The Other Half of Life
In 1939, 930 German Jews set sail across the Atlantic Ocean on the MS St. Louis in the hope of escaping Nazi persecution in Germany and of finding political asylum in Cuba. The trip was costly to begin with, and then Cuba demanded $500 additional dollars that the refugees couldn't afford to pay. The ship proceeded to the United States and Canada, but both countries refused to grant asylum to the Jewish refugees. The captain of the St. Louis had taken it upon himself the make sure the passengers were treated with dignity while crossing the Atlantic, and when they were refused admittance into these three countries, he again took on the responsibility of finding asylum for all his passengers, refusing to return to Germany until this was done.
is a fictionalized version of this event.
Thomas Werkmann, 15, is traveling alone on the MS St. Francis from Germany to Cuba because his Jewish father is in Dachau and his Christian mother could only afford to buy one tourist-class passage and landing permit. On his first day at sea, Thomas meets Professor Affeldt, his wife and two daughters Priska, 14, and Marieanne, 10. They are traveling first class and pass Thomas off as their cousin so that he can join them for meals. It doesn't take long for Thomas and Priska to become friends and to meet other kids their age on board ship.
Priska and Thomas couldn't be more different. Throughout the voyage, Thomas is skeptical about whether or not they will be admitted into Cuba, while Priska firmly believes that they are finally "saved" from Hitler's persecution of Jews. Yet despite her infectious optimism and faith, Thomas continues to say he will not believe they are "saved" until they are safely in Cuba, making him metaphorically a Doubting Thomas figure. And, of course, we know from reality that they never are allowed to enter Cuba, but that isn't the end of the story for Thomas. Whitney's takes us much further than the Cuban port in her version of the story.
I found this to be a fascinating fictionalized version of the real events in this coming of age novel. In the space of a two week voyage, Thomas learns much about people, life and himself, much of this occurring in his games of chess with various opponents. Chess is a game his father had taught him and Thomas was quite good at it. He even took a pawn from his father's chess set and carried it around in his pocket. Though I don't play chess, I could still follow the games progress and how each one contributed to Thomas's growth. Slowly, he learns that sometimes people are not who they appear to be, including himself and even Priska, with whom he falls in love with Priska.
The Other Side of Life
is an energetic novel, well-written with well-developed characters. At times I found myself annoyed with Thomas's negativity and with Priska's relentless positivity (is that even a word?) but I also liked the contrast. I also know I am a realist and in Thomas's situation, I would feel just like he does. Whiteny brings in all kinds of questions regarding identity. Thomas is a Mischling
but raised in a secular home. It is on the MS St. Francis, fleeing a country that sees him only as Jewish, that he begins to learn and appreciate more and more about Judaism, his father's religion, and coming to terms with the fact that it is
I’m starting a rather informal summer series. (By definition, shouldn’t all summer series be informal?) I’m finding people who are spending part of their summer exploring a new culture, learning a new technology or experiencing something new and unusual and I’m asking them to write about it and then share it here. I have a few posts lined up and am always looking for more!The series is starting here today with a wonderful piece from my dear friend, Susan Adams who recently had the opportunity to visit Cuba. She was excited to go and I was so excited for her! I know her well enough to know she would fully experience Cuba and all it has to offer and that she would come home with keen observations. I know she has stories too! I can’t wait to meet up with her in Indy and here her stories!!
The following are her reflections.
I was recently privileged to travel to Cuba with a small group of faculty members from Butler University where I am a faculty member in the College of Education. I have long been fascinated by Cuba and have thought often of what I heard from 2 undergraduate professors, the first of which was a Cuban attorney turned foreign language professor and the second of which had been a young college student studying in Cuba as Fidel Castro rose to power in the 1950’s. The Cuban attorney was bitter, frustrated and angry about how his life in the U.S. had turned out; frankly he did a lot of ranting and raving about history and politics, most of which went over our heads, but seemed to soothe him because he generally would cease his rant with a cool smile. The other professor intrigued me even more because her eyes lit up and she smiled a dreamy smile as she described the charisma and intelligence of Fidel Castro, almost forgetting herself as she mentally relived the excitement of being in Cuba at such a momentous time in history.
What I learned from my professors clashed in contrast with my mother’s recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the stark terror my mother remembers experiencing whenever my father went to sea as a young Navy soldier. My father was frequently on the ships patrolling the Caribbean; the uncertainty of his exact location and the daily news reports made her fearful she would be left a young widow with a baby. When I told my mother I was going to Cuba, she attempted to mask the flood of these old emotions (failing completely, of course) and tried to pretend she did not think I was crazy for wanting to go. I have a nasty habit of traveling to parts of the world that scare my mom (Mexico, Honduras, and most recently, Bangkok) but she tries valiantly to be happy for me in spite of her fears.
How to describe what I saw and experienced was constantly on my mind as we traveled to Havana, Santa Clara and Varadero, spending hours and hours aboard an old 1970’s Thomas school bus imported from Canada. It is easy to describe the lush, green, tropical beauty of the island. Yes, of course, it was very hot there (one day the temperature reached in excess of 97 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity)so being sweaty even when you are doing nothing at all is normal. Eating beautiful and sometimes unfamiliar fruits and vegetables (malanga, a tuber sort of like the potato, was a favorite discovery) was a great adventure-mango for breakfast almost every day makes me SO happy! Visiting Che Guevara’s mausoleum was deeply touching and strangely inspiring. Swimming in the ocean at Varadero was amazing and beautiful on the white sand beach under the blazing sun and at night under a full moon, waving our hands to see flashes of phosphorescent microscopic creatures. These are the easy things to describe.
