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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I read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

Ulysses

Righteo, I read “Ulysses”, apparently that’s an achievement. Instead of writing a post full of your usual Joycean delving, probing or analysis, I thought I’d simply write about the reading experience. Let’s be honest, if you want to find out more about “Ulysses” there are thousands of places to go, classes, internet tools, books, clubs, you could keep yourself busy and increase your blood pressure for the remainder of your life and still walk away not 100% convinced you’ve understood a damn thing.

“Ulysses” has a reputation, one that precedes itself, “unreadable”, “life’s too short to read Ulysses”, and numerous other derogatory comments litter the reading websites, a demanding work obviously and numerous people just aren’t looking for focused concentration when they open a book, all of this myth had me concerned before I’d even opened page one.

First up I should mention the edition I chose to read. I’m sure every city has them, a chain of bookstores where remainders are marked, and then sold off at about a third of the recommended retail price. The shops that are littered with the next bestseller that actually never sold, thousands of copies of Jodi Picoult, Dan Brown et al. Occasionally I wander into these concrete caverns and browse, only to find some obscure out-of-print book that I’d long been looking for. On a recent visit they had one copy of the Gabler Edition of “Ulysses”, for $10 – bargain. In a nutshell the “Gabler” is a revised edition attempting to correct any errors made in earlier editions – there’s a decent “Foreword” and a large “Afterword” explaining the discovery process and the substantial effort put in to editing and publishing a definitive edition, that’s not for this post.

Before I go on, apologies to any Joyce scholars, or avid readers of “Ulysses”, below are my thoughts as I read the book, these are not in any way scholarly, nor have they been researched, do not take offence at a simple man’s views on what he thought whilst reading. If you disagree with anything, feel free to let me know, however I re-iterate that these are my thoughts, and plenty of times I have been known to be wrong.

Onto the book itself;

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Not that hard, Buck’s walking down the stairs with a bowl of lather, a crossed mirror and razor, about to have a shave….I actually made it through chapter one in a single sitting, undaunted, not overly perplexed, a chapter a day, be done in eighteen days. What’s the fuss? I’d started on a positive footing, a few google references required for some of the Latin quotes, a quick check of Homeric allusions, no guide required, I will be right. I had gone in blind, like heading out for a multi-day hike with some water, enough food, equipment, a rough idea of the terrain and hoping for the best. I’d managed to find the Linati and Gilbert “schema” on the internet, it gave a few pointers for each of the chapters (the map?) but I intentionally did not refer to the numerous multi layered guides, highlighting every nuance, dissecting every sentence.

At the highest level I understood Stephen Dedalus was trying to reconcile his blame for his mother’s death, I knew that Bloom was aware of Molly’s indiscretion, I figured out Bloom’s grief process for his young son, his father’s suicide, and of course the funeral. Surely you don’t read “Ulysses” for these broad narrative brushes!

Could I keep reading a chapter a day and be done in eighteen days? Of course I was wrong, I had underestimated the complexity, my resilience, in some cases the sheer length of some chapters (as well as my free time), a chapter a day was unachievable but it took me until Chapter Eight before I realised such….more struggles…and then I hit Chapter Fourteen “Oxen of the Sun”.

Complex, cryptic, but extremely rewarding, the gestation of the English language in a chapter about embryonic development, this section apparently mimicking the c14th travels of Sir John Mandeville, (I’ve added my simplified interpretation after each sentence):

And in the castle was set a board that was of the birchwood of Finlandy and it was upheld by four dwarfmen of that country but they durst not move more for enchantment. (A table with carved legs?)

And on this board were frightful swords and knives that are made in a great cavern by swinking demons out of white flames that they fix then in the horns of buffalos and stags that there abound marvellously. (Knives and forks with bone handles?)

And there were vessels that are wrought by magic of Mahound out of seasand and the air by a warlock with his breath that he blases in to them like to bubbles. (Glasses – glass blowing molten sand?)

And full fair cheer and rich was on the board that no wight could devise a fuller ne richer. And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing with they see it natheless that are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress. (A can of Portugese sardines in olive oil?)

