Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s book “Infante’s Inferno” (1984) is a masterfully crafted, chronological account of a young man’s journey into adulthood in prerevolutionary Havana, Cuba. The author vividly depicts both the triumphant and disastrous aspects of his experiences, interweaving his trademark puns and wordplay throughout the narrative. The book revolves around an unnamed protagonist who candidly shares intimate moments, including his first glimpse of a naked woman, his inaugural kiss, his initial encounter with alcohol, as well as his early sexual conquests and setbacks—many of which unfold in dimly lit movie theaters across Havana. At times, the story ventures into explicit erotic territory, with the young man openly discussing his intimate actions, such as his techniques for self-pleasure. Due to its daring content, the book was originally published in Spain in 1979 under the title “La Habana para un infante difunto,” playfully parodying French composer Maurice Ravel’s famous composition, “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (Pavane for a Dead Princess).
Cabrera Infante (1929–2005) has frequently mentioned in various interviews that the discovery of the book’s title significantly influenced the writing process. He explains that the phrase “infante défunte” possesses a captivating quality in French, being both harmonious and dissonant simultaneously. The words sound alike, yet when combined, they create a jarring effect. He added “pavane” to the title, drawing from an archaic musical form, while “infante” was chosen due to its allure to foreigners, signifying the king’s sons who will not ascend to the throne. Once the title came to him, he was convinced of its perfection and committed to rewriting the entire book to match its essence.
The book is presented entirely from the first-person perspective, often marketed as the memoir of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a writer born in Cuba. However, in a 1980 interview with Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier, the author firmly denies the autobiographical nature of “Infante’s Inferno,” despite it taking over two years to write. He identifies himself as a writer of fragments and admits that while there are fragments of his life woven into the narrative, the book is predominantly a collection of manipulated memories of Havana. He elaborates that even those who were part of those memories are unaware of their presence in the text, as he skillfully manipulates his own nostalgia to serve as a source of inspiration for his literary works. Consequently, like much of Cabrera Infante’s writing, strict genre classifications for “Infante’s Inferno” pose difficulties.
Irrespective of its categorization, be it autobiography, novel, or a blend of both, Guillermo Cabrera Infante provides an illuminating portrayal of male adolescence in this work. The authenticity of his narrative deeply connects with readers while simultaneously offering a captivating perspective on the sights and sounds of Havana. “Infante’s Inferno” doesn’t aim to present an exhaustive truth about the author; instead, it aspires to convey “the truth in part and in art,” offering a selective but powerful glimpse into his life.
Alvarez-Borland, Isabel. “The Pícaro’s Journey in the Structure of La Habana para un Infante Difunto.” Hispanofi la 90, no. 3 (1987): 71–79.
Feal, Rosemary G. Novel Lives: The Fictional Autobiographies of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Mario Vargas Llosa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Hall, Kenneth E. “Cabrera Infante as Biographer.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 19, no. 4 (1996): 394–403