Objectivity in the field of Cuba is a little like indifference in a love-hotel: It’s not what people go there for, as a rule. For a country only 90 miles from American shores, and more and more in the air all about us--mamboing on the boom-box, seducing Robert Redford on the screen, winning more gold medals than any but the three superpowers and Germany at the Olympic Games--Cuba still exists in a kind of literary blackout (or is it a white-out?). Fiction has recently laid powerful claim to it, whether through the exhaustive research of John Sayles (in “Los Gusanos”) or the imaginative daring of Cristina Garcia (in “Dreaming in Cuban”). But nonfiction has never found a way around this central dilemma: Those who have left the island are by definition the ones with little good to say about it, while those who are still there cannot afford to say anything bad.
Thus, on the one hand we get books by exiles, like Armando Vallardares and Herberto Padilla, that sound like the injured complaints of cuckolds suing for divorce before the United Nations; and, on the other, the starry-eyed rhapsodies of foreigners who know they have a confirmed ticket out. Even would-be detached observers, like Jacobo Timerman, have hardly arrived in Cuba before they start seeing red, and unload their sermons before they have even unpacked their bags. One problem, as Timerman’s “Cuba: A Journey” reveals, is that it is hard to see the sunlight in this lovely West Indian island for the shadow of the man standing over it; descriptions of Cuba today are often indistinguishable from assessments of the leader who has put his stamp on every square inch of the place for fully a third of a century.
Where others either blacken the island or gild it, Tom Miller in his new book essentially leaves it unshaded, presenting us with something like the broad silhouettes of a children’s coloring book before the crayons have been handed out. His is entirely the perspective of a regular guy hanging out with regular guys, a friendly innocent abroad giving us the view from street level. And though he has spent eight months on the island since 1987, even living there for a half a year, the author of “The Panama Hat Trail” never interprets Cuba, or gets beneath its surface, and never brings irony or drama or subtlety to it. Instead, he simply gives us a long, casual stroll through its streets and homes, without apparent direction, but also without ideological design. It reminds me very much of the way C-SPAN covered contemporary Vietnam--no commentary, no shape or drive, just a silent camera panning around faces and stores.
Cuba, more than anywhere else, is in the details, and in his artless, workmanlike fashion, Miller does dig up a lot of moments that are at once incongruous and inalienably Cuban: the loyal communists gushing over Meryl Streep and the men in caps that say “100% WITH NORIEGA”; the baseball stadia with posters listing “Favorable Positions for Firing on the Enemy”; the TV sets tuned to Benny Hill. One TV celebrity admits that she sees no foreign publications save those sent her by the Nutrition Institute of Jamaica. And the classical radio station in Havana, with characteristic roguishness, plays a symphonic version of “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’.”
Miller has a curiously flat way of transcribing talk--one hears his notebook pages fluttering more than the feelings and rhythms of his speakers--but he does catch something of the salt and exuberance of an uncommonly garrulous, and romantic, and sardonic people: the Party-girl who sighs, “Oh, I would love to be colonized by the British”; the stand-up comedian who announces that “The United States is like a giant losing his hair to cancer”; the hitchhiker who cries, “I love your President, George Bush. He is very pretty. Democracy!”
In his wide-eyed diligence, Miller also covers a lot of ground. Bypassing the usual tourist sights (the matchless Spanish Colonial areas and the empty beaches), he goes instead to the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg School, to ballparks in the provinces where visiting teams have to sleep overnight, to a cigar factory where the rollers are serenaded each day by a man who reads to them from the newspaper, Agatha Christie and romance novels. He describes Guantanamo, the U.S. base on Cuban soil, from both sides of the fence, and, as a visitor of Jewish descent, he presents rare vignettes of synagogues and Hanukkah in Havana.
And while he never puts them in context, or sets them off against the present, he does excavate all kinds of savory descriptions of the island from previous visitors, from John Muir to Winston Churchill and from Richard Henry Dana to Trollope. Every few pages, in fact, he delivers a mini-disquisition on Cuban jokes, Cuban dominoes, Cuban cigars or the Cuban “s”; in one refreshingly manic moment, he actually catalogues 23 references in literature and song to Cuban behinds, the most priceless being Timerman’s typical “The sexes had been equalized in Cuba, but backsides had particular values and meanings.”
The problem is, though, this is a little like describing someone by listing the color of his hair and eyes. When Miller does attempt analysis, the results are not very felicitous (“The complex ration procedure and the declining availability of merchandise reflected poorly on the system”). Often, in fact, it is hard to see what kind of reader he is addressing. For whose benefit would Graham Greene’s life be described as holding “an intoxicating mix of literature, espionage, revolution, and sex,” or his work as “invariably provok(ing) generous tributes”? Of the years 1957 and 1958, when Cuba was a crazy, mob-run Babylon with guerrillas scoring victories in the hills, Miller notes that it was “a most active and convoluted place.”
This strange uninflectedness is compounded by a prose that veers dangerously close at times to dude-speak. People here are often “bitching away” or “dropping bombs” (not from airplanes) or “connecting” with others. Miller himself fears he may be “colonialed out” in Sancti Spiritus; and “I must have been buenas tardes’d a hundred times.” At one point, we see “silent” (as opposed to noisy?) tears “gush” down a woman’s cheeks; in the next paragraph, she is “mimick(ing) a happy persona.” Although Miller does appear to be an amiable sort (“Boy, I love what I’m doing,” he exults on one drive), it becomes frustrating to see one potentially rich encounter after another dribble off into random details or phrases that lie dead on the page (“Cuba’s beauty had a soft integrity to it”).
Most of all, though, what I miss in his account is the intensity, the ambiguity, the heartbroken ardor of the place I know, and all the chiaroscuro of a buoyant, warm-hearted, music-filled and magic-haunted tropical island that is also, more and more, a bankrupt and desperate police state. I miss the sound of the guitars and the smell of the nights, I miss the involving eventfulness of a world where emotions and dramas are played out on the streets, and the person you befriend will try to separate you from your money, while the policeman who evicts you will invite you to dinner at his house. I miss the spice and texture of the place.
Yet if Miller tends to collect details the way a broom collects scraps, it may still be better to have a jumble of facts than a farrago of opinions. And his book may at least serve as a raw sourcebook for more penetrating inquiries in the future. For the land he describes is recognizably Cuba today, in the extravagant kindness of people all too ready to sacrifice their needs, and in the jokes about Fidel that reflect both a national dissatisfaction and a quenchless wit. Tom Miller has caught the letter, if not the spirit, of Cuba today, and in Cuba, so often seen in black-and-white, that is at least a start.