Rubrik's Cuba

'Dirty Havana Trilogy' is an intricate, frustrating, fascinating puzzle.

Poor Pedro Juan. Once he was somebody. An aspiring journalist, married to a sculptor, covering stories in Europe for publication in his native Havana, he fell from grace after tangling with government censors. Now he scrapes along with odd jobs, some actually legitimate, but more often dealing in black market goods, selling drugs or his body on the street.

But is this enough to keep a good man down? Not as long as there's sex, marijuana and cheap booze in the country he loves. He not only gets by, but also manages to tell the sordid story. Or stories. Three books of them are now collected in the ostensible novel Dirty Havana Trilogy.

Not every reader will relish meeting Pedro Juan, the protagonist who just happens to be the same age and have the same name as the book's author, but you have to give him credit for his irascible spirit and perseverance (Charles Bukowski's recurrent character comes to mind). "Life," according to Pedro Juan, "can be a party or a wake. You decide for yourself." He sees three ways of dealing with his poverty and misfortune. "I could either toughen up, go crazy or commit suicide," he explains, "so it was easy to decide: I had to be tough."

Apparently, this advice is the only advice to follow if you want to live in Cuba in the '90s. After the fall of the Soviet Union and withdrawal of its monetary support, Cuba is in dire straits. Food is scarce or unobtainable. Malnourished people, often with livestock in tow, crowd into decrepit apartment buildings where lack of water and unsanitary conditions create such a foul stench it's hard to even sleep at night. In the distance lies the ocean and the lure of an almost impossibly dangerous escape.

The facts of Pedro Juan's existence can pretty much be summed up by his three book titles: "Marooned in No Man's Land," "Nothing to Do" and "Essence of Me."

Marooned in Cuba with nothing to do, he concentrates on himself, a subject that holds his fathomless interest. He witnesses his own behavior with a passive distance and bizarre fascination as to how low he'll sink. And that's pretty low.

In a typical passage, Pedro Juan philosophizes on his condition of "waiting. Waiting for what? For nothing. Just waiting. Everybody's always waiting day after day ... in this pigsty. Some people have scabies, others lice or crabs. There's no food or money or work and every day there are more people." Pedro Juan tries to ignore the suffering and "concentrate on having fun. Rum, women, marijuana, a little rhumba whenever possible." Usually this prescription keeps his devils at bay, but he has to try increasingly harder as time goes on, and sometimes loses his good humor altogether.

During the few years in which this work takes place, Pedro Juan does two prison stints: one for indecent exposure (but he was just showing his goods to a tourista, a potential client interested in his services), and then for something bad enough that even tell-all Pedro Juan won't reveal the cause. He also beats up a skinny prostitute who refuses to have sex with him for free, gets his friends blind drunk so he can sleep with their wives and forces the one woman he professes to love out on the streets. But hey, jerk or not, he has his stories and at least they are never boring.

And what of the people who do escape? There's Carlitos, "born and raised in the midst of chaos," who "called his mother and brother every day, crying ... miserable in Miami ... he wasn't enjoying his 'American dream.'"

Then there's Roberto, the man who moved to Germany to marry beautiful blonde Ingrid. Every year he returns to Havana, though every year the situation is worse. Although he admits he's doing well, he tells Pedro Juan, "It isn't easy. I can't have two drinks without wanting to cry. I can't even speak Spanish with my children. They don't like it." Pedro Juan explains that it's "so hard for Cubans to live anywhere else. Here you may struggle. But the people are out of this world."

With Castro courting the tourist industry, it's a wonder that a book like this could get out of Cuba. Maybe a selected work would be easier to stomach than a collection, but for the most part, this intimate view of Havana more than sustains interest. For all his shortcomings, Pedro Juan brings a slice of Cuba as uncomfortably close psychologically as it is physically. Considering U.S. involvement, that's something to worry about.

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