Monday, September 26, 2011

Son de Almendra

Mayra Montero's 'Dancing to Almendra'. It's translated into English by Edith Grossman. It looked primed for a light read, a bit of a crime story going on here. A Cuban noir, if you would. (Read Washington Post's thoughts and NYT's review here.)

1957 Havana, Cuba. An enigmatic pre-Castro city of vibrance and intrigue. A vibrant setting that is brought to life in the book. It weaves in and out of the layers of society, giving depth and shades to an already colorful city in the form of the various characters and their different pursuits.

The author does not shy away from portraying the country from what history has recorded. The fifties in Havana were hedonistic days when it grew to be a Latin Vegas under President Batista's desire to boost gaming revenues before he was exiled in 1959. Meyer Lansky is a name frequently thrown up then; between politicians and the mafia, it's a name not to be underestimated. The police seemed to be nowhere in the picture.

The story- an escaped hippopotamus that is eventually shot and killed by pursuers. On the same day, mafia capo Umberto Anastasia murdered in the barber's chair further away in New York. A side plot is provided through an older one-armed woman- the mysterious Yolanda, It's an exciting journey for protagonist rookie reporter Joaquín Porrata.

"I'd take it personally to the editorial offices as soon as I got to Havana. This would be not just another article about the war for control of the casinos but an analysis of the situation of gambling in Cuba: in recent years, the plan seemed to have been completed, the government didn't want to do business with newcomers, and the island stopped being the open territory it had always been. Those who showed interest in obtaining a franchise in the new hotels were advised to direct their attention to other establishments in the Caribbean or in South America. This was how a silent little war had begun, waged with a good amount of discretion except for the death of Anastasia, which had been bungled."

It's a fun little compact story that has been well paced. Mayra Montero is an excellent writer, and Edith Grossman has done a fabulous job of translating it. This is the first time I'm reading Mayra Montero, and I'm going to get her 8 other books.


notabilia said...

Grossman is brilliant. I highly recommend her translation of Don Quixote.

imp said...

notabilia: I've read 3- Samuel Putnam, JM Cohen and Walter Starkie. Looks like I need to pick up Grossman's version soon and re-read it. I really like her nuances done for Mayra Montero.