Severo Sarduy

Photo by D. Roche © Seuil

Principal criticism

Escrito sobre un cuerpo: ensayos de crìtica. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1969.

Bing Bang; para situar en òrbita cinco màquinas; pour situer en oribte cinq machines de Ramon Alejandro. Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973.

Barroco. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1974.

Other literary forms

Severo Sarduy was both critic and author. His collection of essays on Latinamerican writers such as Lezama, Fuentes, and Puig are contained in his "Escrito sobre un cuerpo" (1969) and along with theory, the essay on Gongora would foreshadow Sarduy's own obsesion with the baroque. By 1963, his novel "Gestos" was published in Barcelona by Editorial Seix Barral in which other obsessions (motifs) are first introduced; in "Gestos" we find a group of anti-Batista revolutionary students along with a 'mulata vedette' who is also a terrorist; one of Sarduy's preocupation is with issue of the Black and Chinese presence in Cuba. The presence of other races turns not only a political and social turn, but also becomes a question of reconciling Chinese and African traditions within the realm of Spanish Cuba. In "Gestos" we also find Sarduy's fascination for 'kitch', that element of bad taste which destroys levels of aesthetics or class.

In 1967, "De donde son los cantantes" published in Mexico (Octavio Paz would later publish in this same printing house, Joaquin Mortiz), heralded Sarduy as a leading novelist. Though 1967 also saw the publication of "Cien anos de Soledad", Sarduy's novel would answer the queries of the "Boom" generation and modify the conventions of authors like Vargas Llosa or Garcia Márquez beyond sex, nationality and setting. "Colibri" of 1972 proved even more radical. The novel is a treatment of two transvestites who undergoe sexual surgeries; La Cobra is castrated and La Cadillac shows off his new member. Beyond the desire to change to the Other, there is question of the innate desire for the Orient, and to that effect, Sarduy even includes parts of the diary of Christopher Columbus toward the end of his novel. "Colibri" is the most Sarduy-esque novel. Characters are meta-characters and not individuals, lacking any attachment to a reality that may be real. The chararacters also seem to exist only if their opposite exist, and much like a use of Saussure, it is the opposition which creates them. It should be added that at another level, "Colibrì" is a parody of the "novela de la selva" (the novel of the jungle): "La voràgine" (1924) of Jose Eustasio Rivera; Canaìma (1935) of Ròmulo Gallegos and "La casa verde" (1965) written by Mario Vargas Llosa.

"Colibrì" is perhaps Sarduy's more autobiographical novel, composed like a 'bildungsromanz' where the young Cocuyo threatens to poison his entire family with rat poisoning. Once again, this novel of full of drag queens, sadomasoquists, dwarfs and deformed creatures, to name a few of the characters in this dark world.

Besides novels, Sarduy was also a playwright. In his 1969 play "La playa", characters do not act but only record their voices in a tape machine; for Sarduy, acting and writing is just an act of simulation. Like the characters of his novels, the actors are only used to simulate the action and events. In 1973, Sarduy also published a book of poetry entitled "Big Bang", and following the theory of the Big Bang and the constant growth/change of the universe, Sarduy is able to reflect that such a concern for change and expansion is not new: it is a baroque obsession. Flamenco (1971) and Mood Indigo (1971) were earlier books of poetry. That same year he made his debut in radio with his play "La playa" in Stuttgart, Germany.

Sarduy's versatility is also seen in his production of several radio plays which won prizes in France and Italy.


Sarduy was influenced by structuralists and poststructuralists, among them Roland Barthes, Francois Wahl, Lacan, and Derrida. According to Echevarria, Sarduy's 1974 collection of essays entitled "Barroco" would see the first aplication to Lacan's theories of psychology to literature and would reconcile Sarduy's interest in the works of his compatriots Lezama and Carpentier. Sarduy's influences are not altogether recent either; Quevedo and Gongora would later become the sources for yet another book of poetry "Overdose" (1972) where Baroque prosody and the eschatalogy of the body is translated into the gay sexual act.

Early influence, though not entirely political, was in the hands of Lezama, though the same Revolution that would allow Sarduy to leave Cuba also made it impossible for him to return and critically more important, that Revolution forced him to stop believing in its propaganda and freed Sarduy to explore other avenues.

