The Complete Short Stories (Cuentos completos) by José Lezama Lima

CuentosLezamaThese five short stories published between 1936 and 1946 in different magazines give us a unique glimpse of the Cuban author’s creative laboratory, which later produced the neobaroque miracle of Paradiso. Already at the early stage of his writing career, Lezama adopts that unmistakable procedure of gradually immersing what initially seems a rational narrative into poetic madness, which is performed with such overwhelming bravado in his famous 1966 novel. As we read on each of these short pieces, we realise at some point that there is no distinction between prose and poetry anymore, for the imagery takes precedence over the narration, and we might even lose track of what actually is going on, distracted by the ecstatic interplay of metaphors. The storylines themselves are not always easy to follow. There are enough unexpected and incongruous twists to give us pause and make us retrace our steps to make sure we have the right idea about the narrated events. All five stories make for an enjoyable if somewhat bewildering read, but bewilderment is exactly what a seasoned reader of Lezama Lima has come to expect from his work.

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Bee Hummingbird. Photo credit: Charles James Sharp

Truants (Fugados) is the opening story of the collection. It came out when the author was just twenty-six. The plot is quite simple: two schoolboys skip classes to enjoy the view of the sea surf breaking against the jetty. The idea is suggested by the older boy Armando Sotomayor. The younger protagonist of the story, Luis Keeler, happily consents. Luis is obviously proud of going on this little adventure with an older and cooler kid. When Armando is standing next to Luis, he occupies “a wonderful space”. The younger lad’s joy is short-lived, however. Just as he begins admiring the waves together with his schoolmate, an even older and cooler kid arrives and invites Armando to go to the movies. The latter abandons his younger pal without a moment of hesitation, leaving him alone on the coast, distraught and destroyed. The boy’s anguish at being so easily betrayed communicates to the surrounding landscape, turning it into a roiling expressionist spectacle. The oncoming waves stop at a fixed point before reaching the breakwater, and the clouds move apart to reveal a bleeding castle. In an Escherian fashion, the strip of reeds running along the coastline transforms at its further end into bee hummingbirds, one of which nestles in “the arborescence” of Luis’ nerves. The boy’s dejection reaches its breaking point after “night soak[s] his entrails, growing like a tree that shakes ink from its branches”, and just as he is ready to let out a scream of desperation “the cage of the cinemas” is opened to release the viewers, including his two older schoolmates. Luis suppresses the scream. For screaming would have devalued this rich and flamboyant experience of introspection. Yes, it has come from the place of sorrow and bitterness, but ultimately, this adventure of the mind might have been more fulfilling and transformative than a simple walk to the jetty.

The second story is titled The Purple Courtyard (El patio morado). Its two protagonists are the porter guarding the central courtyard of a bishop’s palace and a brightly-feathered parrot inhabiting the same place. The palace is depicted as a melancholy and languid building, drenched in humidity, its walls covered in “a soft integument resembling horse sweat”, which has been deposited by a horde of scurrying lizards. The despondent mood suffusing it is reinforced by the purple colour of the curtains hanging behind the windowpanes. The porter has been doing his duty long enough to have grown completely apathetic. He does not resist the occasional incursion of a gang of mischievous kids attracted by a cage with the bishop’s larks in the centre of the courtyard and by the parrot perched next to it on two joined pieces of timber. Seemingly content with his role as a passive observer, the porter acts as an intermediary between the motionless monotony of the palace and the busy life of the barrio, which he knows as thoroughly as “Champollion an Egyptian papyrus”. He frequents the nearby corner café at a special hour when the vulgar joint is transformed into “a ghost ship or a trireme with a burning prow that has been traversing the seas for more than a century.” Once in the café, the porter’s favourite pastime is a careful observation of the punters. It comes as no surprise then, that one day when two of the brats catch the parrot and tie a strip of linen with an iron ring at its end to the parrot’s leg, the porter does nothing to stop them. Nor does he try to free the bird from the nasty hindrance. The linen strip with the ring signifies for the parrot “an unlimited perspective.” Time and again, it tries to clutch the dangling ring and hold onto it, which invariably leads to its falling on the ground and losing some feathers. This struggle gains an epic proportion when the neighbourhood is struck by a flood, and the parrot, flapping its wings above the turbulent waters, finally realises that in order to catch the ring it has to put its neck through it, which will surely result in its death. By that time, the strip with the ring has been dubbed “a piece of Wagnerian stage machinery”. Nothing remains untouched by Lezama’s hyperbolic ferocity. Most likely, the terrible deluge is no more than a fleeting shower, and the parrot’s fiddling with the ring is operatic only from the porter’s perspective, yet we are deeply touched by that strange allegory of two lives: one spent in creative contemplation and the other sacrificed in a doomed attempt to break beyond the limits imposed to it.

