Fiction, Story Collections

Havana Noir

Akashic Books’ Havana Noir presents eighteen previously unpublished stories set in different neighborhoods of the Cuban capital.  Together these sometimes grim and gritty stories form a composite portrait of what used to be considered the most glamorous vacation spot in the world.

 

Although that was a long time ago and a lot has happened since then, Havana remains an intriguing destination and Havana Noir is an excellent introduction to some of the Cuban voices—both resident and living in exile—that speak most authoritatively for the city and its two million inhabitants.

 

I did feel, while reading these stories, that I could usually tell whether the writer had remained in socialist Cuba.  Some of the stories—Carolina García-Aguilera’s “The Dinner,” for example, or Alex Abella’s “Shanghai” or Achy Obejas’s “Zenzizenzic” or Lea Aschkenas’s “La Coca-Cola del Olvido”—betrayed a sensibility and treatment of their subjects that struck me as incorrigibly North American:  o mejor dicho, estadounidense.

 

This distinction might not be of interest to other readers and it doesn’t necessarily reflect upon the quality of any particular piece, but it was of note to me.  Those Cubans who have stayed behind and endured—and endurance has certainly been required!—the vagaries and adversities of the Cuban post-revolutionary experience tend to write from the point of view of within, inside, whereas these other writers tend to offer their readers a view, informed as it may be, from without, looking in, and back at the island.

 

The anthology opens with Miguel Mejides’ “Nowhere Man,” a story that is grittily grounded yet Kafkaesque in some ways, with dashes of magic realism that could almost be attributed to an addled—by hunger in this case, and desperation—state of mind.  Or a deeper and more spiritual malaise, either caused by or manifested in a physical defect.

 

A lot of people think that if you’re cross-eyed, you see objects differently.  But I saw the city as it really was.

 

This is precisely what makes this particular anthology so invaluable:  Mejides isn’t the only writer in this collection reporting on the way things really are.

 

There is, for example, in many of the stories in Havana Noir plenty of foul language—translated into English by Achy Obejas—and very little sign of Che Guevara’s hombre nuevo.  Many of the stories involve substance abuse, prescription pills as well as alcohol and marijuana.  Leonardo Padura’s story—“Staring at the Sun”—deals explicitly with the issue of pill popping on the island.

 

El Cao always has liquor…Sometimes he also has pills.  He gets them easily:  He steals a script from his mother, who works as an administrator at a hospital, and he signs her name, and then they give him the best pills at the pharmacy.  Easy, right?

 

In “Staring at the Sun” there is unbridled racism which is treated matter-of-factly.  “I like black guys less and less all the time,” says the narrator of the story.  “I swear to God that’s true.”

 

And in Ena Lucía Portela’s odd and disturbing “The Last Passenger” the narrator—who has come to cherish the late-night phone calls from a man who admits to being a serial killer—expounds upon the complex issue of race on an island that imported more slaves from Africa than the whole of the United States, when she imagines the man who calls her late at night to be white as well as refined.

 

Not white in that apocryphal fashion in which so many Cubans are white, but really white, from the roots, with all European ancestors.  Immaculately white, maybe blond or red-haired.  I also imagined him college-educated, or at least well-read and well-traveled, with a comfortable economic situation (not like me, because I struggle and work, but something of a fortunate son.  Everybody knows what I mean:  nomenclature, upper class, elite.  In other words, the truly privileged in this country—those people who manage mixed enterprises, hotels, and franchise stores, who have Swiss bank accounts and spend their vacations in the Bahamas), and the look of every mother’s son, the face of an angel, and a pianist’s hands, very clean, a bit shy, elegant, with impeccable table manners, a genuine gold Rolex on his wrist, without a police record…a loner, nocturnal, bored, and a habitual user of cocaine and hardcore porn.

 

When the narrator answers her own question—why she suffers from insomnia—she does so like this:

 

Why?  Uff.  I have no idea!  I’m thirty-three years old, I have twenty-five thousand cucos deposited at the Banco Financiero, pretty legs, and I’m white (well, to be frank, I just pass for white in this country, in fact I’m Jewish), divorced, a smoker, Sagittarius, I like film noir and noir stories, black clothes, Johnnie Walker black, darkness, Rachmaninov, and Russell Crowe’s brutish face.  I loathe Caribbean summers (so humid and muggy), salsa orchestras, rum, radical feminism, encounters with many kinds of people, Ayn Rand’s aesthetics, and being called “privileged.”

 

With my first long-anticipated trip to Cuba only weeks away I read these stories as part of my research into the island’s history and culture and nature, while also paying attention to the literary qualities of the writing.  Some of the stories in this collection struck me as particularly good in this latter sense:  Mylene Fernández Pintado’s “The Scene” and Michel Encinosa Fú’s “What for, This Burden?” 

