Book Review: The Book of Havana

“‘What does a woman think about,’ I ask, ‘when she believes nothing and no one can hurt her?'”

So asks one of the male characters in a story from this collection. I pull out this particular quote because many of the stories depict men regarding women only in terms of their own sexual gratification. Acts are, in places, described in vivid detail. The women are ‘taken’, and in ways that they object to, although the writers then portray them as having found it pleasurable. These scenes are a little too close to male fantasy land for my tastes. As anyone who follows my reviews will be aware, I do not wish to encounter graphic sexual imagery in my reading material. I too ponder if women’s thinking would alter if we could be confident of our agency and safety.

Having got that out of the way let’s look at the many positives in this short story collection. It is the latest addition to Comma Press’s A City in Short Fiction series. The ten writers featured belong to different generations so have experienced life in Cuba from different eras.

The book opens with an introduction to the country and its capital city. Over the centuries Cuba has been occupied and had its assets plundered by Spain and, briefly, Britain who introduced slavery as a means of increasing production of goods taken. The wealth generated was then squandered in endless European wars. The revolutionary triumph of 1959 halted international interference although support from the Soviet Union was required following a US embargo. Cuba suffered a lengthy period of deprivation when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. With the ending of the Castro dynasty hope emerged for a better future for the country and its people, quickly dashed with the arrival of Trump.

All of this has had an an effect on the morale and psychology of the people who must continue to live within deteriorating infrastructure. Tourism is one of the few industries unaffected by events of the last few decades but brings with it comparison and discontent. Many residents wish to leave creating difficult relationships with those who stay. Havana has become a magnet for the country’s disaffected.

The stories in the collection offer

“A textual kaleidoscope of different sensitivities, and multiple observation points, hinting at the many layers and complexities developed by Cuban society over the last 30 years”

It opens with Into Tiny Pieces. Set in 1977, this tale offers a picture of a city where neighbours act as spies for the state and lives are lived in fear. A patriotic couple wish to replace their flag, throwing the old one away before the new one is purchased. Such an act is viewed as rebellion and retribution is threatened. The man blames his wife for the difficulties they now face but fears for her safety if he voices such an opinion. Although offering a thought-provoking portrayal of life in Cuba at that time, the ending felt somewhat abrupt.

Love in the Big City tells of a country boy who travels to Havana with no real plans for how he will survive once there. He meets abject characters, and is complicit in his dissipation.

All Because of that Fucking Spanish Kid is an incredible story about a professional killer employed to plant bombs by the CIA. Inspired by watching The Day of the Jackal the killer feels no remorse for his actions, believing he is relieving his victims of a need to live their unhappy lives. The writing is powerful – this is my favourite in the collection.

The Trinity of Havana portrays the endless bureaucracy that ensures people are employed but little gets done in a bloated state system. A women is trying to register her ownership of the home her family have lived in for generations. The procedures she must follow are endlessly detailed and stymied at every turn.

My Night conflates the dreams a newly graduated student has with his lived reality on a night out with a friend. This and the following two stories require the reader to go with the narrative inside the heads of the male protagonists. A degree of sympathy may be evoked given the limitations of their lives but their two dimensional attitudes towards women irritated this reader.

The List was more to my tastes, exploring the impact of emigration on those left behind. I also enjoyed Of Princesses and Dragons which, although depicting a couple, looks at their wider relationship and expectations.

The final story, You’re Leaving Then, chronicles a break-up that the man is struggling to process. He regards what is happening as a defeat. I felt little sympathy.

These tales provide a picture of life in a country that has endured isolation and hardship. Reading it as a British woman I am aware that the criticisms I make may be a result of failure to empathise with cultural differences and the lack of progress in Cuban personal attitudes as well as opportunity. The writing is authentic and often bold, the protagonists desires and difficulties honestly portrayed. I would have preferred more from a female perspective, how they feel about the way men view them, but the struggles chronicled focus on aspiration in a place where choices are limited and pleasures are sought as a balm. The selfishly portrayed sexual attitudes may be, depressingly, tenable.

One of the aims of this series is to offer the reader a better understanding of a city from the point of view of its residents. In this the book succeeds. Given my reaction to what I have learned I feel no desire to visit Havana. The stories were educative but I found them dispiriting.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.

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