And also it was a marvel to see in that castle how by magic they make a compost out of fecund wheatkidneys out of Chaldee that by aid of certain angry spirits that they do in to it swells up wondrously like to a vast mountain. (Bread?)

Basically a table with cutlery, some bread and a can of sardines!
Needless to say I got bogged down here and in the following “Circe” Chapter. But I soldiered on, sometimes vividly imagining the setting, other times simply reading the words, clueless as to what on earth was going on.

And then suddenly Bloom returns home, in the wee hours of the morning, Chapter Seventeen, “Ithaca” Odysseus returns, and then “Penelope”, Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness, back to a chapter a day.

Of the Homeric references, there would be plenty I missed, but I particularly enjoyed “Nausicaä” chapter Thirteen. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of Scheria (or Phaeacia), Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes (thanks Wikipedia). In “Ulysses” we have the readable, and controversial when it came to banning the book, chapter where Bloom masturbates whilst observing the flirting Gerty on the beach. But early on in the chapter we have the equivalent of the handmaidens’;

The three girl friends were seated on the rocks, enjoying the evening scene and the air which was fresh but not too chilly. Many a time and oft were they wont to come there to that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine…

The washing coming in lines 173+

She had four dinky sets with awfully pretty stitchery, three garments and nighties extra, and each set slotted with different coloured ribbons, rosepink, pale blue, mauve and peagreen, and she aired them herself and blued them when they came home from the wash and ironed them and she had a brickbat to keep the iron on because she wouldn’t trust those washerwomen as far as she’d see them scorching the things.

Once completed I attended a seminar in Melbourne which was an “Introduction to Ulysses” and there were hints about what chapter’s to read in what order, pointers as to Joyce’s life, reflections upon certain sections (although not everybody has the same edition of course) and a few discussions about interpretation. A room full of people wanting to delve further and further into this iconic book. Me? I’ll dabble again, I’ll pick it up and dip in and out, I’m highly unlikely to read it from cover to cover again, and I’m even unlikely to attend another seminar.

Late last year I posted a list of works, from various sources, which have been referred to as the “Ulysses” of their country or language. I’d really enjoyed a number of books on that list, for their complexity, their boldness, their experimentation, and will slowly work my way through the majority that have been mentioned. A sort of quest, a challenge, yes, but an enjoyable approach to looking at world literature. Is there time to read Joyce again?

 

 

 

The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Alisa Freedman)

ScarletGang

My post on “A World of Ulysses” was quite popular, generating a few social media comments, and garnering a higher than usual number of views. Today I look at the “Japanese Ulysses”, as identified by Joshua Cohen, Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” (translated by Alisa Freedman), Cohen advising us:

This lurid novel, teeming with teen prostitutes and slumming littérateurs, earned its author the prize that eluded Joyce, the Nobel. Originally published in a daily newspaper—surely one of the strangest serializations ever—Kawabata’s monster is a manic crawl through the dingy Asakusa: Tokyo’s red-light district.

I can assure you this novel does share something with Joyce’s work, it is a difficult read.

The “Foreword” by Donald Richie advises that Kawabata was part of a group labelled the “New Perception School”. His “ambition was to view every incident of the human condition through new eyes….one of the tenets of the new aesthetic movement, modernism.”

The first thirty-seven chapters of the novel originally appeared as a serialization in the Tokyo Asahi newspaper between 20 December 1929 and 16 February 1930, at the bottom of the first page. From September 1930 chapters 38 through 51 appeared under the title “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” in Reconstruction (Kaizō, volume 12, number 9), with Chapters 52 through 61 appearing as “The Red Sash Society” in New Currents (Shinchō, volume 27, number 9). This format leads to a repetition, especially in the first 37 chapters, where the “action” is repeated to emphasise the crucial narrative beacons to new readers. In later chapters the narrative flow smooths out and therefore becomes a little more readable.

In a nutshell the story is about the region of Tokyo where the bawdy revues sit alongside the homeless, the young girls of Asakusa who have been tricked into prostitution, and the shady dealings of the inhabitants of this region.

