Critical Standpoints in Post-Soviet Cuban Literature: Ena Lucía Portela

This is a slightly modified version of a short talk I gave on March 1, 2010, at the Center for Latin American Studies in Berkeley, California.


This paper is an early attempt to show how Ena Lucía Portela’s El pájaro: pincel y tinta china contains formal features grounded in a kind of postmodern subjectivity that begins to emerge in Cuba during the Special Period. My claim is not that the novel represents a clearly defined subjective standpoint unique to 1990s Cuba, but rather that certain aspects of the novel’s form dramatize processes of subjectification rooted in the period’s socioeconomic transformations. My analysis is still very much in its initial stages, and is missing many elements of social history that will be necessary to establish clear connections between the literary form and the social form, but a basic sketch should nonetheless emerge from what until this point has been a collection of notes and partial readings.


Ena Lucía Portela is typically included among a generation of Cuban writers that began to publish short stories in the early 90s. Dubbed the novísimos by Salvador Redonet, these writers are notable for several reasons. First, there is a consensus, among critics, that they make a formal and thematic break with the previous generation of authors. The novísimos are probably Cuba’s first truly postmodern authors, and their writing exhibits many hallmarks of a Cuban postmodernity. Nanne Timmer attempts to sketch a typology of the 90s Cuban novel, saying “Among those [textual characteristics] the[…] [novísimos and postnovísimos] do share, we can name the ‘negation of the values of the system,’ an interest in the marginal, the eschatological, and the body, and particularly a theme that Cuban critics — surprisingly perhaps — have only rarely elaborated: the theme of subjectivity.”1 Second, these writers avoid the themes that characterized Cuban fiction during the previous two decades; in other words, abandoning the ideal of the “committed” writer, turning away from socially conscious themes, and reducing the narrative scope from the representation of totalites like the nation, the island, or the revolution, to that of individual experience. Timmer explains that “recent literature saw a shift from the collective to the personal. The crucial question was no longer ‘who are we’ (as in the 60s), but rather ‘who am I.’”2

Portela herself is one of the youngest members of the novísimos–she’s sometimes identified as a postnovísima–finishing El pájaro: pincel y tinta china when she was scarcely 25. She writes (and speaks) in a playful, mordant tone, saving her sharpest barbs for those most unfortunate of creatures–literary critics–and for her rivals in el medio. She has written 4 novels, numerous short stories, and a few essays. El pájaro, her first novel, won the prestigious UNEAC, or Cirilo Villaverde, prize, although apparently not without some controversy.3

El pájaro

Portela’s first novel is still not widely known, and is hard to find, so I don’t want to assume everyone has read it. I’ll briefly describe its plot and some of its formal features, making use of Timmer’s usefully succinct précis.

“The story is about three characters, Camila, Fabián, and Bibiana, who, unbeknown to the others, all fall in love with a fourth person, Emilio U…As the story progresses, we discover that Emilio U. is the writer of a novel named El pájaro: pincel y tinta china. The main story lines are the relationships [among] the characters and the search for the writer Emilio U., but the most interesting aspect is the way these stories intersect with Emilio U.’s novel. The suspicion of a simple mise en abyme, i.e. that Emilio U. is the writer of the story we are reading, finally cannot be maintained, as the fictitious world his novel is depicting gets confused with the world in which the novel is written.”4

I’ll return to this idea of an imperfect mise en abyme, but now let me point to some of the narrative’s formal features. The narrative perspective is constantly shifting, often with no warning or transition. The reader is constantly forced to decide which of these three characters is providing the standpoint. More rarely, the novel shifts into a metanarrative mode, either from an omniscient perspective or from the less reliable viewpoint of Emilio U. In fact, there are really two Emilios: the novel’s purported author and the one who appears as another character. The novel places heavy demands on the reader; it’s extremely disorienting. Sometimes whole passages–chapters even–only make sense in retrospective, when the identity of the narrator finally emerges from the shimmering, kaleidoscopic interplay of perspectives. The novel is often cited as a paradigmatic example of the kind of de-centered, fragmented and self-aware writing that emerges among this generation of authors. Some see the text as corrosive, a “negation of the great values of the system.”5

The Cuban Postmodern

At least some of the features of special period narrative can be tied, more or less directly, to the crisis of the 90s. Thematically, we see the emergence of a variety of urban underworlds where crime, prostitution, and the daily struggle for subsistence make up the immediate reality. We see a kind of reduction of existence to quotidian concerns about food and security which can no longer be guaranteed by the State. We witness the practical failure of the collective project and the emergence of a dog-eat-dog, salvage economy. Timmer, when describing Portela and her contemporaries, notes the disappearance of the nation as an explicit referent. In other words, being Cuban, even when the topic of cubanía appears in the novísimos’ texts, it no longer seems tied to a shared destiny or political project.

