Thursday, February 23, 2012

New Worst Ever

I have this hobby of trying to read as many books as possible (all genres) dealing with Cuba. And I've just finished reading Stephen Hunter's Havana, a fictional account set in Havana in 1953.

This is possibly the worst ever book with a Cuban setting that I've ever read; Especially surprising coming from such a decent fiction writer.

I was also surprised to find that Newt Gingrich reviewed this book in Amazon about eight years ago. Newt writes:

Stephen Hunter has a great knack for country attitudes, good shooting, complex stories and politics.

In "Havana" Hunter captures a moment in time when Castro is just emerging (the Yankees having failed to offer him a $500 signing bonus) and Batista is back in power with the help of the American mob.

Just as in "Hot Springs" where Hunter resurrected the great pre-Las Vegas center of gambling and prostitution (matched in that era only by Youngstown), here he reminds us that Havana in the early 1950s was a city of power seekers, tourist pleasures and American and Cuban mobster domination and corruption.

He weaves together a brilliant Soviet agent, Earl Swagger (hated by the Soviet system for his individuality and protagonist of almost half Hunter's novels), the CIA, the American mob, Fidel Castro and the Cuban secret police into a wonderfully complex and constantly intriguing story.

His characterizations of a young Castro are worth the entire book: "Speshnev looked hard at him and, try as he could, only saw a familiar type, thrown up by revolutions and wars the world over. An opportunist with a lazy streak, and also a violent one... No vision beyond the self, but a willingness to use the vernacular of the struggle for his own private careerism." (p. 101)

"He does carry on don't he? He reminds me of a movie star. They get famous too young and they never recover. They always think they're important." Earl Swagger on young Fidel (p 319)

Whether for fun or learning or both, this is a worthwhile novel.
What Hunter blows in this shoot-em-up story is the background setting of the city itself, plus he takes spectacular license with Cuban history to bend the story to depict a somewhat idiotic young Castro.

Young Castro was a killer and a student mobster in the violent daily activities of Havana University and the city in general, but no one can ever or should ever accuse this murdering dictator of ever being dumb. Castro has the feral intelligence of power-seekers, and he's always had it, especially in the violent days preceding his failed attack on the Moncada Barracks.

Strangely enough, in this key part of the beginning of the Cuban Revolution is where Hunter really torques my pedantic side. In the real course of events, Castro (who is very nearsighted and requires thick glasses for distant vision), was driving one of the leading two cars carrying the rebels attacking the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

In the book, Hunter depicts Castro having to rush and drive his car onto the sidewalk to run down three unexpected soldiers - he kills two of them, grabs their machine guns and in a heroic display fights against hundreds of soldiers as the hapless rebels, pinned outside the barracks are mowed down by soldier fire. Eventually, the heroic guerrilla is pulled away from the melee by a Soviet agent in a most unlikely escape.

In reality, what happened was that the rebels had essentially the element of surprise, and were driving into the Moncada compound; however, the brilliant and fearless leader's vanity got the best of him, and he removed his thick, black glasses in order to appear more manly. Not being able to see squat, he quickly drove his car off the street and onto the sidewalk, effectively attracting the attention of the guards, who then sounded the alarm and proceeded to wipe out the attackers.

Fidel, and his brother Raul quickly hi-tailed it out of there - they were about the only attackers who got away - and many witnesses claim that the Castro brothers got the hell out of Dodge as soon as the bullets started flying, leaving their fellow rebels to die on the streets or to be captured and tortured later on by Batista's murderous henchmen.

Perhaps this could be an entertaining read for someone not familiar with the sense of what Havana truly was in the 1950s; a complex, international city where dozens of languages were heard on the streets, with a huge Chinatown and a significant European immigrant population, all that in addition to the casinos and the mobsters and the whorehouses and the brutal police depicted as a single dimension in this book.

But to a pedantic Virgo, it is an offense to the senses; sorry Newt.