Hell or Havana?

Don’t read Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s novel Dirty Havana Trilogy as a work of social realism, says James Ferguson

Illustration by James Hackett

I think this must be the first book I’ve written about since I started this column in 1998 that is certain to cause offence. That is not, I hasten to add, why I have chosen it, but merely something of a warning to readers of a delicate disposition.

Dirty Havana Trilogy has attracted controversy since it was first published in Spain in 1998 and in English translation three years later. Some critics loved it (Time Out thought it “an intellectual and deeply introspective piece, full of passion and honesty”) while others loathed it (Village Voice in New York condemned its “bland sensationalism”).

The novel is really a series of vignettes set in mid-1990s Havana, just as the Cuban capital was feeling the full force of the economic crisis that hit Fidel Castro’s regime with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The narrator, Pedro Juan (whose name suggests rather strongly that the book is at least semi-autobiographical), is a former journalist who seems to have fallen out with the authorities, and who lives a precarious existence of hustling, occasional paid employment, and immoral earnings of various types. He lives in one of those gloriously dilapidated apartment blocks on the Malecón — the sort of distressed art deco that is snapped by legions of tourists. In reality, his apartment crawls with cockroaches, has only occasional water, and is literally crumbling away.

The first thing that may cause offence is that his life largely revolves around sex, and this is often described in fairly graphic terms. Anyone looking for titillation, however, is likely to be disappointed, as these many encounters are described in terms that are clinically detached and often more revolting than erotic. Carnal pursuits, suggests Pedro Juan, are about all that is left to pass the time in a city where the shops are empty, the secret police are ubiquitous, and nothing seems to matter.

This wider sense of despair, too, is likely to arouse hostility, not least among those who remain faithful to the dream of the Cuban Revolution and its attempt to create a new society. The Havana that Gutiérrez evokes is anarchic dystopia rather than socialist utopia, a dark and hostile urban landscape inhabited by beggars, lunatics, and a rich array of criminals. These classically lumpen types could not be any further from the exalted New Man that Che Guevara believed the revolution would create.

In the short stories that make up the book, Pedro Juan tells of a life of almost intolerable boredom and deprivation, made bearable only by the occasional bottle of rum, bag of marijuana, or sexual encounter. Work is pointless, as the few pesos earned in legitimate employment are without value. The cunning survive by peddling illicit goods, prostituting themselves with tourists, or simply preying on the weak. In a claustrophobic city of predators, the main aim is to escape by any means possible, preferably to the Promised Land of Miami.

Now, clearly this version of Cuban reality is unlikely to go down well with anyone who believes that the island is a model of revolutionary purity. Nor is it likely to appeal to a reader more interested in the well-worn images of antique cars and daiquiris that the tourist industry purveys. Gutiérrez’s perception, laced with cynicism, cruelty, and a sort of spiritual anguish, is so bleak that, were you to take it at face value, you would probably rather spend a holiday in Hell than in Havana.

Fidelistas will doubtless argue that Dirty Havana Trilogy is counter-revolutionary propaganda, that ordinary decent Cubans do not inhabit the same sordid underworld as Pedro Juan, and that even the extreme deprivations of the mid-1990s did not produce the sort of dysfunctional behaviour that the novel describes. And they probably have a point. When I was in Havana in 1996 I certainly noticed a lot of hustling and some spectacularly empty shops, but nobody — as far as I was aware — was selling livers taken from corpses in the city morgue.

But it would perhaps be wrong to assume that the book is intended as a realistic portrayal of Havana life, for its darker-than-dark approach is clearly not an exercise in social reportage, nor is it meant to offer a “balanced” view of Cuban socialism. Its literary antecedents are much less socialist realism than the introverted existentialism of such anti-heroic novels as Camus’s L’Etranger or Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, books which explore moral ambiguity and psychological malaise through characters and narrators who are anything but revolutionary heroes.

Like Camus’s Meursault, the drifting sociopath who kills a man in a moment of inexplicable indifference, Pedro Juan presents himself as a man bereft of feeling, adrift in a sea of meaningless and normally nasty social interactions. What love and respect for others he may once have felt seem to have evaporated or soured into cynicism. Self-pitying and callous by turns, he suffers from a vague sense of nostalgia, yet aspires to nothing better in the future:

Little by little, we all get lonelier. All the women I’ve loved I’ve left behind. The places I was happy. Children move on. All my friends. Everything I once had and is now lost. Things I wanted to preserve but tossed overboard instead. And I catch myself waiting as if the end is near.

Like living a permanent hangover, Pedro Juan’s existence is an unpleasant mix of self-disgust and regret, a recurring cycle of excess and revulsion. And at the heart of his darkness is the most terrible of failings: a profound amorality born out of despair. In this sense, like Camus’s existential victim, Pedro Juan is no longer really part of society and is confronted by what he sees as the absurd nature of his life.

Cuba, with its well-deserved reputation for hedonism and fun, is perhaps not the place where you would most expect to find a modern-day homo absurdus, but this is precisely what Pedro Juan is. The crumbling tenements of Havana and the desperate survival strategies of the city’s dispossessed are not so much a commentary on fifty-odd years of revolution, but are more a metaphorical backdrop for a soul in limbo. Pedro Juan’s purgatory, imaginatively reworked as a decaying and dangerous urban landscape, consists of a routine that is profoundly meaningless.

This is perhaps what is most shocking about this challenging novel. Rather than inviting the reader to enjoy a “dirty” read, or to gloat over Cuba’s political problems, it actually offers a deeply uncomfortable view into a mind in crisis, a consciousness almost without conscience. That, in my view at least, is more unsettling than some mechanical fornication or ideological “deviance”, and it is also why the novel deserves to be read as a powerful experiment in Caribbean existentialism.