One hungry, hallucinatory night in the dark heart of Havana, Mano Rodriguez, a young doctor with the revolutionary medical service, comes to the aid of a teenage jinetera named Julia. She takes refuge in his clinic to break away from the abusive chulo who prostituted her, and they form an unlikely allegiance that Mano thinks might save him from his twin burdens: the dead-end hospital assignment he was delegated after being blacklisted by the Cuban Communist Party and a Palo Monte curse on his love life commissioned by a vengeful ex-wife. But when the pimp and his bodyguards come after Julia and Mano, the violent chain-reaction plunges them all into the decadent catacombs of Havana's criminal underworld.
Inspired by fifty years of Cuban literary noir, from Cold Tales by Virgilio Piñera to Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls, Robert Arellano’s Havana Lunar intertwines an insider testimony on the collapse of socialist Cuba with a psychological mystery.
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By Robert Arellano
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2009 Robert Arellano
All right reserved.
Chapter One14 August 1992
It's Friday, and when I get back to the attic I see that Julia hasn't returned. I sit on the sofa, light a cigarette, and turn on the radio, tuning out the noise of the neighbors with the hollow metronome of Radio Reloj. "Did you know that good nutrition can be obtained from greens you can grow in your own solarium ...?" I don't want to be up in the hot attic with the tedious banter and the beginning of a migraine, so I go downstairs and let myself into the clinic to lie on a cot. When my grandmother Mamamá died, the Reforma Urbana "reallocated" the lower floors of my father's house: the first to a family from the provinces and the second to Beatrice, the block captain for the Comité de Defensa de la Revolución, whose eye, as the CDR symbol suggests, is always open. I had to set up a community polyclinic in the basement just to dig my heels in and hang onto the attic. Three weekends a month, legitimate cases of arthritis and herpes vie for attention with the usual complaints of mysterious pains and aches from patients who believe the only remedy is a shot of painkillers. It makes them feel a little better when they hold a doctor's attention. I listen, letting them speak for the adrenal rush it gives them, and then I explain for the thousandth time that it is the Special Period: There is no more morphine, not even aspirin.
Alone in the empty clinic at dusk, I am resting in one of the curtained compartments when a thunderstorm breaks the heat. The shower passes quickly, briefly taking my migraine away and leaving the street outside quiet, clean, and fragrant of motor oil and rotting leaves.
I am listening to the dripping trees when I hear the crack of glass. A gentle pressure like a cold hand causes the hairs on my neck to stand, and I experience a surge of obscure fright. I part the curtain to peer at the front door of the clinic, where a gloved hand reaches through a broken windowpane and releases the lock. ?Qué carajo? It's common knowledge the neighborhood doctors don't have any more drugs, but a heavyset man in a dark overcoat is breaking into my clinic. He makes straight for the metal file cabinet, and I lie still, watching around the edge of the curtain. The man flips through the charts for a few minutes and leaves the clinic without taking anything, closing the door behind him. I go out through the alley and come around the front of the building to see him walking away up Calle 23. I follow him at a distance through the rain-slicked streets.
There is a hush over Havana. The moon, almost full, is rising above the bay. It is high summer, when the palms drop curled fronds that pile up on sidewalks like brittle cigars. Sidestepping them, I keep the overcoat in sight. I follow the man up Infanta all the way to La Habana Vieja and down one of El Barrio Chino's narrow, nameless alleys. He disappears through an unnumbered entrance. No light leaks from the door glass, painted black.
I slip inside the corridor and push apart the dark drapes onto a small drinking establishment. A black bartender pours beer from a tap. Sitting at the bar with his back to me, the man in the overcoat says, "Give Doctor Rodriguez one on me." Surprised, I step out of the shadows. The man who broke into my clinic casts a glance over his shoulder to confirm my identity, looking blandly at the contusion beneath my right eye, a port-wine stain the size of a twenty-peso coin. His deep lines, pale complexion, silver hair, and mustache mark him as an autocrat of the Fidelista generation. The gray eyes and dark brow could almost be called handsome if his expression were not so stern and inscrutable. "Please have a seat, doctor. My name is Perez."
There is nobody else at the bar, but I keep an empty stool between us. "That's very humble of you, colonel. Anyone who reads Granma knows who you are."
"What will it be?" the bartender asks.
"Do you have wine?"
"I've just uncorked a very good five-year-old Chilean Cabernet." The bartender shows me the ornate label. "Or if you prefer I'm chilling an excellent Pinot Grigio de Venezia."
"The Cabernet will be fine, thanks."
The bartender places a glass before me and pours a generous serving. I take a taste, but the pounding of my heart and a sour flavor in my mouth keep me from enjoying it. "Tell me, Colonel Perez, what interest could the chief homicide investigator of the PNR possibly have in a pediatrician with the national medical service?"
He sips the fresh-poured beer. "I'm looking for a teenage girl wanted in connection with the murder of a chulo named Alejandro Martínez."
"The young woman in question spent a week at your apartment, and the victim came over and threatened both of you a few days before his body got tangled up in some fisherman's nets at the mouth of Havana Harbor."
"Could it have been accidental, a drowning?"
"There were signs of struggle: lesions on his arms and chest. Of course, the exact cause of death has been difficult to determine as we still haven't found his head."
"He was not especially popular among the girls." Detective Perez takes off his gloves. His fingers are exquisitely manicured. Only once before, when I was starting medical school, have I seen such hands on a man. They belonged to the cadaver inside which I saw my first organs.
"Severing the cervical vertebrae requires both the right instrument and great force," I say, "not to mention a strong stomach and a lot of nerve. A girl couldn't have done that."
"Young ladies come from all over the island to work in Havana, doctor. Some will spend a few months, others a year or two, do a few dirty things, and usually they will go back to their villages and shack up with campesinos, have kids, lead normal lives. But there is another type. Surely you know the constitution: the solipsist. No matter what she gets in this life, she believes she deserves more." Perez swallows the last of his beer and rises to go. "If you see the girl again, I'd like you to contact me. Come back and talk to Samson, the bartender."
"You choose unusual locations to conduct your inquiries, colonel."
"Stay reachable for a few days, doctor. Don't leave Havana." Perez parts the drapes and is gone. I wait a minute before leaving, neglecting to finish my glass of wine. Samson does not look up.
I return home to Vedado and pull Aurora's old rocking chair close to the French doors, parting the curtains onto the corner of 12 y 23: the bored soldiers, the old Chevys, the people going by and, across the street, a black Toyota with dark windows, a curl of smoke emerging from the passenger side. Taking the service stairs down, I back the Lada out of the garage and leave it parked in the alley. When I check on the basement clinic, the broken windowpane has already been replaced.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book started out really slow, and didnt get to the point until the VERY end! I understand that the author wanted to describe Cuba during those times, but it took over five chapters to do so. I thought there would be a better plot to the story.