One of the strange things about translated books is that they reach us quite a while after they were written. Sometimes, as in the case of smash hits like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, this might be only a matter of a few months. More often than not it takes several years.
Then there are books like Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales, which was published in Spanish in 1940 and only made it into English 64 years later. These burst into an era very different from the moment in history in which they were created, a bit like light reaching us from extinct stars.
The book was a recommendation from David Iaconangelo, the founder of Zafra Lit, a bilingual blog dedicated to new Cuban short fiction. He described the stories as so well-written and original that they were ‘somewhere between a work of anthropology and fiction’, and said Cabrera’s work documenting the way various African and Cuban cultures fused in the tales she recorded had had a major influence on later writers such as Alejo Carpentier. I was also intrigued to see from Fernando Ortiz’s introduction to the Spanish edition that this is apparently the first book ever published by a Havana-born woman. Clearly, I was going to have to take a look.
Iaconangelo was certainly right about the originality: I’ve never come across stories more extraordinary than these. Operating in a universe of turtle-men, tiger-men and elephant-men, where stags ride horses, fishermen negotiate with their prey and earthworms compete for the hands of beautiful heroines, these tales pull apart the threads of reality’s backdrop and invite the reader to step through to the weird, cruel and magical cosmos beyond.
Language itself buckles, blends and warps in its attempt to contain the vibrant currents that flow through these tales, with the cultural fusion reflected by the inclusion of utterances from the now extinct creolized dialect Bozal, as well as phrases from Lucumi, Congo and Abakua tongues. As one footnote explains, ‘the original meaning of many of the African words in this book has been lost’, giving a lot of them the mysterious quality of magical incantations, for which they were used in some Afro-Cuban circles.
In addition, the stories themselves test the limits of the language in which they are couched: in ‘Bregantino Bregantin’, for example – in which men are banished and women live along with a single male bull – communication changes so that ‘all masculine words not directly related to the bull were eliminated from the language’. The effect of reading this in the original, gendered Spanish must be particularly striking.
For all their strangeness, however, the stories nevertheless manage to comment on the world around them. Indeed, the distance that some of the more surreal episodes create probably grants the narratives more leverage to attack racism and the hypocrisy of institutions like the Church – ‘all of us are children of saints, and all of our meanness and the pleasure we take in sinning comes directly from them,’ begins one particularly mordant tale.
There are also moments of exceptional beauty, as in the opening paragraph of ‘The Mutes’:
‘On the first night, the moon looked like a thin strand of hair. On the next, like the edge of a transparent sickle. Next it looked like a slice of juicy honeydew melon, and then like a round millstone. Finally it dropped off into the night’s deep mouth, where the Eternally Hidden, the person whom no one has ever seen and who lives at the bottom of the bottomless, smashes up all the old moons with a stone to make stars while another moon is on its way.’
Brave, beautiful, weird and maddening, the stories that Lydia Cabrera gathered and filtered through her own writerly imagination are a lesson in how to break the rules and create something astonishing. As a collection, this book shouldn’t work: it’s inconsistent and erratic; characters stroll on half way through narratives and divert them another way; some stories peter out and the voice varies wildly between tales. But then, superficial logic would also tell us we shouldn’t be able to see light from stars that no longer exist.
Afro-Cuban Tales (Cuentos negros de Cuba) by Lydia Cabrera, translated from the Spanish by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)