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My Dinner With Fidel

CUBA DIARIES: An American Housewife in Havana, By Isadora Tattlin, Shannon Ravenel / Algonquin Books: 308 pp., $24.95

July 21, 2002|ANN LOUISE BARDACH | Ann Louise Bardach is the author of the forthcoming "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" and the editor of "Cuba: A Traveler's Literary Companion."

Before arriving in Cuba in the early 1990s, Isadora Tattlin asked a friend to explain in detail what the problem was with that beleaguered country. The friend, a former resident of Havana, summed up its troubles with one sentence: "Fidel is an old man who can't admit that he made a mistake."

Tattlin, the pseudonymous author of "Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana," is taken aback by her friend's breezy bluntness. "But surely it can't be as simple as all that," she argues. Three and a half years later, however, at the end of her family's stay, she concludes that her friend may have been right. That the raging force behind the four-decade Cuban-U.S. cold war is a prideful, aging comandante who is incapable of backing down.

Tattlin's diary of her extended stay in Cuba offers a sharp and sassy evocation of daily life in that complicated and troubled Caribbean country. Written as a series of impressionistic vignettes, it is a viable alternative to the half-dozen trips to Cuba that seem necessary in order to penetrate the smoke, mirrors, rumors and conspiracies at play on this self-important island.

Tattlin's book is balanced between carefully observed reportage and chisme, or gossip. Also referred to as Radio Bemba (loosely, Radio Big Mouth) or la bola en la calle (the word on the street), chisme in Cuba is a complex and valued medium. It is the central organ of news dissemination and one that is often more reliable than what one reads or hears on the government-controlled news. Most of the book's chisme comes from Tattlin's household staff of seven, a luxury, she admits with some embarrassment, that comes with the perks of her husband's job, her "own small legacy" and the cheap cost of labor in Cuba. As a bonus, there are some exquisite cameos of Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and other movers and shakers in the Cuban firmament.

Tattlin soon learns the requisite Cuban slang, such as the word gusanero, a portmanteau of gusano (worm, and the traditional epithet for those who have emigrated) and companero ("comrade"), which combined mean "a Cuban who makes foreign currency and returns a portion of it to the Cuban government in exchange" for holding onto his citizenship and unrestricted travel. Some of the more interesting exchanges come from Lety, who teaches the Tattlin children gymnastics and who offers a lively treatise on race and "dating," the euphemism for freelance prostitution.

Lety's digression on the nuances of race in Cuba is particularly edifying. " 'There are two basic kinds of Negroes in Cuba,' Lety tells me. 'Negros de pasas are black or brown people with kinky hair. Negros de pelo are black people or brown people with straight or wavy hair. To be un negro de pelo in Cuba is to get the best of both worlds.... It's as good as having a visa to Canada or Western Europe, guaranteed. And being una negra with blue eyes,' Lety shakes her fingers again like they have been scalded, 'when the girl turns fourteen, people say, 'El norteno [a foreigner] is coming, guapita [pretty one], pack your bags!' "

Tattlin's stay in Cuba coincided with the nadir of the Special Period, a euphemism for the bleak years that followed the demise of its Soviet patron in the early '90s. Habaneros often tell her how things were "not so bad" in the 1970s and '80s before life became primarily the grim pursuit of three meals a day. The underlying assumption throughout "Cuba Diaries" is that most Cubans, natural entrepreneurs bristling under the constraints of a suffocating bureaucracy, are hungry for an exit. This remains the case for a segment of the population, but many more are simply hungry for more and better food, more stuff and more freedom. Indeed, Tattlin's scolding of improvised life in Cuba might strike some readers as Martha Stewart hits the Malecon.

"Call me Isadora," begins "Cuba Diaries" with a wink to Herman Melville, and readers will immediately want to know who Isadora Tattlin is and why she has penned this work under a nom de plume. Their quest to discover her identity will likely end unfulfilled as Tattlin conceals herself and her family superbly, fudging on the dates of her stay and the details of key personalities in the book. To further thwart the curious, she has limited herself to radio appearances, such as National Public Radio, to promote her book. She describes herself only as the mother of two and the "wife of a European business executive," who needs anonymity to protect the Cuban staff who worked for them and other Cuban friends. She reminds the reader that criticism that could be construed as anti-government is often sharply dealt with in Cuba, which is altogether true. Nevertheless, far harsher accounts have been penned about Castro's Cuba. Hence, it would be fair to say--having met "Tattlin" and her family in Havana a few years ago--that the protection of her family, in particular her husband's career, was an equally vital consideration.

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