Though exiled and in France, Sarduy influenced many writers back in the Other continent. Carpentier's "Concierto barroco" still carries Sarduy's own interest in the the ultrabaroque. Echevarria also sees Sarduy in Fuentes's "Terra Nostra" and in Vargas Llosa's "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter", where writing and incestouous passion are in keeping with Sarduy's experimentations. Even in Luis Rafael Sanchez's "Macho Camacho' Beat", Sarduy becomes a psychoanalyst called Severo Severino and through this character, Sanchez points out the importance of Freud and Sarduy. Freud in Latinamerica becomes possible through Sarduy.


Severo Sarduy was born February 25, 1937 in Camaguey, Cuba, where he received both his elementary and secundary education, and at the Institute of Higher Learning (Instituto de Segunda Ensenanza) he earned a Bachelor of Sciences and Arts in 1955. While still a college student he begun to write poetry; some of which was published in the literary journal "Ciclìn". Sarduy then travelled to La Habana to study medicine but was only able to attend classes for a year after Fulgencio Batista, then-dictator of Cuba, closed the universtiy. Sarduy opposed the government of Batista and became one of the leading intellectuals of the Cuban Revolution. During this time he wrote articles on Cuban and Latinamerican art and after the triumph of the revolution, he collaborated for the journal "Lunes de Revoluciìn" and saw one of his early short stories published in "Carteles". He was also part of editorial committee for the art and literature page of the newspaper "Diario Libre". In 1959 Sarduy won a scholarship from the new government to study art history in Europe. After few months in Madrid, he travelled to Paris, where he studied at the Ecole du Louvre (School of the Louvre). In Paris Sarduy become part of the journal "Tel Quel", where he was influenced by Structuralist and Poststructuralist movements, and formed literary relations with Francois Wahl and Roland Barthes. During the 60s, he collaborated with the magazine "Mundo Nuevo" and wrote for several literary and intellectual journals, including "Plural", "Papeles de son armadans", "Sur", "La Quinzaine Litteraire", and "Ruedo Ibèrico". Sarduy edited the Latin American collection for one of France's major publishing houses, Editions du Seuil, introducing Gabriel Garcìa Marquez's "Cien años de Soledad" (One Hundred years of Solitude, 1967). Estranged from the Castro government, Sarduy remained in Paris, where he died of Aids in 1993.

Theory and criticism

Sarduy is perhaps the first writer of Latinamerica to theorize about the baroque, and a partial reason for such an interest lies in the influence of writers who recreated a new baroque in Cuba, most notably Alejo Carpentier. For Sarduy, two baroque periods exist, and both reflect changes in the concept of the universe. The first baroque was influenced not only by Galileo's criticism of cosmology which placed the earth in the center of the universe, but also by Galileo's idea that natural phenomena and its perceptible aspect cannot be evidence or explain the phenomena. Instead, Galileo offers evidence for that phenomena based on the analisis of observation and that there exists invisible movements, "inoperantes", that mix with visible ones. Sarduy even sees the Council of Trent as creating evidence that is only real in its invisibility, the 'sacremento inoperante' (after all, transubstantiation cannot be proven in a visual sense).

Sarduy applies the expansion of the universe, as outlined by Edwin Powell Hubble (1189-1953) to his idea of the baroque. To use actual cosmology and its echoes in the 'neobarroco', as the coins it, Sarduy has to use the same subterfuge as seen with Galileo and the Council of Trent: what is not seen must be considered as valid as what is seen, whether it is gravity or the miracles of transubstantiation: "la cosmologìa actual y su posible retombèe en un neobarroco [se repite con] la misma estrategia discursiva de Galileo: la subversiòn, o la desintegraciòn de una imagen coherente del universo, tal y como la acepta en un momento dado la humanidad entera, en algo tan abrupto e inaceptable que no puede realizarse mas que bajo los auspicios de una demostraciòn legal, de una demanda jurìdica basada en la eficacia de los signos y en su mayor alcance: la nueva ley como teatralidad" (Barroco, p. 20). Sarduy defines 'retombèe' as similarity in a chain of difference or where two objects are distant and exist separately and yet can be analogous to each other (a term applicable to Comparative Studies); Sarduy also defines 'retombèe' as lacking hierarchy where the two objects, the model and the copy, though it is impossible to point out which originates the other, are the same in value. Using this theatre of ideas, this confusion of the baroque theatre, Sarduy is able to introduce the ideas of Freud and Lacan as one more efficient scenic mechanism. For Sarduy, the characters in Calderòn are a manifestation of a drama that though not psychological are already individualized and that the axis, the 'eje' of that character is not discernible. By 'eje' he might mean the motives, the nature of the character in question or the point at which the character is stable. In this manner, the baroque world is decentralized and that allegory, illusion, dreams reflect the new baroque world, where the circles no longer dictate rotation and where the sun is not the center of universe. Questions of space, according to Sarduy belong in the former baroque; the nature of the universe as a whole has become the model for the 20th century.

