Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Writer and film critic exiled from Cuba


Guillermo Cabrera Infante, writer: born Gibara, Cuba 22 April 1929; married 1953 Marta Calvo (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1961), 1961 Miriam Gómez; died London 21 February 2005.

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, writer: born Gibara, Cuba 22 April 1929; married 1953 Marta Calvo (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1961), 1961 Miriam Gómez; died London 21 February 2005.

In many ways one of the least political of writers, the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante found himself persecuted under three different regimes, and spent more than half his life in often uncomfortable exile in London.

He was born in 1929, in Gibara, in Cuba's Oriente province. A few years later, Cabrera Infante's father was jailed on suspicion of helping organise the Cuban Communist Party in Oriente. Following his release from jail, the family moved to the Cuban capital, Havana, in Guillermo's early adolescence. He has written of his dismay at being taken out of his relatively sheltered childhood setting and finding himself in the raucous life of what in the early 1940s was a wild city of gamblers, night-clubs and exuberant street life. Despite this, a few years later the streets of Havana were to provide him with the material for his best novels and short stories.

Having briefly contemplated a career in medicine, he turned quickly to journalism and literature, working on the magazine Bohemia. Unfortunately for him, one of his first short stories contained several "English profanities", and in 1952, the year that brought Fulgencio Batista to power, he was jailed, fined and kicked out of the Havana School of Journalism.

Undeterred, Cabrera Infante continued with another of his great passions, the cinema, helping to found a Cuban cinemateca and starting a long career as a film critic. Because he was not allowed to use his own name to sign his film articles, the famous G. Caín (taken from the two first letters of each of his surnames) was born: an early example of his fascination with words and wordplay, amply demonstrated in his collection of film criticism, Un oficio del siglo XX (1973, published in 1991 as A Twentieth Century Job).

As repression increased under Batista, so Cabrera Infante became increasingly involved in attempts to overthrow him, and, when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he was a supporter of the revolution - although he always insisted that at this point it was not Communist. He founded and edited Lunes, the semi-official literary magazine, and even visited the United States and Canada as part of Castro's entourage.

The honeymoon with the new regime did not last long. In 1960, the authorities banned and seized the film PM on Havana night-life made by his brother. Cabrera Infante himself was exiled, "not to Siberia, but to Brussels, as a cultural attaché", as he put it.

This post gave him plenty of time to work on what became his trademark novel, in Spanish the tongue-twister Tres Tristes Tigres (1965, published in English in 1971 as Three Trapped Tigers), his great paean to the street life and language of the Cuban capital. The novel contains all the excitement and technical experiments that characterised many new novels being written throughout the 1960s in Latin America, although it also owes a debt to writers such as William Faulkner and James Joyce.

After a brief visit to Havana in 1965 for his mother's funeral, Cabrera Infante quit his official post and decided to settle in Madrid. Like many other Latin Americans, Cabrera Infante saw Spain as his second home, but this was still the time of Franco's repressive rule, and ironically he was refused a resident's visa because of the revolutionary articles published in Lunes magazine in Cuba.

By 1966 Cabrera Infante was fleeing again, this time to London, where he was to make a home for almost 40 years, eventually becoming a naturalised British citizen. At the start, he found himself back in the world of the cinema, writing the screenplay for Vanishing Point (1971), and for a screen version of the novel Under the Volcano, although this was never produced. He also suffered badly from bouts of depression, and was very open about the fact that the then fashionable electric-shock treatment he was given for the condition badly affected his memory and powers of concentration.

He took refuge in an outrageous punning sense of humour, similar to that he himself described in the film director Alfred Hitchcock: "It's not a pleasing piece of clockwork drollery, but a coherent response to the irrational." In conversation, he mixed English and Spanish constantly, sometimes hilariously, sometimes excruciatingly. An extended example of these fiendish word games can be found in the book he wrote in English, Holy Smoke (1985), a Cabrera Infante via Groucho Marx history of smoking.

He also wrote his own views on his beloved island in Mea Cuba (1992), but never sought to return there. He despised Fidel Castro, "Mephistofidel" as he called him, and was often suspicious of people until certain that they had no taint of "Castroenteritis". But he could be the kindest of men, and received generations of young writers from Spain and Latin America in his London flat, giving them huge encouragement.

By the same token, he was overjoyed when in 1997 he was awarded the Premio Cervantes, the Spanish version of the Nobel for Literature, which he felt reconciled him at last to his "stepmother" country. After that, he travelled there often, discovering to his genuine surprise that a new generation of writers looked to his work, and in particular to the vividness of Three Trapped Tigers, for inspiration.

In recent years, "Kaybrera Infinity", as he was delighted to have been called by one London telephone operator, became increasingly plagued with depression and illness. He hesitated for many months over whether finally to leave London and move to Spain, where kidney dialysis was easier to arrange.

Nick Caistor

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