- Diary of Fire by Elías Miguel Muñoz
As the Cuban American writer Elías Miguel Muñoz’s sixth work of fiction, Diary of Fire, approaches its conclusion, the novel’s writer-protagonist Camilo Macías leafs through his private journals and unpublished manuscripts contemplating his next project. The metafictional moment restages the origin of Muñoz’s roman à clef and provides a comically self-deprecating yet accurate summary of the novel’s plot: “Professor-turned-writer explores his bisexual nature, confronts a painful truth about his past, and finds happiness in parenthood ” (emphasis in original, 327).
While undoubtedly part of the fun of this novel is attempting to decode the real figures and events that inspired their fictional counterparts, the formal playfulness of the passage exemplifies what makes Muñoz’s latest novel a pleasure for “Cubiche” gossips and literary critics alike. Through ludic experimentation with narration and genre, frank exploration of sexuality, academia, and publishing, and an inexorable drive toward liberation from the strictures of labels, identitarian and literary alike, Diary of Fire provides a refreshing example of Latinx autofiction. More important, Muñoz insists on carving out a sustainable ethos of literary production through redefining a masculine creativity that is feminist and queer—a vital contribution to Latinx literature in the #MeToo era.
At first glance, the formal structure and narrative technique of Diary of Fire appear straightforward. The book’s thirty-two chapters are split into five, roughly equal sections that recount the maturation of Camilo as he finishes a doctorate in Latin American literature, takes a job as a professor in the Midwest, abandons academia to become a writer, and finally settles into marriage and fatherhood.
Yet within its largely realist, linear, first-person framework, the novel’s subtle experimentation with genre, temporality, and narration parallel its nuanced [End Page 402] themes. For example, although the novel’s plot charting the development of an artist loosely matches the arc of a Künstlerroman, this subgenre of the bildungsroman often focuses on rebellious adolescence. In contrast, Diary of Fire tells a more mature narrative following Camilo from young adulthood to destinations less obvious. Camilo comes to terms with his identity as a bisexual Cuban American writer not through destructive behavior and violent ruptures but rather despite them. He embraces ambiguity and complexity, finding happiness in a “queer marriage” with a female partner, and staking out a progressive politics that rejects both Castro’s Cuba and conservative Cuban America. Muñoz’s depiction of Camilo offers much needed alternatives to tired, hegemonic scripts of Cuban American masculinity.
Muñoz’s use of temporality is similarly subdued but significant. Interspersed throughout Diary of Fire’s first four sections, four chapters from Camilo’s autobiographical novel Cuba in Silence describe his childhood in Cuba and his experience as a survivor of sexual abuse. Yet these analeptic chapters describe the past through the lens of metafiction, and thus draw the reader’s attention to complex tensions between representation and reality in autobiographical fiction such as Diary of Fire.
Changes in narrative perspective also complicate the novel. At key moments—when a close friend contemplates her intimate relationships, as Camilo reflects on the history of his own love life, and when Camilo and his life partner finally commit to one another—the narration shifts to third-person, decentering the protagonist and offering glimpses into the inner worlds of those who love him. The most striking example of the novel’s four narrative shifts is perhaps the final chapter of Camilo’s novel-within-a-novel, Cuba in Silence. The chapter switches from first to third person and from realism to oneirism. Intertextual references to José Martí’s poem “Dos patrias” further reinforce the chapter’s dreamlike quality and inscribe Camilo’s narrative in the long tradition of Cuban American literature that thematizes exile.
These are but a few of the moments in which Muñoz effectively alloys formal and thematic elements. The novel offers additional examples—a fact that emphasizes that Diary of Fire is much more than just...