Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Spanish / Professor Nivia Montenegro
Taming the Tres Tigres

Professor Nivia Montenegro, a specialist in 20th-century Latin American narrative, is completing the first critical edition of the original, Spanish-language novel Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) with the help of three Pomona students. The critical edition of the novel by Cuban exile Guillermo Carbrera Infante is scheduled to be released in September by Spanish publisher Cátedra.

Montenegro, a long-time faculty member in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, and her husband, Enrico Mario Santi of the University of Kentucky, began researching the book in 2004. They visited the author at his home near London and collaborated with his widow, Miriam Gómez, after Infante’s death in 2005.

Montenegro first read Infante’s book as an undergraduate at the University of Miami in 1973. She and her parents were among the 265,000 Cuban exiles who came to the United States between 1965 and 1973 as part of the U.S.-government sponsored “Freedom Flights.” She was 17 when they landed in Miami.

Infante’s novel set in Havana’s famous Tropicana cabaret offers a snapshot of the Bohemian nightlife in the city’s vibrant Vedado neighborhood of nightclubs, bars and hotels in the 1950s. “I felt a moral debt to him because he gave me a way to get a glimpse of the world I never got to know,” Montenegro says.

In turn, Montenegro offered three of her students a glimpse of her world, the difficult realm of literary research.

Jazmin López ’09 was a freshman when Montenegro asked her to work on the project over the summer. “She wanted a non-Cuban Spanish speaker to find words, phrases and references that I didn’t understand,” says Lopez, who will graduate this year with majors in Spanish and international relations.

The book, which has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses because of its cultural, linguistic and narrative complexities, contains a lot of Cuban slang and references to Cuban literature, films and music that might be unfamiliar to non- Cuban readers. Lopez compiled lists of unfamiliar words and transcribed all of the footnotes. Even though she is a native Spanish speaker, Lopez found the text very challenging: “I learned that research is really hard to do.”

Last fall, Montenegro asked Savina Velkova ’12 and Marian Williams ’12 to join the project.

Velkova, was charged with reading two versions of the novel simultaneously: the censored version published in 1967 in Spain under Francisco Franco and the 1991 uncensored edition. Working from photocopies, she would read a sentence or two in one edition and then compare it with the other.

The primary difference, she found, was that the uncensored edition had a lot of sexual scenes and imagery and courser, more graphic language. “Whole paragraphs and scenes were very coherent in the uncensored version and very graphic, but in the censored version there would just be a missing chunk,” Velkova says. “It wouldn’t have made sense to read it.”

While Velkova was comparing two editions of the Infante book, Williams was working from a photocopy of the bound manuscript, which is in the Princeton University library. The manuscript contained many words and phrases circled by the author to indicate that they should be published as written even if they were misspelled or ungrammatical. Williams would search the manuscript for circled words and phrases and then mark them with asterisks in the critical edition, which had been scanned into a computer. “I really loved being part of this big, long process,” says Williams, a philosophy major who is considering double-majoring in Spanish.

Along the way, she made an exciting discovery. She found three passages in the bound manuscript that were not included in the critical edition. Initially, Williams thought she had made a mistake, but when she realized that she had uncovered unpublished passages she was very excited. The longest passage was a page; the shortest, a paragraph.

The passages will be included as an appendix to the critical edition, says Montenegro, who adds that she has never worked so closely with a group of students. “For me it was very exciting and gratifying to see them learning and to see them excited about the difficulty and the challenge.”
—Elaine Regus

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