Passion and Scandal in Cuba
Great books about Cuba from Earnest Hemingway, Alejo Carpentier, Graham Greene and more
Writers have long been fascinated with Cuba, that great worm of an island, the largest in the Caribbean that sits ninety miles from Florida. Just as there is Edith Wharton’s New York, and Mavis Gallant’s Paris, there is the Cuba of Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene – full of violence, passion, and scandal. Cuba’s own novelists have had an outsized influence beyond the island’s borders. Alejo Carpentier’s writing introduced magical realism to Latin America; Leonardo Padura’s and Cabrera Infante’s novels invent an Havana that is as distinctive as Charles Dicken’s London.
Stephen Crane traveled to Cuba in 1897 as a correspondent during the Spanish American War and from his misadventures, came his short story, “The Open Boat,” which is based on Crane’s experience of surviving a shipwreck while traveling to Havana. Richard Harding Davis, journalist, playwright, and best-selling author, was sent to cover Teddy Roosevelts’ Rough Riders by The New York Herald. “The Death of Rodriquez,” his poignant, firsthand account of an execution of a rebel by the Guardia Civil on the front lines, is brilliant journalism.
Hemingway lived in Cuba from 1939-1960, writing a great deal there and some of his works are set on the island, notably To Have and Have Not and The Old Man in the Sea. Graham Greene arrived in Cuba in late 1957 to research a book and to sample Havana’s scandalous offerings in the city’s casinos and sex clubs, including the infamous Shanghai. His novel, Our Man in Havana, grew out of his extended stay in the city. Kenneth Tynan, the caustic English critic, and enfant terrible of the London theater, visited Cuba in 1959 to write an account of life under the new Castro regime for Holiday Magazine. A famous anecdote from his trip remains. Tynan entered a bar and encountered Alex Guinness, who was there for the film adaption of Our Man In Havana, which was being shot in the city. He told Guinness he had two tickets for La Cabana fort that night and asked Guinness to join him. “What’s on?” Guinness asked. Tynan replied: “They are executing a couple of sixteen year olds. A boy and a girl. I thought you’d like to see it. One should see everything if one is an actor.”
Today, the violence is muted, the scandal suppressed, and the passion, defiant against years of grim poverty, is vibrantly alive in music, dance, and the nostalgia of Cuban writers for the exuberance and seductions of the past.
Here are eight books set in Cuba.
Our Man in Havana
Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958) gives life to the decadence and depravity of pre-revolutionary Havana as the novel spins out a comedic tale of cash-strapped Jim Wormold, who successfully cons British Intelligence into paying him for vacuum cleaner drawings that supposedly depict missile installations. The novel begins in El Prado, Old Havana’s main thoroughfare and home to the Wonder Bar, where Wormold begins his day with a drink. “There is always time for a scotch.” Wormold’s daughter, Milly, 17, holds him hostage with her spending habits, and he pads invoices to Britain’s Intelligence Service, MI6, by inventing sub-agents in whose name he draws expense accounts and on whose ‘word’ he concocts missile diagrams he takes from appliance brochures. He finds the names of his fictitious agents in the phone book, so they exist in real life, and begin to die when the Cuban police crack his simple coded messages to London. The Wonder Bar no longer exists, nor does Sloppy Joe’s, another bar, but other richly described locations remain. The hotels Nacional, Inglattera, and Sevilla exist today, as does the Tropicana. El Floridita, where Hemingway drank, and whose life-size bronze statue sits slumped at the bar, continues to attract tourists. Gone is the Shanghai, Havana’s notorious sex club, where one of the novel’s sub-agents, Teresa, was a nude dancer. Greene’s researched his novel on several trips to the city. Of the infamous strip club, Greene wrote in autobiography: “We had been to the Shanghai, and we had watched without much interest Superman’s performance with a mulatto girl (as uninspiring as a dutiful husband).”
