Roxane's Reviews > Afro-Cuban Tales

Afro-Cuban Tales by Lydia Cabrera
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's review
Jun 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: mythology, folklore, around-the-world-in-twelve-books-ch, cuba, africa
Read from June 25 to 27, 2012 — I own a copy

This read was for the 2012 Around the World in 12 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days (May: Cuba)

Full review:

Before I get into the heart of the matter, I'd like to say a few words on the author and the English edition of the work which contains two introductions, that of the English edition but also that of the Spanish edition. While I wasn't aware of this when I first purchased the book, Afro-Cuban Tales was first published in French in 1936 under the title Les Contes Nègres de Cuba. Lydia Cabrera was born in May 1899 in Havana and settled in Paris in 1927. While she originally wrote the book in Spanish, she first translated and published it in French. That being said, I'm quite pleased to have read the English edition because the translators have clearly worked from both the French and Spanish editions and included several notes where these two differed. I felt this gave readers a much broader view and you could sometimes question why Cabrera decided to rewrite certain passages in the French translation.

All the tales collected here were told to Cabrera by some of her Afro-Cuban friends. She put them into writing but the reader can clearly see that some tales need to be read out loud and even sang. As it is often the case in African tales, rhythm and rimes are essential.Cabrera's work is not merely that of transcription as Isabel Castellanos explains in her introduction: in some cases, the author has modified stories by adding incidents and characters while others are clearly stories based on old Afro-Cuban songs and in those cases, music is central to the stories. These are not merely legends and tales collected by an anthropologist, it is clearly part of a creative process. It's fiction that incorporates Afro-Cuban traditions and folklore.

A lot of the stories are of Yoruba origin and the translators have done a wonderful job at giving the reader as much context as possible without ending up with half pages long footnotes. The unfamiliar reader (like me!) will get to learn more about Yoruba saints and divinities and in fact, the way they interact and interfere in human affairs really reminded of Greek mythology.

Cabrera's Afro-Cuban Tales are not fairy tales and in the beginning I was somewhat put off by the fact that in some stories, the bad guy wins and an innocent gets punished for no reason at all. Morality is not what you expect or what westerners are used to, but once you've grasped this, you're only beginning to see the richness of the world in which Cabrera's tales are set.

Boundaries are not where we would expect them to be: some protagonists are animals, others plants, gods and humans and all interact with one another, talking to one another, marrying one another regardless of whether they are man, woman, tree, turtle or earthworm. And yet, everything is solidly anchored into the real world as some stories refer to mulattoes, black people and white people, others refer to slavery and to the class system it left once after its abolition. Some religious practices are carefully detailed, some characters express themselves in creole and others Cuban vernacular. While this is fiction, there's no doubt that it is also thoroughly researched and aims at authenticity.

This strange and delicate balance between reality, authenticity and fiction, magic and folktale is at the heart of Afro-Cuban Tales. As Isabel Castellanos explains is in her introduction "What is unreal becomes real, and what is real, unreal" or in Cabrera's own words "the reality of unreality". And in that regard, it appears that Cabrera's work can be interpreted as a forerunner of magic realism.

Afro-Cuban Tales is a rich and seminal piece of fiction that mixes anthropology, history and ethnography, one that I would recommend to readers of speculative fiction and those interested in Cuban and African cultures alike.
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