Guillermina De Ferrari
Reading without habits: a Caribbean
contribution to World Literature
A curious “cosmopolitan moment”took place during the European maritime
expansion that brought us the colonization of the Americas and the Middle
Passage. Paul Gilroy notes in The Black Atlantic that ships brought not only sla-
ves to the Caribbean, but also subversive books. The circulation of books out-
side their context of origin –which is, in a nutshell, World Literature’s object of
study –played an essential role in shaping knowledge and politics in the New
World, contributing to the region’s distinctive cultural hybridity, as well as for-
ming the basis of its social resistance.
In this essay, I discuss cosmopolitan
reading in five Caribbean novels: Alejo Carpentier’sExplosion in a Cathedral
(1962), Leonardo Padura’sLa neblina del ayer (2005) and Herejes (2013), Marlon
James’The Book of Night Women (2009), and Mayra Montero’sIn the Palm of
Darkness (1995). I focus on “bad”reading (interrupted reading, misreading,
nonreading) as a way to interrogate how the operation of imagining the other
results in opacity rather than insight. I ultimately explore what this means in
terms of both Caribbean culture and the paradigm we call World Literature.
Reconciling two different yet complementary notions –Mariano Siskind’s
“desire for the world”, and Ulrich Beck’s“global risk society”–I suggest that
we read literature produced in cultures and languages other than our own in
part because it articulates urges, desires, and concerns that we share, but that
our own imagination and creative processes may have not yet captured. In
Cosmopolitan Desires, Siskind coins the phrase “a desire for the world”to name
the elusive aspiration of Latin American writers to attain both modernity and
universality. Siskind defines the world as a “necessary fantasy”that mediates
both ethically and aesthetically between the marginality of the Latin American
writer and an imagined universal literary community. Siskind’s book also dis-
cusses key aesthetic moments in Latin American letters in which this “desire
for the world”becomes more palpable, such as modernismo and magical real-
ism. In turn, Ulrich Beck’s“world risk society”discusses “cosmopolitan mo-
ments”in which a shared anticipation of catastrophe, either real or perceived,
steers human beings to “lend meaning to their lives through exchanges with
1For a detailed discussion on the theory of World Literature and Latin America, see De Ferrari
Open Access. © 2019 Guillermina De Ferrari, published by De Gruyter. This work is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.
others and no longer in encounters with people like themselves”(Beck 2009: 15).
By combining the complementary notions of desire of the world (Siskind) and
global risk (Beck), I want to shift the emphasis from geography to history, for
I believe that we are citizens of our times more than citizens of our nations. In
my discussion, I hope to show that an important reason we read across langua-
ges and borders is to make sense of the uncertainties posed by impending
change, to perceive and interpret shared risks, and to imagine opportunities of
survival together with a community of strangers.
I analyze here five novels that correspond to three “cosmopolitan mo-
ments”: the end of the divine right of kings and the birth of the modern state in
the French Revolution; the fall of the Soviet bloc and a variation on what
Francis Fukuyama calls “the end of history”; and Bill McKibben’s“the end of
nature”to refer to the stage of the Anthropocene in which we live today. With
these moments in mind, I examine how books, ideas and even revolutions
travel from their place of origin into the Caribbean and help shape knowledge
in the postcolonial world. I suggest that misunderstanding and misappropria-
tion, which are constitutive aspects of Caribbean modernity, are also inherent
in World Literature. This is no accident: the DNA of the modern Caribbean is
cosmopolitan. I will analyze Caribbean literature to explore the counterintuitive
argument that imperfect reading is a productive aspect of the World Literature
To state the obvious, World Literature, a human activity, cannot be extri-
cated from other social relations. Therefore, reading badly is not necessarily
programmatic, but rather a symptom and an extension of our complex human
entanglements. Members of the human community are imbricated with one an-
other as well as with place and history in a way that justifies an aesthetic, intel-
lectual, and affective dialogue that is, I suggest, only fully possible when
embracing its ahistorical imperfection. This is not to say that humans always
manage to understand one another across linguistic and cultural barriers.
World Literature engages ambiguously and fallibly with the opacity of the
other, to use Édouard Glissant’s term (Glissant 1997: 190), often using the other
as a scene of projection (see Aching 2012).
This essay engages with World Literature as a form of reading otherwise,by
which I mean reading with the awareness that reading the other produces com-
promised knowledge. I focus on different instances of the transplanted book in
an arbitrary array of Caribbean novels to suggest that reading well, or even
reading at all, is not required for literature to travel –not even for it to travel
“well”. Rather, I argue, what matters most is why a reader reaches out for spe-
cific books, suggesting perhaps that certain times call for certain stories.
Ultimately, I suggest that the individual quest for (dislocated) meaning leads to
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 153
a consistent, almost predictable form of misreading. I borrow a term from eco-
criticism to ultimately suggest that World Literature misreads the specific while
it works, and often works best, at the level of the species.
Alejo Carpentier’s unpacked boxes
Because some novels anticipate theory, I see Carpentier’s 1962 novel El siglo de
las luces as a ship in a bottle; that is, a scale model to understand the practices
and processes that one may call Caribbean World Literature. The novel is about
revolution and disenchantment. Whereas the idea of the French Revolution is
strategically staged in the novel through the death of the tyrant father –an ab-
solutist king figure –, the historical French Revolution is at first concealed in
plain sight, as the news in a Cuban newspaper is smaller than a guitar store
advertisement. Revolutionary passion and disenchantment steer Carpentier’sEl
siglo de las luces, a bildungsroman that follows two Cuban characters from
youth to maturity in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first de-
cade of the nineteenth-century. As the characters mature politically and philo-
sophically, they travel from Havana to Port-au-Prince to Paris, then to
Guadeloupe and Cayenne, back to Havana, and finally to Madrid. Set during
the age of Enlightenment, or “el siglo de las luces”, as it is known in Spanish,
the novel marvels at scientific progress, revolutionary ideas, and new philoso-
phies. I will briefly focus on three interconnected instances of cultural travel:
cultural artefacts (in the form of scientific instruments and books), the act of
mis/reading, and translation.
