Read, rattle and roll

Malcolm Deas

  • Holy Smoke by G. Cabrera Infante
    Faber, 329 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13518 8
  • Tobacco on the Periphery. A Case Study in Cuban Labour History: 1860-1958 by Jean Stubbs
    Cambridge, 203 pp, £25.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 521 25423 X

I like to regard people both making it and smoking it not only as a sort of friendship, but as a vast domain of democracy wherein we find gathered people of every class and race and creed, having in pipe or plug or cigar or cigarette, a bond of sympathetic understanding and a contact of common interest and good fellowship. I like to contemplate the business of producing and the pleasure of consuming this exalted plant as really a realm peopled by congenial spirits and ruled only by those kindlier human emotions which the smoke of these fragrant leaves kindles in the heart of man ...

Carl Avery Werner, Tobaccoland (1922)

... his soldiers knew, as one of them put it, that he was capable of ordering them to be shot without putting down his cigar ... The vivid and well-known phrase that Garibaldi ordered men to be shot ‘without taking the cigar out of his mouth’ is unfortunately an incorrect translation of Hoffstetter’s original German.

Jasper Ridley, Garibaldi

Some twenty years ago the idea (come from England, no doubt) that cigars, like Loos’s blondes, were for gentlemen only, was dispelled by the scraggly mien of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s handsome head, both clad in US Army surplus fatigues, both enveloped in smoking beards and both smoking foul, fat cigars. These, gentlemen, were no gentlemen.

G. Cabrera Infante, Holy Smoke

Cabrera Infante’s book is the work of a learned and well-read Cuban cigar-smoker, film-goer, wit, novelist and master of free association. He has lived in London since 1966 and here writes in English. Holy Smoke will come to rank as one of the oddest items in the large bibliography of tobacco. It starts with Columbus, works forward to current cigar conditions in Cuba and clubland, and then labours through the appearance of the cigar in all the many films the author can remember in which cigars appeared: ‘Why so many movies, old boy? Simply because those who forget the movies of the past are condemned to see remakes. By the same token, or ticket, if one does not enjoy the movies of our time one will never be able to enjoy the movies of the past.’ It ends with an anthology with comments of the cigar in literature, from Ben Jonson to Stéphane Mallarmé.

Tobacco-jar writing, like Norfolk-jacket writing, is a small perennial menace in what Mencken called beautiful letters (Mencken gets into Holy Smoke through a grandfather in the cigar trade) and usually produces what publishers call ‘a celebration’, which usually calls for no such thing. Cabrera likes smoking cigars: ‘My idea of happiness is to sit alone in the lobby of an old hotel after a late dinner, when the lights go out at the entrance and only the desk and the doorman are visible from my comfortable armchair. I then smoke my long black cigar in peace, in the dark: once a primeval bonfire in the clear of the forest, now a civilised ember glowing in the night like a beacon to the soul.’ All the same, he knows that rhapsody does not make a good read. Nor does connoisseurship or dogma, and there is not too much of either, which is welcome now that it is getting hard for an ordinary person to buy a quarter pound of cheddar. He gives a sardonic view of some famous shops:

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