Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thomas F. Anderson / Corporeal Sustenance and Degradation in a Short Story by Virgilio Piñera

Virgilio Piñera

Corporeal Sustenance and Degradation 

in a Short Story by Virgilio Piñera

By Thomas F. Anderson

...when one is forced to eat part of his own body, the cannibal and the victim become one in the same.
William Arens

Algunos médicos opinaron que si la carencia de carne continuaba, medio pueblo caería en síncope por estar los estómagos acostumbra-dos a su corroborante jugo.
Esteban Echeverría (41)
In recent years the world of Hispanic Literature has experienced a rediscovery1 of Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979), one of the great masters of twentieth-century Cuban letters and the creator of some of the most bizarre and disconcerting pieces of short fiction that Cuba (or all of Latin America for that matter) has produced.  In the introduction to the English translation of Piñera’s Cuentos fríos, Guillermo Cabrera Infante offers the reader a characteristically irreverent, but accurate, description of the nature of the unique experience of reading Virgilio Piñera’s short fiction: “reading these stories you’ll get a kick out of them,” he insists, “[but] I don’t mean champagne or cocaine.

These individuals are masters of survival who, in the midst of an infernal world governed by violence, suffering, absurdity and frustration on all levels of human existence are capable of finding various ways to mitigate their suffering. One especially effective form of retaliation against life’s cruel blows for Piñera’s characters is to look life in the face and to mock and laugh at it. Their reaction, however, is never one of hilarious, knee-slapping laughter, but rather it is typically an irreverent and corrosive mockery, which hides the fear and insecurity that so often assails those who are faced with a reality that is too harsh to accept. Perhaps Piñera’s own words best describe this disquieting quality of his work that he so clearly recognized:
Nada como mostrar a tiempo la parte clownescsa para que la parte seria quede bien a la vista... Ya se ve en mi obra; soy ese que hace más seria la seriedad a través del humor, del absurdo y de lo grotesco (“Piñera Teatral,” 8-9).
However, while this reaction to the serious side of human existence with healthy doses of irreverent and biting humor is certainly one of the most notable aspects of Piñera’s short fiction,2 there is another element of the author’s bleak world that is perhaps even more striking: the disconcerting and obsessive presence of the human body in a process of continuous debasement and degeneration. In many of Piñera’s short stories, novels and dramatic works two dominant themes are corporeal sustenance and physical degeneration. These two frequently recurring themes combine the author’s obsession with the human body’s maintenance through consumption and its natural functions with disturbing images of bodily degeneration, which are characterized by grotesque3descriptions. References to eating, defecating, corporeal decomposition, and brutal death abound, and other taboo subjects such as cannibalism and explicit sexual perversions appear with shocking frequency. Indeed these powerful themes occupy a very prominent role in the majority of Piñera’s works. From his earliest stories and dramatic works to his novels and poetry, the human body is a dominating presence which is typically seen not only as the driving force of human existence, but also as the sole agent of the individual’s painful demise.
In this study we will focus on “La carne,” one of Piñera’s earliest stories, written in 1941, and first published in 19444 in the midst of a difficult era in Cuban history, and a very trying period in the author’s own life. In this short masterpiece we see many of Piñera’s most characteristic and persistent themes. Most immediately apparent, perhaps, is his concern with intense hunger and the suffering and misery that it causes. Indeed for the author himself the anguish brought on by intense hunger was all too real, and in his memoirs he makes reference to his personal experience of “la molesta sensación del hambre” (“La vida tal cual,” 23). But more than a story about hunger and human misery, “La carne” represents the author’s bitter reaction to the social and political reality of Cuba in the 1940s which he saw as an epoch marked by poverty, frustration and hopelessness under the leadership of Fulgencio Batista. Piñera’s own comments concerning this and a number of his other early stories and their reflection of his painful existence during this period are particularly revealing:
Estos cuentos, que parecen ubicarse en la irrealidad, que, a simple vista, se confundirían con lo fantasmal, han sido concebidos partiendo de la realidad más cotidiana, es decir, de la vida que yo hacía por la época en que los escribí...[la vida] de un desarraigado, la de un paria social, acosado por dos dioses implacables: el hambre y la indiferencia del medio circundante... Por esa época faltaba la carne en la Habana. Entonces yo escribí el cuento “La carne.” Pero no sólo faltaba sino que de haber estado llenas las carnicerías, no tenía un centavo para comprarla. Y naturalmente, eso de no tener n centavo para comprar carne y comérsela es algo muy triste y sin duda existía un culpable o culpables de mi extremada miseria. Entonces protesté y mi protesta fue ese cuento. (Cited in Pérez León, 42)