El siglo de las luces begins with the death of the father, a wealthy merchant
in eighteenth century Cuba.
His death brings liberation to Esteban, Sofía, and
Carlos, the three adolescents in the house, who close their Havana home to ac-
quaintances and strangers and embrace a life of creative chaos. They order
fancy products from overseas, including a very sophisticated physics set and
a harp, which they never completely unpack.
The partially opened boxes are
stacked in various piles that create new topographies (prairies, mountains)
which the children climb and where they lounge as they read natural history
books, Greek tragedy, and science fiction novels. The boxes contain scientific
2This reading of El siglo de las luces is partly based on my article “Las palabras y las cosas”
(De Ferrari 2005).
3The physics set includes “telescopios, balanzas hidrostáticas, trozos de ámbar, brújulas,
imanes, tornillos de Arquímedes, modelos de cabrias, tubos comunicantes [etc.]”(Carpentier
2001 : 29).
154 Guillermina De Ferrari
and musical instruments that remain disassembled and unused, like a closed
box containing the harp that produces occasional musical notes when a string
breaks due to the tropical heat. The few that have been unpacked are ostensibly
misused: the hydrostatic scale weighs the cats, and a telescope helps them spy
on neighbors. These objects fail to serve the purpose they were built for –that
is, until the arrival of Victor Hugues, a French merchant and franc mason baker
who will later become the Robespierre of the colonies. Hugues joins the adoles-
cents in their games and eventually brings order to the house by unpacking
and assembling the objects.
The novel offers an implicit theory of how objects
and knowledge travel: the kids desire the instruments for what they do, but the
objects cannot perform their original functions until the French man supplies
context, technical knowledge, and discipline. At the same time, however, the
children’s appropriation is partly creative. The children’s use of these instru-
ments of knowledge remains outside the objects’original economies.
Their creative neglect of the objects’purposes is further illuminated by way
of contrast with the guillotine. The guillotine travels from France to
Guadeloupe along with the printing press and copies of the decree of abolition.
The guillotine comes in a box but is promptly assembled by carpenters and pla-
ced on the deck of the ship, where it is covered to protect it from the salty air.
Carpentier’s guillotine is both instrument and symbol –the novel even compa-
res it to a theorem –and yet is destined to lose its conceptual purity in the tro-
pics. When, following a few months of “proper”use, the guillotine is taken on
the road in Guadeloupe, it is used not to chop off dissenting heads, but to cut
sugar cane or a hand of bananas for the amusement of locals. So, when objects
are used by Europeans, they are put to work properly (by this I don’t mean put
to a “good”or a “bad”use, but to a correct one). However, when used by locals,
the objects quickly slide out of their semantic field and become generic tools
that can be used for a variety of purposes: the guillotine becomes a powerful
While in France, Esteban is charged with the translation of French docu-
ments such as Les Droits de lʼhomme et du citoyen, as well as speeches and pro-
paganda into Spanish. As he ardently believes in the importance of that
political moment, he is both a cultural agent and an activist. At first, he is sin-
cerely devoted to the mission of bringing the Revolution to Spain, but as he
sees the terror that ensues in France, his work is reduced to mere professional
4I would like to note the contrast here between the foreign instruments that are technically
unused and useless as they are, and the ultramarinos shop they own and is housed on the
other side of the wall, which sells useful things.
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 155
zeal. He just likes to find the right word with no regard to the translation’s ulti-
mate purpose. His mission has become an aesthetic, not an ideological, one.
However, his translations travel across the ocean and move the excited minds
of the young –like Carlos, now a bourgeois revolutionary, and Sofía who, eight
years later, feeds Esteban his own translations in her efforts to convert him to
the revolutionary cause. This is destined to fail. The problem is that Esteban,
now at the receiving end of his own words, knows too much to take them at
face value. So, while the novel illustrates Esteban’s disenchantment with revo-
lutionary process (a reading that has led Carpentier to swear that the 1962
novel was written before the Cuban Revolution, to avoid unwelcome analogies),
it also suggests that reading may be more productive when encountered from
a certain position of ignorance.
If reading is reading oneself, even one’s old reading is technically
a misreading. Young Esteban passionately read and profusely marked
Rousseau’sThe Social Contract in his adolescence, leaving marginalia in 1790
that becomes evidence against him in 1800 when he is arrested in colonial
Cuba for his revolutionary ideas. Esteban no longer believes in the Revolution
at that time, but that doesn’t prevent the Spanish authorities from sending him
to a prison in Ceuta where he spends the next seven years. The epilogue places
Esteban and his cousin Sofía in Madrid during the Napoleonic invasion of 1808,
where they join the resistance and disappear without a trace. We find out that
after Ceuta, Esteban had only been interested in romantic literature (a sign of
a deep change in the times and in his spirit). The material trace of his reading
appears in a book, Chateaubriand’sLe Genie du Christianisme, in the wrong
place. The presence of this book, his book with his marginalia, in Sofía’s bed-
room, suggest that Sofía and Esteban were lovers. It is interesting that whereas
an enlightened text creates a false reality, an anti-enlightenment and proto-
Romantic text offers a glimpse at the truth. The physical traces of reading can
as easily provide a deceitful confession as a truthful one. Similarly, Sofía who
has technically misread the French Revolution, stays true to the larger –one
may say generic –concept of revolution; for it is Sofía who moves Esteban into
action, any action, because doing nothing is not an option.
