A review of Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
Only once in Havana Year Zero is the city ever explicitly given human characteristics. On a balcony in the rain, towards the end of the novel, as her life seems to be falling apart around her, our narrator, Julia, describes how ‘Havana and I started to cry, naked, in the night, where no one could see us’. It is an affecting scene, the culmination of a long and torturous journey for Julia through difficult relationships and a process of trying to establish her own identity, but it is interesting, too, for being the only time the city noticeably becomes a woman. For long before this – throughout the entire novel, in fact – readers could be forgiven for considering the Cuban capital one of the book’s most important characters.
‘Atmospheric’ doesn’t come close to describing the sleight of hand Karla Suárez has pulled off with Havana Year Zero, which has been ably translated into English by Christina MacSweeney and plunges the reader deep into Havana in 1993, at the height of what would become known as Cuba’s ‘Special Period’. Shortages of food, electricity and opportunities abound – ‘There was nothing of anything,’ says Julia. ‘Zero transport. Zero meat. Zero hope.’ – privileges are reserved for foreigners, and the country is all but cut off from the rest of the world. Yet Havana, and more especially the microcosm of the city through which our narrator and her friends move, is a world unto itself – and a fascinating one at that. Without ever going in for big, descriptive paragraphs, but rather referring to the city, its landmarks and inhabitants as though we know them intimately, Suárez paints rich and tangible scenes that combine with a lively, likeable narrator to make a novel it is hard to step away from. Anyone looking for armchair travel – as well as to learn more about the often painful history of Cuba – need look no further than this prize-winning work by one of the country’s most prominent literary voices.
From the opening lines of the novel, it is hard not to fall for the strong, funny, sometimes caustic voice of Julia, a maths lecturer who in 1993 was ‘thirty and had thousands of problems’. Following a doomed affair with one of her university lecturers, who has now become a close friend she refers to as Euclid, she has taken a teaching job at a local polytechnic and sleeps on the sofa in her parents’ overcrowded flat. Chickens scrabble on the balcony, a telenovela is almost always blaring in the background, and the exhausting commute to work or her friends’ houses is slowly wearing away at her patience. When the opportunity arises to become involved in the search for a lost document that would prove the telephone was invented not by Alexander Graham Bell, but by an Italian scientist working in Cuba, Julia jumps at the chance to inject some excitement into her life. Thus begins a convoluted and highly enjoyable tale, narrated with verve, graceful humour and the ‘method and logical reasoning’ innate to a mathematician, in which the streets of Havana come alive and the everyday is made extraordinary.
On the face of it, not a lot actually happens in Havana Year Zero. Julia, Euclid and a motley crew of friends – writer Leonardo, Julia’s new boyfriend Ángel (who also happens to be Euclid’s ex-son-in-law), and visiting Italian journalist Barbara – spend most of the novel running rings around each other, always suspecting one of the others of having the precious telephone document. The ongoing search is the catalyst for many events in Julia’s relationships with these other figures; mirroring the uncertain situation in Cuba, her feelings can change at the drop of a hat from trusting to suspicious, loving to resentful. Many of the scenes echo one another: late-night conversations held in Leo’s converted-garage bedroom, hours spent waiting for Euclid in his mother’s kitchen, seemingly endless traipses across the city to find a working telephone. There is an underlying tedium to life in Havana, but this is the magic of the book – while evident, it never once brushes off on the reader. Instead, Havana Year Zero reads like a page-turner, as Julia struggles against external forces variously disguised as lovers, politicians and the weight of history.
That a novel whose undertone is essentially frustration should read so compellingly is largely down to the direct style of narration that gives us intimate access to Julia’s thoughts – though too carefully composed to be a stream of consciousness, it has a similar effect – her sanguinity in the face of her problems, the bitter resignation that creeps occasionally into her tone, the quips and reader-directed asides that pepper the story. Christina MacSweeney’s translation is a sheer delight to read: fresh, vital and many-layered, allowing Julia’s sass, intelligence or melancholy to shine through depending on the situation. The net result is a narrator who seems incredibly real, who admits her mistakes and shares her day-to-day anxieties, thus drawing us into the story and making us care deeply about the fate of Havana and its inhabitants.
Like one of the characters in the novel who has never left the country yet claims to have travelled broadly through his books, readers can finish Havana Year Zero and feel they have been on a journey. A physical one – perhaps on a battered bicycle weaving through crumbling, congested streets – and an emotional one, as we become invested in Julia’s life: not just her immediate problems and the document quest, but also what will happen after 1993, Cuba’s lowest ebb. As she puts it, ‘After Year Zero, it’s my belief that we did all become something else. Although we have difficulty admitting it, we’ve changed. There’s a before and after’ – words that map eerily on to the world today. Suárez is kind enough to offer us a satisfying conclusion (both the beginning and end of the novel have a hint of fairy tale about them), but not one that is filled with boundless hope. A cruel twist of fate and a display of Julia’s characteristic practicality leave us much where we started, the story having come full circle.
By turns irreverent and sombre, written in strong and vivid prose, Havana Year Zero offers a window on to a vanished world, a portrait of a city in dire straits, a glimpse of ‘shatteringly real life’ dressed up as an urban fairy tale. Captivating in both setting and narrative voice, it is another fine example of how literature in translation can open the door to the world.