The Scarlet Gang uses votive stickers, but they do it in a way all their own. It’s not that they are curious enough to want to learn that the practice of using votive stickers was begun by Emperor Kazan, who stuck them on all the places of worship he visited, and that stickers were even designed by ukiyoe artists like Utagawa Toyokuni. Also, they don’t believe in the efficacy enough to go around slapping them on shrines and temples just for that reason. I’ll give you an example. One day that little tyke Boat Tokikō (his father is a boatman on the Ōkawa, so he is called Boat Tokikō) said to me: You know the Five Story Pagoda?
– The one at the Sensō Temple?
– Yep. On the third story counting from the top or the bottom on the corner near the Nio Gate, there’s this ridge-end tile sticking out. It’s got a monkey’s face on it, and its eyeballs are all gold. Well I want to stick my sticker flat on the monkey’s face.
So just like that, under the cover of night, they stick their Scarlet Troupe votive stickers at truly inappropriate locations. For example, the middle of the three big paper lanterns at the Nio Gate entrance to the Sensō Temple, or on the black-lacquered bottom of that lantern from Irifune-chō, or the horns of the cow statue in the grounds of the Ushijima Shrine over in Mukōjima. (p6)

As you can see, from this short quote, the dialogue is presented as though you are listening in on a conversation, the different speakers delineated by em dashes, in this example it is a reportage of a conversation, however in other sections you are only glimpsing part of the conversation. To understand who is speaking is very difficult, and at time to know what they are speaking about is even more cryptic.

Unlike other works by Kawabata, this appears as an experimentation, the future winner of the Nobel Prize, honing his craft with different styles, methods of creating, reportage. However the imagery remains vivid, the themes, where sexual undertones float aplenty, are forming in the young writer’s mind.

A young woman in a red dress is pounding the piano in the entryway. The bright red stands out against the black of the piano, and the white of her legs, bare from knees down to feet, is young, fresh. The entryway isn’t much wider than a wooden sandal is long, and from where I stand, just outside, it seems as though I can reach in and give that black ribbon around her waist a tug. This ribbon is the only decoration, but because the dress is sleeveless with a low neckline, it’s something like an evening gown. No, even here at home she’s wearing something for the stage – a dance costume? Traces of white powder cling to the nape of her neck, and above it her hair is cropped close as a boy’s. (p10)

We follow this girl, Yumiko, she does fade from view only to return later, and the sexual references continue, for example where she is on a boat with a “customer” Kawabata advises us “And Yumiko polishes the glass globe, her head lowered, cheeks flushed, lost in thought” (p70).

All the seediness of Asakusa bubbles in the background, as our novelist wanders the streets and parks at night, relaying to us his observations;

Right under your nose, you can find lady bums dressed as men. You just laugh them off. But a man dressed as a woman, face thick with white powder, elaborate Japanese-style wig, all decked out in red, slipping off with another man into the dark alleys behind the temple – this sends chills up your spine like you’ve just seen a peculiar lizard or something. (p51)

The horror of child prostitution is also peppered throughout, young girls from the country taking work, during the Depression, and being tricked into prostitution;

It’s not so surprising that the little girl who rode the holy horse in the May Sanja Shrine festival already now in June has to sell her body to support her family. (p128)

Although a cast of 100’s move in and out of view, it is the seediness, the lure of the erotic, and the area of Asakawa that is the focus here:

Asakusa is Tokyo’s heart…
Asakusa is a human market…
The words of that popular writer Soeda Azenb
ō: Asakusa is Asakusa for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive…The masses converge on it, constantly. Their Asakusa is a foundry in which all the old models are regularly melted down to be cast into new ones. (p30)

A work that is a dichotomy of styles, the writing is influenced by the modernism of the West, the revues are snippets of the West, but there is a lament for the loss of Japanese culture;

For example, dear reader, have you listened to manzai lately? Manzai used to be funny. But in 1929, because the manzai people have been pushed by the “modern”, by that wild reckless nonsense straight from America, they have become pathetic clowns in both senses of the word. (p93)

