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Posts Tagged ‘Cuba’

Fata Morgana

March 4, 2014 | by

Reinaldo Arenas, writers in exile, and a visit to the Havana of 1987.


Hotel Habana Libre. Photo: Sandino235, via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years have passed since the publication of Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas’s tale of his years in Cuba under the Castro regime and his life in exile in the U.S. One of the most talented and prolific writers to emerge during the revolution, Arenas was persecuted for his writings and his homosexuality. He escaped in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and in 1990, dying of AIDS, committed suicide in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Published in 1993, Before Night Falls is as urgent and compelling as ever—a portrait of exile and longing, of the anguish and rage of the dispossessed.

Born in 1943 on a farm in the province of Oriente, Cuba, Arenas developed a rich inner life early on. “[Regarding] the magical, the mysterious, which is so essential for the development of creativity, my childhood was the most literary time of my life,” he wrote in Before Night Falls. Morning fog blanketing the landscape like a ghostly shroud, palm trees bursting into flame as lightning struck, dark rivers flowing endlessly to the sea—all entranced him. Most astonishing was night, when, beneath the ancient glittering sky, his grandmother told tales of the supernatural.

At sixteen, Arenas joined Castro’s rebels in the mountains, but his enthusiasm gave way to disenchantment and despair, a trajectory he chronicled in his writing. In 1962, he finished Celestino antes del alba (published in the U.S. as Singing from the Well), the first in his Pentagonía, a series of five semi-autobiographical books. Celestino won second prize in the 1965 UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union) competition; in 1967, it was published in a print run of two thousand copies that sold out in one week. No further editions were issued; it was the only novel Arenas would publish in Cuba. His next novel, El mundo alucinante (published in the U.S. as The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando), the tale of a renegade Mexican monk who dreams of a free society, was banned in Cuba for its “erotic passages” but smuggled out and published in France in 1968 to great acclaim. Read More »


Hemingway Moves North, and Other News

May 6, 2013 | by





Yanet’s Vintage Emporium

November 27, 2012 | by

While I’m at Yanet’s apartment it begins to pour, packs of chubby raindrops in the tropical afternoon that make the dust in her Havana apartment feel thicker than it actually is. I’m trapped until the storm passes. But every surface in Yanet’s home is coated with objects waiting to be lifted, appraised, perused, felt—at least an afternoon’s worth. So I browse the waist-high tables and rich wood armoires with rows of cut-crystal wine and port glasses, mod carafes with faded metallic polka dots, kitschy ceramic table lamps painted with bright pastoral scenes, and patterned blown-glass globes that once held water and fish. Technically, it’s not legal for any of these objects to be sold. Read More »


William Kennedy on ‘Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes’

November 29, 2011 | by

Revolutionary times fuel William Kennedy’s newest book, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which follows the career of journalist Daniel Quinn. The novel’s first half takes place in 1957 Cuba, where Quinn gets writing advice from Ernest Hemingway (“Shun adverbs, strenuously”), falls in love with a gunrunner named Renata, and hikes through the jungle for the ultimate journalist’s prize—an interview with Fidel Castro. The second half finds Quinn, eleven years later, witnessing another kind of revolution, this one in his hometown of Albany after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, as the city hovers on the verge of race riots. The eighth novel in Kennedy’s Albany Cycle—which includes the Pulitzer Prize–winning IronweedChango’s Beads has a cast of characters that will feel familiar to readers of the earlier books, characters united by jazz, corruption, heroics, journalism, politics, and the perpetual revolution of history. I talked with the eighty-three-year-old Kennedy at his home in Albany—a townhouse where Jack Diamond, gangster, bootlegger, and the subject of Kennedy’s second novel, Legs, was shot to death. Read More »


North American Books I Read as a Child in Castro’s Cuba

October 19, 2011 | by

Havana, Cuba. Photograph by Jordi Martorell.

