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