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Virgilio Pinera and the Formulation of a National Literature

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 2, Number 2, Summer 2002
pp. 231-251 | 10.1353/ncr.2002.0015

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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.2 (2002) 231-251

A fin de evitar malentendidos pongo en conocimiento del público que yo no soy yo. Yo, hace ya bastante tiempo que dejé de ser yo para ser Marcel Proust (siempre me encantó Proust). Si alguno de mis enemigos se empeñase en afirmar que yo soy yo, no le den crédito alguno, pues ya saben ustedes quién soy yo. Muchísimas gracias.
[In order to avoid misunderstandings I inform the public that I am not I. Quite a long time ago, I stopped being me to be Marcel Proust (always loved Proust). If any of my enemies persevere in claiming that I am I, give him no credit, since you already know who I am. Many many thanks.]

—Virgilio Piñera/Witold Gombrowicz, Victrola: Revista de la Insistencia

OF ALL THE CHARACTERIZATIONS OF VIRGILIO PIÑERA (1912-79) AS THE CYNical and virulent writer, the friend and mentor to younger Cuban writers, or the reclusive quasi-invisible figure of his later years, none is more appropriate than his own "yo no soy yo," written by Piñera and/or by Witold Gombrowicz (1904-69) during their years of friendship and collaboration in Buenos Aires. Piñera endured throughout his life the stamp of a poète maudit, one who by necessity "se ha apestado a sí mismo" (has made himself fetid), a designation he once applied to the Cuban poet José Alvarez Baragaño (1932-62), but that seems equally befitting Piñera's marginality ("El caso Baragaño" 1992, 11). Bitter and ironic, his self-deprecating words reveal the complexity of his character. Indeed, self-definition through negation marks some of Piñera's most memorable writings, as if reaching the essence of his inquiry required a process of denial and rejection. Irony, black humor, and the use of the grotesque operate as codes in Piñera's poetry and narrative. In his essays, however, the process transcends self-definition. Calling into question the existence of a national literature, some of Piñera's essays emerge, collectively, as an urgent appeal for a new formulation of the sum and substance of Cuban culture. It is a new formulation that urges the inclusion of difference as its most salient and defining element.

Piñera's rejection of anything that could be called a national literature was especially provocative. It appears for the first time in 1955 when, after his long exile in Buenos Aires, interrupted by only occasional trips to Cuba, he returns to Havana to take part in a series of conferences that coincide with the launching of the new journal Ciclón (edited by Piñera with José Rodríguez Feo as its publisher). "Cuba and Literature" was the title of Piñera's talk delivered at the Havana Lyceum on February 27, 1955 (and subsequently published in Ciclón in the same year). While the title of the lecture suggested a connection between Cuba and its literature, Piñera argued that literary production exists in Cuba but that it is not of Cuba. Cuban literature, Piñera acknowledged, exists, but only as a catalogue, as a mere listing of writers, books, literary journals, and so forth. The vehemence of his tone is expressed in an unequivocal denial:

Niego que haya tal literatura cubana ya que día a día sufro esa terrible muerte civil del escritor que no tiene una verdadera literatura que lo respalde. Niego que la haya porque todo se conjura para demostrarme que estoy muy lejos de ser un escritor. Niego que la haya porque ella es incapaz de demostrarme si soy un triste loco o un magnífico escritor. Niego que la haya porque ella no me da fuerzas ni me ampara en mi oficio . . .
[I deny there exists a so-called Cuban literature given that day after day I suffer the terrible civil death of a writer who lacks a true literature to support him. I deny that it exists because things conspire to show me that I am very far from being a writer. I deny it exists because it is incapable of revealing to...

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