Authors: Severo Sarduy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Cuban novelist and poet

Identity: Gay or bisexual


Severo Sarduy (SAHR-dwee) was the most prominent link between twentieth century Latin American culture and the Parisian poststructuralist intellectual gay circles (the Tel Quel group). He was also a promoter of the “boom” of Latin American narrative in France in the 1960’s and after. He was born into a working-class family in a provincial Cuban town; at his birth, it was prophesied that he would become a writer. In 1956 he left for Havana to study medicine. There he joined the splinter group of gay writers who had recently abandoned José Lezama Lima’s journal Orígenes and had begun publishing Ciclón (1955-1957). Yet Sarduy remained dazzled by Lezama, whose work continued to be a major influence on his writing and on his concept of Latin American culture. Following Lezama’s lead, he developed an interest in art criticism, and visual arts would become an important influence on his novels.{$I[AN]9810001667}{$I[A]Sarduy, Severo}{$I[geo]CUBA;Sarduy, Severo}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Sarduy, Severo}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Sarduy, Severo}{$I[tim]1937;Sarduy, Severo}

Sarduy welcomed the Cuban Revolution of 1959, working on the “cultural front” until his departure for France at the end of that year to study art criticism at the Louvre. The intellectual ferment in France in the 1960’s proved too irresistible for him to return to Cuba after his government scholarship expired; he chose to stay in France and became a French citizen in 1967. An emigrant, and therefore a traitor, in the eyes of the Cuban government, Sarduy was ostracized there almost up to his death from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1993. Sarduy, however, dutifully maintained his faith in the revolution for many years, in spite of the ongoing savage persecution in Fidel Castro’s Cuba of gays in general and of his literary mentors, Lezama and Virgilio Piñera, in particular. Only much later would he exchange his faith in modern utopia for Buddhism and Afro-Cuban santería; strangely enough, after 1989, the revolution itself took similar steps, selling out its deteriorating rites of “machismo-Leninism” for the local syncretistic Afro-Cuban powers.

Yet the revolution to which Sarduy was committed in his heart was found in literature and criticism. Various elements–the Lezamian concept of the baroque (hyperbolic, imagistic, and carnivalesque); the French nouveau roman; structuralist semiology; the erotic and hedonistic concept of writing “with/on/into the body” developed by the poststructuralistic Roland Barthes; Western pop culture; gay and symbolic transvestism; and the new cosmology of the big bang–all gave rise to a joyous syncretistic Caribbean literary concoction that Sarduy called neobaroque. He was an extremely self-conscious writer, and his theories crisscross both his essays (such as those in Written on a Body) and narratives.

Sarduy wrote his first novel, Gestos, while still in Cuba in 1959, dealing with a terrorist act in Havana under the waning dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Gestos is an experimental exercise inspired both by the early nouveau roman and by action painting. In France he worked for the radio, covering scientific topics. The intimate knowledge of the medium would reflect in his experimental radio plays. In his own narrative work science seeps through in many ways, but it takes up a carnivalized form, degraded as it is to yet another manifestation of contemporary pop culture. In 1966 Sarduy became editor of the Latin American collection for Editions du Seuil.

From Cuba with a Song puts to the test the later, more experimental nouveau roman and his own neobaroque approach in the search for Cuban cultural identity. Sarduy, himself of Cuban-Chinese origin, sees Cuban cultural idiosyncrasy as a result of an interaction of three cultural components: Spanish, coming with discovery and conquest; African, introduced through black slaves after the indigenous population disappeared; and Chinese, brought to Cuba in the last century with the agricultural workers, after slavery was abolished. The text exploits, plays on, and parodies cultural stereotypes and, at the same time, explodes traditional narrative forms. The literary result is exhilarating and perplexing. Language is the true protagonist of this antinovel.

The next work, Cobra, is a perplexing exercise in narrative experiment. Completely cosmopolitan in its themes, it nonetheless remains profoundly Caribbean in its popular and carnivalesque undertones. The antinarrative constructs and dismantles the story of a beautiful transvestite unhappy about his ugly feet, a motorcycle gang and Tibetan rituals, and the sadistic castration performed by Dr. Ktazob (a multilingual pun meaning “penis cutter”) in pursuit of the phantom of feminine perfection. This search for unattainable perfection is paralleled by the topsy-turvy writing understood as verbal transvestism. Cobra received the coveted Medicis Prize in 1972.

In the 1970’s Sarduy made several trips to India. Maitreya uses the myth of the last Buddha and plays on the theme of exile and flight all around the planet, from Java to Cuba, Miami, New York, and the Islamic world. Colibrí returns to a Latin American setting and cultural intertexts; its scene is a homosexual brothel at the edge of the Amazonian jungle. Cocuyo’s main theme is voyeurism.

BibliographyBlanchard, Marc. “Site Unseen: Cuba on the Rue Jacob.” Sites 5 (Spring, 2001): 79-88. Profile of Sarduy focusing in his retention of “cultural difference” after settling in France.Bush, Andrew. “On Exemplary and Postmodern Simulation: Robert Coover and Severo Sarduy.” Comparative Literature 44 (Spring, 1992): 174-193. Uses Sarduy and Robert Coover’s works as case studies in discussing the relationship between theory and fiction.Gosser, Mary Ann. “Cobra.” In Critical Essays on the Literatures of Spain and Spanish America, edited by Luis T. González-del-Valle and Julio Baena. Boulder, Colo.: Society of Spanish and Spanish American Studies, 1991. Useful for a general reader in English.Kushigian, Julia. Orientalism in the Hispanic Literary Tradition: In Dialogue with Borges, Paz, and Sarduy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991. Studies Sarduy’s Asian connection, the theme of oriental exoticism, and Asian influence on Latin American literature.Montero, Oscar. The Name Game: Writing/Fading Writer in “De donde son los cantantes.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Focuses on the narrative experiment.Rivero-Potter, Alicia, ed. Between the Self and the Void: Essays in Honor of Severo Sarduy. Boulder, Colo.: Society of Spanish and Spanish American Studies, 1998. A collection of essays from a variety of perspectives summing up Sarduy’s career.Salgado, Cesar Augusto. “Hybridity in New World Baroque Theory.” Journal of American Folklore 112 (Summer, 1999): 316-331. Discusses Sarduy’s “neobaroque” theory.Santí, Enrico M. “Textual Politics: Severo Sarduy.” Latin American Literary Review 8, no. 16 (1980). A broad cultural perspective.
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