Saturday, November 10, 2007

Read: Havana: Autobiography of a City

In honor of the amazing book fair taking place in Miami this week, let’s look at one of the staggering number of offerings. If I were there this weekend, I would not miss Carlos Eire who is scheduled for 2:30 today. His Waiting for Snow in Havana is one I’ve never really written about because I can’t look at it with a critical eye. I just love it, accept that I do, and send copies to the relatives. Until now, I was limited to those who could speak English; but recent publication of the Spanish translation removed that obstacle.

On Sunday, I would go see Alfredo Jose Estrada for a very different reason. His Havana: An Autobiography of a City attempts to convey that fabled city as a living, breathing entity. Inevitably, “autobiography” of a Capital city is the history of a country, and much of the book is devoted to the tumultuous history of Cuba. It is a book, however, I would not normally have finished. Sadly, I would have been the poorer for it.

He starts out well enough remarking that writing about Havana is like navigating a treacherous course “between political extremes.” Fair enough, I think. Within a few chapters, I am angered when he deviates from his stated intent and inserts a critical subtext, like describing the effects of Hurricane Wilma and contrasting the lack of looting and rescue by authorities to our own Katrina, an unfair comparison all around. Unsettling is the comment about “another lost opportunity to better U.S.-Cuba relations.” Also disaffecting was the almost slavish admiration of Eusabio Leal’s restoration efforts at restoring Habana Vieja, leaving the reader with the impression that the current crumbling infrastructure was the pre-Revolutionary norm. I fact-checked with Mom: she did confirm it was seedy but to me that’s a far cry from the current citywide demolition derby. Now I have to check out the author. That’s it. He’s a Harvard graduate. Says it all to me.

Occurring early on in the book, just as it launches into the driest parts- geographic description and colonial history- it could easily sound the death knell for the whole thing. But it would be a shame. For much of the book Estrada’s blend of easy narrative and exhaustive research makes for interesting and enlightening reading. He is strongest recounting the cultural past. In addition to learning the derivations of phrases like “vete para el carajo”- the “carajo” was the crows nest of Spanish ships- and “la hora de los mameyes”- the “mameyes” here denotes the red coats of the invading British- I had to laugh when he describes a cartoon during the last days of the Machado regime: “El Bobo consoles his young son, who is tired of eating only bananas, by saying: “Pues no llores, hijito, que ya esta llegando la hora de los mameyes.”

I have to say that I really enjoyed Estrada’s book. He hits the right notes later on and makes a tentative stab a correcting some mainstream and academic misconceptions. His history, though, remains suspect to me. For instance, his treatment of Che does make the point that the dimwits wearing Che wear have no idea whom they’re flaunting. I suspect, however, that Humberto Fontova would differ with his rather lukewarm portrayal of Che’s homicidal tendencies. So I’d like to see him, tell him the book is quite an achievement, and point out that the early editorial jabs risk alienating fairly reasonable readers like me.

This one is recommended for those who enjoy nonfiction and can suppress an emotional response.

Cross-published at Babalublog

1 comment:

Jorge Costales CPA said...

I was hesitant to get this book - used book through Amazon - for the very reasons you noted about the author's politics. But it's good to get your perspective that his politics don't pervade the rest of the book. Thanks