The announcement this week that the Obama Administration’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba was,with the exception of the usual pathological reactions by the Know-Nothing party and its flying monkeys, greeted with jubilation and hosannahs. And a number commentators offered to catch up curious readers with lists of Cuban books. Thus, I feel compelled to offer my own primer on Cuban culture
John Williams, a New York Times writer put together a useful list which is a good place to start:
“Telex From Cuba” by Rachel Kushner
“Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba” by Tom Miller
“The Man Who Loved Dogs” by Leonardo Padura
“Dancing With Cuba” by Alma Guillermoprieto
“Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten
“Cobra” and “Maitreya” by Severo Sarduy
“Waiting for Snow in Havana” by Carlos Eire
“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
“Before Night Falls” by Reinaldo Arenas
“Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina García
“Paradiso” by José Lezama Lima
“Explosion in a Cathedral”by Alejo Carpentier
“Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson
Cuba: Or the Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas
This is the original seminal comprehensive survey of Cuban history from pre-Columbian innocence to Spanish conquest to American annexation to the revolutionary present.
Fidel: A Critical Portrait by Tad Szluc
Any book list would be incomplete with out a book on Fidel. Szluc’s biography is useful and unadorned and it only suffers from the burden that afflicts most stories of person’s life, there is too much information.
The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes (a novel)
Journalist Fuentes was once a revolutionary and a member of Fidel’s inner circle. As such things happen, he came a persona non grata,fleeing from a death sentence. This fiction closely adheres to the facts but is presented in Castro’s bombastic, megalomaniacal style voice (familiar for his endless hours long orations)
Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
Guillermo Cabrera Infante exiled in 1965, an important figure in the cultural battles that took place under the Triumph of the Revolution,was the quintessential Cuban man of letters and his Mea Cuba, a collection of prose miscellany, showcases his wry wit, penchant for puns, and encyclopedic overview of Cuban literary culture.This anthology is rife with the narratives about those battles its belligerents told by a gifted storyteller.I interviewed him in 1995.Here’s a snippet of that chat:
RB: Why do you write?
GCI…I was a very keen reader which I’m not anymore. So there was a book called El Senor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias[Nobel Prize winner] a Guatemalan writer…it was all the rage in 1947. A friend of mine told me about it and there was an article in a magazine and there were excerpts from the book. And I saw them and I said to him, “If that’s writing I can do it.”
And he said to me, “I bet you can not.” I said, “yes, I’ll prove it to you.” So I wrote a short story which was just terrible. I’m not going to tell you the title because I want to forget all about it. And he read it and said why don’t you take it to Bohemia, which was the same magazine the magazine that published the article on Asturias. And I took it and I met there a man who was managing editor of Bohemia, who was in charge of all fiction, who was also a Spanish exile from Franco. He was a member of the Republic, very important in those years…I gave him the short story and he said come back next week and I thought, because he had a very thick Spanish, I mean, Northern Spanish accent, you wouldn’t believe it how fast they talk and how thick they are that they actually can be, I thought that he meant that the next week they were going to publish my story. So I went back and he was there. And, of course, they didn’t publish my story so soon. They waited for the next year— for 1948. But this man said why don’t you come to see me on Saturday afternoon and I’ll give you some books to read. And he gave me mostly books by Spanish authors which, for me at the time, didn’t mean anything. So Spanish writers were not my ideal of writers at all. And this man made me his private secretary. So, he published the short story. They gave me fifty dollars, which for me was, you know, like Ali Babba going into the cave. And I just wrote another short story. They published it and again another fifty dollars. So, I made a correlation between writing and getting money. And then it became a habit. And then it became something more serious, like an addiction. And that’s how everything started.
The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love Oscar Hijuelos
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a vivid albeit melancholy portrayal of life in mid century Cuba and in the US for Cuban exiles/immigrants.
