Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Cities, Two Islands: An Interview with Miriam Gómez
Deep inside the Gloucester Road apartment where the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante resided from 1967 until his death in 2005, the visitor finds a majestic landscape. This landscape – which the writer once referred to as an inverted tromp l’oeil – is in fact a sash window that frames a magnificent view: beyond it, a sequence of six mesmerizing arches produces a mise-en-abyme that tempts the viewer into remembering Joseph Gandy’s nineteenth century pictorial interpretation of the Bank of England in ruins. Hidden from the nearby bustle of trendy Kensington, with its noisy proliferation of Bentleys and Lamborghinis, the window seems to open onto a different city: one as grandiose as the neo-classical London of Sir John Soane, a city that appears frozen in time like that spiral staircase that rises like bindweed amidst its six arches. The visitor who, guided by the elegant and extremely generous Miriam Gómez, widow to the late Cuban writer, is confronted with such a view can’t avoid but remember the first lines of Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical novel Infante’s Inferno: “This is my inaugural memory of La Habana: climbing marble steps.” That window, one could risk saying, hides – within the heart of modern London – the memory of La Habana.
The daily vision of that staircase lost amidst vertiginous arches must have remained, for the exiled writer, the passageway to that city which he had lost three times. A first time in 1962 when, after the affair regarding the government’s censorship of PM, his brother’s documentary, as well as the closing of Lunes de Revolución, the journal for which he worked, he decided to accept a post abroad as the culture attaché in the Cuban Embassy in Brussels. The second time in 1965 when, after returning to the island to bury his mother, he realized that the revolution he had initially supported had taken an irreversible turn. And lastly, a third time, when in 1972, after months of struggling to write a film script based on Malcolm Lowry’s unsettling Under the Volcano, he suffered a psychic collapse that would force him to undergo electroshock therapy, a treatment which resulted in a loss of memory that threatened to erase all recollection of that city whose decadent splendour and sumptuous resonance he had delectably documented in his 1967 debut novel Three Trapped Tigers. “Guillermo lost his memory and with it those memories related to La Habana. That’s when he spread the map of La Habana over his desk and decided to write, street by street, the memories he had of the city,” Miriam Gómez recounts, pointing to a desk lying at the very centre of the couple’s studio, half way between that magnificent window full of Cuban memories and the window facing Gloucester Road.
One then realizes that it was from that desk that Guillermo Cabrera Infante, arguably La Habana’s greatest narrator, took upon himself the task of salvaging – through writing – the city and its memory from the power of oblivion. Neither he nor Miriam Gómez returned to Cuba after 1965. His writing, however, remained faithful to this task of retrieving the image of a place that had given him – as he would later state – the four greatest pleasures of his life: cinema, literature, cigars and women. Surrounded by thousands of books pilled upon an impressive bookshelf Gómez bought from a young Ron Arad in the early nineties, the bookshelf that holds the books of Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne and Alexander Pope – “three of his reverends,” as Gómez humorously calls them – Cabrera Infante’s desk remains a symbol of the possibility of writing to act as a remedy for the pains of exile. It was from that desk that he finished A View of Dawn in the Tropics, the novel in vignettes where he reconfigured the history of Cuba as a history of violence and cruelty; Infante’s Inferno, the novel that gave him back – thorough the image of his sentimental education – the city he had lost after his mental collapse; Holy smoke, his own personal history of one of his lifetime pleasures, cigars; and Map Drawn by a Spy, the posthumously published chronicle of the last four months the writer spent in Cuba, a history of his growing disillusionment with the same revolution in which he had once believed. “Guillermo would seat down to write dressed with his suit. Soon after he would remove his shoes, then his socks. Soon after he would take off his trousers, his shirt, and he would end up almost naked in front of the page. He would do a striptease in front of the page. He was the type of writer that became the subject of his own reflections. I would often see him there in his desk writing and couldn’t stop asking myself: what is he unleashing? What sort of private story is he telling?” jokingly remembers Gómez, and one can’t avoid but think that for Cabrera Infante, England was that second island that gave him the critical distance from which to better understand the complexities of Cuba’s history.
