Book Review: Havana Noir

Havana Noir, edited by Achy Obejas

As someone who has become accustomed to reading a fair amount of noir literature, it is useful to reflect upon the ways that noir is both very general and very context-specific.  Whatever sort of noir writing one reads, there is going to be some sort of crime, frequently death or the hazard of death, and a feeling of alienation between the lead characters (and presumably the reader) and the forces of law and order that exist in a society.  Those are definitely present in all of the stories included in this excellent collection and a great many other works.  What makes noir compelling, though, is the way that the general mood of alienation and hostility to law and order is filtered through the specific history and culture of the location chosen for the noir story or novel as well as the specific skill and perspective of the reader in presenting a compelling look at those who find themselves to be cut off from the world around them, hostile to it but at the same time not seeking to overthrow it or replace it with something possibly better.  Noir is a literature of cynicism and even fatalism, not a literature of revolutionary fervor.  And that is certainly the case here.

This particular book of more than 350 pages consists of eighteen stories divided into four parts that are set in various neighborhoods in Havana, all of which show the strain of Cuba’s poverty and the burden of history.  The first four stories are seen as characters sleepless in Havana, and the first story, about a thief who finds himself being punished in a grimly appropriate way, is an unrepresentative story but nonetheless a compelling one.  The second part of the book is titled Escape To Nowhere, and a couple of stories here particularly resonated with me, including a story of a man’s seventh attempt to flee to the United States as well as the escape of an impoverished aristocrat in death to avoid shame and the work of a detective in trying to save an American and his Cuban girlfriend from a Chinese casino at the end of Batista’s rule.  The third section discusses sudden rage and it includes a story about a red bridge where people find themselves unable to escape violence, sexual immorality, and drunkenness, as well as a gloomy look at the anger of a mother whose daughter had gone to Miami for art research and been killed in a terrorist attack.  The fourth and final section of the book, drowning in silence, includes a fascinating story about the revenge of a Chinese Cuban for the wrongs done to his family as well as a chilling story about murder involving the search for space told from the point of view of the killer.

What makes these stories compelling is the combination of the three elements that make them up:  the alienated but essentially unrevolutionary attitude of noir in general that the authors tap into, the specific history and rich detail of Havana and its context that provides the setting, and the skill of the authors in writing engrossing stories.  As these stories demonstrate, the combination of a noir approach, a rich knowledge and interest in Havana as a setting with all that entails in history and culture, and the author’s own skill leads to stories that are diverse even if they are all related to each other in representing the struggle of people in ways that are outside of the law and that exploit the corruption and decay of Havana, but in ways that essentially do not seek to overturn the system as a whole but rather make a place for someone within that system.  And this book does a good job at showing just how precarious a place people can seek and find within the various neighborhoods of Havana.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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