Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

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Overview

"In 1962, at the age of eleven, Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, his parents left behind. His life until then is the subject of Waiting for Snow in Havana, a wry, heartbreaking, intoxicatingly beautiful memoir of growing up in a privileged Havana household - and of being exiled from his own childhood by the Cuban revolution." "That childhood, until his world changes, is as joyous and troubled as any other - but with exotic differences. Lizards roam the house and grounds. Fights aren't waged with snowballs but with
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Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

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Overview

"In 1962, at the age of eleven, Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, his parents left behind. His life until then is the subject of Waiting for Snow in Havana, a wry, heartbreaking, intoxicatingly beautiful memoir of growing up in a privileged Havana household - and of being exiled from his own childhood by the Cuban revolution." "That childhood, until his world changes, is as joyous and troubled as any other - but with exotic differences. Lizards roam the house and grounds. Fights aren't waged with snowballs but with breadfruit. The rich are outlandishly rich, like the eight-year-old son of a sugar baron who has a real miniature race car, or the neighbor with a private animal garden, complete with tiger. All this is bathed in sunlight and shades of turquoise and tangerine: the island of Cuba, says one of the stern monks at Carlos's school, might have been the original Paradise - and it is tempting to believe." "His father is a municipal judge and an obsessive collector of art and antiques, convinced that in a past life he was Louis XVI and that his wife was Marie Antoinette. His mother looks to the future; conceived on a transatlantic liner bound for Cuba from Spain, she wants her children to be modern, which means embracing all things American. His older brother electrocutes lizards. Surrounded by eccentrics, in a home crammed with portraits of Jesus that speak to him in dreams and nightmares, Carlos searches for secret proofs of the existence of God." Then, in January 1959, President Batista is suddenly gone, a cigar-smoking guerrilla named Castro has taken his place, and Christmas is canceled. The echo of firing squads is everywhere. At the Aquarium of the Revolution, sharks multiply in a swimming pool. And one by one, the author's schoolmates begin to disappear - spirited away to the United States. Carlos will end up there himself, alone, never to see his father again.

Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, Nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
What is powerful and lasting about the book is his evocation of childhood, above all of the life he led with his family in Havana before the revolution, and his extraordinary literary ability. For while I am skeptical about Eire's Cuban "essence," I am utterly persuaded, on the basis of this book, that Eire has the makings of a first-rate novelist. He insists that his is a memoir and not a work of fiction, and he is right to do so. And yet, almost wherever one looks in the book, the novelist keeps edging to the fore. — David Rieff
The New Yorker
At the start of the nineteen-sixties, an operation called Pedro Pan flew more than fourteen thousand Cuban children out of the country, without their parents, and deposited them in Miami. Eire, now a professor of history and religion at Yale, was one of them. His deeply moving memoir describes his life before Castro, among the aristocracy of old Cuba -- his father, a judge, believed himself to be the reincarnation of Louis XVI -- and, later, in America, where he turned from a child of privilege into a Lost Boy. Eire's tone is so urgent and so vividly personal (he is even nostalgic about Havana's beautiful blue clouds of DDT) that his unsparing indictments of practically everyone concerned, including himself, seem all the more remarkable.
Publishers Weekly
"Metaphors matter to me, especially perfect ones," Yale historian Eire writes in this beautifully fashioned memoir, as he recounts one of many wonderfully vibrant stories from his boyhood in 1950s Havana. As imaginatively wrought as the finest piece of fiction, the book abounds with magical interpretations of ordinary boyhood events-playing in a friend's backyard is like a perilous journey through the jungle; setting off firecrackers becomes a lyrical, cosmic opera; a child's birthday party turns into a phantasmagoria of American pop cultural icons. Taking his cue from his father, a man with "a very fertile, nearly inexhaustible imagination, totally dedicated to inventing past lives," Eire looks beyond the literal to see the mythological themes inherent in the epic struggle for identity that each of our lives represents. Into this fantastic idyll comes Castro-"Beelzebub, Herod, and the Seven-Headed Beast of the Apocalypse rolled into one"-overthrowing the Batista regime at the very end of 1958 and sweeping away everything that the author holds dear. A world that had been bursting with complicated, colorful meaning is replaced with the monotony of Castro's rhetoric and terrorizing "reform." Symbols of Jesus that had once provided spiritual enlightenment by popping up in the author's premonitions and dreams were now literally being demolished and destroyed by a government that has outlawed religion. The final cataclysm comes when Eire and his brother, still young boys, are shipped off to the United States to seek safety and a better life (another paradise, perhaps). They never see their father again. As painful as Eire's journey has been, his ability to see tragedy and suffering as a constant source of redemption is what makes this book so powerful. Where his father believed that we live many lives in different bodies, Eire sees his own life as a series of deaths within the same body. "Dying can be beautiful," he writes, "And waking up is even more beautiful. Even when the world has changed." Taking his cue from his beloved Jesus, the author believes that we repeatedly die for our sins and are reborn into a new awareness of paradise. How fortunate for readers, then, that by way of Eire's "confessions," they too will be able to renew their souls through his transcendent words. BOMC, QPB alternates. (Feb. 5) Forecast: The Free Press has high hopes for this exceptional memoir. With the right review, aided by the author's seven-city tour, it should sell extremely well. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Between mercurial and leisurely, lush and thorny, jumbled and crystalline, Yale historian Eire’s recollection of his Cuban boyhood is to be savored. The years are the 1950s, and Eire’s family is "quite high on the food chain" in Havana. Not absurdly so—his family are not Batista toadies—but his is a privileged childhood, one that lets him take ample advantage of "the turquoise sea and the tangerine light bathing everything, making all of creation glow as if from within." He is allowed to be a kid, fruitful of imagination, finding evidence of God in the eggplants that resemble the breasts of a black woman (he is four years old at the time of this realization), scampering from voodoo and woe, aware of Cuba’s misery and corruption before he is a teenager, harboring a fear of sin and the eye of Jesus, already developing a distaste for Kant: "may you burn in hell forever, Immanuel [for all your empiricism], you obsessive-compulsive pedant . . ." For Eire has a need to transcend linear logic with digressions and jump-starts, flashes forward and backward, yet inexorable: the year 1959 is coming and so is Fidel, and life is going to change, when the thanksgiving, the humor, and the confessional will come to be mixed with bitterness as his family catch their bountiful share of the revolution’s wrath. Yet there is Eire, dreaming of Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak while thinking how much Camilo Cienfuegos looked like Christ—"Maybe this is why Fidel made him disappear early on in the Revolution"—talking of ripe breadfruit and faked executions and counterrevolution, because each throws the other into such high relief. At 12, in 1962, Eire is shipped off to the US, without his family, fortune’s spikywheel taking another turn. "Wait. One more memory . . . " They come in beautiful profusion, coalescing into a young life in a lyric memoir of the utterly vanished. Author tour
From the Publisher
"As painful as Eire's journey has been, his ability to see tragedy and suffering as a constant source of redemption is what makes this book so powerful." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743219655
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 2/5/2003
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.44 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Carlos Eire