Timmer, for instance, does a good job connecting social changes in Cuba with formal changes in literature. She ties the appearance of the novísimos and their postmodern novels to a shift in thinking about subjectivity. No longer preoccupied with collective identity, writers now focus on the individual, but find that this individual is an unstable, fragmented (in a word, postmodern) subject.

The End of the hombre nuevo

I would extrapolate this somewhat further and make the claim that this is a manifestation of an epistemological collapse, one perhaps best expressed in Reina María Rodríguez’s poem, “Al menos así lo veía a contraluz.”

“era a finales de siglo y no había escapatoria. / la cúpula había caído, la utopía / de una bóveda inmensa sujeta a mi cabeza, / había caído”

Photo of Che

The ideal of the hombre nuevo, embodied in Che Guevara and disseminated through his images, has crumbled, leaving behind individuals who must either attempt to reconstruct an identify from the broken shards of the socialist project or forsake the ruins and face the equally painful dilemma of exile.

It needs to be emphasized that the hombre nuevo remained a kind of institutionalized and normative subjectivity that was both masculine and heterosexual. In the 90s, I would argue, this masculine subject enters its crisis phase. Movies like Strawberry and Chocolate attempt to upgrade the hombre nuevo for the times by allowing him to indulge his literary sensibilities and even have gay friends.

Movie Still, Strawberry and Chocolate

But this movie, along with Waiting List, which attempts to revive a fading collectivism, are fighting a rearguard action as events overtake the hombre nuevo and replace him with figures like jineteros and pingueros, cocotaxi drivers and hotel service workers.

It should also be noted that the 90s mark the crisis of what might be considered the female counterpart of the hombre nuevo. The Cuban Women’s Federation, or FMC, although it would describe its mission in somewhat different terms, for years promoted an essentially second-wave feminist project, fighting for women’s right to equal work opportunities and pay, and attempting to combat a partriarchal system that enforces a second-shift. Movies like Retrato de Teresa (1979) dramatize this struggle, depicting a noble, hard-working woman (portrayed by Daisy Granados) whose lazy husband expects her to be home at certain hours, to do all the cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, etc.
Cuban Woman The movie displays this situation as a conflict, not just between Teresa and her husband, but between the revolutionary project and the retrograde machista attitudes still held by many Cuban men. The revolution demands that everyone work to maximum capacity (Teresa works a full shift in a factory, then works additional hours designing costumes for a kind of cultural competition among factory shifts). Teresa’s ability to optimally contribute to the revolution is compromised by her husband’s laziness.

But in the 90s we see what I call the “Death of Teresa.” The FMC reaches unprecedented levels of unpopularity among women, who view it as too closely imbricated in Cuba’s still mostly male political ruling class. In other words, women’s issues were always subordinated to the supposedly more central problems of class conflict, national underdevelopment, etc. More importantly, though, the FMC was perceived to have failed at its core mission: the betterment of women’s living and working conditions. Not only had it failed to address problems like domestic violence and AIDS, it had failed to reduce women’s household labor. In fact, as the State withdrew social services during the crisis of the 90s, women were forced to pick up the slack, absorbing the domestic work that could no longer be outsourced.

The female characters in Portela’s novel are quite unlike Teresa. Bibiana lacks both intelligence and depth; in fact, she’s little more than the superficial objectification of a very typical kind of female beauty. Camila is an abject figure who Fabián exploits for sex and domestic labor.

The Failure of the Male Author

The male characters in El pájaro receive no better treatment. Fabián is violent and abusive; Dr. Schilling is patriarchal and tyrannical; Emilio U. is a kind of bemused, failed demiurge, unable to reconcile his own creation to himself.

To return to the figure I mentioned before, that of the truncated mise en abyme, I’d like to suggest that this has to do with the failure of the male author to close the charmed circle of his own narrative. Unlike novels like Unamuno’s Niebla, El pájaro doesn’t simply dramatize the dialogue between the author and his creation. Instead, it completely confuses the narration and its characters with the supposedly extradiegetic reality of Emilio U. The novel gestures at the mise en abyme, but there are too many contaminations. That is, Emilio U. himself remains within the infinite regress.

