I’ve been reading two books about Cuba, both American, both covering a key period in the island’s history, the early 1990s, when the local economy went into freefall. The first, Cuba Diaries by Isadora Tattlin (a pen-name) is an account of four years spent living in colonial-style comfort as the wife of a high-level expat – even Fidel came to their dinner table. The second, Trading with the Enemy by Tom Miller, was written a year or so earlier, before the proverbial s*** hit the fan.
They both give fascinating insights but, maybe I’m biased, I’d recommend any time Tom Miller’s account, a more classic travelogue with depth and humour. It’s finely-balanced, perceptive, full of off-beat encounters so typical of this country and without the domestic details that rather plague Ms Tattlin’s daily life. Not that the latter aren’t without interest when they involve getting round basic shortages or the lives of her long-suffering staff.
But it’s Tom who gives the broader sweep and vivid cameos of Havana streetlife, heading out alone on the pot-holed road, meeting local eccentrics, officials and intellectuals, weaving in history and being frank about who he is and why he is there. Tattlin on the other hand coyly conceals her identity and even the nationality of her husband (very frustrating – keeping you guessing; in the end I decided he was Dutch) to allegedly protect some of the characters. All very opaque – a bit like Cuban politics.
My own experience was far shorter and so much more superficial. But one thing that struck me was the incredible nostalgia Cubans indulge in. While their culture bounds along healthily, despite shortage of money – not just music but also art, dance and cinema – they often live in an ambivalent timewarp, treasuring the relics of pre-revolutionary Cuba from those rattling Chevvies, Lincolns and Oldsmobiles to art nouveau and art deco furniture and knick-knacks, vintage records and the golden age of celluloid celebrities – seen in endless framed black & white and, yes, even sepia photos.
For tourists Hemingway (yawn) of course is god, second only to Che (my personal hero and pin-up, along with millions of others women) and the Buena Vista Social Club (yay!). But out there on the streets of Havana they still look as if they’re back in the 1930s, sometimes just shifting into the 1940s and occasionally dipping their toes into the 1950s. It’s living history – and that’s what we all love about it.
Yes, I agree absolutely with your opinion of Cuba Diaries. It's an insight into how wealthy ex pats live amidst grinding poverty and hardship. Reading it, I couldn't help feeling that encounters between Tattlin's family and Cubans, especially those in their employment, are distorted by inequality of income and status. Judging from the book, Tattlin's family were fair employers, but I've heard some horror stories from Cuban maids, cooks and gardeners about the authoritarian tactics of ex pat employers.
I lived in Cuba for six years (not as a wealthy ex pat). My own account of what life was like for me ("Living Inside the Revolution - An Irish woman in Cuba") is an attempt to be honest about what the Revolution means in terms of ordinary people's experiences. I believe that it's the closest any non Cuban writer has come to a written account of the daily challenges faced by cointemporary Cubans.
Thanks for commenting on this Karen. I shall look out for your book as I'm hoping to get back to Cuba next year - with life and the socio-political system opening up so fast, it's getting urgent!
Change will doubtlessly be beneficial in some ways, but not all.