ACCORDING TO Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, he grew up in an atmosphere of "misery, promiscuity and neglect," one of a family of five living in one room and often subsisting on a diet of coffee and milk. How is it, one wonders, that this grandson of a destitute cane-cutter, son of a militant communist worker and product of impeccable proletarian origin, has evolved into one of the most outspoken foes of the Cuban Revolution?
After the fall of Batista in 1959, Cabrera became the editor of Lunes , the literary supplement of the daily Revolucion and possibly the most lively cultural review ever published in Cuba. Its independent policies, however, soon incurred the wrath of orthodox party members, who shut down Lunes in 1961 because of the "paper shortage." The incident led to the first open confrontation between the regime and Cuban intellectuals, a confrontation that culminated in 1967 with the widely known censorship of the poet Padilla. The last word, as usual, belonged to Castro, who, in his unique style, laid down the line for Cuban writers: "Art is a weapon of the Revolution" and "Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing." Padilla, who recanted his dissent, remained in Cuba; Cabrera, who flaunted his, went into exile.
Confrontation and censorship notwithstanding, the '60s were prodigious years for the Latin American novel in general and for the Cuban in particular. Among the most astonishing of these novels was Cabrera's Three Trapped Tigers , published in 1967 and banned in Cuba. This work is a dazzling assault on Spanish speech by Cuban street-talk, a delightful dissolving of stony, stodgy Castilian prose into something resembling the nonsense of Lewis Carroll, with the bawdiness of Joyce.
Vies of Dawn in the Tropics was the original title of a much earlier and very different version of Three Trapped Tigers which won a Spanish prize but was nonetheless banned by Franco's government in 964 just as Tigers would be banned by Castro's in 1967. Cabrera has since repudiated the 1964 version of View of Dawn by calling it "a book of absolute socialist realism" and emphasizing that "literature must only have to do with literature," and, presumably, not politics. The question, then, is: Why has Cabrera chosen to write this new version?
Admirers who expect the wonderful exuberance, humor and inventiveness of Tigers will be disappointed. The new View of Dawn is a curiously austere and bitter book, far more reminiscent of the author's early style. His short stories of the '50s (published as Asi en la paz como en la guerra in Havana in 1960) were separated by 15 historical vignettes which reported with exemplary economy and detachment the atrocities of the Batista regime. View of Dawn in the Tropics stretches the same form to the limit with more than 100 sketches tracing the history of Cuba from the dawn of man to the dawning of the Revolution. However, the fragile craft of the vignette sinks under so much intention that one wonders if this is the same writer who warned readers of Trgers that "any similarity between literature and history is accidental."
The impact of Cabrera's vignettes of the '50s hinged upon the Cuban reader's recognition of the unnamed victims of Batista's atrocities. But wht is the non-Cuban reader to make of such cryptic references in View of Dawn as "the son of a Spanish dancer and a mulatto barber," "the bald little man with the big moustache," or "the big black general?" Even those somewhat familiar with Cuban history may wonder whether one character is Marti and another Maceo or whether the appalling gangster-style killing reported on page 63 is one in which the young Fidel Castro was allegedly involved.
Perhaps Cabrera does not wish his reader to bother with who is who or what is what, but to read on inexorably towards some grim moral about the unchanging venality and brutality in Cuban history. My suspicion is that the fatalism and pessimism of this version of View of Dawn is the reversal, indeed the mirror image, of the socialist realism and optimism of that earlier version. Instead of the heroic guerrillas and liberating progress of 1964, we now have the villainous commissars and despotic regression of 1974.
Nevertheless, some of the sketches (which are very well transiated by Jill Levine) have the paradoxical immediacy of good photographs, the illumination of a presence serving to emphasize the shadow of its essence. The vignettes are vivid but, somehow, their ultimate effect is ephemeral. Unlike the images of a good film whose overall impact is cohesive and cumulative, the impression left by these sketches is random and sporadic.