Born in Havana in 1950, Carlos Eire left his homeland in 1962, one of fourteen thousand unaccompanied children airlifted out of Cuba by Operation Pedro Pan. He is now the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

David Drummond has made his living as an actor for over twenty-five years, and he received an AudioFile Earphones Award for his first audiobook, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em.

Biography

Carlos Eire was born in Havana, Cuba, on 23 November 1950. At the age of eleven he fled to the United States without his parents, as one of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children airlifted by Operation Peter Pan. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1996, he taught at St. John's University in Minnesota and the University of Virginia, and spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

His memoir of the Cuban Revolution, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003), which won the National Book Award in nonfiction for 2003, has been translated into many languages, but is banned in Cuba. A second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, was published in November 2010. It focuses on the early years of his exile in the United States.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview with Eire, he shared some fascinating facts, anecdotes, and observations with us:

"Although Spanish is my native language, I think in English. Consequently, it is difficult for me to write well in Spanish. I tried translating my own book and gave up after one chapter, for the results looked like something a fifth-grader would have written. And that is just about right, since it was at the age of 11 that my education switched from Spanish to English. I am currently looking for a Spanish-language publisher who will buy the book and pay for a translator. Ironically, it has already been translated into Dutch and German, and a Finnish translation is in the works, but there is no Spanish translation anywhere on the horizon. This means that my own mother can't read my book. Though she has lived in the United States since 1965, she never learned English and has never been able to read anything I have written."

"I am constantly being asked: ‘Have you ever been back to Cuba?' or, ‘Would you like to go back?' My reply is: I will not go back while Castro is in power and human rights are routinely trampled. No way. When things change, as they will, I suppose I might go back. But the world that exists in my memory is so vivid only because I have given up on the idea of ever reclaiming it, physically. Unlike most people I know, I can't revisit my childhood haunts, so that world survives in my mind and in my soul, intact. I know that if I were to go back the squalor and the crushing oppression of present-day Havana, it would have a devastating effect on me. I got a good sense of that by trying to watch the film Buena Vista Social Club. I couldn't watch more than 15 minutes because the physical destruction of Havana -- and of my own people, and my past -- is so evident in that film. I started weeping so uncontrollably that I had to return the film to the video store, unwatched. As far as I am concerned, Fidel's Cuba might as well be the lowest circle of hell. I don't want to go to either place."

"I am also constantly told that Waiting for Snow in Havana reads more like a novel than a memoir. There is a good reason for this. I wrote the book as a novel and marketed it as a novel. I didn't really want to tell my story and expose details of my life to the whole world. My intention was to tell a story about a boy who grew up during the Cuban Revolution, and to expose through small details the horrors of what many people in the world still consider some benevolent humanitarian experiment. Soon after I began writing, however, I discovered that what had actually happened in my childhood was far more interesting than anything I could invent, so I simply kept writing straight from my memory, changing everyone's names.

"But after the publisher had purchased my manuscript and I revealed that 98 percent of what was in it was history rather than fiction, it became clear to all involved that it had to be published as a memoir. Since one of my reasons for writing a ‘novel' rather than a memoir was that I thought a novel would sell more copies and expose the real Cuba to a wider reading public, I agreed to publishing it as a memoir after it was pointed out to me that nonfiction sells better than fiction, and that my story would have a much greater impact if it were presented as a factual account. The funniest thing that has happened since publication is that many reviewers have praised the book's ‘magic realism' or even praised my imagination in coming up with such outlandish things as my father, the judge, who believes he is the reincarnation of King Louis XVI of France. I am still laughing and will always laugh at this. What a sweet irony: I expose the facts, and many believe them to be fiction, or even worse, ‘magic realism.' One reviewer actually accused me of making false claims and exaggerating. Another thing that makes me laugh is when people compliment me on the title. The fact is that the original title was Kiss the Lizard, Jesus. I still prefer that title and can never think of the book as Waiting for Snow in Havana. My editor found Kiss the Lizard repulsive, however, and asked me to change it. So I came up with a list of 150 alternative titles, and out of all of those Waiting for Snow jumped to first place. In my household, we still call the book The Lizard."