What is more difficult is to characterize the beautiful, resourceful, inventive and generous people that we met. Each day we listened to an expert in some field (economics, social sciences, folklore, education, organic farming, etc.). As I listened, it was impossible to
Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet, Candlewick, 2011, 416 pp, ISBN: 076365227XRecap:- Several generations of loveless (or at least romance-less) marriages- Star-crossed young lovers- The Cuban Missile Crisis- Our world on the brink of destruction- A look at the role both politics and religion play in the end of the world- Some pretty life-changing explosions
Review:Oh, what to say about Life: An Exploded Diagram...It has received all kinds of glowing reviews. It bested Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls in the first round of the BOB.
Author Mal Peet excelled in revealing a very specific world through the use of the characters' dialect. One example: "You put that ole coat on, if yer gorn out. There's a wind'd cut yer jacksy in half."
As I read, I was struck repeatedly with the thought, "Wow. This man can write." There are tons of writers who can tell a good story, but Mal Peet has a particularly affecting way with words.
All things considered, I can appreciate Life: An Exploded Diagram
But did I really enjoy
? That's a different story. My major issue is that I sincerely feel that this is an adult novel. The vast majority of the characters are adults. The narrator is an adult, reflecting back on a certain period in his teen years. The issues and themes that many of the adults dealt with felt completely out of place in a YA novel. When the story focused in on Clem and Frankie's teenage forbidden love, it felt a little more YA, but then the ending wandered back into adult territory again.
And does the YA/Adult distinction matter so much? Perhaps not. But. It just won a round in the Battle of the Kids
' Books. And this is not a book I would hand to most kids.
The overall mood of the story felt gloomy to me. Every scene I envisioned was brown, gray, and dreary. I found myself looking forward to the scenes with the different political leaders during the Cuban Missile Crisis because those were the only passages that hinted at any action. And because I thought Peet's sense of humor really came through as he described different conversations and reflections that were had by Kennedy, Castro, and Kruschhev.
And the end. What in the world happened there? Bizarre.
If you've read Life: An Exploded Diagram
, I would love
to talk to you about it. Please leave a comment and let me know!Recommendation:I would recommend Life to mature readers who appreciate adult, literary fiction or historical fiction.
By: Katie DeKoster
Blog: Book Love
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The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle, Henry Holt and Co, 2010, 160 pp, ISBN: 0805090827Recap:Fredricka Bremer - Swedish suffragette, novelist, and humanitarian - traveled to Cuba in the hope of discovering a modern-day Eden. Instead, she found an island of contrasts: sparkling, tropical waters carrying boats full of children in chains; lush, vibrant landscapes that Cuban women were not free to explore, or even learn about.
Together with Cecelia, the slave girl who was her interpreter, and Elena, her wealthy host's daughter, Fredrika tells the tale of the Cuba that she experienced - both the ugly and the beautiful.Review:Novel in verse: yay! Multiple narrators: double yay! These are two of my favorite writing techniques, and I believe that they elevated this extremely short story into something more like art.
The Firefly Letters is a sleek little novel - I think it only took me about a half hour to read cover to cover - but the themes that it tackles are huge: slavery, gender roles, education, and classism. Whew. Real life suffragette Fredricka Bremer traveled to Cuba in 1851. Author Margarita Engle was able to use Bremer's letters, sketches, and diary entries from that time period in order to write The Firefly Letters. Bremer was shocked and dismayed to find that slaves, some as young as eight-years-old, populated much of the island. On top of that, she protested against the limited rights and educational opportunities that were afforded to free Cuban women and girls. In The Firefly Letters, the other two narrators - Cecelia and Elena, are both confused and delighted by Bremer's "radical" ideas concerning freedom and women's rights.
For me, Elena never became a very "real" character. Instead, she seemed more like a generic representative of all girls born into privilege on the island. And maybe that was because she was a product of Engle's imagination, while Cecelia was actually based on a real person - a young slave girl who Bremer described in her diary. Cecelia was clearly extremely intelligent; she could speak multiple languages and because of her skill as a translator, she was one of the most valuable slaves on the plantation. I imagine that her interactions with Bremer had a life-changing effect, and I hope that her baby was able to grow up as a free person.
For all of the weight behind this novel's history, it is truly a simply told story. It could easily be used in a classroom as part of a study o
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, Latin America
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This Day in World History
February 16, 1958
Fidel Castro Becomes Prime Minister of Cuba
Fidel Castro arrives MATS Terminal, Washington, D.C. 15 April 1959.
Dressed in army fatigues and surrounded by supporters and reporters, 32-year old Fidel Castro
took the oath of office as Cuba’s prime minister on February 16, 1959. He would remain in power for nearly fifty years.
In 1953, Castro had led an attack on a Cuban army barracks hoping to launch a revolt against the government of Fulgencio Batista. That attack failed and he was arrested and imprisoned, though later released in an amnesty of political prisoners. Castro and his brother Raúl formed a small rebel group and hid in Cuba’s eastern mountains as they gathered more supporters, trained them to fight, and connected with other anti-Batista groups. By late 1958, the rebel forces were advancing westward. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country and Castro entered Havana triumphant.
The initial provisional government included leaders from several rebel factions, not just Castro’s. At first, he refrained from taking any political power, although he was commander of the armed forces. In six weeks, though, the provisional prime minister—not a Castro ally—resigned, and he took the office.
