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Cuban Counterpoint

Why an Aging Revolution in the Caribbean Continues to Inflame the American Imagination

HAVANA BAY;\o7 By Martin Cruz Smith; (Random House: 330 pp., $24.95)\f7

A GOOD DAY TO DIE;\o7 By James Coltrane; (W.W. Norton: 160 pp., $21.95)\f7

CUBA;\o7 By Stephen Coonts; (St. Martin's: 384 pp., $24.95)\f7

THE LAZARUS RUMBA;\o7 By Ernesto Mestre; (Picador USA: 488 pp., $27.50)\f7

July 25, 1999|TOM MILLER | Tom Miller is the author of "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba" (BasicBooks)

If you stacked up all the books about Cuba published in the United States, you could build a land bridge from Key West to Havana. The phenomenon, nothing short of remarkable, includes fiction, travel literature, guidebooks, natural science, short story collections, politics, history, sports and poetry. Though the best movies about the island in the Castro years have, with a few notable exceptions, come from Cuba itself, the opposite holds true for the printed page. The most expressive and wide-ranging fiction, whether by exiles or visitors, has been published in Latin America, Europe and, most recently, the United States.

To no one's surprise, Fidel Castro, who turns 73 next month, has been the dominant character in American fiction about Cuba during the last few decades. His accomplishments have become mythic, his failures have turned legendary, and his larger-than-life stature begs invention. From his now-debunked Major League baseball tryout--the conceit for the recent novel "Castro's Curveball" by Tim Wendel--to the audacious and failed July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada military barracks, whose anniversary Monday will occasion a Castro speech, the leader's out-sized influence assures him a role in fiction for generations to come.

As Cuba's commander-in-chief settles in for the closing decades of his regime, his role in contemporary fiction has expanded greatly. Cuban art, music, sports, dancing and food have invaded mainstream American culture and, together with the Castro presence, fiction about Cuba, once the undisturbed province of small presses, has appeared with unexpected frequency in the catalogues of major publishing houses.

In "A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz," Norman Weinstein traces how the mere hint of Africa in a song's rhythm, lyric or title conveys a musical ambience simultaneously worldly and intimate. Much of the fascination with Cuba today clearly trades on a similar embellishment, where white linen suits, '57 Studebakers and stiletto heels create images on which music and literature thrive. Time and again, I've seen Americans on their first trip to Cuba walking Havana's seaside Malecon Boulevard get inexplicably sentimental and misty-eyed as if after many years they had finally arrived home. Clearly, Cuba--hard to embrace, impossible to let go--occupies a psychological zone in the American fantasy. This increasingly overheated island has inflamed a literary imagination whose glow warms bookshelves everywhere.

"The president's regime was creaking dangerously toward its end." These words could have been written today, but in fact come from Graham Greene's justly heralded entertainment, "Our Man in Havana," which, along with Norman Lewis' "Havana Passage," captured the just-below-the-surface ambience of 1958 Cuba, with foreigners stumbling upon furtive revolutionaries and grotesque police thugs. Street-level Havana of the same era was the literary province of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose frenzied and nihilistic "Three Trapped Tigers," saturated with lust and puns, gave readers an insider's tour of its decadent night life.

Though English-language books of nonfiction sprouted quickly after the 1959 revolution, almost entirely singing its hosannas, it took a good while longer for fiction to gestate and, when it did, it consisted of either one-dimensional vanity press woe-is-me-Fidel-is-a-comemierda novels by resentful exiles (gusanos, in Fidelista parlance) or poorly circulated translations of fiction by Cubans living abroad. A pleasurable exception to this was Edmundo Desnoes' 1962 novel, "Inconsolable Memories," about intellectual ambivalence in the opening years of the Castro regime, a strong novel written from the inside that became a defining movie, "Memories of Underdevelopment." Although written much later, two foreign authors checked in with novels set in that era--"Topaz" by Leon Uris, based on the missile crisis of October 1962, and "Mongoose, R.I.P." by William F. Buckley Jr., about the JFK-backed assassination attempts on Castro, starring CIA agent Blackford Oakes.

A combination of factors led to literary acclaim for the hugely allegorical and often experimental--at times maddeningly obtuse--fiction of Reinaldo Arenas, whose misery and imagination brought forth feverish writing of the first order. The Mariel boat lift of 1980, which carried Arenas and 125,000 others to the United States, produced little fiction at the time--perhaps the disoriented newcomers had more immediate concerns than finding a voice, a typewriter, an agent and a publisher--but it was followed by two American novels that gambled on form and content. The pair--"A Totally Free Man: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Fidel Castro" by John Krich and "The Death of Che Guevara" by Jay Cantor--both exploited myth and played with legend, and both pulled it off with clarity and style.

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