Home > 1990, 20th Century, Cabrera Infante Guillermo, Cuban Literature, Literary UFO > Spanish Literature Month: Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Spanish Literature Month: Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. 1995. French title : Coupable d’avoir dansé le cha-cha-cha.

Cabrera_chachacha_FrenchI’ll be reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias with my book club in August and that’s too late for Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month. So I decided to pick Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante instead. I bought it when I was browsing through the Folio 2€ collection in a book store. I like this collection, it’s a good way to discover new writers or forgotten texts. I’d never heard of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I expected three short stories but it’s something totally different and hard to define. (Help, if you know in which literary category this one goes. I put it in Literary UFO)

Regular readers of this blog know that I haven’t studied literature beyond high school, that I’m not particularly curious about literary criticism and that I read mostly for enjoyment. I’m not much interested in the techniques leading to the books I’m reading. So, Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha and me started on the wrong footing since the first page is about repetitive literature and something I don’t even know how to translate into English but I’m trying anyway.

La littérature répétitive tâche de résoudre la contradiction entre progression et régression en répétant la narration plusieurs fois. Il s’agit d’un jeu de narrations qui veut dépasser la contradiction entre réalité et fiction. Les fragments sont autonomes et d’égale valeur, mais l’auteur se réserve le droit d’exercer un certain déterminisme narratif. Les choses ne sont pas, elles arrivent, mais en littérature autorité devient auteur. Repetitive literature endeavours to solve the contradiction between progression and regression by repeating the narration several times. It is a set of narratives that wants to overcome the contradiction between reality and fiction. The fragments are stand-alone and of equal worth but the writer has the right to impose a certain narrative determinism. Things aren’t, they happen but in literature authority becomes author.

Cabrera_chachacha_SpanishThis is a totally literal translation as I don’t even understand what that means in French. This introduction is by Guillermo Cabrera Infante himself and to say I started the first story with a feeling of dread is an understatement. The book is some sort of literary exercice, like Exercice de style by Queneau where the same story is told three times but each time with a different style. The basic outline of the story is: a man and a woman have lunch in a restaurant in La Havana in the 1950s and it’s raining. The first version entitled The Great Ecbó is a third person narrative and the style reminded me very much of Marguerite Duras. It’s told in that clipped and neutral tone you can find in The Lover. I liked it. The second version –A Drowing Woman—is also a third person narrative and the style is warmer. The third one –Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha—is a first person narrative and it’s in a messy stream-of-consciousness style. Oh my, what a labyrinth of words. I lost track of where digressions started and I almost wished that like in a Excel formula I could browse the closing parenthesis to found out where the opening one was. What’s more terrible than having literature make you crave for Excel spreadsheets? In the end, I’m not sure I would have understood anything without reading the two other versions.

Cabrera_chachacha_GermanThat aside, each story represents a side of Cuba and of its culture and history. The first story brings the characters to an ecbó, a ritual ceremony of African origin, like voodoo. The second one shows the luxury hotels and the last one pictures communism and its political persecutions.

In the conclusion –that I didn’t fully understood, I’m afraid—Guillermo Infante Cabrera compares his three stories to music and to the three steps of ChaChaCha. Hmmm…It’s a hundred pages long, it’s good to read it in one sitting and if someone out here has read it or will read it, please come back and explain it to me. It left me puzzled. I also don’t understand why three translators were involved in translating this short book into French. When I see three translators like this, I expect a collection of short stories published at different times and put together afterwards. Here we have a fully constructed literary exercice wanted by the writer himself and I really don’t know why one translator didn’t do the whole job. After all, it’s only 100 pages long.

Cabrera_chachacha_EnglishPS: I’m adding four covers of the book, the English, the French, the Spanish and the German one.  The French and Spanish ones are great for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but for this? The English one is a mystery although there’s a car involved in story one and two. I think the German one is the best and represents the book better than the others. You see the two men, the woman and the communist.

  1. July 13, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    The title put me off right away, and then I moved on the explanation of repetitive literature…

    The thing this makes me think about, and I’m sure you’ll know what I’m talking about, is let’s say a television series about a murder, and the story is told by one different character in each episode, so that finally you have to build you own truth from all the narratives which

    lap over and sometimes contradict each other. Is that an accurate description of this book’s format.

    Yes time to move on when a book leaves you longing for Excel.

    • July 14, 2014 at 1:58 pm

      Why did the title put you off? It had the opposite effect on me, it intrigued me.

      This book isn’t about changing of POV. It’s showing off the power of the author to turn a simple situation -a man, a woman, a sort of relationship, a place- into three very different stories in different tones. Changing of POV just brings out what we all know: we don’t react and remember the same way about events. Here it’s more the writer playing God.

  2. July 18, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    I am reading Three Trapped Tigers by Infante for Spanish Lit Month. He is a new-to-me author, but so far I’m enjoying the collection of stories very much. They make me feel that I am sitting across from a Cuban who is telling me about his/her life, and I feel happily immersed in a Cuban world of which I know very little.

    • July 19, 2014 at 9:21 am

      So there’s no modernist experiment in this collection, good to know. I’d probably enjoy reading about Cuba too.

  3. July 20, 2014 at 12:00 am

    Belated thanks for joining us for Spanish Lit Month, Emma, and sorry to hear this was a disappointment for you (I suspect you’ll have quite a different reaction to Marías’ Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me or at least I hope you do since I think that’s one of Marías’ best). I’m reading my first Cabrera Infante novel now (the same one that Bellezza’s reading), and so I don’t know how typical the book you read is although it’s not one of his most famous works by a long shot. Is it possible the “repetitive literature” stuff is tongue in cheek and not serious, though? P.S. I don’t really like any of the four covers you posted although the German one and the U.S. one at least aren’t as cheesy as those top two.

    • July 20, 2014 at 8:13 pm

      I’ve heard good things of that Marias and I’m looking forward to it.
      I see from your message and Caroline and Bellezza’s that this is not his typical style.

      The “repetitive literature” felt dead serious to me but I don’t have an education in literature, a writer could invent the weirdest concept and I wouldn’t notice it’s a joke.

      I agree with you about the covers. Honestly, this one deserves a white cover from the Editions de Minuit. That would suit it and it would have warned be to stay away from it.

  4. July 20, 2014 at 10:27 am

    I have the same book by Cabrera Infante Bellezza and Richard mention. I’ve heard it’s very good. This one sounds to experimental for me right now. Too bad if this will put you off reading anything else by him. I like the last cover best but maybe it’s quite wrong for the book.

    • July 20, 2014 at 8:13 pm

      I’ll read your review and see then.

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