Dancing to "Almendra": A Novelby Mayra Montero
Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber's chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the Havana zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquín Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, instead finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo's
Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber's chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the Havana zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquín Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, instead finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo's death and the mobster's when a secretive zookeeper whispers to him that he "knows too much." In exchange for a promise to introduce the keeper to his idol, the film star George Raft, now the host of the Capri Casino, Joaquín gets information that ensnares him in an ever-thickening plot of murder, mobsters, and, finally, love.
The love story is, of course, another mystery. Told by Yolanda, a beautiful ex-circus performer now working for the famed cabaret San Souci, it interleaves through Joaquín's underworld investigations, eventually revealing a family secret deeper even than Havana's brilliantly evoked enigmas.
In Dancing to "Almendra," Mayra Montero has created an ardent and thrilling tale of innocence lost, of Havana's secret world that is "the basis for the clamor of the city," and of the end of a violent era of fantastic characters and extravagant crimes. Based on the true history of a bewitching city and its denizens, Almendra is the latest "triumph" (Library Journal) from one of Latin America's most impassioned and intoxicating voices.
Mary Margaret Benson
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On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana. I can explain the connection. No one else, only me, and the individual who looked after the lions. His name was Juan Bulgado, but he preferred to be called Johnny: Johnny Angel or Johnny Lamb, depending on his mood. In addition to feeding the animals, he was in charge of the slaughter pen, that foul-smelling corner where they killed the beasts that were fed to the carnivores. A long chain of blood. That's what the zoo is. And, very often, life.
Juan Bulgado isn't dead, he lives in an old-age home, he's forgotten that his nom de guerre is Johnny, and the nuns who take care of him call him Frank, later I'll tell you why. When I met him, in October of '57, he was close to forty. I think he turned forty in the middle of the crisis. But I was very young, I'd just gone through the calamity of my birthday party, number twenty-two, celebrated in a way that was very like the twenty-one that preceded it: Mamá on her cloud, a little dizzy because of the Marsala All'uovo, the only liquor she was in the habit of drinking back then; Papá with his arm around my older brother, an engineer like him, both of them smoking their H. Upmann torpedoes; and my sister, seventeen and uncomfortable in her lace-trimmed dress. The three of us were very different from one another, with a father who was similar to my older brother, and a mother who wasn't similar to anyone: ungainly, tense, a smoker, with a voice like hysterical glass and hair that was totally white. As far back as I can remember, she'd had white hair, and probably turned gray even before she gave birth to me. She might have been an interesting woman, but the women who were her friends considered her tiresome. And the children of her friends, some of them my classmates, took care to pass that opinion along to me.
Anastasia died, riddled with bullets, in the Park Sheraton Hotel at Seventh Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street in New York, sitting in a mournful barber's chair, his face still smeared with lather, like a partially decorated cake. The news came in on the Teletype. No one at the paper supposed it would interest me, because my job for the previous year and a half and for who knows how much longer, had been interviewing performers: singers, dancers, actors. Comedians generally are conceited and have very bad characters. I didn't like what I did, I despised that kind of lightweight journalism, but I had no alternative when I began working at the Diario de la Marina, on the recommendation of one of my father's friends. All the positions I would have preferred were already filled, and all they needed was some moron who'd be happy to find out what new plans were hatching in the empty little head of Gilda Magdalena, the blondest of our vedettes; or which harem Kirna Moor, a Turkish dancer who packed them in at night at the Cabaret Sans Souci, had escaped from; or which orchestra would accom-pany Renato Carosone, an Italian clown who sang the absurd "Marcelino Pan y Vino," which played constantly on the radio.
I tore the cable about the death of Anastasia out of the Teletype and ran to the managing editor, an animal with the voice of an overseer, whose name was Juan Diego.
"Did you see this?" I handed him the paper. "I bet heads'll roll. Right here in Havana, I think that--"
Juan Diego put his index finger to his mouth to make me be quiet, took the cable from my hand, and read two or three lines before tossing it on his desk.