Explosion in the Cathedral
Alejo Carpentier’s Explosion in the Cathedral, written in 1962, embraces the then timely theme of revolutionary-turned-tyrant. It is an historical novel set in the Caribbean at the time of the French Revolution, but it is an oblique commentary on Cuba after Castro came to power. The book follows the story of three privileged creole orphans from Havana who join French adventurer Victor Hugues in the revolutionary turmoil that gripped the Americas. Carpentier, who was born in Havana in 1904, and lived for many years in France and Venezuela, is considered the leading precursor to the generation of Latin American authors who came to prominence in the 1970s, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Explosion in the Cathedral is splendidly written, a stylistic tour de force.
What’s A Woman Doing Here?
What’s A Woman Doing Here?, (1961), Dickey Chapelle’s memoir of her twenty years reporting from the bayonet borders of the Cold War, sets its penultimate chapter in Cuba in 1958. She was among a handful of journalists to interview Fidel Castro in his Sierra Maestra headquarters. It has a reporter’s keen observations about life under dictatorship: hamlets destroyed by air-dropped napalm; the brutal violation of a fifty-year old woman school teacher; constant fear of arrest while making her way through the front lines. Chapelle spent six rain soaked days in the makeshift hospital headquarters creating a portrait of Castro – then still an enigmatic figure. His command style: “The staccato rhythms of the hasty conferences as orders were sent and messages received, was punctuated by radio transmissions.” “His speaking voice was surprisingly soft.” “His manner of giving praise was a bear hug.” Before Chapelle ended her nine weeks she witnessed the collapse of Batista’s regime New Year’s Eve and Castro’s triumphant entry in Havana a few days later. It’s a humorous and self-deprecating memoir by an ambitious young woman. In the end she gave up everything she had to be a war correspondent – including her life. She was killed in Vietnam in 1965 when a piece of shrapnel triggered by a tripwire mortally cut her throat. She was the first woman war correspondent killed while on assignment.
Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre
Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre (1998) opens in Cuba on February 18th, 1898, three days after the sinking of the battleship Maine, when a Texan named Tyler arrives in Havana to deliver a string of horses to an American sugar baron – actually a cover for an arms shipment to Cuban insurgents fighting the Spanish Army. It can be read as a brilliant retelling of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, with a half a dozen parties scheming to make off with money intended for the revolutionary cause. Period atmosphere is here: sugar refineries fouling the air with black smoke, Old Havana’s broad esplanades traveling down to the Malecon, windows on old government buildings shuttered tight at noon to protect against the sun’s oppressive heat. The book wants to capture, and largely does, the spirit of the island, the largest in the Caribbean, just 90 miles from Florida, that is part Spain, part Africa, part America. Havana’s prominent landmarks are threaded into the story giving the city an eerie familiarity: the Hotel Inglaterra is there, its lobby a meeting place for deal makers, as is La Cabana Fortress. Priests accompany condemned prisoners to the moat for dawn execution, a grim foreshadowing of what took place in the prison in 1959. Night life has a racy exotic feel, but it was a different, poorer time. Spanish soldiers pay prostitutes with Mausser cartridges only to have the cartridges find their way into rebel rifles that kill them. There are a dozen greedy schemes that pause for war and sex.
Leonardo Padura’s Havana Fever (2005) is set during Cuba’s ironically named Special Period, when the Soviet Union’s subsidies to the Cuban economy ended and the island entered a prolonged period of hardship. Wealth was measured in egg rations and families sold whatever they had to support themselves. In this mystery, former detective Mario Conde has become an antiquarian book dealer, buying up individual titles and entire libraries of the former upper class for a bargain. Families living in decaying mansions in once prosperous Vedado now harvest heirlooms to pay for food. Padura finds tucked into one volumes he’s bought the photo of a bolero singer, the beautiful and mysterious Violeta del Rio, who was popular in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Conde is curious about the mystery surrounding her suicide and her connection to the family who owned the book. He investigates her death in the glamorous world of the 1950’s, with his mobsters, corruption, dance halls, casinos, and cultural gloss – a period that still fascinates modern Cuban writers. This atmospheric book is full of Havana’s faded past, which, like an old uncle, has endless stories to tell. Leonardo Padura’s Havana Fever is a fine novel of detection and a life-affirming tribute to the city.
