In one of his most famous poems, Nicolas Guillén describes Cuba as “A long, green lizard with eyes of stone and water" (“Un largo lagarto verde con ojos de piedra y agua") giving, at the same time, a lesson on the nature of Cuban literature: a constant imagery, an inexhaustible richness of vocabulary, an elegant ease, and an ironic take on life which is the true self of one of the most powerful Latin American literary heritages.
Cuba was the last of Spanish colonies to become independent, by the end of 1 9th century, after the Spanish-American war, and in consequence, it was weaned later than other countries from the body of Spanish language and culture, of which it inherited the original splendor, very close to its spirit and genius. The most striking feature in the Cuban postcolonial literature is the high consciousness of sound and rhythm, that is, the musicality which has been constantly used as one more instrument of language not only in poetry but in novels. In the 20th century, many writers have masterfully used this instrument, such as the poet Nicolas Guillén who dared even to play with an invented African dialect intertwined to the Spanish, honoring the Black man as a big part of Cuban population, and the novelist Alejo Carpentier . In Guillén’s “Canto Negro," “Black Song" we can appreciate the almost impossible to translate verses while we hear their music: “¡Yambambó, yambambé!/Repica el congo solongo, /repica el negro bien negro;/congo solongo del Songo/baila yambó sobre un pie.
/Mamatomba, serembe cuseremb¡. /. . . Tamba, tamba, tamba, tamba, /tamba del negro que tumba;!tumba del negro, caramba, /caramba, que el negro tumba:/¡yamba, yambó, yambambé!. Alejo Carpentier, as the talented, gifted writer and musicologist he was, chose a different approach than the playful trade with words to build a powerful body of work with an elegant, sensuous turn in long, majestic sentences, carefully structured as musical lines, in novels meant to bring to life the Caribbean history and culture, one of them “Los pasos perdidos," “The Lost Steps" which also introduces music as a subject and matter.
The literary history of the island starts as early as the 16th century with Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and his “Historia de Indias," and goes through all the expected literary imported movements, including Romanticism in the 1 9th century, represented by José Marti de Heredia whose poem “Al Niagara" is inspired on the Niagara Falls (the Romantic love for Nature and the foreign! ) and the novels of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a feminist avant-la-lettre. But it’s only by the end of the 19th Century, with José Marti (1853 -- 1895)-also a hero of the Independence- and Julian del Casal (1863- 1893) that Cuban literature starts to bloom with its unique personality.
Through the 20th century, when we have to account not only the independent Cuba become a Republic and the American intervention but the Revolution of 1959, poets such as Agustian Acosta and Dulce Maria Loynaz bloomed among many others and though the most popular Cuban poet remains Nicolas Guillén, the most respected has been the remarkable José Lezama Lima, not only the owner of immense poetical resources but the founder in 1940 of Revista Origenes a magazine of Cuban and universal poetry and, above all, the author of Paradiso, a novel which can be considered one of the masterpieces of Spanish literature. The main Cuban novelist, reigning above all the rest, is the powerful Alejo Carpentier, the author of “El reino de este mundo", “The Kingdom of this World" and “El Siglo de las luces", "The Century of Lights", complex, meaningful novels which allude to Caribbean history and politics. Carpentier’s accent on the Caribbean culture, so prone to mystery and metaphysical epiphanies, made of him the first writer of magical realism.
Often rebels and exiles, Cuban writers have been at odds with the disturbing history of their country. José Marti set the intellectual example of the writer engaged with freedom, when he braved Spain and worked for the Independence. In the contemporary days, not everyone agreed with the Cuban socialist revolution, creating thus two Cubas, the Cuba on the island and the spiritual Cuba in exile. Both Cubas have remained united in the character of its literature, not a small feat, preserving the richness of the inherited language as well as the buoyant personality of the Cuban people.
While Lezama Lima and Carpentier never left the island (but as an ambassador) some of their outstanding contemporary colleagues couldn’t endure the lack of freedom under the Revolution: Severo Sarduy left the island to live in Paris and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, another distinguished, gracious writer with the gift of a playful language, chose London. Most of the younger writers who didn’t accept the Cuban revolutionary regime or who were persecuted by it, chose the United States, such as Reinaldo Arenas, the author of the marvelous autobiography “Antes que anochezca" ,“Before the Night Falls."