In this story Piñera exploits the ambivalence of the word “carne” thereby drawing our attention to its two possible meanings in the story.5 Whereas the English Language commonly makes a clear distinction between “meat,” which is, according to its most common definition, the flesh of animals as used for food; and “flesh,” which is that soft substance of animal or human bodies consisting of muscles and fat,” Spanish fuses the two concepts into a single word” (Schafer, xxi). The “carne” that one eats for supper might easily be confused linguistically with the “carne” that makes up the human body. In “La carne” the difference between the two concepts is as completely erased as it is in any cannibalistic ritual. The human body becomes the meat, the animal flesh subject to brutal slaughter and subsequent consumption, which will nourish the members of an anonymous town who make the horrifying and bizarre decision to eat their own flesh in order to avoid dying of hunger.
The story opens quite innocently, with an exposition of the events surrounding an unfortunate situation that, as we soon see, will be “solved” in a most shocking manner:
Sucedió con gran sencillez, sin afectación. Por motivos que no son del caso exponer, la población sufría de falta de carne. Todo el mundo se alarmó y se hicieron comentarios más o menos amargos y hasta se esbozaron ciertos propósitos de venganza. Pero, como siempre sucede, las protestas no pasaron de meras amenazas y pronto se vio a aquel afligido pueblo engullendo los más variados vegetales (24). 6
While the reader might at first be taken aback by the alarm and anger that characterize the townspeople’s reaction to the sudden shortage of meat, we must keep in mind that in Cuba meat has traditionally been a staple of the daily diet. Furthermore, as has been noted by one expert, the consumption of animal flesh is so important for many world cultures that “to be deprived of meat can indeed be equated with starvation” (Fiddes, 14-15).7 In this town, then, the lack of animal protein introduces a rather unfortunate dilemma: subsist solely on vegetables, or starve. The people’s bitterness and talk of revenge undermine their complete dissatisfaction with their new vegetarian diet, and further suggests that they hold someone to blame for their plight.8 However, due to their complete powerlessness, they are forced to put up with this unanticipated problem. The author’s use of the verb “engullir” (to swallow without chewing) conjures up the image of the townspeople gulping down the vegetables with disgust. It also carries the implication that this new menu, though thoroughly unappealing, is ultimately, though resentfully, accepted by the afflicted people as their only viable option for survival.
However, not everyone in the village is capable of following the “orden general” which enforces the consumption of vegetables, and thus one individual who can not do without his daily meat, goes against the established order by inventing a most horrifying solution to the problem:
Sólo que el señor Ansaldo no siguió la orden general. Con gran tranquilidad se puso a afilar un enorme cuchillo de cocina, y, acto seguido, bajándose los pantalones hasta las rodillas,cortó de su nalga izquierda un hermoso filete. Tras haberlo limpiado lo adobó con sal y vinagre, lo pasó—como se dice—por la parrilla, para finalmente freírlo en la gran sartén de las tortillas del domingo. Sentose a la mesa y comenzó a saborear su hermoso filete (24).
Ansaldo’s decisión to consume his own flesh in order to avoid starvation is indeed incredible, if not horrifying. This bizarre and seemingly irrational conduct is a perfect example of what Frank McQuade sees as the author’s unique ability to shock the reader. Piñera “distorts logic, rationality and causality,” he notes, “by creating characters who react to their environment in a wholly irrational manner” (205). To be sure Ansaldo’s bizarre behavior seems to completely defeat its ostensible purpose.   Though this practice of self-mutilation is supposedly meant to turn his body into a source of sustenance, it would seem that his dependence on his “private reserves” (10), that is, his own “excess” flesh, could have no other outcome than the rapid degradation of the body and ultimate self-annihilation. In other words, as the body attempts to alleviate itself by providing much-needed aliment, it simultaneously brings about its own violent destruction.
