Roberto G. Fernández, the Prince and the Cuban Beauty
The twenty-first century, up to now, has been crucial for Latino Literature. The second decade of the century, which is not over yet, has become the timeframe of the New Latino Boom, as I like to call it. The editorial world focused on Latino literature in the United States has expanded and, therefore, we have seen a rise in the publication of works written in Spanish. We already know the cases of Suburbano Ediciones, Sudaquia Editores, and Ars Communis, publishing houses that thrive on Spanish-language literature written in the United States. We find ourselves faced with young adults at the peak of their narrative production; authors who might be new to United States audiences but who have a solid trajectory established in other countries, or writers who have started writing and publishing in the United States and in Spanish. We can even identify a series of meeting points to chat, drink coffee, present new works, and participate in salons and conversations. For example, in the specific case of Miami, places like the Books and Books bookstore and, more recently, Altamira Books, the Koubek Center of Miami Dade College, and the Spanish-language section of the Miami Book Fair International, among other spots, are giving the city an infrastructure to help develop literary and artistic exchange in Spanish.
Given all of this, it is interesting to consider the careers of authors who are well established within Latino literature, such as Roberto G. Fernández. His latest novel, El Príncipe y la bella cubana: Los amores de don Alfonso de Borbón y Battenberg y doña Edelmira Sampedro y Robato [The prince and the Cuban beauty: the loves of Lord Alfonso de Borbón y Battenberg and Lady Edelmira Sampedro y Robato], published by Editorial Verbum in 2014, was written in Spanish, save for a few instances of English and French accenting the passage of certain characters through different countries. Nevertheless, as Efraín Barradas suggests, “Fernández is a very special case because he’s a chameleon-like writer, since, although some of his pieces are written in English [...] and must be read as part of the Cuban-American canon, others don’t fit so easily into that context.” I propose to observe elements such as the language of the novel, the place of publication, and the fact that Fernández breaks with his literary tradition by writing about historical characters while simultaneously fictionalizing said characters, consciously distorts history, and even incorporates key characters from his previous canonical novels, in order to identify the effect this may have within studies of Latino Literature.
Roberto G. Fernández is a major figure in this field. His book Raining Backwards (1988) is one of the iconic novels of Cuban-American literature. The nostalgia and memory of the Cuban-Miamian subject are key elements of this work, just as in others from the same author that follow their example. Fernández has also been characterized by his impeccable mastery of the simultaneous use of English and Spanish. Phenomena like code-switching and linguistic calques are common in his work and have been objects of study. On the other hand, this Cuban-American author has also become famous thanks to the parody, exaggeration, and heteroglosia that stand out in his texts. For these reasons, I think it is essential to undertake a detailed reading of his latest novel, El Príncipe y la bella cubana.
When I interviewed the author, I asked him why had had decided to write this novel predominantly in Spanish and if he had plans to publish an English-language version. He responded: “I thought that, because of the subject, it should be written in Spanish. I don’t think the subject would interest an English-language reader.” For Fernández, there is a direct relationship between the subject of a novel and the language in which it is written. Similarly, he claims he first wrote the novel and then thought about the publication process, deciding due to the subject to send it to Spain instead of seeking publication in the United States.
The question of the nationality of a text is fascinating. We have already heard talk of what defines nationality in a literary work: the language in which it is written, the place of publication, and/or the subject. This becomes more complex when referring to Latino Literature. Even more so given the understanding that writers, like all human beings, are formed from diverse experiences and evolve or transform over the course of their lives. This means we have to add another factor: the trajectory or publishing history of the author. As Jorge Febles indicates, “the entire body of work of the Cuban-American writer Roberto G. Fernández is built upon an inversive, carnavalesque itching to humorously demystify a community: the community that has formed in Miami after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.” That is, although the discourse present in Fernández’s works has been very versatile, the subject of his works has always been centered on the reality of Miami as the receiving city of an immense diaspora from Cuba and Latin America in general, and on the nostalgia for this Cuba to which many characters cannot return. Faced with El Príncipe y la bella cubana, we might ask how the author has turned a corner and knocked on the door of a subgenre: the historical novel. When I asked Fernández about the process of choosing the romantic relationship between Edelmira Sampedro and Alfonso de Borbón as the main subject of his novel, he told me he had always heard of their infatuation since Edelmira was from the same town as him (Sagua, Cuba), and that later in Miami he had seen Alfonso’s tomb at Woodlawn. He also commented that, in his research, he had made use of the Internet as a tool to collect information; he read about the marriage of Alfonso XIII and Ena Battenberg (Alfonso’s parents) in several history books on the monarchy, and he found videos on their marriage and a short interview the couple gave. Based on this research, we can corroborate the historical information in the novel. I’ll share a brief description offered by Barradas to help locate the plot in time and space:
Edelmira Sampedro y Robato (1906-1994) was the daughter of Luciano Sampedro and Edelmira Robato. [...] Her father was one of the magnates of the Cuban sugar industry and, therefore, he was able to send her to Lausanne, Switzerland, where she was treated by a specialist due to fears that she suffered from tuberculosis. She lived there for a short time with her mother and her younger sister, and there she met Alfonso de Borbón y Battenberg (1907-1938), Prince of Asturias and heir to the Spanish throne, who, exiled after the declaration of the Second Republic in 1931, was also undergoing treatment in Switzerland for his haemophilia. They fell in love, they were married against the wishes of the Spanish royal family, they briefly passed through Paris and New York, and they ended up in Cuba, where they suddenly separated and divorced. [...] After the divorce, Alfonso married another Cuban woman, Marta Esther Rocafort (1913-1993), whom he also divorced after a few months. Not long after, the prince died due to internal bleeding caused by a car accident that took place in Miami, where he was buried and where his body remained until 1985, when it was re-interred with military honors in the Pantheon of the Princes of El Escorial.
