Obituary: Severo Sarduy

James Kirkup
Monday 14 June 1993 23:02

Severo Sarduy, writer: born 27 February 1937 Camaguey, Cuba; died Paris 8 June 1993.

IN A 1986 interview, Severo Sarduy declared: 'I write only in order to make myself well. I write in an attempt to become normal, to be like everybody else, even though it's obvious I am not. I am a neurotic creature, a prey to phobias, burdened with obsessions and anxieties. And instead of going to a psychoanalyst or committing suicide or abandoning myself to drink and drugs, I write. That's my therapy.'

But when one reads the works of this unique Cuban author, one is never conscious of strain or torment: it's all like a game, playing with words, with ideas, amusing oneself with fantastic characters and situations. At the same time, one has to work along with the writer in order to appreciate to the full the peculiar charm of his writing. For Sarduy was a genius with words, one of the great contemporary stylists writing in Spanish. He is one of those delightfully learned yet playful novelists like Nabokov or Ivy Compton-Burnett whose literary texture, both light and dense, compels the enraptured reader to pay attention to every word. One can indeed see that this kind of writing is life-saving.

Severo Sarduy had good reason to be nervous and anxious. He was born in Cuba, a paradisal island in throe to all kinds of tyrannies, in which the natural exuberance and gaiety of the people has always striven to lighten the darker regions of their existence. Severo was born in a small provincial town, deeply conservative and catholic, qualities which tended to shield it from the outside world. The people in this town, Camaguey, were proud of speaking better Spanish than that spoken in Havana. Sarduy compared his home town with that other cloistered urban jewel, Avila, in Spain. Its residents' pride in their purity of speech certainly influenced Sarduy, for all his work is based on investigations of words and the secrets of language. It was a place that had many poets and writers, and the local newspaper published new poems every day. So it was a favourable environment for a youth wanting to become a writer. 'Language,' he said, 'the desire to give life to things through words, is what makes us human.'

Sarduy had his poems printed in the literary review Origenes, led by a great Cuban writer, Jose Lezama Lima, who was to be one of the main influences on Sarduy, and to whom he paid tribute throughout his life. He also published in Ciclon, a subversive, censored and ultimately banned periodical that created a scandal by publishing the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. Sarduy and his fellow writers were considered great cissies by the macho males of Cuba.

When he left Camaguey for Havana, it was to study medicine, a profession he found himself unfitted for. He could not bear the way his fellow students played tricks with bodies sent for dissection. This sensitivity also gained him the reputation of a 'fairy' among macho medicos.

When Castro came to power, Sarduy wangled a grant to study art in Paris. His talent as a painter and designer was to accompany his writing throughout his life, and at the time of his death he was planning a vast retrospective of his paintings and drawings in Madrid. He never returned to Cuba, though he always felt anguished nostalgic longings to do so. At 23, he at once felt at home in the city that has welcomed so many Spanish and Latin American refugees from Fascist and Communist butchery. He never considered himself an exile or an immigrant: 'I am a Cuban through and through, who just happens to live in Paris.' Nevertheless, he became a French citizen in the Seventies.

Sarduy began attending Roland Barthes' seminars on language at the College de France, and was converted to structuralism. Barthes became one of his close friends and an enthusiastic admirer of his writing. Through Barthes, Sarduy was introduced to Philippe Sollers and the intellectuals grouped round the periodical Tel Quel. Sarduy's first novel, Gestos, was published in 1963, and his second, De donde son los cantantes? appeared in 1967, translated as Ecrit en dansant ('Written Dancing'). It was extolled by Sollers and Barthes as a new way of handling words, an entirely different form of novel. These first works appealed only to the happy few: they were too original for the general public. Sollers translated his third novel, Cobra, in 1972, with the help of Sarduy, who always worked with his translators. It was a great success, and won the Prix Medicis for a work of foreign literature in translation.

By this time, Sarduy had entered Editions Le Seuil as director in charge of Spanish and Latin American authors. He introduced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Lezama Lima's vast novel Paradiso, Eduardo Mendoza, the leading Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago and the great Brazilian Joao Guimares Rosa. He paid the ultimate homage to Lezama Lima by writing a preface to his Oppiano Licario, an unfinished, fragmentary and almost untranslatable work of grotesque poetic eroticism and homosexual extravagance, an Inferno after the Paradiso. Sarduy also published many of the banned works of his compatriot Reinaldo Arenas, imprisoned by Castro and tortured in his jails, a revolutionary homosexual who after escaping from Havana was to die of Aids in New York. But Sarduy did not publish Arenas' greatest work, his sexual autobiography of unparalleled violence, frankness and hysterical paranoia, Antes que anochezca ('Before Night Falls'), in which Arenas, half- mad, writes harsh things about Marquez, Sarduy, and several other Cuban authors.

Sarduy was a man of parallel personalities and abilities. He was a student of all aspects of science, particularly genetics, astronomy, chaos theories, on which he wrote essays and radio programmes for Radio France Internationale. He was one of the first to introduce the 'Big Bang' theory to the general public. His essays in Barocco (1975) introduce fractal art (related to chaos theory), Tibetan Buddhism and Watson and Crick's DNA discoveries, which Sarduy relates to language and architecture, comparing the double helix with the helicoidal towers of Borromini's baroque masterpiece, the church of S Ivo della Sapienza in Rome. Sarduy moved to Gallimard as director of Latin American and Spanish literature in 1990, publishing among others the collected works of Juan Goytisolo.

But Sarduy will be remembered chiefly for his brilliant, unpredictable, iconoclastic and often grimly funny novels, works of a totally liberated imagination composed by a master of disciplined Spanish style. He encompassed the sublime and the ridiculous, mingling oral traditions with literary mannerisms adopted from his baroque masters Quevedo and Gongora, classical fragments with quotes from sensational cheap scandal sheets, John of the Cross with television jingles. In his 1980 novel Maitreya he makes hilarious excursions into Eastern mysticism; it was written after travelling to Sri Lanka, India and Tibet, where he was hoping to 'become a Buddha'. The novel takes him from Tibet to Miami, where the Tibetan refugees mingle incongruously with Cubans and Haitians. Colibri (1986) is set in a Caribbean homosexual brothel and is peopled by transvestites and transsexuals and their customers, all described with lavish colour and wit, with an underlying sad horror.

Severo Sarduy's novels are really indescribable, and unrelatable: they can only be read with the closest attention; their enjoyment never fades. Now he has left us, Sarduy will never return to the Cuba he still longed to see again. He endured his long and painful struggle against Aids with the humour and fantasy displayed everywhere in his serious art, and the title of his last novel, which appeared in 1991, gives us some idea of his attitude to the disease and the deepest motives behind his writing 'to make myself well' - Para que nadie sepa que tengo miedo ('So that no one may know I am afraid'). That 'therapy' works even for the dying.

(Photograph omitted)

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