Havana, City of Smoke. From peerless Montecristo #2s, if you are a wishful cigar aficionado; from pirate raids repeatedly reducing the city to ashes after plundering its entrepôts of Spanish gold, or -- more grimly -- from firing squads putting down slave rebellions, if your heart beats to a different drummer. There is the skin-smoking white heat of the sun, coaxing the eternal question Mark Kurlansky gives voice to in
Havana: a Subtropical Delirium: "How can it be so fucking hot?" Havana smokes like the best film noir. Smokes in attitude, literature, cinema, its fiery political arguments. It's smoky from the fumes of living under occupiers, oligarchs, plutocrats, dictators, and ideologues. No doubt the Tainos, the indigenes at the time of European encounter, have plenty to smoke about, if there are any left alive. Havana, too, is the City of Columns, the Rome of the Caribbean. It's all in your angle of approach. Drive into town from the airport, and your escorts will be the state psychiatric hospital "and drab, gray buildings, or rust-streaked, turquoise, and rotting pink ones -- resembling birthday cakes left out too long." Come at the city by boat, off the deep blue of the Gulf Stream and into the robin's-egg and violet waters of the port, and a spell -- part intrigue, part eyeful -- is spontaneously cast. These approaches will condition what you experience next. Will the city be narrowly and confusedly congregated or an adventure in exploration? Is the paint dingy or tropical? (Federico García Lorca had no issue: "Havana has the yellow of Cádiz, the pink of Seville turning carmine and the green of Granada, with the slight phosphorescence of fish.") Is the place a dump or delicately deliquescing? Kurlansky has taken both roads over the last thirty-five years of visits, and his verdict: "Havana, for all its smells, sweat, crumbling walls, isolation, and difficult history, is the most romantic city in the world." Keep your City of Light, your City of Love, and your Serenissima, too. As in Kurlansky's other discerning and obsessive investigations -- such as Salt, Cod, Paper, and The Big Oyster -- Havana's generous historical narrative is sparked by, or sparks, some Technicolor tidbit he has dug up. In Cod there were the Irish monks in their coracles -- big teacups, but not all that big - - floating their way to the Faroes and Iceland, the tonsured ones sustained by dropping a hand into the great sea and simply pulling out readymade sashimi. In Havana, that curio might be the nexus of narrow sidewalks and big windows (and street life in general), or the semiotics of shaven ice, the pop-up restaurants now appearing in Habanero homes, or Fidel's twenty-six flavors of ice cream (Howard Johnson had twenty-eight, but Fidel ate all his at one sitting, according to rumor, a fable that might be read as either heroic or deflating), or the live-and-let-live of perspiration: "Havana is not a city for people who are squeamish about sweat. Sweat is one of the many defining smells in redolent Havana and it is a leitmotif in almost all Havana literature." Cuban literature -- it takes willpower not to lay aside Havana to read one of the many books Kurlansky suggests, with their gritty magic realism/existentialism: Alejo Carpentier's The Chase, say, or Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés, a "condemnation of slavery and slavery's impact on society." Contemporary Cuban writers are well in the political mix, where criticism abounds. So, too, with the cinema taking on the island's bugaboo: homosexuality. "Until recently, there was almost nothing less acceptable in Cuban society than homosexuality." A little late for those who spent years in that hospital on the airport road, and a sad holdover of Che Guevara's New Man, but New Man was a bit of an automaton anyway, a perfect example of "subtropical delirium." It is true that "the state accepts criticism"; it even admits its blame for many things, including "the state of Havana. The capital was never its priority." (Nor did the U.S. government's waywardly malicious embargo help by hurting all the wrong people, a classic variation on our Drug War.) Then again, "the strength of the Cuban police state is that it is difficult to know what will lead to trouble." Throughout Havana, the city's history is called to speak. Here again, Kurlansky displays his talents as a chronicler well up to the challenge of a true, panoramic story, spinning with humanity and its evil twin, with predicaments, circumstances, forces and counterforces, incidents, availabilities, accidents, signs and wonders, down-and-outs. He starts with the Tainos' eradication and the early years of Spanish Havana, a backwater founded by Diego Velázquez's lieutenant, Pánfilo de Narváez, a man both "exceptionally brutal, even for that crowd, but also unusually stupid." Still, smart enough to stay away from the mosquito-infested, disease-plagued swamps of Santiago and the earlier South Coast towns. To boot, newly founded Havana had the amusement of "so many tortoises and crabs crawling through the young town that after dark a tremendous racket of clawing and shuffling was heard." One account told of a nighttime raiding party that, thinking the noise was a considerable army, retreated to their ship. Cuba was a slave market as well as a slave country, though it also had free blacks as well, which in turn resulted in both considerable mixing of races and considerable racism. And slavery would stay with Cuba long after the other islands had foresworn it, a result of the political power of the sugar latifundia. Sugar, leather, tobacco, and shipyards, all slave-driven. Slavery shaped and defined the identity of Havana, socially and culturally. This is not to belittle the profound influence of Havana being a port, with all the amenities necessary to sailors: booze, gambling, and prostitution. The United States would make its burgeoning imperial presence felt at the turn of the twentieth