Havana Libre by Robert Arellano

Review published on January 22, 2018.

I’m always looking for something new, something a bit different, so this thriller attracted me straight away. There’s a fine tradition of crime writing in Cuba and Havana Libre is a great new addition to the pantheon. A mix of spy story and political thriller, the characters and places are very grounded in the real world but the story has a slightly surreal touch. It is also a great fictional introduction to a hitherto closed off part of the world. A novel with real empathy for the people of Cuba. Havana Libre, cleverly, doesn’t draw cheap political conclusions but like all the best crime fiction the plot is bolstered by a deep understanding of the political, economic and social situation in the country. Arellano has an easy style that entertains and wears its research lightly. If you want an intelligent and exciting thriller you get it but you also get a little bit more; history, social drama and you will know more about Cuba when you finish.

Cuba is sexy and Havana in particular, fertile ground for a thriller oozing a noir feel – all that history. The 50s American playground of casinos, bars and brothels corrupting the national soul. The Cold War enmity with America (Bay of Pigs/missile crisis/embargo), Cuba as an enemy of almost mythical proportions. Later, the bastion of corrupt and failing communism and economic collapse during the ‘Periodo Especial’ from 1989 on. The special period is one of the most interesting aspects of Arellano’s novel. Havana Libre takes a hard look at Cuba during that toughest period. Whatever you think of the regime you have to admire the stoicism of the people in the face of decades of hardship under American sanctions and political dictatorship. What I like most about Arellano’s second Dr. Manolo Rodriquez novel is that is gives us an unvarnished Cuba, a sight of the real economic tragedy and the plight ordinary people were caught up in it. The spirit that makes these people survivors shines through the story. Although there are no benign forces at work, people will always have their opinions on where the blame lies, Arellano let’s events and circumstances speak for themselves. Its even handed and much more powerful for allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. That is where Arellano has it over the usual American thriller that is very black and white (good American/bad Cuban). As an American of Cuban descent the affinity Arellano has for the Island people is evident. The handling of the complexity of the political situation and the conflict between certain Miami Cuban groups and the Cuban security services is masterly.

Havana Libre avoids playing to the romanticised image of the city as a sort of Caribbean Berlin, that mass market view of Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith and even James Bond’s cocktails and spies. This is a gritty, very human story of real Cuban people and I like my crime fiction grounded in reality. In Arellano’s novels you can smell the streets and empathise with the daily dilemmas people face. All the while a top notch thriller is building under the surface.

Manolo Rodriguez is a doctor and a social and political leper since the events of the first novel, Havana Lunar. Its 1989 and he has applied to go to Miami for a medical conference but a single man with no dependants isn’t going to be allowed out of the country that easily, el Minesterio de Relaciones Exteriores will see to that. Then Colonel Emilio Perez, a man he hoped not to come across again, offers Rodriguez a chance to go but there are strings. Manolo’s desire to go is complicated by the arrival of a new colleague Dr. Ana Luisa Hernandez at the clinic and his new patient Mercedes Delgado recently fleeing from her AIDs infected boyfriend in the country (a novice to the city).

‘The tourist’, a Salvadoran, a paid killer and full of a righteous desire to crush communism has just arrived in Cuba. He’s keeping a low profile, he has a plan, a mission for a zealot, a bombing campaign designed to wreck any chance of the burgeoning tourism industry in Cuba. Damaging any possibility of American relations with the Cuban regime becoming normalised. The plot comes out of Miami, an extreme right wing group of Cuban exiles. Rodriguez is present in the aftermath of a bombing and now he wants to help Perez, he has to go to Miami and infiltrate the group in order to stop the bombings. He doesn’t realise how dangerous and how close to home it will all get.

Arellano writes a nice clean prose that sets the scene perfectly. He clearly is not only a lover of the place but a student of its literature and particularly it’s noir tradition. There are some unforgettable scene of ordinary people queuing to join a queue, of Little Havana in Miami and a host of characters bad and good who give you a feel of the mind-set of both sides of the divide. There are some Spanish phrases that are not directly translated but the following text makes the meaning clear and it adds to the flavour of the novel and doesn’t hinder the non Spanish speaker.

The bombing campaign that sparks the novel is based on a real campaign of the time, Arellano was in Cuba when it kicked off. Havana Libre is ripe with humour and a little surreal but it’s a strong psychodrama. Taut and tense with a clever grounded denouement. If you like noir and you want a read that opens up a new world try Havana Libre. If it gives you a love of Cuban crime look out for Latour, Correa and Padura. A really entertaining interview with Bob Arellano will also be published this month so look out for that.

Paul Burke 5/3

Havana Libre by Robert Arellano
Akashic Books 9781617755835 pbk Jan 2018

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