During 1959, Castro supporters, including Raúl, filled more and more top-level positions. Meanwhile, hundreds of former Batista officials were tried and executed, and Castro began sending signals that he was a Communist. An exodus of thousands of Cubans began, some fearing for their lives because of links to Batista, others angered by Castro’s refusal to restore the 1940 constitution and hold promised elections. Cuban relations with the United States worsened when Castro seized the assets of several American companies and tilted toward the Soviet Union; they fractured when the U.S. government cancelled trade agreements and backed an invasion by anti-Castro Cubans, which failed miserably. By early 1962, Castro had announced that his revolution was socialist, and the United States had placed an embargo on trade with the island.
“This Day in World History” is brought to you by USA Higher Education.
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By: Aline Pereira
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, Picture Books
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Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, illustrated by Raúl Colón,
Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina
Marshall Cavendish, 2011.
Alicia Alonso, the latest in a series of portraits of Latin figures by award-winning author and poet Carmen Bernier-Grand, is written in lyrical free verse, a style that particularly suits the dramatic life of this beloved Cuban dancer.
Alonso’s long career has been marked by many difficulties. Already a highly regarded dancer in Cuba, she and her young fiancé, also a dancer, immigrated to New York in 1937, when Alicia was 15 and pregnant. She resumed ballet as soon as her daughter was born. In a field known to destroy bodies and careers early in life, Alonso continued dancing until she was in her seventies, despite diminishing vision from a detached retina that led eventually to blindness.
Bernier-Grand tells the story in touching word-sketches of key moments in Alonso’s life: selection for the role of Swanilda in Coppélia; romance with Fernando Alonso, her eventual husband; parental disapproval of ballet as a career; separation from her daughter during her U.S. tours; learning Giselle while blind and hospitalized by using her fingers as her feet; ballet shoes stuck to her feet with dried blood; eventual refusal to dance in Cuba while Batista was in power.
“She counts steps, etches the stage in her mind.
Spotlights of different colors warn her
she is too near the orchestra pit.
She moves, a paintbrush on canvas…
She imagines an axis
and pirouettes across her own inner stage.”
Raúl Colón’s stylized pastel illustrations poignantly evoke ballet’s beauty and Alonso’s suffering, despite which she has had one of the longest, most esteemed careers in ballet history. Vision in one eye was partially restored in 1972. Alonso, who founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, still choreographs dances at age 92.
Back matter includes a detailed biographical narrative of Alonso’s life; lists of some of the ballets she has danced and choreographed and awards she has won; a glossary; an extensive bibliography of sources and websites; and notes on the text. While the simple story of the ballerina’s life will appeal even to very young children, the reference material is rich enough for an older child to use for a research project. In the process of understanding a woman artist’s life struggles, young readers will also learn much about U.S.-Cuban relations.
Fresh stamps from our good friend Wes, this time from Cuba commemorating the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, Japan.
Towards better understanding
To the better enjoyment of life
Planning a more satisfying life
Also worth viewing…
1962 Denmark Christmas Seals
Portugal 1981 Census Stamps
Hong Kong Festivals 1975 Stamps
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This short video story on the BBC is ostensibly about the influence of Soviet animation on Cuban kids between the 1960s and ’90s, but it also offers an all-too-brief glimpse of the Cuban animation industry. Does anyone know if it’s filmed in a school or a studio?
(Thanks, Simon Acosta)
Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation |
No comment |
Post tags: Cuba
By: Aline Pereira
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Earlier this year I blogged about Primary Source when they hosted a Global Read of Mitali Perkins‘ book Bamboo People. On March 2nd Primary Source will be hosting a new Global Read, this time focusing on Christina Diaz Gonzalez‘ YA book The Red Umbrella. The online discussion forum will be followed by a live web-based session with Christina on March 9th from 3:00 – 4:00pm EST. Anyone interested in global issues is welcome to take part in this free event but must register online here.
The Red Umbrella follows a 14-year-old Cuban girl and her brother sent by their parents to live in the United States during the tumultuous period of 1960s Cuba. Christina says the story was ” loosely based on the experiences of my parents, mother-in-law and many of the other 14,000 children who participated in Operation Pedro Pan.”
Talking about why she wrote the book, Christina says:
“Obviously, this is a personal story and part of my family history. In fact, it’s an important part of American history and yet there wasn’t much written about it, especially from the point of view of the children who experienced it. The book showcases how the U.S. has always been a haven for those seeking refuge from injustice and oppression and how average Americans have stepped up to help those in need, even if they were foreigners in our country. I also wanted to show the pride immigrants (in this case Cubans) have for their homeland, but how, in the end, family is what matters most… home is not a physical place. It’s where you feel you belong, where you are surrounded by people who love and accept you.”
The Red Umbrella has been appearing on many YA book lists since being published in May 2010, including ALA/YALSA’s 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults. You can read an interview with Christina here, and there is also an amazing book trailer made by Christina’s brother-in-law:
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By Dennis Baron
Western observers have been celebrating the role of Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, and the internet in general in facilitating the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last week. An Egyptian Google employee, imprisoned for rallying the opposition on Facebook, even became for a time a hero of the insurgency. The Twitter Revolution was similarly credited with fostering the earlier ousting of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, and supporting Iran’s green protests last year, and it’s been instrumental in other outbreaks of resistance in a variety of totalitarian states across the globe. If only Twitter had been around for Tiananmen Square, enthusiasts retweeted one another. Not bad for a site that started as a way to tell your friends what you had for breakfast.