"I don't have time for hobbies -- other than writing books without footnotes -- but I do like to work with my hands. I love gardening and carpentry. I recently built a shed in the back yard, and am as proud of that as any book I have written, even though someone else did all the thinking for me and came up with the plans and measurements. Having failed trigonometry in high school, putting up a well-proportioned structure with straight angles on level ground was no small feat."

"We have four cats. Three are males: Sparky, a brown tabby; Wolfie, a gray Maine coon; and Ralph, an orange tabby. The fourth is a calico female: Oblyna. We keep them indoors all the time because we have a lot of coyotes, foxes, and skunks around our house. Sparky is our escape artist, but we have always been able to retrieve him from the woods. Once, however, our female, Oblyna, disappeared for two weeks. She had slipped out unnoticed. When she returned one Mother's Day morning, she had a huge gash along her back. Apparently, she had a run-in with the wildlife or a neighbor's dog. After being stitched up, she recovered nicely and has never gone out again."

"Speaking of predators and food chains: I am a vegetarian and therefore a huge pain in the neck to my wife and my kids and for anyone who invites me to dinner. I can't bring myself to eat anything that was once a living being. This might be due to the fact that a chimpanzee bit me when I was a child, showing me what it feels like to be eaten. I do eat eggs and milk products, but that is as far as I will go along with the exploitation of the animal proletariat. Since I often travel to Europe for my work, I have a hard time eating over there, especially in Spain, where vegetarianism tends to be considered a disease or a bizarre deviant behavior, akin to self-mutilation."

"And speaking of deviant behavior, here are six of my favorite ways to unwind: shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing the lawn, splitting wood, digging large holes, and hauling heavy stones from one place to another. I also find any task that involves sledgehammers, axes, picks, and chainsaws very, very relaxing. This is what a revolution can do to your personality."

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    1. Hometown:
      Guilford, Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 23, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      Havana, Cuba
    1. Education:
      B.A., Loyola University, 1973; M.A., Yale University, 1974; M. Phil., Yale University, 1976; Ph.D., Yale, 1979

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Uno

The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That's how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that's the way it had been all along. I just didn't know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.

I was barely eight years old, and I had spent hours dreaming of childish things, as children do. My father, who vividly remembered his prior incarnation as King Louis XVI of France, probably dreamt of costume balls, mobs, and guillotines. My mother, who had no memory of having been Marie Antoinette, couldn't have shared in his dreams. Maybe she dreamt of hibiscus blossoms and fine silk. Maybe she dreamt of angels, as she always encouraged me to do. "Sueña con los angelitos," she would say: Dream of little angels. The fact that they were little meant they were too cute to be fallen angels.

Devils can never be cute.

The tropical sun knifed through the gaps in the wooden shutters, as always, extending in narrow shafts of light above my bed, revealing entire galaxies of swirling dust specks. I stared at the dust, as always, rapt. I don't remember getting out of bed. But I do remember walking into my parents' bedroom. Their shutters were open and the room was flooded with light. As always, my father was putting on his trousers over his shoes. He always put on his socks and shoes first, and then his trousers. For years I tried to duplicate that nearly magical feat, with little success. The cuffs of my pants would always get stuck on my shoes and no amount of tugging could free them. More than once I risked an eternity in hell and spit out swear words. I had no idea that if your pants are baggy enough, you can slide them over anything, even snowshoes. All I knew then was that I couldn't be like my father.

As he slid his baggy trousers over his brown wingtip shoes, effortlessly, Louis XVI broke the news to me: "Batista is gone. He flew out of Havana early this morning. It looks like the rebels have won."

"You lie," I said.

"No, I swear, it's true," he replied.

Marie Antoinette, my mother, assured me it was true as she applied lipstick, seated at her vanity table. It was a beautiful piece of mahogany furniture with three mirrors: one flat against the wall and two on either side of that, hinged so that their angles could be changed at will. I used to turn the side mirrors so they would face each other and create infinite regressions of one another. Sometimes I would peer in and plunge into infinity.

"You'd better stay indoors today," my mother said. "God knows what could happen. Don't even stick your head out the door." Maybe she, too, had dreamt of guillotines after all? Or maybe it was just sensible, motherly advice. Perhaps she knew that the heads of the elites don't usually fare well on the street when revolutions triumph, not even when the heads belong to children.

That day was the first of January 1959.

The night before, we had all gone to a wedding at a church in the heart of old Havana. On the way home, we had the streets to ourselves. Not another moving car in sight. Not a soul on the Malecón, the broad avenue along the waterfront. Not even a lone prostitute. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette kept talking about the eerie emptiness of the city. Havana was much too quiet for a New Year's Eve.

