José Soler Puig: 100 years of underestimation?

Soler Puig is a Cuban writer who should have formed part of the Latin American boom.



It’s not that Cuban write José Soler Puig is a perfect stranger in his country, nor that he did not enjoy the recognition of the institutions and of some enthusiastic critics, but I always thought that he was an underestimated writer if compared to others like José Lezama Lima or Alejo Carpentier who did have the luck of figuring in the so-called “Latin American boom,” never achieved by the creator of El pan dormido.


Now, in different parts of Cuba his centennial is being celebrated. A well-deserved tribute to who, perhaps because of his modesty or for being branded as “provincial” by some obtuse mentalities, has not been read attentively, especially by the new generations of writers who are missing one of the most solid and original works of the island’s literature.


I agree with essayist and critic Graziella Pogolotti, who in an article published in the magazine La Gaceta de Cuba said: “No one is a prophet in his own land. And much less among us, dominated by a sort of cannibalism.”


The national literary history, adds Pogolotti, is not included in the school programmes. Among the writers the tendency to depart from zero is accentuated…. The work of José Soler Puig has been the victim of a permanent marginalisation….”


And, actually, known above all by some friends and defended by scholars like essayist José Antonio Portuondo, Soler did not enjoy in life the recognition that he deserved despite the fact that in 1987 he won the National Prize for Literature and even that in 1960, when he won the Casa de las Américas Award with his novel Bertillón 166, a part of the critics focused on him but never, a I have already said, with the admiration that some of his contemporaries like Lezama and Carpentier did arouse.


None of the editors of the talent scouts who swarmed Western Europe in the 1960s paid attention to this Santiago de Cuba novelist who wrote such a wonderful book like El pan dormido, just to cite the one I consider the best, published in 1975 in the context of the grey quinquennium, which according to writer Aida Bahr reproached him for not having reflected in that work the life of the proletariat but that of the small and medium bourgeoisie.


Bahr demonstrates in an article also published in La Gaceta de Cuba that the reproach was not true. She recalls that, compared to the young writers of today almost always professionally located in centres related to culture, Soler Puig carried out the most dissimilar trades like day labourer, peddler and cane cutter.


That immersion in different sectors of Cuban life allowed the narrator to accumulate the necessary experiences to introduce in his work persons of all statuses and knowledge of the life current writers did not have, nor have, as well as the majority of his contemporaries.


In that gallery of unforgettable figures, Bahr tells us, perhaps the Haitian of El pan dormido is the one that best represents the humble man that makes of his work a work of creation and the support of his dignity; but there are many men of our world who Soler knew how to treat with extraordinary efficacy.


And the writer also from Santiago de Cuba concludes: “He had the merit of the attentive and all-embracing vision and of the literary correctness when transmitting it in his work. Let his centennial be the occasion to go into how much his narrative offers us, with the same attention and opening.”


Those who knew him coincide in that Soler was a rather solitary man, absent from the small groups of people where writers frequently promotes themselves and that his obstinate decision of living in Santiago de Cuba was a handicap for him to be known or completely unknown beyond his island at the time in which many Latin Americans were the object of attention of the major European publishing houses.


The excellent critic from Manzanillo, Francisco López Sacha, sustains that the magic of this narrator, to the effect of setting a narrative paradigm, is in that he is contaminated by his characters, speaks and gesticulates like them, assumes himself as one more character who we see when he acts from the first person or we hear when he disappears in his poetic descriptions.


Just a few years ago, filmmaker Rebeca Chávez made film version of Bertillón 166 which she titled Ciudad en Rojo, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have served as motivation for that interesting book by Soler Puig to be visited and revisited by a wide number of readers.


In any case, the celebrations for the centennial of an author who deserved and deserves to be better known and valued has served at least for his name to be repeated once and again in all the media and for the re-edition of his magnificent novels.


Will they become covered in dust in the bookstores or will they at last reach the millions of receptors who due to his aesthetic qualities and his evident sincerity and commitment to literature he deserves to have?


It doesn’t seem possible that an author of so much worth be celebrating 100 years of being underestimated after his death in 1966 and the career he began in 1939 and also reached the radio, cinema and television. (2016)

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