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Volume 50 / Humanities


20th Century Prose Fiction: Hispanic Caribbean

WILLIAM LUIS, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, State University of New York at Binghamton
CARLOS R. HORTAS, Dean of Humanities and Arts, Hunter College-City University of New York

TWO IMPORTANT NOVELS, La loma del ángel (item bi 89007553) and Las iniciales de la tierra (item bi 89007554), one written and published in Cuba and the other in the US, characterize this biennium. The first, by Reinaldo Arenas, confirms his reputation as one of the best writers in Cuban and Latin American literature. Although reflecting contemporary times, La loma del ángel closely follows Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés (1882), the most important 19th-century Cuban novel. There is even an uncanny coincidence in the lives of the two writers: both were jailed for a time in Cuba, escaped from the island, and sought refuge in the US; both rewrote and published their versions of Cecilia Valdés while in the US (Villaverde's version is a rewriting of an earlier 1839 short story and first volume); and it is possible that Arenas, like Villaverde, will die an exile in the US.

Due to the number and quality of writers in exile, Arenas' novel is representative of an increasing number of major works written and published outside of Cuba, particularly in the US. A prolific and outspoken critic of the Revolution, Arenas has also written a collection of political essays, Necesidad de libertad (item bi 89007563) and a political play, Persecución (Miami, Fla.: Ediciones Universal, 1986) decrying the lack of freedom in Cuba.

The second novel is by Jesús Díaz, who came to public attention as editor of El Caimán Barbudo (1966-67), during the turbulent Padilla years, and as author of the celebrated Los años duros (1966). By paying tribute to the Revolution with Las iniciales de la tierra, Díaz conforms to the demands of critics in Cuba that authors write about the revolutionary process. With his use of language and cinematic techniques - Díaz is also a film director - the opening moments of the novel recreate Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres, but from a socialist point of view. However, given Díaz's task and the context in which the novel was written, the ending of his work is somewhat predictable.

Miguel Barnet has published his La vida real (item bi 89007556), a testimonial novel about pre-revolutionary Cuban migration to the US. Although the work is of some interest, especially since it recalls the more recent Mariel boatlift, it is far from being Barnet's best. Practically half of the novel takes place in Cuba and narrates a series of misfortunes which, after a while, become commonplace. Since Cuban literature and criticism are unfortunately divided between those who support and those who oppose the Revolution, Arenas', Díaz's, and Barnet's works will be hailed by their respective followers.

In criticism, Roberto González Echevarría's La ruta de Severo Sarduy (item bi 89007618) is certainly the most important work about a Cuban writer published anywhere in the 1980s. With Arenas and Barnet, Sarduy is among the most prominent writers of recent Cuban and Latin American literature. La ruta de Severo Sarduy is a well-written book which reveals a detailed knowledge not only of Cuban literature and politics but also of theory and criticism, situating González Echeverría among the best in the field.

More and more critics, such as Enrico Mario Santí (item bi 89007606), Carlos Alberto Montaner (item bi 89007575), and Carlos Ripoll (item bi 89007596), are writing about the problems of literature and politics in Cuba. Special attention should be given to Seymour Menton's "The Novel of the Cuban Revolution, Phase Five: 1975-1986" (item bi 89007597), which updates his Prose fiction of the Cuban Revolution, and Antonio Benítez Rojo's extensive review (item bi 89007593) of the Spanish translation of Menton's book (item bi 89007624).

Roberto Fernández Retamar has written a supplement (item bi 89007617) to his essay Calibán. Written in 1971, the year in which many intellectuals signed letters to Castro protesting Padilla's imprisonment and "confession," the essay Calibán portrayed Cuba and numerous individuals, including its author, in the struggle against an antirevolutionary enemy. In his subsequent essay, Retamar updates the polemic by including Cortázar. But the tone is different from the original essay, and Retamar's position is less clear than before.

We wonder if Cuban literary criticism is showing a glimmer of glasnost. In HLAS 48, we pointed out a certain "openness" insofar as dissident writers, such as Padilla and Triana, were included in vol. 2 of the Diccionario de la literatura cubana (see HLAS 48:5434a). In Teoría y crítica de la literatura (item bi 89007590), José Antonio Portuondo incorporates his "Corrientes Literarias en Cuba," an essay published in 1967 which gave an objective view of Lunes de Revolución and spoke favorably of Cabrera Infante. However, this perception of glasnost is undermined by two recent polemics: the first regarding Cintio Vitier's open letter to Arcadio Díaz Quiñones (item bi 89007621) in response to the latter's Cintio Vitier: la memoria integradora, the second regarding the establishment in Cuba of a human rights commission of ex-political prisoners (item bi 89007612).

