José Lezama Lima has long been one of the most intriguing and enigmatic figures among the large number of Latin American writers who were elevated to reverential status following the editorial boom of the 1960s. Almost arbitrarily put together with the likes of Juan Carlos Onetti, Alejo Carpentier and Julio Cortázar, or the much younger Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, Lezama Lima shares little with these writers, other than having profited from an editorial fashion that placed him, and the others, in the center of the attention of the literary world.
That is how Lezama Lima’s only novel, Paradiso (1966) came to be the signature work by a singular, complex and hermetic writer whose greatest contribution was certainly not in the world of fiction. Which is not to say that Paradiso is without its merits. Notoriously difficult to read, Lezama Lima’s novel closely follows the life of José Cemí, whose development take us through a large number of autobiographical references and simultaneously seeks to build a universal stereotype of mankind at large. Or, rather, of the American man –a member of a new society, shaped in great measure by its environment and in equal proportion by the dizzying blend of races and religions and customs and traditions that ultimately have led to the creation of something altogether different.
It is due, perhaps, to the very fact that this new society in this New World is entirely different to everything else known to the Western man that Lezama Lima’s prose is so self-consciously charged with descriptive details at every level, making the progress of the story itself hesitant, at best. More concerned with the creative role of a demiurge, Lezama Lima’s technique is stretched to provide a visual portrait of what he ultimately considers to be a tropical paradise. Literally opening new avenues of discovery into a previously unseen, un-described, un-represented world, the Cuban writer seems to revel in a richness of language, in a proficiency of graphic details, that derives into an excessively ornamental prose.
Nevertheless, the argument has been made that Lezama Lima’s Baroque narrative is the product, not of a self-complacent indulgence but rather of the exuberance of the nature and the peculiar reality of everyday life in the Caribbean, both of which could not possibly, could not reasonably be described with the traditional use of a language that for so long had been steeped in the European tradition. In this sense, Paradiso’s greatest challenge might also turn out to be its boldest and most incisive contribution to the literary tradition of Latin American and, indeed, Caribbean culture.
Be that as it may, by the time Paradiso came to be finished, and published, Lezama Lima had long established himself as one of the most prominent figures in the literary scene of Cuba and beyond. Famously slow in his progress during the production of his novel, Lezama Lima would describe himself as an amateur novelist. Indeed, it is rather as a poet, and also as a lucid essayist, that his reputation has been built. Which itself is a telling fact when it comes to understanding, or even just facing, the style of Paradiso.
But if Lezama Lima’s novel is the product of a confident and accomplished cultural figure whose standing and career allowed him the luxury of coming up with a literary extravagance, where lies the merit that afforded him such opportunity? Born in 1910 to a Colonel from the Cuban Army, Lezama Lima was a young man during the time of Gerardo Machado’s government. Democratically elected as President of Cuba, Machado became increasingly despotic, even during his first term. Indeed, figures of the intellectual establishment, such as the pre-eminent writer, Alejo Carpentier, were imprisoned during the late 1920s for their dissent against Machado’s government. It was against this backdrop that Lezama Lima’s creative vein developed, intricately linking it to a political stance.
Following the tense clashes of 1930, the ousting of Machado in 1932 and the occupation of the university of Havana by Batista’s troops between 1935 and 1937, Lezama Lima endeavored to publish a literary pamphlet within the academic institution. It was the beginning of Verbum, a vehicle for poetic expression sheltered behind the façade of the university’s Faculty of Law. Although Verbum only lasted three numbers (before someone finally noticed there was hardly any material connected to legal issues in it), it has often been singled out as the starting point of an intellectual movement (to avoid the heavily charged term of “revolution” in a Cuban context) that came to its climax in the integration of art and literature through another of Lezama Lima’s magazines: Orígenes.
Verbum would be followed by similarly short-lived efforts in Espuela de plata (1939) and Nadie parecía (1942). By then, however, Lezama Lima’s intentions had been polished to the extreme, as he exploited the combination of poetry and visual arts from the times of Espuela de plata onwards to evince a form of expression that would simultaneously represent and identify the character and nature of Cuba and its people.
Which takes us to Orígenes, perhaps Lezama Lima’s greatest accomplishment. An independent magazine focusing on literature and art, Orígenes provided an outlet to the creative force within the island, which saw the emergence and establishment of a new “tradition,” of a particular and easily distinguishable style, that has come to be inextricably linked with Cuba. By the time the first number of Orígenes came out, in 1944, Lezama Lima had already published two collections of poems, Muerte de Narciso and Enemigo rumor. Similarly, many of the primary figures who published their work in the magazine, such as Wilfredo Lam or Amelia Peláez, had already established themselves firmly at the center of the creative circle in the country. And yet, Orígenes provided an enviable medium to bring together the talent and the imagination of writers and artists alike in the formulation of a coherent aesthetic that ultimately came to be regarded as genuinely original and uniquely Cuban.
Orígenes came to an abrupt end in 1956, but not before firmly enunciating a visual and literary proposition that successfully mapped the reality of the New World. In this sense, Lezama Lima’s efforts through the following decade in his construction of Paradiso can be seen as the synthesis of the creative program he had developed over 12 years with his magazine. Thus, his novel could be considered the final effort to blend art and literature into one: a written form of visual expression pertinent only to the nature and the people of the Caribbean. Now, there’s an ambitious project, if I ever saw one!
Ambition is not always a good thing, and Lezama Lima might have tried to achieve the unachievable. Nevertheless, there is something commendable, something unquestionably beautiful, in the concept of a pure artistic map to chart the entire Caribbean. Only that already merits him a place among the greatest Caribbean writers of the XX century – don’t you think?
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2012.