In the spring of 2007, I was invited to a dinner organized by The Paris Review in honor of Norman Mailer. The novelist had just published what would be his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, and would have a conversation with E. L. Doctorow. That evening, when Mailer entered the room, with his very distinctive mien—that of a rather solid and stout man who, because of his age, used two canes—I was deeply moved. I told him—what else do you say in those circumstances?—how much I admired his books and that I started reading them when I was very young, many years ago.

A few days later I told a friend about this experience. “But, how?” he acted surprised, “Did you read Norman Mailer in Cuba?” And added, “Wasn’t he supposed to be one of the banned North American authors on the island?”

My friend had imagined, perhaps for a good reason, that you couldn’t find American literature in Cuba, that it was banned because both countries were at more or less declared war, an openly proclaimed enmity. I patiently explained to him that nothing like this ever happened. Mailer’s books and those of many other North American authors were not censured in Cuba; in fact, they were widely sold. You could find them in every library; they could be read by everyone. Read More »


Fernando Trueba on ‘Chico and Rita’

June 27, 2011 | by

Chico and Rita

Few contemporary cineastes have enjoyed so estimably varied a career as Fernando Trueba. A onetime book editor whose film oeuvre has garnered no fewer than twenty-eight Goyas, he won an Oscar for Belle Epoque (1993), his sexy tale of a young deserter from Spain’s Civil War landing up at the farm of an aging artist whose comely daughters—one craven, one queer, one a young Penélope Cruz—impart a barnful of lessons about women and love. Since the 2000 release of Calle 54, his warm, exacting documentary on Latin jazz, Trueba has also devoted much energy to the music he loves. His work as a music producer has perhaps been highlighted by his association with Bebo Valdés, the supreme Cuban pianist whose sound was key to the evolution of both Cuban dance music and American jazz a half-century ago and who has spent his ninth decade making impeccable records with his Spanish friend. Trueba’s latest project, a gorgeous animated feature built from Valdés’s music and moments, marks a culmination of his work not only with the ninety-two-year-old pianist but with another long-term collaborator, the celebrated Spanish designer and artist Javier Mariscal. I caught up with Trueba a few days after Chico and Rita opened the Miami International Film Festival to a rousing ovation.

Where did you get the idea to do an animated film about Cuban music in the forties and fifties?

One day I was in Mariscal’s studio in Barcelona, and I saw some drawings he’d done of Habana Vieja. That’s when the lightbulb came on: we should make a movie in these streets, in a Havana created by Mariscal. We agreed that it should be a story about musicians. And then I suggested that if we have a story of a pianist, we could have Bebo play. And I thought, well, what Bebo represents is the style of the forties and fifties, so let’s do a story set in that period. How beautifulthe Havana nightlife of that time, which I knew only from books, or the stories of friends like [Guillermo] Cabrera Infante, the great Cuban writer of Tres Triste Tigres. And it also seemed like a time that was great visually, for Mariscal this era was when modern design started. We started developing the idea, and Mariscal said he felt the work should be very dramatic, like a bolero. And so we had that reference for the story—not a cinematographic reference, or a literary reference, but a song reference. Not a song-style reference, but a song itself. We wanted to build the story like a song, like a bolero.

The tone of a bolero is melodrama, and a lot of those elements are in the story: lost love, longing, nostalgia for that breezy room over the Malecon where Chico and Rita first make love. But how did the music come into it as you were actually writing the script?

When I was writing, I was trying to imagine how Mariscal’s drawings would move, and I had Bebo’s music in mind all the time. We used music to tell the story, to build the characters, the tension. When I work on live-action films, I leave a lot of room for last-minute decisions. Not in terms of the screenplay—I like to have the best possible screenplay in hand—but in terms of directing. I don’t like to work with a close storyboard, like Hitchcock. I’ve done a lot of comedy, a lot of work with actors, and I often like to find the shot on the set, to improvise the line. But with animation, you have to think of every single shot. Absolutely everything is storyboard, and that’s a big difference. To have to imagine one hundred percent of the movie, before it’s actually done—it’s a really strange mental exercise. But it’s great, I love it.

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