Friday, January 30, 2009
Havana Lunar, by Robert Arellano
I can't say a lot about the plot without telegraphing much of the novel's effectiveness, but Robert Arellano's recent Havana Lunar starts quickly: Manolo Rodriguez (called Mano), a doctor in "special period" Havana (after the fall of Cuba's biggest patron, the U.S.S.R.) is in his home's private clinic at night and hears breaking glass. The short first chapter progresses rapidly from a break-in, to Mano following the intruder to a bar, to a confrontation with a menacing police detective who is looking for a young woman who is Mano's patient. The novel then moves through a series of interlocking chapters set in various periods of Mano's (and Cuba's) history, filling in the background and moving inexorably back to the moment of the break-in and its consequences. I was afraid momentarily that the novel was using the crime-fiction model as a mere maguffin or excuse to present an "art novel" as if it were popular fiction, but by the middle of this short book, I was thoroughly hooked. In fact, Arellano is not only using precedents in Cuban literature and crime fiction, he's also honoring the tropes of classical noir--this could almost be a tropical version of a Goodis novel. And every element contributes to the movement toward a conclusion that coincides with Hurricane Andrew (a device other Cuban writers, not to mention Florida and Louisiana writers, have also used--but Arellano doesn't overdo it). The glimpses of Mano's orphaned youth are not merely local color: they supply both context and essential material for the "present day" (1992) plot. Every move the melancholy and moral doctor makes and every element in his first-person narrative (including Cuban spiritualism, political realities, the hardhips of the blockade, and the details of the doctor's life and character) contributes to the whole. By the time the noir plot has worked its way to an inevitable conclusion (with betrayals of friendship, love, sex) and a coda that is both pessimistic and oddly hopeful, the reader can finally see the whole picture. It is a poetic vision of both Cuban and modern life, in the form of pure noir fiction, with all the pulpy and profound aspects that the genre is prone to. I'm staying in Cuba for a while (after this very promising start to my "visit"), with very high hopes for Leonardo Padura's Havana Dreams (boosted by Krimileser's praise of the book in a comment to an earlier post here) and Achy Obejas's Ruins (boosted by her very excellent presentation of crime fiction in the Havana Noir collection).