If you stacked up all the books about Cuba published in the United States, you could build a land bridge from Key West to Havana. The phenomenon, nothing short of remarkable, includes fiction, travel literature, guidebooks, natural science, short story collections, politics, history, sports and poetry. Though the best movies about the island in the Castro years have, with a few notable exceptions, come from Cuba itself, the opposite holds true for the printed page. The most expressive and wide-ranging fiction, whether by exiles or visitors, has been published in Latin America, Europe and, most recently, the United States.
To no one’s surprise, Fidel Castro, who turns 73 next month, has been the dominant character in American fiction about Cuba during the last few decades. His accomplishments have become mythic, his failures have turned legendary, and his larger-than-life stature begs invention. From his now-debunked Major League baseball tryout--the conceit for the recent novel “Castro’s Curveball” by Tim Wendel--to the audacious and failed July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada military barracks, whose anniversary Monday will occasion a Castro speech, the leader’s out-sized influence assures him a role in fiction for generations to come.
As Cuba’s commander-in-chief settles in for the closing decades of his regime, his role in contemporary fiction has expanded greatly. Cuban art, music, sports, dancing and food have invaded mainstream American culture and, together with the Castro presence, fiction about Cuba, once the undisturbed province of small presses, has appeared with unexpected frequency in the catalogues of major publishing houses.
In “A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz,” Norman Weinstein traces how the mere hint of Africa in a song’s rhythm, lyric or title conveys a musical ambience simultaneously worldly and intimate. Much of the fascination with Cuba today clearly trades on a similar embellishment, where white linen suits, ’57 Studebakers and stiletto heels create images on which music and literature thrive. Time and again, I’ve seen Americans on their first trip to Cuba walking Havana’s seaside Malecon Boulevard get inexplicably sentimental and misty-eyed as if after many years they had finally arrived home. Clearly, Cuba--hard to embrace, impossible to let go--occupies a psychological zone in the American fantasy. This increasingly overheated island has inflamed a literary imagination whose glow warms bookshelves everywhere.
“The president’s regime was creaking dangerously toward its end.” These words could have been written today, but in fact come from Graham Greene’s justly heralded entertainment, “Our Man in Havana,” which, along with Norman Lewis’ “Havana Passage,” captured the just-below-the-surface ambience of 1958 Cuba, with foreigners stumbling upon furtive revolutionaries and grotesque police thugs. Street-level Havana of the same era was the literary province of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose frenzied and nihilistic “Three Trapped Tigers,” saturated with lust and puns, gave readers an insider’s tour of its decadent night life.
Though English-language books of nonfiction sprouted quickly after the 1959 revolution, almost entirely singing its hosannas, it took a good while longer for fiction to gestate and, when it did, it consisted of either one-dimensional vanity press woe-is-me-Fidel-is-a-comemierda novels by resentful exiles (gusanos, in Fidelista parlance) or poorly circulated translations of fiction by Cubans living abroad. A pleasurable exception to this was Edmundo Desnoes’ 1962 novel, “Inconsolable Memories,” about intellectual ambivalence in the opening years of the Castro regime, a strong novel written from the inside that became a defining movie, “Memories of Underdevelopment.” Although written much later, two foreign authors checked in with novels set in that era--"Topaz” by Leon Uris, based on the missile crisis of October 1962, and “Mongoose, R.I.P.” by William F. Buckley Jr., about the JFK-backed assassination attempts on Castro, starring CIA agent Blackford Oakes.
A combination of factors led to literary acclaim for the hugely allegorical and often experimental--at times maddeningly obtuse--fiction of Reinaldo Arenas, whose misery and imagination brought forth feverish writing of the first order. The Mariel boat lift of 1980, which carried Arenas and 125,000 others to the United States, produced little fiction at the time--perhaps the disoriented newcomers had more immediate concerns than finding a voice, a typewriter, an agent and a publisher--but it was followed by two American novels that gambled on form and content. The pair--"A Totally Free Man: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Fidel Castro” by John Krich and “The Death of Che Guevara” by Jay Cantor--both exploited myth and played with legend, and both pulled it off with clarity and style.
At the end of the ‘80s, with its Pulitzer Prize imprimatur, Oscar Hijuelos’ “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” made Cubans and their appetite in all its forms a theme worthy of respect. So taken was I with the novel’s historical precision that when I lived in Cuba shortly after “Mambo Kings’ ” publication, I spent days at a time trying to find elderly musicians who may have known the Castillo brothers, even though I knew they never existed at all.
