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The Dirty Realism of New Cuban Fiction

DIRTY HAVANA TRILOGY A Novel; By Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer; Farrar Straus & Giroux: 392 pp., $25

THINE IS THE KINGDOM A Novel; By Abilio Estevez, Translated from the Spanish by David Frye; Arcade Publishing: 328 pp., $13.95

March 18, 2001|ANN LOUISE BARDACH | Ann Louise Bardach is the author of the forthcoming "Troubled Waters: The Miami-Havana Showdown" and the editor of the forthcoming "Cuba: A Traveler's Literary Companion." She is a contributing writer to Talk magazine

'Inside the Revolution, anything" goes the mantra of Fidel Castro's Cuba. "Outside the Revolution, nothing." And Pedro Juan Gutierrez's "Dirty Havana Trilogy," a corrosive portrait of that magnificent city as a fetid ecosystem of godless desperadoes, pushes the limits of the official credo to the deadly tautness of a slingshot. The fact that Gutierrez is able to live in Havana and not in jail after penning such a derisive work speaks to one of the mysteries-and possibly the secret-of the 42-year endurance run of Castro's Cuba. Complaining is OK; doing something about it-like starting a new political party or organizing a demonstration-is not. Indeed, Cubans have made the complaint, the safety valve of the Revolution, into an art form. Even Cuba's minister of culture, writer Abel Prieto, has just published his own novel, "El Vuelo del Gato" ('The Flight of the Cat'), which takes its share of swipes at the failures of the revolution. But Gutierrez slams the complaint full-tilt boogie to the wall. (Not surprisingly, "Trilogy" was not published in Havana, but a Spanish-language edition by Editorial Anagrama sold by street vendors gets gobbled up quickly. Cuba's Writers Union claims that it offered to publish an "abridged" version, but Gutierrez took a pass on a censored version.)

Gutierrez's novel is a string of some 60 vignettes divvied up into three piquantly entitled sections: "Marooned in No Man's Land," 'Nothing to Do" and "Essence of Me." Beginning in 1993, the nadir of the Special Period, the government euphemism for the grim years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's patron for more than 30 years, "Trilogy" follows the daily scramblings of its narrator, Pedro Juan, who, like the author, is a former journalist, street vendor, scammer and occasional pimp poseur.

Gutierrez is most reminiscent of Zoe Valdes (author of "La Nada Cotidiana," published here as "Zocandra in the Paradise of Nada'), who also mines Cuban street life and marginalization. Both excel in transposing Havana street talk, and each is at risk of being a one-trick pony, confined to the shock-jock genre of "I'm writing as dirty as I can." In fact, there is little difference between "Dirty Havana Trilogy" and its predecessor, "El Rey de La Habana" ('The King of Havana'), which also chronicles the scuffling of the baddest, coolest stud on Havana's El Malecon.

Though it is largely true that sex-even infidelity-is the national sport of Cuba, Gutierrez's sex is always detached and devoid of love. Sex is a divertissement, a respite from boredom, a balm against feeling, a cheap opiate. Regrettably, the stereotype of Cubans as mindlessly promiscuous is pounded ad nauseam. Pedro Juan, whose partners of choice are naturally mulattas, another stereotype, boasts his own philosophy: "Sex isn't for the squeamish. Sex is an exchange of fluids, saliva, breath and smells, urine, semen, shit, sweat, microbes, bacteria. Or there is no sex. If it's just tenderness and ethereal spirituality, then it can never be more than a sterile parody of the real act."

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What's unsaid is that sex today in Cuba is the one zone of complete unfettered freedom, where rebellion and dissidence are tolerated. One can argue there is a tradition of dirty writing in Cuba. Most notable is Chapter 8 of Jose Lezama Lima's Proustian masterpiece "Paradiso," which Valdes did an apparent knock-off of in her own first novel. But Gutierrez even outdoes Reinaldo Arenas' famed libidinousness. His Pedro Juan, ever the Iron Man, by Page 8 is bragging that one conquest "had 12 orgasms with me, one after the other. She could have had more." In the parlance of the recovery movement, Pedro Juan is a hopeless sex addict with palpable self-loathing. And it is only toward the end of the book that there is any admission of feeling. "My heart is hard now, and the only feeling I have for women is in my erections."

Nevertheless, Gutierrez vividly re-creates the claustrophobic squalor of Havana's underbelly with ultraviolet cameos of its lost souls and gritty survivors. These passages-searing in their rigor and lack of sentimentality-make "Trilogy" a page turner that few are likely to put down. Gutierrez is well served by the superb translation of Natasha Wimmer.

"Tough Guys" is among Gutierrez's most evocative chapters; here, Pedro Juan has bicycled to the funky neighborhood of Marianao for a spiritual "checkup" with his santera. But before they begin, the santera discovers that her neighbor has hung himself from the ceiling, his naked body latticed with stab marks. Another neighbor, a family man, runs to embrace the dangling boy. The santera tells Pedro Juan she'll have to give him a rain check:

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