Saturday, May 20, 2006

Type Cast 19

Every winter, tens of thousands of Canadians pack their carry-on bags with shorts and tee-shirts, saunter down the airless aisles of winged buses, cram their ample, down-vested bodies into seats designed for small children and happily nibble desiccated peanuts until they arrive in beautiful, tropical Cuba.

The sun instantly scorches their vitamin D deprived bodies a cheery pink, smiling servers greet them with fruity rum milkshakes and beach towels, and, for one heavenly week, they do nothing but eat, drink, cultivate melanomas, watch the locals replicate, (with those charming accents!), outdated American pop hits, and forget the name of their chamber maid.

What few of them consider, or even look for, is the other Cuba, the real Cuba - an impoverished island state run by one of the world’s nastiest authoritarian regimes. They don’t witness the regular fuel and medicine shortages, the fetid prisons, the debilitating culture of fear and suspicion, the lack of basic protections from arbitrary government bullying, or, less dramatic but no less worrisome, the daily scrounge for food and clothing. But then, what kind of holiday would that make?

If future visitors to Cuba took along a copy of Jose’ Latour’s ripping good crime caper Havana Best Friends (hidden, of course, in their checked luggage, as Latour’s books are banned in the socialist paradise), they might at least read about the Cuba tourists rarely see, even if they don’t particularly want to visit the mangy streets Latour so vividly describes. Or, they could read it simply because it’s a wildly entertaining, plot-driven page turner that’s as difficult to put down as a cool coconut filled with mango daiquiri.

A Cuban take on the never-fails Maltese Falcon formula – characters discover a fantastic, storied treasure, then many more shady and strange characters turn up and proceed to cheat, lie, and kill to get the treasure – Havana Best Friends (McClelland & Stewart, $22.99) is so jam-packed with crosses, double crosses and back-flipping, sideways reach-around betrayals that it would take a mathematician to sort out the intricacies of the plot. Let’s put it this way: you literally don’t know what to expect from page to page, and that’s what makes the book so entertaining. Readers won’t get lost – Latour is too skilled a writer to let his plot run away from him – but the attentive page hound will be gleefully surprised by the many ways Latour finds to convey baser instincts at work.

I loved this book. Latour combines the cynical, spare and cutting style of Raymond Chandler with P.D. James’s keen interest in human weakness and the psychological roots of crime. Plus, the book is a kind of Rough Guide to the difficulties of life in Cuba for actual Cubans, especially those who scratch out a living in Havana’s cramped, crumbling warren of aging, state-managed apartment blocks. As a crime writer, Latour works the classic angles (because the classic angles still work), but as a novelist with an eye for social realism, Latour reminds me of the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who brought to life the rough streets of Cairo, the alleys and markets teeming with hookahs, hookers and honking cars, by presenting what he saw as plain fact, without editorializing or preaching. And, like Mahfouz, Latour has had plenty of visits from pesky state censors.

Meeting up last week with Latour, I expected to find myself in the company of a serious, burdened man – Latour is, after all, an exile. Instead, I spent a chatty half hour with an energetic, compact fireplug of a man who not only loves to talk about his work, but loves to talk, period. Sulky, slouchy Canadian authors please take note!

Although I tried not to turn the interview into a rehash of Latour’s troubles in his native land, because one supposes he’d rather talk about his work than his political misadventures, Latour was anxious from the start to explain that all the deprivations endured by his characters are based entirely on fact. And that’s also why he now lives in Canada.

“I wrote five books in Spanish, but then I had a problem in Cuba and knew I wasn’t going to be published anymore,” Latour begins, putting it mildly. “Now I have written two books in English. It was extremely difficult at first. It took me three years to write my first book in English.”

A “problem”? Does he care to elaborate?

“Oh, sure! I had several reasons to leave Cuba. For one, I was totally sidelined as a person. In 1994 I wrote a novel called The Fool, based on a corruption scandal that happened in the Cuban military in 1989. Everybody knew that this corruption was going on, so I wrote a fictional book about the problem. And this book was considered counter-revolutionary, even though everybody knew about the situation, and when I protested that the book was based on facts, the authorities said that this bad chapter in our history shouldn’t be used as a source of inspiration for artists. I stood my ground, and that was that.”

“To be sidelined can mean anything from being sent to jail, which happens to journalists and activists, to having your career stopped. If you’re a writer, your books won’t be published, if you’re a painter, your work won’t be exhibited. Nobody will learn that you exist. Cuba is an extremely political society in which obedience is indispensable to achieve results, in any field. If you question the government, you can’t work. It got to the point where I was being followed and visited by officers of the Ministry of the Interior, who wanted me to co-operate with them in certain ways – give information about other artists – and when I said no, they said I would suffer the consequences. And so would my children. So my family and I left.”

Given the climate of intimidation Latour worked under in Cuba, it seems almost natural, even convenient, that he has chosen to write about crime, to create novelistic worlds where characters live clandestine lives marked by anxiety and mistrust.

“I believe in what I call factual fiction. I think that the writer has a responsibility to try to be factual, to have the details correct. And I have always been interested in power, in how power shapes lives and what people will do to get it. So, the crime novel is a good place to explore this.”

“Remember, when I was young I was a revolutionary too. I know the real stories. So, nothing I do in my books is accidental.”