Among the first wave of this decade’s published Cuban writers born under Castro and schooled in the diaspora was Virgil Suarez, whose novels of family pain and indulgent reminiscence include “The Cutter” and “Latin Jazz.” Suarez succeeded with the tricky tradition of converting the exile adventure into literature, as has Pablo Medina (“The Marks of Birth”) and Cristina Garcia, whose precise and lyrical “Dreaming in Cuban” and “The Aguero Sisters,” with their sly spirits and impish good humor, helped bring generational fiction about Cuba to the front of the bookstore. Likewise, deserving wide readership has been Jose Raul Bernardo, whose “The Secret of the Bulls” and “Silent Wing” take us to eras of Cuban life (1911-36) and personalities (Jose Marti and his companions) that fiction seldom dwells on.
A few other novels about the island published this decade deserve notice for successfully keeping the Cuban drama alive, beginning with “Cuba Libre” by Elmore Leonard, a nicely turned shoot-em-up set against the backdrop of the 1895-1898 War of Independence. John Sayles’ unjustly overlooked “Los Gusanos” captures the sadness of Cuban exiles who believe they will retake the island, and Mary Morris’ “House Arrest” delicately paints a rough circumstance when its protagonist is held against her will. The cheerless atmosphere beneath burned-out street lights and dilapidated dwellings are the strengths shared by “Cuba and the Night” by Pico Iyer and Zoe Valdes’ “Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada.”
It is just this ambience, together with a hint of the creativity it shelters, that gives Cuba much of its appeal. But it is not the first time we have experienced this phenomenon with a neighbor. “By the time revolutionary momentum had ebbed in the late 1920s,” writes Helen Delpar in “The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican,” “Mexican culture, always an attraction, became the chief magnet for Americans. The cultural pilgrims who flocked to Mexico during those years often sought a simpler, more harmonious culture than the machine-driven society they knew at home.”
Martin Cruz Smith in “Havana Bay,” among the four most recent novels peering into Cuba, adroitly takes the city’s romantic sophistication and turns it over to Arkady Renko, Moscow detective. Poor Renko; he can’t even attempt suicide without interruption. “In Moscow you were left alone to kill yourself. In Havana there wasn’t a moment’s peace.” Renko, drawn to Cuba when a Russian friend dies there, stumbles into a jauntlet of street criminals, corrupt officials, subplots birthing subber-plots, some lifeless romance here and cheap sex there. Smith acknowledges his tangled story line: “Arkady had never before encountered such a variety of pristinely unrelated people and events: men in inner tubes, Americans on the run, a madman from Oriente, a ballerina, now Chinese bones and Chihuahuas.” And he neatly dispenses with each one, relying on ambience to do his dirty work, although, if one were to parse the plot the way one diagrams a sentence, you might find a participle dangling from a Miramar street lamp or a prepositional phrase lingering on the shelf of a Centro Habana bodega. The niftiest conceit in “Havana Bay,” the sort that distinguishes Martin Cruz Smith from others on the detective thriller page, is a diabolical conspiracy to kill Castro trolled through the regime’s upper echelons, yet when the appointed hour arrives, so too do the plainclothesmen. Castro, Renko learns, “does it every few years to weed out the malcontents.” The waters of Havana Bay are polluted and murky, yet their literary namesake emerges with its luster intact.
James Coltrane is saddled with a publisher who compares him to Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Robert Stone. It’s unfair to any author, all the more so to the writer of a slim first novel. A year after Fidel Castro’s death “A Good Day to Die’s” protagonist, Jorge Ortega, a CIA agent whose grandfather died at the Bay of Pigs, is in eastern Cuba, heading a team trying to capture the country from Castro’s successor. “No one in Washington cared. The Cold War was over. Castro was dead and there was no need to save face. Money, America’s real weapon, would win eventually, and everyone knew it.” Yet the guerrilla band Ortega leads can’t muster the credibility that good fiction requires. Their dialogue is unconvincing, and the danger in their perilous situations is seldom clearly defined. Ortega is haunted by a guerrilla in El Salvador, evidently his lover, who was tortured to death at his last port of call and who vows to press on with her memory driving him. “A Good Day to Die” needs a good deal of rhythm and crescendo; its stiffness dissolves only in the last 35 pages or so when Ortega’s guerrilla band finally reaches its destination in downtown Santiago. Later that day, critically wounded, he bleeds to death on the local ball field pitcher’s mound, suffering from a surfeit of metaphor and bad decisions.
