Thursday, 30 September 2010

Two very different Cuban novels

Our GG in Havana: Pedro Juan Gutierrez

I found this slim novel on a second hand book stall and was intrigued by the title, so I looked up the author. Pedro Juan Gutierrez is one of the few contemporary Cuban authors to be published in England, by Faber and Faber, so he has a good international profile and writes, as you’d expect, very well indeed. This novel is a fiction about fiction - the GG of the title being Graham Greene whose work I’ve always loved. ‘Our Man in Havana’ was one of my favourite novels. The book explores the background to the story and puts forward a playful (if rather grisly) theory about how GG might have come by the plot.

I never had the chance to experience Havana in all its pre-Castro decadence, but the sex clubs (and transvestite prostitutes) and mafia controlled casinos are graphically described by Gutierrez. The novel gives an insight into what was happening before Castro took over, the conflict between communists, fascists and the mafia for control of Cuba under the corrupt Battista regime. The plot is an intriguing conceit (though I wasn’t convinced by it!) and quite enjoyable to read. Pedro Juan Gutierrez seems to be an interesting author though, and I might now go and read his ‘Dirty Havana’ trilogy.

Now for a very different novel, independently published, and written by someone with an outsider’s view of Cuba. Havana Harvest is a fast-paced thriller, rather in the manner of Dan Brown, set in a more modern Havana.

It’s 1989. The CIA are running a drug operation between Colombia, Cuba and Miami, with the object of discrediting the Castro regime. Members of Castro’s government think that they themselves are running the operation as part of their strategy to undermine the moral reputation of the USA. A whistle blower, loyal to revolutionary principles, threatens to jeopardise the operation for both sides. Enter Robert Lonsdale, CIA agent, licensed to kill, who finds himself being used by his political masters for their own purposes. Based on a real episode in Cuban history, it’s sometimes hard to know when the facts end and the fictions begin.
Robert Landori is good on the Cuban setting and he paces the action very well. He’s very good on the corrupt money laundering aspects of shady government operations. He also seems to share a good deal of history with his fictional hero - both were born in Hungary and both have a background in international finance and the invisible services.
The book is published by the Greenleaf Book Group/Emerald Book Company in America. This serves ‘Independent Authors’, both publishing, publicising and distributing their work. Their online CV is impressive and certainly one of the best of the so-called ‘self-publishing’ outfits. They certainly work at the marketing aspect and they claim to also exercise a filtering policy on the mss that they accept. ‘Independent’ publishing seems to be the way to go these days for a lot of authors. Certainly Robert Landori’s book is in the same league as many commercially produced thrillers that I’ve read - some of them very much hyped. I wish him good luck.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Nuala O'Faolain: Are You Somebody?

Nuala O’Faolain’s novel, 'My Dream of You' has been one of my favourite books since I read it. I remember being very sad when I heard that she had died, because there would be no more books. So it was with great delight that I spotted her autobiography ‘Are you Somebody’ at the Wellington second hand book fair. It didn’t disappoint. It was as honest, painful and lyrically written as the novel. No matter that it tells a story familiar from much Irish literature - the alcoholic mother, the inadequate father, the nine children, poverty, religion - what Nuala does in this book is much more than that. In telling her own story, she tells the story of Ireland itself - a particular period of its history. When she comments in the epilogue, ‘Today my father would simply have been jailed for his cruelty to his children’, she has already provided the answer; ‘There was an Ireland, a whole society, that in those times allowed such things’.

Nuala’s struggle to become a writer, and the tussle with her own biology, were the two threads of narrative I empathised with most, since I spent my own young life wrestling those particular monsters and I didn’t find feminism very helpful. Nuala managed, by accident rather than design, to avoid marriage and have a career in broadcasting and journalism. But she always felt inadequate. She had been brought up, as I was, to perceive marriage and children as the apex of any woman’s aspirations. ‘An old Ireland was ending in the 1960s. There were new possibilities. But what arrangement you came to with what kind of man was still the most important question by far for a woman.’ Nuala’s mother wrote to her as she studied at university: ‘I don’t really care if you get a degree or not..... I’d far rather see you with a husband and a few kids.’ And marriage then, meant the end of any kind of ambition. There were few role models for the married career woman.
‘It was to be another twenty years, at least, before a wife might be perceived as herself as well as an appendage of her husband’s. To be a wife and hope to have a career taken with the seriousness of your husband’s career, was hardly possible......’

The woman who was a friend of Philip Larkin, P.J. Kavanagh, David Lodge, was the lover of art critic Clement Greenberg - among many others - and who lived for 15 years with civil rights activist Nell McCafferty, remains at the end of the book alone and still vulnerable, still looking for love as the solution to the problem of Life, the Universe and Everything. Perhaps if you are not loved as a child, no one (not even yourself) can love you enough. Nuala quotes Adrienne Rich’s poem

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters            a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other       slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep      they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair      you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened .....

Nuala writes - ‘what the poem does it to offer unhappy children somewhere to belong. It puts us, who happen to be Irish and women, into a wider context. And there, we belong. There, we find we are speaking a mother-tongue’.

What the book did was to make me incandescent with anger at a culture, a religion, that allowed the widespread abuse of children - not just in the church, but in the home. Nuala writes continually about wives being told by priests to go home and obey their husbands - wives whose husbands beat them, who impregnated them year after year after year until they were overwhelmed with children they couldn’t love or even care for properly. Nuala’s 9 year old brother ran away from home and lived in an alleyway for three days and no one even noticed. And I was angry at a catholic church that prepared girls for life in the second half of the twentieth century by telling them that in whatever situation they might find themselves, they ‘should think what the Virgin Mary would have done and do the same’. The irony of their advice about following the most famous unmarried mother of all, doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.
Nuala O’Faolain died of cancer in 2008.