Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Three Trapped Tigers (1967)

Cuban. 1929-2005. The back cover copy of the Dalkey edition says that "this novel has been praised as a more modern, sexier, funnier, Cuban Ulysses." Overlooking for a moment the peculiar lack of agency in claims like this--who praised it thus?--I always think, dude, are you SURE you want to say that? Because you're just setting yourself up for failure: your book may be good, but it just seems unlikely that it's Ulysses-level. You come at the king you best not miss, is all I'm saying.

Well but you know actually...this one comes closer than most. I still wouldn't make the comparison--I feel like the book is sufficiently different in intent and execution from Joyce's that they're more different than similar--but damn, man.

It gets tedious to keep saying "there's not much plot per se," but there's not much plot per se. The first part is structured around a series of sections each entitled "I Heard Her Sing" about an obese cabaret singer that various people are fixated on, and associated characters and their comings and goings. The main characters are an actor named Arsenio Cué and a journalist named Sylvestre; they also have a friend named Bustróphedron who dies but whose obsession with wordplay sort of seeps into the fabric of the novel. This is an intensely pun-heavy book; comparisons to Finnegans Wake (to which I found at least one reference here--boy, I really do need to make that ascent one of these days) seem warranted. There's a section in the middle, allegedly maybe written by Bustróphedron, that consists--and why not?--of writings on the death of Trotsky in the styles of various Cuban writers.* Then in the lengthy final section, Cué and Sylvestre drive around aimlessly, drinking, talking about literature, trying to pick up women, etc.
*I guess it's pretty darned hard for that part not to be somewhat obscure for Anglophone readers: first, some of the writers in question have never been translated into English, and even if they have, does the translation line up with the parody? A complicated thing. The only one whose work I'd actually read--because the only Cuban writer I'd read up 'til now--was José Lezama Lima. For the record, I can see how the baroque style could indeed match up with Lezama Lima's work, but I certainly wouldn't have made the connection without knowing in advance. And that is all.
This all might be a bit aimless for some people, but I loved it. Thought it was great. So let's return to that quote from the back cover and take each descriptor in turn.


Funnier--arguably. It IS pretty darned funny.

Sexier--again, could be. To be honest, I rarely if ever find literature titillating in any case, but I can see how someone might use the word.

More modern--I have no idea what this one is supposed to mean. If it's in a technical sense, it's just gibberish; if it's referring to the fact that the book was written and set well after Joyce's, no shit sherlock, but I can't say I think Batista's Cuba is going to be more familiar to many people nowadays than pre-revolutionary Ireland anyway. WHATEVER.

Of course, this isn't really fair to Joyce: Ulysses has an emotional core that Three Trapped Tigers doesn't--nor is it trying to. But it's a hell of a thing regardless.

I also want to talk about the translation (by Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine), starting with the title. The Spanish is Tres Tristes Tigres--"tristes," of course, meaning "sad." It's part of a Spanish tongue-twister, I am told. But of course, if you were to translate it literally into English, you would lose the alliteration. Cabrera Infante (himself a fluent English-speaker) consulted on the translation, and he wanted something that wouldn't just be a compromise; that would feel as vibrant in English as it does in Spanish. So, they hit on "trapped" instead. Of course, it still doesn't quite work; because, obviously, "three" in English has a different sound; plus, you lose the cultural reference in the original. You can see how hard this is, and that's just the dern title. Given how wordplay-drunk the book is, you can imagine what a daunting prospect it would be to translate the whole damn thing.

And I must say, Garner and Levine worked wonders. I understand that this is further from the original text than most translations are (as several upset amazon reviews note), and that might be a problem if I were trying to write a dissertation on Cabrera Infante (though in that case, surely I would be reading it in the original?). But all I can say is that translations often feel like negotiations to one degree or another, but in reading Three Trapped Tigers, I never felt as though I was losing out, or only getting a compromised version. It's packed full of puns and japes that obviously are completely different than they are in the original, but not in what feels like an artificial way. It's incredible. Of course, I can't say how well it works compared to the Spanish, but if this is a degraded version, I can't even imagine. I think the translation work is little short of genius.

Also, here's a good pull quote: "Three Trapped Tigers is a monument to the versatility of our language, an acute understanding of our world, and an example of the infinite capability of aesthetic expression."  Who said that?  Juan Carlos I, King of Spain.  I mean, good lord, even in your wildest dreams, could you even begin to imagine our pres-sorry, I can't even finish that thought.  But the point is, I'm pretty sure if a king recommends a book, you're legally required to read it.  Get cracking, foax!


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