June 7, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Paul Goldstein's Havana Requiem is a literary thriller of the first order, a fascinating novel that paints a vivid portrait of the Cuban capital city.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Goldstein has no peer in making the dry subject matter of his professional expertise both accessible and engrossing."
The decision to set my third novel in Havana preceded my travel there by a year, and in the interim I devoured books (among them, Leonardo Padura's dark Mario Conde novels; Reinaldo Arenas's gripping Before Night Falls; Lea Aschkenas's insightful Es Cuba); films (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio's Strawberry and Chocolate is a gem; Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club is irreplaceable); and of course music, for the quest of Havana Requiem's hero, Michael Seeley, is to return ownership of the great Cuban music of the 1940s and 1950s to the aging musicians who created it.
When I finally got to Cuba, it was as exhilarating as I imagine it would be to visit early Victorian London after a year of reading Dickens. Almost everything was where and how I expected it to be, but it was the music that most closely aligned my sense of place. This music is far too engaging (and I was too easily distracted) to have it playing in the background as I wrote. Instead, I found myself listening at other times so that, when I wrote, only the music's echoes – alternately buoyant and sorrowful, fulfilled and filled with longing – played in the background of my thoughts.
"El Bon Bon de Elena" (Pio Leiva)
Havana Requiem's opening chapters are in Manhattan, where Cuban composer Héctor Reynoso comes to Seeley's office for help in recovering his and his friends' music from the unknown owners who control it, and the spirited, "El Bon Bon de Elena" sets the tone. Seeley's smart young associate, Elena Duarte, has Ecuadorean, not Cuban origins, and Bon Bon was written by Puerto Rican Rafael Cepeda Atiles, but Cuban Pio Leiva's version is sexier than any I've heard, and invariably came to mind when I wrote Elena's scenes. (It is no coincidence that I had to lower the heat after my editor asked if I really intended there to be a flirtation between them.)
"Chicharrones con Tostones" (Compay Segundo); "Veinte Años" (Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo)
Summertime Havana boils like lava and, when he arrives there, Seeley finds everything about the city alien to his experience. (When one of his law partners later asks what Havana is like, Seeley answers, "Like New York, except upside-down.") "Chicharrones con Tostones," with its lively, zig-zag beat, captures the city's kinetic quality, just as "Veinte Años" embodies the melancholy that Seeley soon discovers beneath the surface of street life, as in the exchange between aging musician Justo Mayor, who wants to help Seeley retrieve his music, and his wife, former singer Lourdes Gallindo, who fears what will happen if he succeeds. (Tu me quisieras lo mismo que veinte años atrás/If only you would love me as you did twenty years ago.)
"Bruca Maniguá" (Ibrahim Ferrer, Manuel Licea)
Seeley's crusade to reunite the musicians with their music thrusts him precipitously into Havana life and his first encounters with Castro's security police. The deeper he digs, the more insistent the rhythms of the street -- present and remembered – become, not only the nightclub sounds of the ‘40s and ‘50s when mobsters like Santo Trafficante and Meyer Lansky ruled Havana, but also a more unsettling Afro-Cuban drumbeat. Arsenio Rodríguez's "Bruca Maniguá," with its dark inflections, punctuates the conversations of the black men who loiter hour after hour on every street corner, and could be the soundtrack for the racial upheaval that threatens to destroy Castro's revolution. (Yo son carabalí, negro de nación. Sin la libertad no pue'o vivi'/I'm from the Carabali coast, African of nation. Without liberty I cannot live.)
"El Cuarto de Tula" (Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Manual Licea)
As complex as Seeley's relationship becomes with his elegant, stunning translator Amaryll Cruz, and as reserved and cool as she remains, it is the raunchy, raucous "El Cuarto de Tula" that played in my mind whenever Amaryll came on the page. ("It's Tula's bedroom, it's gone up in flames. She fell asleep and didn't blow out the candle. Call Ibrahim Ferrer, call the fire brigade! I think Tula wants them to put out her fire.") There's much improvisation in the piece and the version in the Buena Vista film is even merrier, coarser and more innuendo-laden than this one. Either version works, though, to undermine Amaryll's otherwise contained wit and passion.
"Herido de Sombras" (Ibrahim Ferrer, Michelle Alderete)
As reversals unfold and obstacles grow, events at once impel Seeley to return to Manhattan and at the same time to stay in Havana. This piece, in which Ibrahim Ferrer's laconic voice dominates, is irresistible. (Herido de sombras por tu ausencia estoy. Sólo la penumbra me acompaña hoy. Perdido tu amor no podré ser feliz jamás/A broken shadow without you. Only the twilight accompanies me now. Now your love is gone, I will never feel happiness.)
One piece outside the Buena Vista canon played a small role in the book. At 2:00 a.m., Seeley is on the empty Malecón, contemplating his next step. Along with fragments of salsa, jazz and bolero floating out from the side streets, an old tape plays the Peter, Paul and Mary version of "House of the Rising Sun." Just as it is a mistake to impute to a writer the attributes of his hero, so it would be wrong to assume that the author prefers the same music as some unseen resident of a decaying tenement. My preferred version of "Rising Sun" is Frijid Pink's.
Paul Goldstein and Havana Requiem links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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