Félix Flores Varona is a writer and researcher on English and international literature, who currently lives in Scotland. At this year’s HGFF, he will be presenting an exploration of the links between Cuba and Scotland’s national poets, José Martí and Robert Burns, who are both fundamental figures in their respective countries’ cultural identities. Another Scottish writer with an international reach was Sir Walter Scott, whose historical novels wouldn’t only define the nineteenth century’s notion of Scotland as a country, but inspire writers around the world to examine their own countries’ histories, often as their countries were just emerging in their modern forms as nations. A Cuban writer influenced by Scott, Cirilo Villaverde, would write the country’s most famous nineteenth century novel, in the shape of Cecilia Valdés.
Felix will be exploring the links between the Cuban classic and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels following a screening of Humberto Solas’s dazzling, if controversial film adaptation.
Brian Beadie – Why is José Martí such an important figure in Cuban literature and culture more generally?
Félix Flores Varona – José Martí is, above all, a great historical figure, a deep thinker and an outstanding patriot. Born in the mid-nineteenth century, he grew up under an oppressive Spanish regime based on black slavery, the same regime that had previously exterminated the aboriginal population of the island by means of forced labour and punishment. From his early childhood, Martí became aware of the oppression exerted in Cuba by Spain and the horrors of slavery. In his Simple Verses, to which most critics confer a biographical character, he refers to a child who saw a slave hung in the forest, trembled with passion, and swore to repair the damage with his own blood. As a young man, because of his political ideas, Martí was imprisoned, then deported to the Isle of Pines, eventually being banished to Spain, where he wrote about the abuses he had witnessed while imprisoned. After spending time in some Latin American countries, Martí settled down in the United Sates, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party and organized the war for the independence of Cuba from Spain. Shortly after the start of the war, in 1895, he died in Combat after having been granted the rank of Major General. In his short life, Martí was not only distinguished as a revolutionary political leader but also as an influnetial man of letters. Even though his Collected Works mostly contain journalistic pieces, they also comprise novels, poetry, children’s literature, art criticism and translations. Indeed, Martí is considered the most important Cuban scholar, writer, translator and journalist of his time. As a writer, he is widely considered one of the initiators of Modernism in Latin America. In his works, Martí approached an immense variety of topics with a deep insight, which why he is often referred to as The Teacher, which profession he also exerted. His Collected Works contain his approach to more than twenty Scottish authors whom he either promoted, characterised, translated or simply mentioned. Perhaps the most essential feature regarding Martí is the validity of his thoughts both in present times and in times to come. His life, his actions and his works have turned him into Cuba’s national hero, an icon of Cuban identity and Cuban culture.
BB – In what ways do you think his position is analogous to Burns’ in Scottish culture?
FFV – Certainly, both personalities share several contact points regarding their representations in their respective national cultures. Both remain the most celebrated poets in their countries, and both share a wide international renown. Martí’s Simple Verses make the lyrics to “Guantanamera,” the most internationally famous Cuban song, while “Auld Lang Syne,” associated with Burns, has met the same fate.
A few years ago, scholar Arun Sood, from the University of Plymouth, graciously invited me to write a piece on both authors. The result was an article: “Monumental National Heroes: Robert Burns and Jose Marti,” published in The Burns Chronicle. As suggested by its title, the article’s aim is “mapping connections between two national icons.” The piece focuses on the fact that both figures, given the richness and amplitude of their cultural legacy, have been adopted and contested by different political groups. However, the text also makes references to other similarities and coincidences: both were associated with freemasonry. According to several historians, Martí was received into the 18th Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. Likewise, Burns was a member of several Scottish lodges, advanced to the third degree of Master Mason and held the position of Deputy Master for several years. The images of both appear on bank notes and coins as recognition of their patriotic love of their respective homelands. Both poets died at a young age, and posthumously, both had busts and statues preserving their memory in unpredictable places. In that regard, Central Park, in New York has become a significant site, in lodging a statue of both figures. Perhaps less significantly, after their death, both acquired a popular reputation as drinkers and philanderers. Indeed, in both cases, there is a fascinating myth surrounding a lover to whom each dedicated his poems. Martí is popularly associated with María García Granados, known as “the girl from Guatemala,” who, as the verse goes, “died of love,” while Burns is widely related to ‘Highland Mary’ Campbell. Both poets certainly bear great symbolic power.
BB – What links have you found between the work of Marti and Burns?
FFV – To the best of my knowledge, no comparative studies have yet been carried out on the possible influence of Burns on Martí; however, on analysing their poetry, there are immediatley remarkable resemblances between Martí’s “I Cultivate a White Rose” and Burns’s “A Red Red Rose.” In my writings I have noted that even though both poems were written in different languages, both are structured into stanzas of four lines, both use repetition as an expressive means (my luve’s like, red/ cultivo, rosa blanca), both signify affection by means of the same symbolic rose introduced on the first line, and, very coincidently, the month of June is mentioned in the second line of both poems.” Furthermore, Martí was a connoisseur of Burns’s poetry, which he directly read in English and Scots, and in Martí’s works, there are numerous lines of Burns quoted and translated for either critical, comparative or paradigmatic purposes. Consequently, these elements might reflect the influence of one of Burns’s most popular poems on Martí’s most popular, and that reputation, together with the rendition of both poems into popular musical pieces, forms another remarkable coincidence.
BB – Cecilia Valdés is universally regarded as the most important Cuban nineteenth-century novel. Why does it hold this reputation?
