I arrived in Miami, unwilling refugee from the North, just as waves of Cubans arrived in Miami, revolutionary casualties from an offshore island to the South. My best friend in Catholic school was the American daughter of an Italian-American mafia casino manager who fled the island once Batista fell. I shared an office in one of my first jobs in television with Carlos Prio’s daughter, a young woman raised to be a princess, who was privileged, delightful and sad.
On days when my father and I drifted in his small fishing boat in the Gulfstream, lines trailing behind us in the impossibly blue water, eyes squinting for a flash of silver that would signify dinner, we would talk about Cuba. Next week, next month, next year, we would cross the slender divide of the Florida Straits to fish for its legendary tarpon and marlin, as soon as the blockade lifted, when it was safe to go. I dreamed of Havana, exotic, seedy, tropical and haunted by Hemingway. My Spanish is still Miami street lingo and the Cuban accent has complicated my life more than once. We never made it to Havana. Castro soldiers on but my father is long gone, the Gulfstream polluted, that promise unfulfilled.
Pico Iyer has logged his time there, though. His novel, Cuba and the Night, was gathering dust on my shelves for years before I added it to the stack of books to read on this impossible book-a-day quest. Video Nights in Kathmandu was so much fun to saunter through that I thought this novel would be a jaunt across an island forbidden to me. When I realized it was more like Graham Greene does Horny in Havana, I set it aside. Now, with the dust blown off, it was ready to be tackled again.
Iyer captures a particular moment in the long, slow dissolution of Cuban society through a particular lens. The photographer who stars in this book is an itinerate shooter, a guy who keeps the world at a distance through the viewfinder of his camera. He’s the classic war photographer without a war, at loose ends, scraping the rough places for an adrenalin rush, wary of being pinned down. And he’s lonely. His life is running on empty and there are moments when that knowledge catches him like a big steel hook.
Richard is slick and practiced at working the local scenes to get the shots he needs, the booze that fuels his nights and the girls to share his bed. He has an eye for beauty shots amid poverty and irony amid political ideals that don’t pan out. He can spot a gorgeous hooker in drag a mile off. But he doesn’t see Lula coming and when he begins to wonder what she wants from him he’s already thrashing on the end of a line.
Iyer is a favorite writer of mine and his skills are in evidence in this cinematic glimpse of Cuba in decline, people finessing a bleak survival, rum, salsa and sequins standing in for dreams. Lula, or Lourdes, is unpredictable enough to keep you guessing, as she does Richard. But I could see the trajectory of this story from the opening sentence, a paragraph-long evocation of heat and night and sex for sale that paints the desperation of a country trapped in time and facing nothing much to relieve it. Not Hemingway with his loaded, macho haiku. But rich enough in detail to embroider loss with vivid threads of sights and sounds and the stink of the unwashed streets.
Normally, stories that hold no surprises don’t hold my attention. These characters were lifted from a life I knew—the photographers, the slick operators, the backstreet entrepreneurs, the desperate women, the hesitant voyeurs. But Iyer is an engaging writer and I don’t have the luxury of setting aside a book on a day when I’ve committed to finishing it, so I did. Could have written the ending without reading it. Sorry that a client called for a rush overnight rewrite when I still had 150 pages to go. Even sorrier that the hours of web sweatshop work to earn less than it takes to pay the bills were ahead of me. Rushed the ad copy, wrote the online crap, read until I saw double. Remembered the sun beating down as an open boat gently rocked on the ocean current and my father and I sat silent, each with our dreams of a Cuba we would never see.
Cuba and the Night: A Novel Pico Iyer | First Vintage Contemporary Edition 1996