Cuba’s gorgeous, crumbling capital has always been a testing ground for writers. That heady combination of revolution, cocktails, sex and unpainted mansions seems somehow to set literary pulses racing. Trollope, Hemingway and Graham Greene all described it with verve, but there’s also plenty of dross. The city certainly charmed me, and, a few years ago, I thought I’d add to the pulp with my own contribution. I started courting London’s Cubans, and even had the ambassador to lunch. But despite some intriguing gossip (e.g. that Che Guevara was no fun at parties, and utterly deadpan), I abandoned the whole idea. It seemed to me that Havana was about to change forever, and that whatever I wrote would be old hat before the ink was dry.
Happily, the American journalist and writer Mark Kurlansky is braver and more Havana-savvy. After several decades of reporting on the Caribbean, he knows that the city’s mouldering magnificence is constitutional, and that, whatever happens next, Havana will still be Havana. Sure, the 1959 revolution explains a lot (and it’s not been good for the paintwork), but the rot goes much deeper. Kurlansky has dug down through the literature and mildew to produce an exquisite portrait of the city, Havana: A Subtropical Delirium. Like his earlier ‘biographies’, Cod and Salt, it’s a confection of themes, each beautifully researched and poetically revealed.
Through Kurlansky, a remarkable tale emerges of wealth and ruin. Havana was established in 1514, and grew rich on the stolen treasures of Peru. Although today it looks a ‘wreck’ (with 14,000 properties condemned every year), it was often wealthy. It had telephones and railways long before Spain, and, by 1930, more cars per capita than New York City. But the Atlantic would always bring trouble: cyclones, sharks, mould, pirates, VD, and then, eventually, Americans.
First across the straits were men who tried to buy Cuba, followed by marines (in 1899) and then gangsters such as Lucky Luciano. Right at the end of the American era, we spot Frank Sinatra, crooning away to these windborne crooks. I now understand Havana’s greatest revolutionary, José Martí, when he wrote: ‘I hate the sea.’
Throughout all this there’s the spectre of slavery, which was only abolished in 1886. Even now, however, it survives in music (son and rumba), sorcery, status and attitudes to race. You can still find bubalawos, or priests, mumbling away in Yoruba, and a man who’ll sell you sacrificial creatures. A little of the fear survives too, and people — especially the city’s magnificent mulatas — have learnt to get by on their wits alone.
But, from this corrupted morality, the Habanero emerged. Superstitious, rhythmical and congenitally poor, he’s both cheery and morbid. Everything is mocked, and everyone has a nickname (Fidel was ‘The Horse’, and Raul Castro ‘China Girl’). Even the city itself is affectionately scorned. Havana, wrote its best-known female novelist Dulce María Loynaz, is ‘as passionate and delirious as an ugly woman’s love’.
Amongst Habaneros, few great figures are respected but some are sacred. Adoration of Che is almost a matter of law (even though Castro made him president of the National Bank because he was having too many people shot). Meanwhile, Martí is everywhere, and Room 511 at the Ambos Mundos is maintained as a Hemingway shrine. Oddly, all three men encouraged or arranged their own demise. That’s typical of heroes here. ‘Tragic endings,’ says Kurlansky, ‘always play well in Havana.’
The city has often made a lasting impression on visitors. For Errol Flynn, it was the best place in the world to get drunk, and, for Garciá Lorca, it had the most beautiful women. But not everyone was thrilled. Josephine Baker was refused a room at the Nacional (for being black) while Allen Ginsberg was deported (for having improper thoughts about Comrade Che). Meanwhile, von Humboldt was terrified of the slaves, and both he and Trollope thought Havana ‘filthy’. Greene, on the other hand, recognised that ‘every vice was permissible’, and that here was the perfect backdrop for comedy. He immediately relocated the novel he was working on (originally set in Estonia), to become Our Man in Havana.
Kurlansky’s careful not to spout too much history, and gives us just enough to understand his city. You won’t find the USS Maine exploding among these pages, or Castro’s triumphant entry in 1959. In this short, deftly edited book, the selected stories are often quirky and yet oddly revealing. We learn that Hemingway was a legendary farter; that Havana’s capitolio is bigger than Washington’s (and bankrupted Cuba); that a taxi’s still a ‘chevy’; and that the heroic Martí (who allowed himself to be shot off his horse) could hardly ride.
Not everyone will be happy with this. There are those who’ll say that state brutality over six decades means more to Habaneros than the recipe for Daiquirís. True, Castro’s regime gets off lightly here, but then Kurlansky is not retelling a story that’s already been told hundreds of times (often badly). This is his paean to the city, and it’s deliciously timeless. It doesn’t even reach the modern age (the words ‘computer’ and ‘internet’ never appear) and time seems to stop in the mid-1960s. That in itself is a feature of Fidel Castro.
Kurlansky calls Havana ‘an island within an island’, but how long will it remain aloof? There was once a time when it survived on Soviet handouts (worth $1 billion a year). When that ended, it sold out to the tourist trade, and suddenly prostitutes were earning more than professors. As one local novelist put it, an orderly menagerie had turned into ‘a jungle’. Of course, you could argue it’s the other way round, and that every year — for more than a million visitors — Havana is now a fabulous, half-derelict human zoo.
But at least the new visitors will have Kurlansky in their bags. Compact and curious, it’s like a perfect miniature of this ageless city, and will no doubt be an indispensable guide to the powerful emotions lurking within.
John Gimlette travelled across the Soviet Union at the age of 17.