Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I recently had to take my daughter to our GP. Nothing major, an infection had taken residence on my wee bairn’s face, and we wanted to find out what it was and how she could get rid of it. As we sat in the semi-empty room, surrounded by a sea of chairs arranged uniformly, thoughts of mortality assailed me. These were not the result of mental self-laceration, brought about by reflections on the hereafter. My musings were caused by the large screen situated up on the wall at the front of the room in a way that it could be seen by everyone from every angle. The screen loomed ominously on the few patients (and visitors) in the room like a version of Orwell’s Big Brother. The sound was off and subtitles ran across the bottom of it. But it was not the object that made me think of life and death, especially the latter, but the environment in which it operated, including the message conveyed by the images on the screen.


Forget about the absence of an apostrophe. Just be scared, be very scared!

I know that as we enter the cold season of the year (autumn is almost here, even if it has been
unusually warm for September. This will be followed, I’m sure, by a winter that might want to take revenge on us for last year’s mildness) we ought to think more of those who are at risk of falling prey to flu and other maladies. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for depressing waiting rooms in GP surgeries. On this occasion as I sat in the semi-empty waiting room with my daughter, I noticed that the walls, fronts desk, lift door, stairs and entrance were festooned with explicit posters and bunting about the anti-flu jab. They also carried a very detailed description of what symptoms to look out if one thought a cold was coming on. No wonder I began to sneeze.

Despite my overall good health (touch wood), I felt somewhat hypochondriac and paranoid in that room. Between the messages being beamed at me by the large screen and the flyers around me, I began to doubt my own well-being. Falls, respiratory complications, obesity, allergies, dementia, you name it; they covered all that in just under a quarter of an hour.

As I mentioned before, it goes without saying that a GP surgery is better placed than other outlets to raise awareness of a balanced and stress-free lifestyle and regular medical check-ups. But there are ways of doing it without overwhelming people who come in to see their doctor in circumstances which could be, to put it mildly, very delicate sometimes. As I walked back down the stairs with my daughter to return to the car park, I kept watching my step. Having been exposed half an hour before to images of what a nasty fall could cause, I didn’t fancy a trip to casualty with a broken ankle. It took me another day to recover from the GP experience. I wonder how much longer it would take someone with a more susceptible personality.

This is a follow-up to my previous post. A lot of good literature is being written in Cuba. Not just novels, but also poetry and short stories. I think it is my duty as someone born and raised in the Caribbean island and armed with a weapon to which many of these up-and-coming authors have no access – a blog - , to promote their work. No, this is not a sponsored feature and I’m not being commissioned by anyone. My only interest in finding a larger audience to the two books below is that they were both translated by an ex-postgraduate teacher I had back in uni when I was still an undergraduate student. Dick Cluster very kindly made an exception for me to join his lectures on crime fiction and for that I will always be grateful. He is also a writer in his own right of both fiction and non-fiction. Click on all the links provided to find out more.

A Corner of the World

Vital Signs



© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 1st October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

It is hard to be original in literature. Good, up-and-coming authors have to put up with being compared to literary giants from the past, both distant and recent. Writing styles have become defined along such demanding lines that only by putting them all in a big cauldron, mixing them and stirring them up can one attempt to come up with a new breed. Sometimes I think that writers are defter at chemistry than at their craft. Wizards of letters could be a new job description to appear in the ad pages of the London Review of Books.

This is the reason why I can’t think highly enough of Dirty Havana Trilogy, a novel written by the Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. I read it last summer and it left me with a nasty, and yet at the same time pleasant taste in my mouth. Whilst conforming to some of the stereotypes people have of Cubans (even those who have never paid a visit to the island), the book escapes classification. The nasty/pleasant taste in my mouth had nothing to do with the sex scenes, mind you, unbridled and “in your face” as they were. It was not the heavy dose of realism that permeated each and every single sentence of the book. It was something else and I would like to use this column and the next three-hundred or four-hundred words to explore it.

Because it is so hard to be an original author nowadays, many of those who choose writing as their profession resort to clichés, either in form or content. Pedro manages to manoeuvre himself out of these literary booby-traps.

Dirty Havana Trilogy is a novel in three parts about a man’s (called Pedro Juan as well) observations and experiences of the Havana of the 90s. Having lived through those years myself (’90 – ’97, when I relocated to London) I looked forward to reading what this fellow habanero had to write about one of the more significant periods in the history of our nation. I was left with mixed feelings but with a sense that for Pedro it was mission accomplished.

Havana is presented as a city of sex, drugs and... more sex and drugs. No surprise about that. I recognised some of the characters because I used to hang out with many of them. The sex scenes (plentiful, sorry about the spoiler) were also familiar to me. The language was shocking. It was not just the foul language in the mouths of the characters but in the narrator’s mind.

A cliché is not just a stereotyped expression but also the loss of original thinking. In Dirty Havana Trilogy Gutiérrez avoids this by enhancing the sense of smell. It seems as if he were saying “This is the reek of my city. It won’t feature in the brochures you pick up on the high street of your western country, but it’s the stench I wake up to and have to put up with every day”. No wonder the book was banned in Cuba after publication. It's not the economy, stupid; it’s the stink!  The novel very adroitly describes the hopelessness that swept through Cuba in the terrible 90s in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of the “special period” (not very special for those at the top). Occupying a lead role in the volume is the rafters’ crisis in ’94, probably the closest the Cuban system came to collapsing.

Some books find themselves in the unenviable position of being one or two words away from the edge of the abyss of platitudes. Use the wrong phrase and down you go; you lose your reader. This is particularly characteristic of what I call books with “risky” subject matter.The trick, As I see it, is in feeling the writing as it comes along, as it leaves your head and it’s passed onto the blank paper. Let the reader make up his or her mind.

Dirty? Yes. Smelly? Yes. But cliché-free
Pedro skips around the pitfalls that come with writing a “socio-political” novel. His book is at times cynical like when he praises a mulatto woman who has the typical swagger many of my fellow countrywomen display. Twenty years from now, his description goes, she will still be desired and that is one of the reasons why he would stay on the island until the end of his days. His internal speech is impassioned and full of candour for his subject but it is given a reality-check at the end. This woman, like many others, is looking for a “yuma” (“foreigner” in Cuban slang) who will take her out of the country. The novel has moments of real humanity and I remember those vividly. Not everyone is out to get you. Not everyone is out to rob you. Not everyone is out to con you. Yes, the 90s were terrible, to the point where for the sake of a dollar someone could put a knife on your throat. However, underneath this social decay there were still some decent human beings, fewer but present.

In the same way that Ginsberg’s best minds of his generation were “destroyed by madness”, Pedro’s characters are crushed by the dyad of, on the one hand the self-inflicted Cuban embargo and on the other hand, the five-decades-old US one. That he carves such a fine, cliché-free piece of work out of this situation is a testament to good, original literature and we should enjoy it while we can.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Morning: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 28th September at 10am (GMT)

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