The setting of For a Quick End (Para un final presto), the third piece in the collection, is a fictitious kingdom on the cusp of a dramatic change. We learn about the activities of at least three groupings with rather curious names. One of those is called the Abduction of the Tabret by the Waning Moon.  It has been founded by Galopanes of Numidia and comprises 333 stoical youths whose predestination is to commit collective suicide by throwing themselves into the flaming pit in the middle of the main square. Another group bears the cryptic name of the Machine-gunned Rainbow and consists of Chinese conservatives and diamond forgers from Glasgow. It’s a revolutionary organisation that wants to dethrone the king and install in his place the leader’s son with a leper’s nostrils.  Finally, there is the Connected Whiteness, a secret society established by a desperate pacifist in the pursuit of turning a tiger into a giraffe and an eagle into a mockingbird by a sequence of tissue transplants. The interaction of these groups and the government law enforcement units makes up the core of the story. All hell breaks loose when the members of the suicide sect who march to the main square to fulfil their destiny are mistaken by the police for the insurgents of the Machine-gunned Rainbow, and from that moment on things get weirder and more complicated with each twist and turn of the absurd plot. The title of the story is rather ambiguous. On the one hand, it refers directly to the suicide mission of Galopanes’ sect, but we know the history of Latin America well enough to understand that a make-believe kingdom with a despotic ruler could be a thinly-veiled portrait of a typical dictatorship established on that continent, so the title could also be read as a plea for the quick end of an oppressive regime.

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Remedios Varo, The Juggler (The Magician), detail. Image Source

Decapitation Game (Juego de las decapitaciones) is the title of the penultimate story, which is the longest of the bunch. The action takes place in a China which is no less imaginary than the kingdom from the previous tale. The main theme is the conflict between magic and political power. Magic here should be understood in the broadest possible sense: it is a supernatural power, the deft use of illusionist tricks for entertainment, and the metaphor of creativity in general. The magician Wang Lung hates the Emperor and desires his spouse So Ling, who appears to reciprocate the feelings of her brazen admirer. The emperor must be suspecting something, for at one of Wang Lung’s magic shows, he offers his wife as the “victim” for the pièce de résistance in which the magician creates the illusion of cutting off the head of an audience member by the ingenious use of knives and mirrors. It’s the famous decapitation game. The magician performs the trick without batting an eyelid and yet ends up in prison all the same, mostly because the Emperor is keen on showing the supremacy of his authority over what he believes to be no more than eye-catching hocus-pocus. Besides that, he is curious to see how his unfaithful wife will try to liberate the magician. Without much interference on the part of her spouse, So Ling equips a sled pulled by twelve dogs, and when the time is right engineers Wan Lung’s escape, joining him in a journey towards the north of the Empire, where the notorious bandit and hunter nicknamed The Royal (in Spanish “El Real” can mean either “The Royal” or “The Real”) is getting ready to start a march on the capital and depose the hated ruler. This contender to the throne has rather an unorthodox understanding of some basic military tactics, believing that he has permanently seized a part of the city even if he has to abandon it later. In his mind, he keeps adding all the fragments of the territory that his troops have occupied even for a brief moment until he completes the whole puzzle of the conquest; the fact that in the end his troops may be completely driven off that territory doesn’t seem to bother him. In this action-packed narrative, the main characters are subjected to a kaleidoscopic sequence of vicissitudes. For instance, So Ling spends some time as The Royal’s concubine, then returns to the Emperor, gets incarcerated, gets rescued, and reunites with Wang Lung. Wang Lung entertains distant northern villages with his tricks, gets captured and imprisoned again, escapes and becomes a celebrated magician at The Royal’s camp. What stands out amid all these rapidly changing events, is the development of Wang Lung’s art. While performing in the villages, he starts breaking the rules of canonical magic routines. Thus, he overhauls the trick of letting a bird out of his sleeve by completely reversing it: he makes his sleeve grow to enormous proportions and then lures a bird from the flock flying above to nestle in this artificial grotto. When incarcerated for the second time, Wang Lung has to reconsider his repertory again and devise a way to do a magic show in the absence of any props and audience. The resultant number can be called “the levitating plate with a fork stuck in the middle.” Perhaps it is not as spectacular as the enticement of the flying bird, but it is still remarkable given the magician’s drastic limitations in the dungeon. The flying plate trick helps him to break the ice with his turnkey and make his remaining stay in the confinement more tolerable. When both Wang Lung and So Ling meet again at the military encampment of The Royal, they have to repeat the Decapitation Game in front of their host and his henchmen. To the disappointment of some audience members, it is still the same old trick: the magician creates the illusion of beheading the woman with the help of his mirrors. The thing is that the new version of the Decapitation Game is not meant for the spectators. Wang Lung performs it at night, in So Ling’s tent, when there are no witnesses. By that time, the troops of The Royal have cleared out to avoid the approaching Imperial army. With his new spin on the old trick, the magician achieves once again a complete reversal of the routine whereby the beheading takes place outside the arrangement of the illusionist mirrors. As the narrative rushes to its poetic and grisly denouement, we are liable to see more death and less magic.

