Amazement came first. Is Severo Sarduy a painter? The novelist who wrote Cobra and Where We Come From, the poet of Big Band and Mood Indigo, the collaborating writer of larger-than-life magazine Tel Quel, the thinker who coined the term neo-baroque in memorable essays like Paper on a Body, Baroque and Simulation that have served as steppingstones for lifetime inquiries made by both French and Italian intellectuals?

Well, that’s right, and he’s quite a peculiar one within the panorama of the Cuban arts. We did know the Camaguey-born artist (1937-1993) had left the island nation in the early 1960s with a scholarship in a Madrid painting school arranged by the Revolutionary Government. But that was it. His fast-paced and always controversial literary career made his admirers from this side of the shore forget about his enrooted affiliation with imaging, the sign that comes before word, just the gesture.

And about the many-sided personality of the author of Birds on the Beach speaks the book entitled The East of Severo Sarduy, the man who turned the journey to exotic world into an artistic practice per se, because he didn’t move to that faraway –for us– part of the planet as just another sunbather or as a “discoverer” or as someone looking for themes and motifs, but rather as a mimetic being who went there to melt into his other self with supreme haughtiness until he eventually vanished.

He has soon showed interest in the work of Franz Kline (1910-1962) and the other American abstract expressionists. He even said that his novel Gestures (1963) was nothing but a good expression of what action writing was all about, thus directly alluding to the pictorial method known as action painting that widely marked that movement. It’s thought that Sarduy discovered Chinese and Japanese art by the hand of Kline, though this same artist rebuffed time and again any ties between the Asian arts and his work so full of calligraphic traces.

These are small fragments of the poem entitled Blank Pages (Franz Kline’s Squares),1 where this substantial linkage with emptiness –so commonplace on Chinese classical painting:

I Wax Wing

There’s no silence Only when The Other one Speaks (No white: Colors that flee Off the edges) Now That the poem is written The blank page.

V Zinc Door

Not open, But ajar This cracks looks Behind the white, White Now the silence The walls cracks The room crumbles, It sails. And that brightness The see-through door.

Another painter who followed in Sarduy’s footsteps before getting to the East was mark Rothko. The overlapping of red –a color he believed it had healing powers– and orange –so commonly used in Cuba’s expressionism– was something this Cuban artist found in the robes of the Tibet monks. To him, this was not a random shot across the bow, but rather some sort of communicating vessels between the West and the essential East.

Between 1961 and 1978, Severo Sarduy traveled repeatedly to Turkey, Morocco, India, Tunisia, Indonesia, Iran, Algeria and Sri Lanka. And we traveled with him through his reports, chronicles, drawings and letters teeming with experiences, even diving into his own novels, like Cobra. He was passionately drawn to Buddhism –so close to his minimal conception of the arts– and to India’s many religious expressions. And all this knowledge, acquired from the inevitable Western perspective, confronted him like a mirror reflecting another mirror by the hand of African-Cuban religious conceptions he knew so well. Moving away from his island nation, from his native Camaguey, he managed to have a more universal and embracing perspective that, contrary to what could have been believed, made his roots grow deeper into the swampy terrain of his own identity. “Sarduy moves farther just to be closer.”2 He achieved what Julian del Casal, just another of our colossal 19th-century poets, never attained: to know the East far beyond porcelain and engravings. In a way, Casal was an escapist. Severo was one all along the way. Wherever he arrived in, the artist had pictures of him taken, wearing the traditional garments of the new location in a gesture –not stripped of sheer frivolity– he turned to time and time again. “To make things count, you need to accept that I’m not inhabited by dualism, but by an intensity of simulation that constitutes its own self, outside of the things that bind you. What do you simulate? Simulation.”3

The unknowingness of Sarduy as a painter was fanned by his staunch rejection to exhibit. It wasn’t until 1990 –the year he was diagnosed with AIDS, when he put up his first individual exposition: Tableaux manuscripts, at the Nina Davidov Gallery in Paris. A year later, some of his works were included in the L’écrit et le signe, autour de quelques écrivains collective exhibit prepared by the Georges Pompidou Center. In 1993, a few moths before his decease, he took the wraps off a second display of his latest works also at the Davidov gallery, which transferred the reproduction rights of the Sarduy’s pieces shown in The East...

Sarduy reflected more than once on this facet of his creative work. He even said that he never knew which would come first when he sat at his working table, if the image or the word. In the case of painting, he assumed the craft as a mantra, only that the repeat was not the usual om mane padme hums4 line but a succession of strokes or infinite dots, in an attempt –by Sisyphus?– to emulate the cosmos:

The painting’s calling is also the fluorescence of the color. They start mounting up, like writing, little tiny signs, nearly invisible strokes, the mark of the Chinese ink and the finest paintbrush that ever existed [...]. Or perhaps it’s the red, different shades of red overlapping into an apparently single one that is actually plowed through by texture: scarlet, carmine, deep-red, light Japanese, napthol, The East.”5

In spite of its coffee table design and its several pages, The East… calls for a non-stop reading. We find in it fundamental essays as that by Roberto Gonzalez Echeverria (The Chinese route of Severo Sarduy), where the scholar dwells on the Cubans’ preliminary contacts with the Chinese immigration into the island; he even fantasizes with a possible Asian ancestor that could be part of so many bloods that mixed in the miscegenation, for the better, of the narrator and poet. On his part, Andres Sanchez Robaina traces the influences and “loanwords” of the East in Severo’s lyric work; Jaime Moreno Villareal speaks about graphic and pictorial production, and François Wahl, his partner in life, sets the guidelines for a better perception of the traveler, his motivations, his expectations with every journey, the immediate footprints of cultures “unveiled” along his own creative work.

Juan Goytisolo (“Severo Sarduy: a necessary rereading”), Jose Lezama Lima (“Letter to Severo Sarduy”) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (“On a grave, a rumba”), are other writers whose texts add to those by Gustavo Guerrero, Nelda del Castillo and Ruben Gallo in the conformation of Sarduy’s plural portrait.

The Catalogue section is made up by reproductions of original pieces of the Eastern culture collected by Sarduy and François Wahl during their several trips across that geographical region. These include Tibetan prayer tablets, Indonesian divination objects, Nepalese votive stones, bronze statuettes from India, Moroccan writing tables, among others. The section includes as well an important iconography of different stages of Severo’s life and artwork.

The issue is completed with an anthology of texts written by Sarduy about the East (trip notes, poems, articles, interviews abstracts), a list of his travels, the thorough bibliography of his officially published works and the indispensable chronology (owed to Tania Pagola), which is a must for those interested in the life and work of the author of A fleeting and disguised witness.

For all these reasons, reading The East of Severo Sarduy, edited by Gustabo Guerrero and Xose Luis Garcia Canido, is more than recommended.

Severo Sarduy’s graph and painting were calling for fair and immediate recognition especially in Cuba, where he has been considered for decades –which is not a short time– as a top-class writer.