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Virgilio Piñera Swam on Dry Land

A collection of short stories presents a unique opportunity to experience the formulaic redundancy of literature. Anyone who tries to read more than one Sherlock Holmes story in a sitting will find the pleasure of each mitigated a little by their monotony – but this is an extreme example, in which all the stories are not only by the same author, but involve the same characters, etc. In rhetoric, and perhaps in more formal linguistics as well (I can’t say), redundancy has a particular meaning beyond simple repetition. Paraphrase is an exercise in redundancy, and it is by redundancy that unclear or poorly written phrases can be salvaged. Now this has more, in rhetoric, to do with close operations in language, but there is a generic redundancy as well.
Some of the short story writers one values the highest are the ones whose collections can sustain steady reading; this is possible, on the one hand, where the tenor of the stories is so uniform that one can slide along from one to another without much noticing the intervals, but as a rule this is a property of what are really extended episodic narratives bundled as stories. I think of Bruno Schulz. On the other hand, this is also possible where no confusion of one story with another can happen, because each is as distinctive as a face. This is true, for the most part, of Virgilio Piñera’s collection, Cold Tales (Cuentos Frios). I’m not certain if it was this or some other of Piñera’s works that, if the anecdote is true, enjoyed the honor of being plucked from a shelf and flung against the wall by Che Guevara, who denounced the author as a “foul faggot.” One wonders if it sounded like a seventeenth century cavalier’s epithet in Spanish as well.
Virgilio Piñera was born in Cardenas, Cuba, in 1912; he spent most of his life in the country except for a period of seven years, beginning in 1950, when he moved to Buenos Aires. It was in the City of Borges that the first unpolished edition of Cuentos appeared in 1955, and Borges knew and praised Piñera’s work. While it seems to be the truth, that Piñera knew no Polish at all, this didn’t prevent him from translating Gombrowski’s Ferdydurke into Spanish in Buenos Aires.
Piñera returned to Cuba. He was an American writer, from the islands off Central America. He stood firmly with the revolutionaries as a matter of principle, but they kept him insulated on the sidelines. He spent time in prison for whatever they considered “pederasty” to be and seems to have been desperately poor all his life. His death in 1979 was not much commented on – he seems to have lived much as an eavesdropper or what used to be called a “hanger on.” As of this writing, I don’t believe (corrections welcome!) that any of his ten plays have been translated into English. Evidently, the collection from Eridanos Press, Cold Tales, is the one source for Virgilio Piñera in English.
The stories in the expanded edition were written between 1944 and 1978. There is no exaggeration involved in comparing Piñera’s work to that of Poe, Kafka, Borges, or Pessoa. The degree of redundancy in the collection is low, and each work taken individually is highly unredundant – difficult to paraphrase. There prevails in them an atmosphere of intellectual rigor that trembles on the brink of irrationality, such that one is drawn through the narrative not so much by events as by deductions, which lead the reader through a procedure of reasoning that inevitably begins to parody itself.
His characters and his narratives tend to be preoccupied. There is no sentimentality anywhere in Piñera’s work; while he is highly attentive to thought, his work can’t be called psychological either – at least not in any conventional sense of the word. The characters in his stories are commonly set in motion by abstractions; they may or may not be aware that this is unusual. Their “drives” are expressed in the often compulsive posing and resolving of puzzles.
The narrator of one of my favorites, “The Dummy,” is motivated by a strange impersonal compassion for the president of his country, and the kind of unexamined zeal with which people who perceive a technical solution to a problem automatically seek to effect it. He wins the confidence of the president by demonstrating an understanding of his specially-cultivated smiling technique.
As I make the following comments on Piñera’s style, the reader should bear in mind that I haven’t really any Spanish, and can only comment on the character of the English translation. The prose is transparently poetic; it is expressive in its clarity and economy, not in baroqueness or loft. His stories grind relentlessly away until they grind to a halt; they end themselves, or exhaust themselves – often in little time. The following story is complete in three paragraphs.

Swimming

I’ve learned to swim on dry land. It turns out to be more practical than doing it in the water. There’s no fear of sinking, for one is already on the bottom, and by the same token one is drowned beforehand. It also avoids having to be fished out by the light of a lantern or in the dazzling clarity of a beautiful day. Finally, the absence of water keeps one from swelling up.
I won’t deny that swimming on dry land has an agonized quality about it. At first sight, one would be reminded of death throes. Nevertheless, this is different: at the same time one is dying, one is quite alive, quite alert, listening to the music that comes through the window and watching the worm crawl across the floor.
At first, my friends criticized this decision. They fled from my glances and sobbed in the corners. Happily, the crisis has passed. Now they know that I am comfortable swimming on dry land. Once in a while I sink my hands into the marble tiles and offer them a tiny fish that I catch in the submarine depths.

The speaker bizarrely combines an analytic and scrupulous intelligence with inexplicable obliviousness to the obvious. His failure to understand the madness of his behavior clashes disturbingly with exhibition of his insight, and the reader may have added to this the unsettling feeling that he or she has not really understood.
Why acquire this skill in the first place? What drives this appetite for swimming? The idea of swimming on dry land already requires us to adopt a provisionally extended idea of what it means “to swim.” Piñera creates a purely inferred metaphor, that the atmosphere is an ocean of air, without using the words “atmosphere,” “ocean,” or “air.” The difficulty, that one makes a horrifying impression on others while swimming on dry land, is purely a matter of interpretation; it’s not that the onlooker may mistake swimming on dry land for death throes, or some other agony, because Piñera doesn’t dismiss this interpretation as a mistake. He adjusts the action to incorporate this other idea as well, so the onlooker is not mistaken in thinking the swimmer is in agony or dying, nor is the swimmer entirely correct in understanding himself to be a swimmer unless he knows he is also a dying man. Just as, previously, Piñera made the air into an ocean and breathing into drowning, now he makes living into dying, as after all we may think of ourselves as moving closer to death throughout every moment of life and so we are always dying. The last paragraph invites the reader to observe both the swimmer and the observer, and raises the possibility of another interpretation, again unstated, that swimming on dry land is insanity. But it is only in terms of this insanity, so horrifying to see, that one appreciates the gracefully beautiful image of the last sentence, which combines the beauty of the fish and the marble, the ease with which the fish is caught in the hand, with the equally beautiful gesture of offering that accompanies it. This image may stand for the production and offering of the story, and the rational alienation or lunacy that brought it about.
Other noteworthy stories in the collection include, as I’ve mentioned, “The Dummy,” in which Piñera’s humor, normally very dry, breaks momentarily into a sort of concentrated burlesque. “An a posteriori Ghost” is an excellent ghost story; it is a story that never feels like a ghost story nor reads like one, but which, in hindsight, magically reveals the familiar, generic plan. “The Great Staircase of the Legislative Palace” is one of his most Kafka-like pieces, representative of his description of obsessives; in this case, he pays particular attention to the substitutional quality of the obsession, such that it is the intensity of the preoccupation that matters most, and the object itself is secondary or purely abstract. “The Candy” is unique, an ultracondensed murder mystery in which every term is volatile and in doubt, and nothing is certainly established. It is both dreamlike and realistic.

Michael Cisco
27 August 2004


Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, which received the International Horror Guild’s award for Best First Novel of 1999, as well as The Tyrant (2004), and a number of other forthcoming novels. He’s just finished his PhD at New York University, and considers himself “The Melville Guy.” His column “Jungle Mind” appears monthly on The Modern Word.

For Michael Cisco’s previous columns, visit the “Jungle Mind” Archive.

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