To read Severo Sarduy, in the words of Rolland Barthes, is to be “gorged with language,” immersed in “the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.” Firefly, the first novel from the Cuban born Médicis Prize winner to be translated into English in over a decade, is a funny and sad coming-of-age story. In keeping with Barthes’ description, Sarduy’s prose—skillfully rendered in Mark Fried’s translation—is virtuosic delight. The syntax is playful, overflowing with expressive modifiers and colorful descriptions that masterfully evoke the swarming excess of the tropics, and the libidinal chaos of adolescence.
Firefly is set in a fictional city—Upsalón U—where the whole history of pre-Castro Cuba comes together in a asynchronous jumble of symbols and cultural markers: hurricanes, slave markets, seamy brothels, mystical cults, radios, jukeboxes and baseball caps (even a big screen TV) coexist in the fluid disorder of a dream or hallucination.
The novel’s protagonist, Firefly, is an aimless, adolescent boy, “a spidery map of bones” with an “oversized head” and a penchant for misadventure. In the opening chapter, as a hurricane rages outside, Firefly, frightened by the storm, is mocked and ridiculed by his family. Humiliated and angry at always being the butt of the joke, he takes his revenge by serving them cups of linden flower tea spiked with rat poison. “So that no one will know I’m afraid.”
In the hospital, surrounded by his comatose family, Firefly pretends to be dead to avoid being blamed for their state. His scam is quickly uncovered by “two retired luminaries of the island’s medical community”—Isidro (an “obese . . . pile of blubber”), and Gator (“olive-skinned, long and bony, all obtuse angles and kinks”). This contrasting pair of quack doctors reappears at random moments throughout the rest of the story, coming to represent the island’s corruption and to embody Firefly’s paranoia and exile from the world of his childhood.
Firefly manages to escape from hospital and he is taken in by Munificence, a “towering” woman who runs a charity school. She provides him with a place to sleep and a job as an errand boy. From that point on, Firefly passes through a sometimes-funny sometimes-surreal series of experiences: he falls in love with the redheaded nymphet, Ada; he discovers the pleasures of alcohol; witnesses acts of corruption and cruelty; catches a case of Lethargy cubensis—a hilarious made up illness, cleverly poking fun at lazy, alcoholic Cubans; runs away; and visits strange brothels and nightmarish sex shows. Sarduy’s pacing is masterful, building a spiraling, downward momentum that has the feel of a week of binge drinking or a bad acid trip. That results is a sort of beautiful mayhem, where nothing makes sense and everything is false, what Firefly describes as “a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream.”
Sarduy sets Firefly’s confused search for identity against the backdrop of a decadent island world replete with crooked characters and rotting landscapes. “He felt blindfolded and alone at the center of a grotesque, cackling circle spinning around him.” It almost seems cruel the way Sarduy treats his young protagonist, he is allowed no relief, no way out, nothing stable to latch on to; he finds only loneliness, turmoil, ambiguous sexual impulses, and the shameful betrayals of his own young body.
He sensed in an opaque way, as if he had received an unspoken but fatal warning, that he would always be lost, disoriented, lacking an interior compass, as if the entire Earth were a laborious labyrinth or a perverse mirage of movable walls someone had contrived just to get him lost, to bring him down.
By the end of the novel, in a way, Sarduy has brought him back to where he started when he poisoned his family: resentful and alone. But he has also been transformed; experience has made him disillusioned, his resentment has expanded. “Man is the shit of the universe,” he tells himself near the end of the novel.
Now he knew people were capable of anything: of selling off father and mother, of turning over to the Inquisition and the stake the one they were pretending to protect. Capable of treachery, of usury with their loved ones. Of lies.
Everyone deceived. Everything nauseated. But deep down, he told himself, he was thankful: he had seen the true face of man, his essential duplicity, his need as unquenchable as hunger or thirst, for trickery, for wretchedness.
The lesson he has learned is one of despair and distrust: the world is a rotten place, full of deceitful, cruel people. And in the end: “He swore he would return to exterminate them all.”
Though Sarduy’s tone sustains comic, absurd notes throughout the novel, the story is essentially one of loneliness and alienation. Sarduy lived more than half of his life in exile. He left Cuba for Paris shortly after Castro came to power in 1960 and never went back. Firefly—first published in Spanish in 1990, just three years before Sarduy’s death—feels like a meditation on exile: Sarduy’s exile from his home country, the geographical and political exile of Cuba, the existential exile of adolescence, and the social and cultural exile of marginalized sexual orientations.
The intricate narrative structure and surrealist moments in Firefly resemble some of the stories of Julio Cortázar. The overflowing lyricism of Sarduy’s prose evokes the neo-baroque style of his fellow Cubans Alejo Carpentier, and José Lezema Lima. And it is this, the verbal richness, the luminous intensity of the language that marks Firefly as the product of a truly unique and talented writer. The novel is an absolute pleasure to read. The juxtaposition of a strange, somewhat bleak story with the vibrant mosaic of Sarduy’s writing is fascinating and powerfully engaging. Here again it is worth mentioning the work of the accomplished translator Mark Fried, whose English rendering captures beautifully the exquisite texture and lively rhythms of Sarduy’s prose.
For readers of Latin American literature in English, Sarduy is often eclipsed by fellow Boom writers such as Marquez, Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. He is difficult to classify, but clearly was a dynamic force in avant-garde literature in Latin America from the 1960s until the 1990s. Only a handful of his books have been translated into English, however, as Susan Jill Levine states in the preface to her translation of his earlier novel Cobra: “Sarduy characterizes the place of Latin America in Western civilization perhaps more authentically than the writing of some of his more accessible colleagues in the mainstream.” He deserves more attention. One can only hope that Firefly‘s English publication will spark renewed interest in the singular brilliance of this indelible master of Spanish language fiction.