Sticky fingers

Dirty Havana Trilogy
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. Translated by Natasha Wimmer
2001, Faber and Faber
392 pages

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

IF INDULGING in unrestrained sex, of every conceivable heterosexual permutation, is genuinely an expression of individual liberty for an insatiable macho in Havana, then we can read into the demographic explosion of the developing world signs of a fertile democratic culture. The addictive pursuit of sex, it might be said, represents a defiant manifestation of personal freedom in an environment in which there is no other means by which to express it.

This may not have been the intention of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, although frankly it’s hard to tell and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a Cuban writer has used his penis to point a finger at the moral authoritarianism of Fidel Castro’s experiment.

Orgiastic descent

This orgiastic descent into the sexual netherworld of a desperately impoverished and isolated country can satisfy, or otherwise, at various levels. Judging by the cover, it clearly satisfied the cross-eyed left – with one eye needed to maintain their hypocritical preparations for Castro’s downfall, and the other meandering along the progressive line they must maintain about his revolution – who laud the honesty, introspection and “hidden hopefulness” of this work. It could also satisfy Castro’s frigid fundamentalist critics, coldly able to point to the degenerate Havana that his revolution has not been able to eradicate.

This inconclusive book recounts the scams and sexual encounters that punctuate its protagonist’s wretched life, an orgasmic evacuation of an aspiring poet’s bowels in the form of a cocktail of sex, drugs, booze, God, santería and exhibitionism. A radio journalist nursing a sore head and, one suspects, an even sorer member after a serious breakdown, Pedro Juan characterises himself as a “shitraker” as he makes a personal pilgrimage from coitus to coitus across Cuba’s social and racial divides.

There are some clever one-liners, and the author’s criticism of journalists and of Cuban journalism must definitely be taken seriously, but other than that it is hard to know who this book is for. Teenage boys incarcerated in their bedrooms, perhaps.

It is, as a result, easy to see why it has been attributed cult status, for there is no moral compass to be found anywhere in its sticky pages and that is how cults find root among itinerants with little sense of direction. All I can recommend is that Gutiérrez goes back to that reeducation camp.

Eugene Carey is a journalist