Oh, the streets of Havana: the sound of live music heard through big open windows. Spanish spoken so fast, with so many dropped letters. The rotting grandeur. Irreverent jokes, nicknames, arguments. Constant talk, talk, talk—Spanish poet Federico García Lorca called the people of Havana the hablaneros, the talkers.
Havana is sui generis and addictive, and Mark Kurlansky really gets it, as much as any foreigner can. The prolific author has been visiting Cuba’s capital for more than 30 years as a journalist. Now, at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations appear to be in a thaw, he has captured its transcultural essence in Havana: A Subtropical Delirium.
As befits such a kaleidoscopic city, the book covers a little of everything: history, music, literature, food, interesting characters, personal reminiscences. One fun feature is a series of recipes of famous dishes (chicken with sour oranges) and drinks (use Havana Club light dry rum for your mojito).
Kurlansky emphasizes throughout that one strong element of Havana’s distinctive style is the African influence that began with the tragedy of slavery, which lasted until 1886. Havana’s rich and seminal music, dance and literature are an amalgam of Spanish and African traditions. And sadly, its recurrent violence and political instability are in part the legacy of slavery’s social distortions.
Kurlansky is even-handed about the impact of the Castro government. Yes, he says, Cuba is a repressive police state, but Havana was a place of genuine experimentation in the early revolutionary years. Since the collapse of its Soviet support system, he writes, it has been reverting more to its norm.
Before 1960, that norm included omnipresent U.S. investors and tourists. Americans always adored Havana’s film-noir tone, which Kurlansky describes as “ornate but disheveled, somewhat like an unshaven man in a tattered tuxedo.” Will they return now? We’ll see.