Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dirty Havana Trilogy - Subaltern Stories

'Dirty Havana Trilogy' is a collection of vignettes of life in Cuba in the early nineties and is a cult classic. It does not follow any conventional story line as such, but follows/records the experiences of Pedro Juan the main protagonist through the novel. The novel is written by 'Pedro Juan gutierrez' who himself is the main character in this book. The book does show  Cuba in an unflattering manner, so persons with Communist leanings may have a problem with this. The author, 'Pedro Juan gutierrez' has been a ice cream, technician, radio speaker and a lot of other things. The facts about him are what are available in the blurbs for his works and what is mentioned in the novel itself. I am not sure about the veracity of this since both the author and main character intervene at several points in the work and one does not know what is truth and what is fiction.
The book has three sections, the first two told in first person by the author and the third is in third person.

As mentioned above, the entire book unfolds through the eyes of 'Pedro Juan' who as the novel begins is in his own words 'not trying to take himself seriously'.  He is down, but not fully out. It is not mentioned explicitly in the novel, but we get to understand that he has been booted from his pretty cushy radio reporter job. That is because, he got pissed of at treating people as if they were dumb animals and had to be force fed with only good information. Nothing which could threaten the social order is allowed, since the powers to be see it as a subversive activity. In any totalitarian regime, any sign of independent thinking is treated as the first sign of subversion, isn't it. But Pedro Juan had enough of it, he wanted to rake up shit, to grind people's face against the shit and make them smell it so that they get to know that life is not as rosy as presented by the government. The result - he has been booted out of his job and is living in near penury. Pedro Juan's needs are pretty simple right now, 'a bit of rum, some joint and a woman to tell your sorrows'. But the country does not have provision for that too, one has to fight for everything.

This book could easily be mistaken as some desperate writer writing some sex soaked stories to sell copies. Yes it has a lot of (hell a lot of actually) sex in it. Some of them are indeed for shock value, but that does not in anyway devalue it's merit. Pedro Juan is a sexual hedonist and the book has a long list of his sexual exploits. As he says about sex 'don't compete, just play'. The people he hook up with are as randy as him, none of the characters are faithful they leave one another if a better option comes along. Pedro Juan himself is one such person and in his words 'I am the most unfaithful person in the world, how can I expect faith from others'. These parts bring to mind of Bukowsi and Henry Miller. The sex parts could not be palatable to everyone, so beware. Why this sex craved energy and violence. Pedro Juan himself answers this. 'Civilizations like China, India have had thousands of years to think about things and be more relaxed, but a country like Cuba with a much smaller history does not have this luxury, for it, survival is first now.

Along with the sexual escapades, pedro juan also portrays the squalor, filth and poverty in which people are living.There are two lives in Cuba, one with the extreme rich powerful people and the tourists who come there. These tourists never get to see the squalor there. The other is the subaltern people who don't just live below the poverty line, but have actually been submerged in it. Their main activity is to keep themselves alive on a day to day basis. It's a jungle out there with every person for himself. As Pedro Juan says '... I have to ration whatever compassion I have within me for myself, I cannot waste it on others'. Those who are not strong enough are left alone. The people here do not conform to the normal moral standards followed generally. It would indeed be wrong to judge them sitting a fairly comfortable society.  The extremes to which people will go to make a living are portrayed in a hard hitting manner. Sample this. A new person from the village comes to Havana and stays next door to Pedro Juan. After some time, he has started dealing in meat saying he gets it cheap from somewhere else. People start buying from him, including Pedro Juan. One day it turns out that the meat that was being sold was 'Human Brain'. This itself is a shocking indictment of the situation there, but what is more chilling is Pedro Juan's response to it '... Well its been eaten and has been discharged, nothing to do about it... and what's more it tasted good. People are so starved that even cannibalism is brushed aside. The main aim for people here is to leave Cuba and reach America and make a good living there. They are willing to take crazy risks to go to America like sailing in a life boat. 

Pedro Juan views and narrates all these happenings in a stupor, in an almost half drunk state. There is an undercurrent of dark humor running through the novel. Sample the stories of Katie and the story of the Moron. Hilarious and ribald. What could have been a completely dark novel becomes one laced with humor, though it is a very fine line that the author treads. Pedro Juan in addition to the sex and dark humor also can depict loneliness, heart wrenchingly. The story the old woman who lives alone and who is so scared by the walls of her house collapsing, that she stops eating and even moving and passes away after a few days is one such. There is no one to look after her, Pedro Juan included. He says as a matter of fact that he forgot about her and that's the way life goes. One has to lookout for himself first, others come later. Reverse racism is one facet that is mentioned several times here. Mulattas(women with mixed heritage) do not like blacks. They feel that the more lighter in color they are the better they are and treat black men badly. They want to marry white men and go up in life as it were. The lure of the light/white skin is strong everywhere.

Pedro Juan is not a particularly likable person. In fact, you could even despise him for his antics, his immorality, his unfaithfulness. But the honesty with which he narrates things, accepts his faults and strives to make a living against all odds make him an unforgettable even iconic if flawed character to me. This is one of my most favorite books and have read it umpteen times. Grab it if you ever come across this. His 'Tropical Animal' sort of follows the same themes as in this book. 'Dirty Havana Trilogy' at any rate is the better book.

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