Virgilio Piñera - Laws of gravity are abrogated in this short fiction by a Cuban litterateur. Men swim on dry land, death does not relieve the insomniac of sleeplessness, parents become the children of their children. "Cold" with the frigidity of a hell in which "one freezes over a low flame," most of these 40-odd tales are no longer than two pages, taut evocations of the surreal

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Virgilio Piñera, Cold TalesEridanos Library, 1988. 

Laws of gravity are abrogated in this short fiction by a Cuban litterateur. Men swim on dry land, death does not relieve the insomniac of sleeplessness, parents become the children of their children. "Cold" with the frigidity of a hell in which "one freezes over a low flame," most of these 40-odd tales are no longer than two pages, taut evocations of the surreal. The most successful, however, develop slowly and abundantly as political commentary. A landlady commands the uninterrupted attention of her impoverished boarders as she spends a full eight months describing a photograph taken at her wedding: "The happiness of those people was absolute, and not even the most categorical social restitution would have satisfied them as much as the lady's descriptions." A civilian, observing his president's metamorphosis into the "dummy" of his official persona, arranges for a rubber dummy to stand in for the leader with unforeseeable success. The late Pinera calibrates the macabre with a confidence and wit reminiscent of Dino Buzzati; his highly original figurations of the absurd should invite interest in this first English publication of his stories. - Publishers Weekly

Pinera, one of the major Cuban modernists, died in 1979 after being clapped into an exile of official literary neglect in the Castro years. Cabrera Infante, who contributes a foreward here, notes anecdotally that it was a Pinera volume that Che Guevara, famous literary critic, chose to snatch from a shelf and hurl to the floor when it was found in a postrevolutionary ambassador's residence. Pinera's homosexuality made him pariah enough; the utter cynicism of the literary voice put him beyond the pale. The stories here all have an outrageous calm as they go about suggesting the perverse and appalling. In ""A Few Children,"" a low-level bureaucrat admits to his only occasionally indulged passion: eating infants. Some stories are exaggerated realism, some the pithiest fable--but in all, Pinera's pessimism is the beacon. A valuable introduction in English to a fascinating writer.  - Kirkus Reviews

Virgilio Piñera (1912 - 1979) from Cuba - novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer. An author who refused to become part of any party, group or literary movement, an author who valued his extreme independence and bohemian lifestyle above all else. For example, as a student at the University of Havana he refused to defend his dissertation before a “bunch of donkeys." Now this, my friends, is an man and artist I can relate to. It gives me great joy to share my review of his outstanding collection of 43 short stories, some as short as 1 or 2 pages and others as long as 10, 20 or 30 pages. Below are two complete Virgilio microfictions followed by my write-up of a short story I'll never forget.
The man goes to bed early. He can’t fall asleep. He tosses and turns in bed, as might be expected. He gets tangled in the sheets. Hi lights a cigarette. He reads a little. He turns out the light again. But he can’t sleep. At three o’clock, he gets out of bed. He wakes his friend next door and confides that he can’t sleep. He asks the friend for advice. The friend advises him to take a short walk to tire himself out. And then, right away, to drink a cup of linden blossom tea and turn out the light. He does all that, but is unable to fall asleep. He gets up again. This time he goes to see a doctor. As usual, the doctor talks a lot but the man still doesn’t fall asleep. At six in the morning, he loads a revolver and blows his brains out. The man is dead, but hasn’t been able to get to sleep. Insomnia is a very persistent thing.
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 titles and offer them a tiny fish that I catch in the submarine depths.
Black humor mixed in with the grotesque and absurd, anyone? With short stories like this one, is it any wonder in 1961 at age forty-nine, a couple of years following his return to his native Cuba from Argentina, Virgilio Piñera was jailed for “political and moral crimes.” After his eventual release, the author continued to live independently on the extreme margins, refusing to bow or answer to anybody or anything. ALERT: The below direct quotes from Virgilio’s story along with my comments are soaked in the blackest grotesque humor - not intended for the squeamish.
Bon Appétit, One: During a meat shortage, the townspeople initially protested but soon started devouring vegetables. However, a Mr. Ansaldo didn’t follow the order of the day. No, not at all. “With great tranquility, he began to sharpen an enormous kitchen knife and then, dropping his pants to his knees, he cut a beautiful fillet from his left buttock. Having cleaned and dressed the fillet with salt and vinegar, he passed it through the broiler and finally fried it in the big pan he used on Sundays for making tortillas.” This absurdist scene is vintage Virgilio Piñera. Many of his stories are laced with body parts cut, pasted or transformed in bizarre, impossible combinations.
A True Gentleman: Mr. Ansaldo begins to enjoy his meal but there’s s a knock at his door. Turns out, Ansaldo’s neighbor, sick of eating veggies, wants to vent his frustration. But then, “Ansaldo with an elegant gesture, showed his neighbor the beautiful fillet. When his neighbor asked about it, Ansaldo simply displayed his left buttock. The facts were laid bare.” Love the play on words. Also, Ansaldo’s great willingness and neighborliness to share his ingenuity during a meat shortage.
The Body of Comrades: Overwhelmed with admiration, the neighbor returns with the mayor of the town. “The mayor expressed to Ansaldo his intense desire that his beloved townspeople be nourished – as was Ansaldo – by drawing on their private reserves, that is to say, each from their own meat.” This whole scene and play on words has echoes of communist slogans, writing I suspect not particularly appreciated by the leaders of the new Cuban communist regime.
Bon Appétit, Two: After silencing grips from the well-educated (damn those elitist intellectuals!) the major invites Ansaldo to provide instruction and a demonstration for the masses in the town square. With the bravado of a sage on the stage, Ansaldo gives it his all (no pun intended). Following detailed instructions, the townsfolk, knives in hand, start cutting enough fillets to last each man and women one hundred and forty days (calculations provided courtesy of a distinguished physician). Tongues, lips and other delicacies are relished. But there are some minor drawbacks, such as “The prison warden could not sign a convict’s death sentence because he had eaten the fleshy tips of his fingers, which, according to the best “gourmets” (of which the warden was one), gave rise to the well-worn phrase “finger-licking good.”” Too bad such practices are restricted in modern consumer societies. I can picture a TV commercial with fingers so “finger-licking good,” - by far the most memorable commercial in the history of TV.
The story continues with hilarious jabs at society run according to uniform, scientific rules. What really comes through is Virgilio Piñera’s disdain for a public or government having little respect for privacy, nonconformity or individuality. As G. Cabrera-Infante writes in this collection’s introductory essay, “When I tell you that by reading these stories you’ll get a kick out of them I don’t mean champagne or cocaine. I’m talking of a true kick. A kick in the groin or in the stomach but most of the time a kick in the soul, where it hurts metaphysically and you bleed eternally.” - Glenn Russell at

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Virgilio Piñera, Rene's Flesh, Trans. by Mark Schafer, Marsilio Publishers, 1990.                                   

Cuban Pinera's (1912-1979) boisterously savage novel of the absurd features a reluctant young man educated in a slaughterhouse where humans are sacrificed.

 Pinera's (1912-1979) dark and defiant novel unforgettably amplifies the absurdist themes so startlingly introduced in his short-story collection, Cold Tales . Rene is 20, ripe for education in the cult of flesh, ``not of intact, athletic flesh, but of slain meat, truly alive and throbbing like a wound.'' Rene's father exhorts him to elect the path of suffering, sending the reluctant hero to a school for pain and torture where the doctrine that ``knowledge must be beaten into a person'' is implemented literally. Pinera, a Cuban, fashions a world that is completely carnal--only sometimes erotic--where slaughterhouses are given names like those of banks (``The Equitable Butchers Shop''), where man himself is meat or flesh destined for the knife and where freedom is achieved only by the willing sacrifice of that flesh. The mercilessness of this moral vision is charged by quicksilver storytelling, passionate and boisterously savage. - Publishers Weekly

Today, my students concluded Cuban modernist Virgilio Piñera’s 1949 novel René’s Flesh. Subverting the genre expectations set in the first few chapters, René’s Flesh defies the linear motion of the coming of age novel. The conventional coming of age novel begins with a stubborn climb in the attempt to conquer societal expectations by overcoming them, the protagonist’s ultimate passage to transcendence traverses failure with recognition and acceptance. In that way, character development in the coming of age story occurs at the moment rebellion turns to understanding and the protagonist desires the demands put on him by society.
René, a sick and pathetic excuse for a boy, is twenty years old yet incapable of meeting even his family’s simple demands. It opens with René nearly passing out at the butcher shop during a joyous day when it has the unrestricted sale of meat, which is met by excitement and hysteria by the rest of the town. René is soon introduced to his central role in the “The Cause” and its “battle of the flesh” as its soon-to-be chief. Millions of lives hang in the balance, yet René’s clouded inability to understand the simplest meaning spills over to the reader. In content becoming form, Piñera uses absurd nonsense to confirm René subversion of the genre – instead of recognition and acceptance, René’s Flesh is an exercise in frustration and evasion.
Masochism underwrites René’s every move, illustrating its descending force, and through contrast, the novel reveals the sadism of the coming of age novel and its movement of ascent (Difference and Repetition 5; ). The consequence of this distinction is a careful delineation between the coming of age novel’s false image of submission and René’s masochistic embodiment of submission as a process of becoming. Piñera makes the reader share in René’s submission, forcing them to observe his initiation into his father’s cult of flesh – muzzled, electrocuted, licked, branded, and raped. We are given principles for such treatment of René’s flesh; yet in every instance that they are applied, René’s flesh withholds reason in its rebellion, unconsciously pushing back enough to escape meaning and enable the character’s swift passage to another scene. René is told to “suffer in silence,”  which he does in a stupor when not letting out weak incomprehensible yelps. With every escape, René’s finds himself in a new set of rules and laws to evade, and when he eventually do, others arrived in a lateral geometric multiplication of force (Coldness and Cruelty 120).
The pieces fall in place only when René’s Flesh is read as a masochistic novel. René’s pitiful existence does little to justify his inheritance of the throne of The Cause makes little sense on its face. He has one exemplary ability: to be found and pursued by the law only to then frustrate and evade it. It is this masochistic form of submission – the escape and evasion of the law by becoming a miserable object of disgust – and not the sadist ascent of the coming age novel, which justifies the “crowned anarchy” in the descent of René’s flesh. -