The difference between Esteban and Sofía’s political reading lies in the in-
side knowledge that Esteban has (and that Sofía lacks). While Sofía reads the
lines, Esteban reads between the lines. Or, to put it differently, Esteban unders-
tands the “metarules”of the French Revolution.
In Virtue and Terror, Slavoj Žižek explains the French Revolution’s hidden
rules, and the new habits that determine what kinds of behavior constitute ap-
156 Guillermina De Ferrari
Every legal order [...] has to rely on a complex reflexive network of informal rules which
tells us how are we to relate to the explicit norms, how are we to apply them: to what
extent are we to take them literally, how and when are we allowed, solicited even, to dis-
regard them, etc. –and this is the domain of habit. To know a society is to know the meta-
rules of how to apply its explicit norms: when to use them or not use them; when to violate
them; when not to use a choice which is offered; when we are effectively obliged to do
something, but have to pretend that we are doing it as a free choice. (Žižek 2007: xviii)
And pondering about those “choices that are offered to us on condition that we
make the right choice”,Žižek offers a theory of greatness: “Measured against
this background, revolutionary-egalitarian figures from Robespierre to John
Brown are (potentially, at least) figures without habits: they refuse to take into
account the habits that qualify the functioning of a universal rule”(Žižek 2007:
xix; emphasis in the original).
Esteban is a disenchanted reader on account of his in situ experience.
When he reads the revolutionary essays, ideas and manifestos, he knows when
to read between the lines, what not to take literally, and what to ignore. He has
acquired the habits of the revolutionary order of things. These metarules are
not immediately available to a decontextualized reader like Sofía. What
Esteban’s knowledge of the metarules does for his reading of philosophical
texts is similar to what Victor Hugues’knowledge of how the mechanisms of
the instruments in the boxes work, and of the adulterated books in the family
business, enables him to do. Victor Hugues’experience as a store owner allows
him to see what was hidden between the lines, and save the children from
being robbed by their legal guardian. However, as a statesman Hugues refuses
to obey orders from France once the Revolution reverses course. It is his selec-
tive neglect of the metarules what makes him the Robespierre of the Caribbean.
The biggest unpacked box in Carpentier’s novel is the Haitian Revolution.
The Haitian Revolution –“an extension of the European revolution”
–is in no
small part the result of a literal reading of Les Droits de l’homme et du citoyen,
5Susan Buck-Morss (2009: 37). Buck-Morss’essay also traces the story of a misreading. Buck-
Morss wrote it as she wondered why Hegel would bring up the slave and the master in
a conversation about civil society in Europe. Buck-Morss suggests that the origin of Hegel’s
master and slave dialectic may have originated not out of his dialogue with other European
philosophers but out of the fact that Haiti was front-page news on a daily basis. The essay
even proves that, until Buck-Morss pointed this out, Europeans were productively misreading
Hegel. What is at stake in the proper contextualization of Hegel in relation to Haiti, states
Buck-Morss, is “the recognition of freedom as a human”or, rather, universal “aspiration”
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 157
the key text that Esteban translates into Spanish in Carpentier’s novel. Susan
Buck-Morss suggests that
For almost a decade, before the violent elimination of whites signaled their deliberate re-
treat from universalist principles, the black Jacobins of Saint-Domingue surpassed the
metropole in actively realizing the Enlightenment goal of human liberty, seeming to give
proof that the French Revolution was not simply a European phenomenon but world-
historical in its implications. (Buck-Morss 2009: 39)
One could say that it was ignorance of the metarules –not understanding that
the proposed equality was meant to be limited to white French men –, that faci-
litates a literal, perhaps incomplete, yet liberating reading of the French
Revolution. This is essential to an understanding of the (disavowed) Caribbean
modernity that largely stems from the inherent contradictions between the so-
called universal project of the enlightenment and the particulars of a race that
had to negotiate their humanity in every sphere of life, contradictions that were
not immediately recognized in the Saint Domingue of eighteenth century.
The unopened boxes function as a microcosm of Caribbean modernity, in
which texts, concepts and Revolutions are often unpacked only partially and
with unexpected semantic malleability. By reflecting on the way instruments
and concepts travel and behave in the Caribbean at the onset of European mo-
dernity, Carpentier’s novel proposes a theory of a cosmopolitan periphery. The
novel’s extensive travel and engagement with European political philosophy re-
veals a deeply Caribbean “desire for the world”. Such cosmopolitanism is best
illustrated by Carpentier’s two aesthetic projects: marvelous realism –
Carpentier’s name for what he understands is the Caribbean’s inherent surreal-
ism –and the Neo-Baroque. The Neo-Baroque, defined by Severo Sarduy as
a combination of excess, proliferation, and semantic displacements, is itself
a misappropriation of a European aesthetics taken out of context. This is partly
how Carpentier’s novel helps advance an analogy between Caribbean culture
and World Literature since, I suggest, a certain degree of misunderstanding
makes World Literature not only possible but also desirable.
