Feature: Classic Cuban Literature: Cecilia Valdes

Cecilia Valdes or El Angel Hill
by Cirilo Villaverde
translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane

Cecilia Valdés is arguably the most important novel of 19th century Cuba. Originally published in New York City in 1882, Cirilo Villaverde’s novel has fascinated readers inside and outside Cuba since the late 19th century. In this new English translation, a vast landscape emerges of the moral, political, and sexual depravity caused by slavery and colonialism.” —global.oup.com

Prologue by Cirilo Villaverde, written May 1879

I brought out the first volume of this novel in an edition printed by the Imprenta Literaria of Don Lino Valdes in the middle of the year 1839. At the same time I began the composition of the second volume which was to be the conclusion of it; but I did not work on it a great deal, both because I moved to Matanzas shortly thereafter to serve as one of the teachers in the secondary school of La Empresa that had recently been founded in that city, and because once I settled there, I began the composition of another novel, La joven de la fleche de oro, that I finished and had printed in one volume in the year 1841. 

On my return to the capital in 1842, while continuing to teach, I joined the editorial staff of El Faro Industrial, to which I devoted all my literary works and novels that followed one upon the other almost without interruption until the middle of 1848. 

… After midnight on October 20 of this latter year, I was surprised in bed and placed under arrest by Barreda, the chief of police of the district of Monserrate, accompanied by a great crowd of soldiers and constables, and taken to the public prison, by order of the captain general of the island, Don Federico Roncaly. 

Confined like a wild animal to a dark, damp cell, I remained there for six consecutive months, at the end of which, after being tried and sentenced to prison by the permanent military commission as a conspirator against the rights of the crown of Spain, I managed to escape on April 4, 1849, along with Don Vicente Fernandez Blanco, a common criminal, and the turnkey of the prison, Garcia Rey, who shortly thereafter was the cause of a serious controversy between the governments of Spain and the United States. By a strange happenstance, the three of us left the port of Havana together in a sailboat, but we remained in one another’s company only as far as the estuary of Apalachicola, on the southern coast of Florida, whence I traveled overland to Savannah and New York. 

Once outside of Cuba, I completely altered my way of life. I replaced my literary tastes with higher thoughts: I went from the world of illusions to the world of realities; I abandoned, at last, the frivolous occupations of the slave in a land of slaves, to take part in the undertakings of the free man in a free land. My manuscripts and books had been left behind, and even though they were sent to me a while later, I was fated not to be able to do anything with them, since first as a member of the editorial staff of La Verdad, a Cuban separatist newspaper, and then as General Narciso Lopez’s military secretary, I led a very active and agitated life, far removed from sedentary studies and work. 

The failure of Cardenas’s expedition in 1850, the disaster of the invasion of Las Pozas, and the death of the distinguished leader of our ill-advised attempt at revolution in 1851 did not put a stop to, but on the contrary, lent new life to our plans to liberate Cuba, a hope that Cuban patriots had been cherishing since the earliest years of this century. All of them, however, like those of earlier days, ended in disasters and misfortunes in the year 1854. 

In 1858 I found myself in Havana once again after a nine-year absence. My novel Dos amores having been reprinted at that time in Senor Prospero Massana’s press, on his advice I undertook to revise, or better put, to recast the other novel, Cecilia Valdes, of which only the first volume existed in printed form and a small portion of the second in manuscript. I mapped out the new plan for the novel down to its smallest details, wrote the foreword, and was working on the development of the plot when I was once again obliged to leave the country. 

The vicissitudes that followed this second voluntary expatriation, the necessity of providing for the subsistence of my family in a foreign country, the political agitation that had begun to be felt in Cuba since 1865, and the journalistic tasks that I then took on, did not give me the energy or the leisure, especially with no expectation of any immediate monetary reward, to devote myself wholeheartedly to the long and tedious labor required to cut, expand, and completely recast the most voluminous and most complicated of my literary works. 

After the renewed agitation of 1865 to 1868 came the revolution of the latter year and the bloody, decade-long war in Cuba, accompanied by the tumultuous scenes staged by Cuban emigres in all the nearby countries, especially in New York. As before, and as ever, I replaced my literary occupations with militant politics, inasmuch as the pen and the word were instruments at least as violent in the United States as the rifle and the machete in Cuba. 

During most of this era of delirium and of patriotic dreams, the manuscript of the novel of course lay sleeping. What am I saying? It did not progress beyond half a dozen chapters, drafted in my spare moments, when the memory of my motherland soaked in the blood of her best sons, was there before me in all her horror and all her beauty and seemed to demand of those who loved her well and deeply the faithful portrayal of her existence from a threefold point of view—physical, moral, and social—before her death or else her elevation to the life of free peoples entirely changed the characteristic features of her former countenance. 

Hence in no sense can I be said to have really devoted 40 years (the period dating 1839 to the present) to the composition of the novel. Once I resolved to finish it, some two or three years ago, the most that I have been able to do has been to finish a chapter, with many interruptions, every two weeks, at times every month, working a few hours during the week and all day every Sunday. 

Composing works of the imagination in this way, it is not easy to keep the interest of the narrative constant, or the action always lively and well plotted, or the style even and natural, or the well-tempered and sustained tone that works in the novelistic genre require. And that is one of the reasons that impel me to speak of the novel and of myself. 

The other is that, in the final analysis, my painting has turned out to be so somber and so tragic that being Cuban as I am to the very marrow, and a moral man, I would feel a sort of fear or shame were I to present it to the public without an explanatory word in my defense. I am fully aware that foreigners, that is to say, persons who are not closely acquainted with the customs or the period of the history of Cuba that I have attempted to paint will perhaps believe that I have chosen the darkest colors and overloaded the painting with shadows for the mere pleasure of creating an effect a la Rembrandt or a la Gustave Dore. Nothing was farther from my mind. I pride myself on being, before all else, a writer who is a realist, taking this word in the artistic sense attributed to it in the modern era. 

… The work that is today first seeing the light of day in its entirety does not contain all the defects of language and of style found in the first volume printed in Havana; if there is greater decorum and truth in the portrayal of the characters, if certain scenes and sentences of scant or dubious morality have been eliminated, if the general tone of the composition is more uniform and animated, this is owed in large part to the advice of my wife, whom I have been able to consult chapter by chapter as I finished each of them. 

C. Villaverde, New York, May 1879 

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