Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Havana Noir

Carlos Rodríguez Martorell reviews "Havana Noir".
Novelist Achy Obejas has turned her native Havana into a crime scene — without shedding a drop of blood.

In "Havana Noir" (Akashic Books, $15.95), the author of "Days of Awe" has gathered 17 Cuban authors to write short crime stories set in the Caribbean island's capital.

The just-released compilation is part of Akashic's series of noir genre books — called in Spanish género negro — set in different cities and neighborhoods (the Bronx, Los Angeles, Miami), and Havana seemed like a natural fit.

"Noir has been always popular in Cuba," Obejas said on the phone from Chicago, where she lives. "Cuban TV pirates a lot of American TV. And probably the most popular show on the air right now I think is ‘Law & Order.' They are addicted to that stuff."

Among the contributing authors are Leonardo Padura Fuentes, internationally known for his Detective Mario Conde novels, and Arnaldo Correa, "one of the founders of Cuban noir," said Obejas.

Another highlight is young sensation Ena Lucía Portela, who has won literary prizes in Spain and France, but has barely been translated into English.

Her disturbing story "The Last Passenger" revolves around a woman infatuated with a serial killer, and portrays a class-divided Cuba where the nomenklatura enjoys vacations in the Bahamas and wears gold Rolexes.

"Cuba's upper class is invisible for most people," Portela, 34, said via e-mail from Havana. "Official propaganda insists that in communist countries all citizens live under the same economic conditions, which is a huge lie."

Portela's brash, raw style landed her on the Bogota 39 — the Colombian International Book Fair's list of the 39 most important writers in Latin America under the age of 39 — but the prestige doesn't extend to her own country.

"For now, this tale in particular will only have readers outside Cuba," she said. "Here, it's unpublishable because of political censorship."

Obejas edited and translated into English most of the stories and wrote "Zenzizenzic," in which she sheds light on the tiny Cuban community in Hawaii.

Cuban noir is a distinctive genre in itself, she says. "It tends not to have a detective. It's never the lone guy out there, but the collective working for the better good. It's almost an antithesis of what we know noir to be."

Although she won't name them, she says many "very well-known Cuban authors" wrote stories for the book, but they were discarded because the genre "completely defied them."

Others just adapted to it. "[Noir] was something I never set myself to do in a conscious manner," said author Mabel Cuesta, "but which may be underlying in some of my previous stories."

Cuesta, who lives in North Bergen, N.J., writes in "Virgins of Regla" about a brutal rape in a Havana neighborhood infused with Afro-Cuban culture.

"I would live intermittently in a predominantly black neighborhood," she said. "I would be la blanquita (the whitey), but that didn't prevent me from going to listen to their drums and see women and men bursting into screams because the saints were 'passing through' them."

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