FFV – You are right. A great many scholars and critics consider Cecilia Valdés the most important Cuban novel of its century; however, I hold the opinion that the importance of Cecilia did not remain in the nineteenth century. Villaverde’s novel is still regarded as the most emblematic Cuban novel of all time. It has become a symbol of national identity, and no other Cuban text has become the source of inspiration for so many creative works, not only in literature but also in other manifestations. I might not be fair but, among the numerous pieces of art drawing inspiration from Cecilia, I consider that mention should be made of the zarzuela by Gonzalo Roig, the film by Humberto Solás, the bronze sculpture by Erig Rebull and the painting by Cosme Proenza, not to mention the translations of the novel into a great many languages. The novel constitutes a fresco of Cuban society in the nineteenth century the place of slavery within it, depicting the relationship between individuals belonging to different social strata and ethnic backgrounds. As there are many countries where the mixture of different ethnicities has fostered their national identity, the novel has not lost its validity, especially in times when intolerance, discrimination, exploitation and abuse of ethnic minorities have become so apparent in “modern democratic societies.” Since Cecilia, the protagonist of the novel, represents the mixture of the main elements making up the national identity of Cuba – that is, the Spanish element and the African – it has become a symbol of that ethnic and cultural combination, so much so that many confer on the novel the status of national myth, or regard the central character as symbolic of Cuba itself.
BB – Sir Walter Scott is generally credited as the inventor of the historical novel as a genre. What influence do you think he may have had on Villaverde?
Cecilia Valdés is a product of the so far under researched Scottish-Cuban literary connection. Certainly, there was appreciation of Scottish literature in nineteenth-century Cuba, and Walter Scott was the best received Scottish author. Suffice it to say that the first translation of Waverley into Spanish was not done in Spain but by a Cuban, on the other side of the Atlantic. Regarding Scott’s influence on Villaverde, this is explicitly expressed in the prologue to Cecilia by the author himself. In this regard, Walter Scott contributed his grain of sand to the making of Cecilia and therefore to the formation of the Cuban national identity, of which the novel is an undisputable icon. There are several apparent traces of Scott in the Cuban novel: according to Villaverde, his characters speak the very language they used in the historical scenes in which they figure, the reason why, for example, black slaves are represented with their broken Spanish, for example. In her foreword to a 2018 edition of Cecilia, Ana María Hernández states that the technique of Cecilia shows the influence that Walter Scott had on the author and backs up her statement by explaining that through the chapters of the novel, Cuban customs in the city and in the countryside, with all their peculiarities, pass through different social classes; the high ideals of those who aspired to collectively improving society are crossed with the vices, the cruelties, the governmental insanity and prerogatives of the privileged. That’s Walter Scott. Additionally, the novel distinguishes itself by its portrayal of representative characters and settings, another feature inherent to the novels of Walter Scott. Just as Scott did in his works, Villaverde also integrates prominent public figures into the set of characters of his story. As a result, José de la Luz y Caballero, José María Heredia, and Domingo Del Monte are present in Villaverde’s novel –just to mention some actual Cuban personalities who engaged in the Scottish-Cuban literary connection.
BB – Fredric Jameson has characterised Scott’s work as essentially being melodramatic – do you think this is also true of Villaverde? While I think Jameson meant this negatively, I’m not necessarily using it as a pejorative term.
FFV – I will not question Jameson’s perception. I have very much enjoyed some of his works, The Political Unconscious; Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, and more recently, The Antinomies of Realism. Indeed, I consider him a great author. I also take into consideration that modern times have blurred the lines between genres and their perception. Besides, several genres may share common features, and a great many literary works have been filmed or adapted to the stage as something very different from the original, Scott being no exception since his Guy Mannering was firstlstaged in 1816. The most known rendition of Cecilia Valdés is the operatic zarzuela by Roig, in which music is a key component. I would say that Cecilia veers more to the tragic than the melodramatic. The novel, as I see it, does not primarily feature a fight of virtue against vice or good against evil. The characters are not simplified, and they don’t embody those features: they are rather drawn with a certain psychological depth. The denouement is very far from a happy ending. And finally, I don’t think that the novel was written to teach a moral. but to depict a society.
BB – I asked about Cecilia Valdés in the context of melodrama as this was a genre that interested Humberto Solás most famously in Lucia. How does his adaptation work as a film?
FFV – Again, I would not regard Cecilia Valdés, the novel, as a melodrama. Perhaps Jameson would, and I respect his opinion. I can agree, however that the film integrates some features of the genre such as the use of incidental music, the overt theatricality present in some of the scenes or the intensity of the conflicts. The fact that Cecilia Valdés is the most representative novel of its century, and, far from losing its validity, has prevailed up till now through its ever-growing editions and translations, as well as the influence of the novel on the creation of multiple literary and non-literary works of arts, constitute powerful reasons for Solás to have drawn inspiration from Villaverde, not to mention the historical importance of the novel, and what it means regarding national identity. His adaptation works very well as a film in my opinion; however, the audience at the time the film was released were expecting a faithful reproduction of the book. They were not ready for Solás’s version – a free rendition of the original, which was the reason why so many values of the film, such as the amazing production design or the vivid, epic and wild cinematography, were not well appreciated by then. The fact that the film was the most ambitious and costly project in Cuban cinematographic industry to date, and its rejection by both the audience and critics at the time, brought about a breakdown of the institution in charge. However, people have now understood that Cecilia Valdés, the novel, and Cecilia, the film, despite their close relationship, are two different works of art. Time, fortunately, has brought back to the fore the strengths of the film, its worth inhaving approached the history of the country from an artistic standpoint. Notwithstanding the film’s possible failures, it is definitely worth watching for its memorable moments and the religious, folkloric and political elements added by Solás to better represent Cuba’s national history. Cecilia explains and reinterprets the exchange of values and essences that has given rise to the identity of the Cuban people.
Felix will be presenting a workshop on Scottish and Cuban poetry on Monday 9th Nov, and introducing and discussing Cecilia on Sun 15th Nov.