But skeptics point out that the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square continued to grow during the five days that the Mubarak government shut down the internet; that only nineteen percent of Tunisians have online access; that while the Iran protests may have been tweeted round the world, there were few Twitter users actually in-country; and that although Americans can’t seem to survive without the constant stimulus of digital multitasking, much of the rest of the world barely notices when the cable is down, being preoccupied instead with raising literacy rates, fighting famine and disease, and finding clean water, not to mention a source of electricity that works for more than an hour every day or two.
It’s true that the internet connects people, and it’s become an unbeatable source of information—the Egyptian revolution was up on Wikipedia faster than you could say Wolf Blitzer. The telephone also connected and informed faster than anything before it, and before the telephone the printing press was the agent of rapid-fire change. All these technologies can foment revolution, but they can also be used to suppress dissent.
You don’t have to master the laws of physics to observe that for every revolutionary manifesto there’s an equal and opposite volley of government propaganda. For every eye-opening book there’s an index librorum prohibitorum—an official do-not-read list—or worse yet, a bonfire. For every phone tree organizing a protest rally there’s a warrantless wiretap waiting to throw the rally-goers in jail. And for every revolutionary internet site there’s a firewall, or in the case of Egypt, a switch that shuts it all down. Cuba is a country well-known for blocking digital access, but responding to events in Egypt and the small but scary collection of island bloggers, El Lider’s government is sponsoring a dot gov rebuttal, a cadre of official counterbloggers spreading the party line to the still small number of Cubans able to get online—about ten percent can access the official government-controlled ’net—or get a cell phone signal in their ’55 Chevys.
All new means of communication bring with them an irrepressible excitement as they expand literacy and open up new knowledge, but in certain quarters they also spark fear and distrust. At the very least, civil and religious authorities start insisting on an imprimatur—literally, a permission to print—to license communication and censor content, channeling it al
The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle
I have adored Engle and her poetry since first reading her Poet Slave of Cuba. This historical novel told in verse tells the story of early Swedish feminist Fredrika Bremer and her travels in Cuba. While in Cuba she inspires and changes the lives of two women, a slave named Cecilia and a wealthy young woman named Elena. At first amazed and shocked by the freedom Fredrika demonstrates, Elena warms to her as she begins to understand that the future could be different than just an arranged marriage. Cecilia finds in Fredrika a woman who looks beyond her slave status and a role model for hope. Told in Engle’s radiant verse, this is another novel by this splendid author that is to be treasured.
As with all of her novels, Engle writes about the duality of Cuba: the dark side and the light, the beauty and the ugliness. Once again she explores the horrific legacy of slavery without flinching from its truth. Against that background of slavery, she has written a novel of freedom. It is the story of a woman who refused to be defined by the limitations of her birth and her sex, instead deciding to travel and write rather than marry. Fredrika is purely freedom, beautifully contrasted with the two women who are both captured in different ways and forced into lives beyond their control.
Beautifully done, this book is an excellent example of the verse novel. Each poem can stand on its own and still works to tell a cohesive story. At times Engle’s words are so lovely that they give pause and must be reread. This simply deepens the impact of the book. Engle also uses strong images in her poems. In this book, fireflies are an important image that work to reveal light and dark, as well as freedom and captivity.
Highly recommended, this author needs to be read by those who enjoy poetry, those who enjoy history, and those who simply are looking for great writing. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.
How do you follow up the multiple award winning book, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano? Margarita Engle continues to provide a window into the rich and violent history of Cuba with this new collection of poems from multiple points of view on the several wars for independence from 1850-1900, The Surrender Tree; Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.
The Surrender Tree also combines real life characters (the legendary healer Rosa la Bayamesa) with imagined individuals to construct a compelling narrative of escape and hiding, heroism and healing. A former slave, Rosa (and her husband) devotes her life to caring for people, both runaways and persecuting soldiers, using only native plants and herbal remedies with skill, compassion and faith—all while living in hiding and on the run.
Set in the lush landscape of Cuba’s jungles and caves, the story-poem moves forward moment to moment across three wars fought by natives and fueled by outsiders. The plight of the Cubans themselves is a dramatic counterpoint for any war waged in the name of power and possession. But the decency and dignity of our heroine, her husband, Jos, her young protégé, Silvia, and many who prevail despite overwhelming odds makes for an inspiring and humbling saga.
I marked several powerful poems to share out loud, but chose this one as my favorite here for its understated simplicity and layers of meaning:
This is how you heal a wound:
Clean the flesh.
Sew the skin.
Pray for the soul.
Engle, Margarita. 2008. The Surrender Tree; Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. New York: Henry Holt, p. 73.
What a powerful poetic voice, inspiring Latina writer, and distinctive ambassador for Cuba’s history.
For more Poetry Friday gems, go to my former student's blog, Becky's Book Reviews. Go, Becky!
Picture credit: www.schoollibraryjournal.com
By: Jessamyn West,
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As may be obvious, I’m a little behind on my feeds. The good news is that there’s a lot of good stuff there. The bad news is that you may have seen some of it. Here are a few quickie notes that I think merit some attention. My apologies if you’ve all seen them before. My personal goal is to be all caught up on feeds by the time I leave for ALA — Thursday morning — and don’t get behind again. I think it’s doable.
