August 18, 2009

Books: Havana Nocturne by T.J. English

With this year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution, interest in all things Cuban has increased, whether it be CD compilations of Cuban music, a variety of different books about the country before and after the events of 1959, or even President Obama suggesting a slightly less hard line approach to US relations with the Caribbean island.

During the 1950s Cuba was headline news for a number of reasons. It was a tropical playground for the rich, offering a heady cocktail of casinos, mambo and sex. Yet, at the same time, it was also a hotbed of revolutionary activity, with groups of rebels holed up in the mountains led by the charismatic Fidel Castro together with his brother Raul and Che Guevara.

In Havana Nocturne, T.J. Smith weaves both stories together, depicting the emergence of Cuba as the place to go for rich and famous (thanks to the complicity between the island's dictator Fulgencio Batista and the mobsters who set up and ran the casinos); and also the growth of the revolutionary movement, despite some disastrous hiccups along the way ,that ultimately led to victory for Castro at the beginning of 1959.

The narrative starts in the late 1940s, with mobster Lucky Luciano arriving in Cuba from exile in Sicily to meet up with Mayer Lansky to discuss Lansky's vision of turning the Caribbean into a huge gambling playground for the rich and reckless with Havana as the hub, the idea being that smaller, less powerful governments wouldn't be pursuing the gangsters as vigorously and would most likely be open to bribery.

We also follow the transition of Fidel Castro from hell-raising law student to committed revolutionary and his early failed attempted uprising imprisonment, pardon and the subsequent rebirth of his revolutionary movement.

English has obviously researched his topic well, drawing on a variety of sources, and he brings everything together to tell a gripping story. He recreates the atmosphere of a hedonistic world of sleaze and reckless abandon that must have been a huge attraction for many foreign (for that read mainly American) visitors to Cuba in the fifties. He dresses it up enough to excite the reader's curiosity, but also makes it clear that many on the island, all was not well and that many were fed up of the corrupt regime and were desperate for change. Of the revolutionaries, you get the idea that they were a committed but at time hapless bunch who rode the wave of fortune and ultimately succeeded because enough people wanted them to.

Batista is portrayed as a power-hungry, money-grabbing despot, whilst Lanksy is shown more as a man with a plan, and you almost feel as though the author sympathises with his plight as the story unfolds.

A brilliant depiction of an era full of upheaval and doubt, Havana Nocturne makes you wish you could step into a time machine just for a moment to be able to witness events firsthand. Highly recommended.

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