A Capital Unlike Any Other, The Book of Havana Reveals a City Magnetic and Repulsive

There are certain locations around the globe that come to us through tourists, visitors to the lands – Tokyo, India, Thailand, Hawaii – whose identities, though vividly their own, are delivered back to Britain, the US, to Europe, transmuted by romanticism, prejudice, ideas of grandeur. For those of us born beyond their borders, these are places stitched together from the experiences of foreigners. In the case of Cuba, and its infamous capital, perhaps it was Greene who established it as it stands today in our culture, or perhaps it was America, embedding their neighbours in a narrative of despised Communism, and South American hedonism.

Between Americas north and south, and the scattered Caribbean islands, Cuba has played a pivotal role in world history and yet it remains defined by specific, reductive images; it is Che Guevara, a rebel and icon turned pop-art portrait on cheap t-shirts; it is a devastating financial and commercial embargo wrapped into the neat image of a cigar; it is Castro who was hated not for his human rights infringements and abuses, but for being the one that got away, a constant thorn in the side of American forward momentum. As Casagrande points out in her introduction, ‘Havana wasn’t always where it is today’, and while she means geographically, this colony of competing European crowns is not as motionless as our stereotypes profess.

The Book of Havana, like those produced by Comma Press covering other cities rarely given their own voice, has a single mission statement: show the world a city in stories. Manchester, London, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin; these are places whose residents, through almost every medium but significantly via literature, have developed for the world like photographs, each hand adding to a universal idea of a geographical space. Here, ten writers have been given the risky task of beginning this process, of defining a city from the inside out. It feels appropriate, then, that the collection opens with Eduardo del Llano’s piece. For the world at large, it is difficult to separate Cuba from its politics. ‘Into Tiny Pieces’ is a comic, almost satirical, allegorical look into a couple’s search for a new flag. A methodical account of one man’s increasing paranoia, del Llano’s story works as a dock, as an introduction to Havanian (Havanese?) life.

If anything is true of Havana, however, it is its juxtapositions, its polarities, and in Eduardo Heras Leon’s ‘Love in the Big City’, we are offered an immediate contrast to del Llano. Here, Leon describes the transition from provincial Cuba to the vivid, bubbling capital. ‘It was 20 hours on the road, when I came for good. Each town with a sadness so similar to my own.’ A feeling familiar to anyone travelling from their hometown to a big city for the first time, Leon quickly delves into the seedy nightlife of Havana, its dangers – at one point the narrator is confronted by a needle full of HIV-laced blood – and its capacity for love, whether platonic or erotic. Within just these pieces, the intricacies of Havana and the validity of our expectations are both challenged and reinforced.

“I believe life is just a jungle: the bigger animals eat the smaller ones, because this is how God set up the whole jigsaw puzzle”

Somewhere between del Llano and Leon lie the short works in The Book of Havana, and as they successively recreate a city, its streets and homes are lain out for us in varying degrees of ability. While Daniel Chavarria’s ‘All Because of that Fucking Spanish Kid’, in its intimacy, humour and style, reads as a lost section of Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Eduardo Angel Santiesteban’s incredibly short story fluctuates in its strength of language (though the fault may lie with the translation) and wraps itself up in convolutions.

While every story in the collection holds some value in delivering literature directly from the source, not all share the talent of evocation. Women, continuously an elusive topic for male writers if the subject is not sex or violence or sexual violence, are treated no differently by their Cuban counterparts. In ‘An ‘Ali Khan Day’’, we read of ‘something stronger permeating from down below, the dark cluster of hair, which, like her armpits, she hadn’t shaved. ‘Just to get you excited, my love,’ she’d said once.’ Or, later, when Lopez Sacha’s narrator describes how, ‘Nothing mattered but being there with Carla, who paid for everything, and Tany, who offered me everything her body could.’ And as if to bring this flattening of women to two-dimensional sex organs to a crescendo, the ‘Diary of a Serial Killer in the Jurassic’, arrives to dive completely into the necrophilic, murderous side of chauvinistic fantasy. ‘‘What does a woman think about’, I ask, ‘when she believes nothing and no one can hurt her?’’

“she was born in El Vedado - that once aristocratic neighbourhood now showing all the signs of falling into ruin”

What lies at the heart of Havana’s contrasts is also its most interesting feature: the yearning for both home and departure, for family and escape. It is a city, as Irina J. Davidenko beautifully illustrates, where one might dream ‘about a prince, a dragon, a winged stallion’, but ultimately, the prince must struggle for money, Pegasus is a ‘Moskovich’ (the endnotes, invaluable throughout, explain that a Moskovich is an ‘old Soviet car’), and that ‘You have to eat the dragon to survive. […] The dragon meat is finished. What are we going to eat now? The children?’ This vein pulses through the book, sometimes subtly, other times almost audibly, of a relationship with a city these writers both adore and spurn. In the two strongest stories of the collection, this paradox runs the nearest to the pages. Cinthia R. Parades’ ‘You’re Leaving Then’, removes even the security of love, and her couple ‘had allowed themselves to merge, one with the other, without even leaving a crack through which to escape back to reality. A reality as naked as a piece of meat dripping over a butcher’s table in a market.’ In union with it is ‘The List’, a stunning, mournful look at those who ‘no longer walked the streets of my Havana’, and those who do, the tourists, ‘carrying rucksacks and bottled water, taking photos. What is it that I can’t see?’

In The Book of Havana what we find is a city like, and deeply unlike, any capital, any big city. It is a shifting landscape of class divide, of a people who do not live by halves, and of all the stereotypes Cuba is offered, it is the need for that cliché of passion that these writers profess is true of Havana. Often magnetic and sometimes repulsive, the city is ‘Centro Habana – where there isn’t even enough room to feel shame,’ but simultaneously, ‘a forest of shadows […] the mouth of a great wolf’. This book proves what it set out to prove, that Havana, and more widely its surrounding country, is not simply a remnant of the Cold War, is not a footnote to US history. del Llano’s opening piece begins, ‘‘The flag has faded’ Aspera said one morning in 1977’, and with this collection, some of that fading can be dyed back to its original colour.

The Book of Havana, published by Comma Press is available now.

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