6See Sibylle Fischer’sModernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of
158 Guillermina De Ferrari
Marlon James’s impolite book
Books are read in Marlon James’sThe Book of Night Women, and the reader is
a slave girl named Lilith. She is a secret reader: nobody knows she can read,
and she must hide while reading. She is what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “an
impolite learner”: her reading is not part of a deliberate effort to shape her char-
acter, but rather helps make evident the inhumane fiction that inequality was
part of a “‘natural’order of things”(Gates 1988: 52). Stealing time from sleep,
she hides to devour Henry Fielding’sJoseph Andrews. The risk and the impor-
tance of reading for Lilith is hard to put into words. If found, she might be phys-
ically punished by people who would not only disapprove of the entitlement
behind the practice, but will also assume she is unable to understand the com-
plexities of “civilized”–that is, British –novels and characters. However, pun-
ishment is what has put her in front of Fielding’s book in the first place.
Lilith finds Fielding’s novel when cleaning the library at Coulibre, the plan-
tation where she has been sent for “training”after she accidentally splashed
a guest’s chaperone with scalding soup during a dinner party.
The ghost of the
Haitian Revolution looms over Jamaica, and the master’s fear requires harsh
discipline. Exile at Coulibre is the last one in a series of cruel punishments fol-
lowing the soup incident: Lilith was first hit in the face and body, then gang
raped, then whipped, and finally taken to the new plantation to learn proper
slave manners –or, in other words, to learn to show obedience in the face of
any degree of injustice. In her new temporary home, Lilith befriends
Dulcimena, who works in the kitchen slave and is the master’s reluctant concu-
bine, who has proven to have a sunny spirit even while enduring unspeakable
tragedies. It is soon after the mistress of the house tortures and kills Dulcimena
out of jealousy that Lilith finds Joseph Andrews in the library.
Her act of reading is illuminated by Henry Louis Gates’essay “James
Gronnoiosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book”, which suggests that partici-
pation in literary culture became the only way “to demonstrate individual mem-
bership in the human community”in the plantation context (Gates 1988: 52).
Reading Fielding’s novel gives Lilith a glimpse of what humanity not bound by
the plantation’s inhumane rules would be like. She sees the protagonist as
a charming man: “There be only one man, one soul, that can make her laugh
and he be neither black nor real”(James 2009: 206). It is of course paradoxical
that only a fictional human being makes the slave girl feel human. Reading has
7I should clarify that Lilith recognizes the book. She was already acquainted with before
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 159
allowed her to create an imaginary society of equals. Such is the humanizing
quality of literature: in the interaction between herself and a fictional human
being, she sees herself as truly human. It is a devotion akin to love, “She need
him every night. After working through a page, she would wipe away tears
from laughing quiet-like and feel her face. The soft skin would surprise her”
(James 2009: 207). Lilith becomes aware of her skin not in terms of color (with
its assigned social and legal implications), but as the site of potential tender-
ness, of feeling loved. The book “talks”to her, draws her in, makes her feel like
a person. In forgetting her life through reading, she is more her own self than
However, the reality of the plantation interrupts. The more she is whipped,
or sees others being whipped, the less comfort she finds in the book. Dignity
and equality dissipate, giving way to a feeling of personal betrayal: “Joseph
Andrews lying to her, making her wish for a place and time that never going’
come”. She holds the protagonist Joseph Andrews personally accountable: he is
lying to her. Fully claiming her racialized self, she becomes aware of being not
just a reader, but a deceived reader. She bitterly concludes “Nothing in this
book a nigger can use”
(James 2009: 220). Lilith has become a disenchanted
reader not just of Fielding’s novel, but of the indifference of the great European
novel to the scandal of slavery. Fielding’s has become an impolite book that
fails to include her.
The novel is a creative medium that facilitates the imagining of lives other
than our own. As such it requires, in principle, that the reader forgets herself.
However, Lilith, who reads to forget her reality and attend to her soul, has be-
come aware of the awareness of her own erasure. Acting as a distorted mirror,
literature had shown her infinite possibilities. She had believed herself to be in
full possession of her human attributes. By contrast, reality has taught her the
dehumanizing dimension of her oppression. Lilith has understood the existence
of the hidden rules of social interaction and assumptions –the “metarules”–
in the novel. As in the case of Esteban, it is reading well that makes her stop.
Leonardo Padura’s closed books
Leonardo Padura is by far the most widely read living Cuban author. His no-
vels, which have been translated to more than a dozen languages, often talk
8Henry Louis Gates, Jr. bases his essay on resistance in antislavery literature on the resis-
tance of the indigenous population via Guaman Poma’s“paños que hablan”.
160 Guillermina De Ferrari
about books. Those books are sought, bought and sold, and often worshipped,
but they are rarely read or even opened. Padura’s recurrent protagonist Mario
Conde, a policeman and frustrated writer in the first four novels of the series
Las cuatro estaciones, leaves the force and becomes a second-hand bookseller
and a private detective in a place with, technically, no private sector.
In La neblina del ayer, Conde finds a gem of a library in the once-elegant El
Vedado neighborhood. In it, he finds bibliographic treasures that have remained
untouched for forty years, including nineteenth-century Cuban editions of
European classics, like a first Cuban edition of Voltaire’sCandide.Healsofinds
“inconceivable delicacies of creole bibliography that he was seeing and touching
for the first time”
(Padura 2005: 67–68). He finds a natural history book by
Ramón de la Sagra that includes 158 hand-colored engravings among many other
books that look and feel very expensive. The price of each of these books is
around ten thousand American dollars: if only one were to be sold, that sum
would allow the library’s owners and Conde to support themselves for years.