century, occupying the country until its needs became too onerous to continue financing -- a fixer-upper that required seemingly endless renewed investment -- when control-at-a-distance became the preferred arrangement. The Platt Amendment, which turned Cuba into a vassal state, was finally defeated by the Cuban legislature, but a series of false starts and fiascos landed Cuba with a military dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista -- murder was his go-to solution to nearly every problem -- who found a cozy bed with American organized crime. Cuba's party scene became an infamous stage for tourism at its most exploitative and indulgent, a wretched and poisonous case of bloat. The 26th of July Movement was as inevitable as an American holiday maker's sunburn. With the revolution that swept Fidel & Co. into Cuba on January 1, 1959, Kurlansky goes full reporter, trying to winnow fact from fiction and myth. Yes, there was rampant cronyism, and there were incredible strides in education and healthcare; yes, living under the thumb of conspicuous consumptionists became a thing of the past, and yes, there were Che's tribunals, which "executed so many people by firing squad that Castro removed him from the post and made him the country's bank president." That was hitting below the belt. Che would move on to the Congo, then Bolivia. Kurlansky's Cuba is a well-stirred cauldron of turmoil, which he spices up with recipes for Cuban delectables: guajiras in song and ajiaco in the kitchen, and, from behind the bar the daiquiri -- perfected in Havana, "in part by adding maraschino liqueur" (that being subject to debate), the mojito, and the Cuba Libre. That last required Coca-Cola, and thus local replication of the soda. 'Twas done, as Cubans made do, ingenuity their stock-in-trade. Certainly, Havana is "a city of unfinished works, of the feeble, the asymmetrical, and the abandoned," as wrote its native son Alejo Carpentier. Kurlansky: "Havana, to be truthful, is a mess," as so often is the one we love. But consider: who wouldn't love a mechanic who kept your 1949 Ford coupe on the street by replacing the burned-out motor with a boat engine? He's in Havana. Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
The Barnes & Noble Review
Warmly rendered and rich with the insights of an observer intimate with his subject, this paean to the city of Havana is as engaging as it is timely. The chapters read like a series of colorful picture postcards, each one a touchstone of Havana’s history and Cuban culture. One addressing the city’s intense tropical heat leads to reflections on bloody events that punctuate Havana’s “tragic and impassioned history,” because “in Havana every splash of light has its dark spot.” References to Cecilia Valdés (1882), the landmark novel of exiled Cuban novelist Cirilo Villaverde, invoke discussion of the island’s Afro-Cuban culture and its slave trade, which was not abolished until 1886. Descriptions of the city’s postrevolution character naturally invite comparisons to prerevolutionary Havana and its near-overdevelopment with luxury hotels promoted by mobster Meyer Lansky and other organized crime syndicates. Kurlansky (Paper) has a tour guide’s eye for Havana’s most notable aspects, and he anchors his colorful observations with historical details gleaned from more than three decades of familiarity with the place and its people, beginning in 1976 as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. This vivid travelogue may well persuade his readers that “Havana, for all its smells, sweat, crumbling walls, isolation, and difficult history, is the most romantic city in the world.” Agent: Charlotte Sheedy, Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency. (Mar.)
"Kurlansky reaches back 500 years to track the city's evolving history, separating out the different strandsSpanish, African, American, Russian; political, social, musical, culinarythat slowly steeped to create Havana's piquant blend of static defiance." -
New York Times, "Summer's Best Travel Books" "A happy hybrid, Havana: A Subtropical Delirium invokes the Cuban capital as an occasion to discuss the country's history, politics, food, architecture, music, religion and passion for baseball . . . Kurlansky approaches Havana like an Impressionist painter, building the image of this metropolis of 2 million inhabitants with subtle brushstrokes." - The Washington Post "During his decade-long tenure as the Chicago Tribune's Caribbean correspondent in the 1980s, Mark Kurlansky began traveling to Cuba. Since this introduction to the island nation, the journalist grew to know and love the beautiful, messy capital. Drawing on Havana's history, Kurlansky starts with Columbus' arrival in 1492 and examines the city's role in the slave trade and its lasting effects. But he also brings us into the contemporary culture, highlighting the city's lively music, dance and art scenes, and supplying us with recipes to tasty Cuban dishes." - Smithsonian Magazine, "Ten Best Travel Books of 2017" "This little gem of a book by the prolific Kurlansky is a revelation . . . At a most auspicious moment in the history of Cuba and Havana, Kurlansky, who has spent much time in the country as a journalist, writes an eloquent love letter to one of the world’s great cities." - starred review, Booklist "An affectionate, richly detailed, brief biography of a unique city." - Kirkus Reviews "This extremely readable book is not preachy, not dogmatic, not shrill. As in life, there is a mixture of both good and evil, and Kurlansky, a frequent Cuba correspondent, covers it well." - starred review, Library Journal "Warmly rendered and rich with the insights of an observer intimate with his subject, this paean to the city of Havana is as engaging as it is timely. The chapters read like a series of colorful picture postcards, each one a touchstone of Havana’s history and Cuban culture." - Publishers Weekly "Few countries seem as alluring as