I can't remember what my older brother, Tony, was doing that morning or for the rest of the day. Maybe he was wrapping lizards in thin copper wire and hooking them up to our Lionel train transformer. He liked to electrocute them. He liked it a lot. He was also fond of saying: "Shock therapy, ha! That should cure them of their lizard delusion." I don't want to remember what my adopted brother, Ernesto, was doing. Probably something more monstrous than electrocuting lizards.

My older brother and my adopted brother had both been Bourbon princes in a former life. My adopted brother had been the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. My father had recognized him on the street one day, selling lottery tickets, and brought him to our house immediately. I was the outsider. I alone was not a former Bourbon. My father wouldn't tell me who I had been. "You're not ready to hear it," he would say. "But you were very special."

My father's sister, Lucía, who lived with us, spent that day being as invisible as she always was. She, too, had once been a Bourbon princess. But now, in this life, she was a spinster: a lady of leisure with plenty of time on her hands and no friends at all. She had been protected so thoroughly from the corrupt culture of Cuba and the advances of the young men who reeked of it as to have been left stranded, high and dry, on the lonely island that was our house. Our island within the island. Our safe haven from poor taste and all unseemly acts, such as dancing to drumbeats. She had lived her entire life as a grown woman in the company of her mother and her maiden aunt, who, like her, had remained a virgin without vows. When her mother and aunt died, she moved to a room at the rear of our house and hardly ever emerged. Whether she had any desires, I'll never know. She seemed not to have any. I don't remember her expressing any opinion that day on the ouster of Batista and the triumph of Fidel Castro and his rebels. But a few days later she did say that those men who came down from the mountains needed haircuts and a shave.

Our maid worked for us that day, as always. Her name was Inocencia, and her skin was a purple shade of black. She cooked, cleaned the house, and did the laundry. She was always there. She seemed to have no family of her own. She lived in a room that was attached to the rear of the house but had no door leading directly into it. To enter our house she had to exit her small room and walk a few steps across the patio and through the backdoor, which led to the kitchen. She had a small bathroom of her own too, which I sometimes used when I was playing outdoors.

Once, long before that day when the world changed, I opened the door to that bathroom and found her standing inside, naked. I still remember her shriek, and my shock. I stood there frozen, a child of four, staring at her mountainous African breasts. A few days later, at the market with my mother, I pointed to a shelf full of eggplants and shouted "Tetas de negra!" Black women's tits! Marie Antoinette placed her hand over my mouth and led me away quickly as the grocers laughed and made lewd remarks. I couldn't understand what I had done wrong. Those eggplants did look just like Inocencia's breasts, right down to the fact that both had aureolas and nipples. The only difference was that while Inocencia's were bluish black, those of the eggplants were green. Later in life I would search for evidence of God's presence. That resemblance was my first proof for the existence of God. And eggplants would forever remind me of our nakedness and shame.

A few months after that New Year's Day, Inocencia quit working for us. She was replaced by a thin, wiry woman named Caridad, or Charity, who was angry and a thief. My parents would eventually fire her for stealing. She loved Fidel, and she listened to the radio in the kitchen all day long. It was the only Cuban music I ever heard. My father, the former Louis XVI, would not allow anything but classical music to be played in the main part of the house. He remembered meeting some of the composers whose music he played, and he pined for those concerts at Versailles. Cuban music was restricted to the kitchen and the maid's room.

Caridad loved to taunt me when my parents weren't around. "Pretty soon you're going to lose all this." "Pretty soon you'll be sweeping my floor." "Pretty soon I'll be seeing you at your fancy beach club, and you'll be cleaning out the trash cans while I swim." With menacing smirks, she threatened that if I ever told my parents about her taunts, she would put a curse on me.

"I know all sorts of curses. Changó listens to me; I offer him the best cigars, and plenty of firewater. I'll hex you and your whole family. Changó and I will set a whole army of devils upon you."

My father had warned me about the evil powers of Changó and the African gods. He spoke to me of men struck dead in the prime of life, of housewives driven mad with love for their gardeners, of children horribly disfigured. So I kept quiet. But I think she put a curse on me anyway, and on my whole family, for not allowing her to steal and taunt until that day, "pretty soon," when she could take over the house. Her devils swooped down on all of us, with the same speed as the rebels that swept across the whole island on that day.

The lizards remained oblivious to the news that day, as always. Contrary to what my brother Tony liked to say as he administered shock treatments to them, the lizards were not deluded in the least. They knew exactly what they were and always would be. Nothing had changed for them. Nothing would ever change. The world already belonged to them whole, free of vice and virtue. They scurried up and down the walls of the patio, and along its brightly colored floor tiles. They lounged on tree branches, sunned themselves on rocks. They clung to the ceilings inside our house, waiting for bugs to eat. They never fell in love, or sinned, or suffered broken hearts. They knew nothing of betrayal or humiliation. They needed no revolutions. Dreaming of guillotines was unnecessary for them, and impossible. They feared neither death nor torture at the hands of children. They worried not about curses, or proof of God's existence, or nakedness. Their limbs looked an awful lot like our own, in the same way that eggplants resembled breasts. Lizards were ugly, to be sure — or so I thought back then. They made me question the goodness of creation.

I could never kiss a lizard, I thought. Never.

Perhaps I envied them. Their place on earth was more secure than ours. We would lose our place, lose our world. They are still basking in the sun. Same way. Day in, day out.