However, as he goes through the shelves, Conde puts the most valuable Cuban
books –“Aquellas delicatessen”(Padura 2005: 76) –in the unsellable pile: only
foreigners can pay that amount of money, but Padura is adamant that national
treasures should remain on the island. In his search for sellable yet valuable
books, he finds a cookbook and in it a forty-year old newspaper clipping about
the suspicious suicide of a bolero singer whose mysterious death will structure
the detective part of the story. Convinced at heart that these treasures will end
up being sold to undeserving foreigners, and because Conde’sfriendsarehis
true treasures, Conde ends up stealing some of the unsellable books to give to
his friends and even saves the first edition of José María Heredia’spoemNiagara,
published in Toluca in 1832, for his girlfriend. Heredia’s book alone is worth
about twelve thousand dollars but, in Conde’s rationalization, taking these books
to his friends is justice, not robbery (Padura 2005: 353).
In Padura’sNeblina, this fantastic inventory of books makes up an idealized
library at the very tip of Conde’s fingers. Conde wallows in the luxury of naming
and enumerating them. Curiously, the books are listed in terms of value (no
value, collectible value, too much value, sentimental value, national value), but
are not read. They are not “unpacked”. More often than not, they are quickly re-
circulated and turned into food. Indeed, as soon as Conde gives the owners some
money to ensure their exclusivity, they run to the black market to buy any form
of protein. In turn, Conde’s profit from his book-selling business is given to
9Originally: “inconcebibles exquisiteces de la bibliografia criolla que veía y tocaba por pri-
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 161
Josefina, a mother figure, who then procures all the ingredients to produce the
most delicious traditional Cuban dishes. Finding all the ingredients is practically
inconceivable, and Josefina makes “verdaderas exquisiteces de la cocina criolla”
(Padura 2005: 67–68). Padura has stated that Josefina’s cooking responds mostly
to a fantasy because at the height of the Special Period, literature was the only
way to make food happen.
However, in contrast with the bibliographic delica-
cies that are named but not opened, Josefina’s dishes are described in the minut-
est detail. Readers are not offered sensorial access to the food, but they do find in
Josefina’s retelling of the recipe a meticulous reconstruction of the dishes that
amounts to a material presence. More than in the books, Padura wallows in the
food. Fantastic cuisine, not a treasured library, ends up being a more efficient
reservoir of nationalistic nostalgia.
In the novel Herejes, Padura tracks in part the disappearances of a European
painting during WWII and of a teenage girl in the 2000s. The painting,
a Rembrandt that was given by the painter to his Jewish apprentice, is in the
hands of the apprentice’s descendant on board the transatlantic liner St. Louis.
The St. Louis sailed from Hamburg to Havana in 1939, carrying 937 passengers,
most of whom were Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. The passengers held entry per-
mits to Cuba that were not honored; they were not allowed to disembark, and
after several days were sent back to Germany. In the novel, the owners of the
Rembrandt on the ship give the painting to a Cuban immigration officer in ex-
change for an entry visa for their daughter, but they are robbed of the painting
and of their last hope. The Rembrandt, stolen by a corrupt immigration official in
1939, is exported illegally in the 2000s by another corrupt official. While in Cuba,
the illegally imported painting remains hidden (another “unpacked”box
trapped in corrupt, clandestine commercial transactions. It also stands for the in-
humane act of not saving a Jewish girl named Judith from her death.
In the 2000s, before her disappearance, a 17-year old girl named Judy is
profoundly disenchanted with the society she lives in. She is an Emo, part of
the urban tribes in today’s Havana, who imitate manga characters in cloth-
ing and hairstyle. They embrace a tragic ethos, making suicide a possible
cause for her disappearance. Conde eventually finds Judy’smurderer.While
him: J.D. Salinger’sTheCatcherintheRye,Nietzsche’sThus Spoke
Zarathustra, and a DVD version of the 1982 film “Bladerunner”.Conde
10 Stated during the book presentation of Adiós, Hemingway at Unión Nacional de Escritores
y Artistas de Cuba in July 2001.
11 Perhaps it is hidden in plain sight, on a wall covered with reproductions.
162 Guillermina De Ferrari
remembers the film very well and it even inspires him to solve the mystery in
a dream, although his epiphany is eventually proven scientifically. He also
remembers Salinger’s coming-of-age novel, and his fond memories of having
read it in his youth help Conde connect to Judy’s own turbulent adolescence.
The mention of Salinger helps create bibliographic empathy: Conde and
most of us were Judy at some point in our lives. At the same time, however,
Nietzsche’s book persistently bothers Conde. It is true that Judy speaks
through her readings, but what upsets Conde is Nietzsche himself, his god-
lessness, his lack of faith in the value of virtues and in human kind.
Conde’s contact with Nietzsche’s book starts with a handwritten note that
falls out of its pages. It was written by Judy herself and, although it is not clear
whether it is a direct quote of Zarathustra, it nonetheless reveals Judy’s
Nietzschean (godless) thoughts. When Conde explicitly tries to read the book,
he finds it unpalatable, indigestible: “Mientras a duras penas deglutía
a Nietzsche”(Padura 2013: 423), as he was trying to swallow Nietzsche’s book
with much difficulty, his mind turned to a list of people who could explain Emo
philosophy and Judy’s“mental confusion”to him. In other words, he looks for
people who will help him not read Nietzsche. To this end, Conde goes to
a former classmate, then to a teacher, then to a sociologist who is doing re-
search on urban tribes. The latter helps him understand Judy’s dark behavior in
terms of the desire to liberate her mind from inherited ideas and from a system
that is oppressive (Padura 2013: 373). The scholar has read David Le Breton ex-
tensively, and summarizes his ideas for Conde –that is, the scholar pre-digests
the book for Conde. Le Breton, like Nietzsche, remains unread.
