Monday, May 14, 2007

Joanne Omang reviews Mayra Montero's Dancing to "Almendra".
An escaped hippopotamus has been killed at the Havana zoo, but cub reporter Joaquín Porrata would much rather be writing about the death in New York that same day of Mafia executioner Umberto Anastasia. Then a zoo worker reveals a connection. It's 1957, and we are instantly hooked into this gripping novel about the beautiful, steaming, rotten hulk of pre-Castro Cuba, where very little is the way it seems.

The rebels are in the mountains and setting off car bombs downtown, but Porrata is a "cherubic-looking boy" whose meager ambition is to move from covering Havana's pulsing nightlife to writing "court news, for example, or feature articles about the airport." But because of a benign childhood encounter with gangster Meyer Lansky, he's also keeping notes on the Mafia figures whose grim hold on the island depends on remaining officially invisible. Not a good omen for a nosy young reporter.

Author Mayra Montero, Cuban by birth and now a newspaper columnist in Puerto Rico, knows that journalists survive in corrupt and violent places by writing between the lines, reporting a truth that's invisible except to those who know the code. Not for Porrata the open commitment of the couple who give the book its title when he sees them dancing to the sad song "Almendra" ("The Almond"): "There was something solid and distinctive in the honored way they followed the rhythm. There was no hope for anyone else." Read More

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