In Ha­vana, ro­man­tic mys­tique meets sober­ing re­al­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY MICHAEL MEWSHAW

Ahappy hy­brid, “Ha­vana: A Sub­trop­i­cal Delir­ium” in­vokes the Cuban cap­i­tal as an oc­ca­sion to dis­cuss the coun­try’s his­tory, pol­i­tics, food, ar­chi­tec­ture, mu­sic, reli­gion and pas­sion for base­ball. No au­thor is as well equipped to take on this task as Mark Kurlan­sky, who has pre­vi­ously pub­lished half a dozen books on in­ter­na­tional cui­sine, two on base­ball and one — “A Con­ti­nent of Is­lands” — that sur­veys the Caribbean sit­u­a­tion. The dan­ger is that such a poly­mathic au­thor has no fixed iden­tity and might fall be­tween cat­e­gories and be dis­missed in this case as a mere travel writer. That would be a great shame, given the man­i­fold plea­sures of his brief, breezy new book.

Kurlan­sky ap­proaches Ha­vana like an Im­pres­sion­ist painter, build­ing the im­age of this me­trop­o­lis of 2 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants with sub­tle brush­strokes. He quotes the Span­ish poet Fed­erico Gar­cía Lorca, who wrote that “Ha­vana has the yel­low of Cadiz, the pink of Seville turn­ing carmine and the green of Granada, with the slight phos­pho­res­cence of fish.” Vis­i­ble from al­most ev­ery­where, the sea pro­vides a blue sur­round, one that is iron­i­cally empty of boats. As Kurlan­sky ex­plains, Cubans are wary of the ocean, the source of many mur­der­ous in­va­sions — the Bay of Pigs was one of many — and killer hur­ri­canes. Then too, af­ter Fidel Cas­tro took power and the United States cut off con­tact, au­thor­i­ties from both coun­tries have pa­trolled the Straits of Flor­ida, cap­tur­ing all but the luck­i­est im­mi­grants try­ing to reach the Amer­i­can main­land in rick­ety im­pro­vised crafts.

While Cuban ex­iles might com­plain that Kurlan­sky doesn’t suf­fi­ciently cat­a­logue the cru­elty and re­pres­sion of the Cas­tro regime, he does note that “Che Gue­vara — a man with the looks of a cin­ema hero — held his tri­bunals and ex­e­cuted so many peo­ple by fir­ing squad that Cas­tro re­moved him from his post.” Che then moved on to South Amer­ica, trad­ing his role as the Robe­spierre of the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion for his last­ing iconic im­age as a mar­tyr for so­cial­ism.

With es­timable even-hand­ed­ness, Kurlan­sky re­marks that Cuba’s pre­vi­ous dic­ta­tor, Ful­gen­cio Batista, richly de­served to be top­pled. He ran “a mur­der­ous klep­toc­racy in close part­ner­ship with Amer­i­can or­ga­nized crime. . . . For­eign­ers re­mem­ber the Ha­vana of that time as a kind of ro­man­tic brothel.” Kurlan­sky points out that pros­ti­tu­tion con­tin­ued to flour­ish un­der Cas­tro, and he of­fers fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into how the his­tory of com­mer­cial­ized sex on the is­land was an out­growth of slav­ery, which wasn’t abol­ished in Cuba un­til 1872. Un­der Span­ish rule, slaves had ad­van­tages over their coun­ter­parts in the United States; they could legally sell things on the street, “in­clud­ing their bod­ies.” If they man­aged to earn enough, they could buy their free­dom, and any chil­dren they had by white men were “au­to­mat­i­cally con­sid­ered free.”

