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Guillermo Cabrera Infante, 75; Writer Evoked Pre-Castro Cuba

Times Staff Writer

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose acrobatic prose, pun-loving humor and nostalgic, richly textured evocations of his native Cuba made him one of Latin America’s most respected and influential literary voices, has died. He was 75.

Cabrera Infante died Monday in London of a blood infection he had contracted after breaking his hip, said his wife, actress Miriam Gomez. The writer also had been battling diabetes and heart and kidney problems.

An essayist, film critic and occasional screenwriter as well as a novelist, Cabrera Infante is best known for his 1967 novel “Tres Tristes Tigres,” translated in English as “Three Trapped Tigers.” Written in exile, the jokey, film-noir-ish collage evokes pre-revolutionary Havana in all its violent, illicit seductiveness.

It also showcases the author’s penchant for re-creating in print the baroque wordplay of Havana’s streets, cabarets and brothels.

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Like his literary forebears Cervantes, Lewis Carroll and James Joyce, whose “Dubliners” he translated into Spanish, Cabrera Infante used wordplay to question and subvert the linguistic, political and metaphysical status quo.

Although many readers and critics were mesmerized by the author’s verbal pyrotechnics, others sometimes found them exhausting.

In an essay in The Nation, published shortly after Cabrera Infante had been awarded the Cervantes Prize in 1997, the Spanish-speaking world’s top literary trophy, Mario Vargas Llosa wrote: “For the sake of a joke, a parody, a pun, an acrobatic stunt of wit, a verbal ricochet, Cabrera Infante has always been prepared to make all the enemies on earth, to lose his friends and perhaps his life.”

An ardent and outspoken critic of Fidel Castro’s government, Cabrera Infante was a polarizing political figure, both in and outside Cuba. Although he spent much of the last four decades in exile in London, he never stopped writing about his homeland, alternating angry invective with smoky, fatalistic melancholy.

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As a young man, Cabrera Infante passionately supported Castro’s revolution. In the revolution’s early, heady days, he was named director of Lunes de Revolucion, a free-spirited cultural supplement to the revolution’s unofficial house organ, Revolucion.

But he had a falling-out over the government’s decision to ban a warts-and-all documentary by his brother on Havana nightlife. After being publicly rebuked by Castro and forbidden to publish, Cabrera Infante was dispatched to Brussels in 1962 as Cuba’s cultural attache. After returning to Cuba for his mother’s funeral in 1965, the author realized that his future lay outside the island and resigned from the diplomatic corps.

Cabrera Infante would later describe communism as “nothing more than the fascism of the poor.” His most excoriating writings on the Castro regime came in his 1991 collection “Mea Cuba,” a pun on the Latinate confessional phrase “Mea Culpa.”

Born in the coastal city of Gibara on April 22, 1929, Cabrera Infante was the son of Guillermo Cabrera Lopez and Zoila Infante, founders of Cuba’s Communist Party, who had been persecuted under the Fulgencio Batista regime. His biographer, Raymond D. Souza, believes that the seeds of the duality characterizing Cabrera Infante’s writing and thought may be found in his parentage.

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“His mother was a very extroverted woman who loved movies and loved being around people and having people at the house, and the father was more interested in groups than in individuals,” said Souza, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas.

Another source of this duality, Souza said, was the bipolar depression that Cabrera Infante had suffered for many years, resulting in a massive nervous breakdown in 1972 that was treated with electroshock therapy.

Cabrera Infante’s fiction and nonfiction writing covered everything from films to cigars (“Holy Smoke”) to erotica (“Infante’s Inferno”). His lifelong love of movies resulted in an acclaimed 1963 collection of film criticism, “Un Oficio del Siglo Veinte.” For a generation or more of Cuban Americans, Cabrera Infante’s work has been a means of retrieving through imagination the vanished Cuba of their immigrant parents and grandparents. Among Cabrera Infante’s final projects was a screenplay for “The Lost City,” which the Cuban American actor Andy Garcia has spent 16 years trying to make. Set in Havana during the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the movie is directed by and stars Garcia as one of three brothers whose lives are torn apart by the revolution.

Reached at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Garcia said he became acquainted with Cabrera Infante’s work in the mid-1980s, when he read “Three Trapped Tigers.”

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“It’s an extraordinary book, and not the easiest book in the world,” Garcia said. “But what it did was transport me to the Havana that had obsessed me as a young man.”

The film, which also stars Bill Murray as an unnamed American writer and Dustin Hoffman as the mob boss Meyer Lansky, is in post-production but does not have a distributor, Garcia said.

But Cabrera Infante was able to see a DVD of the film that Garcia sent to him in London a few weeks ago, and said he was pleased with it.

“That’s something I can find some solace in ... ,”

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Garcia said. “It’s going to be hard to have him not be there. He represented so much to us, not only as a writer but as an exile.”

In addition to his wife, Cabrera Infante is survived by Ana and Carola, his daughters from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

A private funeral is being planned.

Cabrera Infante’s Spanish publishing house, Alfaguara, said that the author’s ashes would “be stored and sent to Cuba when that country is free.”

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