Guillermo Cabrera Infante (kah-BRAY-rah een-FAHN-tay), a writer whose satiric, imaginative prose has been compared with that of Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, and Laurence Sterne, is considered to be one of Latin America’s most original and influential writers. Born in Gibara, a small city on the northern coast of Cuba’s Oriente Province, Cabrera Infante was the second child and first son of Guillermo Cabrera Lopez, a journalist, and Zoila Infante. Because his parents were founders of the Communist Party in Cuba, Cabrera Infante was reared in poverty, in an environment of sacrifice for the utopia to come.
After teaching himself to read (at the age of four) by deciphering Dick Tracy and Tarzan comic books, Cabrera Infante was sent to a Quaker school. When he was twelve, the entire family emigrated to Havana. Although extremely poor, he managed to attend high school and study at the school of journalism, simultaneously working at various odd jobs. Receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1948, Cabrera Infante subsequently studied medicine at Havana University in 1949, and again from 1950 to 1954. In 1952, he was briefly imprisoned and fined for publishing a short story containing English obscenities. In 1953, he began writing film criticism under the pseudonym Guillermo Cain in Carteles magazine, of which he became fiction editor in 1957. He married for the first time in 1953 and had two daughters, Ana and Carola. Following his divorce in 1961, he married a young actress named Miriam Gómez.
After the revolution of 1959, Cabrera Infante founded Lunes, a cultural journal and literary supplement to La Revolución, the revolutionary government newspaper which he helped to edit. Lunes was banned in 1961, and Cabrera Infante became increasingly disillusioned with the revolution. To remove him from internal politics, the Cuban government sent him to what he perceived as semiofficial exile; from 1962 to 1965, he served first as Cuban cultural attaché and then briefly as chargé d’affaires in Belgium.
In 1960, Cabrera Infante published his first book, Writes of Passage, a collection of short stories that, taken together, construct a coherent portrait of Cuban lower-middle-class life during the 1950’s. The author’s candor, his use of colloquial speech, and the delicate balance between humor and tragedy all foreshadow the style and tone of his masterpiece, Three Trapped Tigers.
It was Three Trapped Tigers, the novel for which he is best known, that established Cabrera Infante as one of the most original and witty novelists to have emerged in Latin America. Plotless in the accepted sense, the work develops from a carefully structured pastiche of monologues, some spoken and some written in letter form, rendered in the vernacular of Havana of the late 1950’s. The long and ambitious work (which the author referred to as a five-hundred-page joke–packed with puns, anagrams, tongue twisters, number games, and typographical errors) functions on several levels. It constructs an intimate and nostalgic diary of the late-night adventures and discussions of a group of friends and of their efforts at solidarity and political action. It also is an indictment of a society in demise, a grotesque parody of European and North American civilization. As its aesthetic centerpiece it includes parodies of seven prominent Cuban writers, each of whom describes with self-conscious artistry the death of communist leader Leon Trotsky. Reckless punning, agonizing questioning of realistic art and of the possibilities of mimesis, the shift toward parody, and extensive use of local and international popular culture mark this early postmodern text.
In 1963, Cabrera Infante published his film criticism enriched by narrative fiction in A Twentieth-Century Job and in Arcadia todas las noches. The next year an early–and much more overtly political– version of his novel Three Trapped Tigers won the prestigious Spanish Biblioteca Breve prize. The novel was rewritten in its present form when Cabrera Infante became convinced of the incompatibility of literature and politics.
In 1965, the author traveled to Havana to attend his mother’s funeral. Because of some political machinations, however, he was detained in Cuba for four months before being allowed to leave the country, this time permanently and without any official position. The manuscript of his novel was censored in Spain, where he lived from 1965 to 1966, and was not published until 1967. After becoming a naturalized British citizen, Cabrera Infante went to Hollywood, where a screenplay of his was made into the successful film Vanishing Point. He was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships for creative writing in 1971 and in 1972.
While writing a film adaptation of Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel, Cabrera Infante suffered a severe nervous breakdown. The author’s self-prescribed remedy was to write several books almost concurrently: View of Dawn in the Tropics, a work that attempts to destroy the myth of Cuban history by creating historical passages as capsules of language; O, a collection of articles and essays; and Exorcismos de esti(l)o (exorcising style), published in Spain. His erotic novel Infante’s Inferno was published in 1979. The work consists of a series of amorous adventures ranging from the autoerotic to various premarital and extramarital experiences. In 1992, Cabrera Infante collected his political and cultural criticism in a pungent indictment, Mea Cuba. In 1995, he published the short-story collection Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaChá, to mixed reviews; Cabrera Infante himself translated the work into English six years later. Another collection, Mi música extremada, followed in 1996. Cabrera Infante was awarded the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honor, the Cervantes Prize, in 1997.
Although Cabrera Infante and his books remain banned in his native Cuba, he is said to have much influence on younger Cuban writers. While some critics maintain that Cabrera Infante is a linguistic exhibitionist, they nevertheless acknowledge the author’s wit and talent. They further maintain that Cabrera Infante’s neologisms and other modernist techniques offer a critique of decadence while seeming to indulge in it. Other critics assert that his imaginative use of language, his abandonment of traditional literary forms, and his loosely structured narratives are his triumph, his personal political statement on behalf of individual freedom and his major contribution to Latin American literature. The author himself hoped that his contribution to the modern Latin American novel would be “the shaky foundations of a future movement to disrespectfulness.”