognise what he sees.