Last week I discovered the Cuban Severo Sarduy, who wrote “as therapy” declaring “language, the desire to give life to things through words, is what makes us human”. This week my new Cuban journey is via Pedro Juan Gutierrez and his world that smells like shit. One country…two extremes.
Pedro Juan’s “Dirty Havana Trilogy” is not for the faint hearted, or the prudes of world literature. A book that delves into the filth of Havana, the rat infested, cockroach swarming, gnats everywhere slums. The neighbours that keep pigs, chickens and pigeons on the tenement roof, doing anything within their powers for food. A climate that is always on edge, a place where rum, dope and sex are the only escape from the drudgery of day to day existence.
But it’s hard to say, “Stop,” if every day you face infinite temptations. An envelope arrived today from Paris. The painter Nato was inviting me to his series of happenings, Art and absence of clothes, next summer in Boissise Le Roi. That lunatic doesn’t realize that I don’t even have the money to buy a jar of Nescafe. And I’m worried about my constant fatigue, which hasn’t let up for months. I don’t know if it’s anemia or AIDS. Other times, depression and sadness overwhelm me. And I keep struggling against fear. Struggling is what I call it, at least. I can’t struggle alone. But every night I pray and I always ask God to take away my fear and to clear up the confusion in my head. I’m paralyzed by fear and confusion. And God does what he can to help. He gives me signs that I’m on the right path.
Our trilogy is generally written in the first person with our narrator being Pedro Juan himself. The three sections, “Marooned in No-Man’s-Land”, “Nothing To Do” and “Essence of Me” are a collection of sixty vignettes (hey I know that’s a word from the French and it is Spanish Literature month I just couldn’t think of a word that described short tales) and the back cover tells me they are a visceral and unforgettable picaresque (there’s a Spanish word for you). What I can tell you is this is a “dirty” trilogy, whether just plain unwashed, sexually deviant, unclean, or reeking of no future word “dirty” in the title is apt. Pedro Juan (our writer) used to be a journalist:
For more than twenty years as a journalist, I was never allowed to write with a modicum of respect for my readers, or even the slightest regard for their intelligence. No, I always had to write as if stupid people were reading me, people who needed to be force-fed ideas. And I was rejecting all that. Damning to hell all the elegant prose, the careful avoidance of anything that might be morally or socially offensive. I couldn’t keep upholding propriety or behaving properly, smiling and nice, well-dressed, shaved, spritzed with cologne, my watch always keeping the right time. And believing all that was inevitable, believing that everything lasts forever. No. I was learning that nothing lasts forever.
But Pedro Juan is not only an ex journalist, he’s an ex con, garbage collector, slaughterhouse worker, fisherman, pimp, gas man, tin can reseller, basically whatever will give him a few pesos or dollars so he can buy some rum and indulge in his favourite past time…sex. And all of this happens chapter after chapter, all within the crumbling walls of a tenement of some description, usually on the rooftop. Some “thirteen by thirteen” room, housing a family or a “lover” of some sort. Of course the issues with Castro, the police, the communist state, the people wanting to catch rafts to Miami all get mentioned but they are not the core of our story here. The core is dirty, it is rotten. But there are still the traditions, the place may stink like open sewers, or stairwells filled with “piss and shit” but they are still fixed to the traditions.
Santico had always been a bastard. He liked blood and knife fights. He was a fighter, and he was brave. His santo was Oggun. In a corner of the room were Oggun’s iron pot and his miniature tool irons, warrior figurines, the glasses of aguardiente and the cigars, the plates of avocado, cassava, pepper, garlic. Thunderstones, rods of ironwood and camagua and jaguey, stewed greens. A chain, a machete, an anvil, a knife.
As you can probably gather, this is not an easy read, one chapter (“Stab Her, Man”) is a gruesome story of a rape, the detail and the language make it gruelling, repulsive reading. And the book does not let up, story after story of narcissistic sexist chest pounding (including homophobia), makes for endurance reading. To be brutually honest I am still wondering why I chose this work as part of Spanish Literature Month, it did feature on Flavourwire’s “20 Great Works of Latin American Fiction (That Aren’t by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)” – personally I wouldn’t have chosen it to be on this list. Is it a bold work? Yes. Is it overdone? Yes. Am I glad I read it? Possibly.
I’ve toned down the quotes I have chosen to use here as I don’t want my blog branded as a purveyor of “bad language” even though personally it doesn’t worry me, and you will find that this novel stretches the use of bad language to a new level.
The people of Central Havana live on pure air. Nobody has dollars, and everybody’s used to making do with sugar water, rum, and tobacco, and lots of beating on drums.
Welcome to Havana.