Thomas F. Anderson: Corporeal Sustenance and Degradation in a Short Story by Virgilio Piñera
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Virgilio Piñera, The Weight of the Island, Trans. by Pablo Medina, Diálogos/Lavender Ink, 2014.

Dramatist, novelist, critic and poet Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979) was one of the greatest writers of twentieth century Cuba. Little known outside the island, his poems have been called "feverishly tropical" and "champions against indifference." With a linguistic skill reminiscent of Borges and a gift for metaphor that rivals Neruda and García Lorca, Piñera's poems celebrate daily life in Cuba with brilliance and humor. Pablo Medina's remarkable translations from The Weight of the Island (La isla en peso), the first book-length collection of Piñera's work in English, now renew Piñera's gifts to the world.

Telluric, absurdist, surrealist, feverishly tropical, Virgilio Piñera’s The Weight of the Island is a poetic cosmos without parallel. Piñera’s voice is disturbing, anguished, dissonant and yet deeply moving. You feel the full emotional and psychological presence of the man in every verse he penned. We can rejoice that the English-speaking public can finally become acquainted with this utterly original poet. Only an artist of Pablo Medina’s gifts could have achieved the miracle of bringing Piñ era fully alive into English. -- Jaime Manrique

When we read the poetry of Virgilio Piñera we must try to identify the invisible or the mystery that lies behind his words, for his language is filled with doubt and irony as the Cuban poet works the regions of despair, desolation and  loneliness.  Through Medina’s translation  the reader can access the invisible and hidden in Piñera’s poetry, the mystery between the lines which Pablo Medina deftly uncovers. Medina’s translation of Piñera’s  poetic words is vivid and sensitive and becomes a recreation of that poetry rather than a mere translation. If Piñera as a poet translates his desolate life into a poetry which is fierce and bitter, Medina’s  English rendition of that poetry captures the vitality of the original Spanish and conveys the fierceness of a poet who felt imprisoned by  “the cursed condition of water on all sides.”-- Isabel Alvarez Borland

Virgilio Piñera’s poetry occupies the fragile space between sadness and beauty, between disillusion and reality.  His poems are quiet champions against indifference, affirmations that seek to both grieve over and honor our human existence.  Pablo Medina's translations are enduring, necessary treasures.
--Richard Blanco

Virgilio Piñera has been too long ignored amid a louder, at times discordant music of twentieth century Latin American poetry. With these subtly innovative and accessible translations in The Weight of the Island, poet-novelist Pablo Medina now sets Piñera in his rightful place on the international stage alongside poet-icons José Lezama Lima and Nicolás Guillén. Piñera’s early work is fierce and surrealist, presenting the torrid sensuality and suffocation of his most beautiful island―Cuba―simmering in all its ebullient tropical illusions. Spanning the era when Cuba was a brand new country set free from both the Spanish and Americans to make its own history, moving ahead through hard Revolution then post-Revolution, this smart selection moves back again in time into the more interior and privately experienced, meant also to present Piñ era’s more intimate writing, his personal evocations of love and disillusionment, his closely observed poems of absurd social behaviors and mechanical decorum played out against the certainty of mortality. Yet Piñera’s poems are all celebrations of life, divine spirit cries that break through the stifling silence of our permanent night. Medina’s remarkable translations in The Weight of the Island now renew his gifts to the world.  - Douglas Unger

Thomas F. Anderson: Everything in Its Place: The Life and Works of Virgilio Piñera

A hundred years of Virgilio Piñera, l'enfant terrible of Cuban literature by