The reader can not help but to notice the tranquil objectivity which characterizes not only Ansaldo’s gruesome action, but, more importantly, the narrator’s contemplation and relation of these chilling events. Piñera is indeed a master of relating dreadful, incredible and fantastic situations in a manner that makes them seem perfectly normal or quotidian. It is precisely this ambivalent quality of his stories which makes them so strange and disturbing, and which causes the reader to question whether he/she is supposed to turn away in disgust, or to let out an uneasy chuckle. As Torres has astutely noted, “one of the factors that makes this monstrous act laughable is the narrator’s effort to present it as an aesthetic act” (409). For example, when Ansaldo carefully seasons and cooks the “beautiful” fillet from his buttock, he cleverly transforms the barbaric and repulsive act of cannibalism (or more specifically autophagy) into the work of a seasoned chef. Since Ansaldo so successfully disguises the massive fillet sliced from his buttock by converting it into an object that so closely resembles the prepared meat which the villagers are used to eating, his fellow meat-lovers are ultimately convinced that his clever solution of self-consumption is quite worthy of being imitated.
A neighbor who comes to visit, upon seeing Ansaldo’s succulent rump-steak and the wound on Ansaldo’s back side, is not, as we might expect, inflicted with horror, but rather is excited—overwhelmed and moved—by what he sees. He therefore hurries to inform the town mayor of Ansaldo’s ingenious and practical solution to the town’s meat-hunger. The mayor, for his part, is equally moved and expresses his “vivo deseo de que su amado pueblo se alimentara…de sus propias reservas” (24). After offering (with the help of a plaster model) a practical demonstration for the masses of the clever remedy which he has invented for the town’s dreadful problem, Ansaldo is immediately revered as a sort of hero whose ingenious inventiveness has pulled the town from the grips of what could have been a devastating tragedy. All at once the people unanimously accept self-mutilation as the vehicle to satiating their appetite for meat, and, as one critic has pointed out, this brutal practice of butchering human flesh becomes the object of a progressive refinement: “de simples (y suculentos) filetes rebanados de las nalgas o los sesos, se pasa a exquisiteces culinarias a base de lenguas, labios…yemas de dedos, [y] lóbulos de oreja” (Matas, 22). As the townspeople begin to fill their bellies with their own flesh, they are content once again and temporarily comforted by the false notion that their bodies have suddenly been converted into storehouses of much-needed energy and nourishment while ceasing to be objects of suffering (Morello Frosch, 25).
One of the most notable aspects of the narrator’s relation of this town’s gruesome behavior is the absence of any mention of physical discomfort suffered by the victims. Whereas we know that slicing off a piece of our own flesh would be excruciatingly painful, these carefree individuals’ apparent invulnerability to these massive self-inflicted wounds brings our attention to another source, albeit rather morbid, of the story’s singularly humorous quality. According to David Morris such “strange absence of pain in situations that everyone recognizes as painful constitutes an important sign that we have entered the comic world” (93). Piñera’s readers, though, are not likely to react with a hearty chortle, which might result from a similarly violent scene from a modern-day cartoon, but rather with an uneasy and evasive laughter—the kind that helps us overcome our own fears. Piñera’s conspicuous omission of descriptions of physical anguish are perhaps celebrations of what Morris calls the “perverse energy in bodily life that manages to overcome every effort to deny or subdue it” (92). These robust villagers, then, are monuments to the strength and endurance of the human body. For though their pain is almost palpable to the reader, their own determination to endure it, even at the cost of their own doom, is sufficient to subdue it or at least to create a “world in which pain no longer counts” (Morris, 93).
Much to their dismay, however, the villagers soon realize that such a bloody practice can not last indeterminately since the flesh which is “suitable” for consumption is of a very limited quantity, and once it has been consumed, it will be gone forever. Though they do not panic, they do make an attempt to calculate how long this “beneficial” custom will be able to continue:
Se hicieron cálculos acerca de cuánto tiempo gozaría el pueblo de los beneficios de la carne. Un distinguido anatómico predijo que sobre un peso de cien libras, y descontando vísceras y demás órganos no ingestibles, un individuo podía comer carne durante ciento cuarenta días a razón de media libra por día. Por lo demás, era un cálculo ilusorio. Y lo que importaba era que cada uno pudiese ingerir su hermoso filete (25).
Apparently the narrator holds that the deceptive nature of the calculation rests on the fact that this practice is nothing less than self-sacrifice, which will lead to inevitable death. The great irony of this absurd situation is, of course, that the body ends up bringing about its own downfall or, as Marta Morello-Frosch puts it, “se sacrifica el cuerpo en aras del cuerpo” (25). In other words, as the villagers willingly gobble down their own flesh with the ostensible goal of self-preservation, they inadvertently hasten the demise of their physical organism. The future consequences seem to be of little importance though, the narrator smugly adds, for what matters is only the present. After all, in a senseless world where pleasures are few, one must enjoy his/her meat while it lasts.
Furthermore, if we agree with Nick Fidde’s suggestion that “defining what is not edible carries logical implications to what is edible” (128-29), the town’s physician’s tacit indication that certain parts of the body are not fit for consumption is especially loaded with meaning. In other words, although this distinguished medical expert considers the viscera, bowels, and other organs (we can only imagine what those might be) to be inedible, it follows logically that the rest of the human body is seen by him as perfectly acceptable aliment. The idea of hacking off pieces of the arms and legs or other “non-vital” body parts would seem to fall within what he considers a reasonable course of action given the town’s desperate situation. This is truly a pro-cannibalistic attitude even though it is tainted with (pardon the pun) a healthy dose of biting irony.
The physician’s elimination of the innards from his list of edible body parts is also interesting when looked at in the light of one of Mikhail Bakhtin’s observations in his well-known study of the grotesque image of the human body. The Russian philosopher and literary theorist asserts that “tripe, stomach, intestines are the bowels, the belly, the very life of a man. But at the same time,” he continues, “they represent the swallowing, devouring belly” (162). Thus, in a bizarre situation such as the one presented in Piñera’s singular story, in which one devours his/her own body, to eat these parts would lead to the individual’s certain destruction. Perhaps it is possible for one to turn his/her lips, tongue, fingertips and other “disposable flesh” into “frituras de gran éxito” or “monjar[es] de monarcas” (25), and live to tell about it, but to eat the innards would be to destroy the very essence of human corporeal existence. To do so would be to turn the act of self-preservation into deliberate slaughter since, as Bakhtin has noted, “to disembowel is to kill” (163).
Despite some minor revolts, most of the town members continue quite happily in their new custom of subsisting on their own flesh. The narrator remains dislocated from and unaffected by the horrific nature of the events throughout the story, and with characteristically shocking objectivity he relates a number of what he considers the most amusing episodes of that period in the town’s history: The prison warden can’t sign a death warrant because he has eaten his fingertips, two women cannot kiss when they run into each other on the street since they have gobbled down their lips, some folks are unable to speak after having devoured their tongues. A number of women, though, are heard praising the advantages of their new custom of eating their own flesh since, having devoured their breasts, they no longer need to cover their torsos with cloth. One of the narrator’s favorite incidents (and perhaps the most horrendous of the story) involves the town ballet dancer’s dissection of his last morsels of edible flesh:
Éste, por respeto a su arte, había dejado por lo último los bellos dedos de sus pies... Ya sólo le quedaba la parte carnosa del dedo gordo. Entonces invitó a sus amigos a presenciar la operación. En medio de un sanguinolento silencio cortó su porción posterior, y sin pasarla por el fuego la dejó caer en el hueco de lo que había sido en otro tiempo su hermosa boca. Entonces todos los presentes se pusieron repentinamente serios (26).
In this graphic scene we detect for the first time hints of disgust and horror, not on the part of the narrator, but from those who witness this gruesome spectacle. Carmen Torres correctly observes that “the sudden seriousness of those present causes the comic effect to be lost momentarily because the dancer’s action has given occasion to the process of reflection, comedy’s enemy” (411). However, it is not simply the characters’ seriousness or the opportunity for reflection upon the situation at hand that causes a brief loss of comic effect.
Eating a pan-fried, seasoned fillet of buttock or “frituras de labios” prepared according to the latest culinary trends is one thing, but to eat raw, bloody, uncooked flesh, as this dancer does, underscores the utter savagery which lurks beneath these villagers’ behavior. We must keep in mind that it is precisely the habit of cooking or preparing animal flesh before consuming it which supposedly sets humans apart from the world of beasts. “Tearing at raw flesh with one’s teeth,” notes Julia Twigg, “is an image of horror, suitable to monsters and the semi-human. It is an image of the bestial” (25). And while it could be argued that members of “civilized” cultures do indeed eat raw meat (steak tartar for example), when the flesh is freshly cut from a live beast and completely undisguised, it is simply “not the stuff of mouthwatering delight” (Fiddes, 121). As the onlookers observe this dancer’s chilling act, they are (at least momentarily) brought face to face with a reflection of their own savagery.
The narrator follows his relation of this profoundly disquieting episode with the story of an obese man who, despite his abundant store of reserve flesh, consumed all of his disposable meat in just fifteen days: “Era extremadamente goloso,” the narrator explains, “y…su organismo exigía grandes cantidades” (26). This glutton’s appetite was so immense that he failed to limit the amount of flesh that he designated as edible, and so, after two weeks, he simply consumed his entire body. The narrator’s laughably sarcastic explanation for this “disappearance” approaches the very limits of inanity: “Evidentemente, se ocultaba…” (26) he smugly suggests.
In another “amusing” incident, a mother who has been unable to locate her son finds, with the help of a detective from “missing persons,” that he has been reduced to a pile of excrement: “el perito en desaparecidos solo pudo dar con un breve montón de excrementos en el sitio donde la señora Orfila juraba y perjuraba que su amado hijo se encontraba…” (27). This passage calls to mind Bakhtin’s notion of the “ambivalent image of excrement,” which he holds is related “to regeneration and renewal…an intermediate between the living body and dead disintegrating matter that is being transformed into earth, into manure” (175). When one critic suggests that in this incident the author hints at a possible act of cannibalism (Torres, 412), she is not completely clear about her reasoning behind such a suggestion. A viable explanation might be that the pile of dung which the detective encounters is not what remains of the boy, who has reduced himself to nothingness from his own self-consumption, but rather it is what has been left behind by the mother herself after having devoured her own son. If looked at in light of Bakhtin’s notion of regeneration and rebirth—that both the human body and its excrement represent agents of fertilization and renewal (175)—this explanation would take on special significance: the mother’s act of eating and expelling her son could be viewed as a sort of double fertilization—that is, with her own feces and with the decomposed flesh of another body, that of her son.
Whatever the explanation, it remains clear that this type of appalling incident leaves us with that uncomfortable, contaminated feeling which one typically experiences when reading Piñera’s works. It is a sensation so often felt when we come into contact with that which we consider foul and repulsive. William Miller aptly explains this feeling of disgust as “a recognition of danger to our purity…[that] never allows us to escape clean. It underpins the sense of despair that impurity and evil are contagious, endure, and take everything down with them” (Miller, 204-5). At the same time we must remember that fecal matter is simply “unsavory and offensive” (Clark, 117), and to be reduced symbolically to a pile of dung is among the lowliest of possible fortunes—a typical lot for the miserable characters who populate Piñera’s terrifying universe.
As he goes on with his account of the events surrounding the meat shortage, the narrator continues to treat this monstrous situation with cold nonchalance. He assures the reader, with a potent dose of Piñeran sarcasm to be sure, that these “ligeras alteraciones” in no way undermined the happiness of the townspeople—the important thing was simply that life went on. He insists that these individuals had no reason whatsoever to be discontented since they had arrived at a very reasonable and practical solution to their initial crisis:
El grave problema de orden público creado por la falta de carne, ¿no había quedado definitivamente zanjado? Que la población fuera ocultándose progresivamente nada tenía que ver con el aspecto central de la cosa, y sólo era un colofón que no alteraba en modo alguno la firme voluntad de aquella gente de procurarse el precioso alimento. ¿Era, por ventura, dicho colofón el precio que exigía la carne de cada uno? Pero sería miserable hacer más preguntas inoportunas, y aquel prudente pueblo estaba muy bien alimentado (27).
Just as he puts forth a series of questions which finally seem to get to the very root of the psychological and social issues behind the grim situation of the starving villagers, however, the narrator abruptly cuts himself off, bringing the narrative to a sudden halt. Throughout the entire narrative the reader has been seeking explanations to these very questions, but we are given none whatsoever, nor are we encouraged to answer them ourselves. We must keep in mind, though, that it is precisely this absence of explication or reaction on the part of the apparently indifferent narrator, which serves to undermine any feelings of disgust, or repugnance that we might have toward the story’s action. After all, if the narrator himself, witness to these gruesome scenes of self-mutilation and autoconsumption, is outwardly unaffected, then the reader should ostensibly have much less cause for concern.
And though it seems for a brief moment that the narrator himself might be inviting a response or a reaction from the reader concerning what has transpired, he leaves his “inopportune” questions hanging in mid-air. After tempting the reader with this food for thought, he cruelly pulls it away since he considers any further contemplation of the matter to be quite unnecessary. In truth, this contradictory ending underscores the “grotesque ambivalence” which is seen repeatedly in Piñera’s narrative (Torres, “Grotesque Humor,” 413), and which so often leaves the reader with a bitter taste in the mouth.

About the author:
Thomas F. Anderson is Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His specialty is the Hispanic Caribbean. He has published various articles and currently has a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to write a book about Virgilia Piñera.

Arens,W. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rebelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
Cabrera-Infante, Guillermo. “The Death of Virgilio.” Introduction to Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, trans. Mark Schafer. Hygiene, CO: Eridanos, 1988, xi-xiv.
Clark, John R. The Modern Satiric Grotesque. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1991.
Echevarría, Esteban. “El matadero.” Antología crítica del cuento hispanoamericano 1830-1920. Ed. José Miguel Oviedo. Madrid: Alianza, 1989, 38-60.
Fides, Nick. Meat: A Natural Symbol. London: Routledge, 1991.
González-Cruz, Luis F. “Piñera Llera, Virgilio.” Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Cuban Literature Ed. Julio A. Martínez. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990, 361-70.
Kayser, Wolfgang. The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963.
Matas, Julio. “Infiernos fríos de Virgilio Piñera.” Linden Lane Magazine 4.2 (1985): 22-24.
McQuade, Frank. “Making Sense Out of Nonsense: Virgilio Pi;era and the Short Story of the Absurd.” After Cervantes: A Celebration of 75 Years of Iberian Studies at Leeds. Ed. John Macklin. Leeds: Trinity and All Saints, 1993, 203-22.
Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.
Morello-Frosch, Marta. “La anatomía: mundo fantástico de Virgilio Piñera.” Hispamérica 7.23-24 (1979): 19-34.
Morris, David. The Culture of Pain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Pérez León, Roberto. “Con el peso de una isla de jardines invisibles.” Unión 3.10 (1990): 37-43.
Piñera, Virgilio. El que vino a salvarme. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1970.
Piñera, Virgilio. “Piñera Teatral.” Teatro completo. La Habana: Ediciones R, 1960, 7-30.
Schafer, Mark. “Translator’s Note.” René’s Flesh, by Virgilio Piñera. Trans. Schafer. Hygiene, CO: Eridanos, 1989, xxi.
Torres, Carmen L. “Grotesque Humor in Virgilio Piñera’s Short Stories." Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 5.4 (1992): 397-422.
Twigg, Julia. “Vegetarianism and the Meanings of Meat.” The Sociology of Food and Eating. Ed. Anne Murcott. Croft, England: Gower, 1983, 18-30.

1The considerable number of editions of Piñera’s works that have appeared in the last decade or so attest to this relatively recent rediscovery of the Cuban author. The following editions are republications of works that had been out of print since their original publication: La carne de René [1952] (novel) (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1985—this recent edition is significantly different from the original novel since Piñera completely rewrote it shortly before his death); Pequeñas maniobras [1963] y Presiones y diamantes [1967] (novels) (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1986; Aire frío[1958] (play) (Madrid: Asociación de directores de escena, 1990); Teatro inédito (5 short plays). Several other recent editions represent each work’s first appearance in print: Una caja de zapatos vacía (play) (Miami: Universal, 1986); Un fogonazo (stories) (La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1987); Muecas para escribientes (stories) (La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1987); Una broma colossal (poetry) (La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1988); Teatro inconcluso (7 unfinished plays) (La Habana: Unión, 1990; La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1993); Poesía y crítica (complete poetry and critical articles by Piñera) (México: CNCA, 1994). In addition, translations of his stories and of his first novel have also appeared in recent years: Cold Tales [1956], trans. Mark Schafer (Hygeine, CO: Eridanos, 1988); Nouvaux contes froids, trans. Liliane Hasson (Paris: Seuil, 1988); Contos fríos (seguidos de outros contos), trans. Teresa Cristofani Barreto (Sao Paulo: Iluminuras, 1989); René’s Flesh, trans. Mark Schafer (Boston: Eridanos, 1989).
2Piñera considered this irreverent humor and mockery of all things serious, commonly known in Cuba as “choteo,” to be a crucial aspect of Cuban identity: “A mi entender un cubano se define por la sistemática ruptura con la seriedad entre comillas. Como cualquier mortal, tiene sentido de lo trágico... Pero al mismo tiempo, este cubano no admite, rechaza, vomita cualquier imposición de la solemnidad” (“Piñera teatral,” 10). For a complete definition and study of “choteo” see Jorge Mañach, Indagación del choteo (La Habana: La Verónica, 1949). Also see Carmen L. Torres, “Virgilio Piñera y el choteo cubano,” in La cuentística de Virgilio Piñera, 107-22.
3Wolfgang Kayser in his pioneering study on the grotesque, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, points out that the notion of the “grotesque” is one which is quite frequently used but not understood or well defined. This problematic word, he states, “appears to be one of the most quickly cheapened terms which are used to express a considerable degree of emotional involvement without providing a qualitative distinction beyond the rather vague terms ‘strange,’ ‘incredible,’ ‘unbelievable’—it is certainly not a well-defined category of scientific thinking” (17). In this study we mention the notion of the grotesque in a number of situations but always basing ourselves on Kayser’s concept of the grotesque as not only “strange, incredible and unbelievable,” but also as “the estranged world…our world which has been transformed” and which is filled with “suddenness and surprise” (184). But the grotesque is also “a play with the absurd. It may begin in a gay and carefree manner… But it may also carry the player away, deprive him of his freedom, and make him afraid of the ghosts which he has so frivolously invoked” (188).
4“La carne” first appeared in Poesía y prosa (La Habana: Serafín García, 1944). It was later included in Cunetos fríos (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1956) and El que vino a salvarme (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1970).
5Piñera would later, and to a much greater extent, employ the same “linguistic duality” (Schafer, xxi) in his novel La carne de René (Buenos Aires: Siglo XX, 1952) [René’s Flesh.
6Virgilio Piñera, “La carne,” El que vino a salvarme (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1970).
7Julia Twigg has made a similar observation: “Meat is the most highly prized of food,” she notes, “It is the center around which a meal is arranged.  It stands in a sense for the very idea of food itself” (21).

8In his article “Notas sobre la vieja y la nueva generación,” Piñera insists that one of his major motivations for writing this story was to protest the injustice of President Fulgencio Batista’s decision to send a large quantity of Cuba’s cattle to the United States during the Second World War despite the fact that so many people of his own country were suffering from malnutrition and starvation: “‘La carne’ no es otra cosa que la protesta por los envois de nuestras reses a los Estados Unidos en la Segunda Guerra Mundial” (2).

Revista / Review Interamericana

No comments:

Post a Comment