For the last four decades, Fidel Castro's communist Cuba has survived a harsh economic blockade. In 1993, Castro attempted economic reform by allowing Cubans to use U.S. dollars and begin their own business ventures -- "a huge messy free-for-all." This time of confused, low-rent capitalism is the backdrop for Pedro Juan Gutierrez's gritty, powerful, and atmospheric novel-in-stories, Dirty Havana Trilogy, translated from the original Spanish version by Natasha Wimmer.
Gutierrez, whose prose sings of grime and simple, hard-clay truths, much like the words of Junot Díaz, is a well-known member of the Latin American visual poetry movement and a magazine journalist living in Havana. Dirty Havana Trilogy is written from the semiautobiographical point of view of Pedro Juan, a 40-year-old sex-starved ex-radio journalist cobbling together an existence by selling everything from himself to drugs to whatever he can get his hands on. "Everything's worth something here," he writes.
Pedro Juan is an ex-radio journalist because in a "model" communist society nothing bad is acceptable news. Through his tormented lead character, Gutierrez provides a window into his reasons for writing such a crude book. "That's why I was disillusioned with journalism and why I started to write raw stories.... I write to jar people a little and force others to wake up and smell the shit.... That's how I terrorize cowards and mess with people who like to muzzle those of us who speak up.... My stories could run bare-assed out into the middle of the street, shouting, 'Freedom, freedom, freedom.'"
That said, be warned: Dirty Havana Trilogy is not for the faint of heart. It is raw, squarely confronting poverty, racism, violence, prostitution, and the lengths Cubans go to in order to secure the almighty buck. In one story, the man who lives across the hall from Pedro Juan, in the crumbling apartment building that serves as the focal point for much of the book, is busted by the cops for stealing human livers from the morgue and selling them on the streets as pork livers.
But survival isn't the only thing on the minds of Gutierrez's colorful characters. Oddly enough, it's the quest for release, for fits of pleasure, for some sliver of happiness no matter how warped the avenue may seem to the world outside Havana. And that quest is manifested in the hard-core sex that permeates the pages of the book. An orgasm is one of the few pleasures no one can be denied. As violent and nauseating as the sex -- and the life -- may seem on the surface, Gutierrez achieves the difficult task of lifting his characters from the muck, giving his Dirty Havana Trilogy an intellectual and emotional depth that far outweighs the carnal.
Near the end Gutierrez writes, "Born in the ruins, they just kept trying not to give up or let themselves be beaten so severely that at last they were forced to surrender. Anything was possible, everything allowed, except defeat." The book then becomes a manifesto, a well-wrought fight against literary persecution, a release the same as an orgasm, where the truth behind every dark corner, behind every door, must be told. Dirty Havana Trilogy comes from the same womb in which literature was born, a book that just may someday be held up beside those of the mighty dead.
Nelson Taylor is a freelance writer and author of the travel guide America Bizarro, published by St. Martin's Press.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The streetwise gutsiness of Bukowski and Miller pervades Cuban poet Guti rrez's raunchy, symbolic, semi-autobiographical debut novel of life in 1990s Havana. Although the title suggests a triptych, the work more closely resembles a mosaic of short stories bursting with vivid images of exhilaration, depravity, desire and isolation. Narrator Pedro Juan, middle-aged and fed up, has rejected his career as a journalist because "I always had to write as if stupid people were reading me." Resisting the mass exodus from Cuba of August 1994, Pedro Juan now wanders the streets of Havana like a footloose Bacchus, indulging himself with women, marijuana and rum. He survives through a series of menial jobs. His rooftop apartment in central Havana has a spectacular Caribbean view but is, like all dwellings in the decaying economy, frequently without water. Pedro Juan is imprisoned more than once for minor crimes; after one lengthy sentence, he returns home to discover that his lover has replaced him with another man. He eventually drifts back into the urban maelstrom. Prolific, explicit sex scenes reinforce the plight of the artist, and thus a society, limited to physical pleasures where life offers no intellectual or creative rewards. "It's been years since I expected anything, anything at all, of women, or of friends, or even of myself, of anyone." Guti rrez's talent lies in creating a macho, self-abusive protagonist who remains engagingly sympathetic. This searing, no-holds-barred portrait of modern Cuba, expertly translated by Wimmer into prose strong in the rhythms and vulgar beauty of the city, comes complete with a sexy jacket photo. It will attract readers who like their fiction down, dirty and literate. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
The "dirty" in the title refers as much to the sleazy squalor of the Cuban capital as to the salacious nature of this work, but any attempt to equate the latter with the former fails to ignite. When not working in a low-paying job, the picaresque narrator, who appears ubiquitously in all three sections, whiles away his time chasing women, smoking pot, and drinking rum. He is unlikable, unsympathetic, sexist, and racist. The secondary characters are wooden and underdeveloped. The sex scenes, of which there are many, are repetitive and tasteless, if not distasteful. The blotches of humor are too infrequent, and the narrator's occasional introspective musings are not substantial enough to redeem the overall quality of the book. Not recommended.--Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Dirty Havan Trilogy is as raw a glimpse of Havan as you're likely to get without actually going down there in person...Trilogy is an unabashed vision of the worst of Havana, but it maintains a seductive rhythm of survival, desire and tragic beauty. Beneath its crassness, there's a melancholy that makes this novel remarkably enticing.
