Who Is Severo Sarduy?

Those readers who are up on their Cuba literature will have no problem with this one. Severo Sarduy is a major figure in South American letters. Born in Cuba, involved in the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Sarduy went to Paris and when the Cuban government required that he return, he chose to stay and finish work on his first book. Unfortunately, Sarduy was then an enemy of the state and could not return safely to his Cuba so he stayed on in Paris, writing, painting, being a part of the intellectual life in Paris and at the same time a member of the expat South American artists living in Europe.

If you thought William S. Burroughs was a difficult writer to read, try Sarduy. I’m still shaking my head over Cobra but I know that a reread or two will make things much more clear. Cobra is the story of a transvestite dancer in the clubs such as Sarduy would frequent. Homosexuals and transvestites are prominent in Sarduy’s writing as well as his life. Cobra is in the same volume as Maitreya. Here is the write-up from Dalkey:

The late Severo Sarduy was one of the most outrageous and baroque of the Latin American Boom writers of the sixties and seventies, and here bound back to back are his two finest creations. Cobra (1972) recounts the tale of a transvestite named Cobra, star of the Lyrical Theater of the Dolls, whose obsession is to transform his/her body. She is assisted in her metamorphosis by the Madam and Pup, Cobra’s dwarfish double. They too change shape, through the violent ceremonies of a motorcycle gang, into a sect of Tibetan lamas seeking to revive Tantric Buddhism.

Maitreya (1978) continues the theme of metamorphosis, this time in the person of Luis Leng, a humble Cuban-Chinese cook, who becomes a reincarnation of Buddha. Through Leng, Sarduy traces the metamorphosis of two hitherto incomparable societies, Tibet at the moment of the Chinese invasion, and Cuba at the moment of revolution. Transgressing genres and genders, reveling in literal and figurative transvestism, these two novels are among the most daring achievements of postmodern Latin American fiction.

There is an excellent site maintained by Sarduy’s family that includes a detailed bibliography and a valuable timeline of the writer’s life. It’s worth looking into:  http://www.severo-sarduy-foundation.com .

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