Virgilio Piñera, forgotten master of Cuban literature

In the July issue of the literary magazine Lunes de Revolución in 1960, the writer Virgilio Piñera was asked which books he would save from his library if a cataclysm were to befall it. He listed ten, among which were the novels Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Amerika by Franz Kafka, the poetry collections The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire, and Estravagario by Pablo Neruda. This was just a glimpse into Piñera’s eclectic taste and one of the reasons behind his prolific, creative and versatile output.

Virgilio Piñera was born on the 4th August, 1912 in Cárdenas, Matanzas, western Cuba. His father was a public servant who first worked as secretary of the board of education and later became the administrator of the Cárdenas aqueduct. Piñera’s mother was a schoolteacher. In 1923, his family moved to Guanabacoa, Havana where they lived for a couple of years before relocating to Camagüey, centre-eastern Cuba. It was during this period when the young Virgilio first ventured into the realm of writing.

His first published poem, El Grito Mudo (The Mute Scream), was included in the anthology Cuban Poetry in 1936. As he embarked on his degree in Philosophy and Letters at Havana University in 1937 he wrote his first play, Clamor en el Penal (Noise in the Penitentiary). Thus, a writing career had been born.

In the opinion of those who knew him well, Virgilio Piñera’s vision of literature was as raison d’être — that is, not just the reason to be oneself, but also the reason to be oneself in relation to the world. To Piñera everything was profane, except for literature. To him the writer had a moral duty to be loyal to his text above all. In his view a writer’s biggest aspiration was freedom. Freedom to “give birth” to the truth that he thought was latent in the mind of human beings but could only come out by answering intelligently proposed questions. In that sense many of his plays, poems and short stories posed enigmas that the reader was forced to solve.

This approach was evident in Virgilio’s controversial modernist tragicomedy Electra Garrigó. Written in 1941, Electra premiered on the 23rd October of 1948 in Havana and had a similar effect to the one caused by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring years before when it opened at the Theatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Minus the riots. There was a walkout during the performance of Electra Garrigó, including an apocryphal story about one theatre director rising from his seat mid-show and shouting out “This is like spitting at Mount Olympus.”

What had caused this outrage? Why were people up in arms against a playwright who was already a member of the famous poets’ society Orígenes, (an equivalent of the Bloomsbury Set in Britain)? Because with Electra Garrigó Virgilio Piñera had finally escaped from the narrow confines in which Cuban theatre found itself in the late 1940s. He had broken with the past. The emerging but timid, modernist Cuban vanguard from the 1930s had finally moved centre-stage. Hitherto plays in the Caribbean nation tended to revolve around characters from turn-of-the-century times: the “gallego” (Galician, usually representing the Spaniard), the mulatto woman, the black guy (usually a white actor darkening his skin), the tough guy (including large knife) and sometimes the Chinaman (this was an easy way for playwrights to include the three ethnic groups that most influenced the make-up of the Cuban identity, whilst playing on stereotypes).

Piñera brought a different flavour to the table. Electra Garrigó was bold and brass. It was a parody of the Athenian tragedy through which the playwright poured scorn on high-brow culture. The killing of both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus was a way of asserting the need to change life, destroy the past and do away with the myth of the nuclear family. When asked why he opted for the Greek literary canon to put his theories into practice, Virgilio said that “I have to tell the truth. And the truth is that unlike other writers from my generation I had a predilection for foreign models.”

That predilection, that preference for trends and fads from abroad was one of the reasons why Piñera was always considered an outsider. And yet, it’s hard to find a more “Cuban” writer than Virgilio Piñera. Cuban theatre had been dominated by what we call in Cuban Spanish “teatro costumbrista criollo” (traditional creole theatre). This type of theatre was a vehicle for easy stereotypes and intellectual passivity. With Electra Garrigo and later plays, Piñera broke away from the norm, using the Cuban vernacular in a similar way to what O’Neill had in 1920s US.

But he also mixed these idioms with a more refined language. Even in his most extravagant short-stories and poems, Virgilio’s style remained, if not entirely Cuban, at least very Latin American.

Between 1946 and 1958, Virgilio Piñera lived on and off in Argentina, where he consorted with some of the more revolutionary, innovative and thought-provoking writers in Latin America at the time. Among them was the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who championed Piñera’s work from the outset despite the latter criticising the former’s writing style, calling it inchoate. In 1955, Borges included Virgilio’s short-story “En el Insonmio” (Sleepless), in the anthology “Cuentos breves y extraordinarios” (Short and extraordinary tales).

The triumph of the Cuban Revolution coincided with Piñera’s return to Cuba for good. At first he was an ardent supporter of Fidel and his bearded men. He began to work on the newspaper Revolución and penned a regular column under a pseudonym, The Writer. By then his reputation as a playwright, essayist, poet and short-story writer had grown. His play Jesus, the story of Jesús García, barber who dies after he fails to perform miracles, had premiered a few years before to wide acclaim. His most autobiographical play, Aire Frío (Cold Air) opened in 1962 and it was well received by the critic. In 1964, he toured Europe, visiting countries such as Italy, Spain and Belgium. It looked at the time as if recognition had finally arrived for Piñera.

But in 1961 Fidel made his now (in)famous “speech to the Cuban intellectuals,” better remembered for its famous phrase “within the Revolution, everything, against the revolution, nothing.” What followed thereafter was a witch-hunt against writers and artists and Piñera was one of its victims. He was arrested as part of the government’s clampdown on the three Ps (the “p” stood for prostitutes, pimps and poofs. The latter is translated as pájaros and it is Cuban slang for “gay”). The main charge against him was his (almost) overt homosexuality, although the obscure and difficult tone of his short-stories, plays and poems didn’t help either. The nascent Cuban Revolution wanted art to be transparent, realistic and easily accessible. Piñera’s convoluted prose and poetry were the opposite.

In the years that followed Piñera was further ostracised by the status quo. He continued to write but nobody wanted to stage his plays. Despite this isolation his books were still being well received, especially abroad. In 1971 his Cuentos Fríos (Cold Tales) were published in France as Comtes Froids. In 1972 the Romanian translation of Pequeñas Maniobras (Small Manoeuvres) appeared. But in conversation with close friends the prolific author often complained about feeling lonely.

Virgilio Piñera died on the 18th October, 1979, from a heart attack. He had left behind more than twenty plays, almost a hundred short-stories, an equal amount of poems and a novel.

Years before, in conversation with the Polish novelist and dramatist, Witold Marian Gombrowicz, Piñera explained what made his short-stories Cuban.

“Damn! That’s a tough question. And what can they be if not Cuban? They haven’t been written by a French or a Japanese writer. They’ve been written by Virgilio Piñera (…) besides, they’ve been written in “Cuban”, not in Castilian, a language that’s extremely difficult for me to read. Furthermore, the themes of these short-stories are Cuban (…) when I wrote them, I was moving in a Cuban space — streets, slums, houses, guests’ houses, pubs, markets (…) a body that feeds off Cuban products can only expel Cuban waste. And I say expel because literature is nothing else than the defecation of transformed matter.”

That was Virgilio, above all, literature.

(This essay first appeared in Prospect magazine, in 2012)

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