"Who cares?" he hissed with disdain. "Who gives a damn if they killed that fat pig?"
He paused, scribbled a note on another cable, and realized I was still there, nailed to the floor, clutching at a final hope that I could cover more substantial news.
"Don't you have anything to do?" he asked without looking up, as patronizing as if he were talking to a child.
"Yes," I answered. "I can write an article about the death of Anastasia. I can go to the Hotel Nacional, or to the Placita de los Judíos."
"Go to the zoo." He raised his voice as well as his head: I saw his porcine face, covered with moles. "A hippopotamus escaped and was killed yesterday afternoon. Don't worry about Tirso, I'll tell him I sent you to cover it. Find out what you can."
Tirso was my boss, and he was in charge of the entertainment pages. Skinny, indecisive, with long, thin fingers that resembled leftover vermicelli. His favorite pastime was collecting photos of young girls, sixteen- or seventeen-year-old singers or actresses who came out of nowhere and so often had to return there. One attracted him more than any other; her name was Charito, and whenever the photographer from the paper took her picture, he had to make a set of additional copies for Skinny T., which was what they called my boss. Then I'd see him place the photos in a portfolio, and I imagined that when he got home, in the quiet of the night, he'd spread them out on the bed and stare at them, a bachelor who undressed as he looked at them. I liked actresses too, but older ones. Women of thirty or thirty-five who would treat me very calmly, talk without being stupid, and from time to time let me go to bed with them. Several did let me. It was the only really exciting thing about that wretched job.
I left the paper and headed for the zoo. In those days I drove a '49 Plymouth that had belonged to my father, and then my brother inherited it, until he began to earn money and could buy what he called "thunder for two," which was simply a 1957 Thunderbird. I parked a few yards from the entrance. I hadn't been back to the zoo for many years, almost ten years, not since the last time my mother had taken my sister and me there. Back then my sister was a good-natured, enterprising little girl in whom a man's forms, gestures, and preferences were already beginning to make their appearance.
Unlike her, I never had a fondness for animals, not even dogs. The stink of the zoo irritated me, and I didn't see the charm of giraffes or elephants, much less flamingos. I have no idea why there were so many flamingos there. It didn't matter how brightly colored or nice an animal might be, I lacked and still lack the sensibility to feel affection for any of them. Going back to the zoo under those circumstances seemed somehow shameful to me: I had to find the place where the hippopotamus had been killed, interview the director, the animal's keeper, perhaps a few children. Readers, for the most part, are so perverse that they're interested in the opinions of kids. For the moment those were the limits of my brilliant career: to write about a rotting animal and forget that Umberto Anastasia, the Great Executioner of Murder, Inc., had been killed in New York, almost certainly for sticking his nose into Havana's affairs. A wonderful story that somebody else would write. Or nobody else. Newspaper owners avoided getting anywhere near those subjects.
I ran into a groundskeeper right at the entrance to the zoo, and he took me to the director's office. As I walked through the park, certain images from my childhood came to mind: paths full of puddles, cotton candy, a badly hurt monkey dying inside a cage, all of this colored by my mother's ridiculous reproaches as she made useless attempts to correct my sister's behavior. When she failed, she blamed my father. "I'm going to have a mannish daughter," she'd complain to him in my presence, perhaps in my brother's presence, never in front of the girl, "and you, Samuel, you don't seem to care at all." My father didn't respond, he behaved as if he hadn't heard her, in his heart he knew there was nothing to do about his daughter. Lucy was his third son packed into a robust female body. A misfortune like any other.
