A hundred-and-five years of Virgilio Piñera, l’enfant terrible of Cuban literature

The sound of seats slamming up, shuffling feet exiting the theatre mid-performance and cries of disgust and disapproval are not the reactions a playwright would normally expect at a premiere. Yet this was the public’s response to Electra Garrigó, a play by the then 36-year-old Virgilio Piñera first staged in 1948. The sacrilegious writer had spat in the face of mainstream Cuban theatre, which still displayed colonial stereotypes that stifled talent and invited intellectual laziness. Cuban modernism had been born.

Virgilio Domingo Piñera Llera was born in Cárdenas, western Cuba, on 4 August 1912. Nothing in his normal upbringing (his father worked as a public servant and his mother was a teacher) could predict that he would one day become one of Cuban literature’s trailblazers. But from an early age, Piñera was an avid reader; among the books he considered essential reading were À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This capacity to draw inspiration from different genres was fundamental in the development of his career and unlike the sesquipedalian Lezama Lima, author of the masterpiece Paradiso, Piñera combined Cuban vernacular with more refined language.

Piñera was known for his caustic wit and acerbic tongue. This earned him a reputation for being difficult, capricious and snobbish. He was a prolific writer: he left behind more than 20 plays, three novels, tomes of short stories and a vast number of poems. In 1955, he co-founded the magazine Ciclón, a journal exploring trends such as surrealism and the theatre of the absurd through their literary, aesthetic, philosophical and psychoanalytical concerns.

It was at this point that Piñera, almost a decade into his 12-year stay in Argentina, found his voice as a writer. The initial lambasting of his modernist play, Electra Garrigó, spurred him on rather than deterred him. In 1962, with the Cuban revolution in full swing, his most autobiographical play, Aire Frío (Cold Air), opened in Havana. Aire Frío was Piñera’s very personal celebration of the closure of a period in Cuban history he did not want to see repeated — a pseudo-republic supported by the US government and enforced by dictator Fulgencio Batista’s police and army. To his mind, the future augured well. How wrong he was.

Shortly thereafter, Fidel Castro and his “barbudos” put their agenda on the table: there was no space for the likes of Piñera and other luminaries in Castro’s revolution, and long-haired youngsters, rock enthusiasts, intellectuals and the religious were to face persecution. Piñera, a gay man, was arrested under the government’s clampdown on the “three Ps” (“prostitutes”, “pimps” and “pájaro” — homosexuals in Cuban Spanish slang). From that point on, Piñera’s career declined into obscurity. His plays were no longer performed, though he continued to write at a frantic pace.

Piñera died of a cardiac arrest on 18 October 1979. As a way to redress some of the wrongs committed against him in the past, 2012 was declared “El Año Virgiliano” in Cuba. Between 19 and 22 June of that year, a group of 30 researchers from countries such as Spain, Mexico, the UK and the US got together in Havana to discuss the life, work and legacy of one of Latin America’s most important writers. Two of his better known plays, Aire Frío and Dos Viejos Pánicos, came back to the stage. There was also a world premiere of Virgiliando, a ballet by the choreographer Iván Tenorio. This fitting tribute was nothing less than what this enfant terrible of Latin American letters deserved.

(This is an amended and updated version of an article that first appeared in The Guardian, five years ago)

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