In contrast, Judy’s literature teacher has kept one of her term papers, in
which the girl quotes and comments on a passage in Carpentier’sEl siglo de las
luces. It is a section in which Esteban complains of being trapped in
Guadeloupe because of the war between France and England. Feeling as much
a guest as a prisoner, Esteban elaborates on the bureaucratic difficulties of
passports, papers, stamped, signed and countersigned papers [...] permit, safe-conduct,
passport, and any word that would indicate the authorization to a human being to allow
him to travel from place to place [...] For fear of the Revolution as well as fear of the
counter Revolution, the government and the police had put a limit to the ancestral free-
dom of man to move around the planet without having to subject his ancestral nomadism
and sovereign will to move to a piece of a paper.
(Padura 2013: 401–402)
12 Originally: “universal proliferación de papeles, cubiertos de cuños, sellos, firmas
y contrafirmas, cuyos nombres agotaban los sinónimos de permiso, salvoconducto, pasaporte
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 163
With this reference to borders and bureaucracy, Esteban describes the birth of
the modern state. The quote seems to affect Judy in part because of her lack of
freedom in a country where Cubans were required to obtain an exit visa in
order to travel, testing citizens’loyalty to the regime. Judy is therefore complai-
ning about one of the principles of the Socialist social contract in place in Cuba
since 1959. More indirectly, in the novel this passage seems to allude to the
story of the little Jewish girl named Judith who was denied an entry visa that
would have saved her, although Judy the Emo has no apparent connection with
her. The quote from Carpentier in Judy’s paper ends with the idea that travel
should not be forbidden because “la fidelidad por obligación es un fracaso”
(Padura 2013: 401–402).
Minimal reading via a third party offers a theory of World Literature. Judy,
the reader in this novel, is in fact dead. However, she leaves the material trace
of having read books, but she has shed the particulars and embraced their spirit
instead. Books help construct Judy’s character and her defining disenchant-
It is no doubt ironic that the section devoted to the Emo girl Judy and
the mystery of her death is called “The book of Judith”. The biblical effect of
the title is so ambiguous as to give the appearance of being named after the
wrong girl. In her reading of the novel, Vicky Unruh suggests that Herejes is the
first of Padura’s novels dedicated to the future as opposed to his nostalgic mu-
sings. I would speculate that it is a future where books are little more than ster-
ile physical props.
There is a well-known precedent: in Guillermo Cabrera Infante’sTres tristes
tigres, one of the protagonists, Silvestre, and his brother famously sell books
from their father’s library to fund their frequent trips to the movies. Similarly,
Conde’s displacement from reading to eating is not a surprising twist in post-
Soviet Cuba, where eating, especially eating well, is a complex and difficult op-
eration. However, considering Mario Conde’s stated obsession with books, the
displacement from reading to food can be seen as a form of getting away with
not unpacking the boxes. This suggests a critical paradigm of World Literature
as “knowing”without “reading”. Padura uncomfortably appeals to Nietzsche
in a (late) Socialist appropriation of “the end of history”. Francis Fukuyama
wrote The End of History and the Last Man (1992) to reflect on the post-Soviet
y cuantos vocablos pudiesen siginificar una autorización para moverse de un país a otro...
tuviese que someter su soberana voluntad de traslado a un papel”.
13 Padura is borrowing Carpentier to address a historical process that either resembles the
Cuban Revolution (similarity and repetition) or one in which he himself is somehow still inser-
14 Part of this reading appears in De Ferrari/Unruh (2015).
164 Guillermina De Ferrari
world, a world that provides the context for Conde’s writing –but from the per-
spective of the West, where liberal democracy was the only model left.
Fukuyama’s“the end of history”reflects on the growing importance of “the body,
its needs, and fears”when, after the Cold War is over, “men are unable to affirm
that any particular way of life is superior to another”(Fukuyama 1992: 305).
Fukuyama would see this attention to food as a symptom of a decline in values
related to the decline of moral debate and critical citizenship. But there is a fair
amount of irony in the context of Cuba’s late socialism, which consists of
a capitalism simultaneously repressed and ubiquitous to sustain a repressive po-
I suggest that Padura’s novels, which are read in many languages
and have received many international awards, are popular in part because they
present another route to the very same point where Fukuyama ends up, in which
simple pleasures are the go-to response to political disaffection.
Mayra Montero’s darkness
Cuban-Puerto Rican Mayra Montero’snovelTú, la oscuridad (1995) has been la-
beled the first explicitly environmental novel in the Caribbean.
moment is what Bill McKibben has called “The End of Nature”:“that moment
when for the first time human beings had become so large that they altered ev-
erything around us. That we had ended nature as an independent force, that our
appetites and habits and desires could now be read in every cubic meter of air, in
every increment on the thermometer”
(McKibben 2003: xiii).
The novel follows the extinction of a subspecies of frog in Haiti in the
1990s. Critics understand that the protection of animals often appears in com-
petition with human welfare in a situation of persistent poverty and political
violence. Indeed, there is a structural continuity between ill treatment of ani-
mals for the well-being of humans, and of other humans that are marked as
15 For a discussion of how Fukuyama himself was misread, see Fukuyama (2010).
16 Ariana Hernández-Reguant coined the term “late Socialism”to describe the period in
Revolutionary Cuba after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the government adopts capitalist
measures to ensure the survival of the socialist Revolution.
