Havana Noir, edited and translated in the main by Achy Obejas is one in a series of anthologies set in different metropolitan areas. Since I’m a fan of Chandler and Hammet and more recently Padura, it was with anticipation I cracked open the book. By midnight, after a few straight hours of reading, I was ready to slit my wrists. Havana here is a bleak, desolate metropolis, a landscape bereft of love, honor, softness, and most especially hope. The city depicted in these stories is a cesspool of moral depravity. As my mother would say, “Que despretigio.” Add to that the abject misery of life in Cuba, amplified for the form.
I was commenting on the same with my film school student daughter when she reminded me that’s characteristic of noir: alienation, violence, sex. Duh. But, wait, something is different here. To begin with there is only one detective in the whole collection, Alex Abella’s Jason Blue, who doesn’t do divorces or children because “I’ve got two of each and they’re not experiences I particularly want to relive.” Therein lies all the resemblance to the stories and movies of yesteryear. Random copulation, pederasty, you name it, all are fodder for the authors here. The world has changed.
Yet the stories in this book, each set in a different part of the capital, are “real.” They demand deliberation. Despite my disaffection, I found myself mulling the symbolic diminution of the cross-eyed narrator in the first entry, the symmetry of staring at the sun in Padura’s and the definition of Cuban in Obejas’ story, to name a few.
And then, there’s always one in every bunch, or siempre hay alguien que lo tiene que cagar. Despite Obejas’ use of the term “blockade’ for embargo in her intro, her selection was notable for its inclusionary nature, and political criticism, if any, was directed at the regime… except for Lea Aschkenas’ story, that is. Hers is the only one that has a group hissing at President Bush on TV and calling exiles "terrorists." In fact, her plot centers on the latter. I did some preliminary research, and her familiarity with Havana seems to devolve from having spent ten months there and having fallen in love with a Cuban, which experience she has already parlayed into a book.
I cannot say I enjoyed reading this book. I almost didn’t finish it. At the same time, I can’t highlight a story or two, because there were so many I did enjoy reading. There’s the pathos of Medina’s protagonist in his relentless, yet heartbreaking, quest to get to La Yuma, the charming local color of Arango’s story, the fascinating inner monologue of Correa’s, and many I don’t have room to mention. I recommend reading a story or two at a time, curled up in an arm chair, sipping a glass of red wine. I’ll be heading out to get Miami Noir and see how it compares. Could be I’m just a relic from a bygone era.