How Cubans’ gift for improvization sustained the politics and pleasures of Havana


An Opinion piece by Michael Mewshaw for The Washington Post.

A happy hybrid, “Havana: A Subtropical Delirium” invokes the Cuban capital as an occasion to discuss the country’s history, politics, food, architecture, music, religion and passion for baseball. No author is as well equipped to take on this task as Mark Kurlansky, who has previously published half a dozen books on international cuisine, two on baseball and one — “A Continent of Islands” — that surveys the Caribbean situation. The danger is that such a polymathic author has no fixed identity and might fall between categories and be dismissed in this case as a mere travel writer. That would be a great shame, given the manifold pleasures of his brief, breezy new book.

Kurlansky approaches Havana like an Impressionist painter,building the image of this metropolis of 2 million inhabitants with subtle brushstrokes. He quotes the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who wrote that “Havana has the yellow of Cadiz, the pink of Seville turning carmine and the green of Granada, with the slight phosphorescence of fish.” Visible from almost everywhere, the sea provides a blue surround, one that is ironically empty of boats. As Kurlansky explains, Cubans are wary of the ocean, the source of many murderous invasions — the Bay of Pigs was one of many — and killer hurricanes. Then too, after Fidel Castro took power and the United States cut off contact, authorities from both countries have patrolled the Straits of Florida, capturing all but the luckiest immigrants trying to reach the American mainland in rickety improvised crafts.

While Cuban exiles might complain that Kurlansky doesn’t sufficiently catalogue the cruelty and repression of the Castro regime, he does note that “Che Guevara — a man with the looks of a cinema hero — held his tribunals and executed so many people by firing squad that Castro removed him from his post.” Che then moved on to South America, trading his role as the Robespierre of the Cuban revolution for his lasting iconic image as a martyr for socialism.

With estimable even-handedness, Kurlansky remarks that Cuba’s previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista, richly deserved to be toppled. He ran “a murderous kleptocracy in close partnership with American organized crime. . . . Foreigners remember the Havana of that time as a kind of romantic brothel.” Kurlansky points out that prostitution continued to flourish under Castro, and he offers fascinating insight into how the history of commercialized sex on the island was an outgrowth of slavery, which wasn’t abolished in Cuba until 1872. Under Spanish rule, slaves had advantages over their counterparts in the United States; they could legally sell things on the street, “including their bodies.” If they managed to earn enough, they could buy their freedom, and any children they had by white men were “automatically considered free.”

Transplanted African culture pervades society at every level and in every sphere, and Kurlansky describes at length its influence on Cuban food, music, dance and religion. Indeed, he spices his chronicle of the city with recipes for favorite Cuban dishes and drinks such as picadillo and ajiaco, and the rum-based beverages the daiquiri and the mojito. A meticulous and tireless researcher, he discusses the restaurants and bars where this fare originated and notes that in the 19th century, ice was imported from New England directly to Havana, then crushed for thirsty American soldiers — remember the Maine and the Rough Riders? — who favored Coca-Cola liberally spiked with rum. Well hydrated, the United States controlled the island for decades and of course still clings to Guantanamo.

Cubans liked Coke, too, and this presented a problem during the U.S. embargo — but not one that couldn’t be surmounted. With a typical flair for improvisation, they produced Tropi-Cola, which ultimately became so popular that it was exported to other countries. This talent for adaptation, Kurlansky points out, served Cuba not just when the United States isolated it, but when the Soviet Union collapsed and could no longer subsidize the Castro regime with billion-dollar infusions of food and fuel. Schools and hospitals continued to function at high levels, and if the national diet was diminished, at least this resulted in a drop in cases of diabetes and heart disease.

Kurlansky is hardly an apologist for the Castro regime or a Pollyanna about conditions in Havana. The sight of ’57 Chevys and Ford Edsels rolling through the cobblestone streets may give the town the sepia-toned allure of an old photograph, and the vast architectural disrepair can provoke in some the same sublime response as Goethe experienced when viewing the Roman Forum. But the reality is laid out by the author in numbers — “20 percent of the population lives in housing that has been deemed ‘precarious’ ” — and in powerful descriptive passages. “With structures sagging on their sturdy columns, sunken roofs, stained gargoyles, and cracked and blackened stone ornaments, Havana looks like the remnants of an ancient civilization in need of teams of archeologists to sift through the rubble.”

Kurlansky doffs his cap to indigenous writers ranging from José Martí to contemporary poets and novelists. He also pays deference to foreign authors associated with Havana. Ernest Hemingway comes in for much-deserved discussion, although he seldom wrote about the place where he lived for three decades. Graham Greene, whose novel “Our Man in Havana” was made into a movie in the city with Castro’s permission, is quoted as enjoying the capital’s “louche atmosphere” and “the brothel life” — which makes him sound like a lounge lizard. For once Kurlansky’s thoroughness goes missing; he fails to mention that Greene ran supplies to Castro’s men in the mountains — or at least claimed he did, most recently in Gore Vidal’s memoir “Point to Point Navigation” (2006).

“Havana” ends without a dramatic crescendo or sweeping conclusion. This is no criticism. It could hardly be otherwise now that President Barak Obama’s opening to Cuba is being reassessed by the Trump administration. But readers interested in the debate couldn’t do better than inform themselves with Kurlansky’s book.

A Subtropical Delirium

By Mark Kurlansky

Bloomsbury. 259 pp. $26

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