The collection ends with a particularly enigmatic and weird story titled Crabs, Swallows (Cangrejos, golondrinas). The protagonists are the blacksmith Eugenio Sofonisco and his unnamed wife. The blacksmith sends the woman to the house of a philologist to ask for the payment he owes him; Eugenio tried to get the money himself the day before, but the philologist was absent and his uncouth major-domo unceremoniously forced him out. The woman is greeted by the philologist’s spouse, who apologises for not having any money and gives her a beef leg instead. The troubles in the blacksmith’s household start with this poisonous payment in kind. The beef leg holds an uncanny erotic appeal for Eugenio’s wife, who, one night, approaches it stark naked and with ogling eyes. A single bead of blood oozes out of the ominous carcass limb and plunks on the unprotected breast of the woman. This leads to the onset of a mysterious disease that the spouses will have to combat for years to come. The main symptom of the illness is the crimson protuberance that first appears on the woman’s breast but keeps shifting to other spots on her body as she tries to chase it away with the help of healing magic. The witch doctor Thomás gives her Brazilian medicinal oil to create the tunnel for the disease to escape through. She proceeds with the treatment, and at one point she feels a mole, a weasel, and an anteater burrow through her body, looking for a way out. The tunnel is functional! Shortly after that, the malevolent protuberance creeps out of her body through a carious tooth. Still feeling sickly, she consults another healer, the former “diablito” Alberto, who is supposed to help her regain peace of mind. The man shows her a purple tunic with an embroidered white dove, tells her that the dove will always find the way out of the tunnel, and instructs her to bury what is left of the beef leg. Years later, when she and Eugenio already have a boy growing up, the disease strikes again: the nasty protuberance re-emerges on the back of her head. The alarmed husband predicts the arrival of the crab, and the woman has no other option than to revisit the witch doctors. The most striking contrivance on the grounds of the Afro-Cuban community, where she seeks a cure, is the circle of wildly gyrating and sparking carrousels. Her highly personal experience of the place is so disjointed and impressionistic, that the attempt to convey it reads like a piece of automatic writing:

As though chewing the sepulchral mud, the carrousels cut their faces with knives, leaving the slanted lump of the moon smeared with soot and pumpkin. The pumpkin used to be fruit but now it’s a mask. It has changed its attire before our eyes as if the flesh turned to bone and the ray of the nocturnal sun stuffed the skeleton with nuptial pillows […] the little devils approach the carrousels but get pushed back to the beach again and again.

The sick woman, tormented by the crab snuggled on her nape, takes part in some obscure ritual and comes home with another bottle of the therapeutic oil to continue the healing procedure. She learns from Thomás that her well-being will depend on the outcome of the fight between the dove and the swallow. If she wants to get cured, she has to follow the precept of Pythagoras: “domesticas hirundines ne habeto” (suffer no swallows about your house). To get rid of the crab, she will have to strangle the unwelcome swallow with her own hands and step into the shadow cast by the dove hovering in the sky reduced to the size of the purple tunic.

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Ramón Alejandro, Omó iyá omí. Image Source

The first association brought by the image of a crab living on a person’s body is that of an oncological disease. And at least partially, Lezama’s final story can be seen as a hallucinatory take on what someone ill with cancer, as well as their family, has to go through. But there is more to it. The themes of domestic life, sexuality, and cultural syncretism are equally important to Crabs, Swallows. The whole thing might as well be a gnostic parable whose significance will elude the uninitiated. Be that as it may, it is the language and the imagery that will linger with the reader regardless of how deeply they will manage to penetrate the thickets of the authorial meaning. Like a wizard squeezing water out of a stone, Lezama makes the prose form drip with unadulterated poetry. All this holds true for the other stories as well. There is no denying that this collection is just a playground used to gain confidence for a more serious trial, yet it should not be treated lightly considering what masterpiece the author will go on to create once he has cut his teeth.

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