Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical novels allow the author to share the cultures of certain times and places, and give readers the chance to learn about them. One key to doing that well is to tell the story without overburdening the reader with historical facts. To see what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra.’
A great deal of the story takes place in 1957 Havana, just before the revolution that will put Fidel Castro into power. At this time, Havana is known for its casinos and clubs, most of which have Mob connections. Joaquín Porrata is a fledging reporter for the Diario de la Marina. Thus far, he’s done ‘fluff’ jobs, such as interviewing performers and reporting on ‘lightweight’ news. One day, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who was killed in a New York barber shop. Anastasia was a known as the Great Executioner of Murder, Inc., and Porrata believes that he was killed because he ‘stuck his nose’ into other powerful Mob bosses’ Havana interests.
However, Porrata’s managing editor doesn’t think Anastasia’s death will be of any interest to readers:
‘Who cares if they killed that fat pig?’
Instead, he sends Porrata to look into another odd case. A hippopotamus escaped from the local zoo and has been found killed. One of the first people Porrata talks to about the animal is Juan Bulgado, who usually works tending the lions. He tells Porrata that the hippo’s death is,
‘…a message for Anastasia.’
When Porrata responds that Anastasia’s dead, Bulgado remarks on what a waste it is, and that Anastasia didn’t get the message.
The fact that there’s a connection between the dead hippo and a murdered crime leader intrigues Porrata, who wants to find out more about Anastasia’s death. He writes up an article about this possible link, but his bosses quash it, sending him instead to interview Kary Rusi, a singer/entertainer who’s working at the San Souci. That’s where Porrata meets Rusi’s assistant Yolanda, with whom he begins to form a relationship.
Then, Porrata is courted and won by a rival newspaper, Prensa Libre, and persuades them to let him go to New York and find out more about Anastasia’s death. Porrata is convinced that that murder has a direct link to Mob activity in Havana, and that it’s an important story. But the closer he gets to the truth about that link and what it really means, the more some very powerful people want to shut him up.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the look that it gives at life in Havana just before Castro. The casinos are Mob-owned and run, and if you have money, are very alluring. Figures such as Santos Trafficante, Meyer Lansky and other crime leaders run the proverbial show, and those who cross them soon regret it. Fulgencio Batista is still in control of the government; and he and his armed forces and secret police take sometimes brutal measures to stay that way. There is also, though, a rising tide of threat from the revolutionaries. It’s a country just on the cusp of moving from a playground of the Western rich to the Cuba of Castro. There’s a looming sense of danger as these various forces interact.
Along those lines, there is also an element of nostalgia in the novel. I don’t usually make comparisons between stories, but in this case, there’s a certain similarity (to me anyway) between the nostalgia in this novel and that in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (which inspired the musical Cabaret). The context in both cases is a society that’s caught in a very uneasy place between a past that now seems innocent and an extremely uncertain future.
The main plot of this novel has to do with Mob involvement in the casinos of the 1950s, so several real-life Mob figures are mentioned, and some play roles in the story. That said though, this isn’t what you’d call ‘untrue crime’ in the sense that, say, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is. Rather, people such as Lansky, Trafficante and so on move in and out of the story as other characters do.
As you might suspect with this kind of plot, there is a great deal of violence in the novel. Some of it is quite brutal too. It’s not a story for the faint of heart. The violence doesn’t go on for page after page; still, it’s very, very ugly.
The story is told in first person, from Porrata’s point of view for the most part. In several places, Porrata remembers one or another event or person; those sections are told in flashback form. Readers who prefer their stories to be told in chronological sequence will notice this. In this way, we learn much about Porrata, his parents, his brother Santiago and his sister Lucy.
Readers will also notice that there is more than one plot thread. Besides the main plot, we also learn Yolanda’s story. It’s also told in the first person, and is separated from Porrata’s story by italics. Her story is linked with the main plot, and as it evolves, we learn how – it’s not what you might think.
The story of what happened to Anastasia and why is prosaic, if violent. But there is also an almost dreamlike quality in some of the writing. Here’s a bit of Yolanda’s story:
‘…I felt like I was in floating in a dream, or floating on the line that divides two waters: on one side the living, and the normal things that happen every day, and on the other side the dead, and the ghosts that no one should get involved with, or try to learn why they do what they do…’
Readers who prefer a more direct approach to storytelling will notice this.
Dancing to ‘Almendra’ is the story of Havana in its last ‘glory days’ before the Cuban revolution. It features a young reporter trying to make sense of it all, and of his life, and gives readers a look at the Mob during the days of some of its most notorious leaders. But what’s your view? Have you read Dancing to Almendra? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 18 May/Tuesday 19 May – The Devil’s Making – Seán Haldane
Monday 25 May/Tuesday 26 May – In Her Blood – Lisa Unger
Monday 1 June/Tuesday 2 June – The Water Rat of Wanchai – Ian Hamilton