Héctor Zumbado: in the sky with humour and more

“Reflections” on someone who made us laugh but also think.

Faced by the recent physical disappearance of writer and journalist Héctor Zumbado, it’s not worth resorting to the common “he left a great void” because it already existed for more than two decades. Since then, the conditions in which his life passed were a mystery and his creative cycle had come to an end but now, with his definitive departure,  people will look back and make assessments of his work which situates with greater precision his place in Cuban literature and journalism.

Zumbado’s major sphere was journalism. His incisive chronicles in the sections “Limonada” and “Reflexiones” of the newspaper Juventid Rebelde marked a new era and massively won over readers. Collected in books, in 1978 and 1980, respectively, they were an opportunity to reach a more diverse public and of overcoming the newspaper’s contingency.


The rest of his biography includes Amor a primer añejo (1980), El american way (1981), ¡Esto le zumba! (1981), Prosas en ajiaco (1984), Riflexiones (2) (1985), Nuevas riflexiones (1985), Kitsch, kitsch, ¡bang, bang! (1988), and Perfume y olor (1998).


Zumbado’s work is multi-genre. He wrote articles, chronicles, short stories, essays, and resorted to the resources he considered useful for each text. Since he placed humour at the centre of his style it is usual to find him labelled as a humourist, but his journalism and literature transcend that classification.


In the prologue to Limonada, in 1978, the writer pointed out: “I believe that, in general, Limonada tries to make criticism of local customs, especially of some deficiencies of temperament, character and personality, of certain negative attitudes and other vices inherited from the times of Columbus.”


But does Limonada only speak of inherited vices? Certainly not. Since May 1969, in which he published “La bicicleta” (The Bicycle), until March 1979, when “El reloj” (The Clock) came out, the readers of Juventid Rebelde enjoyed 38 chronicles that satirised not only the adaptations and transformations suffered due to the inherited evils, but also other vices that had emerged in that new period.


In the expressive forms of the stories in Limonada – as it will also be in Reflexiones – what will identify Zumbado’s writing appears: his narrative style, which takes from the wealth of postmodern literature since it uses the pastiche, popular and marginal discourses, eclecticism, intertextuality and generic contamination, among other many elements.


Because of the diversity used, his articles and chronicles of local customs go beyond that journalistic genre that reached great heights among us in the 19th century, continued with fortune in the first half of the following and which Zumbado aimed to recover and exceed.


Two years after the compilation of Limonada, the author did the same with Reflexiones; and a year later (1981), with the short stories. In ¡Esto le zumba!, title of the collection, we also find the satire of characters, attitudes, ways of being, the parody of representations of social and human conducts, but frequently endowed with other values and nuances that turn it into a piece of art.


We will mention a triad of short stories that validate the last affirmation. The three come one after the other in the book, but their contents and expressive modes are very different from each other. They only resemble each other because of the use of narrator in third person.


“El tipo que creía en el sol” (The Guy Who Believed in the Sun) is a short story of academic prestige: professor Salvador Redonet included it in his courses of narrative technique in the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Havana some 20 years ago. That endorsement places it in an elite position.


In essence, it is about a narration that takes place about creation and the forces against and that paralyse, the ones that also exercise repression, without taking into account the force and reach of ideas.


That is the in-depth reading of a very enjoyable short story about a guy who wants to can the sun and goes out to sell the idea. A conflict is then established: that man, who represents progressive, positive, daring creators, faces the band of bureaucrats, negativists, calculating and square persons who wield power and use it to put a brake on and annul the first, “hammer their feet on the earth. And throw lime and sand, and even stones….”


The end of the short story is, as Cortázar recommends, a knockout. The author resolves it masterfully: when the protagonist feels he is cornered, he kicks the small can that encloses the idea, and it comes out and illuminates the world.


“La conquista de los catayos” (The Conquest of the Cathayans) offers a notable sample of Zumbado’s imagination and ingenuity. It is a narration that subverts the history of the conquest of America. Instead of the Spaniards being the ones who arrive in the Antilles and to the American continent, it is pre-Columbian civilisations that discover and conquer the Canary Islands and the Iberian Peninsula, inverting the events that took place: “The funniest part of all this was that the Cathayans [the Spaniards] thought that the Inca and the llama were one and the same animal, especially because of the very similar features of the face.”


“El presidente vitalicio” (The President for Life) is in the lineage of the great minimalist stories written about dictators and their limitless power. Its structure and syntax are adjusted to a plot where everything fits in. The end is a bomb whose detonation, more than killing you, leaves you prisoner of the effect.


Not all of Zumbado’s short stories are at the height of the mentioned here but this trio is sufficient to take him out of the mould of humourist imposed on him. By the way, neither “El hombre que creía en el sol” nor “El presidente vitalicio” are humour stories.


In the mentioned prologue to Limonada, Zumbado notes: “it is curious that, despite the proverbial sense of Cuban humour…; despite the tradition of local customs in our journalism, humour is barely present in our literature….” And he mentions (their) exceptions. Further on he points out that “Our humour – apart from the local customs in journalism – doesn’t seem to be in the visual literature, to read, but rather in the hearing literature, to hear.” Following he cites theatre, the radio librettos, popular music and local customs poetry.


Zumbado thus uses that oral legacy, organically incorporates it in his narrative, merges it with the learned in literature and creates his way of narrating. With it he made us laugh but also to think: to reflect. We should not forget this. (2016)

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