Paradiso (1966 novel) | Critical Essay by J. M. Alonso

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Paradiso (1966 novel).
This section contains 1,097 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by J. M. Alonso

SOURCE: "A Sentimental Realism," in Review, No. 74, Fall, 1974, pp. 46-7.

In the following essay, Alonso contends that while Lezama Lima's realistic writing style was influenced by the works of Ruben Dario and Maria Eugenia Gongora, Paradiso is sincere but unconvincing in its realism.

Perhaps, as the dust jacket claims, Paradiso was met with "unqualified enthusiasm" in Italy and France. But this was not the case here, and it is easy to see why.

Although comparisons can and have been made between Paradiso and Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past, Lezama's book owes much more to the poetry of Dario and Góngora than to the novelistic breakthroughs of Proust and Joyce. Not surprising, perhaps, since Lezama is known as Cuba's premier lyric poet. However, this also means that Paradiso is rooted in precisely those literary traditions that, more than just foreign, have long been regarded in English with an open hostility as downright alien. They are considered, I think it is fair to say, decadent and in the worst of taste. It is true, of course, that Spanish literature has also struggled against this tendency, but it is not for nothing that the term Gongorism has an even more unforgivingly pejorative ring in English than it ever does in Spanish. In Latin America, however, this baroque strain has tended to remain alive, even gaining a new respectability with Alejo Carpentier, for example, declaring in the recent past that the baroque is a natural and legitimate mode of Latin American expression.

Therefore, quite within this baroque tradition, Lezama continually sacrifices narrative pull for the sake of stopping to display his lyricism. His style is an openly Dandyish cult of cultivations, unashamedly filled with long, elliptical sentences featuring a distinctly self-congratulatory inclination for the most learned if not arcane choices where simpler ones seem quite possible. And thus it parades itself for more than four hundred pages, dripping with all the junk jewelry left over from Modernismo, and then some, with the very charm of the book depending on it. Unfortunately, rendered into English, I believe it only succeeds in offending a puritanism that has progressively been dominating English writing since the days of the Royal Academy of Science and its battle against the Metaphysicals.

But what makes Paradiso truly off-putting here, I believe, is what has caused it to receive a bad reception wherever else it has, which includes many quarters of the Spanish-speaking world. I refer now to Lezama's underlying but obvious protest of aristocracy which is at the heart of his distended and heavily cosmetized ornateness. Herein lies the reason why his characters, be they children, grandmothers or illiterate cooks will compulsively talk in floods of classical (n.b., European, quintessentially white) erudition, displaying familiarity not only with the supposed best of everything—anywhere—but especially with supposed European aristocratic customs. This is also why Lezama is continually making parallels between what is happening in, say, the daily family life he describes and something or someone grand out of classical antiquity or fabled histories. And here too, I regret, lies the key to those supposedly humorous incidents which have to do with race (e.g., how a Negro looks when frightened by a ghost or how a pompous Black traffic cop in a resplendent white uniform nevertheless "smells," etc.) or with the ignorance of less erudite people.

A simple protest of spiritual aristocracy would be one thing. Unfortunately, Lezama's heavy load of ornamental erudition, much like the ownership of jewelry and furs in many cases, ultimately means to signal the Cemí family's claim to actual sociological aristocracy, the kind once supposedly assigned by God. It means to say, as is obvious from the constant parallels, that these people, despite having to live in the leveling confusions of the New World, would find themselves quite at home in the fanciest courts of Europe that they can imagine. The regrettable result is an impression of very vulgar snobbery, the worse, of an unremitting provincialism which tends to embarrass more than offend.

From my point of view, however, Paradiso does not fail because of its hierarchical view of the world. And certainly not for being within that most highly literary tradition that includes such great Decadentists as Góngora and Darío. What I find fundamentally wrong here is what Lezama does with this tradition. Góngora, for example, with all his extraordinarily structured ornateness, pretended only to be making what the French sometimes call "mere literature" and sometimes "pure literature." His best work was indeed what Ortega called "a higher form of algebra done with metaphors," abstraction as well as a cult of Beauty. And as for Darió, with his fairy tale Versailles populated by Princesses and literary swans, we know he intended to create an artificial paradise in an attempt to escape from the world, which he confessed to detesting in his Palabras liminares. In fact, he not only said he disliked his moment in history, but just about everything else that had been his lot, despite his "manos de marqués." Lezama, however, seriously pretends to convince us that his Paradiso was not any such artificial paradise, some purely literary realm, but rather the world it was his to experience, filtered for us by his love for it. In a word, reality.

Therefore, despite his Gongorist, Decadentist plumage, Lezama turns out to be merely a kind of sentimental Realist. If Lezama had not initially pretended to anything other than presenting the reader with a loving fantasy, it might all have been different. This is the initial advantage that makes, for example, One Hundred Years of Solitude a viable fiction, which Paradiso is not. But, of course, such an early decision on the part of Lezama must have been out of the question, considering that his intent was to convince the reader of exactly the opposite.

Lezama, to me, is thus neither convincing as a Realist nor as a Decadentist. Rather, his use of Gongorist cultivations as a social status-symbol while remaining essentially within a Realist intent strikes me as a perversion of two perfectly noble traditions which is condemned to being without the virtues of either. This fundamental flaw, however, is not caused by any lack of sincerity on Lezama's part. I am very confident he is that, and that he is so fervently. What Paradiso lacks as a work of art is the one difficult virtue which Gide congratulated himself for having, as an artist, at least, when he said he found himself much too honest to be sincere. Whatever else might be murky, this all comes through its English translation with an often painful clarity.

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This section contains 1,097 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by J. M. Alonso
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