The Dionysian aspects of the novel: its gender-bending and shapeshifting characters, the fragmented and elusive thread of its narrative, its ludic interplay of citations–say, the juxtaposition of Rousseau with Rayuela and the Second Declaration of Havana–all these finally elude the rational intentions of the male author. In a few, isolated apostrophes in which the narrator addresses the reader, the novel interpellates this reader as feminine. On at least one occasion, this direct form of address includes the bracketed possibility of a male reader, but this appears as an afterthought, as a parenthetical (o) denoting masculine grammatical gender. It’s as if the novel were conscious that its formal dramatization of the male author’s failure is also at the same time the failure of the masculine reader, who is forced to accede to the demands of this open, contaminated narrative, to accept the impossibility of the male-for-himself qua formal device.

I think all this should be read against the context of the underrepresentation of women authors in Cuban literature, in which between 1959-1984 nearly 200 novels were published by men. In comparison, women published 12, many of which were not really novels but testimonios, memoirs and other supposedly “feminine” genres.6

In the Special Period though, despite the vastly reduced number of published works, there is something of an explosion of female authors. Some have speculated that this is because Cuba’s young male writers left in larger numbers during the balseros exodus that began in 1989.7 Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that the 90s brought greater opportunities for women to publish.

Portela herself is sensitive to the fact that she is treated as a novelty in ways that a male writer would not be. For example, when critics mention her erudition and the fact that she avoids local themes and color, she enumerates a long list of Cubans (Martí, Casal, Carpentier, Lezama Lima, Abilio Estévez) whose work incorporates non-Cuban, cosmopolitan elements, and points out that nobody asked (or asks, in the case of Estévez) these men why they include so many references to so-called universal culture. As far as women authors go, she says, the more ignorant they are (or pretend to be), the more successful they are. In an interview, she states:

“[M]ientras más borrica, desinformada y ñame sea la fulaneja en cuestión, mejor, pues así queda más cuqui, más sexy, más femenina.”8

The novel, then, challenges masculine literary dominance. Its very existence contests the primacy of male authors in Cuba’s domestic book industry, its style challenges traditional conceptions of what constitutes masculine and feminine literature, and its form questions the ability of the male author to dominate the genre and the material.

Interestingly enough, though, Portela doesn’t advance anything resembling a vindication of a more “feminine” form of writing, much less a feminist subjective standpoint. Her novel seems to erase the gender binary altogether, just as it erases the distinction between the textual and extratextual.

If I had to represent the novel with a geometric figure, I would choose the Möbius loop. The story ends with Camila, la sacerdotisa, in something approximating a Delphic trance, wondering if her story was a fable invented by Fabián, who has by now mysteriously disappeared.

So we have a situation in which the supposed author of the tale, Emilio U. is problematized by the contaminations between the story’s characters and his own life, and in which another possible author of Camila’s story has vanished, leaving her there, at the end, as a character in search of of an author, still seeking the elusive primary narrator, Emilio U. The story thus eats its own tail (tale) and what previously seemed like two distinct dimensions or narrative frames turn out to be indistinguishable, once the loop is completed.

We end with the androgynous Camila and her search for Emilio U. as the embodiment of the text’s ambiguity: a novel whose narrative content destroys its own frames of reference, yet remains driven inexorably onward by the telos of its no-longer-present form.

  1. Nanne Timmer, “Dreams that Dreams Remain: Three Cuban Novels of the 90s,”  in Theo d’ Haen and Pieter Vermeulen (eds.), Cultural Identity and Postmodern Writing (New York: Rodopi, 2006), pp. 190-91.
  2. Ibid., p. 191.
  3. See Ena Lucía Portela, “Ena Lucía Portela: La Habana, 1972,” Nuevo Texto Crítico 21.41-42 (2008), 11-12.
  4. Timmer, “Dreams that Dreams Remain,” 196.
  5. Timmer (“Dreams that Dreams Remain,” 196) attributes this quote to Nara Araujo, in “Erizar y divertir: La poética de Ena Lucía Portela,” Unión 42 (2001), 22-31. In the version of Araujo’s article published in Semiosis 7 (2001), 20-32, the statement does not appear.
  6. See Patricia Valladares Ruiz, “Subjetividades sexuales y nacionales en la narrativa cubana contemporánea (1990-2003),”  unpublished dissertation, Université de Montréal (2005), p. 119.
  7. Madeline M Cámara, “Antropofagia de los sexos como ‘metáfora de incorporación’ en ‘La urna y el nombre (cuento jovial)’ de Ena Lucía Portela,” Torre de Papel 7.3 (1997), 167-83.
  8. Iraida López, “Ena Lucía Portela,” Hispamérica 112 (2009), 49-59