Fernández’s novel deals with Edelmira’s journey, their first meeting and her love affair with Alfonso, their marriage, and their divorce. However, the story doesn’t end there. Af first sight, based on the title, the cover, and the book’s first chapters, it could be categorized as a conventional historical novel. Isabel Álvarez-Borland, a researcher of Cuban-American literature, emphasizes this aspect: “Fernández’s novel enters into the Cuban postcolonial era in order to detail and celebrate customs that establish the island’s singular identity at the same time as the author highlights other shared ways that connect the island to postcolonial Europe.” Beyond the novel’s language, its linguistic style is what corresponds to the type of narrative that Álvarez-Borland describes; a narration full of descriptions of environments, attire, and images that space out the moments of action in the plot. In the first part of the novel, the reader finds passages like this one:
My sister had put on her chulapa and I my bata habanera with the waist well cinched and petticoats well secured, ending in a spectacular train. Then mamá wanted to make adjustments to the neckline, but my sister dissuaded her. I accented the dress with a hibiscus I had cut from a vase in the dining room and not with the silk orchid my mamá would have liked.
Nonetheless, the second part of the novel, and especially the final chapters, take a turn and establish a dialogue with the author’s previous novels, marked by Miamian subjects. The language stays the same, but the linguistic style changes, becoming less romantic and more satirical. Humor and a component of noir come into play as well. In the same way, Mirta Vergara and Barbarita, iconic characters from previous stories written by Fernández, appear in the last part of the novel and interact with Edelmira. For example, when Edelmira meets Mirta, she scorns her just as she scorns all those who live in the neighborhood where, unfortunately–according to her–she has been forced to live. In Edelmira’s estimation, the inhabitants of little Havana will never reach her level:
“Look, that’s Mirta, the new neighbor who moved in yesterday.”
“Mirta María Vergara, nice to meet you,” said the woman, dressed in a trousseau inappropriate for her age with her head crowned with curlers.
“Nice to meet you,” I said out of obligation, sticking my hand in my bag but not finding the key, which was lost down some rabbit hole.
“Mirta is from Morón.”
“What! You’re wrong, sweetie. I’m from Varadero, Varadero Beach.”
The same thing happens with Barbarita. Edelmira feels scorn for her but, due to her manners, treats her courteously. Barbarita does not only enter into the plot and the romantic narrative that the author had established in the first part of the book; she also interferes and meddles in the life of Edelmira, in the life of the real person, the person who tells us of her life with Alfonso. Barbarita interferes in the production of the historical information and twists the results that we await as readers. Edelmira’s role as the narrator, in first person, is what keeps the readers connected to the “truth,” to history. When observing dialogues between these characters, the readers perhaps doubt the authenticity of the story, but they continue to trust in Edelmira as the bearer of true information.
Fernández does not divorce himself completely from the parodic discourse that has characterized his work in the past; instead he incorporates narrative resources he has used before, and this is why the reader comes across passages like the following, in which, while we hear a harmonious linguistic style full of refinement from Edelmira, it is now entwined with the Caribbean-Miamian linguistic style that characterizes the characters of Fernández’s previous novels:
The day after that disconcerting experience in the Pepe-Grocery-Bar, I girded my loins to meet with Martin Munro, who I supposed would be working, and I walked to the store in spite of the threatening lead colored sky.
“Well, less at the end, when the drunk bastard fucked it up as always. Oh, sorry for cursing, sweetheart. The thing is I’m desperate, doing it all myself because the old Turk hasn’t turned up yet. You know anyone in your building who could come lend a hand? I’ll give ‘em ten dollars and a free lunch.”
“I know very few people in the building. We don’t mingle. What time do you expect your assistant to arrive?”
Nevertheless, it is precisely through Edelmira, through this instrument that provides Fernández with his new historical novel, that the author maintains the relationship with his previous literary production. Fernández sets about the elaboration of a historical novel based on totally verifiable facts, which is far from conventional. In this way, the author succeeds in establishing said distance and and in differentiating himself from other authors like Mario Vargas Llosa.
