In “The Fall”, the first story in Virgilio Piñera’s collection, Cold Tales (Cuentos Frios), the leader of two mountaineers climbing a peak slips and falls. The fall pulls his partner down after him, and the two plummet, topsy-turvy, down the mountainside, colliding into rocky outcrops and losing limbs along the way. By the end, all that is left is the leader’s beard and his partner’s eyes: “But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.”
Cold Tales is a collection of stories where things take place in this world we all know but happen in ways that defy all our common senses. This may be a reflection of Piñera’s own perspective, as his life was lived both in the midst of his world and always standing somewhat outside it. In his introduction to the collection, Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes that “Virgilio Piñera’s short stories are far from any received notion in literature, for they come from absolute alienation, where the shortest distance to hell is not through paradise but purgatory.”
In his native Cuba, Piñera is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, but few of his works are currently in print in English translation. Born in Cárdenas in 1912, he began writing plays and poems in the 1930s and participating in Cuban politics and literary affairs. He was also homosexual, and the treatment of the Cuban government of people with his sexual and political inclinations led him to move to Buenos Aires as a voluntary exile. There he met the Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, and helped him translate his novel, Ferdydurke. Piñera also became acquainted with other writers and Cuban exiles and began writing absurdist short stories, likely influenced by Gombrowicz and Borges and anticipating. Many of the stories in Cold Tales were written during this period.
In 1958, anticipating the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Piñera returned to Cuba, and was, at first, involved in the circle of political and literary personalities forming around the core of the new regime. His pieces appeared in some of the most widely-read periodicals. But while acceptance of his political views had changed, attitudes toward his sexuality had not. Castro’s government wanted to eliminate what they called “the three Ps”: “prostitutes”, “pimps” and “pájaro” (homosexuals in Cuban slang). Che Guevara himself once hurled one of Piñera’s books off a shelf in the Cuban embassy in Algiers, shouting, “How dare you have a book by this foul faggot!”
In October 1961, he was arrested and jailed for pederasty, after which it became a struggle to live and love freely. He got work as a journalist and translator, and a few of his plays were performed, but it was well known that he was in Castro’s disfavor. Ostracized by many who had known him, he became known as something of a literary ghost. Though it was difficult to get his work published, he continued writing, and when he died of a heart attack in 1979, eighteen boxes of unpublished material were recovered from his apartment.
His work did gain some attention outside Cuba, however, being published in France, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. And in 1988, Eridanos Press, a small (and much-missed) U. S. publishing house backed by Bompiani, the literary arm of Italy’s leading publishing corporation, Fabbri, released Cold Tales, taken from Piñera’s Cuentos Frios, published in Buenos Aires in 1956, along with over twenty more written afterwards, in excellent translations by Mark Schafer. Two years later, Eridanos also published one of Piñera’s three novels, Rene’s Flesh. And, in 2012, he finally received some posthumous recognition from the Cuban government, which organized a conference and several events to recognize “el Año Virgiliano“ in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Cold Tales has been, for me, the discovery of 2017 (so far). Unlike Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories, which suffer too much from taking place in the head and not the flesh, Piñera’s stories are both fantastic and palpably real. “These tales are cold because they limit themselves to the hard facts,” Piñera asserts in his Foreword.
You can see this in “Meat,” for example, in which people respond to a growing famine by cutting away and eating parts of their own bodies. “One distinguished physician predicted that a person weighing one hundred pounds (discounting viscera and the rest of the inedible organs) could eat meat for one hundred and forty days at the rate of half a pound a day.” One of the most obese men in town cannot control his hunger, however, and disappears in fifteen days: “After a while, no one could ever find him. Evidently, he was hiding….”
In “Swimming”, the narrator learns to swim on dry land–which, he admits, “has an agonized quality about it.” “… [A]t 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.” And there are benefits: “Once in a while I sink my hands into the marble tiles and offer them a tiny fish that I catch in the submarine depths.” In “The Mountain”, a man resolves to eat an entire mountain. He realizes that people will think him crazy, but takes comfort that, very gradually, “the mountain is losing mass and height.”
Some of Piñera’s stories are a mere paragraph long. Here, for example, is “Insomnia” in its entirety:
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. He 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.
Cold Tales ends with perhaps Piñera’s last story, written in 1978, within a year of his death. In “The Death of the Birds”–just two pages long–the narrator reviews the different theories offered to explain why all the birds have died–epidemic, mass suicide, sudden thinning of the atmosphere, etc.. Many millions of birds lie strewn all over the earth and humanity is “filled with fright by the impossibility of discovering an explanation for such a monstrous fact.” But then, suddenly, they all come back to life and take flight.
Why? One can imagine a wise smile coming across Piñera’s as he wrote these closing lines:
The fiction of the writer, erasing the deed, returns them to life. And only with the death of literature will they fall again wretched onto the earth.
Cold Tales is now, sadly, out of print and used copies fetch over $30. But perhaps someone from David R. Godine, which bought Eridanos Press some years ago, will notice this piece and realize the simple step that can be taken to forestall the death of literature and keep the birds flying.