In memory of Severo Sarduy, translated from the Spanish by J.C.Kelly
I could never choose just one book. That’s unless all books were in fact just one, one that has been foretold, recreated, corrected and added to, erased, interpreted, burnt and rewritten, throughout the course of history.
If I had to decide on a book, it would, without doubt, be that which contains all others, although admittedly in the most complete disarray: the Dictionary.
On a daily basis, I explore the surface of that concave mirror on which words provide a faithful, albeit miniaturized, idea of the universe. I consult it, I flick through its pages, I supplement it—perhaps excessively so—with what in Spain are called Cubanisms, although I can’t understand why, because to me they are nothing less than pure, normal language. I also, as is common in cases of excessive loves, ignore it, sidestep it, and systematically write the opposite of what it—and by association that Impertinent Body that preens and polishes it year after year—tells me, for no reason other than just to rile it up.
Many people imagine being bilingual to be something perfect, that in its sane equilibrium, that double belonging eliminates and encompasses two opposing realities to the complete felicity of its possessor; perhaps a little like being bisexual. This supposition is not without its grain of truth, but it also has a flipside: being bilingual is that chaotic trajectory in which the day is spent zigzagging between one language and another, or rather, from one part to another of the well-thumbed dictionary. Because there are some words that, for no apparent reason, pop up in the other language, clinging on to it like cats with sharpened claws. I’m sure that they too do this for no reason other than just to rile me up—the buggers.
A few years ago, when writing Cobra and Colibí, I used the dictionary a lot more. At the time, I had a thesaurus of synonyms and antonyms; this imbued my prose with a sheen, an exuberance, a somewhat flashy sense of luxury that recalled the mansions of the nouveau riche, the dream of a housekeeper who has made it. In Buenos Aires they nicknamed me “the millionaire of language.” But every coin was minted in the dictionary.
Alejo Carpentier was even more prolific in this respect. His writing is plagued with pertinences and exactitudes in which the Voix de son Maître can be heard free from ambages. In Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s ingenious parody of his prose—born, it should be noted, not out of hatred—the meticulous diction of the Maître is transformed into an addiction.
Now though, I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m getting older, but I take refuge in the comforts of synonymy much less. It doesn’t bother me if a word is repeated; this has endowed my writing with a certain severity, the terseness of an elected poverty.
However, don’t think my compulsion for lists stops at the dictionary. Not at all; I have a passion for taxonomies, repertoires, indexes, albums, guides, catalogues and lists of every kind. It’s as if those orderings revolved around something that sustains them, something that at once provides structure, while remaining hidden, forever erased, something that would be like a definition or image of God.
Let me close then, with a catalogue of catalogues, summarising three of these passions: as a child, I would diligently collect the tiny stickers of the Zoological Sticker Album, with beings as improbable as the Yeti, the hummingbird, which could fly without moving, the anteater and the lyrebird. These bright, polychromatic images, accompanied by the fresh, sickly smell of sweets, were my first contact with fiction. With something I continue to labour to this very day: that which appears as an “effect” of the real.
Later, when I came to Europe, I took pleasure in reading the Guía Azul: the churches, museums, castles and cheeses of the vast museum that is the continent were not enough for me; I wanted more; I wanted their double in words, their analogy in sounds, their other truth.
Now though, night delivers to me, punctual and indifferent, the bodies denied to me by day. Her messenger is a Dutch guide, Spartacus, in which all that the planet tells of the gay world is presented and described in a refined, international style. To enter into those pages is already a “journey” in the sense of the word in the sixties: to dream, to take off, to fly, to be someone else. And so I submerge myself among those adolescent bodies, strapping and fragile, that dance naked amongst drugs and fresh flowers, in some floating “house” in the suburbs of Hong Kong. Or still among them—for the guide provides but a summary description of the bodies—although they are now the full-body masseurs of an Art-Nouveau bathhouse in the suburbs of Manila; or still amongst them, but now they are the obese sumo wrestlers of a ritual gymnasium in Tokyo. Or stocky blondes from Amsterdam, or Mexico, or Jakarta. Or Havana.
This is how I go to sleep.