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An Island Just Jiving in Place : Novel of tropical city's decay teems with desire : CUBA AND THE NIGHT, By Pico Iyer (Alfred A. Knopf: $22; 256 pp.)

June 11, 1995|Andrew Coe | Andrew Coe is the author of the new "Passport Guide to Cuba" (NTC) and a recent article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on the Cuban numbers racket

Havana is a sad place. The streets are potholed and strewn with garbage, the buildings dilapidated and propped up with planks. Every so often one comes crashing down with a whoosh of dust and noise. Its inhabitants' hopes and dreams have crumbled along with its buildings. The economy is in free fall, while the ideologically bankrupt political system is as repressive as ever. Cubans have nothing to do but mark time until the arrival of an uncertain future. However, beneath that sadness you soon sense something different--an aching and a longing. Most once-brilliant tropical cities--Calcutta--wear their decay with stoicism and a studied disinterest toward outsiders. Havana does not: It wants something from you.

The great accomplishment of Pico Iyer's first novel, "Cuba and the Night," is that it perfectly captures this atmosphere of decay and longing: "The buildings round the Parque Central looked like headless ghosts gathered about the street. Teenage boys circling the striding statue of Marti. The streets of the old city like slatted bars on a window. Godforsaken apartments lit up only by the flicker of black-and-white TVs, and old women in old dresses sitting under crumbling ceilings, trying to catch some monster movie from the States."

More than any other writer I know, Iyer has the credentials to uncover the reality of life in Cuba. A longtime essayist for Time, Iyer has written two nonfiction books, "Video Night in Kathmandu" and "Falling Off the Map," dedicated to the proposition that the industrial West's received opinion about foreign countries, particularly Third World ones, is generally wrong. The theme of his third book, "The Lady and the Monk," is perhaps closest to "Cuba and the Night." A Buddhist, Iyer went to live at a Zen monastery in Japan, hoping for a time of quiet contemplation. Instead, he found himself falling in love with an unhappy housewife, and the ensuing complications, while not exactly following Buddhist ideals, provided a fascinating look at the excitement and confusion when two cultures meet.

For Richard, the American narrator of "Cuba and the Night," Cuba's great attraction is its ambiguity: "Everywhere you turned, everything was happening, and everything that was happening took you away from all abstraction and into something human, where answers weren't so easy." A photojournalist, he visits the island on assignment and, like so many foreigners before him, is immediately seduced. At first it is just grist for his camera--the 1950's cars and neon signs; the beautiful, bright-eyed girls--but then he becomes enmeshed in the lives of his Cuban friends. These are not bureaucrats with apartments in Vedado high rises; they are average Habaneros: poor, desperate and hustling to survive. Havana gets under Richard's skin, and before he knows it his shield of cynicism and journalistic detachment has dissolved. He falls in love and decides to help. Like so many attempts at foreign aid to Cuba, the outcome will not be what he expected.

As "The Lady and the Monk" showed, Iyer can write about women. Richard's love interest is Lourdes, a pretty young exemplar of a Cubana, early 1990's model. Unemployed, she divides her days between her parent's shoddy Central Havana apartment and wandering the streets with her friends. Despite his love of ambiguity, her aimlessness drives Richard to distraction. Who is she seeing? Does she have another boyfriend? At the same time, her desperate straits have given her an acute vision of what she needs from life and what she can expect from Richard, a man who shies away from all commitments. He says he would do anything for her. "Then marry me," she challenges him.

But there are complications. Richard is already married, so he concocts a scheme to extricate Lourdes from Cuba and end up in his arms. He enlists the aid of Hugo, an English schoolteacher on vacation in Cuba. Hugo is the ultimate wet blanket (who ever heard of an Englishman in Havana who did not drink?) and everything Richard is not: sedate, stolid and inexperienced. As the story speeds to its by-now-foregone conclusion, this reader wished for more drama from the too-passive Hugo to add some spice to the proceedings.

"Cuba and the Night" is an historical novel. It depicts the moment in Cuban life when Soviet aid disappeared, tens of thousands of Eastern European "advisers" left the country and the entire economy began to collapse. As someone who has seen some of this firsthand, I missed the despair of average Cubans as they watched all the necessities of life--food, electricity, water, fuel--incrementally dwindle away. Also, before the collapse--the time of Richard's first visit--most Cubans believed in the Revolution. Today they do not, and in this novel I never got a sense of the shock caused by the loss faith.

Nevertheless, "Cuba and the Night" is an impressive achievement. On almost every page you can smell the dust, the cheap perfume and the rum of Havana today or, better still, tonight:

"There was never any Latin sleepiness in Havana at night--that torpid silence of the sun-baked square, the heavy church, the narrow, sloping streets. And the buzz was something different from what you find in the seethe and bustle of Hong Kong. This was something saucier, sly--to do with a curling eyebrow or a flirty smile. Sirenitas in cocktail dresses showed themselves off like treasures in a jewel case; and bright sparks in white flared trousers leaned against the railings, ready to scale their walls. Everyone was dressed up, it seemed, though no one was going anywhere; the whole island was just jiving in place, like an old man setting his memories to music."

Who could resist?

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