The Surrender Tree (Henry Holt & Company)ISBN: 9780805086744Hardcover: 169 p. List Price: $16.95**** (4 out of 5 stars: very good; without serious flaws; highly recommended)Slavery all day,and then, suddenly, by nightfall – freedom!*Can it
Palestine Poster designed by Faustino Perez in 1968
Hop on over to So Much Pileup. There showing OSPAAAL posters all week.
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©2008 Grain Edit
Roland Merullo. Fidel's Last Days. NY: Random House, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-4159-6120-9 (1-4159-6120-4)
Imagine Fidel Castro lying on his death bed, holding onto life’s last breath with a stubbornness that infuriates those enemies who fervently wish Castro dead at the hands of an assassin, not the respite of natural causes. “Oye, pendejo,” Fidel might think--were he a bit of a Chicano--“if you want me killed, write a pinche novel, ‘cause it ain’t happening any other way.” Which is what Roland Merullo
has done. Write a novel, Fidel’s Last Days
.Fidel’s Last Days
plays intrigue against intrigue. A Miami-based Cubano organization, fabulously wealthy and clandestinely professional, will infiltrate an agent, Carolina, onto the island. She will deliver a weapon to kill Fidel. There’s a traitor in The Orchid, but he’s known to its top men. Cynically feeding misinformation and partial information back to Cuba's security directorate puts Carolina and other agents at risk, sacrificial lambs to the cold-blooded goals of “Project Havana”. The top henchasshole is Carolina’s beloved tio, but ni modo on that. His plan heaps danger upon risk, depending on precise timing and movement, something’s bound to go wrong. Poor Carolina. There’s her desperate escape, but into Olochon’s cruel hands, just as Carlos himself falls into the delighted Olochon’s grasp.
Merullo’s writing ethos speaks with the most virulently anti-Castro, anti-Cuba voice you will read, whether from non-Cubano writers or Cubana Cubano novelists. For the former, Martin Cruz Smith, Havana Bay
, or Daniel Chavarria, Tango For a Torturer
and Adios Muchachos, Cuba provides local color, the background that frames everyday struggles to eat, get laid, pull off a crime. Cuba-origin writers like Achy Obejas, Ruins
, Roberto Arellano, Havana Lunar
, Leonardo Padura, Havana Gold
and Adios Hemingway
, Jose LaTour, Comrades in Miami
, sharpen their axes with varying degrees of edginess sans obsession. In these, Fidel’s rotten presence looms at the edge of teenage prostitution, slow starvation, shortages of everything except unrelenting woeful suffering. Except for Jesus Diaz, The Initials of the Earth
, with its sympathetic meeting with Fidel in a sugar mill. Across most novels, Cuba’s good and noble gente endure their suffering or find a way to get out, even if floating off for Florida in an inner tube, shark bait.
Not that shortages, economic folly, latent racism, repression, and political opportunism are not facts of Cuban society. Such flaws are inescapable caca heaped on the island, thanks to the US blockade. But some novelists use these conditions as material to grow a plot; for Merullo, these are the plot. For example, Achy Obejas’ character makes pragmatic advantage of regularly collapsing apartment houses; finding value in ruin, he scavenges valuable salvage and converts it to dollars. Merullo’s character sees these as part of a litany of metaphors that describe the rotten heart of Carlos' homeland, thus justification for an elaborate assassination plot and coup d’etat. When life gives you lemons, kill Fidel.
Not that Merullo hides his bloodlust motive in crafting a generally successful, suspenseful plot. And, perhaps, Merullo is not a blind hater, but merely a literary opportunist, an outsider much like Martin Cruz Smith, informed by locals with their own axes a-grinding. I’d love to learn who steered Merullo in the direction he leads the reader. Jose LaTour advised Smith, creating a beautiful novel with a flavor of authenticity, then wrote a parallel novel.
As in Havana Lunar
, Fidel’s Last Days
occur against a background of Cuban medicine. This isn’t the healing science of a recent rabble-rousing film but the medicine of shortage. Havana Lunar
features a medical clinic lacking even aspirin to treat sick children, owing to the clinic’s location in a politically unreliable neighborhood where folks don’t rat out each other’s political shortcomings. Merullo is not as hard on his poor barrio clinics, such as Elena’s: “Although the shelves were not stocked with more than a week’s supply of the essentials—zylocaine, penicillin, aspirin, hydrogen peroxide—the nurses called on the patients in fair order, and, it seemed to Carlos, treated them capably, efficiently.”
Carlos happens to be Cuba’s Minister of Health, Castro’s personal physician, and a crony of all the good old boys. Carlos had been with el Comandante from near the beginning. But Carlos is not immune from political suspicion. Castro’s longer-tenured comrade, the quintessentially evil Olochon, heads D-7, internal security. Olochon relishes his job and his nickname, The Dentist, earned from his technique of pulling teeth with a “plumber’s wrench.” Ferreting out traitors to the state occupies Olochon’s days and nights, except when he’s got some traitor hanging in a cell waiting, wishing, for a coup de grace. At one point, Carlos expresses his belief to Fidel that Olochon goes too far sometimes. Fidel thinks Olochon is doing a fine job.
Olochon’s suspicious mien reflects, if not causes, the disheartening mistrust and political snitching that characterizes personal relationships witnessed in other novels, too. Carlos and Elena matter deeply to one another, yet Carlos fears letting her in on his role in the plot. “To protect her, he told himself. To protect her, and others. But, in fact, he was not truly sure of Elena’s political leanings. At times, quietly, she voiced criticisms—never of Fidel personally, but of the way things were done. And then, other times, he’d see her watching a television program that was pure propaganda, and there would be tears in her eyes for the great experiment that was Cuba.” For her part, Elena recognizes if Carlos is taken, Olochon will come for Elena and her family simply owing to her Carlos conecta. The limits of Cuban love begin at the ligature around one's throat.
