This week, with our attention turned to Cuba, we decided to reread a few of our favorite books by Cuban writers and works set there. President Obama’s historic visit also made us think of the photographs of Peter Turnley, whose latest book, Cuba: A Grace of Spirit, features images from his three decades of travel to the country.
View of the Tropics / G. Cabrera Infante
G. Cabrera Infante’s View of Dawn in the Tropics (1974) stands out as one of the most haunting books I’ve encountered. Written in vignettes—some of them as brief as a sentence or paragraph—and called a “fictional history of Cuba from the first inhabitants to the early seventies,” the book falls closer to the classification of poetry than novel. It even includes an index of first lines. Here, in full, is one chapter:
A rebel shouts: “They killed the general!” and the troops are demoralized. A lieutenant kills the rebel with a shot in the back and stands up. “The general is not dead!” he shouts left and right. “The commander-in-chief is alive!” The rebels reassemble their forces and advance upon the enemy, winning the battle when it seemed lost.
The Faber & Faber edition of View of Dawn in the Tropics includes this note: “Infante believes that one man’s myth is another man’s prison and sets out to prove it in View of Dawn in the Tropics.” This slim book reworks Cuban history and politics through a series of episodes, details from paintings and photographs, as well as the historical record. Infante creates a singular, kaleidoscopic narrative about the birth and development of the country from which he fled in 1965.
For the most part, Rachel Kushnser’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba (2008), unfolds in an American community in Cuba in the late 1950s on the eve of the revolution. The novel takes place on a 3,000-acre United Fruit Company sugarcane plantation and in the cabaret world of Havana. Kushner renders this remarkable time and place in a sharp style, moving among social strata of Americans and Cubans, as well as different generations, that makes this family saga read, at times, like a thriller.
The Distant Marvels / Chantel Acevedo
After everything has been stripped away—husband, child, security, home, health—our stories remain the last sustenance, the words that keep us alive and remind us of our truest selves, who we’ve been and who we might become. Stories, too, allow entry into the foreign other, permitting us to understand a place through a character who becomes, after just a few pages, a beloved intimate. In this regard, Chantel Acevedo welcomes the reader into Cuba, its history, its struggle, its glory and its otherness through the lives of women.
The Distant Marvels, published last year by Europa Editions (one of my favorite publishers; they’ve never let me down), chronicles the family of María Sirena through her stories. During the deadly hurricane of 1963, a female soldier forcibly evacuates the aged María Sirena and her elderly neighbors to the mayor’s mansion. As they huddle against the storm, she—a former cigar factory lectora—relays her stories to the women, some of whom deny the truth in the tales about her revolutionary father and irresistible mother held prisoner for fourteen years by a Spanish captain, and a few who berate her for parading such a shameful lineage. A former friend tries to silence her, but María Sirena must, finally, cement her past through telling and listening to these women around her: “If my own stories are an itch beneath my skin, driving me mad, then the need to hear other stories is like a thirst.”
Acevedo combines stories of mermaids, pirates’ gold, a man struck down in a machete accident cutting sugar cane, hoards of rebels, flashes of passion, fleeting love and long-held secrets.
María Sirena tells the reader about her estranged daughter: "At eighteen, she fell in love with Mireya Peña’s son, Alejandro, a poet, too, and her appetite for him was so crushing that he became all the food she needed. … ‘He is the best poem I’ve ever written,’ she gushed to me one night, and I called her a little fool, and warned her about poets.”
An intimate and thrilling family saga, The Distant Marvels reminds us that a country forms and thrives through the stories of its people.
Peter Turnley’s photographs of Cuba, over the course of three decades’ visits, move beyond the clichéd images of grand yet crumbling buildings and vintage cars. He is masterful at capturing faces in joy and agony, in love and at the end of a hard day’s work. You can watch a video of Peter Turnley, whose photographs have appeared on more than forty covers of Newsweek, discussing his photographs of Cuba during his exhibition at the Cuban Fine Arts Museum.