Copyright © 2003 by Carlos Eire

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

Uno


The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That's how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that's the way it had been all along. I just didn't know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.

I was barely eight years old, and I had spent hours dreaming of childish things, as children do. My father, who vividly remembered his prior incarnation as King Louis XVI of France, probably dreamt of costume balls, mobs, and guillotines. My mother, who had no memory of having been Marie Antoinette, couldn't have shared in his dreams. Maybe she dreamt of hibiscus blossoms and fine silk. Maybe she dreamt of angels, as she always encouraged me to do. "Suena con los angelitos," she would say: Dream of little angels. The fact that they were little meant they were too cute to be fallen angels.

Devils can never be cute.

The tropical sun knifed through the gaps in the wooden shutters, as always, extending in narrow shafts of light above my bed, revealing entire galaxies of swirling dust specks. I stared at the dust, as always, rapt. I don't remember getting out of bed. But I do remember walking into my parents' bedroom. Their shutters were open and the room was flooded with light. As always, my father was putting on his trousers over his shoes. He always put on his socks and shoes first, and then his trousers. For years I tried to duplicate that nearly magical feat, with little success. The cuffs of my pants would always get stuck on my shoes andno amount of tugging could free them. More than once I risked an eternity in hell and spit out swear words. I had no idea that if your pants are baggy enough, you can slide them over anything, even snowshoes. All I knew then was that I couldn't be like my father.

As he slid his baggy trousers over his brown wingtip shoes, effortlessly, Louis XVI broke the news to me: "Batista is gone. He flew out of Havana early this morning. It looks like the rebels have won."

"You lie," I said.

"No, I swear, it's true," he replied.

Marie Antoinette, my mother, assured me it was true as she applied lipstick, seated at her vanity table. It was a beautiful piece of mahogany furniture with three mirrors: one flat against the wall and two on either side of that, hinged so that their angles could be changed at will. I used to turn the side mirrors so they would face each other and create infinite regressions of one another. Sometimes I would peer in and plunge into infinity.

"You'd better stay indoors today," my mother said. "God knows what could happen. Don't even stick your head out the door." Maybe she, too, had dreamt of guillotines after all? Or maybe it was just sensible, motherly advice. Perhaps she knew that the heads of the elites don't usually fare well on the street when revolutions triumph, not even when the heads belong to children.

That day was the first of January 1959.

The night before, we had all gone to a wedding at a church in the heart of old Havana. On the way home, we had the streets to ourselves. Not another moving car in sight. Not a soul on the Malecón, the broad avenue along the waterfront. Not even a lone prostitute. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette kept talking about the eerie emptiness of the city. Havana was much too quiet for a New Year's Eve.

I can't remember what my older brother, Tony, was doing that morning or for the rest of the day. Maybe he was wrapping lizards in thin copper wire and hooking them up to our Lionel train transformer. He liked to electrocute them. He liked it a lot. He was also fond of saying: "Shock therapy, ha! That should cure them of their lizard delusion." I don't want to remember what my adopted brother, Ernesto, was doing. Probably something more monstrous than electrocuting lizards.

My older brother and my adopted brother had both been Bourbon princes in a former life. My adopted brother had been the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. My father had recognized him on the street one day, selling lottery tickets, and brought him to our house immediately. I was the outsider. I alone was not a former Bourbon. My father wouldn't tell me who I had been. "You're not ready to hear it," he would say. "But you were very special."

My father's sister, Lucía, who lived with us, spent that day being as invisible as she always was. She, too, had once been a Bourbon princess. But now, in this life, she was a spinster: a lady of leisure with plenty of time on her hands and no friends at all. She had been protected so thoroughly from the corrupt culture of Cuba and the advances of the young men who reeked of it as to have been left stranded, high and dry, on the lonely island that was our house. Our island within the island. Our safe haven from poor taste and all unseemly acts, such as dancing to drumbeats. She had lived her entire life as a grown woman in the company of her mother and her maiden aunt, who, like her, had remained a virgin without vows. When her mother and aunt died, she moved to a room at the rear of our house and hardly ever emerged. Whether she had any desires, I'll never know. She seemed not to have any. I don't remember her expressing any opinion that day on the ouster of Batista and the triumph of Fidel Castro and his rebels. But a few days later she did say that those men who came down from the mountains needed haircuts and a shave.

Our maid worked for us that day, as always. Her name was Inocencia, and her skin was a purple shade of black. She cooked, cleaned the house, and did the laundry. She was always there. She seemed to have no family of her own. She lived in a room that was attached to the rear of the house but had no door leading directly into it. To enter our house she had to exit her small room and walk a few steps across the patio and through the backdoor, which led to the kitchen. She had a small bathroom of her own too, which I sometimes used when I was playing outdoors.

Once, long before that day when the world changed, I opened the door to that bathroom and found her standing inside, naked. I still remember her shriek, and my shock. I stood there frozen, a child of four, staring at her mountainous African breasts. A few days later, at the market with my mother, I pointed to a shelf full of eggplants and shouted "Tetas de negra!" Black women's tits! Marie Antoinette placed her hand over my mouth and led me away quickly as the grocers laughed and made lewd remarks. I couldn't understand what I had done wrong. Those eggplants did look just like Inocencia's breasts, right down to the fact that both had aureolas and nipples. The only difference was that while Inocencia's were bluish black, those of the eggplants were green. Later in life I would search for evidence of God's presence. That resemblance was my first proof for the existence of God. And eggplants would forever remind me of our nakedness and shame.

