Waiting for Snow in Havana
I keep telling you that I’ve been working my way through my Festival reading list, and now that the big event is just days away, it’s high time I report on a book—any book! Several of the titles I selected are outstanding; others I found interesting though not particularly remarkable; but none have been a waste of time. I’m not going to make my goal of reading all 10 before the Festival, but those that remain (plus a couple alternates I just had to add to the original list!) will stay at the top of the TBR stack, so you’ll be hearing about them eventually. And now, let the reviews begin.
First up is Carlos Eire’s memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. Eire is one of the 14,000 children exiled from Cuba without their parents after Castro’s rise to power, and his book mostly recalls the world that died to him at the age of 11. Some attention is given to his subsequent transition into American culture, but the bulk—and the best writing—describes his early childhood in a now long-lost place.
“Confessions” is the right word for the subtitle; Eire seems to leave no memory or impression unwritten. It is bitter about what was lost, but not in the sometimes flat and anger-blinded way of adults, but the aching, what-might-have been way of a child. Much of it is beautiful and funny; some of it is tragic; all of it is recalled with intensity. The first half captivated me, but somewhere around the middle that intensity had worn me out and become tedious. I kept on, having learned to care what would happen to Eire and his friends, and from time to time was rewarded with stunning insights. Clearly the writing process was cathartic for the author—and a great many good books come into being for this purpose—but as the reader, I was too conscious of that catharsis taking place. A sharp edit of his memoir might seem yet another harassment, but would make this a much stronger work.
That said, Eire is a master of evoking place. I felt the tropical sun on my neck and the sticky remains of a breadfruit fight, smelled the salty spray of the turquoise sea and the burning fuses of model rockets, caught the light glinting off glossy blue-green lizards as they darted to safety under broad-leaved vegetation. Surely this literary beauty and precision is the reason his book won the National Book Award in 2003. Eire doesn’t just remember moments; he remembers all the sensory input that made them moments. And he provides the context to interpret these moments the way he did as a conflicted Catholic Cuban boy. (Who wouldn’t be conflicted growing up in a house full of crucifixion art with a father who fully believes he is the reincarnation of Louis XVI?!)
Most significantly for me, what The Kite Runner did to make a dent in my ignorance about pre-Taliban Afghanistan, this book did in the area of pre-revolution Cuban culture. So I recommend it despite the above criticisms. It’s a story that deserves an audience, and readers interested in socio-political history or immigrant memoir are likely to be the best audience.