17 For a reading of Nietzsche’s ideas in relation to the Cuban Revolution, see Community and
Culture in Post-Soviet Cuba (De Ferrari 2014). In this book, I read novels by Padura, Jesús Díaz
and Abel Prieto as incapable of breaking apart from the revolutionary ethos, in opposition to
“perverse”and “evil”texts whose Nietzschean suspicion of (revolutionary, manly) virtues
allows them to break away from the complicit social contract.
18 See Paravisini-Gebert (2014: 350). See also Heise (2016: 167).
19 In the prologue to the revised version.
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 165
animalistic (Heise 2016: 167). This is why the novel stages the act of “reading”
ethnographically as well as ecocritically. It is in this double approach that the
novel somewhat approximates what it looks like to read not only global “appe-
tites and habits and desires”, but also local impotence and fear “in every cubic
meter of air”–to paraphrase McKibben (2003).
The protagonist, an American herpetologist named Victor Grigg, travels to
Haiti in the 1990s with the mission of finding a near-extinct frog, the
Eleutherodactylus sanguineus, commonly known as a grenouille du sang be-
cause of its color. The disappearance of the grenouille du sang takes place
among similar disappearances of similar frogs around the world. These disap-
pearances are accounted for in the form of short scientific interchapters, while
the main chapters are narrated alternately by either Grigg and Thierry Adrien,
his local guide, as they tell each other their life stories. Each monologue acts as
a first-person narration –an oral “book”that is interpreted and appropriated –
read –by the other. This dynamic is more explicitly played out in the chapter
“Alma de macoute”[‘Like a Macoute’] that presents Grigg’s thoughts while he
listens to Adrien’s stories. Adrien talks about the infidelities of a promiscuous
woman called Ganesha, the lover of Grigg’s herpetologist predecessor Papa
Crapaud, which prompts Grigg to reflect on his own marital problems. The no-
vel’s dual structure showcasing the life stories of the American scientist and
the Haitian guide advances the importance of narrative in claiming human sta-
tus. At the same time, the power imbalance between the two protagonists re-
creates an ethnographic exchange to the point that Grigg, who notices that
Adrien sometimes includes information about the frog when he talks about his
life, starts recording him (Montero 1995: 35). Adrien, the native informant, func-
tions as the open book that Grigg reads and rereads in his double efforts to ex-
plain Haiti and his own life to himself.
The novel explores the value of different lives at the end, when the over-
crowded ferry taking the two men out of the dangers of Jérémie to Port-au-
Prince sinks, killing two thousand Haitians, along with Grigg, Adrien, and the
last specimen of the grenouille du sang. The fact that the death of thousands of
people –poor, anonymous Haitians –seem to matter less than the disappear-
ance of the frog in the novel shows the dehumanizing capacity of poverty,
which, as Judith Butler suggests, makes some lives more grievable than others.
The end, however, does not resolve the ambiguous place that Grigg and Adrien
occupy in a compromised hierarchy. Neither valuable frog nor devalued –ge-
neric –“Haitian”, the two men have eluded the label “specimen”to attain pro-
Nevertheless, the blurry line separating human and nonhuman animals in
this context is further complicated by the fact that humans are cast as members
166 Guillermina De Ferrari
of recognizable “types”. At the beginning of the story, we seem to have one of
each, Thierry, Grigg, the elusive frog, which, once found, is scientifically de-
scribed as the male specimen of a near extinct subspecies. Similarly, before
helping Grigg, Thierry had served as guide for Jasper Wilbur, another herpetol-
ogist whom he called Papa Crapaud. Foreign scientists belong to the enlight-
ened side of the colonial enterprise. The scientist category acquires new
members as Grigg intersects two botanists from the New York Botanical Garden
who are looking for a rare female specimen of a near extinct subspecies of
a cactus in the same area. The botanists have a guide called Paul. Thierry
Adrien, who has been a guide for several decades, shares both name and wife
with his (late) father, suggesting repetition. He is one in a string of brothers –
several “Adriens”. Women also appear as specimens within subcategories.
Local women, foreign women, unfaithful women, and crazy women all seem to
follow recognizable patterns through repetition and some degree of substitut-
ability. Women and native guides, but also scientists and father figures, make
humans and their stories appear interchangeable and capable of endless
In the context of a story built on the obsession with species and specimens,
men and women cease to be individuals and become types with recognizable
behavior within predictable ecosystems. Therefore, phrases such as to be like
a macoute, to behave like a macoute, to be a man in a string of men who love
and abandon women or are deceived by them strips the characters of their indi-
viduality. A more complex parallelism involves their fears and desires. On the
one hand, Adrien’s fear of the grenouille, (he believes the frog is a bad omen) is
the negative side of Grigg’s desire to find it; on the other, Adrien has a growing
desire to see the ostriches in Grigg’s father’s farm and bring one to Haiti, where
it would be the first of its kind, while Grigg is actually afraid of his inheritance.
Thanks to vaudou ideas, repetition may occur even in death since, according to
Adrien, “a man walks the same roads again and again without knowing, believ-
ing that they are new”.
Adding, more ominously, “The dead also walk the
same roads again and again”(Montero 1995: 238–239).
The novel recreates an atmosphere in which science is incapable of grasp-
ing the real story of animal extinction and, implicitly, of human violence. The
scientific interchapters are brief, descriptive, and attest to the limitations of the
scientific method with phrases like “inexplicable deaths”(Montero 1995: 71);
“the mystery was never resolved”(1995: 71); “unknown causes”(1995: 21);
20 Originally, “Un hombre repite todos sus caminos, los repite sin darse cuenta y se hace la
ilusión de que son nuevos”and, “Los muertos también repiten sus caminos”.
