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THE CUBAN BESTSELLER LIST : Hot Cakes in Havana

April 25, 1993|TOM MILLER | Miller's newest book is "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba" (Atheneum). His other books include "The Panama Hat Trail" and "On the Border."

The shelves in most of Cuba's bookstores have lamentably few books on them these days. La Moderna Poesia, Havana's best-known general interest bookstore, looks all but shut down with scant books lining its extensive walls. Customers read by natural light coming in through doors and windows; the few light bulbs that remain are almost always out.

Across the street, Cervantes, the venerable second-hand bookstore, fares slightly better. Cuba has no shortage of recyclable books, and with its big window fronting on Obispo Street, sunlight fills the place.

Next to Cervantes sits Havana's only profitable bookstore. It sells for dollars only, no pesos allowed, and its customers--foreigners and privileged Cubans--can select from a bigger spread of material than at the other two stores, and with plenty of lights in air-conditioned comfort. For years it was called Maxim Gorky, with a plentiful stock in Russian.

With resources such as paper and ink depressingly low, Cuba, a country that prided itself on a wide range of domestic and foreign titles, has had to limit its output severely. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and Cuba's other Eastern-bloc trading partners has created widespread problems, one of which is that the country's publishing industry, like every other enterprise, has had to scramble to stay in business. Many new books are simply reprints of previous releases. The book trade has turned to Mexico--and to a lesser extent Spain and Venezuela--for co-publishing ventures, joint projects that reduce typesetting, production and printing costs.

I've been keeping track of Cuba's book trade for a number of years now. When I travel there, it is often the country's writers union that proffers me a visa, and its members have slight hesitation in giving me the latest intrigue in writing, printing, distribution and restraint.

Back home, I follow the world of Cuban publishing through the distorted lens of the Bestseller List.

The bestseller list, printed weekly in "Bohemia" magazine, comes from the Cuban Book Institute, the government agency that oversees the production and distribution end of the country's dozen or so publishing houses. Last year "The List" was pared from 10 books to eight--half fiction, half nonfiction--and the weekly advertisement for recent releases now highlights only four new titles instead of nine.

Cuba's all-time best-selling author has been dead almost 100 years. Jose Marti, the poet-essayist-philosopher, raised money, shipped arms and worked tirelessly on behalf of Cuban independence from Spain a century ago. Today, Cuba continues to publish his prodigious output as if the country were one huge Marti-of-the-Month Club.

The formula that produces The List in Cuba is as mysterious there as ours is here. Since 1959, Cuba has averaged more than 1,300 new titles a year, 40% of which are school texts. I saw my friend Jorge Daubar's name on The List one week and dropped in to visit at his home in the Vedado section of Havana. His fictionalized biography of Jose Raul Capablanca, Cuba's international chess champion in the 1920s, had just been released. Daubar's day had started with a call from a friend at the Cuban Book Institute. "You're on The List!" he said. "You're No. 2 on the nonfiction list!"

"I couldn't get too excited about it," Daubar told me. "The bestseller list here is a joke. Almost every book released gets on The List. Besides, they put 'Capablanca' on the wrong list. It's fiction."

Is Cuba's bestseller list a fiction as well? It's hard to say--along with print runs, sales, reorders and notoriety, politics plays a role, too. The titles that turn up are unpredictable, to say the least. Detective thrillers and books set during the Revolution are the usual mainstays of the fiction and nonfiction lists, respectively, but the best-selling novel for 1992 was "Ivanhoe" (1819) by Walter Scott.

Many authors from the States have made The List in Cuba since the Revolution, including Twain, Poe, Bradbury, Whitman, Bierce, Puzo, Salinger and, of course, Hemingway. "Despite the blockade, invasions, biological warfare and economic strangulation," the Cuban author Lisandro Otero has written, "the Cuban people know to distinguish between the government in Washington and its literary works." Within the last couple of years I've seen Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (originally published in 1935), "Absalom Absalom!" (1936), "Lassie Come Home" (1940)--and "Rabbit Redux" (1971), which held firm on The List last fall for five weeks.

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