Thursday, March 08, 2018

José Lezama Lima, Paradiso (1966)

Welp, this is a Cuban novel. A lot of people seem to think of it as THE Cuban novel, so I wanted to read it. Due to our horrible foreign policy, Cuba has always seemed mysterious and remote to me. Anyway. This is this.

So the protagonist is named José Cemi. He has a childhood, his father dies young, and he grow up and talks with his friends about literature and mythology and homosexuality. Oh so much talking. There are also a number of vignettes with no obvious connection to the main narrative, such as it is. And that is that.

The thing is, Lima (1910-1976) was mainly a poet, and this makes a lot of sense when you read his novel, which is baroque as fuck. If not baroquer. It's very dense, and it reads slooooowly. It's actually not that long--less than five hundred pages, anyway--but it has the feel of a much longer book. The English translation is by Gregory Rabassa, known as the world's foremost translator of Latin American literature, but some of it feels a bit ponderous; I don't doubt Rabassa's facility (Gabriel Garcia Marquez famously claimed that his translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than the original), but I think either there are things that can't really be translated well or the original just isn't always that...good. As for the content...well, I kind of feel like it can't quite decide what it wants to be. At first, it seems like it could be a kind of family saga--and a reasonably engaging--but the family elements kind of drop out not that far in. There's a little family tree at the start, but it ultimately seems thoroughly pointless. Then, well, it seems like maybe it's going to be "about" these little discursive segments, but there aren't actually that many of them, and though they're not bad, I'm willing to go with them, they mostly fizzle out. I guess if it's about anything, it's about the talking. Oh so much talking. Paradiso is oft compared (okay, I don't know how "oft" it is, but it happens on the back cover) to Proust, and these segments are where I felt that most strongly. Blah blah blah, but then we have a few stories that seem entirely disconnected from the story (the wikipedia page claims that Lima said they were supposed to represent Cemi's dreams), and, um. Well.

In the past, I've had the idea that if literature is genuinely good, I'll be able to appreciate it, regardless of what sort of beast it is. These days, that looks a bit solipsistic to me. I'd like to think it's true, but there exists evidence that it may not be. So you must simply take it for what it's worth when I say that I found this mostly exhausing and unrewarding. It had its moments, here and there, but I did not love it. I was hella relieved to be finished with it. So let's add another comparison of Lima to Proust: I'm glad to have read both authors' major works, and HOLY CRAP I'm glad there's no call for me to ever read either of them again.


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