Thursday, October 21, 2004

Cuba and the Night

(Pico Iyer, 1995)

I first came across Pico Iyer when was in Nepal, several years ago: his "Video Nights in Kathmandu" was in all the bookshops. Not entirely sure why I haven't read that one. Anyway, since a trip to Cuba is back on the agenda and a fellow in my book club has mentioned Mr Iyer, I thought I'd check this one out.

It is a novel, rather than travel writing, but so well does he create a believable Cuba that I found myself looking for the website of the photographer protaganist of the novel before having a Homer moment and remembering it is fiction. Richard is a freelance photographer, has been to all the difficult places in the world and done a marvellous job of portraying human misery. He's in Havana for a bit of light relief, musing on the energy and unpredictability of the place and his own open-ness to whatever might happen. What happens is Lourdes, a young Cuban maiden - he falls in love with her. Or does he? Certainly we get to hear all about his growing love for her, his feeling that he is in way too deep, as well as lots of details of the physical details of their love life: the way they can only have sex secretly, must act chastely in public, in fact must have cover when in public to avoid problems with gossips and the police.

So, in comes Hugo - a school teacher from England who is assessed by Richard on the first page: "I thought the pasty faced guy in the gray sweater must be a Bulgarian at first, he dressed so stylishly". Nice. Poor old Hugo comes in for a fair amount of disparagement from Richard, for not being as cool or alive as Richard. Of course, there are the normal questions raised about just how alive Richard is, he who has no fixed home, whose only access to life is via the camera shutter, who makes much of his love for Lourdes but always finds excuses for not rescuing her from Cuba (I'm American, its complicated, I have a wife...). He says something about using the camera to find the truth, but I wonder about that. I never really got what Lourdes saw in him and, of course, it may well be that she was using him all along anyway.

Of course, things turn to crap anyway - Richard has this elaborate plan to marry Lourdes off to the englishman, Hugo, and once she was out of Cuba, he'd take her off Hugo's hands. But then there is a scene with one of her friends, Cari, where Richard takes lots of dodgy photos that turn out to be his best-selling yet and where it seems that Richard might have raped Cari - the detail is very glossed over. Meanwhile, Lourdes and Hugo are in England: she has brought him to life in ways he had never thought possible and she has never seen herself have that reaction on anyone, most specifically not on Richard. At least Richard has the ability to see this has happened, when the pressure gets too much for him and he goes to collect his woman.

Apart from this storyline, the other major feature of the book is its presentation of Cuba the country, reflecting the author's background as an essayist and travel writer. Reading it certainly hasn't diminished my interest in going there although it does seem to be a fairly expensive endeavour from New Zealand.

Powell's author interview
Salon piece
Post-Modern Tourism


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