Sarduy also sees a paradox in the theories of cosmology, especially those of Einstein and A. Salam to unify the world into one, "la violenta pulsiòn de unificaciòn, el feroz deseo del Uno" (24) (the violent pulse to unification, the ferocious desire for One). He continues to declare that "Se trata, en la ciencia, de compaginar lo diverso y, paralelamente, en el mundo de los sìmbolos, de escindir cada vez mas: por una parte la sed del Uno; por la otra su des-construcciòn." Even in this short introductory passage to his theory of the new instability, not unlike Derrida's de-centralization, Sarduy also expresses the push to One-ness as desire, as sexual thrive.

Mimesis, simulacro, its nature and consequences are also a constant in Sarduy's theoretical framework (in this case, simulacro is the aftermath of mimesis). Sarduy uses simulacro to explain two major thoughts, at least in his book on the baroque: transvestism and the role of characters in the simulacro between idea-text-reader. In one instance, simulacro offers three possibilities of mimesis within human imagination : a) transvestism is ever desiring the metamorphosis--its nature is change but it is not content to copy a model; the model is not real and the goal, if there is one such finite word, is to play with the limits and bulge the limits with change and becoming more than woman; b) the surge beyond limits also lead to 'd'effacemnt' where the desire for cosmetic or surgical intervention is a desire for disappearance, for invisibility; c) finally, transvestism also leads to intimidation, where the transvestites are beyond male or female or that the artifice, the mask, is too obvious.

For Sarduy, reading is an act of confronting and solving the problems of anamorphosis (originally present in a drawing where the image appears in natural form though distorted by reflection, i.e. a mirror, and now writing). Anamorphosis is yet another form of simulacro, of the play of images. Sarduy also considers the reader as an analysist, or more precisely, as an Lacanian analyst. Sarduy's idea of the distortion of writing and how the reader discovers the other image (presumably the undistorted) is akin to Lacan's emphasis on the therapeutic aspect of such a find as well as how what is real is only restored when it is alienated and becomes only real by its its own reality, be it dissimilar or not, or as Lacan states in "Écrits" (quoted in Barroco p.64, my translation): "to the contrary, its therapeutic action [the analytic work] should be defined essentially as a dual movement thanks to which the 'image', at first difused and broken, is regressively asimilated to the real, to become progressively disassimilated from the real, in other words, it is restored en its own reality". Sarduy is then able to connect the simulacro of the baroque with Lacan's discovery of the real by is alienation. Sarduy's Lacanian reading of the baroque is as well disjointed and the reader must pass the fractured sentences to arrive at his idea of a baroque reading: Lectura barroca: ni concha ni cràneo--meditaciòn sin soporte--; sòlo cuenta la energìa de conversiòn y la astucia en el desciframiento del reverso--el otro de la representatiòn--; la pulsiòn de simulacro que en 'Los Embajadores', emblematicamente, se desenmascara y resuelve en la muerte" (Baroque reading--neither shell nor craneum--meditation without supporting evidence--; what counts is only the energy of that convertion and the astuteness in deciphering the opposite--the other in the representation--; the pulse of the simulacro which in 'Los Embajadores'--The Ambassadors-- is emblematically unmasked and results in death, Barroco p. 66, my translation). In other words, a baroque reading of a text is as well a process of discovering the other, the distorted image, and that such a process points out to the unmasking of that image before it can become real. A more contemporary discussion of the Baroque is found in Gilles Deleuze's "The fold: Leibniz and the Baroque" where harmony is reached by distinction (Sarduy's and Lacan's alienation of the other?): "What makes the new harmony possible is, first, the distinction between two levels or floors, which resolves tension or allots the division" (p. 29).


Complete list of works published outside of Cuba:

Gestos. Barcelona. Seix Barral, 1963.

Gesty. Warszawa: Pax, 1965. (Polish translation)

De donde son los cantantes. Ciudad de Mexico: Mortiz, 1967.

Ecrit en dansant. Traduit par E. Cabillon et C. Esteban. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967.

