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Three Trapped Tigers: A Cautionary Tale

Karren Alenier

In the middle of a convoluted discussion found in Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s comic novel Three Trapped Tigers (Tres Tristes Tigres) about the continuum of life and death that begins its twisting roll with such references to strong men and passwords comes a nod toward Gertrude Stein as Get tru Stem:

& Death is a return to the point of departure, a completing of the circle, a way back to a total future. In other words, to the past, to the past as well. In other words, to eternity. If you like you can add something from T. S. Eliot (Or Tess Elihoo, as he pronounced it), like Time present and time past or that quotation from Gertrude Stein you are so fond of. (Did I tell you it sounded like Get tru Stem?)


Before taking another step, Dear One on the other side of this page, as Cabrera Infante would address you, let the Steiny Road Poet interrupt to explain that this overly stuffed novel, with a running vignette of a woman talking to her shrink, has four main characters. These men—the photographer C贸dac, the actor Arsenio Cu茅, the percussionist Erib贸, and the writer Silvestre—are the trapped (or sad, depending on which language your reading copy is in) tigers. Thus, like Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers where there are four musketeers, we find four artists filling the roles of Three Trapped Tigers.

Steiny probably has missed some other reference to the Mama of Dada that might clear up which quotation by Stein the Cuban author Cabrera Infante might be gesturing toward. This nearly 500-page novel in Spanish set in Havana just prior to its revolution was published in 1965 and translated into English by Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine in 1971. The writing style with its highly evolved word play evokes Stein’s nemesis James Joyce and the Joy(ce) ride accomplished in Ulysses.


Could the Stein quote be the one everyone uses today with impunity: “There is no there there.” Steiny says impunity because most people who quote Stein do not know these words are hers. When, in 1935, Stein hired a car in Southern California to visit the Oakland home in which she spent most of her childhood, she discovered the place had been torn down. Ergo, there was no there there.

Of course, Death (capital D as a location in the cycle of Life) has no substantive locus be it Heaven or Hell. Cabrera Infante says Death is a “point of departure” that completes a circle leading to a “total future.” Stein, as philosophy student of William James often incorporated circles and circular arguments into her oeuvre. As in Stein’s work, substantial meaning can be found in Cabrera Infante’s repetitions. For example: “In other words, to the past, to the past as well”, it would be easy to let this go with the understanding that “as well” just means “also.”  However, “well” could mean a hole of water or, metaphorically, a deep source of creativity. Three Trapped Tigers is a veritable speakeasy rife with such passwords that open realms of intellectual intoxication.

If, Dear Reader, you move from the microscopic to macro view of this novel of voices, much of Three Trapped Tigers claims a source in Gertrude Stein—her always experimenting theater, her cubist points of view, her retelling of the same tale, her contrarian twists, her gaming, her play with numbers, her poetic language, her deconstruction of words that become elemental letters. What Cabrera Infante primarily does differently from Stein is fill his novel with in-your-face literary allusions and mentions of historic and popular events. Notice that he starts with an epigraph from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “…And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out.” What this epigraph points to is the author’s intention to evoke the old Havana of nightclubs and endless parties of sex, drugs, and excesses, but more so, the people who lived in that milieu.

Whatever the “tru Stem” or scaffolding of Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers is, today’s astute reader of Cabrera Infante’s through -the-looking-glass treatise might see a current day connection between Cuba  and the United States of America. Initially, there were Cubans of all financial circumstances who fell in love with Fidel Castro who promised a Utopia for this island nation—a Utopia built on a Soviet Communism, a Utopia which would cleanup the decadence of old Havana and ensure everyone was taken care of. What they have today is poverty and food shortages accented by an undying love of old American cars that they maintain without standard parts from the Mainland. Today in the U.S.A., most Republicans have an unbreakable addiction to Donald J. Trump who has perfected the delivery of crazy talk mixed with a frightening screed of praise for Putin, the bellicose leader of the communist world, and a promise to dismantle the U.S. justice system and its social programs that help with healthcare and financial wellbeing. One last thing, the password for this uncertain time on Earth is power with absolutely no sharing—so much for a comic novel.



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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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