Piñera: Rule Breaker & Provocateur

July 5, 2009 |

By Leonardo Padura Fuentes

Cuban Writer Virgilio Piñera

Cuban Writer Virgilio Piñera

HAVANA TIMES, July 4 (IPS) – As we immediately approach the 30th anniversary of the death of writer Virgilio Piñera, we can also make out in the not too distant horizon the centennial of his birth, which will be marked in 2012.

Perhaps these moments should stimulate reflection and homage to someone whose life deserves celebration as one of the most controversial yet essential figures of Cuban culture of the 20th century.

Piñera was a great renovator and modernizer of Cuban theater, one of its most revealing poets and an important figure among the nation’s most significant and daring narrators.

To begin to understand and read him, it should be kept in mind what he wrote about himself in an insurmountable and provocative self-portrait:

“As soon as I was old enough, I demanded thought be translated into something more than spit spraying or arm waving; I found three fairly dirty qualities of which I would never be able to clean myself: I learned that I was poor, that I was homosexual, and that I liked art.

“The first because one fine day they told us that ‘nothing could be found for lunch.’ The second because, also one fine day, I felt a wave of blushing cross my face when discovering, throbbing under his pants, the swollen organ of one of my numerous uncles.  The third because, on an equally fine day, I heard my very fat cousin convulsively griping a glass in her hand singing the toast of ‘La Traviata.'”

Perhaps Virgilio Piñera’s greatest cultural merit was his vital and artistic iconoclasm. The rule-breaker, the essential provocateur, a searcher for novel ways of expression and structure, conceptually diverse and challenging, his work today conserves aesthetic greatness, while his life has become the best representation of the torture of marginalization and silence into which the writer was driven.

This fate was his and a significant part of the country’s intellectuals, subjected to the orthodoxy and exclusionary methods of Cuban cultural prescriptions of the 1970s. In that marginalization – “civil death” as it has been called – he spent the last 10 years of his existence, until he died physically.

However, the despairing circumstances and disrespect a part, his artistic work itself continues to be the best way to understand his significance for the culture of the island and the literature of the language.

As a playwright, Virgilio Piñera is the unquestionable creator of modern Cuban theater.  His work “Electra Garrigó” (1948) was in its day a jolt of modernity to a stage that had been paralyzed between crude realism and the superficiality of the vernacular style recently transcended.

No less significant was the contribution of “Aire frío” (Cold Air), 1959, perhaps the height of Cuban theater of the 20th century; a work in which everything harmonizes around the story of a family obsessed by a dream and a reality.

The dramaturgy of Piñera provoked scandals. The Association of Theatrical and Film Editors banned “Electra” for years, and efforts were made to boycott the premiere of “La boda” (The wedding), 1958, by the Association of Catholic Youth, who considered it immoral. However, the reaction to his work was a transformation so deeply rooted – based on his treatment of absurdity, cruelty, surrealism and existentialism – that Cuban theater became conceptually and formally different.

Piñera’s poetry, for its part, is the antithesis of the directions marked by all orthodoxies. It included the group Origins, with which he initially had a close relation but would later break with. Collected in the volume “La vida entera” (All of life), 1969 – what would be the last his books that Piñera would see printed in his life – was perhaps the most emblematic work: the long poem “La isla en peso” (The island weighs), 1943. It is an essential work on the abundant and polyphonic history of Cuban poetry.

But it was perhaps in the narrative, especially the short story, where the renovating spirit of Piñera was sharpest, even though it was less influential on future admirers if we compare it to his theater.

His three novels and three books of stories all appeared posthumously (given the impossibility of publishing them in the 1970s). He was the most renovating of Cuban narrators of the golden epoch of the 1940s and 50s thanks to those stories in which he merged absurdity, surrealism, cruelty and even parody of diverse genre, such as science fiction, to produce ironic looks into the emptiness of existence and the irrationality of many people’s lives.

Since the 1980s, fortunately for Cuban culture, Virgilio Piñera’s work was again published, exhibited and commented upon. The victorious return of the “black sheep” was so overpowering that a Piñeria “explosion” even occurred.

“La vida tal cual” (Life as such), an autobiographical account published by Union a magazine of the artists and writers association (UNEAC) in 1990 began what would be the printing of his unpublished stories and theatrical works, bringing his works onto the stage and restoring him to the stature that he always merited.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the posthumous restoration of this figure has been the fact that the life, character and tribulations of this writer have transformed him into a character of diverse narrative and dramatic texts. He is almost always shown as a representative of marginalization and a spirit of artistic resistance that possibly Virgilio Piñera embodied better than any other Cuban creator of his time.

In this way – for his vital and artistic pioneering, for the renovation that his work brought in its time, and for the permanency that it has conserved – the occasion of the centennial that approaches could well be apropos to again put into circulation all of his writings – maybe an edition of his complete works. We could recognize him, once again, for his literary greatness and the revolutionary role that he played in the cultural life of his land, “surrounded by water everywhere,” the small country where Virgilio Piñera was born, lived, enjoyed, suffered and died.

Translation by Havana Times

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