A few months after that New Year's Day, Inocencia quit working for us. She was replaced by a thin, wiry woman named Caridad, or Charity, who was angry and a thief. My parents would eventually fire her for stealing. She loved Fidel, and she listened to the radio in the kitchen all day long. It was the only Cuban music I ever heard. My father, the former Louis XVI, would not allow anything but classical music to be played in the main part of the house. He remembered meeting some of the composers whose music he played, and he pined for those concerts at Versailles. Cuban music was restricted to the kitchen and the maid's room.

Caridad loved to taunt me when my parents weren't around. "Pretty soon you're going to lose all this." "Pretty soon you'll be sweeping my floor." "Pretty soon I'll be seeing you at your fancy beach club, and you'll be cleaning out the trash cans while I swim." With menacing smirks, she threatened that if I ever told my parents about her taunts, she would put a curse on me.

"I know all sorts of curses. Changó listens to me; I offer him the best cigars, and plenty of firewater. I'll hex you and your whole family. Changó and I will set a whole army of devils upon you."

My father had warned me about the evil powers of Changó and the African gods. He spoke to me of men struck dead in the prime of life, of housewives driven mad with love for their gardeners, of children horribly disfigured. So I kept quiet. But I think she put a curse on me anyway, and on my whole family, for not allowing her to steal and taunt until that day, "pretty soon," when she could take over the house. Her devils swooped down on all of us, with the same speed as the rebels that swept across the whole island on that day.

The lizards remained oblivious to the news that day, as always. Contrary to what my brother Tony liked to say as he administered shock treatments to them, the lizards were not deluded in the least. They knew exactly what they were and always would be. Nothing had changed for them. Nothing would ever change. The world already belonged to them whole, free of vice and virtue. They scurried up and down the walls of the patio, and along its brightly colored floor tiles. They lounged on tree branches, sunned themselves on rocks. They clung to the ceilings inside our house, waiting for bugs to eat. They never fell in love, or sinned, or suffered broken hearts. They knew nothing of betrayal or humiliation. They needed no revolutions. Dreaming of guillotines was unnecessary for them, and impossible. They feared neither death nor torture at the hands of children. They worried not about curses, or proof of God's existence, or nakedness. Their limbs looked an awful lot like our own, in the same way that eggplants resembled breasts. Lizards were ugly, to be sure -- or so I thought back then. They made me question the goodness of creation.

I could never kiss a lizard, I thought. Never.

Perhaps I envied them. Their place on earth was more secure than ours. We would lose our place, lose our world. They are still basking in the sun. Same way. Day in, day out.

Copyright © 2003 by Carlos Eire
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Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Carlos Eire's award-winning memoir begins with a poem called "Preambulo" containing disconcerting set of premises, which might well have come straight from the epigrammatic pen of Oscar Wilde. "This is not a work of fiction/but the author would like it to be," he writes, "We improve when we become fiction/…and when the past becomes a novel our memories are sharpened."

It's a paradoxical opening that nevertheless captures what is most compelling about Waiting for Snow in Havana. The book is Eire's reflection on his boyhood in 1950s Cuba, his evacuation (along with 14,000 other children) in 1962, and a life lived in exile from his family and native land. Reading groups will find that in telling the story of these events, Eire chooses to weave together, in lyrical, light-hearted prose, his dreamlike memories of Havana with his troubled, adult reflections on the strange journey he has found himself on. While portions of his story detail intense suffering, this memoir is one that perennially balances regret with an astonished reverence for the richness of life.

The poetic elements in Eire's story come to the fore as he describes his family - in particular the often inexplicable behavior of his parents, whose belief in reincarnation gives them the illusion that they are secretly the transmigrated Louis VVI and Marie Antoinette - ironically appropriate identities for members of the establishment who will lose everything in a coming revolution. His is a childhood both haunted and exalted by superstition and illusions, and young Carlos is perpetually engaged in the sort of myth-making and fantasy which is universal in children. Movies and movie stars consume him, and he and his brother Tony fixate on Cuba's omnipresent lizards. Book clubs will enjoy unpacking the symbolism of these lizards and other repeating motifs, as Eire laces them through the story of his life.

Those interested in learning about life in the essentially lost world of pre-Castro Havana, or understanding what it means to live through the thrill and horror of a revolution and watch friends and family face constant peril, will find much of what they seek in Eire's chronicle. But the most memorable quality of Waiting for Snow in Havana is its sense of emotional authenticity, of spontaneous testimony, which comes out in a disorderly, urgent stream of images and recollections. Reading groups may wish to debate how much this artlessness is actually the deliberate craft of the writer. This memoir will in particular reward those who enjoy talking about storytelling and the tension between necessary "fiction" and slippery facts. Using the methods of a masterful novelist, Eire leads the willing reader on a hunt for nothing more or less than that impossible quarry, the truth. Bill Tipper

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. Early on, we encounter the author's loss of innocence, as political tensions begin to explode in violence and threaten the almost idyllic world of the Havana elite that Eire inhabits. But even in that idyll, as the author takes part in normal childhood exploits, there is a sense of pleasure and danger resting hand in hand -- a powerful combination. How do these lessons of Eire's early youth serve him during the dramatic changes of his young adulthood?