Díaz Quiñones, who bases his study on Angel Rama's La ciudad letrada, is unjustly accused by Vitier of not sympathizing with the Revolution. Vitier, who was shunned in Cuba largely because of his religious beliefs, has now become an outspoken defender of the Revolution. It is possible that Nicaraguan Christian revolutionaries are serving as a model for Cuban Catholics in reconciling their religious beliefs with a revolutionary commitment.

On the second matter, the human rights commission's survival remains controversial, even though official policy allows it to exist. Ricardo Bofill, the President of the Comité Cubano Pro-Derechos Humanos, accused one of the group's members, Elizardo Sánchez, of being a Castro infiltrator. Sánchez left the group and founded the Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y de Reconciliación Nacional. The controversy has a literary element as well. Apparently, there is a dispute (see item bi 89007612) over the authorship of El tiempo es el Diablo (item bi 89007551), which Bofill says he wrote in prison. José Lorenzo Fuentes claims the book was actually a volume he lent to Bofill entitled Los ojos de papel, which Fuentes subsequently revised and published under the title Brígida pudo soñar. We have reason to believe that the novel does belong to Lorenzo Fuentes, not Bofill.

Just as the current Cuban political situation is stimulating a literature about the Cuban presence in Africa (see HLAS 48, p. 433-435, and item bi 89007548), it is also giving birth to a testimonial narrative about Cuban prisons. The first and most important of these is Armando Valladares' Contra toda esperanza (see HLAS 48:5424 and HLAS 49:6263). Two other works have appeared: Jorge Valls' Twenty years and forty days: life in a Cuban prison (item bi 89013909), which narrates his experiences in various Cuban jails prior to his release in 1986, and Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo's El radarista (item bi 89007557). Although the latter does not pertain to Cuban prisons per se, its prologue and epilogue discuss the author's detention and make an appeal for his freedom. We foresee an increase in testimonial literature about Cuban prisons.

Another trend in Cuban literature is the renewed scholarly interest in blacks, whose presence in Cuban literature can be traced to the 19th-century anti-slavery narrative. A number of studies on the theme of blacks have appeared recently, notably articles on the presence and symbolism of Afro-Cubans in the works of Carpentier (item bi 89007576), Lydia Cabrera (item bi 89007568), and Lino Novás Calvo (item bi 89007588).

Criticism of Dominican literature continues to increase in quality and has even overshadowed original works in that measure. The Revista Iberoamericana (item bi 89007619) has acknowledged the significance of this literature by dedicating a special issue to its manifestation in the 20th century. Guest editor Rei Berroa has gathered essays from critics such as Efraín Barradas, Arnaldo Cruz Malave, and Doris Sommer on Juan Bosch, Pedro Mir, Pedro Verges, and others. We should also mention that Sommer has written the first full-length study in English about a select group of Dominican novels (item bi 89007369).

Like Carpentier in the case of Cuba, Pedro Henríquez Ureña is the most important and written-about Dominican author (see, for example, items bi 89007619 and bi 89007565). The commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1884 merely added to the volume of works published, many of which provide useful information about his life and works. Although few are familiar with his works, Henríquez Ureña will eventually occupy his rightful place as one of the leading intellectuals in Spanish American literature. [WL]

In Puerto Rico, women continue to infuse prose narrative with new vigor. Rosario Ferré, Ana Lydia Vega, Carmen Lugo Filippi, and now Magali García Ramis (item bi 88000671) are strong and talented feminine voices. All four have brought new viewpoints and perspectives to their writings and revealed aspects of Puerto Rican life that other authors have glossed over.

In general, prose fiction is thriving on the island. Established writers continue to publish new works, and, like Emilio Díaz Valcárcel, some seek renewal and redefinition from one work to the next. In addition, good young writers keep appearing and adding their contributions to the larger picture. Antonio González Caballero (item bi 88000661) and Antonio Aguado Charneco (item bi 88000665) are both good craftsmen whose stories deserve wide readership.

Not to be forgotten is Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, whose "crónicas" of Puerto Rican life constitute one of the most valuable contributions to Puerto Rican letters. Una noche con Iris Chacón (item bi 88000676) is the latest "crónica" in which Chacón, the famous island vedette, is treated not as the butt of Rodríguez Juliá's jokes, but more as an icon of island life and mores. The result is both delightful and profound.

Criticism of Puerto Rican prose fiction is keeping pace with creative activity. In particular (now that some time has elapsed since its publication and the novel can be studied apart from its "best seller" status), we are seeing a number of serious attempts to come to grips with Luis Rafael Sánchez's La guaracha del Macho Camacho (see HLAS 40:6697). Carlos J. Alonso (item bi 89007630), Luce López Baralt (item bi89-7632), Arnaldo Cruz (item bi 89007637), and María Teresa Gozo (item bi 89007633) have all made important contributions to the analysis and interpretation of this work. [CH]

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