A Better View than Buena Vista

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Review of 'Tropical Animal', Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Faber £7.99

'Filth, stink, disregard, neglect, everywhere you look. I do what I can to escape from this apocalypse. At least mentally and spiritually. My material, though, remains anchored amid the wreckage.' For some readers, the surprise will be that the human flotsam who populate Pedro Juan Gutierrez's novel live in Havana, Cuba. The fleeting sex in half-ruined buildings, overcrowded, noisy and competitive; the half-lit world of prostitutes, rent boys, petty thieves and peanut sellers are the setting of what Gutierrez calls his 'dirty realism'. It is a style that won him a number of supporters--as well as some pretty severe criticism--with his first novel 'Dirty Havana Trilogy'. His is a brutal way of writing, sexually explicit and relentlessly unsentimental. It is compelling and shocking at the same time.

The narrator of the first book also tells the story in 'Tropical Animal'. In both cases he speaks in the first person throughout and is called Pedro Juan. Does that make these books autobiographical? Gutierrez avoids the question, but there is a very close parallel between his life and his fiction. A student of architecture, ice-cream seller, four years a soldier and later a journalist on Cuban radio and television, he was limited in what he could say by tight state control of all communication. He began to write novels in the early 1990s, the time they are set in.

A personal crisis coincided with the economic and social crisis in Cuban society. The withdrawal of Soviet support and aid after 1986 plunged Cuba into a period called 'a special period in time of peace'. By 1989, shortages of food, energy and foreign exchange produced a time of scarcity. Tourism was the solution the Cuban government turned to, while opening the economy to foreign companies at the same time. The US economic embargo was still in place, 40 years after it was first imposed.

While most Cubans continued to live in primitive conditions, the tourist areas were improved and refurbished--and the new industry produced its first millionaires. For most ordinary Cubans, the reality was that the only way to buy anything beyond the most basic provisions was to get hold of dollars. If you didn't own a taxi, or a hotel or a restaurant, prostitution was the other route to the greenback.

So in this crumbling city of the 1990s, the struggle for survival was obsessive and desperate. That's the reality of Gutierrez's world. In his second novel, 'Tropical Animal', the narrator finds himself torn between two worlds--Havana on the one hand, and Stockholm on the other, where Agneta has organised a three-month writer's bursary for him. She has read his first book, and wants to try his sexual skills for herself.

Stockholm has everything--silence, abundance, resources. But the protagonist is drawn back to Gloria, his bad-mouthed Havana prostitute. The city is chaotic, sensual, living on the edge of disaster, but it is fascinating and alive, and Pedro Juan goes back to the noise and the ruins. This is a Cuba far from Buena Vista and the airbrushed 1950s Cadillacs people may be used to seeing. But it is far closer to the reality.