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Down and Out in Havana

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El hambre y la miseria es como un iceberg: la parte mas importante no se ve a simple vista. (Hunger and destitution are like an iceberg: you don’t see the most important part at first glance.) Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

I knew what I wanted, and I went to Havana to find it. It was the university summer holidays. England was one long yawn, with its slow drizzle and its Third Way, the flat vowels of its politicians and their deadly practical aspirations of stability and prosperity. I’d spent two years sitting in the library reading about faraway, long-ago revolutions, grinding my teeth at the dullness of my life. I sat there absorbing other people’s pontifications so I could go off and pontificate myself, so I could order and organize a world I hadn’t yet really discovered. I wanted to find a place where people were actually living, where they were sweating and dancing and dying and having sex; a place, in fact, like that in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.

I’d picked up the book in a discount bookshop in Cambridge, drawn to the seedy tropical promise of its title and its front cover, on which a beautiful mulata woman in a bra and ragged Lycra shorts stares through the window of a crumbling apartment block. I had read it in a day, and fallen for the questionable charms of Gutiérrez’s hard-bitten, tantalizingly autobiographical protagonist Pedro Juan, a man whose life was about as diametrically opposed to my own as it was possible to imagine.

As the trilogy begins, Pedro Juan’s sophisticated artist wife has left both him and Cuba for a new life in New York. He has been fired from his job as a journalist after refusing to churn out any more officially sanctioned platitudes. As Cuba’s economy slides towards disaster at the beginning of the 1990s, he is living in a kind of poverty which he would previously have found unimaginable. There i

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El hambre y la miseria es como un iceberg: la parte mas importante no se ve a simple vista. (Hunger and destitution are like an iceberg: you don’t see the most important part at first glance.) Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

I knew what I wanted, and I went to Havana to find it. It was the university summer holidays. England was one long yawn, with its slow drizzle and its Third Way, the flat vowels of its politicians and their deadly practical aspirations of stability and prosperity. I’d spent two years sitting in the library reading about faraway, long-ago revolutions, grinding my teeth at the dullness of my life. I sat there absorbing other people’s pontifications so I could go off and pontificate myself, so I could order and organize a world I hadn’t yet really discovered. I wanted to find a place where people were actually living, where they were sweating and dancing and dying and having sex; a place, in fact, like that in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.

I’d picked up the book in a discount bookshop in Cambridge, drawn to the seedy tropical promise of its title and its front cover, on which a beautiful mulata woman in a bra and ragged Lycra shorts stares through the window of a crumbling apartment block. I had read it in a day, and fallen for the questionable charms of Gutiérrez’s hard-bitten, tantalizingly autobiographical protagonist Pedro Juan, a man whose life was about as diametrically opposed to my own as it was possible to imagine. As the trilogy begins, Pedro Juan’s sophisticated artist wife has left both him and Cuba for a new life in New York. He has been fired from his job as a journalist after refusing to churn out any more officially sanctioned platitudes. As Cuba’s economy slides towards disaster at the beginning of the 1990s, he is living in a kind of poverty which he would previously have found unimaginable. There is no food, no fuel, little water. The walls of the building where he lives on the Havana seafront threaten to fall down every time it rains, and he shares a filthy bathroom with fifty other families. He scrapes a living in whatever way he can: carrying cement, selling ice-cream in tin cans he collects from the rubbish, flogging the odd Che Guevara memorial coin to a passing tourist. The only way to survive, he realizes, is to slough off the values and aspirations of his previous life, block out all thoughts of the future, and exist purely in the moment: ‘I had three options: I could toughen up, I could go mad, or I could kill myself. That’s why the decision was easy: I had to toughen up.’ He fashions himself into a cross between an ascetic and a pure hedonist. As his body wastes away, his mind becomes stronger and more resilient, and his purpose in life simpler: drinking any old kerosene-smelling rum he can lay his hands on, and seducing every woman he meets, the poorer, coarser and more sexually adventurous the better. Rereading the book now, the brutality of the poverty it describes hits me harder than it used to. Scarcely a chapter goes by without a murder or a suicide: Pedro Juan’s old neighbour who goes up on to the roof to check whether the water tank has been filled after days of drought and, finding it empty, throws himself off; the American pensioner left to die by a young, starving couple who want her house; Aurelio, the childhood friend who injects himself with air after being discovered having an affair with another man. It is odd to think that, when I first read it, my primary emotion was envy: Pedro Juan had a kind of freedom I felt would never be mine, the chance to experience life in what I imagined to be its truest, rawest form. That ambiguity is, I think, at the heart of the book. Poverty as Pedro Juan experiences it is terrible, corrosive – but also darkly funny, cathartic and, in a strange way, liberating. With his artistic sensibilities and educated background, Pedro Juan is oddly divorced from his own deprivation: it seems at times as though he were simply observing it happening to another person. In one of the early chapters, he describes his slow realization that he, too, would be caught up in the maelstrom of Cuba’s economic meltdown: ‘I already knew that the crisis was starting and the hunger was getting more acute, but I saw it happening and said to myself: “Everyone is hungry and they are getting thinner by the day.” It was more difficult to say: “We are hungry and we are getting thinner by the day.”’ Many of the people around him are also, it seems, having trouble facing up to this new reality. They are living in a state of suspended disbelief, scraping by day to day and waiting passively for things to improve. Writing his ‘crude stories’ is the way in which Pedro Juan acknowledges what is happening, and how he shocks others into acknowledging it too. ‘I write to provoke a little and force other people to smell the shit.’ When I arrived in Havana that summer I found it much as Gutiérrez had described. There was a desperate kind of decadence in the air: people danced and flirted but, given half a chance, they would also tell bitter stories of how long they had gone without food during the crisis, of how on a bus journey the old lady sitting next to them closed her eyes and died of hunger. I found my own Pedro Juan in Ariel, a musician who looked like an African prince. He invited me to stay in the tiny wooden shack he shared with his grandmother in a poor barrio on the outskirts of the city. In the mornings we washed with rainwater that collected in a tank on the patio. We ate rice and beans and mangoes that fell from the tree outside. We spent lustful afternoons on the only bed in the house, a couple of boards balanced on a rickety metal frame, while his granny dozed in her chair in the living-room. After I went back to England and university he wrote me letters and put mango leaves in the envelope. A couple of times I phoned his neighbour’s house and spoke to him down the crackly line. We lost touch after a few months, but two years later I went back to Havana for work. I found Ariel in a café on the Calle Obispo, drinking rum with a middle-aged, sunburned woman who didn’t speak Spanish. He looked different: his cheeks had caved in and his teeth were brown. Sitting sadly on a bench in Parque Central that night, he told me that he was working full-time in Havana Vieja, taking foreign ladies out dancing and showing them a good time. Sometimes they would pay; sometimes he’d just get free drinks. He had developed a basuco (crack cocaine) habit, and he had debts with some dealers. They had been looking for him at his granny’s house, so he had moved out and was sleeping on the streets. He wanted me to lend him money. His eyes, which had been bottomless black pools, were now dull and grey. That was real, brutal poverty and there was nothing funny or liberating about it. I couldn’t read the Dirty Havana Trilogy in the same way afterwards, but once in a while I pick it up and remember myself as I was that first summer, young and full of impractical ideas, eating mangoes in Ariel’s back yard.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 23 © Alice O’Keeffe 2009


About the contributor

Alice O’Keeffe has reported on Latin America – particularly on Cuba and Colombia, where she lived for two years – for the Observer and the New Statesman.

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