Jack Grafton, Stephen Coonts’ 53-year-old rear admiral, is the sort of fellow who thinks about chemical and biological weapons while doing push-ups on the steel deck of a ship anchored at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At the same time Fidel Castro’s mistress Mercedes sits in the outfield stands at a Havana baseball game passing on state secrets to Hector, her late husband’s brother, a Jesuit priest with whom she is in a cabal against the regime. Hector’s brother Ocho, a pitcher for the home team, hits a home run and is soon convinced by his manager, whose daughter he has evidently impregnated, to join them and 81 others on a boat destined for the United States. Meanwhile, Vargas, Cuba’s evil state security chief, has funneled $5 million to anti-Castro groups in Miami so he, hoping to assume power, will have allies when Castro dies of cancer. He has set up a video camera to record a weakened Fidel’s dying words. Yet el lider, coerced by Vargas to anoint him the new comandante-en-jefe, dies on him first. The CIA quickly doctors the deathbed videotape to feature Fidel renouncing communism, embracing capitalism and anointing the jailed Jesuit Hector to take over. All this while Vargas launches a long-dormant Russian missile toward Atlanta. Across town, diabolical scientists at the University of Havana are cooking chemical and biological weapons--again at Vargas’ behest--activity that ceases only when the U.S. attacks Havana.
Just about all Cubans in “Cuba” are vile, viscous and venal or else duped, depressed and disgusted. The dialogue is so wooden I started getting splinters; the writing chunkier than a bowl of gazpacho. “The weak light filtering through the windows in classrooms and then through open doors to the hallway did little to alleviate the darkness.” The defecting ballplayer “walked the dark streets, past people sitting in doorways, couples holding hands, past bars with music coming through the doorways. He had spent his whole life here, and now he was leaving, an event of the first order of magnitude.” Coonts also writes in a foreign language: “Jake had had a long talk with the EA-6B electronic warfare crews and the four F/A-18 Hornets that would be over the Ospreys carrying HARMS.” This book sets one precedent, though: It is the first novel I’m aware of in which Castro’s death has graduated from the domino tables of Little Havana to the pages of mainstream American fiction.
Ernesto Mestre on the other hand is far more artful. “The Lazarus Rumba” is a wonderful first novel of literary indulgence, lusty digression and vulgar excursion worthy of our best-known Latin American fabulists. With a fresh imagination and a command of the mischief words can create, Mestre deals with deadly serious themes even as his style draws on fable and fancy. The story’s contours curve back to early Batista years, sweep deep into the Castro regime and follow the episodic lives of Alicia; her husband Julio, a comrade of Fidel’s in the Sierra Madre and afterward opposed to the regime, beliefs for which he dies; her incestuous trapeze artist twin cousins Hector and Juanito; El Rubio, the increasingly obscene police chief of Guantanamo City who imprisons Alicia for, among other crimes, trafficking in Lewis Carroll; Atila, a blue-plumed bisexual rooster who lives to 100 and who listened to Verdi operas and the tender verses of Jose Marti as a young cock; Alicia’s falcon-legged bathtub, carried cross-country a few times, once used by Fidel during the revolution as he reread Dostoevsky; Gonzalo, a padre to whom God complains, “Am I a handyman? . . . Someone to tighten every leaky tear duct, unstop every clogged heart, straighten every crossed nerve . . . free of charge, a gift?"; and many more whose entrances and exits are so natural that rather than crowd the stage, they simply give it more color.
“The Lazarus Rumba” takes some of Cuba’s more despicable features of the last 40 years--labor camps for homosexuals, the routine opening of suspicious mail, rehabilitation centers for anti-social deviants, shameful mob behavior by citizens’ groups and despotic power by petty autocrats--and gives them full-color intensity. The tension between church and state, saint and sinner, habanero and guajiro acts as a subtext, but it is Mestre’s inventive extravagance that sets this book apart from others, whether it’s El Rubio’s supper menu (pork brains au beurre noir, veal hearts stuffed with coconut shavings), his 900-year-old bull mastiff, or the recipe for warding off death (17 scorpions fried in corn oil with slivers of bonest root), or a father come back from the dead to visit the living: “No one ever thinks to furnish the dead with a nice pair of sunglasses, but all this glorious light does really get annoying after a while.”
At one point a record of Beethoven endlessly skips on the phonograph: “O, if Beethoven knew what a marvelous rumba he had wedged between two notes!” Full of both hetero- and homo-eroticism--far more the latter than the former--"The Lazarus Rumba” bristles with edgy lasciviousness and nourishing gusto.
Readers frustrated over the years at the poor selection of anti-Castro fiction can now claim “The Lazarus Rumba” as the great gusano novel. Perhaps so, but the field is far wider than that. When times are tough, good fiction thrives. Writers and readers alike--aprovechamos que los mangoes estan bajos--we are taking advantage of a bad situation. In his visit to the island last year, Pope John Paul called for the world to open up to Cuba and for Cuba to open up to the world. The next generation of fiction about the island will undoubtedly continue to reflect outsiders looking in, but I suspect we will also witness a refreshing phenomenon of novelists on the island getting their passions and enthusiasms out to the world.