Telex From Cuba
Telex From Cuba (2008) by Rachel Kushner is a recreation of the lost world of American expats living in pre-revolutionary Cuba. It is multi-layered novel that evokes the beauty of the island and the brutal inequities of the Batista dictatorship, spanning the period from March 1952, when Batista assumed power in a coup, to New Year’s Eve 1959 when he fled in advance of Castro’s forces. The first part of the book takes place in the United Fruit company town of Preston, east of Havana, where American’s live a gated life with maids, drivers, largely removed from the violence of the surrounding poverty. White jacketed servants pour drinks at the tennis club from a cart with gleaming liquor bottles. The writing is often lyrical: “What hot tongs of lightening spidered against the dark sky.” Kusher captures the dizzying confusion of political factions fighting Batista, with Castro’s July 26th Movement slogging it out in the mountains while other opposition factions talk a good game over coffee in Havana’s bars. There are compelling details of Havana life – La Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite bar, is there and he makes a cameo appearance. So is Barrio Chino, where stiletto-heeled prostitutes stand between fruit carts and solicit tourists while across the alley, a line of sashaying girls with Adam’s apples appeal to a different taste: “Just let me escort you, honey.”
Three Trapped Tigers
Cabrera Infante’s novel, Three Trapped Tigers (1965), is nostalgic for the colorful, tawdry Havana of the 1950s, and for the political innocence of the time. The book opens with the voice of the emcee of the Tropicana, the city’s luxurious open air night club. “Showtime! Senoras y senores. Ladies and Gentlemen. And a very good evening to you.” This stream-of-consciousness masterpiece propelled Infante into the front ranks of Latin American novelists, drawing comparisons to Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Infante’s Havana is a “crumbling, noisy, malodorous, brilliantly colored” city filled with jazz singers, gangsters and prostitutes. His characters are all well read, well versed in popular culture, and committed to the possibilities of taste, tragedy, and truth. The three young men central to the book cavort with musicians, dancers, and wealthy debutantes, including La Estrella, a bolero singer, Vivian Smith-Corona, an heiress, and Mrs. Campbell, wife of an American millionaire. Infante’s Cuba is a manic doomed world.
A Planet For Rent
A Planet For Rent (2001), the English language debut of Jose Miguel Sanchez, who writes under the pen name Yoss, was inspired by events in the early 1990s during Cuba’s euphemistically described Special Period when the collapse of the Soviet Union denied the island’s economy much needed subsidies. Cuba opened itself up to tourism, altering life in Havana, and it was the presence of foreigners, the privileges they enjoyed, and the cash they brought, that led Yoss to write his scathing, thinly veiled, dystopian satire. The book is split into fourteen chapters each a short story or vignette connected by recurring characters and themes. Aliens called Xenoids arrive to preserve the declining human civilization and human metaphorically and physically prostitute themselves for the visitors. “Performing Death,’ the most remarkable and disturbing chapter, recalls Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” Yoss’s protagonist, Moy, is a human artist who performs a bodily deconstruction for the alien audience in which the artist is mechanically filleted under mild anesthesia and recites his visceral manifesto. “The artist can and must die – in, through, and for his art.” Yoss is a brave and imaginative voice. His novel is a trenchant portrayal of Cuba under communism.
PAUL VIDICH was a senior executive in the entertainment industry for over twenty years. After leaving his business career he turned to writing full time. He serves on the boards of The New School for Social Research and Poets and Writers. His first novel, An Honorable Man, was published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books. His second novel, The Good Assassin, published April 2017, is set in Cuba.
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