Paradiso: at 50 years of a Cuban literary scandal

Is the novel by Cuban José Lezama Lima read today, half a century after it appeared, as it was read then?

It was 1966 and the appearance of the only novel published while Cuban José Lezama Lima was alive unleashed on the island one of the scandals most remembered by those who lived during that homophobic period and when an epic literature prevailed that had nothing to do with the aesthetic propositions of he who is today a canonical writer of Spanish-American literature.

Those who asked from literature a commitment to the revolutionary reality after the 1959 triumph could not understand the challenge of a difficult, almost secretive, work whose chapter eight, and its homoerotic references, bothered the dull officials of the time, who did not understand about sexual diversity or about expressive inscrutabilities.


Lezama Lima received strong criticisms and was condemned to ostracism for that novel that at present is, to say it with the words of poet and essayist Virgilio López Lemus, “a cathedral,” an example of linguistic renovation and the highest expression of a poetic system that must be read as a whole if we aspire to submerge ourselves in the depths of Lezama. Fifty years later, the majority of the academicians consider Paradiso one of the most important books in Spanish written in the 20th century.


The story of José  Cemí – the text’s protagonist – had to wait for over two decades to be reassessed in his country. The novel was republished and the writers of the 1980s threw themselves into vindicating the “accursed writer” with a vehemence that Lezama, who passed away in 1976, was unable to enjoy.


Today the entire country is remembering the half century of the appearance of a novel that started being written 20 years before its controversial complete appearance, since its author had already published some chapters in the legendary magazine Orígenes, of which he was a founder in the 1940s.


An international colloquium will be held in November of this year and in many Cuban media articles have started appearing commemorating the anniversary.


However, many writers who are less than 50 years old do not feel the same passion for the Maestro as those who in the 1980s turned him into their most immediate reference.


Writer, poet, essayist and editor Daniel Díaz Mantilla, 46 years old, said to me, for example, that in Lezama Lima there is a rhetoric that bothers him. “His work lacks liveliness, it is too overwritten.”


The same occurs with writer and translator Susana Haug, born in 1983, who said: “I recognise his virtues but I have a better connection with other writers like Alejo Carpentier. From Lezama I keep the language. His characters seem like prolongations of himself. I confess that he has not been a writer who has fascinated me.”


Others, on the contrary, like Charo Guerra, a 54-year-old poet and narrator, is of the opinion that “Paradiso continues representing a moment of growth. However, within the current literary panorama, of so much experimentation, this novel is a lesson of straightforwardness.


“The false obscurities,” she adds, “were cleared in new circumstances and in the face of so much wisdom, grace, thinking and creativity of the author, writers should assimilate it as one of the sincere limits of postmodernity. Not freely compete with his language.”


One of the most internationally renowned Cuban narrators, 46-year-old Ena Lucía Portela, said to me: “I like Paradiso a great deal because it is very sensorial, not very intellectual. It’s like watching a movie and it could be that it has influenced me some way, like all things one enjoys. Moreover I have a sentimental relation with Lezama because, like him, I was born on a December 19.”


Meanwhile, 38-year-old narrator Yamila Peñalver confesses: “While I must confess that I am more into Carpentier than into Lezama the truth is that Paradiso has something that ends up attracting, beyond its unquestionable difficulty, the tired old story of chapter eight, its ambitious and renewable character.”


In an editorial titled “Paradiso extraviado” (Lost Paradiso), published in La Gaceta de Cuba, film scriptwriter, short story writer and novelist Arturo Arango, from the generation of the 1980s, insinuates that the Paradiso cult has ended.


He refers to the mass presentation of the novel republished by Letras Cubanas in 1991 to express: “One would have to see how many of them,” and he refers to those attending the launching, “reached the last paragraph and understood the sense of the voice that says to José Cemí: we can start,” to conclude affirming that this act could mark the start of the decline for the “Lezama period” in Cuban literature.


I don’t believe this is so. It happens that many works are assessed, postponed and later reassessed by the different generations. Perhaps Paradiso does not arrive at its 50 years with the consensus of all Cubans. The passing of postmodernity and of the new technologies has somehow simplified the consumption of novels like these that require a great effort for their reading. But I am sure that Paradiso will continue forming part of the history of Cuban literature until the end of time. It is a place that temporary follies will not be able to snatch away. (2016)

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