The director of the zoo didn't look like the director of any zoo, at least I wouldn't have imagined one looking like this: well-groomed and distant, a withdrawn little man with a soft face that wore half a grimace of disgust; I knew right away he was disgusted, but I had no idea why. When I walked into his office, he was holding his hat; I assumed he was about to put it on and go out. We spoke for a while, he gave me some information about the hippopotamus: he said it was a male that recently had emerged from adolescence; it had been born in a New York zoo and had been in Cuba for about five years, fairly restless, that was true; according to the keeper it had always been a nervous animal. If I wanted to take a photograph, an employee would be happy to accompany me to the place it had fallen and where it was still lying, waiting for an examination by the forensic veterinarian. As for the rest, it was too soon to determine if it had escaped because somebody let it out or if the animal on its own had charged and trampled the fences, since they were inclined to wander at night. As he was speaking, I suppose he guessed my boredom at being there, and he changed his tone, looked me up and down, and asked, with some sarcasm, if I wanted to take the animal's picture or if what he'd told me was enough. I replied that it wasn't enough, I wanted to interview the keeper and take a few photographs.
"I'll have someone go with you," he said.
He went to the door and called for somebody named Matías. A bearded, toothless old man, whose stink caught in my nose like a fishhook, responded. Without introducing us, the director ordered him to take me first to the pond that had been occupied by the hippopotamus and then to the edge of the wood that surrounded the zoo, where the animal had been cordoned off. The old man looked at me with curiosity; I carried a notebook in my hand and had a camera hanging from my shoulder.
"Come this way," he said, and I followed him in silence, swearing to myself that I'd finish up as soon as I could. When we reached the pond, I saw another animal wallowing in the water.
"It's the female," the old man announced, "she's a poor widow now."
He repeated "poor widow," perhaps hoping I'd laugh at the joke, and I looked at him with absolute contempt. I took a couple of photographs and signaled that we should go on. The worst was waiting for me: confronting the huge bulk that I imagined as discolored, suppurating, disfigured by swelling. When we arrived I saw that the spectacle went far beyond any horror that might have crossed my mind: the hippopotamus's guts were coming out of its body, and in the sunlight, from the spot where I was standing, they had an intense iridescent color between green and light purple. A handful of mean-looking turkey buzzards circled overhead, forming something called a black halo.
"There's the wanderer," the old man said, showing me the obvious, because it was impossible not to see the hippopotamus lying on its side, surrounded by men in gray coveralls who, I supposed, were zoo employees, looking on in silence. One was a kind of guard who kept anybody from getting too close.
"Let this man through." The old man's voice vibrated with a toothless authority, and its register reminded me of a little Chinese trumpet. "He's from the Diario de la Marina."
Everyone turned to look at me. I had the impression they expected a typical sleuth, a tough guy with his sleeves rolled up and his hat pushed back. Instead they saw a thin, blond kid with an altar boy's down on his face and two-toned shoes that looked as if he'd inherited them from his father. And that's exactly what they were: shoes I inherited from Papá.
"First I'll take some pictures," I proposed. "Stand to one side, as if you'd just found the hippopotamus."
It's a device that never fails: people like them adore being in the papers. As I focused on the animal, and on the crowd facing me and smiling at the camera, I began to think of what original question I could ask anyone about the beast's stampede and subsequent death, what new angle could be revealed, what detail would be worth digging up. Though I was bitter at having to write the piece, it wasn't something that could just be tossed aside. You never could tell where the lucky stroke might come from, the one that would smooth the way for leaving the entertainment section for another, juicier part of the paper: court news, for example, or feature articles about the airport.
