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)

16 comments:

  1. What a brilliant review. A good book for me is one that makes me feel and think. And smell is so very evocative, and so rarely used.
    I might have to explore this series when my unread tower reaches manageable proportions. Thank you.

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  2. Such a wonderful review, thank you so much for sharing!

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  3. I think I might go so far as to say there is nothing new or original left to write (or to be found under the sun, for that matter), only variations of the same primeval emotions and responses to them as seen through the eyes of different people in different places in different times.

    I looked over a few more reviews of the "Dirty Havana Trilogy" after reading your post, CiL, and noted one person compared Pedro Juan Gutierrez to Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, while you mention Allen Ginsberg. I think I might be past the stage of life where this sort of literary exploration interests me, but it helps me to understand this author and makes me a bit curious.

    Actually, from what I have read and been told from a few who were in Havana during the 1950s, the Havana of Gutierrez in the 1990s seems to be a mirror image of pre-Castro days for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. So much for socialism and communism.

    So, we shall see. Maybe I will read, maybe I will not, but I am glad you brought this trilogy to my attention, CiL. If I ever re-visit Cuba, I would be certain to read it.

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  4. Sounds like one that sure made you think, that is the best books. But yeah whether it be movies, books, TV, anything and everything "new" can be compared to something that came before.

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  5. Sounds very interesting and a very cool cover, thanks. K.

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  6. Thank you for this review, Cubano. I look forward to reading a cliche-free book based in 90's Cuba. Might be a little painful, but I can take it.

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  7. I picture Havana as the city of passion, cigars and palm trees, a city I would like to experience.

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  8. Sounds really interesting to me --

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  9. A friend who guides tours in Cuba advised me not to read this before I went to Cuba earlier this year - he said it would do nothing to help me understand Cuba today. But maybe now I've been (and failed to get to grips with Cuba's complexity) it would be a great read. Already I know what he means by the smell.

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  10. Yes...such a brilliant review...I am totally impelled to read this trilogy now!
    I have to confess...my knowledge of Havana is patchy, at best...so now I am intrigued to learn more...
    Thank you so much for this introduction.:)

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  11. this sounds like a rather fascinating book...and something that i could really get into...i will look it up....

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  12. Thank you all for your kind comments.

    I will try to respond to your feedback as a group rather than naming you individually. Some of your observations overlap.

    This year I have read a couple of books I would put in the "original" category. Original as in they defy genre and boundaries. One was Heureux Les Heureux by Yasmina Reza and the other is the one I'm reading now, Master and Margarita. That the latter is a classic from the Stalinist USSR era proves my point somehow. I think many contemporary writers prefer "safe" to "daring". It's hard also when the market leans towards "safe" and shuns" daring". But Hilary Mantal has proved the market wrong. Her latest two novels are difficult but they have been comemrcially successful. That the subject matter of what it is a trilogy (the last part is currently being written apparently) is a historical figure, Thomas Cromwell, who is more commonly associated with Henry VIII than as an influential poltiical personality in his own right makes the two novels irresistible. To me the two Cromwell volumes belong more in the realm of thriller than in the historical fiction one.

    That's why Pedro succeeds with Dirty Havana Trilogy. Instead of writing about cigars and American cars, he uses these elements as a background and leaves there, in the background. In the foreground he places a myriad characters who are as far away as possible from the commonly held notion of what Cubans are. Some chapters are hard to read, like the one about the ninety-year-old white dainty lady who only had a man in her life, her husband. Apparently he could never satisfy her sexually, Enter a mixed-race 20- or 30-year-old youngster from the provinces and... yes, that happens. But whereas some readers might look away and say "that can't be true", I, as a Cuban, read that passage and read it as a hyperbole of a situation that did take place and still takes place. People who are born and live outside Havana try to get a place in the Cuban capital by any means possible. In that sense, as someone commented last night, the Havana from the 90s onwards doesn't differ from 50s Havana, except that, as Cuban prostitutes used to tell me, at least the US marines were young and athletic. The plethora of western tourists these "night flowers" sleep with are in their majority old, wrinkled and can't get an erection properly. That's the world described in Dirty Havana Trilogy.

    Thanks for your comments. I highly recommend this book.

    Greetings from London.

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  13. Un libro totalmente recomendable.
    A veces se te atraganta como el hedor real que describe en él, pero se traga y se sigue leyendo.
    Yo diría que es imprescindible para acercarse algo a la "realidad" de esta isla querida.

    Saludos desde el sur

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  14. Great review! It was helpful to hear an insider's perspective. It's banned books week too.

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  15. What a great review - this sounds like a brilliant trilogy as it has made you think and feel.

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  16. i like cliche-free books and this one sounds def. like one worth to check out

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