 

Mylene Fernández Pintado provides the reader with a view of Havana from the fourteenth floor of a neglected apartment building destined to be renovated, once all the residents have been kicked out: 

 

There are little homemade structures all over the rooftops, mansions turned into barracks, houses that can barely stand.  The rooftops have become dovecots.  There are fields of laundry lines; residue of homeless people; plants that grow between the tiles on the eaves; the most minimal of services would be unavailable.

 

This is Vedado, “so scattered and rife with transients that it’s difficult to think of it as one neighborhood, but rather many.”  A central business district and urban neighborhood developed in the first half of the 20th century and regarded as both modern and affluent. 

 

Vedado and its excellent bus routes (on which no buses actually pass) and its movie theaters (always without air-conditioning in the summer) and Coppelia (with its serpentine lines) and the Malecón (which is the only real populated part of Vedado, because it’s free).

 

“The Scene” is the portrait of a relationship, that of the sister who stayed behind to take care of her ailing mother while her brother went off to a career in architectural design in San Francisco where he makes plenty of money, some of which he sends back to Havana in the form of remittances.  It is also a portrait of the building the woman and her mother have lived in all their lives. 

 

There’s no one here but us now.  And since they turned off the electricity, no one comes to visit…the elevator doesn’t work anymore.  Nor the motor that pumps the water.  But none of that is important.  All the water tanks on the roof are full.  And there are a lot of them, so there’s water all day long and there will be water long after we don’t need it anymore.

 

Left alone to take care of her mother the narrator is forced to wonder, and finally to act upon the question:

 

What must it be like to never get relief, even from sedatives?  Or to close your eyes and not open them again?  Or to spend your last days in a strange place?

 

In Michel Encinosa Fú’s “What For, This Burden,” we are presented immediately not only with death—“Daniella killed herself…She fried her brains, that’s what I mean”—but with a gritty, pedophilic and incestuous and absolutely amoral world of loveless sex and senseless violence.  All of this is portrayed with such emotional detachment that it’s hard to believe these characters could actually exist.  That people, anywhere, could feel so little for one another. 

 

They said it happened in the theater’s restroom.  During the blackout.  She broke open an electrical outlet, pulled the wires out, and scraped them down with a nail cutter.  Then she stabbed herself in the head with a pair of scissors, two times, and tied the wires to them.  Right into her brain.  They said that doesn’t hurt, that you can’t feel pain in your brain even if it gets bitten.  Then she sat herself down on the toilet, they said.  And when the electricity came back on, the volts and amps blew through her at will.

 

If this seems like too much to bear, wait until you see the reaction—or lack of a reaction—of Daniella’s brother Yuri, who runs a child prostitution business in one of the bedrooms of his apartment where desperate neighbors bring in boys and leave them there all day in exchange for a few bucks.

 

“We hafta keep going.  Do you hear me, Omaha?  We hafta let go, let go of old baggage,” he says, raising his head to see beyond me.  “What you got there?”

The man coming in is pushing a little boy in front of him.

“You can keep him overnight.  But I need him back early tomorrow.  You can pay me the usual.”

“What’s your hurry?” Yuri takes stock of the boy, who smiles at him.

“He’s my sister-in-law’s nephew.  That’s the hurry.  Like I said, the usual.”

 

Omaha is the one telling the story, the brother Daniella loved and trusted.  When Omaha was sent to a boarding school Daniella no longer had anyone to protect her.  Yuri raped her and started selling her sexual services.  Omaha returns and gets caught on the street by a rival drug dealer.  He is forced by Hector’s gang members to sodomize Daniella’s friend, while Daniella watches and herself is sodomized.  That’s why she kills herself.  Although La Gloria is a skinny stinking dumpster diver, she is also Hector’s woman.  When she offers herself to Omaha she lets him know about Hector, and Omaha slaps her, telling her “If Héctor asks, tell him it was Yuri.”  The story ends with Héctor and Yuri sitting down at the kitchen table.

 

“When I catch whoever hit my baby’s face, I’m gonna cut off his balls,” Héctor says…“Nobody hits one of my women like that…and much less while trying to fuck with a business associate…”  He looks at Yuri.  “The truth is, it’s not your fault you had such an asshole for a sister.”

Yuri nods:  “You don’t get to pick your family, as much as you may want to…About the other thing, business…”

 

All of the stories in Havana Noir combine to produce an image of the city—and of Cuba, a proud socialist nation ninety miles from the shores of the United States, long-strangled by the behemoth to the north into anything but submission by a cruel and crippling economic embargo—that is far from that projected by official sources.  Reading Havana Noir is like looking under a rug in an old and dilapidated house that has suffered a lot of traffic.  A rug that hasn’t been moved since it was laid there sixty years ago.


 

Photo courtesy of PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6063324

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