Monday, July 27, 2009

Paradise Lost - "Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy" by Carlos Eire

My friend, Matt Nelson, is one of my heroes – for a variety of reasons. In the first place, he graciously came to my rescue and on very sort notice filled in for another friend who had promised to help me drive a Penske rental van the 2,800 miles from Manchester, New Hampshire to Tempe, Arizona. The van contained the worldly possessions of my son Scott, who wanted to move to a warmer climate and leave New England winters in his wake. Matt proved to be a wonderful driver and companionable fellow traveler. We had lots of time along the way to talk about books that we had recently read and were now reading. During our westward odyssey, we swapped books. I gave Matt my copy of Donovan Campbell’s New York Times bestseller, “Joker One,” and Matt gave me Carlos Eire’s memoir: “Waiting for Snow in Havana.”

Eire’s book about his childhood in Cuba and then as a refugee - one of the 14,000 “Operation Peter Pan” children - won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2003. I can see why. It is a stunningly beautiful and hauntingly painful memoir of paradise list. It is a tale of an evanescent idyllic childhood in a tropical island that no longer exists: pre-Castro Cuba. The book is full of pastel images, written by a man looking through the eyes of a child. The child’s wonder and innocence and awe can still be felt and heard underneath the adult author’s anger and bitterness over the fact that, in claiming to rescue Cubans from the despotism of Batista, Castro destroyed the very soul and fabric of vibrant Cuban life.

This was a colorful boy’s life filled with green lizards, tangerine sunsets, turquoise waves, and a black abyss. In a passage emblematic of the exhilaration and danger of life in Cuba, Eire describes the spine-tingling times when his father would drive along the Malecon on Havana’s waterfront during a tropical storm and allow the tidal waves to wash over their family sedan. That picture serves as a metaphor for what happened to Carlos and his family – the fluid forces of Castro’s Revolution breaking over them and changing the course of their individual histories.

The adult Eire writes with a wry and sardonic wit. This passage captures the voice with which he looks back and tells the tale of his boyhood:

“I find out about my uncle’s arrest while I’m watching the war on television with my favorite empress, as ever. She is silent, as she always is in the daytime. . . And our mother and father rush through the room on their way to the front door, pausing briefly like sprinters out of breath. Marie Antoinette says to both of us:

‘You uncle Filo has just been arrested. They came and took him away last night, and the same thing might happen to us. So, if we don’t return, or they come for us later, and you don’t see us for awhile, don’t worry. We’ll be in prison. And don’t worry, they’re not arresting any children yet. Bye.’

. . . King Louis and Marie Antoinette [the author’s father and mother] zip down to Filo’s house to comfort his wife and daughter, and to do whatever it is you do in a situation like that. But what do you do? There were no greeting cards for such occasions then, and there are none now. Imagine having to come up with the text for such a card:

‘So sorry to learn of your dear one’s arrest. Our thoughts are with you as you await word of their fate. May God smile on your worries and grant you the courage to bear the suspense.’

And what would you do for an illustration? An empty armchair with a cigar still burning in the ashtray? A face with a huge question mark over it? An anxious looking person sitting by a phone?” (Pages 289-290)

Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. His recreation of his childhood in Cuba and in exile in America adds to our understanding of all that was lost when The Maximum Leader deposed Batista. Eire’s look at the Bay of Pigs fiasco through the eyes of a Cuban child is particularly poignant.

This is a story that demands to be read, penned by a writer who possesses wondrous literary artistry in his adopted language.


Thanks, Matt!


No comments: