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Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers)

An English speaker, asked to name a great novel whose hero is a city, may well pick Ulysses. A Spanish speaker may well pick this novel. Like Ulysses, it makes extensive use of word play, mixing not only Spanish and Cuban slang but also other languages, such as English. And, like Ulysses, it is the city, rather than any individual character who is the hero – in this case pre-revolutionary Havana.

Cabrera Infante started his quarrel with the Cuban revolution when a film made by his brother called PM was censored. The film was about a black female bolero singer. This became the basis for this novel, with the Estella Rodríguez of the novel, being the black female bolero singer. The original novel, called Vista del amanecer en el trópico (View of Dawn in the Tropics) (not to be confused with the later novel of the same title), while wallowing in the Havana nightlife, also condemned this way of life, with the counterpoint of revolutionaries seeking to do away with the Havana hedonism.

There is not a plot in the real sense of the word. The photographer, Códac, talks about his discovery of Estella Rodríguez, other characters talk about life, love and literature and the wittily named Bustrófedon who, from the grave, provides us with the word games, puns, etc. The seven descriptions of Trotsky’s assassination in the style of seven different Cuban writers is very funny even if you are not familiar with the works of the writers in question. What the novel does, as Ulysses does, is provide us, firstly, with a map of a city that is no longer there. It also provides us with a portrait of Havana night life of the pre-revolutionary period, which is also no longer there. But, most of all, it shows us that a city, whether it be Dublin or Havana is its buildings and roads and monuments but, most of all, it is its people, its special culture, its secret relationships, its sensuality and, last but by no means least, its language.

Publishing history

First published in 1965 by Seix Barral, Barcelona
First English translation 1971 by Harper & Row
Translated by Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine