A canción de amor to a stereotyped, lovely lost city.
Estrada, the Austin-based editor-in-chief of Vista magazine, wanders the streets and byways of his native city and gathers the stories of the place. “Havana remains oddly familiar,” he writes. “Even if you’ve never gone, you know what clichés to expect, and you think of conga lines and communism, Ricky Ricardo as well as Che Guevara.” Estrada takes pains to work the middle ground between those who love Castro and those who hate him, writing both sympathetically and critically of the regime; he notes, for instance, that Cuba has the best-trained doctors in Latin America, for which the Miami anti-Castro crowd would condemn him as a fellow traveler, while observing at the same time that even aspirin is hard to find on the island, for which the government would likely consider him a counterrevolutionary. If America and Cuba are locked in a love embrace that resembles a death grip, Estrada writes that it’s because they need each other—and that “if Castro hadn’t existed, Americans would have had to invent him.” (Later, he notes that Kennedy and Castro were both corona men and wonders “how history might have changed if the two leaders had been able to settle their differences over a cigar.”) Evoking Hemingway and Martí, Che and the Mob, and other familiars, while also bringing in some lesser-knowns (memorably, the pirate Francois Leclerc, a.k.a. Jambe-de-bois, or Pegleg, who may have been the model for Long John Silver), Estrada delivers what amounts to a series of impressionistic sketches à la Eduardo Galeano, charged with meaning and emotion without descending into nostalgia. The resulting narrative flow is sometimes a bit herky-jerky, like the old cars that line Havana’s streets, but mostly it resembles a good samba and is good fun.
A pleasure for the armchair traveler and old Cuba hands alike—except those who’ll be maddened by Estrada’s refusal to take sides.