Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book 27, Cuba: “Waiting for Snow in Havana” by Carlos Eire

What a joy to be reading English again!

Waiting for Snow in Havana was actually written in English, you see: the author was airlifted out of Cuba at the age of eleven in 1962 in the wake of Castro’s revolution. Thirty-eight years later, as a professor of history and religion at Yale (where my sister picked up this copy), he suddenly began writing down his memories of those years and the family history behind them.

And boy oh boy, I wish had a memory like Mr Eire. The stuff he can recall: the dirty pranks they used to play on the neighbours, the infernal threats of the Dominican monk schoolmasters, the chimpanzee in lederhosen who was kept as a pet next door, the rich kid who had his own working miniature sports car, the Chinatown man who sold them deadly firecrackers, and his family’s incredible antique collection, amassed due to his father’s conviction that he was the reincarnation of Louis XVI and his wife was Marie Antoinette.

And of course the post-revolutionary days: the parade where he saw Yuri Gagarin and Castro himself, and his own shock when exiled as a child to America: reduced to being a poor penniless spic washing dishes at night after school, after all those years of privilege in the Cuban aristocracy.

I’d heard the stories before in the abstract, which made me utterly unsympathetic to the plight of the Cuban-Americans, upholding the ancient blockade because their moneyed families were expelled during Communism, boohoo. But I’d never grasped till now the profound shame of this downfall, how these kids who grew up knowing they’d be multimillionaires ended up as good-for-nothing problem minority layabouts in the land they once worshipped for its Hollywood movies and cowboys and Coca Cola, soon banned by Castro of course.

And Eire writes so well: with irony, understanding the poetic justice of his being reduced to the state of those black kids he used to get to dive for pennies in shark-infested waters; and with mad eccentricity, jumping from year to year in his life based on free associations, returning to the same moments based on weird leitmotifs in his head: lizards, swimming pools, cases of molest, the icons of Jesus and the Empress Maria Theresa that used to haunt his dreams, and the philosopher he loathes most of all on this earth, Immanuel Kant.

It gives me faith in the potential richness of creative non-fiction. But such a memory, and such a voice! Such things are not provided to most of us mortals.

I do feel a little bad for not reading Alejo Carpentier’s Conversation in a Cathedral or the diaries of Che for this segment, but I’ve definitely had a great time – sped through this 387-page tome in no time at all, and felt culturally richer for it. You should try it too.

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Representative quote: In the past thirty-eight years I’ve seen eight thousand nine hundred and seventeen clouds in shape of the island of Cuba. I know this because I keep count, and the number is always etched accurately in my brain and in my heart. When I die, feel free to saw open my skull and paw through my brain. I bet you’ll find a spot that looks like a cloud in the shape of Cuba. Feel free to open my chest, too. I bet you’ll also find a scar on my heart that looks like a Cuba cloud.

Next book: Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play and School's Out, from Jamaica.

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