Time Out New York
Read an Excerpt
New Things in My Life
Early that morning, there was a pink postcard sticking out of my mailbox, from Mark Pawson in London. In big letters he had written, “June 5, 1993, some bastard stole the front wheel of my bicycle.” A year later, and that business was still bothering him. I thought about the little club near Mark's apartment, where every night Rodolfo would strip and do a sexy dance while I banged out weird tropical-improvisational music on bongo drums, shaking rattles, making guttural noises, trying anything else I could think of. We had fun, drank free beer, and got paid twenty-five pounds a night. Too bad it couldn't have lasted longer. But black dancers were a hot commodity, and Rodolfo left for Liverpool to teach modern dance. I was broke, and I stayed at Mark's until I got bored and came back.
Now I was training myself to take nothing seriously. A man's allowed to make lots of small mistakes, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if the mistakes are big ones and they weigh him down, his only solution is to stop taking himself seriously. It's the only way to avoid suffering -- suffering, prolonged, can be fatal.
I stuck the postcard up behind the door, put on a tape of Armstrong's “Snake Rag,” felt much better, and stopped thinking. I don't have to think while I'm listening to music. But jazz like this cheers me up too and makes me feel like dancing. I had a cup of tea for breakfast, took a shit, read some gay poems by Allen Ginsberg, and was amazed by “Sphincter” and “Personals ad.” I hope my good old asshole holds out. ButI couldn't be amazed for long, because two very young friends of mine showed up, wanting to know if I thought it would be a good idea to launch a raft from Cabo San Antonio heading for Cabo Catoche, or whether it would be better to take off north directly for Miami. Those were the days of the exodus, the summer of '94. The day before, a girlfriend had called me to say, “What'll we do now that all the men and kids are leaving? It's going to be hard.” Things weren't like that, exactly. Lots of people were staying, the ones who couldn't live anywhere else.
Well, I've done a little sailing on the Gulf and I know that way's a trap. Showing them the map, I convinced them not to try for Mexico. And I went down to see their big six-person raft. It was a flimsy thing made of wood and rope lashed to three airplane tires. They were planning to take a flashlight, compass, and flares. I bought some slices of melon, went over to my ex-wife's house. We're good friends now. We get along best that way. She wasn't home. I ate some melon and left the rest. I like to leave tracks. I put the leftover slices in the fridge and got out fast. I was happy in that house for two years. It's not good for me to be there by myself.
Margarita lives nearby. We hadn't seen each other in a while. When I got there, she was washing clothes and sweating. She was glad to see me and she went to take a shower. We had been lovers on the sly -- sorry, I have to call it something -- for almost twenty years, and when we get together, first we fuck and then we have a nice relaxed conversation. So I wouldn't let her shower. I stripped her and ran my tongue all over her. She did the same: she stripped me and ran her tongue all over me. I was covered in sweat, too, from all the biking and the sun. She was getting healthier, putting weight back on. She wasn't all skin and bones the way she used to be. Her buttocks were firm, round, and solid again, even though she was forty-six. Black women are like that. All fiber and muscle, hardly any fat, clean skin, no zits. I couldn't resist the temptation, and after playing with her for a little while, after she had already come three times, I eased myself into her ass, very slowly, greasing myself well with cunt juice. Little by little. Pushing in and pulling out and fondling her clit with my hand. She was in agony, but she couldn't get enough. She was biting the pillow, but she pushed her ass up, begging me to get all the way in. She's fantastic, that woman. No one gets off the way she does. We were linked like that for a long time. When I pulled out, I was all smeared in shit, and it disgusted her. Not me. I have a strong sense of the absurd, and it keeps me on guard against that kind of thing. Sex isn't for the squeamish. Sex is an exchange of fluids, saliva, breath and smells, urine, semen, shit, sweat, microbes, bacteria. Or there is no sex. If it's just tenderness and ethereal spirituality, then it can never be more than a sterile parody of the real act. Nothing. We took a shower, and then we were ready to have coffee and talk. She wanted me to go with her to El Rincón. She had to keep a vow she made to San Lázaro and she asked me to go with her the next day. Really, she asked so sweetly I said I would. That's what I love about Cuban women -- there must be other women like them too, in America, maybe, or Asia -- they're so sweet you can never say no when they ask you for something. It's not that way with European women. European women are so cold...
Dirty Havana Trilogy. Copyright © by Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.