Bewegungen. Erzählung (aus dem Spanischen ubersetzt von Helmut Frielinghaus). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968.

Escrito sobre un cuerpo; ensayos de critica. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1969.

Flamenco; gedichte von Severo Sarduy. Stuttgart: Manus Presse, 1969.

De donde son los cantantes. Segunda ed. Ciudad de Mexico: Mortiz, 1970.

Mood indigo: gedichte von Severo Sarduy. Stuttgart: Manus Presse, 1970.

Cobra. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1972.

Cobra; roman. Traduit de l'espagnol par Philippe Sollers et l'auteur. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972.

From Cuba with a song. Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Hallie D. Taylor. New York: Dutton, 1972.

Overdose. Las Palmas, Espana: Inventarios Provisionales, 1972.

Cobra. Segunda ed. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1973.

Gestos. Segunda ed. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1973.

Bing Bang; para situar en orbita cinco maquinas; pour situer en oribte cinq machines de Ramon Alejandro. Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973.

Los instrumentos del corte. s.l., s.n., 1973.

Cobra. Tercera ed. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1974.

Barroco. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1974.

Big Bang. Barcelona: Tusquets Editor, 1974.

Cobra. New York: Dutton, 1975.

Barroco. Traduit par Jacques Henric et l'auteur. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975.

Cinco aproximaciones a la narrativa hispanoamericana. Madrid: Playor, 1977. (coauthor with four others)

Maitreya. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1978.

De donde son los cantantes. Tercera ed. Ciudad de Mexico. Mortiz, 1978.

Para la voz. Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, 1978.

De donde son los cantantes. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1980.

La doublure. Paris: Flammarion, 1981.

La simulacion. Caracas: Monte Avila, 1983.

Colibri. Barcelona: Argos Vergara, 1984.

For voice. Philip Barnard, transl. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1985.

Cocuyo. 1st ed. Barcelona: Tusquests, 1990.

Christ on the rue Jacob. Suzanne Jill Levine and Carol Maier, trans. 1st edition. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1995.Cocuyo. 1st ed. Barcelona: Tusquets, 1990.

Pàjaros de la playa. 1st ed. Barcelona: Tusquets, 1993.

General Studies of Sarduy's Work
Ulloa, Justo Celso. La narrativa de Lezama Lima y Sarduy: entre la imagen visionaria y el juego verbal. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Kentucky, 1973.

Rios, Julian, ed. Severo Sarduy. Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, 1976.

Alberca Serrano, Manuel. Estructuras narrativas de las novelas de Severo Sarduy. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, s.f.

Sanchez-Boudy, Jose. La tematica narrativa de Severo Sarduy. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1985.

Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto. La ruta de Severo Sarduy. 1st ed. Hanover: Ediciones del Norte, 1987.

Guerrero, Gustavo. La estrategia neobarroca, estudio sobre el resurgimiento de la poetica barroca en la obra narrativa de Severo Sarduy. 1st ed. Barcelona: Edicions del Mall, 1987.

Perez, Rolando. Severo Sarduy and the religion of the text. Lanham: University Press of America, 1988.

Kushigian, Julia a. Orientalism in the Hispanic literary tradition, in dialogue with Borges, Paz, and Sarduy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Rivero Potter, Alicia. Autor/lector, Huidobro, Borges, Fuentes y Sarduy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Studies of De donde son los cantantes:
Montero, Oscar Julian. The French intertext of "De donde son los cantantes." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of North Carolina, 1978.

Studies of Cobra:
Hispania v. 57:606, No.3 (9/74)

New York Times Book Review (3/9/75), p. 18

Partisan Review v. 42, No. 3 (1975), p. 459

Modern Language Journal v. 60:80 (1/76)

Handbook of Latin American Studies v. 36 (1974), p. 393, #4265

Studies of Gestos:
Hispania v. 57:431, No. 2 (5/74)

Nueva Narrativa Hispanoamericana (4) (1974), p. 345

Studies of Maitreya:
Revista Iberoamericana v. 46, No. 110-111 (Enero/Junio 1980), p. 338.

Studies of Big Bang:
Chasqui v. 10, No.1 (11/80), p.36.

Studies of La Doublure:
Revista de la Universidad de Mexico v. 38, No. 20 (12/82), p. 39.

Studies of Barroco:
Handbook of Latin American Studies v. 38 (1976), p. 422, #6648.

Oscar Fernandez