Today, my students concluded Cuban modernist Virgilio Piñera’s 1949 novel René’s Flesh. Subverting the genre expectations set in the first few chapters, René’s Flesh defies the linear motion of the coming of age novel. The conventional coming of age novel begins with a stubborn climb in the attempt to conquer societal expectations by overcoming them, the protagonist’s ultimate passage to transcendence traverses failure with recognition and acceptance. In that way, character development in the coming of age story occurs at the moment rebellion turns to understanding and the protagonist desires the demands put on him by society.
René, a sick and pathetic excuse for a boy, is twenty years old yet incapable of meeting even his family’s simple demands. It opens with René nearly passing out at the butcher shop during a joyous day when it has the unrestricted sale of meat, which is met by excitement and hysteria by the rest of the town. René is soon introduced to his central role in the “The Cause” and its “battle of the flesh” as its soon-to-be chief. Millions of lives hang in the balance, yet René’s clouded inability to understand the simplest meaning spills over to the reader. In content becoming form, Piñera uses absurd nonsense to confirm René subversion of the genre – instead of recognition and acceptance, René’s Flesh is an exercise in frustration and evasion.
Masochism underwrites René’s every move, illustrating its descending force, and through contrast, the novel reveals the sadism of the coming of age novel and its movement of ascent (Difference and Repetition 5; ). The consequence of this distinction is a careful delineation between the coming of age novel’s false image of submission and René’s masochistic embodiment of submission as a process of becoming. Piñera makes the reader share in René’s submission, forcing them to observe his initiation into his father’s cult of flesh – muzzled, electrocuted, licked, branded, and raped. We are given principles for such treatment of René’s flesh; yet in every instance that they are applied, René’s flesh withholds reason in its rebellion, unconsciously pushing back enough to escape meaning and enable the character’s swift passage to another scene. René is told to “suffer in silence,” which he does in a stupor when not letting out weak incomprehensible yelps. With every escape, René’s finds himself in a new set of rules and laws to evade, and when he eventually do, others arrived in a lateral geometric multiplication of force (Coldness and Cruelty 120).
The pieces fall in place only when René’s Flesh is read as a masochistic novel. René’s pitiful existence does little to justify his inheritance of the throne of The Cause makes little sense on its face. He has one exemplary ability: to be found and pursued by the law only to then frustrate and evade it. It is this masochistic form of submission – the escape and evasion of the law by becoming a miserable object of disgust – and not the sadist ascent of the coming age novel, which justifies the “crowned anarchy” in the descent of René’s flesh.