Book Review: Havana Year Zero

“I’ve always noticed that writers and artists are seen as unique beings with exceptional lives, as if they spent their whole time entertaining great people and talking in capital letters about profound, elevated topics. That’s OK by me, but I’m surprised that scientists aren’t equally valued. Very few people think about scientists; yet behind everything we touch, however ordinary it might be, there are hundreds of brains who worked on its creation, because science is a collective endeavour”

Havana Year Zero, by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney), tells a story from 1993, when Cuba was reeling from the impact of international changes – the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. At this time, Havana suffered regular power cuts and interruptions to mains water supply. Food was scarce and residents banned from many activities, including travel outside the country. The narrator, Julia, is a mathematician who gets caught up in the search for an elusive, historic document. If found, it could prove that the telephone was invented in Cuba by an Italian, Antonio Meucci. Julia initially seeks scientific recognition and national pride. Others on the trail hope for more material rewards.

Julia is looking back on this time from the future, telling a story of the friends, lovers and colleagues she worked with to try to uncover the document. Although known to each other, this group of scientists and writers retain secrets that Julia gradually discovers. The twists and turns are further complicated by the bed hopping enjoyed. When life has been shorn of many pleasures, sex proves a welcome if complicating distraction.

Julia remains close to the man who became her supervisor at university and with whom she had an affair that impacted his marriage. She refers to him in the narrative as Euclid – characters are each given a pseudonym to protect their identity, she explains. Julia first hears of the inventor, Meucci, at a dinner party where an author – she names him Leonardo – talks of writing a book on Meucci’s life and work. It turns out that Euclid is familiar with this story and knows of the existence of the document. He recruits Julia as his assistant in tracking it down.

Other variables in the problem to be solved include Ángel – an out of work man who, unusually for Havana at the time, lives alone in a spacious apartment. Julia falls in love with him – or perhaps it is his apartment – and dreams of moving in. Ángel welcomes her attentions but has unresolved issues to attend to that could thwart her plans and must be carefully navigated.

There is also Barbara, an Italian tourist visiting Cuba on the pretext of bringing Leonardo information on Meucci, promised by her colleague who is prevented from travelling. As an outsider, Barbara has valued currency and permission to purchase items the locals cannot access except through the black market. She takes her new friends out to dinner – a welcome change from their diet of rice and split peas – supplying them with decent rum and other goods regarded as luxuries.

Julia moves between Euclid, Leonardo and Ángel, trying to work out who knows what of where the document could be. She is hampered by Havana’s lack of reliable utilities – particularly that working telephones are rare. Oh, the irony.

Leonardo is eager to talk of his writing so from him Julia learns more of Meucci, as the author shares with her his research for the novel he is writing. She also learns of the final factor in the equation – Ángel’s ex-wife, Margarita, who left him to move to Brazil. The three men in the equation have a history of broken marriages and other family issues that pull on Julia’s heartstrings. She desires justice for those who have been wronged, including herself.

“My problem is that I have no family traumas. I had a happy childhood, no one abandoned me or stopped loving me.”

“growing up in that sort of environment causes real problems because it makes you too structured.”

Thus Julia sets out to help her friends and herself. New facts come to light that change the focus of her endeavours – as happens in science. At times she feels like a puppet, at others the puppeteer.

“Numbers are mental constructions that mathematicians use in an attempt to define the properties of and relationships between everything in the universe. Authors did something similar, but with words”

The structure of the book is that of a mystery, within which there are complex entanglements and much dark humour. There is a strong sense of place that offers a lesson in living with only basic amenities and supplies – in close proximity to wider family. My only quibble with the language employed is the occasional direct address to the reader – the narrator asking “Do you get me?”, “Do you see?” – which I found jarring. Aside from this, the tale remained engaging with elements of surprise that added depth.

An enjoyable tale that develops gradually but never feels slow, all detail adding to the final interweaving of threads. The author writes with skill and verve – credit to the translator. Fun but never frivolous, this was a pleasure to read.

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

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.