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‘La Habana’: A literary stroll through Cuba’s capital across eras (IANS Column: Bookends)


For those who haven’t visited Havana and traversed seafront promenade Avenida de Maceo from old Havana to the central business district of Vedado and then on to upscale Miramar, taking in the myriad stories of grandeur, genteel decay, resignation, resilience, and optimism, while hearing strains of rumba, jazz, and nueva trova, and seeing the murals of ‘Commandante’ (Fidel Castro) or ‘Che’, there is an alternative.


There is a wide array of books, both fiction and non-fiction, by authors new and old, known and unknown, that bring Havana, and Cuba, to life from the times of soldier-turned-dictator Fulgencio Batista to Castro and further.

The focus, though, is more on the days of Mafia dominance, Castro and his revolution, and the Cuban Missile Crisis – the first time the world was on the brink of a nuclear war.

And they span genres from gritty stories of life to crime noir and police procedurals, and spy thrillers to grand historical tales.

Who better to start with than the author who fell in love in Cuba after an accidental visit, created some of his best works while living there, and finally, donated his Nobel Prize for Literature to a shrine in the country.

Ernest Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928 while sailing to Spain on a family holiday and then spent quite a bit of his life there — including after Castro’s revolution. The two did meet but did not strike a very strong bond. Castro liked the bluff American writer and termed all of his works “a defence of human rights”.

Hemingway’s epic “The Old Man and the Sea” (1951) features the eponymous Cuban fisherman as the protagonist, but it was his third book — the critically-panned (initially) “To Have and Have Not” (1937) — that contains an evocative representation of 1930s Cuba and its politics.

It is the story of Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain based in Florida, who is trying to keep himself afloat in the economic morass of the Depression. Left stranded in Havana after a wealthy customer who chartered his boat runs off without paying him, our hero slowly begins losing his moral compass and drifts into crime.

This begins when he is approached to ferry some Chinese illegal immigrants from Havana to Florida, and then to smuggling contraband. This leads to him successively losing his boat, a limb, and ultimately worse when he has to take some Cuban revolutionaries — and bank robbers — back home.

We return to the island, about two decades later, when the US mafia, facing increasing scrutiny and heat at home, began seeing Cuba as a viable alternative for business (basically gambling, prostitution, and showbiz) due to a cooperative Batista.

While part of “Godfather II”, shows this aspect in a dramatised format, a more real and comprehensive account can be found in T.J. English’s “Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba… and Then Lost It to the Revolution” (2008).

For a fictional representation, there is Philip Kerr’s cynical inter-war Berlin policeman Bernhard ‘Bernie’ Gunther, who lands on the island in his sixth adventure “If the Dead Rise Not” (2009).

The book is in two parts — the first set in Berlin in the run-up to the 1936 Olympics, where our hero runs into an American gangster aiming to make a fast buck, and their “reunion” in Batista’s Cuba in 1954, where he comes after fleeing Juan Peron’s Argentina and has to get even — and finish — some business left incomplete two decades ago.

One classic set in Cuba – and especially prescient in its plot soon after its release and even now — is Graham Greene’s blackly comic spy thriller “Our Man in Havana” (1958), set in the twilight of the Batista regime.

It is the tale of a British vacuum cleaner salesman, inveigled into espionage and resorting to fabrication and fantasy to please his employers. The problem arises when he finds his make-believe world colliding with reality with fatal consequences for many.

Greene intended to mock spy agencies’ eagerness to recruit agents, believe their stories — and hush it all up when proved wrong. The book became a film the next year, being shot in Havana in the early months of the Castro regime. Castro visited the shooting too and praised the work.

However, the book’s subplot of “missile facilities” reported by its hero acquired significance when the Cuban Missile Crisis emerged and its theme of fanciful agents and their information came back to the limelight in the controversy over the Second Iraq War in 2003.

There are various works depicting the Castro brothers and their mate Guevara and their revolution but one work featuring one of their equally charismatic — but short-lived — colleague deserves mention.

John Thorndike’s “A Hundred Fires in Cuba” (2018) tells the story of Camilo Cienfuegos, a close associate of the Castros before his plane went missing in late 1959. through the eyes of an American woman he falls in love while in the US to find work. Cienfuegos is caught and deported, not knowing she is pregnant.

Believing him dead, she marries a Cuban businessman and moves to Havana only to find he is now head of Castro’s armed forces — but can prove to be a devoted father too. A mix of fact and fiction provides a stirring blend of romance and revolution.

American-turned-British thriller writer Edward Wilson’s “The Midnight Swimmer” (2012), the third in his “anti-establishment” Catesby series, offers a ‘thinking’ view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the treacherous currents of high politics, espionage, and reckless military adventures that fuelled it.

Traversing London, Berlin, Washington, and Havana of course, with cameos from the Kennedy brothers, Che, and others, it offers a compelling view, fact and fiction, of how the crisis arose – and was defused by efforts of spies, including the KGB ‘rezident’ in Washington (as in real life), and the “real” forces in play.

There are more historical vignettes of Cuba – James Michener’s “Caribbean” (1989) has a chapter on Cuba of the late 1970s in its sweeping history of the region, with a particular focus on the sad lot of emigres in Miami.

Then, Martin Cruz Smith’s Moscow militia detective Arkady Renko (“Gorky Park”, et al) visits Havana in “Havana Bay” (1999), when a senior Russian secret service official of his acquaintance is found dead in mysterious circumstances.

A police procedural, with undercurrents of high-level shenanigans, it also offers a vivid snapshot of the time when relations between Russia, emerging out from the Soviet Union, and Cuba were fraying as Moscow, embroiled in an economic crisis, could not keep up the subsidies.

One thing may seem missing from the list so far — native writers, which may seem surprising, given how Cuba is part of the vibrant Spanish literary tradition.

A prominent name here is Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes, or Leonardo Padura, as he is commonly known, with his (initial) quartet featuring police detective Mario Conde, who would rather be a writer, and admits to feelings of “solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards”.

“Pasado Perfecto” (1991; “Havana Blue”, 2007), “Vientos de Cuaresma” (1994; “Havana Gold”, 2008), “Mascaras” (1997; “Havana Red”, 2005); Paisaje de Otono (1998; “Havana Black”, 2006), moving in time from winter to autumn, feature a string of lurid crimes, amid atmospheric detail.

Padura went on write half-a-dozen-odd more featuring Conde, who has subsequently retired from police, and become a private detective.

There are many more but these are yet to be translated or become easily available.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])


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