Sunday, August 5, 2012

100 years of Virgilio Piñera

l'enfant terrible of Cuban literature

The founder of Cuban modernism, 
reviled both by Cuban critics & Castro, gets
the centenary tribute he deserves
Virgilio Piñera. Foto: Mario García Joya.
Mario Lopez-Goicoechea  The GUARDIAN UK  Aug 3 2012

The sound of seats slamming up, shuffling feet exiting the theatre mid-performance and cries of disgust and disapproval are not the reactions a playwright would normally expect at a premiere. Yet this was the public's response to Electra Garrigó, a play by 36-year-old Virgilio Piñera first staged in 1948. The sacrilegious writer had spat in the face of mainstream Cuban theatre, which still displayed colonial stereotypes that stifled talent and invited intellectual laziness. Cuban modernism had been born.
Virgilio Domingo Piñera Llera was born in Cárdenas, western Cuba, on 4 August 1912 – 100 years ago tomorrow. Nothing in his normal upbringing (his father worked as a public servant and his mother was a teacher) could predict that he would one day become one of Cuban literature's trailblazers. But from an early age, Piñera was an avid reader; among the books he considered essential reading were À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This capacity to draw inspiration from different genres was fundamental in the development of his career and unlike the sesquipedalian Lezama Lima, author of the masterpiece Paradiso, Piñera combined Cuban vernacular with more refined language.
In the same week that the anglophone world mourned one of its literary giants, Gore Vidal, it is perhaps serendipitous that in Latin America we're celebrating the centenary of an author of equal stature. Like Vidal, Piñera was known for his caustic wit and acerbic tongue. This earned him a reputation for being difficult, capricious and snobbish. And like the American controversialist, he was a prolific writer: he left behind more than 20 plays, three novels, tomes of short stories and a vast number of poems. In 1955, he co-founded the magazine Ciclón, a journal exploring trends such as surrealism and the theatre of the absurd through their literary, aesthetic, philosophical and psychoanalytical concerns.
It was at this point that Piñera, almost a decade into his 12-year stay in Argentina, found his voice as a writer. The initial lambasting of his modernist play, Electra Garrigó, spurred him on rather than deterred him. In 1962, with the Cuban revolution in full swing, his most autobiographical play, Aire Frío (Cold Air), opened in Havana. Aire Frío was Piñera's very personal celebration of the closure of a period in Cuban history he did not want to see repeated.
Shortly thereafter, Fidel Castro and his "barbudos" put their agenda on the table: there was no space for the likes of Piñera and other luminaries in Castro's revolution, and long-haired youngsters, rock enthusiasts, intellectuals and the religious were to face persecution. Piñera, a gay man, was arrested under the government's clampdown on the "three Ps" ("prostitutes", "pimps" and "pájaro" – homosexuals in Cuban Spanish slang). From that point on, Piñera's career declined into obscurity. His plays were no longer performed, though he continued to write at a frantic pace.
Piñera died of a cardiac arrest on 18 October 1979. As a way to redress some of the wrongs committed against him in the past, this year has been declared "El Año Virgiliano" in Cuba. Between 19 and 22 June, a group of 30 researchers from countries such as Spain, Mexico, the UK and the US got together in Havana to discuss the life, work and legacy of one of Latin America's most important writers. Two of his better known plays, Aire Frío and Dos Viejos Pánicos, have come back to the stage. There will also be a world premiere of Virgiliando, a ballet by the choreographer Iván Tenorio. This fitting tribute is nothing less than what this enfant terrible of Latin American letters deserves.

Virgilio Piñera Llera (August 4, 1912 – October 18, 1979)  was a Cuban author, playwright, poet, short-story writer, and essayist.
Among his most famous poems are "La isla en peso" (1943), and "La gran puta" (1960). He was a member of the "Origenes" literary group, although he often differed with the conservative views of the group. In the late 1950s he co-founded the literary journal Ciclón. Following a long exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Piñera returned to Cuba in 1958, months before Fidel Castro took power.
His work includes essays on literature and literary criticism, several collections of short stories compiled under the title of Cold Tales, a great number of dramatic works, and three novels: La carne de René (Rene's Flesh), Presiones y Diamantes (Pressures and Diamonds), and Las pequeñas maniobras (Small Maneuvers). His work is seen today as a model by new generations of Cuban and Latin American writers. Some believe that his work influenced that of Reinaldo Arenas, who wrote in his memoir Before Night Falls of Piñera's time in Argentina and friendship there with Witold Gombrowicz.
The magazine Unión posthumously published autobiographical writing by Piñera in which he discussed how he concluded he was gay. However, his work can not be reduced to his open discussions on homosexuality in a time when such a topic was taboo, especially in the Spanish Caribbean. Piñera's literary and cultural perspective went beyond sexuality, to express concerns on national and continental identity, philosophical approaches to theater, writing and politics. This focus drew fire from the Spanish American literary establishment of his time, including Cuban poets Cintio Vitier and Roberto Fernandez Retamar, and leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Due to Piñera's social points of view and especially to his homosexuality, he was censured by the revolution, and died without any official recognition. As more of his work has been translated into English, Piñera's work has been rediscovered by American academia as a testimony of 20th century resistance against totalitarian systems.

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