Merullo wants readers to recognize a difference between Carlos’ contemporaries and everyday, less jaded Cubanos, like Elena. Olochon provides a focal point: “his anger had been like an ugly brother to Fidel’s, his ego like a twisted reflection of a twisted reflection. … there were those who claimed Batista had fled the country, not because of Castro or the sentiments of the Cuban people, but because of the boy who enjoyed killing. Olochon….the name was a sharp hot spike through the groin
Carlos’ view of Elena and her adult son, illustrates the depth of Olochon’s type of suspicion and the vast gap between lost potential and present decay. “Julio and his mother were real revolutionaries, real communists. They were, Carlos thought, what he had been at the beginning.” Earlier in the novel, a similar feeling intrudes on the hate fest for all things Castro, and for oneself. “The Revolution had been built on a concern for the pain of others. In the beginning the revolutionaries had killed, of course—without that killing they would still be slaves—but always in the name of a glorious future. Now, however, it seemed to him more and more that they killed in the name of a mediocre present, a status quo that kept so many Cubans wanting food, while a few, like him and Olochon, lived well. They had become the men they had once cursed.”
This conflict of past and present sets off a logic grown from Merullo’s depiction of Castro as an out of touch blowhard. Castro sits in the cabinet meeting and drones on and on, but only after each of the cabinet ministers have droned their glowing reports of fabricated progress, each minister quietly admiring the lying ability of a compañero. Does Fidel have to go, or should the assassin aim at Olochon’s evil? Ridding Cuba of el Comandante will destabilize the island, but killing Olochon will remove an evil blot on the island’s health. Fidel will die some day, but what if the director of D-7 ascends the throne?
It must have been a pleasure for Merullo to write Fidel’s death in the penultimate chapter. Without giving away the twisty ending from the final chapter, the Fidel-hater reader will re-read that paragraph with cascading frissons of glee. Ding dong and all that.
Sadly, a few small but glaring errors mar the otherwise involving suspense. There’s that matter of The Dentist’s yanking teeth one by one with a plumber’s wrench. I think not. A plier, a vise grip, a dental instrument of course, would do. But a plumber’s wrench is designed with one-way teeth that grasp a pipe across the circumference to exert counterclockwise force on a tube with ample clearance. Being somewhat of a handyman myself—I’m a regular carpintonto, in fact—I know my plumbing tools with an intimacy Merullo lacks.
Likewise, Merullo’s confusion of Cuban with Mexican comida. What happened to his local informant on this, quién sabe, but when Carlos takes Elena to dinner, they go to a restaurant whose fare illustrates not only run-of-the-mill privation but also an egregiously uninformed writer: “they turned down an alley, past a woman and small child begging and a man playing the Peruvian flute, then ducked into the large, noisy, popular Café Castro, where you could sometimes get a little chicken or fish with your beans and rice and tortillas”.
¡Hijole! That menu cries out for an editor or a fact-checker.Artful News from Chicago
My studio building is having its annual Spring "OPEN STUDIO WALK" weekend on May 15-16, 2009. If you are in or near Chicago I hope you'll drop in and have a glass of wine and see some wonderful art. Art will be for sale!
More details and directions can be found on the Artists of Eastbank website - www.artistsoftheeastbank.com
J u d i t h e H e r n á n d e z
◘ Website: www.jhnartestudio.com
◘ Studio: 1200 West 35th Street, #35000, Chicago, IL 60609Meso American Reminder
In Los Angeles, Cal State LA hosts the 2009 Conference on Mesoamerica. Continuity and Change in Mesoamerican History From the Pre-Classic to the Colonial Era. Click here
for a PDF of this interesting event.Lydia Considered and Re-Considered.
La Bloga enthused at the beauty, power, and pure drama of Lydia
at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.
Denver's John Keubler has an interesting answer to the question of how Octavio Solis' masterful teatro experience changed from its Denver debut to its exceptional El Lay staging. Click here
(then press Esc when the site demands an email password) to enjoy Keubler's take on this wondrous play, including an LA Times critic's accusation Lydia is like a telenovela. Wha? Among descriptions I would hope critics studiously avoid is equating fluffy stuff like telenovelas with so fine an example of Chicano belles-lettres.Now the play has found its way west to Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where critical reception, perhaps because of all the hype, has been mixed. Los Angles Times theater critic Charles McNulty calls it “magical realism meets telenovela.”
I do not watch telenovelas, and I wonder how many telenovelas McNulty consumes along with a hot botana or two? For me, this sounds like beans rice and tortillas served at a Havana café, suspiciously uninformed. Ni modo. You'll enjoy Keubler's essay.
What's the word of the day? Catarro. May you not comprehend what this means, leastways, not as convincingly as I do right now. Damn. Here's trusting my twice daily botana of Ciprofloxacin and Tamiflu are doing the trick, this second Tuesday of May. A Tuesday like any day, except you are here. Be well, gente. See you next week.
La Bloga welcomes your comments. Click the Comments counter below to add your notes to this, or any column. Be mindful that La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. When you have a counter view of something you read at La Bloga, or your own review of a book or arts event, click here to share your intentions to be our guest.
