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José Lezama Lima: Paradiso (Paradiso)

Some people have said that this is the greatest novel of the twentieth century and, while I can see why they say this, I think that is too excessive. It certainly is very different and an interesting though not always an easy read. Don’t know how it works in English but in Spanish, the only way to describe it is baroque. Lezama Lima lays on the archaic expressions, the Cubanisms, the often complex sentences in a way that reminded me of James Purdy, though, the homosexuality apart, that’s where the similarity ends. Why this novel has had such favorable reviews is the way Lezama Lima starts off with what looks like – the baroque style apart – being a conventional bourgeois novel, charting the life of José Cemí (the initials, as we shall see, are no accident) and turns into a huge Ulysses-like novel, with lots of very learned asides, culminating in, to use a favorite Joyce expression, a religious epiphany.

The book starts with the young José in his well-to-do upper class Cuban home, bitten by mosquitoes, and the early chapters follow his history and the history of his family (including both the English and the Jacksonville connections). The family members soon take a back seat and he acquires two friends, Ricardo and Eugenio. We now move to a world where homosexuality and love play a role but also where religion (in the broader, symbolic sense of the term) as well as philosophy and myth and death and, above all, language dominate. It’s hard to describe the way Lezama Lima does this but it makes for a wondrous if at times difficult read but one that is amply rewarded. It may not be the greatest novel of the twentieth century but it is certainly one of the most rewarding.

Publishing history

First published in 1966 by Ediciones Unión, Havana
First English translation 1974 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Gregory Rabassa