I began with the animal's keeper: a taciturn, ebony black man, about fifty years old, with the air of a stevedore and a gold tooth that I saw when he bit down on his cigar. He also had an enormous cyst in the middle of his forehead, like an embedded Ping-Pong ball. There wasn't much he could tell me, only that when he arrived at the zoo, before dawn, some soldiers were already tracking the animal, and they stopped him from getting close. He was sorry he hadn't gotten there earlier, because the animal knew his voice, and more than his voice, the howl he always gave to let it know he was bringing food. Then he emitted the howl so I could hear it, and I was struck that nobody found this silliness funny, nobody started to laugh. I realized that the fauna whose job it was to take care of the animals were more fauna than the beasts themselves. I asked him to go up to the hippopotamus so I could take his picture, and he did what I asked without protest. In fact, he kneeled next to the animal and rested his hand on its dry back. It was all I needed. I knew an image like this was worth more than any paragraph I could write about the situation of this black who'd suddenly been orphaned; the poor man projected orphanhood. I took other photographs in which the man opened his mouth and narrowed his eyes in an expression that resembled weeping but wasn't. Much later I understood that zookeepers never cry for any animal. They mustn't, and they can't.
When I began to put away the camera, a new Kodak Retina, a birthday present from my brother, I noticed one of the men in the group walking toward me. He had coppery skin, with nervous, almost feminine eyes, and he was wearing a convict's cap that had nothing to do with his uniform. I thought he wanted to ask me something about the camera, and I hurried to put it back in the case; I wasn't interested in having a conversation with anyone, least of all a monkey keeper or whatever he was. I looked up briefly and saw that the man was smiling; he had dark lips and yellow teeth. With his head he gestured toward the hippopotamus's defeated corpse.
"That's a message for Anastasia."
It took me a few seconds to understand this simple statement. To understand it in the sunlight, at the border between the zoo and the wood, facing the animal's immense open belly, which was beginning to release fast-moving bubbles. Suddenly I reacted, turning my gaze away from the camera to look into that man's eyes. Among all these people seeing me for the first time, who could have known that less than two hours earlier I'd tried to write a story about Umberto Anastasia, shot to death in a chair in the barbershop of the Park Sheraton in New York?
"Anastasia's dead," I replied.
The other man was somewhat disconcerted and looked down at the ground. "What a waste," he murmured. "He didn't get the message."
I began to laugh, trying to gain a few minutes. I betrayed a beginner's nervousness. I looked at my watch, I looked at the man again, and he in turn was observing the arrival of the forensic veterinarian, an impassive bald man who made his way with great pomp, accompanied by three or four assistants and followed by a large wagon pulled by a mule and loaded with boxes and pulleys.
"Are we talking about the same Anastasia?"
He shrugged, and I had a premonition. I looked for my cigarettes, thinking I had a pack in my jacket pocket. There was nothing there, and I couldn't come up with an idea that would allow me to resume the conversation. We were silent for two or three minutes while we both watched the forensic veterinarian, who was walking around the hippopotamus.
"An Anastasia died today in New York," I said finally. "He was shot."
"He's the one," he specified, not blinking and not looking anywhere but straight ahead. "That's why they killed the hippopotamus."
I tried to act naturally, like a surgeon with a cold heart, and covered in cold sweat too. One of the veterinarian's assistants asked us to step back so they could began the autopsy. The pulleys had been taken down from the wagon, along with a sign that said "Silence," which was hammered into the ground.
"Why don't we talk about this somewhere else?" I suggested but immediately regretted it because I saw him smile. I was afraid, perhaps absurdly so, that he'd confess it was all a joke.
"Whatever you say," he replied.
He didn't answer right away, and I thought he was thinking it over, but that wasn't it, he was simply enjoying the pirouettes of the veterinarian, who'd climbed a handheld ladder and was doing a balancing act in order to see inside the animal's open belly.
"It'll have to be at night," he murmured, "about eight o'clock. I live in Neptuno, but I like going to Sloppy Joe's."
Sloppy Joe's was a bar for Americans; I was surprised that a man like him would go to that kind of place. Still, I dug into my pocket and took out two pesos.
"Here . . . have something to drink while you're waiting for me. What's your name?"
"Johnny," he answered, showing no interest in knowing mine. Still, I told him my name was Joaquín, and didn't give my last name either.
I turned to leave the zoo. The stinking old man who'd led the way to the hippopotamus ran toward me. "Aren't you going to take more pictures?"
I made a gesture with my arm that meant no, or maybe, but in any case he shouldn't come closer. And I achieved my purpose, because he kept his distance, bewildered, probably feeling dirty, humiliated by my attitude. In those days I was generally repelled by old people, I couldn't help it. I didn't like their lined, excessively dry skin, and the scaliness that kind of skin generates. If the old person was also in rags and smelled of shit like that man did, my revulsion was infinite.
I drove away in the Plymouth, which was green, and named Surprise. I drove slowly along the narrow street lined with palms and concluded that this was the real surprise: I'd come to the zoo totally irritated, and now I was leaving filled with hope. I was in no hurry, I even had an appetite. I went straight to the Boris, a Jewish restaurant on Calle Compostela. In the past, I'd run into certain individuals there; I supposed many of them had reason to celebrate that day, and maybe they'd have lunch in a discreet establishment. Boris, the Polish owner, always reserved a table for Meyer Lansky, regardless of whether the client showed up or not. At that table, and at every table, there were bottles of wine that had been uncorked and closed again with caps topped by silver crowns. On the crowns he'd put an inscription in Hebrew, but I didn't know its meaning; that very afternoon I intended to find out. I parked the Plymouth on Callejón Porvenir, next to a tobacco kiosk where I bought cigarettes. I'd never gone so long without smoking, and so I lit one with longing and finished it before I reached the restaurant. At the door of the Boris I lit another.
My eyes were clouded by smoke when I pushed open that door.
Excerpted from Dancing to Almendra by Mayra Montero; translated by Edith Grossman. Copyright © 2005 by Mayra Montero. Translation copyright © 2007 by Edith Grossman. Published in January 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Mayra Montero is the author of a collection of short stories and of eight novels, including, most recently, Captain of the Sleepers (FSG, 2005). She was born in Cuba and lives in Puerto Rico, where she writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper.
Mayra Montero is the author of a collection of short stories and of eight novels, including The Messenger, The Last Night I Spent with You, and Captain of the Sleepers. She was born in Cuba and lives in Puerto Rico, where she writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper.
Edith Grossman has translated the poetry and prose of major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Marquez, Alvaro Mutis, and Mayra Montero, as well as Mario Vargas Llosa.
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I read the descriptions and thought I would really like the book. There certainly were some very colorful characters and the atmosphere of pre-Fidel Castro era was evident. However, the plot left a lot to be desired. I was not impressed with the writing or the story.
We're suckers for novels that are set in Cuba during the 'golden years.' Havana in the 1950s was an exciting time and in her new book, 'Dancing to Almendra,' Mayra Montero plunges us into Havana during the final weeks of Batista. The story begins with two deaths: the murder of mafia chieftain Umberto Anastasia and a hippopotamus at the Havana Zoo. A young entertainment reporter, Joaquín Porrata, gets assigned to the big story --the killing of the hippo.Porrata, who is definitely looking to move up in the journalism world, is a little under whelmed by his assignment -- until a zoo employee tells him about a strange link between the two killings. The paper he works for refuses to publish his story, and Porrata soon finds himself working for a rival newspaper. What follows is a journey of discovery, from Havana to upstate New York and back again. Along the way, Porrata befriends a zoo keeper with a strange obsession for George Raft, Yolanda, a one-armed circus performer and several shady mafia characters. What is unique about this book is the counter story: Yolanda tells her own story in frequent interludes. On one side -- the present -- we have the plot driven and action packed narrative of Porrata. On the other, we have the slow meandering stream of Yolanda's life story, mostly remembrances of her past. Reading this book involves shifting from plainly written prose to stream-of-conscious poetry, but Montero manages to pull it off with aplomb. The original Spanish text has been lovingly translated by Edith Grossman. If you speak and read Spanish, you might want to tackle the original. However, for English readers this novel is an engaging read. Yes, you won't want to put it down.