Leonardo Padura. Translated by Peter Bush. Havana Fever. London (UK): Bitter Lemon Press, 2009.
Havana Fever burns with resentment that Cuba’s ruined culture shows itself in every vestige of its modern form. Whole barrios given over to crime and desperation, a city whose collapsed and patchwork buildings reflect society’s structural failure that began with Batista’s overthrow. Decaying mansions are little different from outrageous underclass brothels, the one stripped of anything saleable, the other sold out by the revolution. There’s no love lost between Leonardo Padura and official Cuba. But these things have become commonplaces of Cuban exile writers.
What sets Havana Fever
apart from other Cuban exile novels is Padura’s absence of malice. His lead character, Mario Conde, isn’t looking to clean up crime, corruption, morality. He’s been retired from the police for ten years now. Conde’s retirement, in his late 40s, has come about because his old boss was railroaded into retirement and Conde acted to protest the injustice. Padura shares this information in a small plot divagation. Conde doesn’t regret the history, he wastes no emotion in lamentation, not for the public, commodity shortages, blackmarketeering, nor police corruption.
Today, the Count sells books and leaves the world as he finds it, to its own devices. But out of the blue, a gut feeling burns through his chest when he stumbles upon a Cuban equivalent of the ancient Library of Alexandria.
The novel will delight bibliophiles with its description of the Montes de Oca library: the earliest book published in Cuba, nineteenth century treatises featuring hand colored engraved plates, first editions of laureates of Cuban poetry—autographed. Conde could defraud the clueless owners but instead gives them a fair price, and points out the rarest volumes that must not be sold.
Such nobility cannot go unpunished. Leafing through a cookbook filled with impossible recipes, Conde finds a folded rotogravure photo from the 1950s of a gorgeous nightclub singer wrapped in gold lamé, Violeta del Rio. Conde falls in love not solely owing to her allure but because the photo awakens a dim memory and that nagging gut feeling that something is not right.
The magazine page leads Conde on the trail of a cold case murder dating back to the heydey of Havana nightlife. Batista gets the boot, sending his gangster business partners, along with rich Cubanos, in headlong flight with whatever dollars remain of their riches, leaving behind their mansions to fall into rot. One such Cubano, Alcides Montes de Oca, scion of a respected family de nombre, had fallen head over heels with the alluring Lady of the Night, bolero singer Violeta del Rio. The rich man flees in 1960, without Violeta del Rio. Because police have their hands full investigating counterrevolutionary terrorist violence, the singer’s death by cyanide remains an open case.
Montes de Oca leaves behind the fabulous library, the devastated mansion, and three caretakers, his dedicated personal assistant and her two children—Montes de Oca’s children carrying the surname of a chauffeur to keep up appearances. The novel follows Conde from sympathy for the emaciated brother and sister to suspicion that one of them withholds secrets to unlock the mysterious death of the almost forgotten singer. On the trail, the detective tracks down a musiciologist who identifies the single recording of Violeta del Rio, the singer’s top rival--a once-ravishing beauty now a sadly vain old woman holding in bitterness at her fifty year old feud, and another wizened body formerly known as Lotus Flower--a sensational nude dancer and high-class madam, who gladly shows off a portrait of her young self in costume.
The mystified Conde calls upon all his resources to resolve events the reader already knows from letters interjected into the narrative. Mysterious love letters by Nena to her Love parallel Conde’s investigation. Love is definitely Montes de Oca. Nena is not a character in the story and there’s some fun to be had in guessing her name. The letters allude to the events Conde has not yet tracked, filling in some details, offering misinformation here and there, but eventually spelling out the killer’s identity, and Nena’s. It’s a fun bit of dramatic irony, with added irony, Conde will never read the letters, the poisoner having destroyed them.
Beyond weaving an engaging mystery, crafting vivid tours of battered barrios, sentimental interviews that evoke that earlier hustle and bustle, Havana Fever reminds a reader of the inevitability of getting old. And its consequences. Conde has lost a step, in fact gets his ass kicked viciously because he loses focus. Conde’s best friend, Skinny Carlos, is killing himself with food, alcohol, and as much excess as a paraplegic shot in Angola can muster. Carlos deserves a happy ending, Conde reasons, and spends lavishly to bring rich food and quality rum to regular late night bullsessions.
Cuba is aging too, but not as well. The old are starving to death and when they’re gone, memories of the old days will be gone with them. While the old order changes it yields place to ever more bullshit, corruption, drugs. The gaps grow between then and now. And what can one do about it? Make compromises, survive, hold to your principles. They are their own reward. Or, one can leave, disappear from involvement in whatever comes next. Or, one can give in.
A final thought on publishing emerges in the British English of the translation. Cars have boots and bonnets, an envelope contains a pair of black and white winkle-pickers, and several colloquialisms drive my curiosity what Padura’s Spanish actually read. These linguistic lacunae aside, Peter Bush offers a masterful completely readable text that flows with a beautiful vocabulary and a clean sense of authenticity. Readers who have enjoyed Conde’s earlier stories, notably the Havana color series, Black, Red, Blue, and Gold novels, will find this story of the aging Conde a capstone to the series. In an afterword, Padura reveals he’s been working on movie versions of his work, and that is fabulous news. Read the books, read Havana Fever, and you can join those discussions one day, “it didn’t happen like that in the book, but…”
And that's the penultimate Tuesday in July, 2009, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.
