Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres: The Trapping Effect of the Signifier over Subject and Text

Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres: The Trapping Effect of the Signifier over Subject and Text

Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres: The Trapping Effect of the Signifier over Subject and Text

Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres: The Trapping Effect of the Signifier over Subject and Text


The name of the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante is itself the spelling of the difficulties of the subject’s learning to speak. Infante is the Spanish for this period of time in the human development, whereas the English translation of the term refers to the time when the baby is still in speechless state.

It comes to no surprise that the writer himself, in a conference titled “To kill a Foreign Name,” refers to the hidden implications of the spelling and the pronunciation of a name: “Names of course are a language. Foreign names must be learned to be pronounced, just like language? How is yours?”

I undertake the task of answering his question as it pertains to the pronunciation of the name of his book, Tres tristes tigres. After all, the very title refers to the difficulties of pronunciation, of the learning to talk, but most of all, it presents the subject’s existence as springing out of the very difficulties of uttering.

On the coming into existence of the subject as out of the effect of language, Ned Lukacher links the findings of Blanchot, Barthes and Lacan into the notion of the “fading of the subject” by the effects of the fading of voice, a constant principle that we find present in the reading of Cabrera Infante’s Tres tristes tigres.

Lukacher tells us that “For Lacan the ‘fading of the subject’ defines the most primal scene of subjectivation; the subject’s relation to language and desire is structured around this primordial gap—the gap that Barthes calls the ‘hole in the discourse’ through which voice can leak out.” (Primal Scenes, 68–96) (My emphasis)

Instead of identity and a determinable subject, what we find around the notion of being, around the notion of telling in the text, is the very echoing effect of the fading of voice, a force that . . .


The reader of Tres tristes tigres is confronted with a fragmented text resistant to the notion of conventional plot. The printed frame of the text appears to be a body in the making, a body whose revealing content lies precisely in its distorsions and twistings, which are the focus of the present study, in as much as they are nothing but a metaphor of the fragmented body of the subject at the threshold of the split, before the mirror, before death by the image, before death by the effect of the signifier.

El libro, as its author calls it in the Advertencia, draws attention to the assembling of its fragmented body. The body/text appears as if pierced, presented as a living sacrifice in a ritual of sound. From the very reading of the title, the text is committed to the performing of voice over the notion of content, over the notion of subject; the latter transformed by the effect of language in a trapped tiger, as implied in the Advertencia, the warning that precedes the text proper: “La escritura no es más que un intento de atrapar la voz humana al vuelo.” (My emphasis) In fulfillment of this sentence, the text appears to be designed to take contour by the effect of attempting to trap a fleeting voice, thus inscribing in its body the twistings of the difficulties of its trapping. Such a shaping, could only but arouse in the reader the discomfort of a sensation of loss as to the apprehension of its meaning. A text that produces in the reader the sensation of loss vis à vis the apprehension of meaning, the text that ‘discomforts,’ says Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text, is one that brings to a crisis “his relation with language.”

There is no doubt that Tres tristes tigres is committed to the displaying of the difficulties of the subject’s telling, of their perilous debut in the kingdom of the signifier. By no accident the first section of the text, Los debutantes, is the debut of the characters as narrators, or their encounter with ‘death’ in the signifier. The fragmented body of the text should be read as a metaphor of the manner how the tigers’ story gets lost in the fabric thread by the voices that sustain the text. The difficulties of entering into any appreciation of its body are to be related to the difficulties encountered in the knowledge of the body of the subject, itself a site of difference. As Tilottama Rajan reminds us in her “Language, Music and the Body: Nietzche and Deconstruction” we need to consider Nietzche’s emphasis on the body as a site of difference, given that such is the pre-text of what is going to be the critique of language of Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction.

One’s own body for Nietzche is not immediately present to man, but must, within the cultural economy, express itself … through the medium of a symptomatic language.

The body disaffiliates any association with unity and presence, drawing closer to what Drew Leder considers “the absent, chiasmatic body.” The body, like the Lacanian Real, is accessible only as a text, the performative text Tres tristes tigres is set out to display.

In his “Tres tristes tigres: El Vasto Fragmento,” Mac Adam suggests that the notion of sinecdoque should be applied to the understanding of a fragmented text such as Tres tristes tigres. It would imply gaining insight into the whole by knowing one of the parts, in as much as the part exists in relation to the whole. We take this notion to read the second section of the text, Seseribó, narrated by the drummer Ribot, that deals with his failure to possess the beautiful and young Vivian Smith Corona. A close reading of the Afrocuban legend that introduces it, provides . . .

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