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In Old Havana, A Story Of Sunlight And Mystery

Pablo Medina is the author of Cubop City Blues.

"Showtime! Senoras y senores. Ladies and Gentlemen. And a very good evening to you all, ladies and gentlemen. Muy buenas noches, damas y caballeros. Tropicana! The MOST fabulous nightclub in the world — el cabaret MAS fabuloso del mundo — presents — presenta — its latest show — su nuevo espectaculo ..."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the opening of Tres Tristes Tigres, a novel about 1950s Havana by the Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I first read it in 1968 in a Spanish edition. To say I read it quickly is an understatement. I devoured it and then flipped back to the beginning and read it again. Years later, I read the book in English. Its title was Three Trapped Tigers.

I'd left Havana when I was 12. After the initial excitement of landing in New York, I fell into a miserable nostalgia for a past that would never be again. Gone were the tropical gardens and blue skies, the labyrinth of streets and arcades, the allure of those soft, silky nights that I'd barely had the chance to experience. Over the years, 1950s Havana has been stereotyped as a sinful city, where tourists came to lose their money, drink good rum and have their sexual fantasies satisfied. But the Havana I experienced was physically beautiful — filled with sunlight and mystery. Three Trapped Tigers was the book I needed to show me that, if the past could not be recovered, it could be invoked through books.

The opening of the book is spoken in the officious voice of the emcee at Tropicana, the famous, luxurious night club of pre-revolutionary Havana. The rest of the story is about three young men who cavort with musicians, prostitutes and wealthy debutantes in the nighttime world of the city. There's La Estrella, an obese bolero singer, Vivian Smith-Corona, an heiress, Mr. Campbell, an American canned soup millionaire, and his wife. In between the chapters are brief passages told from the point of view of a woman in therapy. All are bracingly alive in a manic world that is crumbling from the inside out.

Pablo Medina was born in Havana, Cuba. He moved to New York at the age of 12.
/ Stephen Spera
Stephen Spera
Pablo Medina was born in Havana, Cuba. He moved to New York at the age of 12.

But what happens in the book is not as important as how it happens. The language sizzles and sparkles and reinvents itself so that sound and sense revolve around each other like twin stars. Words are hurled out of the page and boomerang back deconstructed, reconfigured and transformed into every tongue trick known to man and woman. Even Infante's riff on the city's name is like this: "Havana, the name of a city which is just a beautyfoul corruption of Savanna/ Sabannah/ Sabana/ Abanna/ Havannah/ Havana/ Habana/ La Habana/ Avana in Italics Cyrillically Gabana, and the Sbanish panner." It is a book about place, culture, movies and music; it's about the urban condition, the whirlwind of voices trapped in a free-falling way of life.

Even in translation, Three Trapped Tigers remains a most Cuban book — Cuban with an American accent, that is. It's emotional, ironic and irreverent.

This confraternity of tongues allowed me to superimpose the city of my childhood over the city of my future. Havana became New York. New York became Havana. Reading it, my nostalgia ebbed and was replaced with a fascination for the multitudes, the yellow rivers of taxis, and the canyons of steel, glass and concrete — the intoxicating physicality — of my adoptive city. It showed me that Cuban and American cultures, far from competing for my attentions, were complementary versions of something larger. My past was not lost forever. It was tied to literature, and I could retrieve it at will.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.

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Pablo Medina