A fan of both Laurence Sterne and Alfred Hitchcock, London proved to be a fertile atmosphere for a writer who always had one eye on high culture and one eye on popular culture, one eye on the page and the other on the film screen. The London that welcomed the exiled couple was, indeed, simultaneously the Swinging London of the Beatles as well as the London where friends like Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes spent long seasons, sketching in nearby apartments those novels that – alongside those of Cabrera Infante – would eventually form the great literary tapestry known as the Latin American Boom. As Miriam Gómez recounts, Mario and Patricia Vargas Llosa were in fact their neighbours during the early sixties, before they even moved to Gloucester Road: “We already knew Vargas Llosa from Paris, but soon after we arrived to London he moved in with his wife, who was then pregnant with Álvaro, their first son. Back then we all lived very modestly, but for some strange coincidence we ended up living next to each other, in Earl’s Court. We would see each other often. I remember vividly that both of our gardens faced the tube station. Carlos Fuentes joined later. In fact, I remember that in a way, he inaugurated this house. I had constructed myself a wooden desk and Carlos would come often to write from that desk.” Both terribly modern and conservatively Victorian, home to both Harrods and the Natural History Museum, Kensington was in fact a perfect location from where to produce a literary project that perverted tradition in the most refreshing of manners. Always an advocate of humour, Cabrera Infante had learned from the world of cinema that style is as much a matter of originality as it is an art of playful ventriloquism. Most famously, in Three Trapped Tigers, he had narrated seven times the death of Trotsky, each time parodying the style of one of the great narrators of the Cuban tradition – from José Martí to Alejo Carpentier, from Lydia Cabrera to Lezama Lima – as part of an exercise de style that nodded to the world of cinema, where acting was always adopting the voice of another. “He could imitate Cantiflas perfectly. In fact, that’s how he conquered many women. He could also re-enact perfectly movie dialogues. For example, when a man would come to greet him with a kiss he would often say: “No kissing Frenchy,” imitating perfectly the voice of Humphrey Bogart in To Have or Have Not,” remembers the widow as we sit in the living room, surrounded by their library and dozens of piles of DVDs that Gómez – a retired model and actress herself – has collected throughout the years, as part of an enduring love of cinema that the couple shared since their marriage in 1961. Only encircled by films and books, like an exiled emperor hidden within the walls of a fortress, did Cabrera Infante feel at home.
Cabrera Infante was well aware that at Kensington, however, he was not alone, but surrounded by a literary tradition which he – in a manner reminiscent of Joyce – liked to playfully quote and humorously rewrite. As he states in a beautiful essay entitled London, un paseo al pasado, a simple walk around the neighbourhood quickly becomes a literary pilgrimage. As the famous blue plaques that punctuate the city’s architecture remind us, the streets nearby their apartment hosted dozens of famous artists, writers and directors. Just a few doors down is St Stephens Church, where TS Eliot served as churchwarden for twenty-five years. In fact, as he recounts in the essay, it is said that The Four Quartets was once entitled The Kensington Quartets. A few blocks away, two different plaques remind us that Henry James and Robert Browning also resided nearby. For the Cuban author, however, perhaps the most significant of his famous neighbours was Alfred Hitchcock, who lived in the third floor at 153 Cromwell Road from 1926 to 1939. No plaque marks the historical significance of the place, just as no mark has yet been mounted upon the façade of Cabrera Infante’s building, but for the author of Three Trapped Tigers this proximity to the former apartment of one of his favourite film directors must have felt like a homely breeze within foreign grounds. Like the sash window leading back to the lost grandeur of La Habana, the window overlooking Gloucester Road was an opening to that world of art, culture and fashion that first astonished the young boy from Gibara when, still an adolescent, he first visited the cinema and discovered that the film screen was a magical territory that connected him – under the spell of light and darkness – with distant lands.
That same game of light and darkness that begins to overtake the apartment as the last rays of light begin to trickle through the Gloucester Road window. Only then do I realize that time has passed and that, with the subtle treachery of British summers, evening has begun to set without us noticing. Surrounded by the haze of dawn, Cabrera Infante’s living room has gained a particular atmosphere: it has acquired the dreamlike fragility of the cinema room. Every evening, around that time, in that same room, Miriam Gómez sits down to watch a movie. Perhaps a Korean movie, perhaps a Japanese one, perhaps one of those old Humphrey Bogart films whose scenes her late husband used to perfectly mimic. It is a ritual she has maintained since his death. In the background, now merely a set of shadows, the six arches have also begun their slow descent into the night. I then see the image clearly: Guillermo Cabrera Infante in that precise setting, seated between those two windows that somehow led to his two cities, La Habana and London, turning on the television with the same childlike pleasure he must have felt when, in his adolescence, he first found in the cinema room a solace from the unbearable heat of the Cuban summer.