I may not know my magical realism from my costumbrismo, but Cuba has always piqued my interest, and The Book of Havana seemed like a perfect opportunity for some armchair tourism. I started reading, prepared to have my eyes opened; what I got was more like a punch in the face.
The action kicks off with ‘Into Tiny Pieces’, about what happens when you mislay your flag. It’s set in the ‘extreme patriotism’ of the 1970s which with a few changes of detail could be any number of cities suffering an excess of a certain kind of patriotism (Kundera’s Prague springs to mind). The remaining nine stories all deal, in one way or another, with the aftermath of the economic chaos which hit Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed. We’ve got migration, internal and external, poverty, frustration, bureaucracy, potential for humiliation at the hands of foreign tourists. But these subjects were overshadowed by recurring themes that felt like they were popping up in one story after another: graphic, transactional sex and dispassionate, Tarantino style violence. It peaks with Jorge Enrique Lage’s ‘Diary of a Serial Killer in the Jurassic’ (think Crash, the 1996 one, plus dinosaurs). The most adventurous stylistically, it is also the most way out sickeningly repulsive. Lage, apparently, wants to make his readers feel unease, discomfort. He definitely succeeded with this reader.
Naturally, when juxtaposed with such strong, unpleasant images, the quieter stories struggle to be heard. But The Book of Havana has its moments. Eduardo Angel Santiesteban’s ‘My Night’, supposed to indicate the direction of the new generation of Cuban writers, is a captivating, slightly surreal nocturnal adventure. Laidi Fernandez de Juan’s ‘The Trinity of Havana’ attempts to equate bureaucracy with mathematics. An intriguing premise, although much of it reads as literally as the exasperated blow by blow accounts you find on expat blog sites. Ahmel Echevarria Peré’s ‘The List’, using numbered paragraphs to chop up the narrative, explores emigration from the perspective of the ones left behind.
“In the list, I would use blue for those who no longer walked the streets of my Havana. The choice of blue was not accidental. The colour blue, as well as maybe misty-white, represented what is far away. Those who were currently waiting for their passports and papers to be processed would be written in green letters. Red ink, meanwhile, stood for the potential emigrants.”
Unfortunately for the collection as a whole, appreciating these moments when they come along is like trying to taste mashed potato when you’ve just eaten a jalfrezi. And the ultimate effect is that it feels, rightly or wrongly, as if a certain kind of writing has been favoured. Cuban writer and professor Mirta Yanez, who published an anthology of Cuban women writers, wrote about ‘an ideological emphasis on “tough” writing’ which kept fiction by Cuban women largely ignored. There’s certainly a lot of tough writing going on here, and maybe what we’re seeing is an upholding of a certain literary tradition. Or maybe it’s a just reflection: maybe extreme times make for extreme writing. Or maybe an outsider is just not sufficiently equipped to navigate the strangeness of the terrain. I have no way of knowing.
Any Cop?: The collection raised a lot of questions, and certainly got me thinking about Cuban literature. In that sense it can be said to have succeeded. But the city it depicts is a disturbed one. For Havana’s sake, I hope there’s more to it than this.