There are historical laments too, a section set just after the massive earthquake of 1923 where Asakusa was flattened. And as you can see in the above quote, the direct address to you, “the reader”, occur frequently, as does the theme of Kawabata writing this book:

I tossed around the idea of writing a long, strange novel. And, dear reader, in these pages, after ten years, I have finally begun to do that. (p133)

This edition contains a very useful Foreword and Afterword by Don Ritchie as well as a Translator’s Preface, where the difficulty of translating the slang and references to Japanese culture and literature are explained, as well as an extensive Glossary and Selected Bibliography, greatly assisting academics, and the University of California Press should be congratulated for bringing this little known work into print.

A difficult read given the dialogue style, the lack of character development, and the subject matter, this is a curio in Kawabata’s work, one where he is experimenting with styles and the modernist, as well as serialized approach. It is a worthwhile addition to the world listing of Ulysses, and it is an interesting addition for readers who have enjoyed his more famous works such as “Snow Country”, “The Sound of the Mountain” and “The House of the Sleeping Beauties”, however I would not recommend starting your 1968 Nobel Prize winning journey with this book.

A World of Ulysses?

Ulysses

As regular visitors here would know, I love a list, it gives me some structure, helps with what to read next. I recently came across an article by author Joshua Cohen, written in 2010, for the 106th anniversary of Bloomsday, in which he identified “12 novels that have been described, whether by critics or the authors themselves, as the Ulyssi of their respective cultures.”

What a great reading list, twelve Ulysses from various nations:

The Russian Ulysses Petersburg By Andrei Bely 1913

The British Ulysses Mrs. Dalloway By Virginia Woolf 1925

The German Ulysses Berlin Alexanderplatz By Alfred Döblin 1929

The Japanese Ulysses The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa By Yasunari Kawabata 1930

The Hungarian Ulysses Prae By Miklós Szentkuthy 1934

The Indian Ulysses All About H. Hatterr By G.V. Desani 1948

The Argentine Ulysses Adán Buenosayres By Leopoldo Marechal 1948

The Turkish Ulysses A Mind at Peace By Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar 1949

The Welsh Ulysses Under Milk Wood By Dylan Thomas 1954

The Brazilian Ulysses The Devil to Pay in the Backlands By João Guimarães Rosa 1956

The Israeli Ulysses Past Continuous By Yaakov Shabtai 1977

The Spanish Ulysses Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel By Julián Ríos 1983

From there Nathan “NR” at Goodreads has extended the list to include a further fourteen titles:

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson

Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade

Die Tutoren by Bora Ćosić

Leg Over Leg (all four volumes) by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq

Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi

The Bloodworth Orphans: A Novel by Leon Forrest

Rama and the Dragon by Edwar al-Kharrat

Belarmino and Apolonio by Ramón Pérez de Ayala

Dessen Sprache Du Nicht Verstehst: Roman by Marianne Fritz

The Disconnecte d by Oğuz Atay

Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

La Medusa by Vanessa Place

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa

Divine Days by Leon Forrest

It was my reading of The Disconnecte d by Oğuz Atay which alerted me to these lists and then I went on to read the first volume of Luis Goytisolo’s four volume “Antagony” which was compared to Joyce’s work by Mario Vargas Llosa, this got me thinking that a longer world journey of national Ulysses could well be undertaken (of course not back to back!!!)

Amazingly I own eleven of these titles, counting Leg Over Leg as one title even though it is four books, therefore I think a little Christmas reading is in order (along with a serious attempt at getting through another 100 pages of Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”).

Instead of hunting down the various lists each time I go to choose my next read, I thought it prudent to capture it here. Of course, if anybody has any further references to novels which have been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses then please leave a comment, I’d love to extend the list!!!

UPDATE

Two new suggested titles that have been highlighted to me via social media (I’ll keep adding as titles become known):

The Scottish Ulysses – “Lanark” by Alasdair Grey

“Women and Men” by Joseph McElroy “Big. Difficult. Masterpiece” I’ve been told.