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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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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