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The unmade man

Dancing to "Almendra" A Novel Mayra Montero Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 266 pp., $25

March 25, 2007|Richard Zimler | Richard Zimler is the author of several novels, including "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon," "Hunting Midnight" and, most recently, "Guardian of the Dawn," which has been a bestseller in Portugal, where he makes his home.

IN the 1940s and 1950s, Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante Jr. and other legendary dons in control of the New York and Chicago organized-crime scenes built oceanfront casinos, hotels and nightclubs in Havana, turning the city into the Mafia's glittering showcase. They soon had all the sun, surf, pesos, drugs and women they could have ever wanted, and to add a touch of class -- and keep themselves entertained -- they flew out Hollywood stars to join the party.

By 1957, Lansky and his cohorts had big plans for 50 additional hotels, but all too soon for them this lushly profitable, Spanish-accented Disneyland came crashing down; in January 1959, Fidel Castro's forces toppled Cuba's U.S.- and Mafia-backed Batista dictatorship. Cubans long oppressed by the corrupt and brutal regime wrecked the casinos with hammers and machetes. Overnight, the gangland stars and their flunkies found themselves exiled to Florida.

All of which brings us to Joaquin Porrata, the main narrator of Cuban novelist Mayra Montero's flawed but ultimately rewarding "Dancing to 'Almendra.' " Porrata, a skinny, blond, 22-year-old reporter in Havana, has been fascinated by mobsters since he was a kid. He knows all their aliases and convoluted syndicate connections by heart. So when Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is gunned down in the barbershop of a Manhattan hotel in October 1957, Porrata is keen to investigate its ramifications in Havana.

To his disappointment, however, he's assigned what seems like a silly story: A male hippopotamus that escaped from its pen at the Havana Zoo has been shot and killed by its pursuers. At the zoo, however, one of the animal keepers whispers to the young reporter that the hippo was freed on purpose and then killed as a "message for Anastasia."

It's an intriguing start, and Montero proves early in the novel that she knows her Mafia history inside out, but as Porrata begins to investigate the links between the hippo's death and Anastasia's murder, he begins to sound like a bad imitation of a Raymond Chandler private eye. In describing the animal keeper, for instance, Porrata says: "A madman with information is a hand grenade: pull the pin and you can explode along with him.... " Even worse, Porrata spouts dozens of absurd, sometimes laughable platitudes about himself and the unusual collection of witnesses he questions, particularly Yolanda, a sultry, one-armed former circus performer with whom he falls in love: "I haven't known a single one-armed person who wasn't violent, violent or stupid, it amounts to the same thing." Are violence and stupidity really the same thing? And just how many one-armed individuals could a 22-year-old have met?

The translation from Spanish also proves problematic, and it occasionally seems as if neither the translator nor the editor bothered finding out exactly what Montero meant: "I had an English teacher ... who used to tell us that the most important quality in a boy was not his courage or his intelligence. None of that mattered if he didn't have reflexes, and reflexes were a savage attitude."

Happily for the reader, a second, more successful narrative weaves with Porrata's investigation, as Yolanda recounts the tragic events of her life. Along the way, we learn how she might be involved with the dons who ordered Anastasia's murder. Her voice is fragile and touching, and her insights into herself and others are often surprising.

Yolanda focuses her narrative on two people: Chinita, the enigmatic magician's assistant who raised her, and the great love of her life, Roderico Neyra, a renowned producer and choreographer at the Tropicana Hotel. Though Roderico's face is eaten away by leprosy and though he prefers men to women, Yolanda remains in his thrall. Montero's writing in these sections is consistently moving and eloquent.

As Porrata's detective work leads him toward a final, violent confrontation with the Mafia, a personal tragedy strikes. For the last 100 pages, the author cuts down on Porrata's silly platitudes and Chandleresque comments, remaking him as a lost and confused young man in search of love and meaning, desperate to win Yolanda's heart. As a consequence, "Dancing to 'Almendra' " becomes part thriller, part tender-hearted coming-of-age tale -- and, in the end, the story of a dramatic turning point in Cuban history. *

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