"Cities, like dreams are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perceptions deceitful, and everything conceals something else" Italo Clavino, Invisible Cities***Just a word of warning there will be mature content in this review due to the explicit content of this novel.***
This novel is a series of short vignettes that are roughly in chronological order. The book is raw, focusing on the poorest of the poor of Havana. It is 1993 and Castro has just allowed his people to trade legally in US dollars and opened up the market to free enterprise. People can now own their own businesses as long as those businesses do not compete with the state. It is a society short on goods and services, very few working opportunities, and the crushing boredom of too much time and too little diversion, people are walking on the thin edge of survival every day.
The main character is Pedro Juan a man who once was a celebrity radio reporter. It is never really explained what he did, murky details, but he stepped on some toes and was fired. We meet him at one of the many low points in his life. As the book evolves it will become harder and harder to pinpoint the true low points. The book is loosely based on the real exploits of the author Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Pedro Juan Gutierrez"So there I was, staring out at the Caribbean, with no idea what the fuck I could do to make a few pesos.
Yep, that is pretty much Pedro Juan's circumstances every day. He gets jobs as a garbageman, street sweeper, and slaughterhouse worker to name a few, but none of them pay very well and within short order he finds a reason to quit or provides them with a reason to fire him. He only takes a job out of desperation when his black market scheming quits bearing fruit or he can't find a woman to make money for him.
Havana is crumbling. The infrastructure is on life support. Bathrooms don't work, and there is no one to fix them. Grand old mansions have been turned into apartment buildings sometimes holding 400 people. The building that Pedro Juan is squatting in has an ebb and flow to it. People coming from the country, people going to jail, and people finding temporary salvation living off a foreigner keep the building occupant numbers in flux.
There is this point in the novel that for me really showed the decrepitude of the circumstances that people are reduced to. Pedro Juan is standing in line to use a bathroom on the rooftop of his building. The bathroom doesn't work and a mound of crap is slowly advancing into the room. Pedro Juan decides he can't wait any longer he craps into a piece of paper, wads it up and throws his offering onto the rooftop of the building next door. Okay maybe I have been a member of the middle class too long, but I would do any work, whatever was available, to avoid finding myself in circumstances where I am taking a crap in front of my neighbors into a piece of paper and tossing that wad like a bomb onto a neighboring building. There are people that may be there because they have no other options, but Pedro Juan has choices. He is educated and capable, but being FREE
is more important.
Pedro Juan has his own theories about the horrors of being middle class. "The middle class never knows what's what. That's why they're always scared and want to be told what's wrong. They think everything's deviant behavior. It must be terrible to middle class and judge everything from a distance like that, never trying anything out for yourself."
The great thing about squalor is that I don't have to live it to experience it. I can sit in my arm chair and pick up a book and spend a day in the slums of Havana or New Delhi or Detroit. I don't feel the need to experience poverty first hand. Crumbling Cuba
When I was going to college there was many times when the gas gauge of my car was setting on empty, that blaring amber round light burning a hole into my retina. Many times I found myself with two thin dimes in my pocket and a bit hazy on the last time I had eaten. I brushed up against poverty and in no way am I making a case that I experienced any true hardship, but those brief moments of uncertainty made me realize that I was going to do everything I could to not find myself in such circumstances again.
Pedro Juan believes that living in poverty equals true freedom. Every day is a struggle to eat and afford the lifeblood of Cuba...RUM, but with no securities and no dependents he feels as free as a human being can. He has naught to lose and very little to gain. "I had nothing to do. Nothing urgent, at least. In the long term, there are always prospects, hope, the future, everything soon to be better, God our savior. But that's all always in the long term. Just now, this minute, there's nothing."
The problem with his theory is that he is most successful when he is living off of a woman. To maintain his freedom he must subjugate another. When he finds his pockets empty and his stomach growling he sends his girlfriend out to patrol the streets looking for a foreigner to screw so he can eat. He, for lack of a better term, is a pimp, a lazy pimp at that. He doesn't walk the streets providing protection for her he just lays around the apartment waiting for her to return so he can spend her money. When one woman gets smart, or finds a better position and leaves him he simply finds another.
Sex dominates the book, drips into every vignette some way or another. Pedro Juan is obsessed not only with sex, but with his Long Tom or his preferred term prick. "I have a beautiful prick, broad, dark, six inches long, with a pink, throbbing head and lots of hair. The truth is, I like my own prick, balls and pubes too. It's a sinewy, luscious, hard prick."
Later in the book he is describing his package again and miracle of miracles it seems to have grown. "And I showed her my prick, eight inches of steel, thick and veined and angled to the left.
If you do decide to read this book you will be subjugate to many descriptions of Pedro Juan's one-eyed wonder weasel. You will also experience his constant desire for sex. His range seems to be anyone, regardless of shape or size, who is female between the ages of 71 and 20. He may not have standards, but he does have preferences. He prefers mulattoes with large rear ends and grand tetons for breasts.
I have read and enjoyed Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and Jean Genet so I don't think of myself as prudish, but as I worked my way through these stories the obsession with sexual conquests and the ready complicity of all the females started to become wearisome. With very little effort he seems to convince these women to have sex with him. There is one point where he hands a woman a plate of food at his house and becomes angry shortly there after because she refuses to have sex with him. He is so used to having it all come so easily that he is outraged over any resistance.
The author has to keep reminding me that Pedro Juan is 45 because his actions, from his obsession with sexual conquest to his avoidance of any responsibility, keep me thinking he is in his early twenties. The author also in his forties when he wrote this book seems to be proud of the fact that he still has the same desires as a much younger man.
It isn't a novel that you want to sit down and read straight through. The stories start to feel repetitive. I found that the book worked better for me when I would read a few vignettes and then set it aside to read something else. I picked this book up because I really enjoy Leonardo Padura Fuentes. His noir color series about Lieutenant Mario Conde brim with sensuality and his eye for detail make me feel like I'm there and want to be there. His first book in the series Havana Red won The Cafe De Gijon Prize, The Novela Negra Prize and The Hammett Prize. If you want a subtler, but still rich with detail, introduction to Cuban culture that would be my recommendation.