2. How does memory work in Eire's story? How do memories of pleasure and of danger live in him? Do they reconcile each other, or does one trump the other in the end?

3. History -- particularly the violence of the past -- plays a big part in Eire's parents' imaginations and in how they choose to live. They refer to themselves as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and their house is full of objects that project a powerful, almost living sense of Christ's suffering. Then modern violence disrupts the family. How do they both use the lessons of Christ and their "past lives" or alter egos to act in the present crisis?

4. Eire uses lizards to embody "perfect metaphors" in his memoir. Lizards are often passive, most often despised, and always pitiful victims of others' misguided exercises of power. And yet it is a species of great resilience, powerful in its presence in Cuban lives. Who and what is the lizard ultimately in Eire's imagination?

5. Some readers will understand this book as a tale of the innocent victim (because Eire is a child), or of a necessary, however flawed, attempt to secure justice for the victims of the Batista regime, and of colonialism (because many Black Cubans are the very near descendants of slaves). Eire speaks of how his family profited directly from others' suffering. And then the tables are turned. How do you reconcile the grievances of both groups? Is the author able to transcend his sense of personal rage? How might writing be his own intimate attempt to secure justice?

6. Justice is something passionately sought by many in Eire's family: by his aunt who is a consummate activist; by his father, the judge and Louis XVI incarnate; by his uncle who offers an ultimate insult in the face of the firing squad. How do they inform Eire's struggle?

7. How do you piece together Eire's deep and complicated sense of rage for his father, who is symbolized by and is a symbol for his fatherland?

8. Eire is keenly aware of race and color. But he does not have a true understanding of the psychological and economic costs of racial and ethnic bigotry and oppression until he is on American soil, where he becomes poor and a "Spic." What does he do with this new understanding?

9. Eire reveals his anger and contempt for his adopted brother Ernesto, who, though it is somewhat cryptically relayed, has sexually molested him. Eire says that the revelation of this abuse causes his father to turn against him, in favor of Ernesto. These events coincide with Castro's revolution and his sense of violation by his fatherland. This is followed by his father's more ultimate act -- feverishly collecting personal treasures -- artifacts -- as he passively allows his sons to be swept away from him. It is a struggle that is resonant with Biblical events and almost Biblical in proportion. What do you make of this difficulty of reconciling such deep and inseparable betrayals?

10. Eire talks about his parents' different legacies: his mother is the daughter of Spanish émigrés, conceived on their transatlantic passage, while his father's family has been rooted in Cuba for many generations. His mother's impulse is to be forward-looking, privileging the modern, and, as its symbol, the American. His father "favored the past, fought against the present, ignored the future." How do these impulses play out in the family's ultimate dissolution?

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 60 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

    Carlos Eire makes you laugh and he makes you cry as he recounts his early childhood in Havana "before the world changed." What was it like to grow up in a privileged family in Havana before Fidel Castro? What was it like to wave good-bye to your mother and father as a ten-year old and to leave your homeland (along with some 14,000 other child-refugees) to live in an orphanage in Miami? What is it like to live as a professor at Yale, longing to let go of the pains of the past yet passionately clinging to who you are deep in your soul, a Cuban, waiting for redemption both personal and national? Read Waiting for Snow in Havana.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 20, 2011

    Great Read!

    Engaging and well written. The colorful language and vivid recollections make this book very enjoyable & worthwhile. I highly recommend this book although I'm not sure I want my young boys reading this because there are way too many "ideas" for them and their friends to get into trouble! Entertaining, funny & heart wrenching at the same time! Loved this book!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2010

    A ribbon of remembrance

    Carlos Eire delivered a poignant, yet complex, memoir told in many vibrant tales about his childhood and subsequent exodus from Cuba in 1962. In 1959, Castro sent troops to oust then President Batista which led to an unstable political climate.

    Eire, as a son of a somewhat quirky, but wealthy, judge with an imaginative mind who believed himself to be a reincarnated Louis XVI, sent his sons (Carlos and Tony) to an elite school. When Castro came to power, all of the little luxuries suddenly became quite dangerous to openly possess. The decision to airlift his sons out of Cuba in a program called Operation Pedro (Peter) Pan must have been a difficult one.

    Once in America, Eire passed through a series of foster care homes and it was some years before the mother was able to be reunited with her sons. They never saw the father again. The honest anger and emotion comes through loud and clear as does the longing for a homeland he had to leave behind. When Eire writes, "in the past 38 years I've seen 8,917 clouds in the shape of the island of Cuba" the reader can't help but feel the depth of his grieving.

    Eire, with a PhD in History and Religion from Yale, has shaped these words into a prayer to his lost childhood.

    Highly recommended.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 16, 2011

    Reading it for the second time

    This book is the best of both worlds. It's non-fiction that reads like fiction. The writing is rich and beautiful. Highly recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2013

    As a student of Cuban history, having studied at the university

    As a student of Cuban history, having studied at the university of Havana, I found this book infuriating. I think that the book serves only as an interesting insight into the biased and often inflexible perspective of the Cuban diaspora in the US.  The idea of Batistas cuba as a "paradise" is absurd and the conjecture that the revolution has spoiled the cuba that could have been is even more so.  If you would like to inform yourself about cuba both past and present I recommend educating yourself fully on the islands fascinating history, you will also learn quite a big about the US in doing so. This book is not a good source for information regarding the effects of the revolution on cuba as a whole but rather an interesting insight into one mans personal experience and how his life has shaped his memories and perspective. 