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Be sure to visit La Bloga this Sunday, July 26, when our Guest Columnists will be poets Olga Garcia, Tatiana de la Tierra, and making her writing debut, Liz Vega.
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Julia E. Sweig, is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies and Director for Latin American Studies the Council on Foreign Relations. Her most recent book, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a concise and remarkably accessible portrait of the small island nation’s unique place on the world stage over the past fifty years. The book is presented in question and answer format and below we have excerpted a question about Cuba under the Bush administration.
What were the main features of U.S. policy toward Cuba under George W. Bush and how did Cuba respond?
As the United States entered the new millennium, Elián fatigue, embargo fatigue, and widespread annoyance with the domestic politics of the Cuba issue had helped create a bipartisan consensus in favor of dramatic policy change. No one necessarily thought this would be easy…Still, the momentum for policy change continue into the next year, when the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted to end trade and travel restrictions. By then, however, the Bush White House had made clear its intention of vetoing any such legislation.
Nonetheless, for most of 2002, Havana gingerly probed for evidence that it was possible to reach a modus vivendi with Washington. Raul Castro offered to return detainees from the war in Afghanistan to Guantánamo in the event they tried to escape…Even in the wake of early 2002’s specious accusations regarding Cuba’s supposed potential to develop and proliferate technology for bioweapons, the Cuban government still permitted President Carter’s historic visit in May and allowed the Varela Project petition to be submitted without significant incident. This gesture would mark the high point of their generosity, however.
Beginning in early 2003, the Bush administration set out to largely undo the people-to-people openings launched by the Clinton administration. Acquiring or renewing a license for NGO-sponsored or educational travel became more difficult…Soon, almost all of the legal travel categories created under the rubric of “supporting the Cuban people” had been eliminated.
Yet it was the run-up to the war in Iraq and the new mantra or preemptive security that really shook Havana’s expectations of the Bush White House. One dimension of the Castro government’s efforts to cultivate positive vibes in Washington had been its relative tolerance of a variety of dissident groups (many of which had been infiltrated), from small scale to higher profile. Congressional delegations visiting Havana could return to their districts and to Washington having met with such individuals, lending their visits, which often explored possible commercial ties with the regime, an air of human rights credibility. But the benefits of allowing such oxygen evaporated once Washington started to advance its regime change agenda with military power, albeit in Iraq. Havana reasoned that allowing the groups to continue to function could also give an in-road to an enemy whose designs may well turn belligerent. Thus, in the eyes of Cuban officials, the national security prerogatives of cracking down on domestic opposition activists were well worth the near-universal international backlash Cuba was likely to (and did) incur…
Several months later, President Bush launched the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), a new interagency initiative chaired by a series of cabinet officials. The commission’s recommendations offered few surprises: Keep sanctions in place, step up efforts to penetrate the government’s “information blockade,” interrupt any moves by a successor regime to replace Fidel Castro, but offer assistance to a transitional government willing to hold elections, release political prisoners, and adopt the marks of freedom stipulated by Helms-Burton. In the scenarios envisioned by the commission’s first 500-page report, an American “transition coordinator” (a position created soon after at the State Department) would judge when conditions in post-Castro Cuba would make it eligible for aid and other accoutrements that accompany a U.S. seal of approval.
One policy change to emerge from the commission’s work was the president’s move, notably in 2004, an election year, to massively scale back Cuban American family travel and remittances. Since 1999, Cuban Americans had been permitted to travel annually to the island to visit any member of their extended family. The new regulations cut these visits to once every three years, and only to see immediate family. New restrictions on remittances reduced the legal quantity that could be sent and also stipulated that only immediate family would be eligible to receive such transfers. Previously, they could be sent to “any household.”
Measuring the impact of these changes with any certainty is nearly impossible. In 2006, the CAFC could only claim that the new policies had reduced remittances “significantly.” Yet while Cuban families certainly felt the pinch, there was no appreciable effect on the Cuban regime’s capacity to stay in power or repress its citizens…In the same period, Washington denied virtually all requests by Cuban professionals to travel to the United States unless applicants could claim they had been victims of political persecution by the regime…In 2004, the United States also called a halt to the twice-annual migration talks because the meetings allegedly gave the appearance that the United States conferred legitimacy upon the Cuban government. Cuba’s annual allotment of 20,000 migration visas continued, but human smuggling in the Gulf of Mexico did as well.
In response to these meetings, Cuba reduced its public relations campaigns around lifting the embargo, convinced that they were not, for the moment, worth the effort. Guantánamo once again became a tool to mobilize domestic nationalism. Initially, Cuba’s security establishment had hoped to show off its national security bona fides by tolerating the base’s conversion into a detention center for suspected terrorists. Yet as allegations of torture surfaced and the legality of the detentions came into questions, Guantánamo became, as it did for many of America’s global critics, a symbol of American imperial hubris, one which in the Cuban case also allowed Havana to highlight the island’s own history of grievances over American violations of its sovereignty. At the same time, fully cognizant of George W. Bush’s bellicosity, the Cuban government appeared to cautiously avoid dramatic provocations of the sort that could lead to a repeat of past migration crises or the 1996 shoot-down.
Among the last public gestures of goodwill under the George W. Bush administration was Fidel Castro’s offer to send hundreds of medical professionals and disaster relief workers to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But Washington wrote off the offer as a publicity stunt. The embarrassing prospect that Fidel’s teams of doctors and nurses might have something to contribute to New Orleans residents outweighed any calculus that could actually deliver help to Katrina’s victims.