Havana: A Subtropical Delirium
From years of research and personal interactions, Mark Kurlansky delivers an assortment of the people, places and histories that make Havana the city it is today. He tells of how governments have always been changing the rules of the game, but how Havana has always been Havana.
“In Havana every splash of light has its dark spot,” Kurlansky writes. The vibrantly colored buildings that make up much of the city extend into backstreets that have not been repaired since before the revolution. The music and spirit of the streets thrive despite remnants of previous hardships that the author does not gloss over. 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.
"While the first half of HAVANA moves through a well-constructed history lesson on the Cuban island, the second half of the book is where Kurlansky lets loose. He talks culture, baseball, cuisine and entertainment among sequences of memorable experiences."
For years the world only saw Havana in black and white, because after the revolution the U.S. embargo blocked color film and its processing. The fascinating cityscape many have seen over the years is enhanced by the tropical climate that makes buildings hard to maintain, and along with the black and white adds to the distinct style often shown in photographs. Because of the tropical heat and intense sun, the city was designed to bring shade to the streets below --- creating dark side streets. Kurlansky brings us the sights, the sounds, the shadows, the colors and everything else as he moves from history into the present day. All of its tribulations considered, he portrays it as a romantic city to visit today.
As is included in HAVANA, any book on the city is not complete without a serious meditation on its past. Kurlansky starts with the pain of Tainos, slaves, the politically persecuted, and others over periods of hundreds of years, as well as the destructive influence of the mob and pirates. They are discussed at length over the first half of the book. He also shows how Havana has undergone complete transformational change many times in its history. For example, a royal decree had abolished slavery only 72 years before Fidel Castro came to power. Eventually, injecting the long-standing socialist system with capitalism improved the quality of life, and proved just how valuable it was for the larger country to trade with the United States. Kurlansky concludes by first thanking the people of Havana for their humor and hospitality despite the embargo by his own country that brought many of them to starve.
There is a touch of the political here. In talking with both Havana’s citizens and police officers, it is common to hear Fidel or Raúl Castro referred to by name in the context of political humor. Kurlansky says a popular joke is: “The Revolution’s three great success stories: health care, education, and sports. Its three great failures: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” He briefly shares that opinion, but that is where the politics ends.
While the first half of HAVANA moves through a well-constructed history lesson on the Cuban island, the second half of the book is where Kurlansky lets loose. He talks culture, baseball, cuisine and entertainment among sequences of memorable experiences. Contemplating the tremendous changes the city may soon face, and written in the spirit of when he hears the city move to the tone of Latin jazz, HAVANA is truly a subtropical delirium.
Reviewed by John Bentlyewski on March 17, 2017