Three Trapped Tigers – Guillermo Cabrera Infante (translated by Donald Gardner & Suzanne Jill Levine)

ThreeTrapped

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.

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The Last Librarian by Osdany Morales (translated by Kristina L. Bonsager)

Last-Librarian-front

I’ve had a dabble in Cuban literature in the past, and plan to get through Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s, Cervantes Prize winning “Three Trapped Tigers” over the coming months, however a short distraction occurred with the a new release from Dalkey Archives, the 2012 Alejo Carpentier Award winning “The Last Librarian” by Cuban writer, and holder of an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, Osdany Morales (the book translated by Kristina Bonsager).

A discovery highlighted by recognized, contemporary, cultural liberalness consists of text recycling, not always the classics (and not always belonging to the medium of literature). This process allows the authors to interact with references disinherited from their originality. Movie industry remakes, architectural revivals, and new arrangements of old songs now promote an approach to the rewritten text, but also the proliferation of readings that don’t firmly belong to the original work, but to its replacement. For example, to read Ulysses before The Odyssey. Or “Eldorado,” by Raúl Roasas, before Raymond Carver’s equivalent story, “Why Don’t We Dance?” (p129)

Our narrator, a writer, travels through time and place to discover the Seven Libraries of the World, in each he needs to deposit a single book, having no books he needs to write one in each location. Before he visits the first “library” he discovers two prophetic statements chiselled into the window pane of the guest house where he stays; “The centre is unmoving, but miniscule” and “Everything vanishes, but also endures”. These statements forming part of the banter he uses to gain access to the libraries of his imagination.

The book that we are reading is made up of his journeys and the books that he writes in homage to former writers, and they are numerous. We start off with Boris Groys, art critic, media theorist and philosopher;

“The city per se possesses an intrinsically utopian dimension by virtue of being situated outside the natural order.” Boris Groys, I remembered. (p8)

Groy’s work “Art Power – The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction”, discusses the move away from the natural order of things into a walled city (Utopia); “Traditionally cities isolated themselves from the rest of the world in order to make their own way into the future. So a genuine city is not only utopian, it is also antitourist: it dissociates itself from space as it moves through time.” More recurring themes to throw into this novel. A disassociation with space and time.

Naturally this leads to Borges, referred to here as “The Great Masturbator”, and his story “The Book of Sand”, Osdany Morales advising that this story of Borges’ “is a direct allusion to a passion for pornography.”

He told me that his book is called The Book of Sand because neither the book nor sand possess a beginning or an end.

These allusions to themes occur before our writer enters the first library and writes his story. This is “The Book of Writing: The Scribe” Set in the 1400’s it recounts his love Becchina, Visconti and being beaten by his uncle Carracci. Alluding to the Renaissance and solitude, isolation and events outside of personal control, this is one of the sketchier references to influential works. There may well be a direct correlation to Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch or even (later) Machiavelli, if so I missed it.

There is a sudden move to 2008 and Shanghai, where our narrator meets a European girl in a mall. There they discuss Cavafy (specifically the poem “Days of 1908”) and other references from 100 years prior, 1908. “O. Henry wrote “The Voice of the City”, “G K Chesterton published “The Man Who Was Thursday” in 1908 and it was read by the Argentine writer Borges”, Cesare Pavese’s “Death Will Come and Will Wear Your Eyes”, Tristes Tropiques’ “The Raw and the Cooked”, “The Origin of Table Manners”, “From Honey to Ashes”, “The Naked Man” and “The Savage Mind” and then “Unmasking of Robert – Houdin” by Houdini.

In the future a poet will write “Ode To Niagara”. Don’t ask me what that word means. I don’t know – It’s probably another splendid monster. (p61)

As you can now see, this is a work rich with literary and cultural references, only sixty-one pages in and the listing of works across a vast expanse of time are piling up. Book Two is “The Book of Time: Tempo” and the story is set in 1789, where a merchant comes across a magical bell jar that can age whatever is placed in it. Fruit ripens quickly, wine can be produced quickly, and chicks can become roosters in front of your eyes, although the bell jar is also used for evil purposes such as ageing somebody’s head!!! Bending time, a la Borges, however I may add nowhere near as skilfully, we have quotes such as;

I’d add it was like listening to Slipknot in the front row of a concert playing “All Hope Is Gone”.

WTF?

Book Three is the “Book of Perfection: Apropos of the Wet Snow”, exploring “pure fiction” and our story is a la Dostoyevsky, a writer, stolen fiction, street workers, and innocent men caught up in an intricate plot…

“Book IV: The Book of the Beast: Eternal Love for Jim Jarmusch” is an homage to Jack Kerouac, as well as the film maker Jarmusch, a Doctor on a conference in Rio de Janiero, goes on a search , with an Australian called Sydney, for an obscure book for his lost son, a writer. Another fragmentary tale unfolds:

In Karachi I paused in front of a snake charmer. He was taking a break and the cobra rested curled up inside the basket. He admitted to me that tourists weren’t satisfied anymore to just see the cobra dance.
“Now they want to bring the snake home with them,” he said. “If you want to know the truth, the cobra doesn’t actually dance. It follow the movement of the flute with its head. That’s the true charm and it appears to dance because its damn body always ripples.”
He handed me the flute in case I wanted to try it and left me to care for his basket. I looked around to ensure no one would see me making a snake dance in Pakistan. I raised the basket’s lid, lifted the flute without playing it, and the cobra began to rise up. Instead of having it move from side to side, I had it extend upward; the cobra remained straight. Then, it looked away from the flute and stared me directly in the eyes. Flaring its hood like a weightlifter flexes his muscles, it said:
“Has it never surprised you how within a group of friends or a family the memory of a trivial event from years ago lingers and gets brought up every time the group is together? The story can center on a phrase, a nickname, or some word that is incomprehensible to someone outside the group. Have you ever taken a step back and felt bewildered by the absurd repetition that has no humor or impact? These measly efforts are an attempt to resist the passage of time, death’s human vertigo.”
I lowered the flute and the cobra collapsed upon itself.

Three other writers appear in this “book”, César Aira in a short story about virgins and vampires, Samuel Hope the master of the short story who spent his life savings stopping his works from being published, and Higuchi Ichigo who throws away his writings so they are not discovered.

“Book V: The Book of Contemporaries: Fight Club” works with Cuban literature and the struggles of the 70’s and 80’s. One of those writers being our author himself. We also have a taxi driver who loves quotes, and there are pages littered with quotes from famous people. This is the section where the influences of outside literature, on Cuban writing, come to the fore, the black market publications, the passing of titles amongst readers, of course the book we are currently reading is a compilation, a mimicking, of these well-known works.

“Book VI The Book of Fame: Lost in Translation” is a short tale of a taxi ride in Tokyo where the driver happened to be an extra on Sofia Coppola’s film, relaying stories of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The lines of fiction becoming blurred.

“Book VII: The Book of the Book: The Last Librarian”….

Whilst highly entertaining, with the numerous voices, the imitation and the copious styles, I did question the intent. A book that reminded me of a creative writing graduate wanting to prove the amount they had read. The book within a book also reminded me, slightly, of “If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller” by Italo Calvino, something that is catchy and clever but one that doesn’t demand re-reading, actually a re-read makes the original wonder disappear. Maybe too much is attempted, packing the book too tightly? Clever, readable, entertaining but with too much squeezed in, and unlike the Sergio Pitol’s of the world I didn’t feel the need to pick up the referenced books, maybe I’ve read most of them!!!, ultimately though I have to ask, “why?”