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2013

    Great book to read if you're interested in Cuba

    Enjoyed the book as I am ttraveling to Cuba. Like the details as to what it was like after the Revolution---the changes that happened. I was more interested in that than the details of Carlos's daily life before the Revolution, but it made an interesting story even though I would have preferred more details about the Revolution. The book is banned in Cuba,

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2013

    Wite fang

    $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ thies are the most best BOOKS EVER

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 7, 2011

    Deciding to purchase this book...

    Just viewed a TV program about the " Pedro Pan " Cuban children that fled into the US in the early 60's as Carlos Eire being one of them. Just his comments on this program gives me less reasons to consider reading his book because he seems to be stuck in that trauma of his childhood and the vision of the Cuba that could have been. What he needs to do is move forward and find better ways to help the Cuba peoples' stuggles. The reason Cuba is not free is that the Cuban people are not willing to shed their blood for the ultimate sacrifice at ending that regime!

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2010

    Pretty bad..

    I could not get past the writer's constant references to 18th Century France and how his family were the Bourbons in a previous life. I bought the book to read about Cuba, not some far-fetched fantasy. To confess, I read exactly only FIVE pages, so this review is quite biased. You know, if you just emigrated to escape Fidel, it does not add up to a story worth telling. There must be more to that...

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2008

    Grandiose in Childhood...

    Although the author is recounting of his time as a child in Cuba, he interjects his adult perceptions into the story giving the child a much more mature perception than is believable.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2007

    Paints a beautiful picture of an incredible place

    Being of cuban decent, I am eager to read anything I can that can give me information on the country I originate from. This book is incredibly well written and describes in detail the love for a country and the heartbreak we have all felt post Fidel. I couldn't put the book down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2006

    draining

    As a Floridian i have a passing interest on Cuba. I have many Cuban friends and was looking forward to this book. It actually made me angry. The author was a spoiled, whiny rich brat in Cuba and continued to be a whiny brat in the U.S. I admire how he made something of himself in the U.S. but come on. Many of us suffer tragedies and setbacks that we must overcome. His story was no more fascinating then someone that has lost a parent or been abandoned by a parent. I did not find him likable at all. He was born to wealth and had it taken from him. Boo hoo. Save the drama Carlos. All in all you have had it pretty good. Not a good book

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2006

    Beautiful

    A bitterweet memoir of a time gone by. Eire writes with such passion and honesty that one cannot but help feel his affection for the Cuba of his childhood and his anger for Castro and the Revolution. Well written and powerful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2006

    Dragging myself through

    I read (most of) this book as part of a book club selection. It was enthusiastically recommended by someone who really connected with it. She raved about it. For that reason, I dove into the book wanting to like it. While the stories told within were interesting at times, I got a little tired of the reptile explosions and similar anecdotes. While the author paints the characters well, it just fell flat for me - I put it down with no desire to return. I made myself pick it up again and again to keep trying, but finally lost interest. If you are from Cuba or have a close connection to the country, perhaps you'll enjoy it - it seems to be either something people really love, or don't embrace at all. The latter was true with our book club. It just didn't go over well with the group - and we're a pretty diverse bunch.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2006

    Brought Havana To Life

    Wonderful recreation of a time and place known to my friends but not to me. Enjoyed reading about my part of Miami being mentioned by name and the time period I had heard about before. Mr. Eire had a wonderful and courageous mother.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2006

    It could have been better

    I was brought up in Cuba so I looked forward to this book. I was born after Castro took over and never experienced Cuba before the revolution. I was fascinated by his family stories, and the freedoms he had that I never had nor imagined were possible. Private schools were unheard of and switching schools was not an option. My confusion came when I was attempting to put the events in chronological order in my mind. The book skipped around quite a bit. It was difficult for me to put pieces together in relation to the history of the country. All in all it was a good read, but it could have been better.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2005

    Excellent Read

    Eire writes with a bitter sweet attitude about this terrible transition from the Cuba of his youth to the Cuba of Castro. He captures the beautiful hearts of Cuba's people and of their once beautiful country. I laughed with him, I cried for Cuba.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2005

    The Snow Never Comes

    This story of a young boy in Cuba and his games, friends and youngstr's view of the political situation is fascinating, especially when you consider how long it has been since America decided Castro would not last - and he is still there, and this boy got out but lost his country and his father.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2005

    FANTASTIC!

    This was a truly amazing book to read. Carlos is a wonderful writer, who managed to relate his experiences as a child at the beginning of Castro's regime in a way that touches your soul. Having only seen the run-down Havana that exists today, 46 years after Castro took over and destroyed his country, I now have a better idea of what life was like when that country was still free and 'normal.' The pain and desperation Eire experienced during this horrible transition to communism come to life in the pages of this wonderfully written book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2004

    If only there were a million stars!

    Wow! That is all I can say. Carlos really captured the essence and beauty of Cuba before the Revolution. I felt like I was right there, beside him pelting rocks at his friends. Awesome book, go read it right now!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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