While the most recent Cuban literature of exiles includes writers like Eliseo Alberto (who lived and died in Mexico) Zoe Valdés (who lives in Paris) and Daina Chaviano (United States) who all write in Spanish, there’s a new Cuban literature written in English, by the bilingual writers who grew up in the continental spiritual Cuban community of the United States, and whose early thinker and leader was the essayist Gustavo Pérez Firmat("Life on the Hyphen"). Having lost their homeland, they recreated a mythical Cuba which has borne some new literary fruits, in the shared garden of words where no one dares to say what will happen in the end, when the English language is touched by the magic wand of Cuban sound. One close experiment has been performed by a Caribbean brother, the Dominican Junot Diaz and his wise and revolutionary use of Spanglish sound and there’s more to wait for whenever tropical trees and flowers are at stake. They grow with endless energy, and we rejoice in them if we’re lucky enough to know they exist.
Tengo el impuro amor de las ciudades,
y a este sol que ilumina las edades
prefiero yo del gas las claridades.
A mis sentidos languidos arroba,
mas que el olor de un bosque de caoba,
el ambiente enfermizo de una alcoba.
Mucho mas que las selvas tropicales,
placenme los sombraos arrabales
que encierran las vetustas capitales.
A la flor que se abre en el sendero,
como si fuese terrenal lucero,
olvido por la flor de invernadero.
Mas que la voz del pajaro en la cima
de un arbol todo en flor, a mi alma anima
la música armoniosa de una rima.
Nunca a mi corazón tanto enamora
el rostro virginal de una pastora
como un rostro de regia pecadora.
Al oro de las mies en primavera,
yo siempre en mi capricho prefiriera
el oro de teñida cabellera.
No cambiara sedosas muselinas
por los velos de natidas neblinas
que la mañana prende en las colinas.
Mas que al raudal que baja de la cumbre,
quiero oir a la humana muchedumbre
gimiendo en su perpetua servidumbre.
El rocio que brilla en la montaña
no ha podido decir a mi alma
extraña lo que el llanto al bañar una pestaña.
Y el fulgor de los astros rutilantes
no trueco por los vividos cambiantes
del ópalo la perla o los diamantes.
IN THE COUNTRY by Julian del Casal
I own the impure love of cities
and to this sun lighting over ages
I prefer the brightness of gas.
My languorous senses are enchanted
not by the smell of mahogany woods
but by the sick ambiance of a bedroom.
More than the tropical forests
I rejoice in the somber suburbs
that surround the ancient capitals.
As for the flower that blooms on the trail
like an earthly morning star
I forget it to favor a greenhouse flower.
More than the voice of a bird on top
of a blossoming tree, my soul cheers up
with the harmonious music of verses.
Never my heart is enamoured
by the virginal face of a shepherdess
as much as by the face of a great pecheress.
To the gold of wheat by springtime
I would always be capricious
and prefer the gold of dyed manes.
I wouldn’t trade silky muslin
for the veil of sharp mist
that morning fastens on the hills.
More than the torrent running from the height
I want to listen to the human crowd
moaning on its perpetual servitude.
The dew shining on the mountain
could never tell to my puzzled soul
what tears said when bathing a lash.
And as for the glow of radiant stars
I would never barter the shining changes
of opal, pearls and diamonds.
Muerden su pelo negro, sedoso y rizo,
los dientes nacarados de alta peineta
y surge de sus dedos la castañeta
cual mariposa negra de entre el granizo.
Pañolón de Manila, fondo pajizo,
que a su talle ondulante firme sujeta,
echa reflejos de ambar, rosa y violeta
moldeando de sus carnes todo hechizo.
Cual tamidas palomas por el follaje,
asoman sus chapines bajo su traje
hecho de blondas negras y verde raso,
y al choque de las copas de manzanilla
riman con los tacones la seguidilla,
perfumes enervantes dejando el paso.
A Nun by Julian del Casal
Her black, silky, curled hair bitten
by the high mother-of-pearl toothed comb,
between her fingers a castanet springs up
like a black butterfly from hail.
A large Manila shawl, with a straw-colored background,
tied to her undulating waist
casts amber, pink and purple reflections
shaping on her flesh every possible spell.
