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Lezama Lima, José (1910-1976)  
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Born in Havana, Cuba, on December 19, 1910, José Lezama Lima is a major Latin-American literary figure. Although he received a law degree from the University of Havana in 1938, and indeed practiced law for some time, Lezama's true passion was literature.

Apart from two brief trips--one to Mexico in 1949 and another to Jamaica in 1950--the "immobile traveler," as Lezama identified himself, never left Havana, dedicating himself entirely to writing and exploring the cultures of the world through his readings. Lezama's house at Trocadero 162 was filled with over ten thousand books and was the site of countless literary meetings with young writers who would stop by to engage the maestro in dialogue.

A voracious but undisciplined reader, Lezama, as Emir Rodríguez Monegal observed, "absorbed everything pell-mell, unsystematically, with no clear chronology, ... [giving] him a highly personal, synchronic perspective of Western culture." Lezama's eccentric erudition and extensive range of (mis)readings account for his singular poetic insights, his intoxicating, excessive, and encyclopedic style.

Until the publication of his novel Paradiso (1966), which brought him instant international fame and notoriety, Lezama was primarily known as a poet. In 1937, at the age of twenty-seven, his first poetic composition, Muerte de Narciso (Death of Narcissus), was published.

The linguistic exuberance and ornamental erudition of this long, mythological poem sent shock waves through the Cuban literary establishment. Here was a difficult, yet highly bewitching and extravagant new style of baroque poetry--in the tradition of the great seventeenth-century Spanish baroque master Luis de Góngora--that translated reality into a dense labyrinth of verbal allusions.

Muerte de Narciso provided a radical alternative to the folkloric and politically committed poetry of Nicolás Guillén, who until that time dominated the Cuban literary establishment. Lezama soon became the intellectual leader of a new generation of Cuban writers who were not afraid to assimilate and experiment with new avant-garde theories.

Lezama soon published other collections of poetry and books of essays, all highly provocative with their textured imagery and allegorical symbols. In addition, he founded and edited several important literary journals, among them Orígenes (1944-1956), considered by Latin-American scholars to have been one of the most significant literary magazines of the twentieth century.

For Lezama, literature was the expression of a dynamic and vital search for truth. It was this search for a lost, unitary principle, the process in itself rather than the end result, that motivated him most. His writing is marked by a constant probing of the boundaries of knowledge and artistic expression.


The publication of Paradiso in 1966 marked an important turning point in Lezama's career. Internationally, the novel was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. However, the novel's total lack of political commitment to the Cuban Revolution, as well as its explicit descriptions of male homosexual relations, was met with resistance in Cuba and placed Lezama in a precarious situation.

As early as 1965, the new Cuban socialist regime had been conducting systematic purges of homosexuals whose conduct was considered to be at variance with revolutionary morals.

Forced labor camps under the name of UMAP (an acronym for Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción or Military Units for Aid to Production) were constructed in the province of Camagüey, Cuba, with the purpose of correcting so-called antisocial and deviant behaviors that, according to the government, threatened the creation of a true revolutionary consciousness.

In actuality, the publication of Paradiso encountered numerous obstacles and government censorship before it was finally published in a limited edition of four thousand copies. (In 1968, it was republished simultaneously in larger print runs in Mexico and Argentina; the English translation appeared in 1974.)

It was obviously a question of what type of literature the Cuban state chose to support since the new editorial houses were publishing other novels that clearly reflected a "revolutionary consciousness" in large print runs of fifteen to twenty thousand copies. That Paradiso was published at all is a testament to Lezama's reputation as an important literary figure that the Castro regime could not simply silence altogether if it wanted to preserve any form of credibility internationally.

Paradiso--a vast creative space that combines autobiography, fiction, and poetry in an endless proliferation of language--does not examine the specificity of homosexual desire, but rather homosexuality as part of an aesthetic view of existence. Lezama's novel is a work of pure aestheticism in which the richness of language is the true protagonist.

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José Lezama Lima.
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