Sunday, December 19, 2010

Inescapable metaphysic

José Lezama Lima, one of Cuba’s most celebrated literary figures of the 20th century, was born one hundred years ago today. To mark the centenary, a new edition of his diaries, first published in 1994, have been issued. A review on the Cuba Now website claims that Lezama’s inescapable metaphysic sprouts in every line of the diaries.

Lezama was born on 19 December 1910 in a military encampment, near Havana, where his father was a colonel. He studied law, and practised for a while, but was mostly interested in writing. His first significant poem Muerte de Narciso (Death of Narcissus) was published in 1937, and stunned the literary establishment in Havana because of its erudition on mythology and its linguistic exuberance.

Firmly settled in the Cuban capital (he only made two short trips abroad in his lifetime) Lezama led a new generation of avante garde writers. He published several collections of poetry and essays, and launched and ran various literary journals. It was not until 1966, though, that he published the novel, Paradiso, which brought him international fame and acclaim.

The glbtq website says this of the book: ‘Paradiso - a vast creative space that combines autobiography, fiction, and poetry in an endless proliferation of language - does not examine the specificity of homosexual desire, but rather homosexuality as part of an aesthetic view of existence. Lezama’s novel is a work of pure aestheticism in which the richness of language is the true protagonist.’

At home, however, the book encountered numerous obstacles before being published in a limited edition. This was partly because of its failure to back the Cuban revolution, and partly because of the homosexual content. It is a measure of Lezama’s literary importance, glbtq says, that Castro’s regime, relatively new at the time and opposed to homosexuality, ever allowed Paradiso to be published at all. Lezama died in 1976. There is a little more biographical information available at the glbtq website, and at Wikipedia. Cuba Literaria, though, has a comprehensive website, all in Spanish, with lots of information and many pictures (photos and cartoons).

A first edition of Lezama’s brief diaries - Diarios: José Lezama Lima - was compiled and edited by Lezama’s friend, the journalist Ciro Bianchi, and published in 1994 by Ediciones Era. A second edition has now been published by Ediciones Union to commemorate Lezama’s centenary year. To present the new edition, a ceremony was held earlier this year at the Pabellón Cuba, one of Havana’s main exhibition centres, with Bianchi, the poet César López, and Abel Prieto, the minister of Culture. See Diario de la Juventud Cubana or Agencia Cubana de Noticias for brief articles on the event.

There is very little information - at least in English - about Lezama’s diaries on the internet. The Cuba Now website notes that the diary manuscripts cover only a period from October 1939 to July 1949, with a few extra jottings from 1957-1958. It says: ‘Lezama’s ineludible metaphysic, a result of his encyclopedic knowledge and deep Cuban roots, sprouts in every line’ of the diaries. (By ‘ineludible’, which is a Spanish word, I presume the writer meant to say in English ‘inescapable’.)

Those who take a look at the journals hoping to drink from the intimacy of the writer, the review goes on to say (also rather confusingly), ‘might not have all of their expectations met since the diaries are only open to personal confessions’. However, the diaries ‘treasure thoughts that could have become poems, chronicles or seeds of an essay’. One writer has said the diaries ‘are not actually less of a fiction than his fictions.’ The review concludes: ‘[The diaries] are a tool for those looking to decode the magnitude of this disdainful, ironic, passionate man who handled indifference with total dignity and fame with total indifference.’

Postcript: Another towering figure in Cuban literature, José Martí, kept a diary only in the last year of his life - the so-called War Diaries - which was published in English in José Martí: selected writings (Penguin 2002). Much of this book can be viewed on Googlebooks. Jose Lezamo Lima considered Martí’s War Diaries as ‘the greatest poem ever written by a Cuban’.

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