Fernández fills in the gaps left in the historical documentation of a relationship of noble lineage, a little fleeting and very stormy. As he weaves together the verifiable facts with the fictionalized ones, the author gives his readers a succulent work in which the real as much as the invented are presented as realistic aspects of the life of the Prince and the Cuban beauty. Based only on his narrative technique, it is difficult to discern between what is true and what is created. The reader, if they want to distinguish this difference, must make use of certain tools in order to undertake such research. In this sense, it is fitting to pay attention to what Fernando Aínsa notes in his article “Nueva novela histórica y revitalización transdisciplinaria del saber histórico” [The new historical novel and the transdisciplinary revitalization of historical knowledge]:
By “critically” rereading history, literature is able to put forth, with frankness and critical sense, that which history with scientific pretensions does not want to or cannot put forth. Narrative even reaches the point of ‘making up for the wide deficiencies of a traditional, conservative, and prejudiced historiography, for which problems are always minor and never cease to be local,’ giving voice to that which history has denied, silenced, or persecuted.”
Perhaps due to the briefness of their marriage, perhaps due to Alfonso’s illness and his incapacity to reach the throne, perhaps due to his early death, perhaps due to Edelmira’s reluctance to give interviews after Alfonso’s passing, perhaps for other reasons of which we are unaware; the fact is that there is not a great deal of documentation of the life of Edelmira, the Condesa de Covadonga, after the divorce. She lived an isolated and quiet life, never marrying again, and she maintained a courteous relationship with the royal family. She was seen going to the airport in Miami when the remains of her deceased husband were moved to Spain in 1985. For this reason, in the specific case of El Príncipe y la bella cubana, we cannot confirm that the inclusion of non-verifiable details is the result of the author’s desire to bring denied or silenced information to light; to date, for example, there is no legal, journalistic, or historical information indicating that Edelmira had a child with Alfonso. Nonetheless, in Fernández’s novel we meet Pío, the fruit of their failed marriage.
Pío’s character is very interesting. Or, better still, Pío’s arrival in the world is very interesting. Out of fear that her son will be assasinated as the unwanted heir to the throne, Edelmira, in the novel, decides to give birth in hiding and to give away her newborn.
“Don’t you want to give him a kiss?” Yamilé asked me with the child in her arms.
“Yes, yes,” were the only words I exchanged with her.
I kissed him, but without spilling a single tear. My actions had saved my son’s life. That was what mattered.
With all the information about the lives of the characters we observe in this work, whose fictitious details are intertwined with the true plot of the royal couple, this novel becomes a link between what happened and what could have happened as a consequence. This novel fills in the spaces that have remained empty, the spaces that that audience imagines and wants to visit. With this in mind, I asked Fernández why he included the figure of Pío Cristiano in the plot and what intention he had in creating and introducing this character in the story of the real characters of Edelmira and Alfonso. He responded: “It would be more interesting if they had had a child, who would be the true heir to the throne, and what’s more it lends to the noir twist of the final chapters. This novel is history interwoven with lies. You could call it the historical lie, if you like. The lie has to sound historical, and when it doesn’t, it becomes the humorous lie.”
And so, is Roberto G. Fernández still a Cuban-American writer? Of course. Could writing in Spanish banish him from the field of Latino Lit? Absolutely. Do the subject, the language, and the place of publication help this novel enter other currents of readers and critics? Definitely. Will we continue to see changes in the meaning of the field we call Latino Lit? Surely. In the words of the author himself during an interview granted to Gabriela Pérez, in which he refers to Jorge Fornet’s idea of necessity, of drawing a new Latin American literary map, we read:
The world is in contact flux, in constant migration and displacement in all directions. As a result, a writer can live in one place and narrate about circumstances totally foreign to the place where he resides, and still participate in and be a part of that community, which in turn will influence his narrative on his other reality, “the other” place, which at times could become a hyper-reality. Fluidity is the key to our interconnected world.
To close my argument, I should say that Roberto G. Fernández is indeed a chameleon-like writer, not only in his use of languages but also in his capacity to enter and/or parody different literary subgenres. Writing a work that aims to be categorized as representative of the new historical novel gives Roberto G. Fernández the possibility to: explore subjects other than Cuban-Miamian reality without totally disconnecting from it; publish through a press that addresses other audiences; enter into dialogue with Latin American and Spanish writers; and continue to form part of the canon of Latino Literature without ceasing to engage in a conversation with Cuban, Spanish, and Latin American literature as a whole.
Worcester State University
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Naida Saavedra is a writer of fiction, literary critic, and professor. She is the author of Vos no viste que no lloré por vos (2009), Hábitat (2013), Última inocencia (2013), En esta tierra maldita (2013), and Vestier y otras miserias (2015). Her short stories have been published in different anthologies and magazines such as El BeiSMan, ViceVersa, and Digo.Palabra.TxT. Saavedra holds a PhD in Latin American Literature from Florida State University and does research on Latina/o Literature. Currently, she is documenting the New Latino Boom, the 21st century literary movement in Spanish from the United States. She is presently writing an essay book about this movement, which will be published in 2019. Saavedra lives in Massachusetts, and is a professor at Worcester State University.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.