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

    How Cubans’ gift for improvization sustained the politics and pleasures
    of Havana
    By Michael Mewshaw March 3

    Michael Mewshaw is writing a memoir about his friendship with Pat Conroy.

    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

    Source: How Cubans’ gift for improvization sustained the politics and
    pleasures of Havana – The Washington Post –

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