Trans­planted African cul­ture per­vades so­ci­ety at ev­ery level and in ev­ery sphere, and Kurlan­sky de­scribes at length its in­flu­ence on Cuban food, mu­sic, dance and reli­gion. In­deed, he spices his chron­i­cle of the city with recipes for fa­vorite Cuban dishes and drinks such as pi­cadillo and aji­aco, and the rum-based bev­er­ages the daiquiri and the mo­jito. A metic­u­lous CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The ocean is vis­i­ble from most places in Ha­vana, but Cubans are wary of the sea, Mark Kurlan­sky writes. Old cars and build­ings give the city an an­tique al­lure. A mu­ral of Che Gue­vara, still revered as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary hero. and tire­less re­searcher, he dis­cusses the restau­rants and bars where this fare orig­i­nated and notes that in the 19th cen­tury, ice was im­ported from New Eng­land di­rectly to Ha­vana, then crushed for thirsty Amer­i­can sol­diers — re­mem­ber the Maine and the Rough Rid­ers? — who fa­vored Coca-Cola lib­er­ally spiked with rum. Well hy­drated, the United States con­trolled the is­land for decades and of course still clings to Guan­tanamo.

Cubans liked Coke, too, and this pre­sented a prob­lem dur­ing the U.S. em­bargo — but not one that couldn’t be sur­mounted. With a typ­i­cal flair for im­pro­vi­sa­tion, they pro­duced Tropi-Cola, which ul­ti­mately be­came so pop­u­lar that it was ex­ported to other coun­tries. This tal­ent for adap­ta­tion, Kurlan­sky points out, served Cuba not just when the United States iso­lated it, but when the Soviet Union col­lapsed and could no longer sub­si­dize the Cas­tro regime with bil­lion-dol­lar in­fu­sions of food and fuel. Schools and hos­pi­tals con­tin­ued to func­tion at high lev­els, and if the na­tional diet was di­min­ished, at least this re­sulted in a drop in cases of di­a­betes and heart dis­ease.

Kurlan­sky is hardly an apol­o­gist for the Cas­tro regime or a Pollyanna about con­di­tions in Ha­vana. The sight of ’57 Chevys and Ford Ed­sels rolling through the cob­ble­stone streets may give the town the sepia-toned al­lure of an old pho­to­graph, and the vast ar­chi­tec­tural dis­re­pair can pro­voke in some the same sub­lime re­sponse as Goethe ex­pe­ri­enced when view­ing the Ro­man Fo­rum. But the re­al­ity is laid out by the au­thor in num­bers — “20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives in hous­ing that has been deemed ‘pre­car­i­ous’ ” — and in pow­er­ful de­scrip­tive pas­sages. “With struc­tures sag­ging on their sturdy col­umns, sunken roofs, stained gar­goyles, and cracked and black­ened stone or­na­ments, Ha­vana looks like the rem­nants of an an­cient civ­i­liza­tion in need of teams of arche­ol­o­gists to sift through the rub­ble.”

Kurlan­sky doffs his cap to in­dige­nous writers rang­ing from José Martí to con­tem­po­rary po­ets and novelists. He also pays def­er­ence to for­eign au­thors as­so­ci­ated with Ha­vana. Ernest Hem­ing­way comes in for much-de­served dis­cus­sion, although he sel­dom wrote about the place where he lived for three decades. Gra­ham Greene, whose novel “Our Man in Ha­vana” was made into a movie in the city with Cas­tro’s per­mis­sion, is quoted as en­joy­ing the cap­i­tal’s “louche at­mos­phere” and “the brothel life” — which makes him sound like a lounge lizard. For once Kurlan­sky’s thor­ough­ness goes miss­ing; he fails to men­tion that Greene ran sup­plies to Cas­tro’s men in the moun­tains — or at least claimed he did, most re­cently in Gore Vi­dal’s me­moir “Point to Point Nav­i­ga­tion” (2006).

“Ha­vana” ends with­out a dra­matic crescendo or sweep­ing con­clu­sion. This is no crit­i­cism. It could hardly be oth­er­wise now that Pres­i­dent Barak Obama’s open­ing to Cuba is be­ing re­assessed by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. But read­ers in­ter­ested in the de­bate couldn’t do bet­ter than in­form them­selves with Kurlan­sky’s book.

Michael Mewshaw is writ­ing a me­moir about his friend­ship with Pat Conroy.


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