There was a time, we are told, when Fidel Castro used to bum cigars from Guillermo Cabrera Infante. But that was many years ago; the author (who was at the time a cultural attache' in Castro's diplomatic corps), left Cuba in 1965 and eventually settled in London, where he evidently spends much of his time dreaming of home. His latest work is a lyric, epic, historic and anecdotal celebration of tobacco, and particularly of the cigar -- even more than sugar or revolution, the Cuban national export product par excellence.
Those who have enjoyed earlier works in translation ("Three Trapped Tigers," "Infante's Inferno") will be interested to know that he now does his musing in English. His familiarity with that language is hardly a new development; in 1952, when Cuba was an American dependency and an international model of propriety, he was arrested for writing a story that contained "English profanities." But now his anglophonic excursions have reached book length.
This may be a sad development, and it must be an awkward one. With such books as "Tres tristes tigres" and "Exorcismos de esti(l)o," Infante has established a reputation as one of the most brilliant living writers in Spanish. Now, a few months short of his 57th birthday, he is seeking a new audience, mastering a new discipline.
Infante's first major venture in English follows approximately the direction pioneered by Vladimir Nabokov: verbal virtuosity -- often carried to excess, and put at the service of a surrealistic imagination. To those who have read any of his work in Spanish -- the brief, brilliant "Rompecabeza" in "Tres tristes tigres," for example -- his voice in English is recognizably the same. There is the same wild imagination, preoccupied with odd, dark corners of the human psyche and reminiscent of such writers as Borges and Cortazar. There is also, transferred into his new language, a preoccupation with verbal quirks and wordplay that marked his work in Spanish.
His verbal virtuosity in English may be slightly less sure-footed than in his native tongue, a bit more self-conscious and determined to make a dazzling impression -- like the new kid on the block who has to prove that he deserves the respect of the old-timers. Or perhaps it is like a child fascinated with a new toy, exploring what it can do and driving it up to, even beyond, its limits.
Sometimes his wordplay reads like an almost-right translation from a Spanish original, as it well may be. Those who believe that all puns are bad will find ample documentation.
In its curious ramblings through the vast folklore of its chosen weed, "Holy Smoke" reflects the author's background not only as a Cuban but as a film critic (and founding director of the Cinemateca de Cuba) and experimental writer.
The book opens with a pungently described sequence from the movie "Bride of Frankenstein" in which the man-made monster becomes a connoisseur of cigars and Infante comments: "That, even among corpses, is savoir vivre." He concludes by quoting (without translation) a succinct, multileveled sonnet in which Ste'phane Mallarme' celebrates a cigar, its aroma, its symbolic overtones and the "clair baiser de feu" that transforms tobacco into ash and smoke.
Infante is probably at his best in his discussion of tobacco (and particularly the cigar) in Hollywood. He is particularly lyric about Edward G. Robinson, who used his cigars constantly on camera for character definition, "not as a prop but as a proposition that can be self-evident and inquisitive at the same time." But he also comments with double-edged wryness: "As with his actor's art, Robinson could never find a match." And while his focus is on the cigar, he also gives due tribute to those epic cinematic smokers of cigarettes, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis.
Literature is explored -- for example in a dissertation on Robinson Crusoe's use of tobacco and his efforts to make a satisfactory pipe. Great smokers of the past are examined in terms of character and style -- including such cigar-smoking women as Amy Lowell, Bonnie Parker, George Sand and Nellie Melba. A paragraph on Sir Thomas More deserves quoting for its own value and, even more, as an example of his nervous, self-conscious stabs at brilliance.
"Sir Thomas More invented Utopia, a land ruled more by reason than by rhyme, so More is called 'a man for all reasons'. Though he himself was not very reasonable and, to King Henry, highly treasonable. He lost his head though not his reason. He never smoked, among other reasons, because tobacco had not been brought to England yet -- and it never grew in Utopia."
In a sense, Infante's book is a sequel to Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," which he loves to quote. Like Burton, he offers a book to be inhaled slowly, savoring its flavor in moments of relaxation. And whatever his problems of adjustment, he deserves gratitude for restoring a kind of writing that has been unfashionable in English for a long time.