Like shy doves in the foliage
her clogs show under her gown
made of black lace and green satin,
and when the manzanilla glasses clink
they rhyme with their heels -- the seguidilla,
with nervous perfumes as they step.
Cultivo una rosa blanca en junio
como en enero para el amigo
sincero que me da su mano franca.
Y para el cruel
que me arranca el corazón
con que vivo,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo;
cultivo la rosa blanca.
I TEND A WHITE ROSE by José Mart1
I tend a white rose in June
as in January
for the truthful friend
who offers me his honest hand.
And for the cruel one
who snatches the heart by which I live
neither thistle nor nettle I grow;
I still tend the white rose.
I dream with my eyes
wide open, and day and night
I always dream.
And over the foam
of the large rough sea,
and over the curled
sands on the desert
and from the thrusting lion,
king of my chest,
on my submissive neck,
I always see afloat
a child who calls me!
SUENO DESPIERTO por José Mart1
Yo sueño con los ojos
Abiertos, y de dias
Y noche siempre sueño.
Y sobre las espumas
Del ancho mar revuelto,
Y por entre las crespas
Arenas del desierto
Y del león pujante,
Monarca de mi pecho,
Sobre el sumiso cuello,
Un niño que me llama
Flotando siempre veo!
Quiero, a la sombra de un ala,
contar este cuento en flor
la niña de Guatemala,
la que se murió de amor.
Eran de lirios los ramos;
y las orlas de reseda
y de jazman;
la enterramos en una caja de seda;
Ella dio al desmemoriado
una almohadilla de olor;
él volvió, volvió casado;
ella se murió de amor.
Iban cargandola en andas
obispos y embajadores;
detras iba el pueblo
en tandas, todo cargado de flores;
Ella, por volverlo a ver,
salió a verlo al mirador;
él volvió con su mujer,
ella se murió de amor.
Como de bronce candente, al beso
era su frente -¡ la frente
que mas he amado en mi vida!
Se entró de tarde en el rio,
la sacó muerta el doctor;
dicen que murió de frio,
yo sé que murió de amor.
AllÁ, en la bóveda helada,
la pusieron en dos bancos:
besé su mano afilada,
besé sus zapatos blancos.
Callado, al oscurecer,
me llamó el enterrador;
nunca mas he vuelto a ver
a la que murió de amor.
THE MAID OF GUATEMALA by José Mart1
In the shade of a wing
I want to tell this blooming story:
the maid of Guatemala,
she that is dead from love.
There were bouquets of lilies,
and fringes of mignonette and jasmin;
we buried her in in a silk box;
She gave to the forgetful
a scented pin cushion;
He returned, returned married,
She died of love.
Bishops and ambassadors
carried her on a stretcher,
behind the village people went round,
they all carried flowers,
To see him again,
she went out to the balcony,
he returned with his wife,
she died for love.
Like the burning bronze,
to the farewell kiss
her forehead was -- her forehead that
I’ve loved the most in my life
In the afternoon she went into the river,
the doctor took her out dead;
they said that she died of the cold,
I say that she died for love.
There in her iced coffin:
she was put on two pews, I kissed her tapering hand, I kissed her white shoes.
Silent, at dusk
the undertaker called me
never more have I returned to see she who died for love.
La palma que esta en el patio,
creció sin que yo la viera,
bajo la luna y el sol,
Con su largo cuerpo fijo,
sola en el patio sellado,
guardian del atardecer,
La palma sola soñando,
que va libre por el viento,
libre y sola,
suelta de raiz y tierra,
suelta y sola, cazadora de las nubes,
LONE PALM By Nicolas Guillén
The palm in the courtyard
was born alone;
it grew up without me seeing it,
it grew up on its own;
under the sun and the moon,
it lives alone.
With its long fixed body,
Alone in the closed courtyard,
Guardian of the evening,
It dreams alone.
The lonely palm dreaming,
that it runs free in the wind,
free and alone,
unburdened from roots and soil,
free and alone,
huntress of the clouds, lone palm,
lone palm, palm.
palma sola, palma.
junto al cañaveral.
sobre el cañaveral.
bajo el cañaveral.
que se nos va!
by Nicolas Guillén
The black man
close to the cane field.
on the cane field
under the cane field.