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 167
“fruitless search”(1995: 161). By contrast, Dr. Emile Boukaka, a Haitian surgeon
who combines scientific methods with vaudou beliefs, suggests that the cause
of the disappearance of the frogs is not “acid rain, herbicides, deforestation”as
scientists claim (1995: 132), but rather it is due to Agwé Taroyo, “the god of the
waters”, who has summoned the frogs to stay deep in the water (1995: 131).
Ursula Heise sees the appeal to the supernatural as “one of the weakness of the
novel”, since it helps “block any detailed social and political analysis”(Heise
2016: 171). And, what is more, “it also seems to exonerate humans from any re-
sponsibility in the ongoing extinctions”(Heise 2016: 172).
And yet, a useful theory transpires in an implicit analogy between scientific
discourse and social analysis. Namely, the novel observes that “the younger
frogs get disoriented and expose themselves to dangerous situations because
they lack malice; the capacity for self-protection is a learned behavior for most
(Montero 1995: 225; my emphasis). This observation suggests that
the political problems in Haiti are attributable to the lack of social options and
a moral compass. An environment of violence is the consequence of a modernity
that excludes young Haitians –as well as the frogs. Perhaps disorientation is the
result of dependency on a “weak”social cosmology in which responsibility is
often delegated to fate, as well as the generalized corruption that makes account-
ability impossible. Although it would be fair to say that even Grigg, the scientist,
accepts the role of fate when a suffering Adrien complains that “a man never un-
derstands when the sadness that will accompany him for the rest of his life be-
gins”. To which Grigg replies “Neither sadness nor happiness [...]Amannever
knows anything, Thierry. That is his tragedy”(Montero 1995: 133).
As Liza Paravisini-Gebert suggests, it is the entire nation, not just the frog,
that is in danger of extinction (2014: 351). Grigg, who is miserably ignorant at
first, understands this after climbing a steep learning curve. He finds that he no
longer can report back to Vaughan Patterson, the scientist who sent him to
look for this frog. Grigg has not only learned to read Haiti not only in the ge-
neric terms known to any outsider, but also understands its metarules as
a country in which everyone is at risk of peril: “How to explain to Patterson
that Haiti, oh God, was dying out, and that pile of bones growing in front of our
eyes [...] is the only thing that will remain”
(Montero 1995: 226–227). At first,
21 Originally, “Se desorientan o se pierden las ranas más jóvenes; se exponen a condiciones
peligrosas porque no tienen malicia. La capacidad de protegerse y de ocultarse es una con-
ducta aprendida en casi todos los anfibios”.
22 Originally, “¿Cómo meterle en la cabeza [a Patterson] que Haití, gran dios, se estaba termi-
nando, y que esa loma de huesos que iba creciendo frente a nuestros ojos [...] era todo lo que
iba a quedar?”.
168 Guillermina De Ferrari
Grigg functions as Patterson’s eyes in Haiti. However, when Grigg learns the
“habits”of the land, he suffers the same as the “good”readers I have discussed
above. Too much understanding clouds legibility.
The darkness in the novel’s title is about the anticipation of a catastrophe.
While the title of the novel Tú, la oscuridad, refers to an oracle-style incantation
that announces impending death and helps embrace it without fear (Montero
1995: 239), the translation In the Palm of Darkness seeks to establish
a submarine connection with Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart
of Darkness. It is true that there are echoes between the two, but they are quite
subtle and perhaps even irrelevant. The parallelism is probably an editorial
strategy to invite foreign readers into the unknown by invoking the association
with a familiar writer, making visible the hidden threads that weave travel,
whiteness, and self-knowledge. However, the English title grants the novel
membership in a group of cosmopolitan novels about the dark art of losing one
self in nature, or because of it. It is no coincidence that genre and genus are
etymologically related: similarity and substitutability, structural aspects of lit-
erary artifacts, are also the mark of the species.
Readers without habits
I have reflected here on how reading in Caribbean literature can help us under-
stand World Literature otherwise. I have argued that reading the other usually
functions to the extent that the reader accepts that creative knowledge some-
times requires forgoing the specificities of the other. This I have called reading
at the level of species. I am aware that the phrase sounds dangerous. In fact,
I could as easily have written an essay against “reading at the level of the spe-
cies”, defending historical details and geographic minutia from overreaching
World Literature critics and Latin Americanists. After all, what is Latin
American literature if not an artificial concept that nonetheless orients our
teaching assignments, our conferences, and our library holdings. My point here
is that what Caribbean –as opposed to Latin American –literature shows is
that occupying our historical time together across cultures is ultimately worth
the risk. It is true that the role of the discipline that we call World Literature is
to remain humbly vigilant about what is gained and what is lost when reading
across cultures. But it is also true that imperfect reading can be a more liberat-
ing form of thinking (with) the other. In my analysis of El siglo de las luces,
I borrowed from Žižek the notion that revolutionaries are “figures without ha-
bits”(Žižek 2007). The true revolutionary ignores the metarules –the implicit
understanding of how to play the social game –to make new discoveries.
Reading without habits: a Caribbean contribution to World Literature 169
I want to conclude this reflection by suggesting that the Caribbean contribution
to World Literature is, precisely, to appreciate revolutionary readers; for, histor-
ically, Caribbean readers are readers without habits.
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