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Lezama Lima, José (1910-1976)  
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The task of reading (deciphering) this monumental text, a novel that Rodríguez Monegal calls "the prose equivalent of Lezama's arduous volumes of poetry and criticism," may be too difficult for most readers. The story's constant digressions, ambiguities, conceptual and linguistic exuberance, and general refusal to say anything in a straightforward fashion will surely frustrate the reader who is searching for referential clarity.

Lezama's famous dictum, "Only the difficult is stimulating," sums up his poetic system and should serve as a forewarning of Paradiso's elaborate and complex style. The word's ability to astonish, to dazzle with its acoustic resonances, was what most interested Lezama, who, although venturing into the limitless possibilities of the novel genre, in the end was still a poet.

Nonetheless, beneath Paradiso's marvelous difficulties there are many stories, among them, a Bildungsroman, or novel of education, much in the same tradition as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The first seven chapters of Paradiso take the reader through the family life and childhood experiences of Jose Cemí, Lezama's poetic double. A pampered and sickly child suffering from asthma, Cemí ultimately emerges as the main subject in the novel.

The death of his father, a military officer in the Cuban army and a symbol of masculine rectitude, is the impetus for the young boy's poetical destiny and search for salvation through the "Image" and the poetic word.

As Cemí's mother tells him midway though the novel: "Your father's death was a profound event, I know that my children and I will give it depth while we are alive, because it left me with a dream that one of us would be a witness to our transfiguration in order to fill that absence." This lofty and erudite way of talking is typical of how the characters, be they children, grandmothers, or illiterate servants, express themselves in Paradiso.

The second half of Paradiso (Chapters 8-14) deals with Cemí's adolescence, sexual discovery, and special friendships with Fronesis and Foción. This triangular relationship structures the second half of the novel as a world of ideas in which the three friends engage in endless discussions about the meaning of the universe.

Many critics have seen Cemí, Fronesis, and Foción as aspects of one personality, that is, a composite protagonist. More than corporeality, throughout the novel, Fronesis (whose name in Greek means "prudence") and Foción (who embodies chaos and a lack of reason) appear as dramatic functions or ideological options for the young Cemí who is seeking his vocation and personal destiny. In the end, Cemí synthesizes what he has learned from his friends and is ready to fulfill his artistic vocation.

In Chapter 8, a number of homosexual interludes are explicitly described that lead Cemí, Fronesis, and Foción to engage in lengthy philosophical discussions about the nature and origin of homosexuality in Chapters 9 and 10. These chapters, as well as the role that Fronesis and Foción play in the novel, have elicited varied interpretations among critics.

Some scholars (Gustavo Pellón and Enrique Lihn, among others) believe that Lezama assigns a negative value to homosexuality, associating it with madness, the loss of reason, sterility, and a dangerous detour faced by Cemí in his years of poetic apprenticeship.

Other critics see the frank discussions of homosexuality more positively: Gustavo Pérez Firmat postulates that Cemí's spiritual development entails a concomitant affirmation of his homosexuality, whereas Emilio Bejel sees homosexuality in Paradiso as an emblem of poetry, a creative surplus that goes beyond the permitted limits.

Regardless of the different interpretations that have been posited, on a simple plot level the reader cannot help reacting to what happens to the characters at the end of Paradiso: Foción, openly homosexual, goes mad as a result of his frustrated desire for Fronesis; Fronesis is sent to Paris by his father to protect him from Foción's homosexual advances; and Cemí, who rises above the carnal trappings of the flesh, manages to maintain his reason and equilibrium and can finally begin to write (the novel ends with the words "now we can begin").

Oppiano Licario

Prior to his death on August 9, 1976, Lezama had been working on another novel that was to have been the continuation and culmination of Paradiso. The unfinished manuscript was published posthumously in 1977 under the title Oppiano Licario. (The title refers to a character who appears in both Paradiso and Oppiano Licario as Cemí's spiritual guide and protector.)

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