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.
T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne is not only the story suggested in the subtitle—How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution—but the story of how Havana in particular came to earn its reputation as ‘sin city’ during the seven-year U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
And yet the book provides much more than even this. English offers readers information ranging from the origins of The Commission founded by Lucky Luciano and the average schooling (and with it the ‘thug’ nature) of American mobsters, to the “ominous mood in the air” as midnight approached on the 31st of December, 1958, when Meyer Lansky—a childhood friend of Luciano’s, and long-time criminal associate—sat down to eat with his mistress, driver, and the driver’s girlfriend at a booth in the Plaza Hotel’s “modest café, near Parque Central in Old Havana.”
Though it was one of the Havana Mob’s chosen spots, the Plaza was not as established as the Riviera, Capri, Tropicana, and other locations. By choosing to spend the evening at the Plaza, Lansky was deliberately hoping to avoid the large crowds that would be gathering elsewhere; he preferred something more discreet and less popular with the high-end tourists and his high-ranking associates in the Mob.
Lansky was never once found guilty of anything more serious than illegal gambling, despite being a founding member in 1931 of The Commission. The dapper, publicity-avoiding, Jewish mobster was regarded as not only clever but intelligent. He might not have known that that night would be Cuba’s last as one of the most glamorous and hedonistic vacation spots in the world, and he certainly didn’t know that Batista had already arranged to flee the country within a matter of hours. But Lansky knew that the end was near.
“The Barbudos (the bearded ones) are close to winning the war,” Lansky told Jaime. The driver was surprised; his boss did not usually volunteer opinions about Cuban politics.
Obviously, he was worried. He told Jaime that although he was familiar with the political inclinations of the barbudos, he didn’t know what the top leadership was going to do. Most importantly, he was uncertain what their position would be on the casinos, whether they would keep them open or immediately shut them down.
Fidel Castro—whose biography and armed revolution are also presented in considerable detail in Havana Nocturne—was also a very clever and intelligent man, adept at playing his political cards. He kept everyone, including the CIA—which provided funds for Castro’s guerillas at one point, and in this way enabled their campaign to overthrow Batista—guessing. So as soon as Lansky learned, about 1:30 a.m., that Batista was gone, he began to collect from his casinos all the cash on the premises and he urged his associates to do the same and to shutter the casino-hotels that had made life in Havana so pleasant and profitable for the mobsters.
And then he stuck around, “out of curiosity,” to witness Castro’s arrival in the capitol, on the 8th of January, 1959. “Lansky…and the other gangsters were convinced that, no matter what Castro said, he would have to allow the casinos to stay open if he hoped to keep the island’s economy afloat.” But within two years of his victory—and within the context of the drastically deteriorating relations with the United States—Castro confiscated and nationalized the Havana Riviera and all the other U.S.-owned businesses on the island, and the Kennedy Administration imposed an economic embargo that remains in effect to this day.
Telling the end of this story cannot possibly spoil it for anyone interested in learning more about how the mafia came to choose Cuba as its offshore base of operations, and the ways in which all foreign interests operated under a corrupt dictator determined to skim his share of the profits on absolutely everything, including the parking meters in Havana.
Because it is those details—their extent and depth and nuance—that enrich T.J. English’s fluid prose, and make reading Havana Nocturne so informative, eye-opening and enjoyable.
These bells of doom sound often in the history of American foreign policy and if anyone doubts this they could start by reading Bitter Fruit, the extremely well-documented story of the 1954 American conceived, inspired, financed, led and dictated coup in Guatemala that set a precedent for future U.S. efforts at ‘regime change’ throughout the world.
The measure of a great novel is its resonance in the reader. Sometimes the reader remembers and never forgets very specific details. But when a sense of the whole story and the experience of reading that story endures, long after the book has been finished and put away on the shelf, long after more forgettable books have been read and replaced on those same shelves, that story has demonstrated its achievement: to live on in the life and imagination of the reader, the only place where any story ever matters.
This, it seems, sums up the deployment experience: the near-constant fear for your life, and that of the others you come to cherish and love, followed by a homecoming that is almost equally traumatizing because while away, serving your country in some capacity that involves this often present threat of sudden death, you fear that you will never go home again and then find, upon returning to that country you have served and the home you left to go off to war, that it’s almost as if everything you did and suffered through over there doesn’t matter at all, since “the world goes on without us.”
Boyd’s work is extremely competent, smart, well-wrought in every way, with fine writing too. Boyd is particularly masterful at employing very short sections to quickly establish and deftly and economically build up his narratives. Some of these stories are composed of paragraph-long sections representing distinct points of view that together produce a sort of pastiche of sensory data and information, and in this way lay out the drama involved.
It is a world of true revolutionary fervor and desperation in this country that McGrath recreates in the short space of sixty-one pages, as well as visceral and ideological animosity—the kind people are willing to kill and die for—towards the English masters, a time when Americans (that is, North Americans, or estadounidenses) were treated with the same brand of disdain that the European descendants in this country tend to reserve now, for example, for Latin Americans.