this island nation, long cloistered from American travelers, which welcomed its first commercial U.S. flightfrom Fort Lauderdalethis past August . . . Havana is Mark Kurlansky's cultural history of a city that he began visiting regularly in the 1980s, when he covered the Caribbean for the Chicago Tribune." - Publishers Weekly, "Spring Travel Books" "We are in good hands to explore this diabolically alluring city with New York Times bestselling author Mark Kurlansky in Havana: A Subtropical Delirium. His is an insider's view of the ramshackle charm and special cadence of Havana, its tattered and elegant surprises and pulsating fun-loving life." - New York Journal of Books "Havana is sui generis and addictive, and Mark Kurlansky really gets it." - BookPage "Biographical portraits of cities are in vogue. This lively addition to the genre is essentially a history . . . Kurlansky found international fame in 1997 with his piscatorial portrait, Cod. The lengthy list of other titles he has penned is enough to make most professional writers want to shoot themselvesnot only more than a dozen non-fiction works but novels and children's books as well. The bugger is also an award-winning food writer. Narrative history is his forte, however. His vignettes of the figures who moulded Havana are excellent. The story unfurls through grisly post-independence dictatorships and ends, inevitably, with Castro. Kurlansky is even-handed." - Literary Review "A highly readable and entertaining account of Cuban history and culture that I found hard to put down." - San Francisco Book Review "HAVANA is as enjoyable as it is fair, and above all features the beauty and essence of the city that makes it unmistakable. It is a colorful, descriptive piece that any person should warmly enjoy." - Bookreporter.com "Perfect for anyone headed there or simply wishing to learn more about a city and country cloaked in romance and mystery." - BookFilter " Havana is an electrifying and multi-layered portrait of the long-elusive city." - BookBrowse "Not quite a book on the history of Havana, but rather, the history of Havana-isms . . . The result is a book that strays from repeating what most already know about Havana, and instead tells the origins of the city's unique cultural characteristics . . . Kurlansky's guide to Havana is an entertaining collage of the attitudes that have existed throughout its five-century history." - Cuba Trade Magazine
Kurlansky has moved on from food (Cod; The Big Oyster; Salt) and returned to the Caribbean. Former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (1926–2016) is now gone, but his brother Raul is in charge, and the revolution lives. Kurlansky captures it all: how Cuba got to this point: the obliteration of the native Tainos, colonization by Spain, 19th-century independence movements, U.S. invasion, the American gangster period in Havana, and then the overthrow of President Fulgencio Batista. He continues with Castro's suppression of dissidents, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ensuing Special Period, the opening up of Cuba to elements of capitalism, normalization of relations with its archenemy, the United States, and Castro's death. Kurlansky soberly reveals everything, warts and all. The Americans liberated Cuba from Spain, but their motives were hardly pure. Castro and his band of revolutionaries offered free health care and education for all, but had a difficult time providing basic foodstuffs. Gays were persecuted under the revolution in the 1960s, but now Castro's niece is a leading gay rights activist. VERDICT This extremely readable book is not preachy, not dogmatic, not shrill. As in life, there is a mixture of both good and evil, and Kurlansky, a frequent Cuba correspondent, covers it well. [See Prepub Alert, 7/11/16.]—Lee Arnold, Historical Soc. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Journeying through the streets, and history, of Cuba's famed capital.An award-winning writer on travel, food, and culture, Kurlansky (Paper: Paging Through History, 2016, etc.) was for 10 years the Chicago Tribune's Caribbean correspondent. He draws on many visits to the island for a spirited portrait of Havana, "like no other city on earth," a place of color, contradictions, and, for the author, enticing allure. "Havana, to be truthful, is a mess," he writes. "The sidewalks are cracked and broken, as are most of the streets." Walls are sun-bleached, some covered in "various molds, mildews," and other tropical blights; wood is destroyed by termites. The city "looks like the remnants of an ancient civilization." But despite troubled infrastructure, it throbs with life: music, dance, art, and food. Kurlansky chronicles the city's roiling past, beginning in 1492 with Columbus' landing, followed by Spanish conquest and the incursion of French pirates. Soon, Havana became "a huge slave-trading center" that generated enormous wealth. In fact, "slavery lasted longer in Cuba than anywhere in the Americas." By 1869, the author reports, there were more than 763,000 whites, 363,000 slaves, and 239,000 "free coloreds" on the island. Slaves could buy their freedom, which led many enslaved women to prostitution. That legacy persisted: until the revolution in 1959, Havana was reputed for its "huge prostitute market." "For many men," writes Kurlansky, "a visit to a prostitute was one of the celebrated features of a trip to Havana, along with music, rum, and cigars." American sugar interests developed the island to facilitate their own profits, bringing railroads and steamship service and selling off cheap land for the construction of villas for the rich minority. Besides focusing on economics and politics, Kurlansky evokes the African-inflected music that dominates the city and provides recipes for some quintessential Cuban dishes, such as the succulent stew known as ajiaco and for the Cuban version of the mojito. An affectionate, richly detailed, brief biography of a unique city.