Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dancing to “Almendra” by Mayra Montero

The late 50s in Cuba were so rich with glamour and conflict it’s a wonder more stories haven’t been set there. Such a time, such a place, and all these elements in a long, slow collision: the sordid glory of casino culture, the last crest of old-school Hollywood splendor, the vicious florescence of the Italian and Jewish mafias, the worldly style of the Cubans themselves and the gathering rumble of the Revolution, all playing out in a gorgeous city. Is there more in the way of material than this? A great narrative, an elegant and charismatic cast, a setting as alluring as any in the world; but we have little to show for it, in English anyway, aside from a slight Graham Greene novel and a few scenes in “The Godfather, Part II.” And here is Mayra Montero, a Cuban woman now living in Puerto Rico, and “Dancing to ‘Almendra,’ ” her ninth novel, lovingly translated by Edith Grossman: a flawless little book with a deceptively light touch, that covers exactly those years.

Montero’s novel is narrated by a man named Joaquín Porrata, a 22-year-old reporter living in Havana during the last days of Batista, who shows up for work one morning and finds he’s been assigned the story of a hippopotamus that has escaped from the zoo and been shot to death. As it happens, that same night the mafia capo Umberto Anastasia was murdered in a hotel barber’s shop in New York City, and from a rather strange little zookeeper named Juan Bulgado (or Johnny Angel, or Johnny Lamb: in Havana even a zookeeper can dream), Porrata discovers that the two killings are related. Rebuffed by his boss, who wants to keep him on the entertainment beat, he takes his notes to a rival paper, which sends him first through the Cuban underworld, then to New York and then to the upstate town of Apalachin, where a mob summit has been interrupted by the police, though not quickly enough to spare Anastasia a death sentence from his peers. Along the way Porrata encounters a woman named Yolanda, a small-town refugee who ran away with the circus, where she lost her arm serving as the model in a magician’s sword-through-a-box trick. She’s rumored to have a lover of her own, Santo Trafficante — himself a Mafia boss and a very scary man. Nevertheless Porrata pursues her as he pursues the story, and winds up getting them both, though not without being roughed up a few times along the way. In fact, between the animals in the zoo and the mobsters running the casinos, the book gets very bloody.
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