Dirty Havana Trilogy review
by Chris Heffernan
Originally published in 1998 in Spain, Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutierrez, now put out in paperback by Ecco, is a force of filth, and sensuality, of crime and poverty and the day by day fight not to overcome it but to simply survive it and move through its maze to keep from falling into the traps of despair, misery, prison and an easy death. The trilogy in total is almost four hundred pages long and follows the life of the main character named, like the author, Pedro Juan, through the streets of Havana, through small towns and the countryside as he goes through the schematics and dealings that have become the necessity of his life. Once a journalist, Pedro Juan, a white Cuban, is now unemployed and fending for himself in areas like the Malecon, that cater mostly to blacks and mulattos. The time is the mid 1990’s and it could not be a worse time to have no steady work as a famine is hitting the country as jobs dry up and a seemingly all encompassing poverty has taken over.
The book is made of three smaller books, the first being Marooned in No-Man’s Land, the second, Nothing to Do, and the third, Essence of Me. With each one not being overly large as the page counts come in at around one hundred thirty, one hundred, and one hundred fifty, respectively, they are by themselves very digestible and make the book move along as you go from one section to the other. He then breaks each book down into multiple chapters, with chapter headings, that give the picaresque idea of the book a feeling of the episodic with each chapter breaking off another piece of Pedro’s life and few of them being directly related to the others, but with a difference in the third book where he splits the view of the main character, first person narration, and a third person narration with differing perspectives that are of mostly women. But what this does do is offer an impressionistic picture of Pedro’s life and, in the end the a greater whole of the poverty of Havana, and an obscured view of what he is going through, that only becomes clear as you read and read all the way to the end so that all of the events are uncovered, making it impossible to know what will happen next, and only letting you know what has happened in total when you have reached the end. The chapters each have a chapter title, such as All the Consuming Loves, Buried in Shit, Me A Business Man, Impossible Nights, and Every Man for Himself, which guide the reader in the direction of Pedro Juan’s almost out of control life, but in the end are only hints, torches on the wall of the dungeon, so that each chapter as it comes is a new illumination.
The style is simple and smooth. The translation done by Natasha Wimmer is, as it seems, like the prose, straightforward, uncomplicated and directly illustrates what Gutierrez wants to illustrate, the day to day reality of poverty in Cuba, in all its stripped, and raw absurdities, so raw that they are almost an open wound for the reader to pick at. Your eyes do not get tripped up or stumble on turns of phrase and there is nothing unnecessarily complicated so that you get jammed up wondering what was meant or if something that has been shown or explained is true or if it’s a cultural split, or some kind of linguistic misunderstanding. Gutierrez writes straightforward sentences that build solid paragraphs to make easily accessible pictures to put together the heart of a landscape that gets right through to the reader, Havana, Cuba, Pedro, with passages such as:
“We made our way as best we could through the crush of screaming people. Crossing the Malecon, we headed for the wide sidewalk that runs beside the sea. Then I realized we were the only whites around. In Maceo Park a salsa orchestra was playing: It’s the way you look, you’re a naughty girl. I want to have fun with you tonight, pretty baby. We’re gonna have a ball. And everybody was dancing madly.”
“She’s thirty-two, black, and very thin and wiry. We like each other, and we have fun in bed together. She’s very dark, and her armpits and her sex have a strong smell to them. That turns me on so much that we must look like two lunatics rolling around. But that’s as far as it goes. Luisa skipped out one night after she made three hundred dollars off a guy.”
It is a landscape that touches all the senses to make the reader realize that poverty does not simply touch the senses but assaults them, with police sirens and yells, screams, and the smells of shit, piss and puke, of animals and animal waste, of the taste of rotten food and rum like gasoline, fitted together for a hopeless decrepitude that Gutierrez elevates to the ecstatic with images of women in raw sexuality, sitting or walking, smoking or fucking, he draws the pure sensual desire out of these images and displays it across the page.
The naked sexuality that pervades the entire book, at times seems like its only engine, driving the main character along from one anonymous or semi-anonymous fuck to another. But seeing it as that is disingenuous to the main character and to the author. The casualness with which Gutierrez writes about sex, and the frequency with which it happens does not mean that all of Pedro Juan’s encounters are meaningless, and in fact the sex act is given so much weight that it seems that none of them are in fact meaningless, that sex, in a world which is without money or ambition, a world that cannot support itself and closes in on itself that much more every day, is only given meaning through the interpersonal relationships, sometimes it is family, but Pedro Juan is almost entirely without family, mentioning and ex-wife in the States and a son here and a son there, still in Cuba but mostly out of touch, so he seeks it in the arms of women and the women seek in the arms of him. He is a fair skinned Cuban and many of the women and people in the neighborhood see him as a good looking man on the verge of middle aged who should be doing better, or at least doing something. But to this ex-journalist there is nothing he would rather be doing, or rather, nothing he would want to do at all. His demise as a journalist is only loosely explained with a few cursory sentences saying that he was not up for toting the party line anymore. And this is an extraordinary avenue of the book. That it is set in a country where politics seems to be a large part of people’s lives but that it is almost no part of the main character’s life. It is refreshing. It is wonderful that Gutierrez chose this route, that instead of trumpeting all the lost freedoms and finger pointing the economic hardships, he went with simply showing what it was like to live day to day, dirt poor, in the city of Havana, with the silence on the political issues actually being book’s strongest point. Only once in a while does a character bemoan the State or say something inflammatory, but it is thankfully never enough to distract from what the real interest is, Pedro Juan and how he is going to eat next, drink next, or screw next. And the eating may be rare and the drinking may come up with a certain level of consistency but the screwing goes on and on. Many of the women are prostituting themselves as they have nothing else to sell, and to many of them it seems almost a pleasure to have something you can sell, and set the price of and know you’re not going to get ripped off where as many of the other characters in the book are constantly being taken advantage of. And Pedro Juan meets them all, from all the strata of poverty as he moves from job to job, as a garbage man, or fixing pipes in basements, or selling whatever he can find, drugs, lobsters, old refrigerators or even meat from a friend that turns out to be human livers. He is in and out of prison from his dealings but the affect of this is almost nil for someone who must live in and fight through such squalor, as he accepts it almost as par for the course of what his life as become.
Through the fog of all the screwing and hustling Pedro does manage to find solace here and there, in a good glass of rum or with a woman he is with, though maybe they are together for only a few months, living in his tar paper shack on the roof of a building, it is what they have, the ocean and sky, the salt air at night with the waves, each other, and this is good enough for him who knows it is all a game and a fixed game at that, to get the little things that get you through and keep the wheels moving just a little more one more day.