Hemingway and Hijuelos are here, but the author of the Havana Quartet also looks beyond the Cuba we think we know to introduce some of the island’s more hidden literary treasures
A view beyond the cliches … Two musicians on the sea wall in Havana.
Leonardo Padura was born in 1955 in Havana and lives in Cuba. He has published a number of short-story collections and literary essays but international fame came with the Havana Quartet, all featuring Inspector Mario Conde. Like many others of his generation, Padura had faced the question of leaving Cuba, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s, when living conditions deteriorated sharply as Russian aid evaporated. He chose to stay.
Cuba is a country of poets. It would almost be too easy to select 10 poets or books of poetry that play a key role in the short history of Cuban literature. But there are excellent – and diverse – Cuban novelists, too few of whom are available in English translation. The 10 I’ve picked here will hopefully give some idea of both the country’s literary tradition, and its imaginative life.
1. Explosion in a Cathedral (El siglo de las luces) by Alejo Carpentier (1962, trans. John Sturrock)
I am convinced that this is the highpoint of the Cuban novel, the perfect fiction and supreme expression of stylistic and conceptual ambition in narrative prose. In this account of the impact of the French Revolution in the Caribbean, the theme is the tragic destiny that awaits all revolutions: the failure of their grand aims and the perversion of their beautiful ideals.
2. Cecilia Valdés Or El Angel Hill (Cecilia Valdés) by Cirilo Villaverde (1882, trans. Helen Lane)
This is considered to be one of the best examples of 19th century realism and romanticism in Spanish and the finest evocation of Cuban customs of that era. Its characters departed the novel’s pages long ago to become prototypes of what it means to be Cuban. The most beautiful and tragic love story ever written in Cuba, it also encompasses the horrors of the African slave trade and gives full literary expression to the city of Havana. It is the classic.
3. Three Trapped Tigers (Tres tristes tigres) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1967, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine & Donald Gardner)
This is the book which created a literary language of Havana. It’s a kind of cathedral of words, and no translation could do it full justice, but readers throughout the world have enjoyed Cabrera Infante’s fiction thanks to his wit and the stories he welds together in an unrivalled portrait of 1950s Havana nightlife, the golden age of Cuban music and the city. Once you’ve read this, Havana will never look the same again.
4. Paradiso by José Lezama Lima (1974, trans. Gregory Rabassa)
Admired rather than read or valued, and in many ways poetry rather than fiction, Paradiso is one of the most influential novels in the Spanish language. Written in a completely different register to the baroque of Carpentier or colloquial of Cabrera Infante, the author’s mastery of language has created a whole school of “Lezamian” writers. In Paradiso, as in any poet’s novel, the way the story is told is more important than the story itself and the digressions much more than mere anecdotes. It is a magnificent exercise in style.
5. The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos) by Alejo Carpentier (1953, trans. Harriet de Onís)
Carpentier yet again: we could also include in this list his 1949 novel The Kingdom of This World (1957), which gave birth to the aesthetic of “the real and marvellous from America”. As in all his work, Carpentier’s perspective is universal: he uses the journey of a western intellectual to the heart of the South American jungle to narrate the physical possibility of going back in time to the origins of civilisation. Its great merit, however, is the way it makes us feel the vicissitudes experienced by the novel’s musician protagonist, who understands that individuals have no choice but to accept the time and history fate has dealt them.
6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
This is, of course, the best-known novel about Cuba by a non-Cuban author. And that’s fair enough: thanks to The Old Man and The Sea Hemingway was awarded the Nobel prize, the gold medal for which still sits in the famous shrine to Our Lady of Charity at El Cobre, the Caribbean version of the Virgin Mary who is Cuba’s patron saint. Although it merely recounts the story of a fisherman who after eighty-four days of “bad luck” finally makes a big catch, the novel is also about man’s willpower and spirit of endurance. A beautiful fable for the human condition.
7. Temporada de ángeles (1983), Lisandro Otero; A Season For Angels, not translated.
Another great Cuban novel that is not set in Cuba: it goes back to the English Industrial Revolution, the beheading of Charles I and rule by Oliver Cromwell. It too makes a critique, from a literary perspective, of the fate of the great ideals of justice, freedom and equality. And of the perversity of politicians.
8. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), Óscar Hijuelos
Hijuelos was born in Cuba but has lived in the United States from childhood and wrote this Pulitzer-prize winning work in English. Significantly, it is a novel created from all the stereotypical features that have gone into the construction of the image of Cubans for foreigners: their music, dancing, passion as lovers and romantic, rebellious spirit. Although there are more important novels written in Cuba from a literary point of view, the great international success of The Mambo Kings and its nostalgic portrait of a Cuba that is more dream than reality, make it a necessary player in the field of the Cuban novel.
9. Antes que anochezca (1990), Reinaldo Arenas; Before Night Falls, trans. Dolores M. Koch (1993)
A novel in every sense of the word, even though the raw materials are more or less real episodes from the more or less real life of its author, Reinaldo Arenas, one of the most intense, maudit, and visceral of Cuban writers. Arenas wrote and published this heartrending work just before his lonely and equally heartrending death in freezing New York. Its style, exuberance and rage are the stuff of great fiction, as was its author.
10. El negrero (1933), Lino Novás Calvo; The Slave-trader, not translated
This novel doesn’t take place in Cuba, but mainly in the slave-trading centres on the coasts of Africa and in the boats that transported their human cargo to the island: the Africans who have contributed so much to Cuba’s economic, cultural, religious and ethnic riches. The Slave-trader (the story of Pedro Blanco from Málaga, one of the last slave-traders from the middle of the 19th century) is a wonderful novel that, alongside Faulkner’s, inspired Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, the creators of the Latin American magical-realist novel.