Los Gusanos by John Sayles
Many writers have attempted to write the Cuban-American exile story; with Los Gusanos SP , worms), gringo John Sayles lays out a compelling tale as illuminating as any documentary on Cuban-American relations during Fidel’s tenure.
Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution by Carlos Gebler
in 1988 Gebler, in an ailing Russian auto, travels the length of Cuba ostensibly in a hunt for a 1959 Coup de Ville Brougham),. encountering abandoned vintage cars, the propagandist museum of the Bay of Pugs, decaying architecture in Old Havana, and once famous beaches swamped with dead crabs.
Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
I have written previously about this anthology Pardo Lazo characterizes the sum total of the eleven stories:
t is possible that this anthology is the portrait of a family that never was. The communicating vessels between these eleven stories are not bridges but circuits: affinities, violence, tensions between text and anti-text which coinciding in the same book, produce a collision that consumes its own meaning, generating light. A radiant, incandescent zero of patria-plasma
Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette
Texan musician Ned Sublette, founder of Qbadisc records, taps his unparalleled knowledge of Cuban culture and music to provide the informed and impassioned history Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press). P.S.: A second volume is forthcoming.
The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria
Among other things this tome dispenses with the myth that Castro was scouted by the U.S. major leagues and was signed…well, you can guess the rest. Echevarria also does well to restore dignity to Caribbean and Cuban beisbol that suffers at the hands of other nasty yanqui habits and attitudes.
Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana by William M. LeoGrande , Peter Kornbluh
As has now become apparent Barack Obama’s promise of a “new approach” has come to fruition. This book, using hundreds of formerly secret U.S. documents and interviewing numerous negotiators, intermediaries, and policy makers presents the long untold history of efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations.
Cuba by Walker Evans
In the spring of that 1933, Evans was asked by publisher J. B. Lippincott to produce a body of work about Cuba to accompany a book, The Crime of Cuba,by journalist Carleton Beals. It was intended to be an expose of Cuban President Gerardo Machado,yet another corrupt and rapacious American puppet. When Evans arrived in May, as he later wrote, Cuba was “in the midst of a revolution” and these images are from the end of the Machado dictatorship, who was gone by August
Transcuba by Mariette Pathy Allen
New York-based photographer and painter Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting transgender culture worldwide for more than 30 years. Apparently under the newest regime the transgender community of Cuba is gaining some measure of acceptance. This tome also includes interviews and and a note from Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, Mariela Castro, who is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana (who happens to be Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter), and was instrumental in passage (2008)of the law to allowing transgender individuals to receive sex reassignment surgery and change their legal gender.[ed note; this was taken from my September 9 book notice]
Cuba by David Allen Harvey
Magnum photographer Harvey’s collaboration National Geographic staff writer Elizabeth Newhouse is an excellent survey of life in contemporary Cuba. See gallery of photos here
Havana by Robert Polidori
Robert Polidori‘s frequent appearances in the New Yorker, should make his focus on human habitats and environments apparent as do his monographs on VErsailles, post Katrina New Orleans, Chernobyl, Beirut (Points Between…Up Till Now his latest tome includes samples of from those series).To quote his publisher
In this city the peddler lives where the countess once resided; children dance and tumble where merchants conducted their business. Each photograph is a discovery and a fragment of the city’s biography.
View some of the Havana photos here
Before Night Falls by Julian Schnabel
Shot in the Dominican, Schnabel manages to capture the feel of the Triumphant Revolution and its not-so-triumphant aftermath. Javier Badem won an Oscar for his portrayal of poet Reinaldo Arenas.
Our Man in Havana by Sir Carol Reed
Graham Greene’s lampoon of incompetent secret services and secret police (later artfully mimicked by John LeCarre in Our Tailor in Panama) was shot in Havana with a young Alec Guiness, Noel Coward and US funny man Ernie Kovacs) Reed did leave out the live sex show that was mentioned in the novel.
Currently reading There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme (Little Brown)