The complete works of the Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabera Infante (GCI) have just been published by Galaxia Gutenberg. The first volume (1954-60), titled El cronista de cine (The film critic), is a compilation of his work as a cinema reviewer in Havana, before he tried his hand at the novel.
We all knew about his movie reviews, first written under the pseudonym of G. Caín, and later under his own name. I am not greatly convinced by his theory that he thus became his own fictional personality since "the only way the critic can survive under communism is as a fictional entity." To reduce GCI to an anti-Castro dissident is impoverishing - indeed, it was only slowly and reluctantly that he became one.
What we see in this book is a journalist who covers his chosen field with exceptional brilliance. He accepts an invitation from the producer Mike Todd to the party in Manhattan for Around the World in 80 Days. It happens in Madison Square Garden, and GCI has his eyes open. Nothing of what Freddy Mercury invented in his days of splendor could compare with the splurge of Elizabeth Taylor's then-husband: a parade of bands and dancers, an elephant, an airplane, 100,000 pizzas, and Duke Ellington as the party's end act.
We are looking at a working journalist's output. He has to react fast to the deaths of James Dean, Bogart, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Todd himself. As juryman at a festival, he is about to give the big prize to Truffaut's Les 400 coups, when the arrogance of the French critics leads him, in the company of Carlos Fuentes, to change his decisive vote for Buñuel's Nazarín.
But the best part of the book is the interviews. These are not to be confused with the rigorously timed encounters of the present day, with someone looking over your shoulder to see that the conversation does not deviate from the film to be promoted. The people were actors, directors, and scriptwriters who were visiting Havana to make a film or to "look for a story." GCI is very much as we know him, erudite and respectful, except when he is dealing with sex bombs such as Mamie Van Doren or Martine Carol.
The most extensive article is the one devoted to Marlon Brando. In contradiction to his media-shy reputation, Brando cheerfully accepts the onslaught of GCI - in this case, there was no press agent - and they spend the rest of the day in each other's company. Brando draws fine lines: poses for certain photos, provided they are not for publication in the United States, where they might be confused with vulgar tourism.
A Brando who is lucid, open - though not for very long. His next journey will take him to Asia. In Kyoto, during the filming of Sayonara, he will be hooked by Truman Capote, and the resulting article, published in The New Yorker, will give him a permanent aversion to familiarity with reporters.
But we are in 1956. The bearded men in forage caps are not yet masters of Havana, and Marlon wants to see the hot tropical nightlife, especially the musical aspect. He searches the Afro-Cuban radio waves, and only finds cha-cha-cha: "It's good to dance to, but there isn't much rhythm." Marlon pounds a conga drum he has just acquired, and GCI ratifies that, indeed, he knows what a drum is for. He thus confirms stories told by Celia Cruz of visits by Marlon, who wanted her husband, Pedro Knight, to teach him drum technique.
Near the end, the Cuban scribbler and his Yankee friend meet the actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge, who is performing at the Sans Souci. She asks him what has brought him to Havana. GCI uses his answer to close this splendid portrait of Brando at the age of 32: "I was in Miami on business, and suddenly I thought I ought to go and buy a conga drum."