Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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Mean Streets of Havana

Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutierrez walks down some pretty mean streets in his Dirty Havana Trilogy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 392 pages, $39.95, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer). Billed somewhat awkwardly as "a novel in stories," Dirty Havana is actually a three-part collection of some 60 picaresque tales about the unrelenting grimness of life in crumbling Havana during the permanent "crisis" of the post-Soviet mid-1990s. The quibble about genre doesn’t much matter; what matters is that this is the most harrowing, superbly-written account of Cuban life since Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls.

Gutierrez’s autobiographical narrator, also named Pedro Juan, a former journalist in his mid-40s, adrift and often reduced to scavenging beer cans from dumpsters, makes no bones about what readers are in for. Early on, after a fairly graphic description of a passionate romp, Pedro Juan declares, "Sex isn’t for the squeamish. Sex is an exchange of fluids, saliva, breath and smells, urine, semen, shit, sweat, microbes, bacteria. Or there is no sex. If it’s just tenderness and ethereal spirituality, then it can never be more than a sterile parody of the real act. Nothing."

Gutierrez could just as well say the same about all his other experiences–of work, jail, scrambling to survive, encounters with death, daily life, and even Havana itself. His unsqueamish Havana is far from the romanticized versions that describe the island’s capital as "a glorious, lewd, moveable orgy," as one of the book jacket blurbs has it.

From Juan Pedro’s perspective–which is often a cramped rooftop dwelling on one of the old eight-storey buildings that line the city’s seaside thoroughfare, the Malecon–Havana’s solid, sober facade may look to tourists like "a splendid, majestic castle in the middle of a hurricane. But inside it’s falling to pieces, and it’s an incredible labyrinth of stairs without banisters, darkness, foul smells, cockroaches and fresh shit." Gutierrez doesn’t have to say that this is not only a literal description of living conditions there but also a metaphor for the situation of the whole country. It’s obvious.

As for the inhabitants, they pour in from the countryside, and the stately, crumbling buildings, with broken elevators and no running water, turn into dormitories. "Thousands of people crowded into them like roaches, skinny, underfed, dirty, unemployed people, drinking rum at all hours, smoking marijuana, beating on drums, and multiplying like rabbits, people without perspective, with limited horizons." As Pedro Juan might sneer, Yeah, some glorious orgy. The view of the sea might be majestic, but try living inside the viewpoint.

The emphasis on sex makes sense. If you’re living in a world in which–as the three "books" or sections of Dirty Havana are titled–you’re "Marooned in No-Man’s Land," with "Nothing to Do," and reduced to the "Essence of Me," sex, a cigar, and a slug of Aguardiente are among the few available pleasures. It’s any kind of sex, any way you can get it, and if you can’t get it directly, Peeping Tom voyeurism will do.

Pedro Juan, who doesn’t have much good to say about anyone or anything, does put in a good word for whoever lets him- or herself know lust, even flashers in the park. "So exhibitionists (and every day there are more of them, in parks, on buses, and in doorways) fulfill a beautiful social function: they sensualise the passerby, relieve them for a moment of their daily stress, and remind them that despite everything, they are creatures of instinct, simple and fragile. And dissatisfied, above all."

Gutierrez is seldom overtly political. No tirades against Fidel. None needed. We’re way beyond politics here, and everyone knows it. As close to the political as this stringently unsentimental writer gets is when he explains why he stopped being a journalist: "For more than twenty years as a journalist, I was never allowed to write with a modicum of respect for my readers, or even the slightest regard for their intelligence. No, I always had to write as if stupid people were reading me, people who needed to be force-fed ideas."

When his boss praises him for his "sound and practical" bulletins, Pedro Juan reflects, "Ever since then I’ve hated those two words: sound and practical… Everything is unsound and impractical. All of history, all of life, every single era has been unsound and impractical. We, ourselves. Each one of us is unsound and impractical by nature."

Pedro Juan’s tirades are few and far between. Instead, he sticks to the details. "Take this can business, for example," he says, referring to scavenging for empty beer cans in the luxury neighbourhood dumpsters of Miramar, and then selling them to people in line-ups at stands that peddle a watery sugared-ice concoction.

"People would look at me with disgust when I rummaged through the dumpsters," Pedro Juan reports. "A few times, Public Health inspectors cornered me. They said that the cans were dirty and hassled me about epidemics. But I wouldn’t fight back. I’m tired of fighting back… I play half-retard, half moron, and I’m left alone… A little bit stupid and very tough (a clever beggar is either a candidate for suicide or a far-flung combatant in the world revolution, or both at once). And no complaining. It does no good to indulge in complaints or tears or self-pity. Not for your sake or anyone else’s."

Gutierrez’s tales are a mounting catalogue of everyday catastrophes–people jump off those eight-storey buildings, penises are sliced off, rats bite, dying drunks vomit blood–and just when you think it can’t get any worse, any more surreal, the police corner the guy selling so-called pork liver on the black market and reveal just exactly what people have been eating. The stinking wreckage of history piles up at the feet of the angel, to recall Walter Benjamin’s famous image.

In addition to its literary virtues, Dirty Havana has a necessarily documentary function. Where earlier twentieth century Cuba gave us Alejo Carpentier and Nicolas Guillen, and mid-century featured the work of the "Cuban Proust," Jose Lezama Lima, as well as that of Virgilio Pinera and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in recent years, writing reaching us from within the island, apart from the late Reinaldo Arenas, has been rare. Guiterrez brings us up to date with a large and horrific portrait of a people waiting for the collapse.

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Published in Books in Canada, July 2001.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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