Between the sky and space

Havana: Between the Sky and Heaven by Ruswel Piñeiro reads like a book of short stories with apparently little connection between them


Havana: Between the Sky and Heaven
Ruswel Piñeiro
2006, Mango
250 pages

Reviewed by Jai Kharbanda

ANYONE familiar with Cuba today will know about its bustling and hugely creative arts scene, encompassing everything from music of all kinds to art and, of course, dance. Much of this creative output even manages to make it abroad into the often highly insular north American and British scenes where home-grown talent usually takes pole position. In terms of literature, however, Cuba’s recent creative output has not been that strong or sustained, in part because of censorship and the island’s renegade status.

This is reflected in the quality of Havana: Between the Sky and Heaven, which, being highly reminiscent of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (Trilogía sucia de La Habana) and so already lacking originality, tries also to take a collection of ostensibly unrelated events and create a novel from them. This, unfortunately, is rather poorly executed.

Indeed, the seasickness can be felt from the beginning as the reader is treated to two perilous raft journeys to Miami; the first including the protagonist, Roosevelt, who ends up in a Cuban jail after being spotted by coastguards. Yet just three pages later, he is roaming the streets of Havana again, talking about another (this time successful) raft journey that sees him join a Danish cruise ship, reach a Miami refugee camp and finally end up in London. And somehow, in between, he manages to recount the tale of yet another unsuccessful boat journey.

If it is the confusion of a clandestine escape that Piñeiro is trying to evoke, then he has certainly done that – but at the expense of a clear and decisive narrative.

Teething problems

These teething problems persist, such as in the chapter dedicated to Carlos Acosta. The author begins a paragraph describing a wander through Times Square in New York City but then ends it at his desk where he is trying to write, with no apparent connection other than the metropolis which he observes. Nonetheless, he does so with a great deal of perception, such as his description of New York in spring, when all the jackets have come off, people are wearing fewer clothes, and “making eye contact provocatively”, or earlier, in describing city madness, “where many people [are] in a rush, but hardly [knowing] the reason for their urgency” – each seeming to suggest sharp intellectual potential lurking beneath these pages.

Unfortunately, such pithy observations do not evolve further, and even Piñeiro’s characters remain uncultivated. In some cases this is acceptable, such as with Clare, his girlfriend in London, who features on only a page. However, for a character as important to the novel as Acosta, this is almost objectionable. In one of the two stories that Roosevelt tells about the dancer they are, and have been, good friends for some time. Yet in another, barely a page apart, they meet in London for the first time and become good friends.

Even Roosevelt himself is left so undeveloped as a result of this scattered narrative as to become nothing more than the subject of a reverie, despite the (initially) implied history. Nor does this change as the novel progresses, with the protagonist appearing to wander, almost oblivious to the events that are recounted, without a sense of purpose or, more heinously, a personality.

Additionally confusing is the random use of Spanish phrases such as “Claro que sí”, done so frivolously that it almost seems pretentious. Equally pretentious are Piñeiro’s frequent yet garbled references to great literary figures such as Ernest Hemingway, ham-fistedly included when he meets Gregorio, or the author’s comparison of Roosevelt to Franz Kafka at the very end of the book. These seek to affect the image of a learned and nomadic writer that, one supposes, the author aspires to be.

In so doing, Piñeiro sacrifices the quality of his prose. What in the final analysis could have been an interesting novel about Roosevelt’s voyage “through the heart of darkness” ends up being a book of short stories with apparently little connection between them.

Although, as Carlos Acosta says, the book has “all the ingredients of Cuban life,” it is missing many of the essential ingredients of a good novel.

Jai Kharbanda is a postgraduate student in Latin American history