In 1968, the US anthropologist Oscar Lewis arrived in Cuba with a tape recorder and a mission to capture the revolutionary zeal of everyday Cubans. Eighteen months later, he was sent packing. ‘We have nothing to hide,’ Fidel Castro, the leader of the country’s 1959 revolution, had supposedly told him. That wasn’t quite true: production targets were being missed, dissidents were being locked up and the US trade embargo was already beginning to bite.
The project briefly – and unsuccessfully – passed into the hands of Boom-era author and friend of Fidel, Gabriel García Márquez. After that, the voices of Cubans vanished from the official record. Lots of vituperative denunciations from Cuban exiles, certainly. But of the factory worker in Havana or the single mother in Cienfuegos, not a word.
How Things Fall Apart marks a hugely significant step at putting this right. After years of bureaucratic wrangling, Elizabeth Dore, an American academic based in the UK, persuaded the Cuban government to let her loose with a Dictaphone. Between 2004 and 2018, Dore and a small team of researchers interviewed 124 individuals, often multiple times.
Seven made the cut, their stories told here verbatim in chunks with precious little commentary. Among the colourful cast, we meet a ‘rural jack-of-all-trades’ who hawks sanitary towels on the street, a strident filmmaker who won notoriety for her student project about slum living and a successful industrial engineer scraping by on a salary of US$9 per month.
Their personal narratives alone make this book worth reading. Take ‘Mario’ (all the characters are anonymised, for obvious reasons): a bright kid from a poor, majority- black neighbourhood, he endured numerous setbacks – parental violence, racial prejudice, regular hunger – on his journey to university graduation and a top government job (all his bosses were fired for corruption).